Issues /  / Creative Nonfiction

It is another Sunday afternoon, the permanent gray of late winter still painting the skylights above the museum’s entrance hall, and I am searching for still lifes. Because I have decided to change my life.

* * *

Mine is a still life. Was. Has been. Had been. Will be. Will have been. Any conjugation the same.

* * *

Here today, in the present tense, I understand now: The S stands for still in the initialism HSV.

* * *

Still for immobile. Unmoving. The three clustered consonants stubborn, the same way the clustered sores may permanently recur, a stain I cannot erase on the background of my vaginal canvas. The virus steady inside my nerves for more than a thousand days now, despite the turning of the years, the coming of my fourth decade. The ancient cells stationary inside the fibers of my body.

* * *

Men’s bodies have drawn back an imperceptible distance, attraction turning to apprehension. “Is that the one that doesn’t go away?” They ask. Have asked. Will ask. The questions continuing. As in the adverb form, in the second or third definition, of the word still: “the continuance of a condition.”

* * *

“Quiet”—the second or third adjectival meaning. Though I cannot stay silent; I must say the word: Herpes. The term, the revelation, is not a shock anymore. Just a tired repetition. “So I have herpes.” The announcement new to each new man. The first time a surprise on each first or second date. The same to me. Then silence.

* * *

My phone stays silent, still, in my hand, no vibration or chime to alter the muteness of the museum, as I lift the screen for a still photograph of each still life, then click back to black. It has lit up lately with emails from recruiters, offering better careers. With acceptances to graduate schools, promising different futures. With maps of new cities where I turned down virtual streets and imagined living on each tree-lined, sunshiny block. But the flash of the one message I most want has not brightened my phone for three days now, two weeks since the first man in nearly two years dared to touch his skin to mine. After the brush of his finger. The watercolor of his tongue. Finally the white glaze of his cum. But he has gone silent now.

* * *

The reason is simple, I think. It is the herpes. The S in HSV standing, in actuality, for simplex. Of the order Herpesvirales. In the genus simplexvirus. Simplex a strange designation, it seemed to me in those long-ago days of initial complexities: The positive HSV-2 swab from my skin. The negative, not-yet-developed antibodies in the maroon tubes of my blood. The prescription for lifelong pills. The doctor’s prophecies about future outbreaks. The admonitions about unpredictable triggers, such as the pressure of sex, or the chemicals of menstrual blood, or just the silk caress of an undergarment. And then the greatest complication: The anger. At the virus. At myself. At my careless prior partner who rubbed away his sore, dismissed it as a simple irritation, and then made it mine with a single stroke.

* * *

“Single”—the first definition of simplex. Perhaps the monopartite genome of the herpes virus, with its single molecule of nucleic acid, gave herpes this middle name. From Latin. Literally “one-fold.” A designation that echoes with the approximate rhyme, the assonance, of alone.

* * *

I was still with him, the man who has gone silent now, the morning after in my bed, in that hesitation before the inevitable heaving up and leaving, that untangling of limbs and sheets and feelings, when he punctured the stillness. “I guess I should go get a herpes test this week.” My back lurched away naked from his skin. “Oh no,” I told him. “It won’t show yet in the blood. Maybe not for months. But you will know,” I promised of any potential imminent infection. Within days, he would have his answer: No. Nothing. Or Yes. An impasto of sores across the shaft.

* * *

His hand had grabbed at his shaft somewhere behind me the prior night. In that ecstatic second repetition of first-night sex. His thrusts coming to abrupt, sudden cessation. My breasts and stomach hung suspended. Stilled. His fingers clutched for the rubber. “We used condoms,” I reminded him in the morning, to counter his concerns. But had the thin film ripped, slipped? “For a minute, it felt too good,” he said. One instant of trance transformed into terror, like a fresh peach mirroring its eerie double—the fleshless cranium—in any still life with skull. The painting’s background as murky as my bedroom’s drunk, fumbling dark.

* * *

In the light of morning, though, he reached for another condom. “Don’t move,” he instructed as he rolled it up, slid it in. Then out. Stopped. A frantic inspection between his legs. His fingers tugging up at the rolled-down edge. At the top inch of skin exposed to the poisonous acrylic of my discharge. “Get a new one?” I suggested. But he stayed still.

* * *

Still waiting, maybe, now, for the first faint intimations of infection. The same way I am waiting, today, for his message. For an action verb. Write. Call. Visit. My body static. The embodiment of the being verb.

* * *

So today is only for still lifes.

* * *

I buy a museum membership for other fantasized future days. For maybe a meander across the clean lines of the modern wing, someday after hands have meandered across my skin, undaunted by the red splatters of the sores. Or for perhaps a peek at the muscled sculptures of the ancient males, some morning after I have just touched such a torso.

* * *

Bodies cluster musky, sweaty today about A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. The spectators in the skylit gallery mirroring the clusters of sunbathers in the painting. The air inside bright, light—as buoyant as the puppy’s leap, or the bustled woman’s parasol. But my place is not with these action verbs. And I turn away. From the strolling of Seurat’s Sunday pedestrians. The leaping of Degas’ dancers. The lounging of a lady’s brazen naked backside.

* * *

Instead: The peaches the pears the asparagus the lemons the grapes the bread the wine. There they are. Motionless. In the still, windowless dim of distant, deserted galleries. Where the walls are blue. The frames are gold. With the stagnation of the being verb. The static Is. Am. Are. Was. Were.

* * *

I am acting. Changing my life. Quitting my job. Going to grad school. Moving to a new city. Insert whatever action here. Because I cannot find love.

* * *

“What’s really important in life?” a radio show host will ask a few mornings afterward of some author recounting her husband’s illness, then her own. “Love,” I will say aloud, stilling the lipstick in the bathroom mirror. “Well, love,” she will echo. “No question about it.” And the tears will smear the black paint outlining my eyes.

* * *

Even if I redraw the outlines of my career or my city or my life, the herpes, like the still lifes in the museum’s permanent collection, will remain. Unchanged.

* * *

“Don’t tell anyone you have herpes in your new grad program,” my mother has instructed. As if concealment were a cure.

* * *

I told him, the man who has gone silent now, on the second date: still life with café table and cocktails. After a sip, I slipped in the detail of herpes, during one of those regular references to past relationships. His response just a silent nod. A simple I’m sorry. His concern less the herpes, he told me later, than my seeming obsession with the infectious ex. “You’re still into him,” he insisted. But he did not understand. My ex is still in me. Was. Will be. His infected cells immovable, merged with mine.

* * *

I tried to tell him, the man who had gone silent, the morning after in my bed—in a jumbled rush, faster and faster, more and more agitated, like a distorted orgasm—of the virus’s sly seduction. Of my prior partner’s preceding panel of negative tests. Of his pleas against unnecessary protection. Then the faint pain, like the light vertical line down the center of an otherwise solid black canvas of a Clyfford Still. Its broadening to a jagged bar of agony. The desperate ice in the blackened night. In the harsh bathroom light, my frantic photographs in the mirror, upside down, backside out, studying the folded gradations of red, purple, white, the way a curator examines a canvas for unnoticed secrets, revelations. Then the next day, the instant identification by the nurse, her immediate designation of the lesion, like an expert recognizing a forgotten Picasso. The drawings of the virus unmistakable. Distinct. My partner’s continued accusations of some other source of my infection, though his was the only skin that mine had touched for years, while I had viewed his rotating collection of online photographs from his trips to European museums, where he had taken his countless other casual lovers for some sort of foreplay, rushing through the rooms of naked paintings. No stopping for the still lifes. No stopping either for my lifelong diagnosis. His ticket already scheduled for his urgent return to distant, limitless galleries of other nudes.

* * *

“OK OK OK OK,” the man, no longer silent, interrupted. His hand calming my bare arm. “You don’t have to tell me,” he said. And my mouth went still.

* * *

Maybe my words were unnecessary. Unimportant. Maybe the why and how did not matter. No difference what events, what action verbs had turned into herpes. Maybe all that matters now is what is.

* * *

But I linger over the words on the placards more than the paintings. After the static matter-of-fact of the images … an attempt at language, at explanation.

* * *

In the 18th century, “still life was considered … the lowest order in the artistic hierarchy of the male-dominated French Royal Academy,” states the block of text relegated to the bottom right, beneath Anne Vallayer-Coster’s Still Life with Flowers, Bird’s Nest, and Pouch. “Because they did not involve human subject matter, still life and landscape were considered lowly," I will learn when I return home, after the museum’s close, to continue my search through the late-night gallery of my laptop, perusing far-away museums, like the Tate, with their collections of still lifes. That lowly form. Unlike the higher-ranked history painting, portraiture, and scenes of everyday life. Which centered, celebrated the body. So, then: The body’s absence—or infection or rejection—is but a substandard still life.

* * *

This disembodied genre, “[p]artly because it did not require study of the nude figure,” the placard continues, “was considered the most suitable genre of painting for women artists.” A suitable genre for a woman with herpes, too. Whose nude figure is not requested or required.

* * *

Rather: The single wine glass. The upright goblet, in place of the curves of the vertical female form. The lonely, empty teacup. The depleted metal sugar bowl. Solitary items. No matching pairs converging on this Still Life: Corner of a Table, by Henri Fantin-Latour. “This canvas relates to [his] largest and most famous painting of the decade,” the placard informs. “An immense composition that includes detailed portraits of several major young Parisian poets and writers.” But those bodies are missing here. Continuing the ancient tradition of the still life, which, until the Renaissance, “exist[ed] primarily as a subsidiary element in a composition,” Britannica confirms. Nothing in and of itself. A part of a larger, more important work. The way an individual becomes part of the larger art form of a pair.

* * *

Couples glide by, smiling at each other. Young men in jackets, girls in short skirts. Holding hands, holding eyes. Hardly seeing the art. Moving, ever the action verb, past the still lifes. Stepping together into their Sunday afternoon. Toward their Sunday evening drinks. Into their summer engagement, their spring wedding, dancing hand in hand down the aisle, as long and promising as these gallery halls.

* * *

I stand still before each still life for a long while. When I turn, a lone figure, waiting for an encounter with the canvas, is rare. But at the landscape paintings to the left and to the right, other visitors, couples, groups, point their phone cameras for a clicking instant. Then move on together into their future.

* * *

I, too, want future plans. “Why not invite him over?” my mother has suggested. Invite the silent man home. Or here. To the museum.

* * *

He has taken dates to museums before. Exhibited the clean waters of the aquarium in his recent online photographs, with a clean-faced girl. Her skin clear, cleansed of any paint. “How would that work,” I asked him once, “to date us simultaneously? To maybe expose her to herpes?” Silence his reply. And now I am silent, reluctant to remind him of my infection, which probably fogs his head like the heavy, pressing air about the popular pieces, like La Grande Jatte. Here in my kind of museum. Stained with permanent paint.

* * *

“I want to be sure that I would stay,” I told him on the sofa, in one of those early desperate stretches of caresses, limbs twisting, clothes contorting, hands grasping at zippers, then hems, then skin. When his fingers stilled. “I could make you even wilder,” he promised, “with my tongue. If you would let me,” he said. I separated. Sat up. Blocked the air between us with my palm. “I want to be sure I could be with you for life if I gave you a lifelong disease,” I said. What I had wanted after my own infection. What I had been denied. “That’s sweet,” was his response. Or maybe the designation was kind. Or nice. “But not necessary,” he said. Still, only his fingers crossed my skin. All night long.

* * *

The stigma of herpes persists like ancient paintings. Society agreeing on the meaning of the disease the way artists, critics, scholars seem to somehow concur on conventions of genre or technique. But beside The Basket of Apples, with its tilting spillage, its shifting table, the curator marvels, maybe chides: “Cezanne was trying to construct a composition outside the bounds of conventional modeling and perspective.” Trying. Only an attempt.

* * *

Could any effort defy the bounds of conventional perspective on herpes? Dirty. Diseased. Silent. Ostracized. Alone. Society’s prescribed patterns for how to arrange a still life. A stigma life. Can a still life still find a new, inventive form?

* * *

I transform herpes into words every one or two years. Attempt an essay, like a kind of diary entry, I guess. Or like Monet’s repetition of his bridge. Trying again and again to view the same subject in different lights, at different times, with different eyes. But the bridge stays the same. A sad, static series of frowns. Yes, the perspective lengthens. The colors change. Still the structure remains. It is. Was. Will be.

* * *

In the stillness, my words are some sort of action. Defying the expectation of silence and shame mandated by society. Yet perhaps my repetitive essaying is perpetuating the stigma. Bemoaning the hopelessness of this affliction. Offering justification to avoid the infection, shun the infected. Instead of demonstrating how ridiculous the world’s reaction. How outsized its response for such a tiny virus. A frame much too large for the painting.

* * *

When my life is still, when no activation stirs the virus sleeping in my nerves, I forget I even have it. Forget to see myself as contaminated. My body the same as before. Until a man goes silent after I say the word.

* * *

I pen an angry epistle to my prior partner every four or five months. This morning, the text almost identical to the one before. “You have completely destroyed my life,” I repeat like an incantation. Berate him with variations of the same hateful names. The vocabulary limited to the four letters of expletives. One word misspelled, I notice now. One or two taps, and the message is unsent. Painted over with blank white. Then the screen slumps black, static in my hand. No words can offer any change anyhow.

* * *

Perhaps I am too tired to change. To take grand action: Move. Go back to school. Remake my life. The overcast gray of this late winter Sunday has settled into my mind. How can I change something that cannot be changed?

* * *

“You should make [it] funny,” my best friend texted once, exasperated, when I wrote of herpes again and again. Make a joke. Minimize. Simplify. The uninfected so unaccustomed to sexual rejection: “What if you just got on top of him?” she suggested when the man who has gone silent now would give me only his fingers, only his now-silent tongue.

* * *

“I do want you to fuck me,” I had whispered in the 4:00 a.m. darkness of his bed, the first night his lips parted my legs. His mouth closed afterward against the pillow. “Maybe in the morning,” he mumbled. But when the matte gray of November daybreak painted his bedroom window, he did not reach for my skin. And my legs were still closed, naked and cold in last night’s skimpy skirt, as I waited, mute, on his gray sofa in the gray light for the taxicab back home.

* * *

When he returned to my home, after months of uncertainty, of trial trysts with other less complex women, like his clean-faced companion at the aquarium, he took me to bed. My legs spread open. His body above mine. “I want you to fuck me,” I said. “Mmmhmm,” he responded, his head descending instead. His lips humming against my skin. Just his tongue offered. And as he thrust later against mine, I thought how wasted the energy, the pleasure, on only my mouth. The way paintings are wasted in storage beneath art museums. Still there. Still beautiful. Never realizing their real purpose, their full possibility.

* * *

The full palette of the senses is mixed into the still lifes in the quiet galleries. The metallic clink of the tipped pitcher. The thick perfume of the flower. The sharp sweetness of the plum. But this visual feast appeals the most to the skin. To touch. Which can transmit pleasure—or infection. Can make or destroy. And so perhaps the reach is risky in Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s Still Life with Monkey, Fruit, and Flowers, as the creature’s eyes dart, while his hand grasps furtively for the grapes. Taut, rubbery. The peaches nearby fuzzy. The melon slice below sticky, seeds slippery. Begging not just to be observed or admired. But to be touched.

* * *

Touch is prohibited here with ropes, panels, guards, alarms. But all is still when a young man extends his arm and palms a smooth sculpture, a figure, in the center of the gallery. One glance toward the vacant-eyed corner guard. Then the offender saunters on. I avert my gaze, pretend I do not see. For who has not also felt the forbidden urge to feel?

* * *

“I want to fuck you.” The man who has gone silent now had murmured, husky, drunk, in my bedroom’s dark. “Mmmm,” I had agreed, lifting my head from between his legs. “I want you to.” Merely my line of dialogue in the linguistic fantasy. But this time his response was a muffled shuffling of his clothes heaped beside the bed. And then he was grasping at the jeans, jingling the belt buckle. Fumbling for the pocket, crackling the wrapper. Action verbs. Until the scent of rubber, like an airborne virus, a reminder of the risk, infected the still heat. In a fever, an impossible dream, I got on top of him. My lips open in surprise.

* * *

I did not know what to say in the days afterward. After the torn, tugged condoms, the panicked plans for a test. My phone screen blank, the way a placard beside a painting may sometimes state nothing but a title and a date. The curator at a loss for a description, for words. “Any sores?” I might ask. Or maybe a vaguer inquiry: “How are you doing?” As if he could do anything as he awaited his fate. Before its possible arrival, I rushed to send him some token, some sort of distraction. In the middle of his fears, the quickest gift—a linked transmission to an electronic book. “A little something for you on this Sunday night to fight the scaries,” I texted. The S standing for scary in HSV.

* * *

“I’ll start to take daily Valtrex,” I drafted. “That is, if things aren’t too complicated and you want to have sex again. I mean, your cock inside me was damn good.” A tentative text. I pasted the preview to my best friend. “It’s fun and sexy!” she said. “It’s something I would say. Other than the complicated part.”

* * *

Complicated. Complex. Herpes complex virus. “I feel dirty, like a walking vector,” I replied to her. “You’re not,” she said. “You’re fine, and he’s fine.” A present tense proclamation. “He’s just a little nervous. I’m sure everything will be fine.” Will be. Is. Was.

* * *

“It’s OK,” he had said the morning after, when my naked body, pale and deflated, slumped in the tangled blankets like the unfinished condoms twisted and limp still on the floor. The bedroom a messy impressionist landscape of tossed pillows, ripped foils, slipped, rolling sheets. He paused on the mattress edge, took my naked face—wiped clean by the action of the night—in his hand, and held my eyes. “It’s OK,” he said. “I thought about this a lot. I knew what I was doing. I wanted to be intimate with you.”

* * *

He had thought, read, researched, talked with friends, he will tell me later. Studied the descriptions, the symptoms, the statistics the way I first studied the stipple of my lesions. Resigned himself to exposure when his lips first brushed my skin. “Genital herpes can transmit to the mouth, I read,” he will tell me. “That’s rare,” I will resist, insisting how still, how satisfied HSV-2 is inside the sacral ganglia at the spine’s lower end. Rarely leaping, like Degas’ dancers, to inhabit the face’s trigeminal nerve. Rarely adventurous enough to venture out from its still life.

* * *

“I almost never get outbreaks,” I have reassured hesitant men. “It’s really not a big deal,” I have lamented of the persistent stigma around the sores. As if, beside each clustered, oozing wound in the internet’s vast gallery of herpes photographs, an explanatory placard could be erected to counteract the images with calming numbers. “[W]omen with genital HSV who aren’t having active outbreaks run a 4 percent risk of transmitting the virus to a male partner during intercourse,” an article or two promise. “[C]ondom use reduced per-act risk of transmission [of HSV-2 …] from women to men by 65%,” one study concludes. “[V]alacyclovir can reduce the transmission of genital herpes to uninfected partners by 50 percent,” another summary of research calculates. I multiply the figures, my math as shaky as my fingers on my phone’s calculator, as if to list on the placard the artwork’s final price: 0.7 percent risk. 99.3 percent risk-free.

* * *

“It’s like I’m trying to sell a disease,” I have moaned to my mother. “But it’s a disease. There are no upsides to a disease.” Of course, I am meant to be the upside. The return on investment, the benefit for the substantial cost. But how can one night, or even a thousand nights with me, offset a lifetime of disease.

* * *

Beyond just the crusted vesicles are the complications, clustered on countless websites below sickening subtitles: Increased susceptibility to HIV. Frequent, severe recurrence in the immunocompromised. Serious conditions, including brain infection. And under the subtitle “Prevention,” the only antidotes to transmitting the pain are painful disclosure conversations, consistent condom use, outbreak-long abstinence. While awaiting these horrors, is the man who has gone silent now gaping silently at each repeated fact in his phone’s frame? The facts like the rotting animal carcasses that draw a museum goer’s gaze away from the pleasant peaches and plums of the adjacent still lifes, which are as benign as the rest of the herpes statistics and attributes: Its mild or often asymptomatic presentation. Its decreased severity over time. Its blasé ubiquity, with an estimated 13 percent of 15-to 49-year-olds positive.

* * *

“All negative or non-reactive,” he announced a week later—a week ago now—beside me on my sofa, as he scrolled through his blood test results floating lightly over his phone screen, held up for me to see, to ease my fear of additional infection with my heightened vulnerability. Shared relief then in the clink of our drinks, creamy white. As white as the tampon string between my later naked legs. Which he did not touch all night. Though four evenings before, in response to my tentative text, he had offered a promise: “I think you can plan for me to be inside you again.” So was he afraid now of my blood smearing his skin? Or of my virus, like permanent oil paint, staining his life? Unwilling to risk so quickly the reassurance of those still clean test results. To turn them bloody with a red “Positive.”

* * *

“You don’t want to be with someone who’s OK with it,” my mother has warned. A perverse paradox. Acceptance perhaps indicative of the reckless. The irresponsible. The likely carriers of other plagues.

* * *

Invisible, undetected at first, are the flies, carriers of plagues in their every defecation after their feasts of liquid decay, in Louise Moillon’s Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus. The stalks seem a healthy green—matching the shelled peas and the clumped grapes, as plump as the purple plums. All contaminated, upon a closer look, by hairy wings. Flying vectors of bacteria. Infecting the paint. Marring the entire composition. Or: At a distance from the canvas, could one stand back and still be transported by the beauty of the whole, compensatory with its abundance of peaches and greenery?

* * *

Yet inherent in even the freshest of fruits is the symbol—the anticipation, the certainty—of decay. Every still life a memento mori, a vanitas, even absent an hourglass or skull. The flesh of the mushy fruit soon to be rotting on the table. Yes, their brief, vibrant aliveness is preserved forever in the depiction; yet it is forever susceptible to impending, inevitable decomposition after the artist lays her brush down.

* * *

The final painting that I photograph—lifting my phone, still silent as the gallery, emptying now at the museum’s close—is empty of any life. Shells of oysters sucked dead and dry. Pewter dishes stacked, haphazard. A chalice half-drained. Pitcher emptied. Tarnished vessel toppled over with a hollow thud, like a bloated corpse in the center of the tableau. A dead still life. Another paradox.

* * *

No one can decide if viruses are alive or dead. “[V]iruses today are thought of as being in a gray area between living and nonliving,” Scientific American explains. Though often considered dead because they cannot on their own metabolize, replicate. The absence of the action verb. Dormant when alone, when uncoupled with an active, living partner/host. Inert. Still.

* * *

Can anyone decide if still lifes are alive or dead? The fruit ripe, wet, round, juicy. Yet also static, flat, two-dimensional. Inedible dried paint against the salivating tongue.

* * *

I cannot decide if I am alive or dead.

* * *

Completely destroyed life. My text of this morning, though I attempted to delete it, will be read anyhow, somehow, by my prior partner. Who will respond days later: “Glad you changed your mind about that message and deleted it." But my mind, my life, did not, does not, will not change, I will explain. The virus cannot be deleted like the typo.

* * *

He will type an offer to return to me, to be together to make amends. “Or maybe that ship has sailed,” he will say. Like Winslow Homer’s seascapes. The waves ever moving, tossing, progressing. Action verbs all. Like the action he took when he left me, still with the weeping sores, to move across the ocean to Berlin. Then Kyiv. Now Sicily, per his last photograph posted online: still life with cocktail on balcony overlooking landscape of ancient ruins on Italian isle. “This ship hasn’t sailed,” I will reply. “You have sunk it.” Uncertain if the metaphor is still the relationship. Or my life. “OK,” his only reply. Then stillness.

* * *

I will attempt action tomorrow morning. My animated text to the man who has gone silent now like an invitation to an art show, or a party. Which he will at last accept two weeks later. When he will again reach for the shiny-foiled condom, like a wrapped gift, and I will silence my urge to say thank you, thank you, thank you. The proper response to a present.

* * *

He will offer it only three times. Like dividing the canvas of us per the rule of thirds. But the last two sections—the last two attempts after the heedlessness of the first time, when passion blotted out the apprehension of any aftermath—will be only half-finished. Pencil sketches, started for a minute or two, then discarded. Crumpled and tossed, like the empty condoms, on the floor.

* * *

How crumpled and withered, I will notice afterward, are the peppers in Pierre-August Renoir’s Fruits of the Midi. Their red skin collapsed into vaginal folds, the flesh and seeds inside presumably papery dry. “I’m worried it’s going to be another two years before I have sex again,” I will tell my best friend afterward. The phallic purple eggplant, solid, engorged, next to the red pepper. Yet forever an inch away.

* * *

“Wait, let me feel that cock,” I will say, slowing, holding, as if my body on top of him somehow understands, some premonition written within the inky darkness above his bed, that this is, was, will be the last time. And I should try to paint it on the walls inside my mind.

* * *

“There’s like this wall,” he will shout weeks later, when I ask for more. More sex. More time. More commitment. “I just can’t be in a relationship,” he will say, his huge frame standing, gesticulating in the center of my living room, as if the walls are closing in, while I slump, small, on the sofa against the wall. “There’s this wall in my head that’s stopping me,” he will repeat. Like the wall of a condom. Which should never really be removed, no matter how long our relationship. Who would commit to such an imitation of intimacy, forever separated by a thin film of rubber, like the glass covering, obscuring a beautiful painting. The interruption between the desire and the consummation. “Don’t go anywhere,” he had said each time he had left my bed, crossed toward the dresser for the condom. And I had lain, waiting, uncertain how to compose my body. To lie back like a Titian nude? Or curled, inert, like the still life pepper. Still life with condom wrapper.

* * *

“It’s not the herpes,” he will insist. “I was with you multiple times,” he will cite as evidence. Yet instead of future bedroom rendezvous, he will now offer coffee meetings, propose “something other” than sex. Just friends, he will suggest. An appraiser’s re-evaluation of the art.

* * *

He will consider my counteroffer—the continuation of casual relations—weeks later in a midnight conversation composed of my loud pleas, like primary colors mixed with the muted hues of his slurred evasions, diluted with gin from the bar cart in his living room. Then in his bedroom afterward, beneath the covers, our skin will stay separated by his T-shirt and shorts, by my heavy polyester dress. Like cloth covering, protecting an unused canvas from the dust and debris in a studio. And when the room will swirl with sweaty heat later during our fitful sleep, when I will pull my clothing up, off my legs and breasts, only his fingers will reach down.

* * *

But perhaps this should be pleasure enough. And casual commitment enough. Satisfaction within limits. To make the best of unchangeable circumstances within the limits of herpes. As within the limits of the still life, that once-regarded lowliest of genres. “Nonetheless,” the curator states beside Still Life with Flowers, Bird’s Nest, and Pouch, “Vallayer-Coster achieved critical acclaim through her virtuosity in this genre.” Accomplishment still possible within. If not beyond.

* * *

I will reach beyond to the future, to try to confirm in the morning that our status is, was, will be still casual moving forward (another paradox: stillness moving). But maybe the risk of even casual is not worth the quick pleasure that could transmit the infection, which would thwart his future rendezvous, future relationships. Because he will shake his head beside me on the gray sofa while I wait again for the taxicab. “Let’s talk more,” he will say. Then silence.

* * *

For weeks, the silence will be the same as today’s, as I wait for his text in these still galleries. But maybe in waiting comes revelation. Maybe after my frantic fantasies of change—for a new city or an additional degree; for different gallery wall colors or thicker frames—maybe now can come a steady, still examination of the unchanging paintings. Of what is. Studying the still lifes, my still life, the same way the painters studied the objects depicted therein. “[A] detailed observation of subject matter,” one BBC article characterizes the genre during the 18th century, during “an increased interest in the natural sciences.”

* * *

What if, in its natural state, my still life observed more closely might reveal previously unseen beauty: A drop of dew on a grape. A gradation of auburn on a peach’s skin. Something missed, unappreciated in the sameness of my routine: same (yet comfortable) apartment, same (yet uncomplicated) job, same (yet friendly) boss, same (yet vivacious) best friend. Until maybe I will find my still life has been, is, will be a detail of a larger painting, like Fantin-Latour’s Still Life: Corner of a Table, surrounded by figures, by love.

* * *

I will post a photo of that table corner—the wineglass single (yet full, I notice now)—on the background of my cubicle’s wide computer screen. And I will enlarge each of the still lifes I have stilled within my phone, my fingers stretching across the screen to reveal each detail. The way they once caressed the silent man’s skin, his body substantial, stretched across my bed. A presence now dissolved into only texts, sent long ago. Which my fingers will reopen, scroll, enlarge, examine—for hidden messages beneath the words, like hidden images beneath a painted canvas. Until in the final blank white of his silence, I will understand: He is gone.

* * *

Another unwanted, unchosen end. The subjects of the painting of my life selected without my consent—by fate, by herpes. The slack-jawed skull. The soured lemons. The rotted pears.

* * *

Yet these inanimate objects are “carefully arranged and observed by an artist,” one museum website notes when I later visit its virtual gallery and its instructions for an “Art-Making Activity.” “[A]rrange your own still life,” it suggests. No matter the objects you are given, you can still make something beautiful of them. The New World Encyclopedia agrees: “[S]till life paintings give the artist added flexibility in the arrangement of design elements within a composition than do paintings of other types of subjects such as landscape or portraiture.”

* * *

So is this, the still life, in fact the superior form? Lending, celebrating control. A triumph over fate. The ladyfingers stacked, by careful fingers, in the back of Cezanne’s canvas, I notice now. The plants and fruits of still lifes not haphazard, tossed by the whims of nature, but set, organized, composed. A kind of action within the stillness.

* * *

Maybe the same way a being verb can take a kind of action within a verbal phrase, when the verb is transformed into a helping verb for an action verb. The being verb still there, static, like the herpes, but now arranged in a secondary, supporting role. As in: I am arranging. I am acting.

* * *

I will take action. Text him goodbye. Force the subtext of his silence into words. “So I obviously have figured out based on the last couple weeks of silence that you don’t want to see each other again.” My message a wild slashing of action verbs set against his reply: “It’s best to just let things be between us.” All being verbs. All still. The portrait of us no longer being painted.

* * *

In the darkness of my bedroom in the weeks afterward, the mattress, like an unused canvas, will stay draped with the same solid brown cover, unchanged by any imprint of his body. The bed returned to the same emptiness, the pillows stained with the same salt. No matter how much I might try to change my life.

* * *

Still life not with, but without.

* * *

Yet perhaps the still life of brown bedspread and scarlet sores has the same merit, the same worth, as the action verbs of the streaking banner and horses of a historical scene, or the rolling hills and waves of a landscape. Why not give my still life just as much care as a life shaped like a bridge or a lily pond? “Monet treated this still life with the same attention to the complex interactions between light and color found in his landscape paintings,” the curator observes on the placard beside Apples and Grapes. The brushstrokes the same for the folds of the tablecloth as for the ripples of water in the sun.

* * *

I will be searching for a waterfall when I enter the museum next, after I have at last committed to graduate school the coming autumn. Early summer will be painting the skylights with cloudless blue. And in a blue-lit, UV-lit room awash in misty purple and blue, like a dark, mysterious aquarium, Senju’s panels of light, like streams of ever-flowing hope, will glow. A temporary exhibit. A fleeting exhilaration of movement, of possibility. And pacing about the installation, I will reach forward toward the ceaseless change.

* * *

When I leave, I will glimpse a still life. Unexpected. Waiting for me on a far gallery wall. A Cezanne that I have never seen. Upright bottles and pots. Small assembly of peaches. Two stationary spoons. But as I stand silently before it, I will feel a quiet recognition. A calm comfort. Because it is. Was. Has been. Had been. Will be. The stillness even more beautiful than change.

Andrea Bianchi


Andrea Bianchi lives in Chicago. Her essays have appeared in Witness, New Ohio Review, The Rumpus, CutBank, Epiphany, The Smart Set, New South, and elsewhere. Her writing was also selected as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2021. She is pursuing an MFA+MA in the Litowitz Creative Writing Program at Northwestern University. (

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The houses are coral and carnation-colored, pastel yellow, and sky blue. Broken beach shells have lavender-brown edges and insides the color of ballerina slippers. My nieces collect them, announcing the features of each indistinctive piece they’ve decided to pick up, each shard dropped in a lime green bucket. Ellis, who is three, eats pink cotton candy ice cream, spotted with blue M&M’s, as my family sits around outside of the ice cream shop. My brother, Matt (her dad) pretends to eat some and scoops half of it out into the trash as he turns his back to us. Having kids, I’ve learned, is about managing their mood, which directly correlates to their blood sugar levels. I feed her with a plastic spoon. She’s big enough to feed herself, but ice cream drips, even in the mild heat of Florida in January. She doesn’t protest, looks up at me sweetly each time, ready for another mouthful, the satisfied anticipation kids sometimes have as they’re still just unwrapping their lives. She swings her legs back and forth under the wooden bench we’re sitting on.

* * *

My mom didn’t think she’d become one of those people who wore pink and went to charity walks, though I know if it were somebody else with breast cancer, she’d become one of those people for them. She’s that kind of person. No one expects you to, I told her. She doesn’t really wear pink, anyway, and has mostly been uncomfortable with traditional displays of femininity, taking me to ULTA as her human shield against the salespeople, their vast collection of potions and shimmers and goopy-glops.

* * *

J and I planned to make large Yves Klein-style paintings of our breasts, in crimson and gold, to take those sexist paintings back, I thought, but we never got around to it. Instead, we left the accent wall in our railroad apartment in Queens blank and painted it a color I would describe today as violent wine, though others described it as black. In high school, J and I were drawn to each other’s sharpness, and although other people may have sometimes described us as cold or rude or mean, we shared the secret of our own generosity, which may have been difficult to see from the outside, since we kept it hoarded away in some hidden pool inside us. We were not cold. We were just strong and together stronger still.

But as we got older, moved further into our late twenties, the admiration we had for each other frayed, for a million different reasons. Because she stayed in New York, and I left. Because she wanted to make money, and I couldn’t figure out how to. Because she seemed interested in a state of perfection that I resented. And finally, I think, because we were too young and mean, in our own ways, but continued to see ourselves as not.

* * *

I am writing this essay to you,
I am hoping you’re still there,

* * *

My brother, Matt is carrying Ellis on his shoulders as we walk back to the house in Florida. The air is salty, heavy and gray. What’s your favorite color, Babci? She asks my mom. Blue, I say. My mom confirms. When asked, my brother, Zach says he’s been getting into green lately. Seven-year-old Abby, Zach’s daughter, says she loves purple. Pop-pop may have said red or green, I can’t remember. I tell Ellis mine is burgundy or ruby red, because this is a color I love to wear; it is intense and romantic, but I don’t say that part. Ellis listens intently, making up nonsense songs with her dad, which he sings with the vigor of a paid actor. She then casually declares that her favorite color is not pink, but rainbow. I am trying to remember what it felt like to be carried by my dad, to be so unaware and unthreatened by everything laid out before me.

A long time ago, I was a six-year-old child in a shiny, mauve dress being held by my tall and handsome father at a family wedding. I have the photo somewhere, in a gold frame. I cried before having to walk down the aisle as flower girl and made a joke to my mom that I didn’t understand. Well, everyone cries at weddings, I told her. But really, the idea of everyone staring at me, cooing at how adorable I was, made me both defensive and nervous. When I got up to the front of the church, my mom put her arms around me from behind, pulled me in, so I could sit on her lap during the ceremony. At the reception, they announced the bridal party one by one, more eyes watching, again, but my dad intercepted my walk to the long wedding party table so I could sit with my family and not alone, on wedding island.

* * *

If the color of girlhood is pink, maybe womanhood is amaranth magenta, a color of longing and power, bleeds like fruit when you bite into it. Sometimes satisfying, or sour, sometimes both together. I have to imagine a beautiful color to soften the blow, and the blow is not aging, exactly. The blow is that womanhood comes too late. True, I got my period in 7th grade, but that’s not what being a woman is. Being a woman is connected to something I hesitate to call a soul, a word I don’t like or understand, the growth of a soul inside an unruly body, but that’s exactly what it is. The body does not hold me up, something else has to.

I have been grasping at the concept of maturity for years, the neatly laid out concept I have in my head that knows what type of woman I am exactly. A woman with timing, who walks away, gets over whatever is holding her back, who creates something new, is strong and independent, and sensual. Forgives and forgets, or simply moves on. Yet, I still only access this version in tiny gulps, the ones you get when you open your mouth in a pool and snort in sharp, teal chlorine water. Womanhood is elusive. I’ve ached for it. I’ve pleaded for it. But I still don’t entirely know what it feels like. Or, perhaps I’m unwilling to accept the imperfect version of it I know so well.

* * *

All the things my mom and dad used to give us, my brothers and I, to soothe our various ailments. “The pink stuff,” a thick, bubble gum amoxicillin, taken by the spoonful. Pepto Bismol, a similar but more electric pink, also administered by the spoonful. More electric still, Benadryl pink, a drug I now keep in my nightstand in case eczema (itch: the sensation of bugs landing softly on my skin) keeps me from falling asleep at night.

* * *

Sometimes I would lie half naked on J’s bed after taking a shower, after we had returned home from our running days in the city: subway metal, smog and light, the breath of strangers, all washed down the drain. She’d rub lotion on my back, to keep my eczema from erupting. I liked showing myself to her. I liked showing myself in general, young, but I especially loved her, in a way I imagine people love their sisters, but without all the baggage of being actual family. The way you know each other, accept, align. I wanted her to adore me, and she did, for a time.

One night, as I flipped over, I laid there posing on my back, silly, as if to be painted or photographed. J paused, and pinched my nipple affectionately with her pointer finger and thumb. They’re so pretty, she said, like a little mouse. In that moment, I thought of the baby mouse I’d seen under the lawn mower in my neighbor’s yard when I was very small, too small to think that mice are disgusting, as I do now. Back then, a tiny, little fresh being, just arrived.

* * *

Come close to me, closer,

* * *

Abby swims in the pool for hours, her bright, copper hair trailing behind her. Ellis wears floaties, and her legs flutter, propel her through the water like a determined bug. She tells us how good her memory is, asks about our memory. I say mine is great but in truth, it’s not as crystal clear as it used to be. She’s almost four; the memory pile is light. My parents have almost seventy years to remember, a daunting amount of highs and lows and mostly, I’d guess, in-betweens.

* * *

Like that time I was so depressed that I could barely eat and dropped a bunch of weight, and J praised me, told me, now you just need to eat carrots when you’re bored, even though I never had a problem with not eating vegetables, I just had the everyday problem of being embodied. Like my mom saying there are too many calories in a Snapple when I’m twelve, like friends’ moms; like talking celebrity bodies ad nauseum, as we descend into the subway, yes, I’d take this, no, I’d not take that, microscopes bonding; like not screaming but screaming, something to see here; the best best BEST, the if you just version.

Wouldn’t it be better to have stayed that small, forever?

* * *

A week after my thirty-fifth birthday, I met my best friend Dianna in New York for a delayed celebration. We took the long subway ride out to the Brooklyn Museum, where we found Andy Warhol’s Last Supper (pink), 1986, one of several 40 x 40 inch silkscreens of the Da Vinci painting. After the wild days of The Factory had ended, after his intense collaboration with Basquiat, who descended further and further into heroin addition, after soup cans and Marilyns, he returned to themes of religion and spirituality, having always been a somewhat secret devout Catholic. On my own, I detach religion from the subject and reframe: a huge silkscreen of men saying good-bye, flooded in the color of love. 1986: 6,512 deaths from AIDS in New York City alone. I don’t think Andy meant it this way, since there are so many other Last Suppers—camo and yellow and muti-colored blocks—but this is how I take it.

I wonder if pink is a color of survival, after all.

* * *

Later that night, I looked through my photos, the selfie we took in front of the pink Warhol, and thought about all the time we spent as middle schoolers in Dianna’s basement bedroom, listening to women pour their hearts out: Erykah Badu, Fionna Apple, Bjork. Dianna would light incense, blow the ember with the confidence of someone much older than she was. Tori Amos was my favorite. Her lyrics were always back-talky, at times naively obstinate, questioning god and the patriarchy, always with a type of spirituality both child-like and indecipherable from the outside. In 1995, she released her album “Under the Pink,” and I found it a few years later. I remember, after scouring the internet for interviews, that Amos, possibly influenced by the kind of universality that permeated 80’s culture, explained the title this way: “If you ripped everybody’s skin off, we’re all pink.”

* * *

For years after we stopped speaking, I had two kinds of dreams about J: in one, I travel to New York and we have dinner, and we are that young again, mind and body. Every acrid entry washed away. No barriers to communication—no phones, no texts, no whoever said whatever. We don’t dig up minute things that happened several versions ago, and we love each other once again. It turns out true, the feeling I had had all along, that nothing was broken at all. I wake up relieved, as if I’d been bathed in empathy, and then slowly realize I wasn’t.

The second dream takes place at a social occasion, a dinner party, or a public event, and in this dream, she’s crowded into a corner with a group of women, turning around to smirk and reference me with her eyes, laughing. She has clear command, sets a tone that people follow. Rather than shrinking, I try to stand up straight, take up space, like a psychic push and pull, who can stand it longest, who is the best best. I go to the kitchen for more wine, or to the bathroom for a moment of refuge, but I wake up before I get there.

* * *

A way to move forward,

* * *

In one of the two home videos we have from my childhood, my brother Matt is caught trying to feed my Barbie to my uncles’ miniature dachshund. The dog sits under the glass table of their Miami home looking uninterested. He wants Barbie to meet her death blonde-hair-first but backs off when he realizes my dad is filming him. The thought of my brother’s sideways grin, his mischievous instincts, brings a smile to my face. I can picture Zach, watching, with both curiosity and confusion.

In the second tape, now lost, my parents hide a pink Barbie dream house in the bathtub, leaving a riddle from Santa in a note, instructions on where to find the gift. My brothers eagerly run up the stairs to help me lug the long box out of the tub and down the stairs.

* * *

On my way to Florida, I run through the Charlotte airport to meet my brother, Zach and my niece, Abby on our connecting flight. They have flown here from Indiana, and we coordinate so we can sit together on our second flight. Zach texts me that Abby is refusing to get on the plane until I’m there, that she’s “about to explode.” When I finally board (almost last), they are in the back of the plane, and I see her standing up, anxiously scanning the line in the middle aisle for my face. She sees me and waves furiously until the moment I hug her hello and sit down. She asks me if I’m hot because my forehead is pink and glowing with sweat, and I tell her it’s because I ran to the plane to be with her. I feel self-conscious of my body and how she might see it, or how she might see me, but the conversation quickly passes. Already, she has her own pace.

The role of a single, childless aunt is to silently beg of the world to go easy on her nieces, for them to go easy on me, and their parents, but mostly on themselves. I wish that they will find comfort in their bodies, that they will be surrounded by people who understand them, and when they aren’t, that they’ll have a sense of humor about it. I wish that in ten, twenty, fifty years, the earth will still be the earth, and that they’ll have enough money to live on it, that they’ll never be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That they’ll make their own hope that doesn’t involve the empty promises of any institution. That they will call me, unabashedly, if they need me.

Mostly, like everyone else who loves a child, I wish that they’ll be protected. When their parents are too busy raising them and washing them, in other parts of the country, and in the low, broad hum of the plane’s engine, this is what I can do.

Katy Scarlett


Katy Scarlett is an educator, poet, and essayist from New Jersey. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University and her MA in art history from Hunter College, CUNY. Katy's writing is published or forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Blackbird, Sweet, and CRAFT.

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Decorate your own discord Never be the same again, no way.
—Cate Le Bon

We were backstage with Cate in Portland, Oregon, admiring the flower bouquets people had tossed to her. She’s a queen, everyone loves her and tosses gifts, she’s so humble and gracious about it. Her band’s set was emotionally sharp and warm—lots of peaks and valleys with a divine high-altitude vibe—and it ended on a marching dance tune whose improvisational range packed real paradox: undertones of dirge, goof, determination, and triumph took turns in a long, bouncy line. Every time I see her live, I admire her range more. Cate gifted me a beautiful posy hand-tied in silky ribbons, as she was flying out the next day and couldn’t haul it. I’d come straight to venue from the airport off a grueling work-related cross-country trip, had eaten only whiskey for dinner. Man, did I love those flowers. I was peculiarly nauseous that night. I lay down on the greenroom couch and unbuckled my pants to function conversationally.

Next, my white jeans became soaked with red; great timing, I thought, annoyed with my period. Cramping worsened, and at home that night I miscarried three months into a pregnancy, pain and devastation at the helm. For five years we’d tried hard, so this miscarriage felt like a rough, geological terminus, like the opposite of gold mining. Turning gold into shit, Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain-style. As a rockhound, I dig through less interesting or gnarly matter to discover awe, whereas miscarriage felt like total waste embedded in the nonpareil. Miscarriage at 41 is a trainwreck that reeks of finality despite doctors correctly advising us that they’re common and even sometimes helpful in toning and steering our reproductive systems towards successful childbirth. I’ve known women who have had kids after ten miscarriages; how’s that for tenacity? But I didn’t need any more emotional rollercoasters in my life: we stopped trying after this. We packed up and moved to a dark, wild corner of the California desert.

Fall 2017, Joshua Tree, CA: Keith and I’d just left a rad, generous Beachwood Sparks concert in our neighborhood sandbox’s concert venue. Flash-flooding was starting, and everyone had to quickly hoof it home over our sketchy, unpaved roads where rivers had begun to gush over and gut the caliche. Did we have sex? Who knows—slightly embarrassed to admit—but apparently we did, because Juniper made her fist amphibian appearance in my belly that night. It was the only night we’d had sex during the conception window, thanks to squelched libidos due to family tragedies left and right. Were we stoked. Deep-down yes, but we mulled the realities of the commitment over, while driving home after another night out following a Cass McCombs concert visit.

The debate was tense for about thirty minutes. We were terrified of parenthood, felt inadequate for the job, had $300 collective dollars in the bank. Maybe the conversation would have been more peaceful at home, instead of on another treacherous wee hours drive whose amplification of sketchy contrasts between fast-moving & still, light & dark, speeding through creosote brush that glows in your headlamps surrounded by pitch darkness along a two-lane road that includes a very hard right turn that steers you east through the Pipes, then over two flat, glary mesas, is definitely David Lynch-y in its spooky, dangerous magnificence.

We used to drive drunk but complaints about reliable rides home in rural zones aside, I’ll admit that date nights with designated driver was not written into my love charter with a rambunctious rambler. We’ve both lived long past our anticipated capacities already. Our choices to become parents, for one, meant that we’d have to get a grip on the alcoholism that runs deep in our families. Dads fritzing out, you know how it goes. Plus, there was temporary extra-heavy drinking. Death was swallowing us. Keith’s stepdad had recently passed in a tragic accident, my brother Mike had killed himself two months prior, musician David Berman’s suicide had heartbroken many mutual friends, and soon after this special evening, the community would lose Cass’s bandmate, Neal Casal, to suicide as well. It all felt untenable, even a year and a half prior to the pandemic starting.

None of our close friends had kids; we were surrounded by artists who’d chosen not to since we all knew that people telling us we could “have it all” were coming from privilege. People who have it all likely have family members in vicinity, or nuggets of money miraculously appearing at crucial times when they thought their parents were broke, or inheritances in their futures no matter how small or unexpected, or parents who have coordinated their own aging to stave off eldercare scams. Without at least one of these supports, you cannot “have it all” if you’re doing things properly. This phrase is a relic of a privileged feminism that lacks intersectionality. Juniper has a loving grandma on Keith’s side who has saved us at crucial moments: gifted us a crib; a dryer when ours was killed by a 1000% increase in baby laundry; footed school bills during pandemic relocation for new teaching gig. What would we do without her? But otherwise, we are truly D.I.Y.—only hired sitters twice in five years, both times biting into grocery funds. (Still worth it.) I knew I’d need to put my obsessions on hold to learn how to be a parent, to enjoy it, and to be happy picking up my cultivated creative tangents later in life. I knew I’d need to sacrifice caretaking and financially supporting a chronically ill mother. How would I afford Mom’s groceries with a new mouth to feed? Why sign on if I’d be cornered by impossible choices? Above all, I knew this sacrifice would require utmost confidence in my artistic identity, since my continuous lifetime of making would be interrupted for an indeterminate amount of time. There are always reassurances that motherhood is a different kind of making—of course it is, it is a fabulous sparkly awesome one I would never trade—but my mental health nosedives when not writing books. I knew that full-time teaching gig plus freelancing plus motherhood plus maintaining enough sanity to stay with my partner would equal kissing storytelling goodbye for a while. I deeply treasure conversations about sacrifices and priorities and want them to be candid.

It’s terrifying to give up big loves for another; cliff dives feel unfair. Why jeopardize happiness. It’s not just about having a baby. Why jeopardize treasured friendships, for starters. No baby is good, a friend signed their book to me. Why the hell would you want to do a thing like that? another friend asked me one day when I confessed to her that I was compelled to try. Congrats on getting over the biological hump, your body won’t boss you around anymore, I heard uncountable times. Cats Not Kids bumper stickers on friends’ cars. All framed within so much humor and joy, success and pride. I miss being part of this club. But I spent a solid decade being confused about being asked to choose between loves: I want to experience all the loves of life. I ended a 13-year marriage to a person who was not drawn to parenthood to make space for more love and spent several years after divorce feeling deserving of a baby, righteous at times, because of this great leap. I somehow found a perfect future life partner, which felt somewhat thaumaturgic. Not that I made that happen, but I enabled it, didn’t I?

For women whose visions tell them so strongly that their babies will arrive, a logjam like a breakup or miscarriage is mystifyingly incongruent. Practice your questing endurance because parenthood starts long before giving birth and is the Legend of Zelda times a million.

Parents know that having children is the ultimate upending assignment, a risk that welcomes total uncertainty. How can it not require everything? Keep baby alive; locate and launch new lifestyle including career pivots; make parent friends. Once up and running in the new paradigm, familiarize with child and their needs; accept drastically different, possibly mundane daily life flows that were previously feared more than death; plan finances in future-forward manners; find marriage therapists; and most high-stakes, invent family identity and learn how to model it. All prior job skills will pay off, and if you don’t have positive examples to copy, it’s a steep learning curve requiring constant mentorship. It is totally possible, like everything else, if one is up for the labor.

I mean, some parents just get pregnant, have kids, and are cool with it. I have witnessed this with admiration and envy. This is not me; this is not a lot of us. But in any quest, hardships excavate deep unimaginable loves; motherhood is a human right, yes, but the choices we make steer it into joy. I don’t particularly believe that being a crappy parent is a human right. It’s not a kid’s job to bring joy to our lives; don’t parent unless you can create and model joyful space for children.

Workaholism, for me, was a safe space where I could still succeed in life despite my deficiencies in family-building arenas. Every time I did the math, I was grossly unqualified for parenthood: surface realities kicked in as a survival mechanism, squelching my illogical emotional desires. Which is fine, except when your creative existence is completely dependent on body/mind harmony. Schizophrenic repression is always the worst choice.

We were aliens at rare social gatherings where parents were in attendance, and inevitably they were mulling parenthood like it was some kind of adventure. How could it possibly be an adventure as grand as ours? We’d been doing hella other things, LA-style, like that meme teases: South Carolina-thirty with two kids and a mortgage, not LA-thirty. Dudes age 30 in LA are just learning how to roast a chicken. I’d never held a baby: I found their constant needs intimidating and tedious. Is that all you’ve got, mama? I’d think when I saw women with their babies. Where is the rest of you, where did it go? Don’t you want it back? I was not jealously judging parents when I could corral my brain back into my other obsessions. But at the most random times, I was so ready to host a small person in my life that I was suicidally bored hoping and waiting. Addictions live in pessimism, self-doubt, and denial. I didn’t want to want a baby.

May 2022, Sierra County: We live up north now, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. As I’m heading east for the day, Sleeping Mother emerges across the plateau as urban radio is crapping out. Histum Yani as the Mountain Maidu call it—the place where spirits rest on their journey to the afterlife. Mina Kim is interviewing California teachers about Uvalde. I’m in consensus with the interviewees, who all agree that’s there’s never been a more important time to support kids. Teaching is not so much about subjects these days, it’s about how to stay alive. Storytelling is tracking collateral damage until the junk drains from your body like an oil change. I decide to draft a letter to my Cal State students inviting them into conversation about the school shootings, to combat normalization. Teaching does feel like combat to me these past two years. The semester has just wrapped, but I’m still deep in grading and don’t want to send people to summer break with no emotional touchpoints. Mina Kim asks interviewees if they’re inclined to ditch the profession, they all say no. I say no too, aloud to the mountain. End of reception means that I move the dial, settle on Native American flute with screeching hawk accompaniments as best alternative to country tunes and rightwing propaganda.

The eastern Nevada County foothills give way to Northern Central Valley’s pastoral oak woodlands and Yuba River basin, which I’ll follow until veering past Histum Yani north into Butte County, past the Oroville dam, which is so scary empty that it has been making international news. I’m heading into Plumas County to Butterfly Valley Botanical Area, to see if California Pitcher Plants survived the Fly Fire, a 1600-acre beast that merged with Dixie’s 963,000 acres. I need a day in the bogs with my biophilia. Did they make it?

Firefighters fought off fire from the rare plants patch, but I’m too early for blooms. End of May, snow bits still covering charcoal. Will return in early summer to consult with plants about reclamation and resilience. Regeneration is a transferable skill. Anger is making us all sick. Science calls this site visiting, I call it going to church. I can see if the orchids survived while I’m at it. Never say goodbye: it’s until next time.

We don’t drink much anymore, and how many times have I remembered arguing around that hairpin turn, cringing at the idea that we hesitated about expanding our family for even five minutes. Juniper is our dream elf.

In Mojave, the type of church-going that enabled our successful pregnancy was a deep dive into death and destruction populated by beautiful survivors. Per the usual, but with more surprising and unlikely levels of beauty, I suppose. I spent all my free time out in the sand, interviewing cacti. Cacti are goofy, chatty, and if you get loopy enough in heat, they start looking like cartoon characters. At first, they may appear desiccated and perfidious, then boom! Their alternate superhero selves sashay in. Check out what I can do, despite it all. Cacti are superlative adaptation mentors. Here are a few of Joshua Tree’s popular key players.

Being shocked by cacti bloom cycles not only ushered Juniper Lily into the world but broadened my definitions of writing. Their showy flowers somehow convinced me to begin dictation into my phone. After talking directly to the cacti for so long, I started recording the monologues. Were they surrogate therapists, pets, friends? Probably. Once I gained comfort with this odd lonesome habit, I started talking directly with views too. I’d conversed in my mind with land since childhood, but I didn’t speak aloud until the cacti taught me a new, bold approach. Now, I dictate storytelling daily, talking to everything as I drive by. I talk to the view.

I picked Juniper up from preschool yesterday:

“How was your day? What did you learn?”

“Momma, I learned about the word integrity.” I think of South Park’s Tegerty Farms and ask her what the word means to her.

“Integrity is when you listen to your teacher and follow the rules.”
“Oh, is it? You’re right, that it is about doing the right thing.”
“Yeah, you follow the rules.”
“Yes, but what if someone tells you to do something that isn’t nice? Like what if I say, go hit that person? If you follow my rules is that having integrity?”
“No Mom, that’s bad behavior.”
“Integrity is when you make your own decision to do the right thing. Sometimes if the rules are wrong, you do what’s in your heart.”

We agree on this revised definition. I’d written a letter earlier that week to her school’s principal inquiring about active shooter protocols. Thankfully, he responded promptly but his answers were insufficient, worrisome. So, of course I got snippy when I hear that her lesson was about following rules. Juniper’s education should be a lifetime sequence of inspiring thrills. But at least she’s in preschool. In the Mojave, she didn’t love trolling bajadas for signs of life, like a feral kit fox pup, despite our frequent breastfeeding, diaper, and yogurt snack stops. “Home,” “Go home,” “No more,” “Hot,” “Home dada,” and “Home milk” were among her first legible utterances. We left the desert because at age 2, she said, “I’m lonely.” Where’d she learn that word? I was not lonely, finally, for the first time in my life. Bliss is being with Juniper in the wilderness. The further out you go, I want to teach her, the more open you’ll be to surprises.

July 2022, Grass Valley, CA: The news today concerns water rationing and reconsiderations of water usage. 2022: the year that we stop watering lawns. It’s about time. I miss sand dunes.

I didn’t want Juniper to be born at home, on a sand dune. The days leading up to her birth at our house rekindled the same kind of unsettled, sketchy energy that I’ve felt in dunes, an atavistic fight or flight that warned me to not wait until labor, when I’d need maternity services stat. Palm Springs was an hour’s drive from our place, and while millions of women have delivered babies in the desert’s wild solace, in bathtubs and bedrooms, I credit card-charged a week in a Palm Springs hotel so Keith and I could blast AC and watch movies, eat at restaurants, swim, and live next door to the ER. Our low-risk vacation was ace, and Juniper arrived during a terrifyingly rapid 4-hour delivery.

At first, I was miffed when people called Juniper a miracle baby. How about: good job getting pregnant and giving birth at 43. Jesus did not get me pregnant, Keith did. Good job, sperms. We did the work. I got my body in shape, I tried all medicines and did the psychological repair, I reduced stress, I worked for years transforming my body into hospitable architecture. Keith was inextricable from this operation. It was not divine intervention. I was not too old. When people called Juniper a miracle, at first, I’d think of Virgin Mary’s story—how the gentle maternal goddess’s immaculate birth worships the baby born while robbing her of the celebration deserving of woman’s labor. Everyone knows that labor happens prior to pregnancy and during pregnancy, more than the actual labor in the delivery room. Birth does miraculously unify individual and communal labor, but the labor itself is not a miracle. It is toil rewarded by the gift of mystery. What does feel miraculous to me, daily, is a parent’s ability to adapt. Volunteering for exhaustion feels miraculous, perhaps. Now, I understand how miraculous Juniper Lily is. I understand it while driving around talking to the view.

Image legend (from top right to left): Strawberry Hedgehog (Echinocerus engelmanii), Grizzly Man Pricklypear (Opuntia polycantha var. erinacea), Cottontop Barrel (Echinocactus polycephalus), Beavertail Pricklypear (Opuntia basilaris), Cushion Foxtail (Escobaria alversonii), Common Fishhook aka Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria tetrancita), California Barrel (Ferocactus cylindraceus var. lecontei), Mojave Mound (Echinocereus triglochidiatus var. mojavensis)

Trinie Dalton


Trinie Dalton has made seven books, most recently Destroy Bad Thoughts Not Yourself. This essay-excerpt is from a memoir in-progress about life between the Mojave Desert and California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, where she now lives in a cool old Victorian gold mining town. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at CSU East Bay and previously served as Core Faculty in VCFA’s MFA in Writing and MFA in Writing & Publishing programs.
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Two lumps of sugar dissolved into flared amber as I held a gold-rimmed glass of çay between my thumb and forefinger. We landed at Atatürk Airport hours before, took a taxi to our hotel, and sat outside for a glass of tea while daylight faded into blue. I noticed the henna fading from my hands from our wedding eight days before. Our marriage was arranged so I hardly knew you, but we clasped hands in the streets, walking toward restaurants where our plates were piled with eggplant and tomato, spinach spread between layers of flaky pastry. We learned the names of dishes only to forget them. You coaxed my mouth open with your fork as I watched Turkish singers gyrate their hips on the TV mounted to the wall behind you.

After dinner, we returned to the hotel. Our air conditioner didn’t work, so you asked to have our room changed. The second room’s window opened to the building’s exhaust duct. Finally, we accepted a third room with twin beds we pushed together, the best of all available vacancies. I showered and put on a black negligee. You looked away, and told me later you thought I was shameless, your eyes so used to clothed women. The window faced an alley, where you gazed outside at rows of tables below. Dozens of white-haired men smoked and drank çay there, clacking okey tiles through the night. The curtains framed your curving back as you bent over the sill, still as a portrait.

I had planned to get some sun on my cheeks while you entered the travel agency near Galata Bridge, but outside a Romani woman shouted down centuries of scorn at the police. So I went in after you. You spoke in gestures and broken English to the Turkish travel agent while I took candid photos of you with the Canon my father bought me for my birthday. Your cheekbones were sculpted, black curls crested your high forehead, your dark eyes gleamed without your glasses.

We spent our days drinking tea all over the city: at the docks at Eminönü, after eating roasted corn on the cob at Sultanahmet, at Kadikoy on the city's Asian extremity, and after a carriage ride at Prince’s Island, when I followed you when you left for the camii, not wanting to be without you through even the length of a prayer. Unused to a female companion, you left me at the café to nurse an empty tea glass.


"I don't understand why you waste time on all that drama," you said, watching me put on mascara the morning before touring the city.

"I want to look nice in photos."

"Who needs photos?" you asked, even though you posed among throngs of tourists in front of the Blue Mosque, colossal and ever-present in the distance, inside each dome a painted world, full of intricacies we had yet to discover.

In Taksim Square I dragged you past a dondurma vendor into a makeup shop, a jeweler's, then a lingerie store, unaware that for the rest of our lives you’d be the one pulling me along wherever you’d go.

"We've been married a week. What could you possibly need after all that wedding shopping?"

I used to think that after I got married my husband would buy me anything I touched, that a man would make me secure beyond any money I could earn for myself. "I'm looking, not shopping," I said, "and I need new underwear."

"Wash your old ones in the sink and hang them to dry on the shower rod."

"I want new underwear." A souvenir.

You waited outside a shop while I grabbed a pack of three. Then, on the walk to the Metro, I drew your chin in line with mine and kissed you, again and again, in air bluer than saltwater. Before us no one had ever loved. We invented it together.

Outside of the Metro, you scratched off a phone card and entered the code into your phone. You called your mother, a woman who, the day after our wedding, told me not to use birth control, afraid that I'd never be a mother, childless like my cousins. My mother-in-law reorganized, or snooped into, our closets in our bedroom in your family's house after we left for our honeymoon. Good thing I brought my condoms with me.

"We arrived last night. I'm fine. She's right here. Yes. She's fine. I can't talk much, but do you need anything from here? Say salaam to Abbu for me." After hanging up you asked if I wanted to call my mother, too. But why would I? I was a married woman now and I was with you—even though later I found out I hurt my mother's feelings. She thought I'd already forgotten her.

We took a ferry across the Bosphorus, where seagulls flew over dolphins arcing out of the water. When we disembarked, we followed the smell of döner kebap into a tiny restaurant. You ordered fresh orange juice. I ordered ayran, thinking it would be much like our sweet lassi. How could I have known any different? The server knew no English; we spoke no Turkish. The ayran, carbonated and salty, was more fizzy chutney than beverage. You finished the whole glassful for me, not wanting to waste it, and let me drink your orange juice instead.

Tired from sightseeing, we returned to our hotel to lie down. Afterward, I nuzzled the back of your neck on your pillow. "That's the first time I've heard a woman has three holes," you said, staring at the crown molding in the corner of the ceiling.

"Didn't you learn that in school?"

"Not at all boys' schools. My cousin told me how." I learned from school, and magazines, and movies, and a coworker, who told me it wouldn't be nice at first. She was right, although it was getting easier.

“We never talked about it anywhere else. And I never knew women bleed once a month until you told me. When it happens, can I see it?”


The evening deepened into night. While I snapped on my new underwear after walking back from the bathroom, you pulled me down once more. I held onto your shoulders as I fell into the fissure between our mattresses. We had left the window open, the curtains parted. Each passing car's headlights drew overlapping rectangles of light on the wall, which drifted to the bed to play on our bodies and faces.

You ran to the bathroom to take a shower right after. "Why do you do that?" I sobbed, overcome by a sadness I had never known, a marshy, postcoital tristesse. "Am I so dirty?"

You came back and held me. "We have to be clean so we can pray," you said, stroking my eyebrow. "Didn't you know? Besides, you're confusing sex with love. They're separate things."

I inhaled the odor of your perfumed armpit, your heartbeat pulsing in every corner of your body, and watched the blush fade from your neck and chest as one would watch the colors of sunrise brighten into day. At that age, to me, love and sex and youth and beauty and vigor were bound, each part strengthening the others, if not synonyms for the same thing. Newly aware of my feminine powers, I demanded worshipful reverence from a lover. No matter how I imagined love, it couldn't fall short of a pop song. Shouldn’t have, anyway.

You stayed in bed and told me dirty jokes in Urdu–what do you call it when a man gets on top of a woman and waits for an earthquake? The height of laziness—to make me laugh. A brother and sister travel. While passing through the Punjab, the brother warns the sister to veil herself. A little while later, the sister hands her brother her scarf. "We're entering the Northwest Frontier Province. Brother, now you veil yourself."

"I don't get it." You enlaced your fingers with mine as you defined the vocabulary and explained our ancestral regions’ stereotypes. I puzzled through the logic. Your hands were soft and warm and I smiled, but didn't laugh.

I thought of the other man I might have married, my cousin's wife's brother, who worked in Dubai, the handsome second son of a wealthy arms dealer. I had chai with his brother and sister once in the apartment her father had built and furnished above my aunt's house. "Don't even think of marrying girls from my family," my cousin warned them, a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label always, now, on his bedside table, next to their four poster bed. "They don't drink like you all do. You'd get them drinking, too, and they couldn't handle the lifestyle." It was just as well. Rather than attend my wedding, my cousin’s wife vacationed in Cyprus. “She won’t stay,” she said before she left, echoing what I heard others say. “She’s Western, and will tire of putting up with Eastern culture.” In my husband’s arms my thoughts floated to the thousands of other lives I might have lived, had my mother and aunt not preferred this man over anyone else, or had his mother not thought me pliable, moldable as still-warm candle-wax, or had I chosen someone for myself, or no one at all. My cheek could have been pressed to someone else's then. My life would have had a different map.

Letting go of my hand, you said, "Let's go out." You sat on the edge of the bed and unballed the socks you'd tucked into your shoes. "For a walk and some fresh juice. Orange, pomegranate, whatever they've got. Put on some makeup if you like. You can take a picture of the moon rising over the masjid after prayers."

At night we'd traverse meandering streets, and you'd unlock our hotel room door and leave me upstairs without the room key to lock myself back in. You said you were going down for süt and su (milk and water), to bargain a wedge of melon from the vendors along the main road, or to find a converter for the blow dryer you bought me.

But I knew you really went out for a smoke because I could taste it on your tongue, mingled with watermelon. You promised me you'd quit before I agreed to marry you. If I didn't see you do it, it would be as if you never did, and deception would bring comfort, but for which one of us, I wasn't sure. Years later you'd still lie, telling me it's just the taste of tea grown bitter in your mouth.


In the hotel lobby, after a breakfast of lentil soup and börek, we drank a frothy, fine-grained coffee, its bitterness overcome by the daintiness of drinking from a tiny, white cup. Kahve, they called it, although the kahwa my father drank to perk him up on slow mornings was black tea, and the kehwa your relatives in the northern areas drank on winter nights was green.

Our tour bus took us to a shop near the Grand Bazaar, where carpet sellers flung rugs into the air in swirls of color before letting them clap to the floor like spent butterflies, lying still, disparate patterns carefully made, patterns of care.

“Why don’t we get one?” I asked you.

“Ammi already put one in our room. Besides, they’re expensive.”

I recalled what your mother told me on the night of our wedding. "He's half yours now. My son, my diamond child. I'm only giving you half."

Wide-eyed, I said nothing. You sat next to me on the stage. You told her, "Right now, she probably wishes you'd just take all of me and spare her the trouble."

After entering her house, your mother gestured to the floor of our bedroom. “See this rug? I put this rug in your room.” My mother, tired of dealing with my in-laws, failed to include a rug in my dowry. “Do you see it? What do you think? Do you like it? My rug.” When we got home I'd make love to you, her son—on her rug—more than once.

One night I filmed you having a haircut and a Turkish shave. You’d never have let me film you, had we been married longer. A facial, a massage, a trimming of ear and nose hair. Would you ever do that again, knowing that the barber would drag a lit match quickly along your cheeks to burn away stray hairs?

On our walk at night we overheard an older couple speaking our language.

"You're from Pakistan, aren't you?" you asked them.

"Yes. And where are you from?" the woman asked, a scarf draped loosely over her hair.

"Karachi, Auntie."

"Which part?"


"Which phase?"


"Oh," she said, somewhat relieved. "Our house is in Phase Eight. Phase Four has gotten so old."

"I've heard they've started developing a twelfth phase already."

The woman pretended not to have heard.

The man, smiling with superiority, said, "What all have you seen so far? Have you seen the mall?"

"We prefer the old city, Uncle. The historic sites."

"We visit Turkey every summer and do all our shopping abroad. The mall's a drive out of the city center. In Başakşehir." He took a pen and notepad out of his pocket and wrote down the name. "See here, the s with a hook under it is pronounced sh. You'll need to tell your taxi driver that, or he won't understand you."

"Thank you. Have you met my wife? She's from America. She's seen plenty of commercial areas."

"Oh, America," the woman said. "A country in decline. These malls leave American malls behind." My face fell as you said goodbye to them and pulled me away.

“They seemed nice enough,” you said.

“Nice? They’re barely normal,” I said. “Will we end up like them?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. I wanted to tell them off.”

You walked in step with me, past men running from the police with the wares they’d been selling illegally on the street–fruit, refurbished shoes, DVDs. I grabbed your arm, surprising us both by the natural trust I had in you, secure finally in going out at night, because of you. I told you everything I hated about the couple.

"Don't tell me," you said, "that our future arguments will need close captions. Speak in Urdu if you're going to talk that fast. Anyhow, I’ve lived five years longer than you. You'll meet people and situations you don't like, even in your own home. Get exposed; calluses form over tender spots. Study how people think. Learn how not to be. Then leave them behind where you met them and move forward. Cowboy stuff won't work here; neither will shrinking away. Learn a little diplomacy."

On our last day in Istanbul, we explored half of Topkapi Palace before lying on the grass outside. “I liked the Hagia Sophia just fine, but by now I’ve seen enough sultan’s pajamas to last me a lifetime,” you said.

I turned to face you on the grass. “We may have missed something. Just look at everybody going in.”

“In a little while.” You lay with your arms beneath your head, a figure in repose, elbows pointed skyward like two minarets. "You think we'll ever come back to visit?"

The clear, glassy quality of the light made my new rings sparkle.

"It wouldn't be the same us," I said. We'd never be this young, this new. Small changes in the matrix of the city would only remind us of the passage of time. We'd be happier returning in our memories.

Beside mounds of loose spices in the Spice Bazaar, you asked me to take your picture.


"Beneath these colored lamps. We need to get one for Ammi. You only get one mother."

"What are you getting me?"

"A blue eye to ward off the evil eye. You don't believe in it, do you? Well, you shouldn't. But it'll make it look like you're precious enough to need an amulet. We'll get one for my sister and brother's wife, too."

“Let me pick theirs out for them.”

"Good. Get something for your mother, too."

After the bazaar, we sat side by side on a bus, quiet together for the first time. Silence was often necessary, between male and female, between two people who had lived lives before they knew one another, the silences between the stories of childhood and college life and explanations that we thought might bridge the tiny chasms in understanding but would only bring more mysteries, or would bore, repeated and heard again over the course of our life together. I touched the blue eye on a black string around my neck, small and hard like a bit of candy. We looked sometimes ahead, sometimes out of separate windows, swilling mineral water out of plastic bottles, tired of talking and touching, riding forward together, where exactly, we didn't know, wouldn't know, until we'd gone there and come back.

Zehra Habib


Zehra Habib’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been featured in Orion headless, Union Station, Two Review, Windmill, and elsewhere. She lives near Chicago with her husband and sons.

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When I was seven, my dad moved back to Wilkes County from Budapest and decided that I would be a tennis champion. My parents divorced when I was less than a year old and my father moved away when I was a toddler. He came back for long stretches of time. When he’d leave I would fling myself on the ground, grab hold of his ankles, and he’d drag me across my grandparents’ kitchen floor on his way out the door. When he moved back he seemed to pay attention to me. I thought tennis had something to do with this. I don’t know if I wanted to be a tennis champion or not; I just didn’t want him to leave me again.

I didn’t play tennis. Instead, I trained. Training meant drills—repetition, consistency. The lining of my shoes stained red from blood. Training meant feet and hands always blistered or bloody. My father told me not to bandage the blisters; to rip the skin off instead. He told me to use black grip instead of white so the blood from my hands could be rubbed in. He said blisters turned to callouses eventually and I would be happy when they did. He gave me a framed version of “If” by Rudyard Kipling. The final lines—“you’ll be a Man, my son!” echoed in my head. It didn’t seem to matter that I was his daughter, a girl.There was something there I was supposed to understand.

* * *

What I remember most about training was the footwork. Footwork was the basis from which all other skills originated. Footwork was more important than strength. It didn’t matter how much strength you had in your arms or your back or your core. It didn’t matter how fast you could swing a racquet or how hard you could hit the ball, because tennis “wasn’t baseball,” as my father reminded me when my footwork wasn’t right, as I tried to execute a misaligned forehand by brute force alone. He reminded me of this at the Smoot Park tennis courts when boys in trucks with the wrong kind of shoes stood flat-footed, their racquets missing contact with seven balls in a row before they finally hit one, cheering as the ball soared beyond the fence. My dad would roll his eyes and say, “This isn’t baseball.”

* * *

My dad is a product of Wilkes County, but he has a strange relationship with the place. My grandfather, his father, was a bus driver and then a chicken catcher and then he owned chicken houses and then he got an industrialized contract from a chicken plant. He got rich, built a house with a pool, and when my friends visited my grandfather’s house, they said they would sleep dreaming of chicken houses and money signs.

My dad grew up differently than I did. From the age of six, he worked in the chicken houses with his older brother. My uncle stopped working in them at some point because it impacted his breathing, and in the past five years, some fifty years later, my uncle learned he had lung cancer, though lung cancer doesn’t run in our family and my uncle never smoked.

“Work always kills you eventually,” my grandfather said when he was dying of lymphoma. After my grandfather died, my father told anyone who would listen that the lymphoma was from Round-Up. He said it excitedly, as if figuring that connection out would somehow make his father less dead.

Long before he died, when I was a kid, my grandfather took me to the chicken houses. I didn’t work in them. He took me so I could choose a single chick to keep as a pet. What I remember about chicken houses is that the air was brown, the ground was covered in chickens, and that my grandfather showed the chickens off proudly, while my grandmother yelled, “Hurry up, choose one, and get out!”

To be clear, the chicken houses weren’t chicken coops. They were chicken houses with contracts with what was once Holly Farms, and is now Tyson. There were ten-thousand chickens per chicken house. Those chickens ran free. Twenty-thousand chicken feet running, kicking up shit and piss, blowing it into the air for the men in my family to breathe.

My dad is not unique in his experience growing up. Chicken was the industry in the county and most men his age worked either in chicken houses or the chicken factory at least once before turning eighteen. Before chicken it was moonshine. Chicken was viewed as a savior, a way for people to make money legally.

* * *

Wilkes loves its moonshiners, chicken farmers, baseball players. Tennis players—not so much. My grandfather got rich around the time my father became a teenager. My father started getting in trouble, so they sent him to a boarding school in Tennessee. He came back playing tennis and knowing Rudyard Kipling. When he came back again—when I was a kid—he was a former Marine, spoke German and Hungarian, and wanted his kids to know there was a world outside Wilkes.

When my father trained me at the tennis courts he came off as a snob. He looked down on boys who swung their racquets like baseball bats, boys who stood in wrong shoes with flat feet. He looked down on them, but he was also terrified of them. Terrified I would get trapped by one of them. Trapped by falling in love. Trapped by bodies with more strength than mine.

When my father moved back, a retired Marine, he believed physicality and movement were how he got out of the chicken houses. I was not tasked with getting out of the chicken houses, but on public tennis courts (saggy nets, weeds in the cracks) he trained me with urgent intensity: There was a war at my feet. He taught me to assess my opponent’s next move, how to pivot accordingly. I had to be nimble and quick—to get off of my heels, onto the balls of my feet. He said not to fear how hard the boys hit the ball because their strength was stationary; it wasn’t malleable, amorphous, sourced from the balls of one’s feet. Through shuffle steps across the baseline, sprints to the net, and cross steps across to the service line, he taught me not to fear boys’ strength. He taught me to pivot and sprint in a heartbeat.

* * *

In high school, my relationship with tennis and my dad grew complicated. He thought I should focus only on training; I was more interested in my friends and boyfriends. My father didn’t come to my high school graduation, prom, or homecoming, and never met most of my friends or boyfriends, yet he said I was the one who had abandoned him. He got remarried, had more kids, and his attention shifted to them. I had my life, and he had his. Still, he thought I should focus on playing tennis in college. I went to NYU, and as a last-ditch attempt at connection and/or control he called the tennis coach there and set up a time when I could try-out. I never went. I had stopped playing tennis—I had been introduced to a new love instead.

I found psychedelic trance, psytrance, in a small basement bar two blocks from my freshman dorm at NYU. Psytrance is a sort of techno on speed; the beats per minute hover around 140-150. It is a sonic chaos people either find tortuous or transcendental. The first night I heard it, I danced until four a.m. I was alone on the dance floor, a concrete slab in front of the DJ booth. A new kind of court.

I quickly fell in love. Though I hated the competition and pressure of tennis, the training had been a constant in my life for eleven years. I missed the routine of movement, of drills, of connecting with my body and returning to it as an independent sanctuary.

During this time, the relationship with my dad continued to strain. “You’ve moved past me,” he said when I was twenty-one. “You’ve simply moved past me.”

I think he believed, once I was let loose in the world, no more tethers connected the two of us. Maybe I believed this as well. Maybe I still believed tethers were linear and must reach some end. I didn’t yet know that the ties that bind us are circular, ever spiraling, never-ending. Always beginning; over again.

* * *

Psytrance held me for a decade. It took me across the world and created life-long friendships. I intersected with people on the dance floor I would have never met in class or on the subway or on the street. It is also the scene in which, at the end, I was drugged with ketamine by a man I fought off all night and then woke up with his fingers already inside me. It’s hard for me to say he drugged me with ketamine. I feel the need to rationalize it, say how often I have done ketamine recreationally. I know that taking drugs recreationally does not negate being drugged but there is a part of me that still needs to say it. Drugs are available in psytrance communities. Drugging is neither unique nor causal to psytrance, but the man that drugged me was something of a king in that particular scene; a king in the small world where I lived at the time.

There were people around when he drugged me; I considered them friends. After I fought him off, they wanted to know—Weren’t his drugs amazing? Weren’t they the best I’d ever had? One girl looked up at him and said there was a reason she had only bought a one-way ticket, she said she never had a family before, she touched his hand and said she had a family now. One side effect of ketamine is seeing the world as if through a fish-eye lens—whatever is directly in front of you is amplified, the rest a blurry background you can’t really see. In this state, it was easy to conflate what was merely in front of you with family.

I didn’t want to go home with him. The people at the house said I couldn’t stay there, they said I had to go with him, he had been waiting there all night, taking care of me, making sure I was alright. He gave me a blanket and rubbed my back at one point. He drugged me; he also took care of me. These contradictions still fight in my head.

I went home with him.

“Don’t sleep with me,” I said on the way there. He wanted to know why, and I made a joke, said because if he slept with me then he would fall in love with me and I would always leave, eventually. It would be worse for him than me. We laughed about this—that things would be worse for him than me.

When I woke up with his fingers already inside of me, there was a strange expression on his face and then he crawled over me in the bed.

“Please,” he said, when he was already on top of me. I was lying down and knew his body had more strength than mine did. His body hovered over me, and I couldn’t find my feet. I looked at the closed door of his room. I don’t think I thought about trying to leave. For a long time, I didn’t know how to make sense of what not trying meant to me.

* * *

In The Tending Instinct, psychologist Shelly Taylor argues that the idea of flight or fight is only a partial truth, less accurate for women than men. She writes that women, aware of the imbalance of physical strength, tend to avoid escalating a situation and instead attempt to calm their aggressor down. She calls this response, “appease and befriend.”

In 2014, an anonymous woman created a comic, Sometimes You Make Your Rapist Breakfast. In 2017, Jessica Knoll penned an essay in The Cut, “I Dated My Rapist.” There is an argument that this sort of behavior allows a woman to be in control of the situation: no one makes breakfast for their rapist, so if you do that, he didn’t rape you. No one dates their rapist. No one tells their rapist they love him. A rapist doesn’t ask you to marry him, and if he does, you don’t say yes. So if I did these things, then maybe it would mean I wasn’t raped.

* * *

That first time he and I had sex, a piece of my hair got ripped from the nape of my neck.

“Maybe we can glue it back,” I said, holding it up. I think I was in shock but we both laughed. We went to brunch, and he held my hand. “Now everyone knows you’re with me,” he said. That felt good in a way. It felt like he was choosing me.

At brunch his food came before mine, and wordlessly he moved his plate to share. We went to a store after brunch and he nodded at the glue on a shelf and said, “For your hair,” and we laughed again. That felt good too—laughing with him.

I started staying with him. I had a pit in my stomach, sometimes I shivered and my teeth clattered and sometimes I thought this was what being in love felt like—butterflies in your stomach. Occasionally I had the presence of mind to wonder whether love and fear sometimes get mixed up in the brain, to wonder if when you say someone has a “power over me” it can be both romantic and terrifying. Sometimes when he walked in front of me, up the stairs, I fixated on his ankle, on his Achilles’ heel, and thought of a broken-necked chick my grandfather wrapped in a blanket when I was a kid. The chick had gotten trapped in a small room on the side of the chicken house. It went through a tiny hole to this other room, and once there, couldn’t figure out how to use that same hole to get out. The chick flung itself against walls until it killed itself as it tried to find its way out.

After the first time, he didn’t force himself. Sometimes when we had sex, he made me bleed. Afterwards he would say, “Salvaje,” and wink. Sometimes there was a playfulness between us. He was self-conscious about his belly fat. When he took his sweatshirt off and the shirt underneath rolled up, a roll of skin hung over his jeans. Sometimes I pinched it, not gently with my fingertips, but with my whole fingers like a lobster claw. I pinched it like I wanted a sample of him. I pinched it like I wanted to take a piece of him away from him, keep it for myself, and pretend that putting it back would be as easy as gluing broken pieces together again.

When I pinched his fat he curled inward on himself, tried to protect himself in the same way I had when I fought him off while on ketamine. I had curled in on myself and told him, “I’m a human being.” He had stopped when I said it and said, “I am too.”

When I was with him, his son was five years old and sometimes stayed with us. He let his son ride on his motorbike, sat him in between his legs and spread his fingers against his son’s belly, protecting him the same as any parent would. I don’t know if any of these parts of him matter; I’m an unreliable narrator when it comes to him—my body is more reliable than I am.

* * *

My father had a military mindset. He said it didn’t matter if I liked training or not because I needed to do something, I needed to have something that I knew my body could do. I needed something that taught me how to be in control of my body. Bodily autonomy—my father never used those words—but I think that was what he was trying to teach me. He was trying to teach me that my body was mine and could do things that I wanted it to do. He was trying to teach me I could be of two minds—one in my head and one in my feet. He was trying to teach me that other people, boys specifically, might be stronger than me, but I could watch them; when I needed to, I could shift my weight into the balls of my feet.

* * *

My brain thought a lot of things when I was with him. Like when he showed me text messages from people I didn’t know about the things I did when he was not with me—I thought both that he really loved me and that I had to leave. Eventually, there was a time when the walls started caving in around him—and then me. There are things I don’t want to go into. Mostly because I still don’t know what to think. When this started happening, my body—the balls of my feet—were already making me leave.

* * *

I started doing 5Rhythms, a facilitated form of embodiment in which one moves through a wave of rhythms—flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. The peak of this wave is chaos, a rhythm when the earlier stages battle with each other, destroy each other, with the goal of pushing through to the reinvention occurring in the lyrical phase that comes after chaos ends. During chaos, the facilitator frequently played psytrance. Often during this portion, people would leave the space, they said it was too much, they hated the sound. But for those of us who stayed, the facilitator said, “Find your feet. You just have to find the balls of your feet.” The facilitator called the balls of our feet, “the bubbling brook of self.” She said the only way out of chaos was through it and the only way through it was by learning how to take our brain out of our head, putting it into our feet.

* * *

I stopped doing drugs and stopped going to psytrance events. I applied for a job in Hawaii. Was I running from him? He wasn’t chasing me, physically, not really. Once, he and I were at an after party. It was almost noon, and we were still up drinking, doing coke and a little bit of molly. He wanted to sleep so we went into a room. I couldn’t sleep. I tried to leave. The door was locked from the outside, so I crawled out of a window. There were still people partying. One of them, a man who sometimes called the man I was with his best friend, sometimes a bastard, and always his boss, said, “I need to talk to you.” He was grinding his teeth, chain-smoking, and jacked up enough on coke to tell me sometimes he put his gun in his mouth and played Russian roulette.

“Where do you think this life is going to end?” he said and passed me a plate with a line. I had a reputation back then for always wanting to talk, always wanting to listen, and never being able to shut up. He looked at me like he was expecting me to say something. I thought about my grandfather saying work always kills you in the end.

“We live in different worlds,” I said instead and went back to the window.

“You know he’s a bastard, don’t you?” the friend yelled after me.

“He’s difficult,” I said, not wanting to say anything bad about him. I crawled back through the window and the friend shook his head. I didn’t know, or wouldn’t admit, I didn’t know anything about what he was or wasn’t, anything I thought I knew was just a fantasy I had created in my head.

When he woke up, we were still locked in the room. I crawled through the window, proudly showing him that I had figured out how to get out by myself. He crawled through too and then he went to the door and unlocked the door from the outside. He looked at me and said, “You could have done this the first time.”

I wasn’t on ketamine then, but I had watched him sleeping through the window, and he had become amplified. He was the only thing I could see. In my mind, he took up the whole screen.

He still took up the whole screen when the walls started caving in. I told him I loved him, that I would come back, and then I found myself on that plane to Hawaii, putting an ocean between us. It rained a lot in Hawaii and sometimes I called him. He’d ask, “When are you coming back?”

“Soon,” I said, and I meant it, but my body didn’t move.

“You keep saying that, but I don’t see you,” he said. I didn’t know how to make him understand that both things were true.

* * *

Eventually, I left Hawaii. I never really wanted to live there. I stopped running from myself and I moved back to North Carolina. I have not talked to nor heard from the man in four years. There were many reasons for me to not talk to him, but in the end it was because he was with someone else.

“I know you’re never coming back,” he said. He said what we had was a fantasy. He said he needed it to end. I wondered if he was more rational than I was. I wondered if he had figured out that I wanted to hurt him, that I was still trying to make it worse for him in the end.

I saw a picture of him and the new girl once. She was walking in front of him, looking down, curled inward on herself. I never asked him how they began—I don’t know if I was projecting or if there was a pattern repeating in front of me. I don’t know if they’re still together, because three years ago he disappeared. To me, at least. Sometimes I think he is dead or in jail. Sometimes I think this is just the story I need to tell myself. Sometimes I worry what might happen if he showed up in my life again—how my brain might confuse me. Sometimes I dream of seeing him again—never him finding me, always me crawling back through that window again—and in the dream I am always coughing, clearing my throat as if there were bits of something, chicken shit or something else, something chopped up and floating, in the passage between my heart and my head.

* * *

Recently, my father and I were arguing. He was accusing me of taking things too personally, of being too sensitive, of acting like a baby. He was talking about the Marines and all the reasons why he was tougher than me and why whatever I felt was not as big of a deal as I made it out to be.

“Come on, what’s the worst thing that’s happened to you really?” he asked me.

I felt something in my throat, like a cough and told him I didn’t know but really, I didn’t want to say.

“Fine,” he said. I don’t know what he saw in me then, but he softened and said, “That’s fine. You don’t have to say it.”

Emily Mathis


Emily Mathis is an educational psychologist and completed her MFA in fiction at UNCG. Her work was a finalist for the 2022 Rash Awards, the 2022 Chester B. Himes Award, and was shortlisted for the 2020 Bridport Prize. Her essays have appeared in, or are forthcoming in, Another Chicago Magazine, Epiphany, Inklette, and others. She is revising an autofictional novel and completing a collection of essays. She is on Instagram @twaggamyster.

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I dreamed a stranger stole my coat. Pea coat, without buttons. A soft belt through two loops to keep it closed. A hood.

In the dream the man and I are walking through downtown Lynn, where I used to live—the last place I ever drank—the Boston-bound train tearing by behind me. In the dream the man and I meet eyes and I see the fabric, wool without roughness, wrapped around his body in the cold; he is walking, the hood is on or it is off, and I think, I love that coat, but he must need it. Maybe I gave it to him?

I forget the dream, mostly.

But then not once but twice no three times I am standing awake with other humans talking and there it is, the memory of the missing coat, the sadness that it is gone and then the memory that it was just a dream and the instinct to check my closet but also in this moment with the other people in the real life I have the urge to tell them, Do you know what just happened? You were talking and I remembered that in my dream my fall coat was gone, my fall coat with a pocket that is ripped, a pocket of fraying, fibrous thread, like a muscle unraveling, an opening through which I seem to have stepped,

and now here’s the dream in my mouth and there it is the coat hopefully at home and why am I wanting to tell you this now as you talk of things what things no things weather things maybe, small things as we do when we’re new, but I stop myself because without a drink I am less anxious less impulsive more measured, without a drink I am me steady me silly me, even sillier in fact, in the less self-destructive way; without alcohol I think more things through, without alcohol for two years in just a week, actually, but anyway—these are people I’ve only just met and they might not understand why this new professor is telling them about the coat lost in the ocean in the mind of—

What is it here that interests me? It is time dissolving, it is dream and wake merging, it is the sense that the pockets between the worlds are thin or do not exist or are split and, in that moment when my mouth wanted to tell about the coat lost in the dream, I felt as though I had fallen through, that I was inside two worlds at once, and that the joining of the two spaces made me, somehow, more me.

Falling through the threads: Is that what blacking out is? Here and then not here and sometimes both? Perhaps it’s less a slipping through the threads and more, like Sarah Hepola says, a trap door: boom: here and then gone but still visible to anyone beside your body. Your body moving despite the breached brain. Your body your body your body.

When I first search the internet for “breached + adjective,” no results want to confirm my version of the word. Verb or nothing. But I keep scrolling and searching and am finally delivered to a website called “Reverso,” where the first synonym under “breach”—as adjective—is: “sexually assaulted.”

Why yes, that connotation does make sense. The breached brain unable to stop this: unable to remember it all but still able to take your two feet to a stranger’s car, Miami-Dade College guy luring you, you who he knows is fifteen; fifteen when you sleep, fifteen when you wake, fifteen fifteen nothing when you see the red splotch that could not, just could not be. I’ve already written that story.

Yes yes, blacking out is more a trap door.

Moving through the threads, head on straight whether in dream or wake or merged—that is more magic, less tragedy, more whole, and this, perhaps this is an ode to sober clarity, an ode to hazy dreams: actions you don’t recall but not because you were blacked out, not because essential segments of your brain crashed, your feet taking you toward repetition, toward trauma unresolved; toward nightmare, absent the dream; yeah, that’s what this is: a song for what we can finally stop.

Caitlin McGill


Caitlin McGill's writing has appeared in Blackbird, Gastronomica, Iron Horse, McSweeney’s, Vox, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for the 2021 Chautauqua Janus Prize, winner of the 2020 Indiana Review Nonfiction Prize, and a staff-scholar at Bread Loaf multiple years. She has been a writer-in-residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Ragdale, and VCCA. Three of her essays have been Notables in The Best American Essays series. She's an Associate Teaching Professor in Virginia, where she lives with her partner and cat.
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Booties on, we enter the piece. Artists these days, they think all we want is to be part of the art—in here, we look at ourselves looking. The truth is, in this smooth and silent cavern, light is a thing, has mass, is chewy. Ice blue melts saffron into hot pink: we blink colors even in the dark of our eyelids. The strobing begins, somehow coming from within our shuddering hearts. When the docent reminds us to look back to the chamber’s entrance, I obediently turn and murmur at how the white anteroom now appears jade, proof we (or at least the workings of our eyes) have changed. I’m dying to know what all of this does to the staff after a day’s work. The docent says he’s not bothered, he can adjust. But one time a girl with red hair came in and for a minute I was certain that her head was on fire. Perception revises reality in these environments: the brain craves structure, and absent any, will build its own (I didn’t know how much I relied on corners until there are none), resulting in an altered state, something that can be studied. Scientists these days, they think all we want is to be quantified—she scores highly on Oceanic Boundlessness but her Dread of Ego Dissolution barely surpasses the mean. Here my mind’s harness hopes to tame some new, feral thought galloping turquoise and tangerine through my cones. Like the glowing far wall of the chamber, constructed in our brains from empty space onto an eight-foot drop. We’ve been warned to keep clear, but of course my partner is shushing toward the void in his booties, beaconed to that bright edge. And he steps

past the invisible sensor and we all hear the alarm. My partner looks back at me, laughing, as I whisper away the notion that I can contain him within a frame. What I don’t tell him is that I grasp this magnetism. Among all this light a memory flickers, a high school chemistry class, rows of glass bottles, the contents to be used only with supervision, equations and reactions and warnings; how I dripped droplets of silver nitrate over the back of my hand when no one was looking. How I waited for the stain to appear, wherever the light had touched.

* * *

Written in response to James Turrell’s Perfectly Clear at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Brooke Middlebrook


Brooke Middlebrook grew up in the hills of western Massachusetts and now lives in Birmingham, Alabama. She’s currently an MFA student in nonfiction at Bennington College. Recent work appears in X-R-A-Y, Tiny Molecules, and Waterwheel Review.

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In Night of Solitude. An ode to sex work, Mapplethorpe + other oddities

I wonder if the deer sees its likeness during Christmastime, whether or not it recognizes its image in the decorations that humans position in front of the home. Is it an invitation to them, a cause for mutual celebration, or an offense? Ironic how the beings that plaster their glowing facsimiles across the yard for the holidays are the same ones who leave them splattered on the side of the road during rush hour.

“They’re majestic,” Bill observes from the driver’s seat of a Prius, the car halting. My eyes wander toward the living creatures that spring across the field of grass, glazed with the condensation of nighttime dew, touched by the intimacy of a periwinkle moonlight. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen them out here.”

“Majestic.” I nod along in agreement, but also in awe of the grazing deer, which—according to Celtic lore—bear associations with poetry and the faerie realm. “That’s exactly the word that arose inside my head, right before you said it.” It’s as if he’s plucking my thoughts, after only a five-minute transport from my place to his. I delve deeper inside my thoughts for related messages that can be assigned to our ambushing of the deer dinner party. Words like: stillness, softness, and innocence surf against the reverberating ripples of the psyche.

Innocence: perhaps, the most accurate way to describe how I feel about this trip down the retro-futuristic lane of persona’s past. For a black sex worker or a black man in general, innocence can feel hard to come by.

* * *

In “The dark and dangerous reality of racism in sex work,” a 2020 article featured in Metro, sex workers of color reported the prevalence of racial prejudice in the adult entertainment industry. Lifestyle reporter Faimma Baker writes: “Racism worms its way into every corner of human life, and the world of sexual fantasies, fetishes and sex work is no different.” The reporter cites a study of racism and sexism in interracial pornography in which researchers discovered that racism was shown toward people of color. Black women, for instance, were more often targeted with acts of aggression than white women; black performers were subjected to more acts of physically and verbally abusive cues, whereby they were viewed as having a lower status than their white counterparts.

I was 19 the first time a white guy asked if he could call me a nigger during intercourse. At the time, while it immediately disturbed me, I overrode this discomfort for the sake of false harmony, out of a need to please, to be loved, to be seen. Years later, when a client asked me a similar question, delving into heavy racial roleplay over texts, I blocked him immediately. Several white men have since attempted to sexualize the idea of chattel slavery with me. I didn’t give these attempts the light of day.

* * *

My initiation into sex work was purely for survival. I’d just finished my first semester of art school in San Francisco before becoming homeless. I’d fallen victim to a Craigslist scam that involved me cashing a check on behalf of a potential employer, for a housekeeping gig I found on the website. At only 19 years old, due to my own gullibility, my bank account was closed on the grounds of a fraudulent deposit of five thousand dollars.

I didn’t own a cell phone at the time, which was unheard of; I used my iTouch and the free Wi-Fi at Starbucks to hunt for hookups and warm beds on Grindr that summer. On the nights when that scheme would fail, I resorted to squatting in an isolated corridor of a high-rise parking garage. From there, the vista of skyscrapers in the distance, which were normally a source of awe and inspiration, magnified the grayscale that became my life in the face of destitution, devoid of color or meaning. I felt barren inside, but my pride restricted me from calling home for parental assistance. For one thing, my single mother—whose calls I had been ignoring since my foray onto the streets—was never able to afford the cost of a plane ticket with her menial, custodian wages. I flew myself to California during the first month of the year, with money saved from working in the menswear department at Belk.

My dad, despite splitting financial responsibilities with my stepmother, would’ve been severely set back by a last-minute distress signal, prompting them to book a flight on such short notice. If I revealed to them my circumstance, I’d never heard the end; they would do everything in their power to imprison me in North Carolina forever. I’d be a failure before the age of 20. I couldn’t endure such a fate, not in front of the people I loved the most, the ones I wanted so badly to escape.

At times, because of my field of “expertise,” I tend to undervalue my contribution to the relationship realm. Even in affairs not spawned from sexual nature, it’s easy for me to value financial endowment over other forms of well-being, because of the stress poverty places on my life and the lives of those I care for.

Yet, it is no secret that sex is a strong and significant component of human (and animal) behavior. As the most basic form of creative expression, it provides a hidden gateway to various realms of ecstatic knowingness, unique domains that exist beyond conventional perception of the senses but which also elevate sight, sound, and scent—taste and touch—to heightened extensions of parallel dimensions.

* * *

I am planning to hook up with a younger guy, in an act that will serve as my first sexual encounter in nearly two years. For the special occasion, I douse the raw honey of my flesh with Calvin Klein’s Obsession, an amber-colored vanilla embrace. Since agreeing to give myself away after over a year of abstinence, I need to ensure that it’s to someone who can appreciate my worth, someone who won’t bait me into the debilitating negotiations that sex workers often endure.

“How much?” he inquires.

“Three hundred,” I say, a frisson of uncertainty surging up my spine. It has been a while since I’ve conversed about commerce and companionship.

“I can do about half of that,” the new client offers, settling comfortably into a vow of 150 dollars. I convince him to throw me an additional fifty for a late-night dinner, one I have no intention of redeeming.

“Boy’s gotta eat,” I declare, admiring my golden face in the mirror. As if by a miraculous act of mysticism, my makeshift enema accentuates the brightness of my complexion, illuminating my skin tone from the usual honey-brown to a more refined shade of freshly-fucked, pure-as-gold, with pink champagne undertones.

A Spotify commercial airs from my speakers, before switching to a suitable track called “Solitude,” from my Vibes. playlist, which features most of the electronic artist M83’s catalog, including the latest album titled Junk. The synthpop album is the seventh studio project by the band, fronted by songwriter-producer-instrumentalist Anthony Gonzales, the sole official member. Junk is the first album released since the five-year hiatus that trailed 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.

“Solitude,” the tune playing, is characterized by a Genius contributor as having a “Bond-ballad pace, with an orchestra to boot.” Moody vocals are venerated by a retro instrumental of strings. The song’s opening lyric brings a mournful chill to my soul, which causes my narrow shoulders to shiver with a wave of glee, quickly muddled by a tune of nostalgia. On repeat: Back in time, on repeat.

As I prepare myself for this return to trade, I affirm that we as sex workers are worthy of the same level of admiration given to those who amass financial independence through more industrial means.

Do what feels natural, I encourage my body with my mind, before properly introducing myself to my new client.

“My name is Jess,” and I’m an escort.


Bill is a gentle giant, surpassing me in weight and in height, but he holds himself as if recoiling into a corner, taking up as little room as kinetically and humanly possible. He reminds me of myself in this way, wanting to make grand impacts throughout the world with the least amount of physical exertion necessary, so as not to impose upon or fuck shit up in the immediate atmosphere. He provides a verbal disclaimer about the sloppy habits of his roommate, a trans beautician, who I am not bestowed with the pleasure of meeting.

The back porch is cloaked by an overcast of distorting shadows, so the trail of junk that he warns me about makes a minuscule registration. If it does, I quickly ignore it—bury it deep down underneath the emotional sea—in order to proceed through this night with the elegance of an entity who has done this too many times to be affected. I cannot afford to be bothered by a little clutter. We enter the ranch-style home from the backdoor, crossing a threshold that leads into a quaint kitchen.

"You really do have a beautiful mouth," Bill gushes, not wasting any time with small talk and social niceties. "I know that sounds real country," he further admits. He offers me a drink and rips open the refrigerator to examine its contents. "'You sure do got a pretty mouth, boy.'"

"Oh my god," I begin, feigning protest. My body recoils. “My… stepbrother used to say that all the time, that's so... wild," I speak between disjointed bridges of idiomatic deliberation.

"It's from the movie Deliverance." Peeping over his shoulder, I spot a fridge full of Mountain Dew, bottled water, and two Domino's pizza boxes that are halfway empty and ajar.

"Is it? For some reason, I was thinking of Full Metal Jacket."

"Oh, I love that movie." I've only seen the movie once, in junior high, but I remember it being all types of brutal—visually and emotionally.

"So, what is Deliverance?" I ask.

"It's a crazy movie about backwoods Georgia."

"What is the genre of the film? Is it like action or adventure?"

"Yeah, I guess you could say that. It's got Burt Reynolds in it." I imagine a Western movie with cowboys and horses. I will later realize it is an Academy Award-nominated thriller, featuring Jon Voight, who I first saw starring opposite Jennifer Lopez in Anaconda. I will additionally learn that the film is based on a novel of the same name, selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry.

"Oh, yeah, I'm sure my stepbrother has seen that. He's extremely southern, but that line reminds me of something you might hear in Full Metal Jacket."

"You mean the drill sergeant?"

“Yes, some of the rhetoric, I think, makes the same type of impression." I recall the leading character from the film, the drill sergeant, who also starred as Sheriff Hoyt in the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It is a disturbing role of nearly unparalleled proportion, played by E. Lee Ermey, who was—in real life—a drill sergeant for the Marines. Art imitates life.

"Well, now I have clarity after all these years." I wave away the notion of having a drink. Between the coldness of the water and the fact that I don't drink soda, it only leaves the soy milk, which I would rather take back home to have with my granola.

“It’s a good watch,” he says about Deliverance, which I admit to having missed. I try to be mindful of the number of films that I view, and the constitution of images being consumed, although I have my share of obscene, even x-rated attractions.

Showgirls has been a recent fascination; I watched it three times in three nights, last year. I find resonance, somehow, in a star born from the black soot and ashes of an American Dream, crumbling. In his 1998 book titled Interviews, Quentin Tarantino cited its big-budget exploitation style as both rare in recent cinema and an exemplification of its mastery. Rated NC-17 for its sexual and graphic content, Tarantino compared the movie to, of all things, Mandingo.

* * *

In the main room of Bill’s home, there is a tall lamp with a crystal shaft, contrasted by the melancholy tones of a brown origami-inspired shade. As we approach, the place expands to reveal a dark wool rug, underneath a table comprised of a fusion of plaster and resin. On top of the table, there is a metal bin of gadgets and trinkets, some of which include clay carvings of elephant trunks and tusks.

A mahogany bureau desk abuts the front-facing windows and drenches the space with a studious atmosphere, which is vaguely diminished by the presence of a flat-screen television. Despite the TV, which is always a bad distraction to good design, I am mostly ravished by the living room’s exemplification of tailored taste, something one might find in Veranda, but more economical. It reminds me of my mother and my grandmother, and James, a suitor I once lived with in San Francisco. It reminds me of the vision of elegance that I hold for my own future.

“You know, I thought you’d be more brown skin than you are,” Bill admits, fingering the bridge of his glasses.

“Why do you think that is?”

“Maybe the makeup you had on in your pictures. I just have this fascination with black men.”

They call that a fetish.

“We all like what we like, but black men are just different to me.” Bill sinks into a rocking chair. He throws his slender leg over the edge, which is a dramatic sight, in the sense that the leg—the narrow ankle—appears to belong to a person of a smaller build.

“They look different, not just their color, they smell different, they taste different.”

I question whether the absurdity of this statement derives from an honest disconnection or if I’m simply too tactful to admit the validity of this controversial prejudice. I am reminded of Robert Mapplethorpe’s assessment regarding the aesthetics of “the black man’s” skin, how he spoke so gauchely about the size of his lips and of his penis. As a person who enjoys the chronicling and observation of sexual performance as an art form, I’ve always fancied Mapplethorpe’s work, despite his social and emotional carelessness.

A Chill commentary from 2018 posed the question: “When does appreciation boil over into degradation?” According to writer and activist Charles Stephens, much of Mapplethorpe's work juxtaposed desire and a clinical gaze, “the white gaze,” with the objectification of the black body. In the article, he proposed: “…the perfection sought by Mapplethorpe was inherently a sadistic enterprise. This motivation mixed with the race of his models culminated in an almost anthropological obsession with black male genitals.”

Stephens continues, “Elevating beauty is less the goal than displaying the sexual differences between races. Scientific racism is never far from sexual racism, and photography has at times been a dark art in service to both.” The photographer’s infamous work of art “Man in Polyester Suit” is referenced as an example, a photograph that depicts a man dressed in a three-piece suit, a black and white composition, mostly stripped back with the exception of the artist’s focal point: the large, black penis snaking through the open trousers—scientifically, as Stephens wrote—with the winding curves of the subject’s veins captured in high definition. It is, at the very least, a sharp execution of contrast, composition, and texture. Furthermore, a posthumous financial success in 2015, the photo was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $478,000.

While there are those like gay novelist Edmund White, who once defended the famed photographer from racial criticism, reminding the public that many of Mapplethorpe's Black subjects were his lovers, there are other writers like Stephens, who considered the conversation to be more complex.

In his commentary, Stephens wrote: “Having sex with black men does not exclude a white man from racism, and in the case of Mapplethorpe, black men were not only a fetish but racism itself.”

Corroborating this hypothesis, a 2019 New York Times feature by Arthur Lubow suggested that Mapplethorpe did indeed commodify black bodies: “his sexually explicit images, once shocking, now look like clinical illustrations in a textbook on fetishes, while his glorification of black men feed into old, odious stereotypes.”

Providing further perspective, Patricia Morrisroe’s biography of the exhibitionist photographer chronicled how he claimed the ability to “catch a nigger with coke.” Morrisroe added that Mapplethorpe, like my own client, also spoke of the distinction in scent between black and white men, although his language surrounding the notion could easily invalidate his opinion.

Black gay men, especially in sex work, are no strangers to the white man’s obsession with the big, Black cock. In the aforementioned Metro report, published in 2020, a camgirl from Off The Record, confessed that she’d had many requests from white men which referenced “big, Black cocks—they’re obsessed. It’s as if they see Black men as sexual objects, purely [for] their genitalia…”

“Black men are more passionate,” my client Bill explains to me. Does he mean, we fuck better because our dicks are bigger? “White men are selfish lovers, only concerned with getting themselves off. Have you noticed that?” I do notice Bill’s excitement dispersing into his toes, as they scurry along the wall in ant-like configurations.

I am erect in my posture, although my knees are slightly cocked to the side, guided by legs that descend into seventy-degree angles. I speak meticulously, at a velocity of my own, with sharp words that ring through the room like countertenors in a show choir filled with baritones.

“I’m unable to identify the pattern that you mention, but I feel it is a generality derived from individual experience.” Spoken like a true diplomat. “I haven’t been with enough black men to properly compare my intimate exchanges with them against those I’ve had with white men, which have been predominant.”

“White is your preference?” Bill asks, his toes ticking with the density of a grandfather clock. “Do you have a preference?”

“I don’t know that it is a preference, it seems to be the most natural circumstance, given my path, which, as you know, is a peculiar type of living.

“Otherwise,” I tell my companion for the night, “I don’t recall making a conscious choice about ethnicity. I attract mostly white men, but I also know we carry a special charge for that which is attracted.”

Even as I utter these words, I am aware of the contradictory components of my admission. I prudently choose to be courted—and fucked—by white men, just as much as they choose to compensate, in spite of the passiveness of my approach. Perhaps, that makes me a fool, deluded by sanctimonious hypocrisy.

“The babies are attracted to you,” Bill decides, lowering his leg just long enough to kick himself into a steady rock, before throwing his foot back against the wall. The feeling of my fingers rummaging through a luscious body of beige curls in soft strokes draws my attention to Sassy, the quaint poodle that discovers refuge within my lap.

“They’re attracted to my light skin,” I retort. “I am averse to them in many ways, dogs, not to the point of hatred, but they crave the type of company that I’m not very attached to giving.” I wonder if this makes me sound like a malignant, villainous type of person, although it makes me feel free, to get this off my chest.

“Cats, I have a stronger identification with.” My mind wanders into a memory of my favorite scene from Aristocats. There is a jazzy musical segment, in which a queen named Duchess, from an aristocratic Parisian family, is treated to an alleyway performance by the feral, glaring Scat Cat and his grungy friends. In my childhood, this scene and the accompanying song were always a notable highlight.

“Cats are more self-sufficient, less in need of attention,” Bill agrees.

“Which is ideal for me, because I can appreciate the sentience of companionship, but I am also very fond of the aloneness. It’s why I’ve been OK with not having very many friends…

“I’ve met many people who are interested in sharing my company, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify as friendship, not in the long-term sense. Friendship, for me, I suppose, has been an impermanent process.”

“Why do you think that is? I remember on Grindr, you saying that people often found you to be sort of cold.”

I finger the tan buttons on my plaid button-down, in search of a meaningful answer. “That quality of coldness that I often consider, the sense of detachment…” There is an absence that I sense within my eyes that depicts the ascension of my thoughts from the material realm. “I think it's just the way the cards happen to fall.”

“Are you anti-social, then?” Bill never flinches, although this conversation leads me into a deep state of rumination.

“I don’t know…” At any minute, I could float away from this moment, trading these loveseats and incandescent lights for a meditation stool and the tenebrous twilight behind closed eyes, the only implication of physicality being the jagged spikes of an amethyst pressed against my dry palm. I hear the tick-tock of a clock, but the origin appears nowhere in my proximity.

I become enraptured by the ceramic elephants intricately carved into the legs of the table. A row of elephants also aligns a brick wall underneath a spotlight, designed to house a fireplace, but instead serving as a display of brass trinkets and a vase overflowing with potpourri.

“I can’t believe how attractive you are,” he says, rubbing his hand alongside the coils springing from the skin above my jawline, which grow with a rougher texture than the hair above my dick, a premium cashmere or velvet in comparison. I once knew someone who, upon rubbing me against the top of my head, described my hair as being comparable to carpet, the cheap kind.

“You look good and smell even better,” he continues in a reverent tone.

“I’m wearing Obsession, by Calvin Klein. My dad gave it to me before he died.”

“Was he as attractive as you?” my client asks.

My dick is bigger, I start to say. “He was a Marine,” I reveal instead.

* * *

I notice two cats huddling against one another in an insular, circular formation. One black, one white, the felines form what appears to be a physical, animalistic depiction of yin and yang. What a saving grace for me to see, as, at this moment, I feel I’m at the brink of my very own dark yin experience.

“It’s his time,” my grandmother resolves with a strong spirit, during my father’s funeral. A few days prior, his body was discovered at work, following a heart attack. He was 49.

Shots fired during the three-gun volley and salute cause my grandmother to quiver in her seat. The Marine commemoration takes place behind our chairs and I never bother looking behind me to see it. The parson chairs that house our bodies are cloaked with green material reminiscent of the lawns at South Granville Memorial. The procession traveled over sixty miles, from Fuquay-Varina to Granville County, to witness my father being buried at his final resting place. This is—the grand finale.

The show must go on, I tell myself. Life must go on. We will retire back into our regular lives, back into our work, and into ourselves.

We rise to acknowledge the deceased one last time. We file to the front, lying red roses and carnelians upon the sleek coffin. I crane my head to follow the sounds of meowing in the distance, but only the black cat remains in my peripheral.


Obsession. Launched in 1985, “exclusively for women,” the perfume emanates a feminine amalgamation of notes that fill the room when I slip out of my pants; my legs spread to reveal aromatic nectar of amber, oakmoss, and orange blossom. I lift the hem of my button-down, to tease the man with an image of my honey thighs cased in suspender hosiery that displays open stockings permanently attached to a lace garter belt. I flex the glutes of my derriere, twirling to demonstrate the extent of my offering.

“I’m obsessed with you,” Bill admits, pulling me closer, but with fingers that tremble against my skin.

“Well, I figured it would be the proper title with which to categorize the night.” I lean back against the sofa, spreading my legs wide in an adroit exhibition of my crotch, which he eyes with the hunger of a wolf, or a lover’s specter haunting the hallways of a former mate.

“That’s right,” he whispers, brushing his knuckles against the flagrant mound of steel forming in the pouch of my gray thong. “Wow, are you a dancer? You got legs for days.”

“I have danced, some in school, but I’m out of training. It was never professional. I did go-go dance, also, but…”

“You went to school out here?”

“In Granville County, near where my dad is buried,” I reveal, swinging my legs behind me. I form a position of rest against my knees and elbows, an awkward attempt to look available and relaxed all at once. Bill has joined me on the loveseat, but I can tell he’s not much of a lover; he seems more fascinated than aroused as if this is his first time seeing a male body in lace. “It was a real backwoods sort of place, the benefit being that the school had never experienced anyone like me, not to my knowledge, nor to the knowledge of the administration, or the local townspeople that celebrated me.”

“Someone like you, you mean black and beautiful?” I must admit, he may be far from my type, but he’s a mad decent flirt. Yet, images of “Man in Polyester Suit” cause paranoia to creep in.

“And eccentric,” I go along. “It wasn’t easy at first, the first year was torturous. I fell on my face during a performance audition, not literally, but, over time, I joined a plethora of clubs, started forming positive acquaintances and associations.

“Spent a great deal of time on my writing, made editor of the school newspaper. By the time I reached the 12th grade, I was invited to perform, so I choreographed a group of beautiful girls, and it was a real trailblazing showcase at the school.”

Finally abandoning his reservations, burying his inhibitions somewhere deep, Bill grabs the pouch of my thong, asking for a full view. The natural curve at the base of my shaft, where the pole meets the ground, makes my rod spring like the slinky from Toy Story, minus the dog. I envision myself as the center of a Mapplethorpe wet dream, except I’m directing this Jungle Fever fantasy. I tell myself I’m in control until I believe it.

As a person in this industry, my other unique gifts—creativity, emotional awareness, intelligence—these talents become secondary to the erotic, leaving me to wonder if I can become more than a device of gratification, the ultimate ego boost. This is an internalization of popular opinion, a societal criticism. Deep down, I cherish the totality of my treasures, even if they aren’t consistently acknowledged by the public (or the private) to the extent that I know them to be worth.

“I don’t want you getting too carried away,” I tell Bill, pushing his face in the opposite direction of the dessert he’s made of my curve. He rises from his knees, drooling with a face of famine, looking akin to several ghouls that I’ve witnessed before him. I’m in control.

“You know, we don’t have to do this,” Bill yells from down the hall, after excusing himself to the bathroom. His urine showers into the toilet like the waterfalls of Yerba Buena. I use this as an opportunity, and a universal sign, to maintain my anal abstinence, to save the more invasive aspects of my eroticism for a prize of heftier weight. Whether that prize is a prince with a grand castle or a pauper with a heart of gold, I have yet to divine. I am hoping that I will not have to choose, that I can find common ground somewhere between the two polarities.

I once believed that, after a brief stint of selling my body in exchange for a few hundred dollars an hour, I would waltz into a writing career that enabled me to leave the lifestyle in the rearview mirror, just as quickly as I’d crashed into it. It, instead, has transformed into longer affairs with richer men who have regularly provided material comforts on my behalf. As a result of these habits, no matter how long I stay away from the sex trade, there is a deeply ingrained aspect of “the working boy” informing my approach to sustainability.

“I’ve really enjoyed this night,” Bill concludes. He rises to slide into a frail pair of black flip-flops. I thank him for the cash he hands over. “I am lucky that I got to spend time.” Bill is the perfect gentleman; I can imagine seeing him again, which he requests as I gather up the belongings I arrived with: leather boots, a gray hoodie, a sports bag that I packed full of condoms, and the lube that went unused.

My desire for solitude grows stronger than it’s ever been.

My feline drive for privacy and room for self begins to dawn, as we gravitate toward the vehicle, lowly illumined by starry lights of Luna’s kiss. Would the deer from earlier that night still be grazing the lawn? The jazzy soundtrack of Scat Cat and his alleyway friends blares at a volume undetectable by the third-dimensional senses. Like the mother cat Duchess, I am seduced by soulful tunes of egoic individuality, courted by the whispering shadows stored within the memories of collective unconsciousness. The lyrics from my favorite scene of Aristocats signal my departure, revealing a truth unknown to many, but apparent to me forevermore.

A simple truth:

“Everybody wants to be a cat.

Hallelujah! Everybody wants to be a cat.”

*All images featured in the text are created by/property of the author.

Jess X Moor


As a closeted romantic, Moor finds purpose through creating visions of love and lust and is dedicated to carnality in various forms. Through creative nonfiction, poetry, and self-portraiture, he approaches pleasure as a divine principle of self-expression, an act of devotion that requires a blend of compassion and chemistry. Through storytelling, he aims to provide fellow seekers with a transcendent experience, where—for a passage of time—bodies and books serve as altar, and the communion between souls transforms profanity into a sacred dance of worship. Follow him on Medium and Instagram for more musings. @JessXMoor

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“What I want to see happened under the surface.”

–Joan Didion, from The Year of Magical Thinking

The idea to go to the quarry is born of nothing better to do. My kids and I are visiting my parents. I ask Dad if he knows where any quarries are. South Knoxville, he says, where you used to have an apartment, that year in college. There’s a faint inkling in my mind, an echo of a story I heard once, about a boy—a friend of a friend—who got high and broke his back jumping from the cliffs into a quarry. I want to see it. I’ve been turning this scenario over in my head since high school, unable to picture the setting. I only know the place I’ve painted in my mind. I remember that apartment, my last year of college, but I have no idea where the quarry is. I didn’t explore enough in those days.

August in Tennessee is heavy, damp with humidity. We arrive at the quarry with the intention of taking a long walk, but halfway to the water, I need an escape. A strangled feeling—like maybe I could drown in air this wet—comes over me. After a decade living in the dry hills of Colorado, I’ve forgotten the muggy air, the constant serenade of cicadas in the deep woods, the cloud of mosquitos by the water.

Three hundred fifty feet down into the earth, the sign says. It’s a hole in the ground filled with water so deep I can’t really think of it. A vague fear raises the hair on my neck. Something terrible could happen here. It feels like a broken body, someone swallowed by the depths, could emerge. A skeleton could appear—hovering the surface, its old bones clacking together—and tell me of the terror down there. A sinister feeling hangs thick and still in the humid air. Dense green kudzu muffles the forms of the trees. They rise on the bluff like hidden monsters.

* * *

From the rocky bank, my thoughts roll back to this time last year. I’m driving home in the rain. The wind picks up. Fat drops spatter the windshield. I’ve just hung up the phone, and I can’t feel my feet. I make it home, climb straight into bed, unable to remain upright. There is a blur to the edges of things. The room fills with a deep blue sorrow as rain lashes the window. For hours I lay there powerless to move or eat or drink. I message the man I’ve been talking to, the one not my husband, ask him for a distraction. A story. A joke. Anything to ease the pain. There is silence, no answer. Or, rather, there is an answer in his silence, I just don’t know it yet. I type in the words, tell him I’ve found out A., my close friend, died in a car accident. A deer ran out in front of her car. She swerved. The car flipped. She is gone. I feel my head exploding or caving in—I can’t tell which. He doesn’t write back.

* * *

At the quarry, I stand for a while, lulled by the cicadas. I think about ground water. Accumulation, accretion. Fullness. Where does this water come from? It is drawn here, collected, as if the cavity itself conjures the moisture that will fill it. Leached from the limestone, the water congregates, a gathering en masse. A pilgrimage concludes here, in this hole in the earth. Long ago, the quarry began to take on water the way a ship with a gash in its hull will—only this place won’t sink. It already has. It is deemed obsolete sometime after it starts to flood, abandoned to the trees and hills, those who come here to swim.

Everything is getting older or resolving not to, the same way the quarry, those years ago, resolved not to fill. But, neither age nor time nor water can be fended off. These processes work regardless of permission. Inevitability has always been coming. And, here, it has arrived.

The still surface of the water holds my reflection, an approximation of my image. I understand there are always blind spots, pieces of myself I can’t see. Things I don’t know—things I refuse to look at even though they are right in front of me. At the quarry there’s a distinct feeling, a visceral context, difficult to pin down with words. This time last year, I didn’t yet know all my body remembers now. I feel it again, the sense of something coming, only it has already arrived. A. is already dead. I feel again the feeling of before, but I’m living in the after.

People jump these cliffs to their deaths every year. But a sense of haunting isn’t what holds my attention—it’s the way secrets are kept here, buried deep beneath the water. I find myself wishing to leave my own secrets behind, in the humid cove with the cicadas wailing and wailing and wailing.

* * *

My senior year of college, I live in an apartment across the hill from the quarry. It is the year I’m dating D. long distance. I barely remember that time. But, I remember D. He is the only context I have for that apartment, for anything back then. My memories are dependent on before and after, before D. and after him. I recall late nights sitting on the couch, gazing out the window at the streetlight across the parking lot as I talk to D. on the phone. There is a jungle across the street from the apartment, a mire of kudzu. A wildness I don’t know contains this quarry. This secret.

I remember the streetlight, the low green glow it casts into the woods, more than I remember what D. and I talk about. I want the idea of him, and for a while, he wants the idea of me. Until he doesn’t. I don’t dream he will break my heart. I just carry around the fraught feeling that he could. And, then he does. A year after those late-night phone calls from the couch inside that apartment, after I move in with him in a damp basement in Seattle, he sits me down on the bed and tells me I don’t love you. I never did.

* * *

Shame is born inside the feeling of travelling headlong toward something you know will end badly, yet you keep going. You keep pushing into that feeling, and when it’s over, the thing itself isn’t what causes you shame, but the knowledge that you could have turned around before it was ever too late. And, you chose not to. Shame is retroactive. It folds in on itself. The layers multiply.

* * *

I gaze out at the water, and for the first time since A.’s death, I wonder what question I’m trying to ask. What shape that boy, the one in the story I heard so long ago, makes in the air, as he ruptures the surface of the water, as his body arches and collapses, breaks. What shape A. leaves behind as her truck rolls and falls silent in a pool of shattered glass. What space D. inhabits after he shuts the door and drives off between two crowds of towering pines, his last words echoing through me for nearly twenty years. I don’t love you. I never did. What silhouette the man who is not my husband occupies, his thick silence revealing his only wish: that I would just go away.

* * *

The value of experience, any experience, is that it is worth something even if it is a colossal mistake. It’s yours to make of what you will. Yours alone. You don’t have to see the good in experience, now or ever. A silver lining may not exist. Experience is yours to do with as you please. This is most true in hindsight, after whatever it is is over. You see what you wanted back then and why you wanted it. You don’t have to apologize. You and only you know your desires, your motivations, your intentions. The way you think whatever it is will heal you somehow. And, even if it is purely destructive, and you can hardly see around the corner of your mistake to imagine there is a future—the experience is still your very own.

When I find out about A.’s accident, I’m in the middle of something I’ll define as a stage, writing long letters to a man not my husband. It begins as a feeling when I see him in passing, the bright happenstance of our kids playing at the park at the same time. I’m on the edge of something then, engulfed by the feeling that I can’t live my life as it is anymore, wishing to move from the periphery into the center.

I approach him, asking about fire. I’m working on an essay, writing about a season when my whole damn world was burning down. I am bored then, fretful and worried nothing interesting will ever happen. Afraid my sixteen-year-old marriage is a burned-out forest. My peculiar loneliness is defined by desire for something to be different. One tiny thing. Anything at all.

* * *

There is no shore, only a line of water along the cliffside marking the level of the quarry’s surface, a horizon separating what is real from what is reflection.

An image scurries across my mind, an Instagram reel of a man in some faraway place with a very large snake. He sends the snake down a hole filled with water, and after a momentary pause, fish begin flinging themselves up from the pit. The man stands by with a bucket, collects the fish. I don’t watch long enough to know if the snake ever emerges or if it devotes itself to the depths, to its own disappearance. Who knows if the video is anything real. There is so much beneath the surface.

* * *

Just before I find out about A.’s death, I ask him, this man who is not my husband, about hunting. I want to know what it’s like to shoot an animal between the eyes and watch life drain from its body. I call it research. This time I’m writing about taxidermy. Specifically, I want to know what rules to follow when killing an animal to mount it on the wall. There’s a clear metaphor: I see taxidermy as the physical manifestation of memory, a way of keeping and holding a memory still and immobile on a shelf.

* * *

From where I stand at the edge of the deep water, I wonder what it means, this feeling of not knowing what I know, of noticing gaps rather than what is there. I see the way light fills the space between trees. Silhouettes confirm presence, but no detail or nuance. I search the water for signs of an ending, a folding up, a mailing away. I’m looking to see what isn’t here yet. When it arrives, I wonder if it will be so fleeting that I will miss it.

People swim in the quarry, but I can’t imagine the pull. I can’t fathom the depth beneath bare feet, treading water. A chill creeps up my spine, thinking of it. I imagine the water thick, viscous. Perhaps it would suspend me, pull me under. I imagine sinking, the water growing darker and darker, daylight receding from view.

I wonder if I am afraid of my own depths.

* * *

That’s a shame. Shame on you. You should be ashamed of yourself. But more entrenching is shame that grows from inside, up from some root you plant yourself. These are talons that rarely let go.

On the cliff at the quarry, something almost comes to mind. It’s the nearness I’m after, the shortcoming. I want only for A. to return, come back from wherever death has taken her. I live in the near miss, the misstep, wishing only I could be where she is.

His silence—this man I am talking to when I find out A. is gone, this man not my husband—is a door opening, or rather, one left ajar. My shame enters like a silent curl of smoke and takes over the room. It is a slithering, a minor movement, a soundless hurricane spinning off a butterfly wing.

I see myself in the quarry’s impulse to drown and hide things. Its entire domain is beneath. The deeper I imagine the murky water, the more I envision the shape shame has made inside me. It has dug me out, molded me internally. And how do I get rid of it? Where can all this shame go, except collect here in the hole of my own making?

* * *

A few days after A. dies, I sit on our bed at dusk, telling my husband about the man I’ve been talking to, that I’ve sent nude photos to someone he knows. The words crumble in my mouth. Something inside feels smashed, irreparable. Looking out into the fragile dusk, I tell my husband about the man so that I don’t drown beneath the compounded pressure of holding both a secret and my grief. A great tide of water rises inside, along with the sense that I’m running out of time, that this is the arrival of an ending.

* * *

I stand on the edge, wondering what music sounds like below the dark surface. How far a shaft of summer light bores into the quarry before it disappears, and black silence takes over. I wonder—what is the rate of transference? When does sound become silence and light shadow? The quarry is a summoning. Its depth, a beckoning.

The reflection in the water’s glossy surface asks only that I look at myself. There is a helplessness to the depth—a reminder that it contains yearning, for lost things. For A. For my familiar sense of wanting to be her. Wanting her experience. Now, her gonenness answers my yearning. And, my shame—at her leaving and what I am doing when she leaves—answers everything.

* * *

Immediately when this man not my husband turns his back, walks away, when I ask for comfort, and his silence says no—shame rolls in like a bank of fog. I don’t have the bandwidth to handle rejection or shame. A. is dead, and I have, what, tried to kill my marriage? She is the only one who could ever explain my choices to me, and she is fucking gone.

I’m only edging the truth. I roll a stone over and the water rushes in. This man plays along for a while, mildly intrigued, before he rolls the stone back, telling me to leave him be. I invent shame to punish myself. I need it, because A. is gone and there is nothing I can do about it. I need the shame so I can hide from the grief. Eventually, that rises in me, too. My feelings for the man fade far from view, like a pebble sinking down, down. Still, I wonder, is A.’s death my fault?

* * *

This whole place is enveloped in the feeling I’ve arrived too late. At the quarry, I sit at the beginning of a story that has already ended, and the conclusion glows in front of me like a gold leaf caught on the wind, suspended, waiting to land.

The quarry makes me think of old things, the feeling of making do. Muffled edges rise in my mind, materialize, like a disappearance. It’s how my neighbor’s voice goes quiet as he moves further into his house, then suddenly reemerges midsentence as he comes back outside, still talking to his girlfriend in a loud voice. It’s the feeling of a ghost town, something that used to be, the earth refilling, determined to remain a constant level. The cliffs remind me there’s any number of ways to be careless with my life.

* * *

There are a million ways to forsake yourself, and giving into shame is one of them. Shame has a depth that is difficult to get out from under. It requires doggedness, that you keep letting go of it again and again, because the feeling of shame always comes back.

Forever and always, A.’s death will remind me of D. At first I can’t figure out why, but then I begin to think of A. as the inverse of D., the way shame is the inverse of grief. Something in me always knew D. would break my heart. The premonition made me hang onto him much more fiercely than I should. My grasp, ironically, is what drives him away. A., I can never hold onto, no matter how many times she assures me she will always be there. A.’s goneness is the flip side of the coin.

The closing bookend of loss arrives sixteen years after the first. Both A. and D. hold the same shape of emptiness in my memory. They reach the same depth inside of me. A.’s sudden goneness puts me back in touch with the feeling I have when I’m twenty-two, and D. looks into my eyes, claiming he never loved me. A.’s answer to that emptiness is to tell me over and over, I love you. I always will. And then, suddenly, she is gone too.

I become what I am looking at—a place dug from the earth, filled, abandoned. And for a while I think it’s meant to be this way. This is life, teaching its lessons. I’m meant to punish myself for my indiscretion, break my back flinging my body into this deep pool of grief, like that boy from long ago, flipping again into the water. But then, I see my image in the murky green water. I will always want to know what lies beneath, in me and in life. I turn my eyes to the sky, to the near perfect reflection of fluffy clouds on the surface of the quarry, and understand, I think, what it is to be so sad, and to come back to the surface, float up again from the cold darkness of the deeps, and learn the world again. Live in the world again.

Anna Oberg


Anna Oberg is a professional photographer based in Estes Park, Colorado. When she's not arranging family portraits with the perfect view of Long's Peak as backdrop, she focuses on writing tiny memories and small stories. She has been published in Mud Season Review, Pidgeonholes, Causeway Lit, The Maine Review, decomp Journal, The Festival Review, Split Rock Review, and South Dakota Review among others.

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The front door to the brick bungalow opens. An old woman steps into the sun. She grips the worn acacia bough that is her cane and surveys the patch of dirt that is her yard. A single gum tree towers against the blue. A cockatoo hangs from the lamppost, working its beak against the fixture’s rubber gasket. The woman leans into her good leg and dodders toward the street. She is still in her terry cloth slippers, her pendulous breasts swinging loose beneath a tea-stained sweatshirt. She mutters to herself. This is Kate.

Across the street, another woman rinses a breakfast bowl and listens to the weather forecast’s sameness: Rain in Melbourne; fine elsewhere. She has just returned from the primary school and is looking toward two hours with only her notebook. Through the open kitchen window, comes the whack of acacia to brick, and a raspy voice calling for a cat. Bobby? Whack. Bobo? Whack. Kitty! Whack, whack. She sets the bowl in the sink, switches off the radio, and goes the end of the hall, the only windowless space in the house. Arms crossed, head bowed, she stands in the relative darkness and waits. This is me.

* * *

I hide in the hall and Kate rounds the house outside, calling and whacking, peering, I’m sure, into each of our windows, the ledges just at her eye level. I should help her, but I want her to go and leave me this time alone. Soon, she’s back to the kitchen stoop and rapping at the door, which I finally go to and open. We do this every week.

Together, slowly, we retrace her previous route and look for her tabby. But by the time we reach the footpath, the cat is forgotten, and Kate is telling me about her emigration from Scotland so many years before.

It was so cold there, she says, and never any sun. Then one day, middle of winter, Kate’s husband Jock opened the newspaper to an image of sunshine, kangaroos, and a call to build in Canberra, Australia’s new capital city. Within a month, they had boarded a steamer. Weeks later, they were disembarking at Darwin with little but their best winter coats. After sixty years, Kate’s face is leathered and deeply creased; her only return to Scotland has been through her memory.

But my son, she leaps, my son was very ill. The first time this confused me, but now I know Kate has lurched in time, is recalling an adult child, her only child, who died from cancer. He spent his last days at hospital, unable to go home. Kate’s eyes well, and I shift my weight, scan the bushes for the cat. She leans in. He made me a tape before he died. Then she sucks her teeth and says I never heard it.

The cassette tape is snapped in a player, all cued up beside her lounge chair. For every moment she tells me this story, her son’s voice waits, wound tight on a spool. She could be listening to him now. She could hear him everyday. When her daughter-in-law visits and suggests they listen together, Kate refuses. She wipes her eyes and meets mine. One day I’ll do it, she says, but I can’t do it yet.

Then something shifts, she recalls that sunny advert on a dark Scottish morning, and we begin again.

* * *

Eventually, I left Canberra and returned to the U.S. If I told Kate goodbye, I can’t picture now where we stood, or what I said, or how she responded, which makes me think our connection didn’t end so much as expand into something else, something equally persistent.

Once, on a return visit, I found myself again on our old street. Kate’s house had long been demolished, replaced by something modern, clean-lined, and cold. My house looked the same. The rosemary bush where Kate’s cat napped away the mornings had grown, but the same drapes framed the picture window. I could almost glimpse my younger self, hiding at the end of the hall, so trapped by the loop of Kate’s memory, and so eager to return to my own life, which I thought did not include her.

Jamaica Ritcher


Jamaica Ritcher is the director of the Writing Center at the University of Idaho, where she also teaches courses in writing and writing studies. Her personal essays have appeared in Split Rock Review, Literary Mama, on National Public Radio, and elsewhere.

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November 2020

The great uncovering of myself becomes clearer with each curving of blade against skin, clippers striking a match as they slide up the sides of my neck, around the ears, higher than I ever dared to shave before.

In the mirror, I glimmer, and smirk. I do not look the same, but also, I do. I look more real than ever, and still I can’t quite place myself. This elusiveness bemuses and frustrates me in equal measure.

* * *

A few days later, it clicks, why my new self feels so oddly familiar. I have seen her/them before, a long time ago. In the tiny, impish girls-playing-boys that filled my childhood days and dreams: Sandy Duncan as Pinocchio, Mary Martin as Peter Pan.

As a child, I had an insatiable appetite for their stories, their songs, their heartaches and triumphs. I relished popping in the VHS tapes day after day and disappearing into their lives, learning their melodies and movements by heart, making their voices my own.

It hadn’t occurred to me to search for my body in theirs, though it’s clear they’ve always lived inside me. That they flickered, alive and a few degrees removed, in that sweet spot between celebrity crush and role model. I wanted them, and I wanted to be them, like all baby queers’ best loves.

I see that now, in the face looking back at me, though I was oblivious to it then.

* * *

April 2021

When I text my mother to ask how the 1976 musical about “the boy-like puppet” came to be central to my upbringing, she can’t remember. Her handwriting is on the VHS tape we used to record it from whatever channel it was airing on. Meaning that there was, at some point, enough intention to find the blank tape, set the tv to the correct channel, hit the red button. Meaning that someone wanted it. Meaning that someone wanted to show it to me.

It could have been anything else, anyone else. But it was Pinocchio, first.

I was a 90's kid, the first child of three, so I’m not sure how or why this made it into my hands. But I loved it, so we watched it, over and over again. When I tell her I’m rewatching it now, she replies: “That movie was SO WEIRD.” It’s hard to argue with this; the plot and the songs and everything about it is bizarre. In a weirdly addictive way.

In this version, the story of Pinocchio is a play within a larger narrative about the relationship between a girl and her father. The opening scene is of a young theater actor telling her father that she wishes to leave his vaudeville act and start her own life, pursue her own studies, branch out from what she has always known. His response: stay for one more night, play the role of Pinocchio, and then see how you feel.

What I hear, now, in his words: Play at being a boy, in the safety of the theater, and see how addictive it is.

Okay, the girl on the screen concedes.

Okay, child-me echoes, entranced.

* * *


Who is the child who enters into this world of make-believe so readily, so frequently? Who watches and processes and absorbs and memorizes all the ways a girl can be a boy-like thing?

At the time, I am a gymnast, comfortable with my body in motion, daring my friends on the playground to race me as I propel across the jungle gym bars, testing how high I can soar on the swings before launching myself into space. My outfits are simple pairs of cotton tanks and shorts, showing off skinny legs dotted with bruises and the dust of playground sand. I am petite, nimble, brave. I haven’t learned how not to be me yet.

On the screen, the characters’ frames are slight, all cinched waists, flat chests, pixie cuts accented by a small triangle hat. They wear skin-tight bodices, cropped coats and bow ties over a trim collared shirt. Their tights accentuate strong but slim legs, rod-like bodies like that of a prepubescent child.

Their movements are smooth, refined, and choreographed. They pad confidently across the Neverland forest floor, take off in flight, somersault in slow-motion out of the mouth of a whale. They float through the air and flip with an enthusiasm that almost masks the reality of control. They’re never winded or tired, always up for a challenge.

Child-me believes I can move through the world this way alongside them, forever.

* * *

Geppetto lays out Pinocchio’s path like so: “You will go to school and you will study hard and you will be a real boy.”

Child-me becomes a serious student, a lover of learning and stories and books, a deep thinker committed to the pursuit of knowledge. Child-me wants to be the best, the most beloved, the most respected of her peers.

In other words: I went to school, and I studied hard, and I waited for real boyhood to become me.

* * *

In the meantime, I grew up a girl.

I started watching more and doing less. I acquired curves in places that were previously flat and smooth as marble. I was aware of my body being scrutinized by others, and I responded to that scrutiny as I was taught to: I shaved my legs. I started wearing make-up. I played the part that was expected of me.

After a while, I put away the Pinocchio tape, trading him in for Snow White and Cinderella, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. But no matter how alive these girls appeared to be on the screen, they never felt as real as the boys I once knew. (The boys I once was?)

* * *


In high school, when I try my hand at acting, it is always in the stories of ladies becoming ladies: Eliza Doolittle’s elegant glow-up in My Fair Lady, washing that man right out of my hair on a faraway beach in South Pacific.

My favorite costume remains the bloomers of my peasant scene on the dirty streets of Tottenham Court Road, before Eliza’s transformation begins. It is the most comfortable, the easiest to dance in. I could be anyone in this number, just a body blending with other bodies as we cavort around Eliza’s flower cart.

When I run off-stage after that scene, the freedom of my bloomers leaks away, and back to pure femininity it is. My pants are quickly replaced by a many-layered, black and white dress and ridiculously ornate hat I must perch on my head just so. Now, I am fit to attend the horse races, straight-backed and hanging on the arm of a high school football player conned into being an extra for this production.

And so it goes: back and forth, back and forth, until the play ends, and I’m returned to girlhood in earnest.

* * *

As Peter and Pinocchio’s stories continue, they too change, or refuse to, over and over again. They won’t grow up, will become “real,” fumble their way through the dark of their immature choices and learn their lessons. They make and lose friends, outwit the villains, plot their futures as bigger and braver boys than they are right now.

Their eyes grow wide, they mischievously sparkle, they reveal a sweet innocence and goodness despite selfish tendencies. They want so badly, so openly, and the wanting becomes contagious.

I taste that wanting on my tongue in the sweet/sourness of androgynous childhood. But there are moments when it stings, and moments when it sickens, and over time, I am taught to just swallow it whole. It sits in the pit of my stomach for years, waiting until it is safe enough to show itself as itself.

At age 31, the lost, almost-boy of me comes in through an open window, looking for their shadow. She/they wakes up on the worktable and finds the words to ask: “What am I?”

* * *

Who—or what—are Pinocchio and Peter? They’re boys, but not. Human, but not. Just slightly dancing to the right or left of whatever category you try to pin them down to. In the way you see faint shadows of strings as Peter lifts off the ground, I see hints of womanhood in his cheekbones when he smiles, in Pinocchio’s grace as he dances with the other puppets.

Throughout the play, characters off-handedly refer to Pinocchio as “whatever he is”—no one knows what to call him; he’s inscrutable. But he’s also so distinctly himself, that “funny lookin’ kid.”

In this way, the two characters are mysteries, bodily speaking, but also very recognizable. Singularly themselves yet an every-boy for generations. There is no inherent conflict in this both/and-ness, no need to try to make a determination either way; it is accepted that they simply are.

* * *

April 2021

I don’t know what I expect to find when I mine the internet for the history behind girls playing boys onstage. It’s not interesting, or nuanced. It’s practical. For Peter Pan, there’s this: boys couldn’t work late on Broadway, and a man would seem too… big. All the lost boys would have to be scaled in comparison. Et voilà, a lady Peter is born.

I suppose the theater is used to these types of gender fuckery, having been all about the men-playing-women from the days of Shakespeare, and then vice versa later on. But the conventions of what are accepted by audiences seem so strange, in light of the politics of transness in the real world.

Why should Peter be played by a woman, but not another lead boy with an ensemble? Why are most casting calls gender-specific when we all have collectively agreed to buy into the idea that Peter is a boy and Pinocchio is a boy no matter who is under the costume? Why is this suspension of disbelief—or, rather, this uncomplicated acceptance—so prevalent, so normalized here, and not outside of here?

* * *

One might say that gender is all a lie, that every move we make serves to adorn ourselves in layers of social trickery, no matter what we ultimately choose to show to the world.

In the world of the theater, this artifice is part of the fun. The beloved tales of my childhood are mainly musicals filmed for tv, meaning that they’re both real and not real, live and not live, for an audience of many and for an audience of one.

These layers beguile me and consume me; I’m not as interested in cartoons. I want real people, moving in real time. I want visibility and illegibility all at once. I want motion, fluidity, play. I want the truth, told slant: not girl, not boy, but some combination of both, or neither.

* * *

Culturally speaking, Pinocchio as a character is best known for his lies, serving as a cautionary tale for children who veer towards masking the truth. Pinocchio’s nose grows whenever he utters a lie, a physical manifestation of his misdeed that brings him shame. “When you lie, it’s plain as the nose on your face,” remarks Geppetto. This is supposed to encourage us to speak the truth, or face the consequences in our bodies.

But later, when the two are stuck in the belly of a whale, Pinocchio must intentionally grow his nose to use as a source of kindling, a way to smoke out the space and compel the whale to essentially cough them back out. He must wield his lies to save them both. And he does.

What’s a child supposed to learn from this, really? That they can strategically lie to escape their current circumstances, to ultimately save themselves? This is the lesson I take away from my watching and rewatching: that I should perform the lie of my cisness for as long as it takes to protect myself from harm and hurt. That the marks it might leave on my body will be worth it, in the end.

* * *

April 2021-present

What is it that I want, now, in writing this? To find the kernels of real boyhood in my memories of childhood? To pinpoint the moment at which I started to lie about my gender? To return to the people who made me this way, who gave me the image—if not the language—for who I could become?

I want what the Peters and the Pinocchios have: the ability to make people love me, to be open and unabashed and genuine while also holding just a little something back, keeping a flicker of mystery behind my eyes. The cleverness and determination and conviction in what I believe in, even if it’s initially misdirected. The agility and fearlessness and sureness of being in my body. The ability to be recognizably girl and boy all at once.

* * *

What does it mean to be a boy, and a real boy, at that?

The question is elusive, for the hour and a half Pinocchio spends searching, following ringleader Candlewick and his posse of naughty boys down the wrong path, learning what he should and shouldn’t give of himself in exchange for stranger’s promises.

This is Pinocchio’s quest: to learn the elements of boyhood and make them his own. To make mistakes and correct them. To follow his innermost hopes and desires. To play himself into being.

In the context of the musical, it works.

* * *

And what of me, then? Who am I after the tape ends, the curtain closes?

I am closer to Pinocchio as puppet, closer to Sandy Duncan as Pinocchio: somewhere in the middle, reaching toward realness but landing in an adjacent-to liminality. I am a lost boi who longs to be Peter Pan, still striving, still searching.

At the end of Pinocchio, once the puppet has completed his transformation to real boyhood, the audience is returned to the play-within-the-play. The characters are striking the set, having changed from costumes into work clothes. The girl playing Pinocchio emerges from backstage, bags packed, ready to leave. She reaffirms her decision with her beloved Papa, who watches her go with tears in his eyes. The last thing she does is make a promise to him: to be a good girl, wherever she goes next.

I make no such promises. Rather than setting myself on a sure path toward real boyhood, toward good girlhood, I wonder instead if I might have found this: the one degree removed, both/and, something else entirely. The girlboi I will have always been.

Ash Trebisacci


Ash Trebisacci (they, she) is a writer and study abroad advisor based in the Boston area. When they're not meditating on the beginnings of their queer girlboihood, they're likely drinking tea, taste testing their wife's baked goods, or watching women's gymnastics. Find them on Twitter until the bitter end @ishmish17.

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