Tag Archive: Mag Latest Issue

  1. Announcing the winners of the 2021 Wallace Prize

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    The Yale Daily News Magazine is thrilled to publish the winners of the 2021 Wallace Prize. The Wallace Prize recognizes previously unpublished fiction and nonfiction by Yale undergraduates. All submissions were judged anonymously by professional writers, who also decided the number of prizes and the places of the winners. Winners receive a substantial monetary award and their pieces are published in a special issue of the Yale Daily News Magazine.

    Read the digital issue here.

     

    Nonfiction:

    First Place: “When Pregnancy is a Crime” by Ko Lyn Cheang ’21
    Second Place: “People Like Us” by Irene Vázquez ’21
    Third Place: “Little Neck, New York” by Sam Ahn ’24

    Honorable Mention: “Everyday American Delusion” by Matt Nadel ’21
    Honorable Mention: “The Weight in Her Voice” by Lydia Burleson ’21
    Honorable Mention: “Learning the Blues” by Maya Chakrabarti Pasic ’21.5

     

    Fiction:

    First Place: “Object Permanence” by Lillian Yuan ’21
    Second Place: “The Sea Leash” by Claire Zalla ’21
    Third Place: “In Heat” by Ryan Benson ’21

    Honorable Mention: “Party Monster” by Maude Lechner ’24
    Honorable Mention: “Weird Fishes” by Gabriel Roy ’21
    Honorable Mention: “The Big Crunch” by Mia Arias Tsang ’21

     

    Thank you to the many students who submitted and the anonymous judges who volunteered their time and expertise.

  2. NONFICTION: When Pregnancy Is A Crime

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    In the cramped bathroom of a condominium apartment in Singapore, Annisa stared at the pregnancy test she had purchased from the Guardian pharmacy. She had suspected she might be pregnant, having missed her period by one week and then two. Now, the double pink lines were incontrovertible evidence.

    She felt no joy, only terror. She was alone — her brothers and sisters were a thousand miles away in her home country of Indonesia and her mother had been dead for 18 years. The embryo in her womb was proof she had committed an offence that, if discovered, could lead to her losing her work permit, job and future prospects of working in Singapore. 

    It was November 2014. In January, she would have to go to a neighborhood clinic for her regular medical examination, mandated by the Singaporean government for all foreign domestic workers. There, the government would find out she was pregnant and deport her. 

    Under the conditions of the work permit issued to Annisa and the 261,800 other live-in domestic helpers like her in Singapore, Annisa could not marry a Singaporean citizen or permanent resident without government approval. Employment regulations further state that “If the foreign employee is a female foreign employee, the foreign employee shall not become pregnant or deliver any child in Singapore during and after the validity period of her work permit,” unless she is already in a government-approved marriage to a Singapore citizen or permanent resident.

    The pregnancy restrictions were implemented in 1986, two years after the government pushed out the now-defunct “Graduate Mothers’ Scheme.” The controversial policy was designed to boost Singapore’s talent pool by promising graduate mothers with at least three children top priority in the stressful primary school registration process. Meanwhile, the government offered 10,000 deposits into the Central Provident Fund mandatory savings accounts of couples under 30 who both did not have any Ordinary Level — a national examination administered at the end of secondary school — passes, had two or fewer children and agreed to be sterilized. Fresh off public allegations of eugenics, the ruling People’s Action Party government enacted a pregnancy ban on low-wage foreign workers that would apply even after they canceled their work permits.

    Over three months in late 2020, I spoke to five migrant social workers and 15 foreign domestic workers, 12 of whom were in romantic relationships of more than a year, about the challenges of dating, marriage and pregnancy in Singapore. From Singapore to Dubai, Hong Kong to Malaysia, female migrant domestic workers are relegated to the position of second-class household servants and barred by reproductive restrictions, lack of maternity protection or social stigmas from enjoying the fundamental human rights of childbearing and of love.

    From her bathroom window, Annisa, whose name has been changed to protect her from legal repercussions, had a view of Bukit Batok, the Singapore neighborhood where she had worked since arriving four years prior. Here, unlike in her hometown of Semarang, native rainforest trees like angsana and mahoganies did not grow unruly and wild but were planted along well-paved roads and in housing estates. The condominium she lived in was easily taller than the tallest building in her birthplace, which was a four-star hotel.

    A small-boned Javanese woman with glossy waist-length hair, pecan-colored skin and a thick Indonesian accent that made her self-conscious, Annisa had come to Singapore to work hard, pay off the bank loans she had taken to support her husband and two sons, and keep her head down. Pregnancy was not part of the plan. 

    The Ministry of Manpower requires all domestic workers to undergo medical examinations twice a year, to be conducted by any Singapore-registered doctor. The women would be tested for pregnancy and syphilis twice a year and HIV and tuberculosis every two years. At a clinic, Annisa would be required to sign away her medical privacy rights, pee on a stick and have blood drawn. If any results were positive, the doctor would be obliged to report them to the Ministry of Manpower. The state enforces the policy with an iron-fist: two doctors faced disciplinary inquiries from the Singapore Medical Council in 2000 for failing to report pregnant domestic workers they treated during the Ministry-required check-up.

    Annisa needed to be sure she really was pregnant, so she did something her friends called “stupid.” She went to a doctor. While doctor-patient confidentiality should ensure that Annisa’s doctor was not required to report her, since the visit was not one of the government-mandated medical examinations, domestic workers often fear that they will be reported anyway. Annisa counted herself “lucky” that the doctor did not report her. She paid $50 out-of-pocket for the doctor to confirm: she was expecting. 

    An abortion would cost $500 to $1,000. Even if she chose to have one, she did not have the money for it. She earned about 600 Singapore dollars a month and sent most of it home to her two young sons in Central Java, Indonesia. Her insurance policy would not cover it either. The Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations require employers to purchase personal accident insurance for their domestic employees but stipulate it must not cover “any pregnancy, childbirth, miscarriage, abortion, sterilization, menopause or any complication arising from any of these conditions.” In the eyes of the law, pregnancy is a legally prohibited act that should be punished, not insured.

    Annisa remembered a classmate from the English language course she attended at a Queenstown neighborhood mosque who got pregnant. Afraid of being sent home, the woman underwent an abortion at Lucky Plaza. Many domestic workers know that if you do not have the money for an abortion, you can use a quick-and-dirty, clandestine solution: abortion pills. It is “a do-it-yourself method, which involves looking for somebody who would give you a tablet,” said long-time migrant worker activist John Gee. A Filipino domestic worker told me of a friend who “drank something just to get rid of the baby” and started bleeding uncontrollably from her vagina as a result. A case manager at a domestic workers’ nonprofit recounted another case where a domestic worker was hospitalized for trying to use a metal tool to get rid of the fetus.

    Annisa never contemplated such gruesome means of solving her problem. She knew her religion, Islam, forbade abortions. “God will punish me next time if I do this,” she thought. “Every day, I cry, cry, cry, especially at night,” she recalled. Sometimes she called her friend from English class who would cry with her. Did she want to go back home, leaving the country before her employer could find out and report her to the Ministry of Manpower, where she would be blacklisted from returning to Singapore to work again? Did she want to have an abortion? She didn’t know.

    “If I want to go back to kampung,” — village —“I got no face,” she said. In the Javanese village where she grew up, her husband, who only messaged her when he needed money, lived with her two teenaged sons. Her reputation would have been stained if she returned with another man’s child.

    She had a friend from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 15 years her senior who was like a mother to her. The friend urged her to make a decision and said, “If you want to do abortion, find abortion. If you don’t want to do, then quickly fly back, because no time already,” Annisa recalled. Weighing only 83 pounds, Annisa at two months pregnant had a stomach as flat as a canvas. But she knew the baby was not getting smaller. Every day she waited was one more day that she could be discovered and deported.

    She was not led to this situation by ignorance. Before arriving in Singapore four years prior, she had spent a month at a center in Jakarta undergoing training organized by her employment agency. There, maids learned English and received training in elderly care and infant care, laundry and ironing, cooking and cleaning. Staff drilled the newly-recruited domestic workers on the rules: “cannot get pregnant, cannot make relationships with Singaporean people.” They call it “house break,” Annisa recounted. They were not to participate in “illegal, immoral or undesirable activities, including breaking up families in Singapore,” as the regulations put it.

    About 100 of roughly 200,000 domestic workers who work in Singapore are sent home each year for getting pregnant, according to the latest government-provided data from 2015, though the number could be much higher given unreported cases like Annisa’s. The Ministry of Manpower did not respond to my repeated requests for more up-to-date statistics or the policy’s rationale. The public is reminded of these women’s existences mostly through news fragments and provocative headlines. “Maid hides her stillborn baby in drawer,” read one newspaper article from 2015. When the fetus was found, the 33-year-old Indonesian maid was arrested for “concealment of birth by secret disposal of a dead body” and investigated by the police.

    Another pregnant domestic worker threatened her employer and her employer’s eight-year-old with a knife when she did not allow the worker to return home in May 2019. At six-months pregnant, she was sentenced to four months in prison. Self-induced abortions, knife threats, and concealment of stillborn babies are just some of the ways that these desperate women try to fix their desperate situations.

    Many, like Annisa, cannot afford to lose their jobs in Singapore. A domestic worker who gets pregnant risks being blacklisted by the Ministry of Manpower from ever returning to Singapore to work. Four of the 15 domestic workers and three of the five non-profit workers I spoke to know about the “blacklist,” though no one knew how long the ban would last because the list is unofficial. When I asked for confirmation on the existence of the blacklist, a Ministry of Manpower spokesperson pointed me to the Ministry website, which states that domestic workers who break any of the work permit conditions “may not be able to enter or work in Singapore” in the future.

    “I think this law is really wrong,” said a former domestic worker who now works at Yayasan Dunia Viva Wanita, a shelter for stranded domestic workers in Batam. She added, “Being pregnant is not criminal, not like stealing.”

    1. The Unpaid Debts

    Before she came to Singapore to work as hired help for a Singaporean family, Annisa worked in a canning factory five minutes from her home in Semarang, Indonesia, tinning mushrooms for an American food company. She had gotten married to her secondary school boyfriend at 15, after her conservative Muslim father told her to get married if she wanted to continue seeing him. The boy, three years older than her, made her feel protected in a way she had not since her mother died of a heart attack when Annisa was 13.

    But the young couple’s married life began to crumble under financial strain, especially after Annisa gave birth to her second son. Every month, she would have to visit the bank to take out a loan. There was never enough money to pay rent, the water bill, her sons’ school expenses and allowances to her mother- and father-in-law. “Lucky I never suicide, hang myself and die,” she told me. When her debt swelled to $800, “then become big problem.” she said. “Then all the family blame me. Then after that I want to run away.”

    She decided to find work in neighboring Singapore as a domestic maid to pay off the loans. She left her two sons with her mother-in-law, packed her bags and departed for the wealthy island city.

    Annisa found employment with a Singaporean-Chinese couple whose daughter, coincidentally, was adopted from Indonesia because the mother could not have children. Looking for an employer is like entering a lottery: Some bosses beat and verbally abuse domestic workers, withhold their wages or confiscate their phones. Yet other employers treat the hired help as part of the family, bringing them on vacations and instructing the children to call them “auntie,” a nod to their roles as second mothers. Annisa got lucky. During Hari Raya, the Muslim celebration commemorating the end of the festival of Eid, her boss gave her $50 in a traditional red envelope, called a “hong bao” in Mandarin. She fondly remembers giving massages to her Ma’am, the lady boss, who had pancreatic cancer and feeding the family’s small dog, who she treated “like my child,” she said.

    At the end of the two-year contract, she managed to pay off the $800 loan. Around that time, she met the man who would change her life in the best and worst ways. 

    ***

    The day before she graduated from her mosque class, Annisa decided to visit the neighborhood market to buy a new watch; she hoped to look nice for the graduation photographs. She weaved between the throngs of Saturday shoppers, racks of clothing, mounds of garlic and ginger and frozen heaps of fresh fish, to a small watch shop. She picked out a cheap one, which at just six dollars was within her modest budget. Then she noticed a tall Chinese man with thick forearms, a crown of silver hair, and the sun-kissed skin of a day laborer staring at her. 

    He said he wanted to buy the watch for her. He asked, “How much is this one?”, she recalled. “Six dollars?” he said, apparently incredulous. He bought it for her, but not before slipping his number into her Nokia cellphone. She never got his name and so saved his number as “Bapaku,” meaning “my father” in Indonesian, so that when he called, her friends would not ask questions. The nickname felt appropriate and made her laugh. After all, he was in his mid-50’s, around her father’s age, and made her feel cared for in a way she had not since her father remarried. She also would get “malu” around him — slang for ‘embarrassed’ — “like he was my own father,” she said.  

    Eight years later, Annisa would speculate that he wanted her because “he think I small small girl, haven’t married.” With a petite 4-foot-9 frame and big, doll-like eyes, Annisa had a ferocious energy and cackling laugh. She started calling him “darling” and he reciprocated with “sayang,” a Malay term of endearment. His English was poor and so was hers — sometimes she would not understand his text messages. But they still wished each other good morning and sent kissy face emojis. After a year of Annisa talking to him almost every day, her friends asked her why she did not save her “darling’s” name in her phone. Annisa said she did not know it. “I think it’s not important. He call me ‘sayang’ and don’t know my name,” she recalled years later, laughing. 

    One Sunday two years after they first met, he pulled up outside her condominium in his Hyundai — a car he bought on his crane operator’s salary, which Annisa said made him seem “like he’s rich people.” He had taken to ferrying Annisa to her weekly English classes at a mosque in Queenstown. She slid into the passenger seat, and he pulled out two crisp Singapore $50 bills, slipping it toward her bag.

    “I give you,” he said. Annisa asked him, “You give me this for what?” 

    “Ya. Never mind, not a problem. To buy things with,” he said, she remembers. 

    After class that day, she went to Clementi, a residential and shopping neighborhood with two of her friends and spent all the money on food, a new T-shirt, and a pre-paid StarHub card to send $20 of text messages. She lent $50 to a cash-strapped friend.

    That night, she could not sleep, the thought of the unpaid debt growing weightier in her mind. As a Muslim, she believed that “I cannot take the money free,” she said. But she also could not afford to return it. She even contemplated asking her boss for a loan. After several sleepless nights pondering this question, she decided to become his girlfriend. The debt had to be repaid somehow. It was only right.

    Later, when they had been together for six years, she would stress that she did not just love him for his money. “I became very in love with him, love like ‘black magic’,” she said. “I don’t go to other boys.” Annisa would occasionally wonder about the deeper psychological reasons she had for loving him. One of her speculations: “I had no love from my father and mother, so maybe I want love like this.”

    They started having sex, meeting on Sunday afternoons at Hotel 81, a budget hotel chain best known for being the location of choice for paid sexual rendezvouses in Singapore’s red-light district. For $30, they would get two hours uninterrupted in a soft bed — a rare chance at privacy. Being intimate in her employer’s home was unthinkable and showing affection in public even more so.

    Sex with her husband had been very different, she said. “He is Muslim, when make love is simple one.” But with this much-older Singaporean-Chinese man, she experienced for the first time intimacy with someone that “wants to make me happy,” she recalled. It was during these afternoons, sealed off from the rest of the world, that Annisa fell in love. When he fell asleep, she would study his bare feet. They were extremely small in contrast to his tall Herculean build. “I see the feet, then I like, very pity him,” she recalled years later, laughing. “Maybe I like him because he sayang like that. I fall in love with him because he is good.”

    Whenever Annisa had sex with her boyfriend, he would give her a pink-and-white blister packet of two round pills, reassure her that it was not poison, and tell her to take one before and one after sex. She complied. It was Postinor-2, also known as the “morning-after-pill,” which prevents pregnancy with minimal side effects. The problem? Both pills are meant to be taken after sex; one within 72 hours and the other less than twelve after the first. 

    Less than two months after they started having sex, Annisa learned she was pregnant. She consulted her auntie, her mother’s youngest sister, about what she should do. 

    Her auntie told her over the phone, “Then you have the kid. I look after for you, then next time you can come back to Singapore to work,” Annisa recalled. Her friends from the English courses at the mosque encouraged her to keep the baby. “The Chinese baby will grow up beautiful,” they said. Annisa concurred: she envied fair skin.

    She decided she would return home to give birth. To protect her ability to return to Singapore to work, she lied to her employer and told him that her mother died and that she needed to return home, the same mother who had died almost two decades earlier. 

    “He was sad because his wife died, and I looked after her and his mother. So he believe me,” Annisa recalled. “He said, ‘You good to my family, I also want to return you back.’”

    Annisa asked him for a loan of $1,000. She needed the money to pay for prenatal care and the birth. He gave it to her, just as he had given her a red packet four years prior. The debts owed were an unspoken promise between them that she would return again to work for him.

    She left Singapore on a plane to Jakarta with a secret growing inside her. Women who are less fortunate than her, with less sympathetic or gullible employers, get sent by ferry to the nearest Indonesian island of Batam because it is the cheapest way to repatriate someone. Like Annisa, they are often alone and ashamed to return home. A staff member at Yayasan Dunia Viva Wanita, the Batam shelter for domestic workers, said they would house about 10 pregnant women each year, feeding them, bringing them for medical appointments and when the time came, driving them to the hospital to give birth.

    The last Annisa had spoken to her boyfriend, the muscular man with the small feet, he had said he did not believe her, that the morning-after pill should have worked, that the baby must be from infidelity. Enraged and indignant, she told him, “You don’t believe me? I’ll go back, give birth, and be healthy. Never mind you never take responsibility for me, never mind, as long as God give me long life and health, then I can go back to kampung and give birth.” 

    1. A strain on the system

    Even if Annisa wanted to marry her boyfriend and even if he could divorce his wife, the couple would face immense legal challenges. The reason dates back to 1973. Singapore, then an eight-year-old, newly independent country, was facing “a big shortage of servants,” according to a newspaper report in the nation’s second-largest English paper. Amid rapid post-independence economic development, locals aspiring to the middle-class did not want to work as low-paid domestic help. Singaporean women torn between the competing demands of being mothers and being productive workers were increasingly hiring foreign maids as a solution to their childcare needs. They were aided by the 1978 Foreign Maid Scheme, which allowed locals to import foreign maids on special visas, subject to less stringent work regulations. Within 10 years from 1978 to 1988, the number of foreign domestic workers would grow from almost zero to 40,000 and with it, so did the number of romantic relationships between Singaporeans and foreign workers. 

    To control legal immigration into the country — a nation the size of New York City — the government decided to restrict the ability of low-wage migrant workers to marry into Singapore’s resident population. Thus, the government unveiled the Marriage Restriction Policy of 1973. The law is enshrined within Singapore’s Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations, which state that a work permit holder “shall not go through any form of marriage or apply to marry under any law, religion, custom or usage with a Singapore citizen or permanent resident in or outside Singapore, without the prior approval of the Controller” of Immigration. These rules apply even after the work permit is canceled, unless the worker acquires a S-Pass or Employment Pass, which are work visas for more highly skilled and highly paid foreign workers. In effect, work permit holders face a virtual lifetime restriction on marriage to locals. 

    On March 28, 1985, then-Minister for Home Affairs and Second Minister for Law Shunmugam Jayakumar delivered a speech in parliament justifying the marriage restriction policy. It was the second of many parliamentary addresses made by ruling party politicians over the years that would appeal to pragmatic, Singaporeans-first justifications for excluding low-wage, low-income foreign workers from the right to marry Singaporeans. “Is our policy strict? It is strict,” said Jayakumar. “But for whom is a strict immigration policy designed? Is it designed for me? No. Is it designed for the Cabinet Ministers? No. It is designed to promote the well-being of Singapore citizens.” 

    The island-state had to avoid being “swamped with hundreds of thousands of people who want to come to Singapore,” who would “put a strain” on the country’s resources, minister Jayakumar said. Yet, the country seemed to have ample space when it came to marriage for the rich — the criteria for immigration was one’s potential to contribute to Singapore’s “economic advancement,” Jayakumar said. Today, more highly paid foreigners seeking to marry Singaporeans need only find a fiancé, file a notice with the Registry of Marriage, and hold a solemnization ceremony. 

    In contrast, the application for work permit holders to marry more closely resembles a welfare application than one for wedlock: the couple have to submit pay slips and education qualifications. The local financé has to hand in their income tax bills and statements of Central Provident Fund contributions, which are government-mandated savings for working Singaporeans and residents. A ten-minute-long online application form and four-week wait later, the couple will receive an email informing them of the outcome.

    Although not explicitly stated in the government regulations, the factor that determines whether couples can marry is not strength of love or length of relationship but the income level of the Singaporean or permanent resident spouse. One Singaporean man who applied to marry his Filipino domestic worker girlfriend was rejected 20 times over four years by the Ministry of Manpower. He was told that “his monthly $1,700 income was deemed too low to support a family,” according to a 2008 article published in the Singaporean newspaper The New Paper.

    Despite the government’s attitude that long-term romantic relationships were a privilege, not a right, for women like Annisa, she found love anyway. But she knew her relationship would invite judgement and even condemnation. Once, a neighbor spotted her having dinner with her boyfriend at the nearby food court and informed her employer. Annisa defended herself, said that the man was a stranger and “not the meaning that I makan,”—eat “with some man is my boyfriend.” Her employer believed her and said that as long as she only makan with a man, they would have no problems.

    “Inside you can feel romantic. Outside is never hold hand, never anything,” she recalled. “He has family, wife and scared. I have employer, and he scared my employer will see me got problem.”

    1. The Marriage Chore

    Legal barriers aside, Annisa saw marriage as more trouble than it was worth. Even if she were free to marry without government interference, she is not sure she would have wanted to marry her tall boyfriend with the small feet.

    “Next time husband not good, I also suffer,” she said. Her estranged first husband had taken a second wife and used to regularly ask her for money—Annisa had paid for his motorbike in monthly instalments. “That’s why I single. Better independent. Independent, happy, good working, nobody control.”

    Six of the 12 domestic workers in relationships who I interviewed wanted to be married to their long-term Singaporean partners; one already was. But only three had gained government approval to do so. One who didn’t was Dian, a 36-year-old Indonesian domestic worker with a Skrillex haircut, who did not want her real name published. She realized that to marry her boyfriend, she would face a troublesome array of obstacles, which caused her to give up her dreams of a Singapore wedding.

    In 2017, a year after Dian met her Singaporean partner, a 56year-old university social studies professor, the couple decided to get married. She loved how he would deliver kueh — Malay cakes — to her ahmah, the elderly woman she worked for, to win her over. He gave her old Indonesian novels which she would carefully store in her suitcase, wrapped in plastic, to add to her treasured book collection back home in the rural province of Lampung, Indonesia.

    But she heard from friends who were married to Singaporeans that the process would involve being unable to work for at least six months, during which she would not be able to support her two sons from a previous marriage. She would have to cancel her work permit, apply for a long-term visit pass, wait up to six months for it to be approved, then wait another three months before being eligible for legal permission to work.

    “I don’t want to make my boyfriend support my sons, because this is not his sons. This is my sons,” Dian said.

    For now, Dian and her partner have their hearts set on a new dream: getting married in Indonesia and settling down in her hometown after he retires. He had fallen in love with the laid-back “kampung” lifestyle, Dian said, and liked hiking the padi fields and mountains surrounding her village when he visited. In preparation, she is teaching him the local dialect, Javanese, so that he can speak to the neighbours.

    Dian will be taking a risk by getting married without the Singapore government’s permission, which is required even if she gets married overseas. If found out, her privilege to work in Singapore could be withdrawn and she may be prevented from entering Singapore for a period of time.

    “Every human should have that kind of right to have relationship with anyone,” Dian said. “The law should not be driven by [the Ministry of Manpower] or the status of you working as domestic worker. I feel very sad about that. I feel so dispirited. Because I’m a domestic helper, it’s very difficult for me to get married to people who we love to.”

    What might have happened to Annisa had she been married to her boyfriend when she got pregnant with his baby? A foreign woman who marries a local gives her future children the full privileges enjoyed by citizens as they will be Singaporeans by blood. But Singapore, unlike the U.S., does not guarantee foreign spouses of citizens the right to permanent residency or even to remain in the country. If the foreign wife makes a mistake, the promise of protection can evaporate in an instant. That is what happened to Anna and Derek Ong.

    Anna, a slim Javanese woman from Sumatra, Indonesia, with sparkling eyes and an infectious laugh, arrived in Singapore as a domestic worker in 2011 before getting married to her Singaporean boyfriend, Derek, in 2016, after a half-year-long process of applying for and gaining government approval. The controller of immigration must have decided that Derek’s salary of $2,100 at an IT services company was sufficient to support Anna.

    In a newly built three-room public housing flat in Tampines, a large residential estate in Singapore, the married couple now raise five cats, dozens of plants, and their three-year-old daughter. On the wall, colorful craft paper hearts encircle a photograph of their daughter receiving her crimson-colored Singapore passport. Born premature at 26 weeks old, she was immediately admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit at Singapore’s oldest, largest and best hospital, Singapore General Hospital. Within 99 days, she was released, healthy. 

    “Luckily my baby is Singaporean, so the government helped,” Anna said, her voice grim. “That’s why I owe a life to Singapore. Because the child who died was in my country. That one I can’t forget.” Her first son, who was born premature in Indonesia four years prior, did not survive past his first day. 

    When they first got married, Anna, bored and stuck in Derek’s parents’ Singapore home on a tourist visa, decided to work two cleaning jobs to supplement the couple’s income. Unbeknownst to her, she was not authorized to work. In September, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority found out she had been working illegally and told her could not return to Singapore for two years, she recounts. And so, three-months pregnant with Derek and her first child, Anna retreated to Batam, Indonesia.

    Anna gave birth to her first son on Christmas day 2016 in Batam at a small, three-storey hospital. Born after 27 weeks and desperately premature, he needed to be put in an incubator. But Anna had no Indonesian insurance, her and her husband’s wallets were empty as they had maxed out the daily ATM transaction limit paying for the delivery room, and because it was Christmas, no bank was open. The hospital refused to move their son until they paid up.

    “Because of the stupid money, I tell you everything is money,” said Anna. “When this stupid money doesn’t come out of the deposit for the baby room, they don’t put in incubator immediately.” For hours, her son went without an incubator. He died that evening.

    “That day, 25 December, made me realize I don’t want to stay in Indonesia anymore,” she said. “You got money, you can live. All my life … I’ll pay for it in my heart.”

    Anna witnessed first-hand how money and citizenship wielded power, but Annisa would never get that chance. Two years before Anna’s daughter was born in Singapore, Annisa, heavily pregnant, was waiting to give birth in Jakarta. She stayed in a tiny, two-room rented shophouse with her aunt and uncle, helping them run their restaurant selling Javanese rice and dishes. Afternoons passed quickly as she chatted to customers, serving up spicy rendang and dried anchovies on rice, but the nights felt interminable.

    “It’s difficult, pregnant no husband,” she recalled. “One day felt like one month. At night, I was very sad, very lonely, only cry and cry. I miss and hate my boyfriend.” Yet she resolved to keep the child alive. The “pain in your stomach,” she told herself, would become a person who could one day “make your life different.”

    She went into labor around midnight at a small, five-room clinic in West Jakarta. Her daughter was born the following morning at 10 a.m., eight months and two weeks old. Annisa said the delivery was “pain because no money” and she could not afford an epidural. Exhausted, angry and elated as she cradled the newborn, Annisa gave her daughter three names: her mother’s first name, her father’s surname — “in case next time they want to grow up and find the truth,” Annisa said — and her own, the word for “graceful.”

    Jan. 28, 2018 was the last time Annisa saw her daughter. It was the day Annisa was to return to Singapore, where her previous employer who she owed $1,000 had re-hired her as his domestic help. She recounted the day she left as she sat in a food court beside the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority headquarters almost three years later, eating curried fish on rice. 

    “I never say anything. I only cry, cry, cry, only,” she said, laughing humorlessly. “Maybe now she forget already, because last time she still baby. Don’t know me already. Know my auntie as mother.”

    Almost every day, before Annisa starts her routine of bringing her employer to kidney dialysis appointments, she calls her daughter. She is a spitting image of her father, with fair skin and a button nose. The girl calls Annisa “kakak,” which means sister. She calls Annisa’s aunt “ibu,” or mother, and the uncle “bapak,” or father. Annisa sends $250 to $350 to her aunt each month to take care of her daughter’s needs.

    As I approached her in the food court for our interview, Annisa seemed like any other carefree, young domestic worker on her off-day. She wore bright purple cosmetic contact lenses that made her irises glow and a sunflower-print dress that swept her ankles. She showed me a photo of a chubby-faced, fair-skinned baby, smiling in her arms. In another, the girl is older, squatting against a craggy concrete wall. Two tiny ponytails sprout from her head and with big black eyes, she stares at the camera, mouth agape as if in shock. 

    “Next year maybe, after COVID-19, I want to see her because … long time,” Annisa said. A gold necklace given to her by her boyfriend — the one who got her pregnant — clung to her collarbone. The pendant was heart-shaped with ribbons of gold that adorned a gem set in the middle. Annisa had no explanation for why her boyfriend, in her words, “become good” after she returned to Singapore. He could never marry her, Annisa said, but told her he wants to give his CPF savings to her when he dies.

    Her boyfriend has urged her to find a younger man. “You go lah, find some man lah, I old already,” he would say. But Annisa would repeat that she “don’t go to other boy.” 

    “I feel the love is grown now,” she said about her boyfriend, who has since bought a $50,000 house in Batam in her name. “He say, ‘if I die or anything, I already bought a house for you and your daughter.’ With this one, I’m happy.” She plans to move there when she retires from work as a domestic maid. She wants to open a shop with the money she has earned from giving her prime years to a city that wouldn’t let her stay, even if she wanted to. One day, if her little girl with fair skin wants to meet her father with the small feet, Annisa will bring her to Singapore for the family reunion.

  3. FICTION: Object Permanence

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    Babies begin to develop an understanding of object permanence as young as four months old. If a yellow ball is shown to a child, placed behind a curtain and taken away before the curtain is pulled back again, a newborn will sit and frown. To them, the ball disappeared from existence. But run the same experiment a few months later, and they will try to search for the ball. They begin to understand that what is true in the world exists beyond their personal frame of reference, beyond what they can sense on their own. What was fleeting becomes permanent, and the world bursts forth with endless possibilities of loss, redemption and discovery.

    There are babies, of course, who should be old enough to demonstrate the capacity of object permanence but do not. When they do not look for their toy, I want to ask them, what is it that you do not want to remember? I will see myself in my subject’s enlarged eyes, perfect orbs of light encroached upon by the rest of the cranium. Still bright enough to mirror my question back to me in clearer form: What is it that I want to forget?

     

    When Mother announces that we are going back to China, my first instinct is to correct her, to say, “No, we are just going to China.” In such an act there is no return or homecoming. But instead of saying any of this, I listen to the sirens sing on College Street as she continues to speak.

    “Your father is getting married,” Mother says over the phone.

    “You mean remarried?” I ask.

    A brief silence. “It will only be three days. You have Labor Day off?”

    “No,” I lie.

    “Well I hope you can take it off. I already booked your tickets.”

    “Why?”  

    There is a clang that sounds like a pot falling from the stove. A sigh as she shuffles around. “Because it’s been too long.”

    I will think of this vague sentiment when I hear the same words in Mandarin, floating off from my father’s tongue with meaningless assurance. I will realize that Mother’s same words were specific precisely because of their unwillingness to be concrete. But at the moment my brain is nothing but a sieve, Mother’s rationale the sand. We argue with the vigor of small children. When she hangs up, I am already packing.

    I have not been to China in 19 years nor seen my father in 14 years. Only when I moved to the East Coast for college was I able to cease both China and my father from existence, after which they became mere generalizations, from my country and my father to country and a father, my yellow ball to a yellow ball. I remind myself of this as Mother and I board the plane at LaGuardia Airport. In 13 hours, I will see a father in a country. Nothing lost, nothing gained.

    Mother and I watch four movies on the plane. She complains that they are too violent. She suggests a romantic comedy called “27 Dresses,” but when we read the description, we decide that blood and gore are better. It’s 4:30 a.m. in New York, 5:30 p.m. in Shanghai when we arrive. Both of our eyes are so dry we are crying.

    “Shu shu and Shen shen will also be picking us up,” Mother says as passengers start to stretch, squinting like newborns. In the light, I can see the dark circles under Mother’s eyes.

    I nod. Mother adds, “They don’t speak English.”

    I nod again. “I know. My Chinese is fine.”

    “You never speak Chinese with me.”

    “That’s because you always speak English with me,” I say in Mandarin.

    The line starts to move; we are deplaning. Mother frowns harder. “Only Chinese from now on.”

    The Pudong International Airport is a spacious glass behemoth. The flat grasslands beyond the tarmac give no indication that we are in a foreign country, but inside, every sign is written in illegible characters. I follow Mother down lengthy walkways, into trams, and through customs lines until we finally make it to the arrivals gate, where hordes of people hold paper signs up like cheerleaders. I realize that I may not be able to recognize any of the three people we’re looking for. But Mother spots someone. She waves enthusiastically, suddenly cheerful.

    A tiny woman with pearl-colored skin greets us. This must be my aunt. She beams, her smile rivaled in width only by her wide-brimmed hat.

    “Shen shen hao,” I say, the sh sounds stick to my teeth like hard caramel. She hugs Mother, then me, squeezing an uncanny laugh from my lungs.

    “You’re so big!” Shen shen shrieks, gripping my shoulders. “And you, Ji Young, you look beautiful!”

    Mother laughs loudly. “Oh, I’m old now. But look at you, so mature, so fashionable! I’m jealous!”

    “Well, I was still in college when we saw each other last,” Shen shen says. “I wonder if Ji Pei even remembers me.”

    “Of course she does,” Mother says. “Right, Emily?”

    She pronounces my name in three separate syllables, each with the same intonation, as if Chinese accents are contagious and she has caught hers again.

    “You always took me to the Xu Jia Yuan playground,” I say, even though I do not actually remember the playground, only Mother telling me about the playground. Soundwaves are much harder to discard from memory than physical mass.

    Shen shen laughs. She ushers us through the exit doors.

    “The playground!” she echoes. “Do you remember the ball pit? There was a ball that was broken, and you tried to eat it! I was so scared that your mother would never let me near you again.”

    “Oh, please,” Mother says. “You were a thousand times better with Emily than Han Sheng.”

    “Your Shu shu,” Shen shen clarifies to me. Han Sheng. The same sounds for words that mean sweat and body. Sweat on a body, not a name that I can recall. 

    Mother smiles. “How are you two?”

    “Good!” Shen shen exclaims. “A little lonely sometimes. We get so excited when people come to visit. We’re so glad you’re here.”

    “We’re so glad to be here!” Mother exclaims back. 

    We enter the winding snake of a parking structure, and a distant dot of a man waves. I think it’s Shu shu until I hear the man call out. My body tenses. My father’s voice, unlike Shu shu’s name, is so familiar even now.

     His dark face crumples up in delight as we approach. He wears my own wide-set eyes and narrow nose. Mother greets him by his full Chinese name, and he greets her by hers. They hug, Mother’s small frame dwarfed by his long limbs. I think nothing except that my father is bigger than I remember, even though I was two feet shorter the last time I saw him.

    He turns to me. Mother touches my shoulder and goes to greet Shu shu, who is just now emerging from inside the car.

    “It’s been too long,” my father says. “You’ve grown so tall.”

    I wave my hand and say mei you, an uncommitted filler reply. He asks me how the flight was. I say fine. He asks me if I’m hungry. I say not really. I say I should probably say hi to Shu shu too, and I walk away with deliberate slowness to join the small cluster that’s formed on the other side of the car. Just a father in a country, I tell myself. Nothing less, nothing more.

    “I made us a dinner reservation at Hong Lou,” Shu shu is saying. “To celebrate this momentous occasion.”

    I wonder if he means Mother’s and my being in China or my father’s wedding tomorrow.

    Shen shen cheers. “That’s my favorite restaurant. We brought you there once, Ji Pei.”

    “I shouldn’t have eaten so much on the plane,” Mother says, laughing. I want to peel the laugh back to see what is really behind her face.

    My father appears next to me. “We don’t need to go. I saved some leftovers in case you two are too tired to go out.”

    “No, I want to go,” I say. Shen shen pats me on the back. She says I must be a great leader, so decisive and in control. I laugh at the irony and I can tell that she thinks I am laughing in flattery.

    The women pile in the back and the men in the front. Then we are off, a steady surround sound drone of conversation in my ears. I pretend to fall sleep.

     

    Shu shu has booked us a private dining room facing the Huangpu River. From behind the one-way glass window, one can see the entirety of the sprawling shoreline, the Oriental Pearl Tower shooting up from a bed of lesser skyscrapers into the sunset sky. It is objectively beautiful. I choose a seat with my back to the window so I cannot look outside.

    Mother takes a seat next to my father. He says something in a low voice, and Mother’s lips move. There is not a single crease of discomfort on her face. I think that maybe she should have been an actress instead of an accountant.

    Shen shen orders fish lip soup, roasted pigeon, baked eel, exotic dishes that she tells me I’ve eaten before. The dishes come one by one, and only after 45 minutes are they all served. We make small talk. I describe the few Chinese restaurants I’ve been to in New Haven with as much detail as I can to Shen shen, and she proceeds to monologue about her own culinary experiences around East Asia. Shu shu interjects a sound of emphasis every once in a while, his wife’s personal peanut gallery. I am grateful for the wall of their easy chatter that separates me from my father and Mother.

    “I can’t believe you’re already working! You look so young!” Shen shen now says, changing the subject completely. “What do you do?”

    “I’m a developmental psychologist,” I say in English.

    “She studies babies,” Mother interjects from behind an ice dragon sculpture holding a garnish in its lips. My father plucks a mussel off its back.

    “At Yale,” my father adds. Shu shu and Shen shen’s eyes widen while mine narrow. Mother must have told him.

    I smile tightly. I don’t want to speak to him but feel that I must. “It’s the same research everywhere,” I say.

    My father laughs. “I am a researcher too, Ji Pei. And I know that it is surely not the same everywhere.”

    “Your father is not just any researcher,” Shu shu says. Excitement lies in the eyes, and I can tell from his that he was not truly present until now.  “He’s a very famous one. He has been published by the top journals in the country.”

    Mother smiles. “It’s true. People would stop him in restaurants like this to talk to him.”

    I shift in my plush seat. Irritation itches my back. 

    “That’s ridiculous,” I say in English. “It’s not like your face is published with your papers.”

    Mother frowns at me. My father asks, “What did she say?”

    “Nothing,” Mother says in Chinese. “She said that’s crazy and very cool.”

    “No, I said it’s ridiculous,” I say, with just the “ridiculous” in English because I don’t know the Chinese. 

    “Rih-dih-koo-luhs?” Shen shen repeats.

    My father looks at Mother. “It’s nothing,” Mother says again, laughing too loudly. She shoots me a glare. I clench my jaw and refuse to feel as hurt as I am. 

    A large pork congee dish comes, and Mother begins to ladle spoonfuls into small, porcelain bowls. She places them methodically on the lazy Susan, spinning its smooth face so that a bowl lands exactly in front of each person, the congee filled in equal proportions for everyone.

    She takes a sip and leans back as if so easily appeased. “Ah. They don’t make it this good in America.”

    I pull out my phone, search up the word “ridiculous” in Google Translate. 荒谬. Huang miu. I trace the words on a napkin with my finger, ball it up and toss it across the room to the trash can. I miss. 

     

    When Mother comes into the guest bedroom, I’m searching online for early plane tickets home. Out in the kitchen, my father and Shu shu are talking to a woman over the phone. I’m thinking but not wondering if that is his fiancee. Tomorrow, his new wife.

    “Did you say good night to your dad?” Mother asks me. 

    I nod. I tell her that I might head back to New York before the wedding for a work emergency. My voice is casual, just like hers has been all day.

    Mother’s face pales. “You can’t do that.” 

    “I need to. I have to work harder, if I want anyone to recognize me in restaurants.” 

    I sound like a child to myself despite knowing that children cannot even understand sarcasm, let alone use it. Mother sits on my bed, her damp hair dripping on the blue-green blankets swirling by my feet.

    I wait for her to reprimand me for my behavior at dinner. I ready myself to reprimand her back for misleading me to believe that we would both be outsiders here. But instead, she says only Emily, my name familiar again in her usual American accent. My throat lurches.

    I suddenly think that I hate my father, or China, or both. But hate is just a permutation of anger, fear, sadness or envy, singular feelings that can be controlled with enough attention. 

    “We were the ones who left,” Mother says softly. I flinch. 

    “He should have come with us.”

    “We thought it was worth it. To give you the opportunity to go to a good school, get a good job that is meaningful to you. It’s hard to do that here. We thought we could work the distance out, but…” her voice trails off. “Sometimes life has other plans.”

    A sound of indignation rises from my throat. Life cannot be an instigator on its own. Mother and my father could not have thought as a we, otherwise he would not have asked for divorce. Mother knows this, but she is not saying it now. “Why are you making excuses for what he did?” I ask.

    Mother shakes her head. She does not look angry, fearful, sad or envious — only thoughtful. 

    “To see your family only once a year, in a foreign country where you cannot protect them, this is a hard thing. Too hard for some people.”

    “He could have visited more. Tried harder.” 

    “I know. But sometimes even trying is not enough.” 

    Mother sighs and takes my hand. “When your father called,” she continues, ”I was angry too. But then he begged me to at least invite you. He wanted — no, he said he needed — to make amends with you.” 

    I shake my head. Amends make absence redeemable, forgivable, reversible, a good thing at face value. But reversibility haunts absence. It reminds one of every irreversible loss that has come before. The dishes untasted, the relatives unremembered, the ball pits dusty and boarded up, the joy of growing up in strong arms smothered by confusion and loss. An entire alternate life erased because of one person.

    I contemplate saying this to Mother. Telling her the real reason why I do not want to stay for tomorrow. But instead I find myself saying that I didn’t remember the Xu Hua Yuan playground that Shen shen and Shu shu always brought me to. That I only remembered the name but none of the experience. 

    Mother reaches for my hand. “We can go there after the wedding tomorrow. Just the two of us.”

    My voice is strained as I laugh. The idea sounds silly and maudlin, yet I can’t say no. Mother rubs my fingers, each one individually, as the water from her hair drips in steady rhythm. Outside, my father and uncle’s voices hush. 

    The sound of footsteps draw closer, and then there is a knock. Mother draw herself up to open the door and brushes her eyes with the back of her hand. I close the lid of my laptop so my father can’t see my plane ticket search. 

    My father asks if we are alright, if we need anything else before bed. Mother looks at me, and I wait for my heart to calm before I say no, I think we are okay, thank you. My father tells us that he will be gone in the morning for some last-minute preparations, but he’s excited to see us tomorrow at the wedding banquet. He’s overjoyed and grateful that we decided to come, and his arms attempt to emphasize the point before they fall back to his side, awkward and too unsure to be disingenuous. 

    Mother tells him that she is also glad to see him again. My father glances at me, and it takes all my effort just to nod. I do not yet know if I can agree. But maybe one day I will.

     

    That night, I dream I am 3 years old, swimming through a kaleidoscope of colorful plastic balls. I am gripping a yellow one in my tiny fist, the only yellow one in the entire pit, holding it close to my chest as I clear a path with my free arm. I emerge into sunlight, and Shen shen, Shu shu, Mother and Father all cheer. Father reaches down to pick me up. He sees the ball and laughs. Put it back, Emily, he says. He reaches for the ball. I twist away. I open my mouth until it’s cavernous, stick the yellow ball inside. I swallow it in one gulp. 

  4. NONFICTION: People Like Us

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    Electric razor in hand, Stephanie Rodriguez is hard at work. For me it’s just like any other Tuesday at Major League Barbers, which by most standards is a very average-looking barber shop (fluorescent lighting, black barber chairs, Generically Masculine Decor, rotating barber pole, Pandora Top 40 Radio playing overhead). But for Steph’s client, this Tuesday is momentous; he ships out the next day for the military. Steph’s at the end of the cut, using her shorter clippers for the details. Her edges are sharp, her blends, delicately faded. But the intensity of her work doesn’t mean she can’t chat. Steph peppers him with questions about his impending enlistment. He’s been talking about joining for the past couple of years, at least as long as Steph has been cutting his hair. She takes a step back for a moment to admire her handiwork. “It’s kind of a Look,” she says. He nods approvingly. Given the constraints of military cuts, it is in fact, a Look. She gives him a hug as he leaves. After the second or third haircut, she tells me, it’s not just service, it’s friendship. 

    Though the year she was born (1997) is quite literally tattooed on her hand, Steph’s devotion and expertise lead many of her clients at Major League Barbers in East Haven to believe she’s at least in her late-20s. Her youth is certainly an asset. Steph is the embodiment of the word “Boyish.” She’s the impulsiveness of pop punk with the bounce of reggaeton. She moves like someone at home in her body. Her lanky frame is clad entirely in black down to her sneakers. Steph’s Look includes: tattoos (including but not limited to skulls on her knuckles; a pair of scissors behind her left ear; a red and blue barber pole on her right wrist), black glasses frames, nose jewelry (one stud, one ring) and earrings (a couple of studs and hoops stacked on each ear). On another person, the combination might seem overwhelming, but on Steph, not a single flourish is out of place. Her hair, unsurprisingly, embodies her characteristic restlessness; the first time I met her, her hair was its natural dark brown — on her business cards it’s a shocking pink — and by my second visit to Major League Barbers, it’s a steel gray with a swoop of navy blue along the part. She’d look perfectly at home in line for a Fall Out Boy concert, if it weren’t for her barber’s apron.

    Though Major League employs four women barbers, Steph’s appearance sets her apart from the others, who sport longer ’dos. Though Steph used to have hair down to her thighs, she cut it short six years ago, and she tells me she can’t picture herself with long hair anymore. Between cuts, she pops over to the plastic jack-o’-lantern on the counter for a piece of candy. Sarah, a fellow barber who bought the candy, gives her a wary look.

    “It says open for everyone. It doesn’t say not open for Steph,” Steph says. 

    Sarah acquiesces, but not without a dig: “It’s for the kids, you count because you’re the size of one.”

    Steph got an early start at Major League Barbers. She’d been interested in hair since she was a kid, and even when she had longer hair, she was drawn to the tools of the barber’s trade, the clippers, shavers and trimmers with their soft mechanical buzz. Even though people who style longer hair make more money — according to the Professional Beauty Association, women’s haircuts average $43, while Steph charges $15 to $20 per cut — Steph knew that barbering was the path for her. Being a woman, she says, made it harder to learn about being a barber; according to Data USA, roughly three-quarters of all barbers are male. But after she cut her hair, she started hanging around barber shops. She started at Marinello School of Beauty just a week out of high school. The for-profit cosmetology school closed during her last week of classes, shutting down all 56 of its U.S. campuses after the U.S. Department of Education said the school was improperly allocating federal student aid money. She was given two options: quit with no degree, or wrangle the necessary paperwork (transcripts, proof of training, financial aid documents, tuition reimbursements) and find another school to give her a certification. Steph wasn’t the kind to give up easily; she completed the extra months of training at Academy Di Capelli in Wallingford and soon after began working at Major League Barbers. She arrived shortly after the shop opened, tucked next to a vape shop in a generic-looking East Haven strip mall. In the three years since, Steph has grown alongside the shop.

    To her 2,566 Instagram followers, she’s @barber.steph (for the inquiring reader: you can book an appointment directly through her page). And when you come to Barber Steph, you get all of Steph — next to the barber pole emoji in her profile are the emojis of, in order, the LGBT+ Pride flag, the Puerto Rican flag and the one of the two girls holding hands. Steph has always been committed to being the realest version of herself. When I ask her if she considered herself a tomboy growing up, she simply says “I always considered myself me.” She says she really doesn’t have a coming-out story either, and she credits her mother’s support in making her coming out a non-event.

    Largely through word of mouth, gay men, queer women, nonbinary people — anyone who needs a barber’s service but doesn’t feel comfortable elsewhere — are flocking to her chair. 

    “I’m just a barber, but I have a little community of people. I’m making them feeling good. And that’s the hardest thing. To feel good.”

    And for those queer clients the impact is weighty. Some barbers out-and-out refuse to give queer people the haircut that affirms their gender identity. A friend of mine who is nonbinary told me that the first time they went to get their hair cut after coming out, the barber refused to go through with it, afraid they wouldn’t like the result. It’s an attitude many barbers share; short haircuts are supposed to be for men.

    Steph put it this way: “For them, for people like us, it’s always personal.”

    ***

    When I heard those words, the back of my head burned with anxiety. Like us? How did she know that I’m queer? In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising to me that people can tell that I’m Not Straight. To the discerning queer eye, I’m not a difficult spot. I try to make my queerness as clear as possible for the right people. I have four pairs of overalls that cycle through my wardrobe. I’m rarely spotted without my Doc Martens, which have been gamely holding on with a couple of rounds of duct tape since the beginning of the semester.

    Let me be clear: Being seen as you are is a deeply fraught encounter. Being Black, as my mother reminds me, already marks me as vulnerable. Being a Black queer woman is even worse. For trans people, the difference between life or death can be a hairstyle that smooths along society’s perception of their gender. For people who are nonbinary (which, although the recent roll-out of emojis might tell you otherwise, isn’t a Third Gender but an alignment that transcends binary notions of gender), a seemingly androgynous presentation is a way to avoid being misgendered as male or female. As small as these details can seem to some people, I assure you that their effects are all too outsized.

    My long curly hair has kept me firmly in the heterosexual passing camp for years. Even when I began to affirm my sexuality to myself, I never really questioned any aspect of my presentation. Though I’d sported plenty of soccer jerseys and baggy boys basketball shorts in my younger days, I didn’t actively dislike wearing form-fitting dresses or rocking a pair of black stilettos. In fact, I relished it. So I continued on business as usual.

    But when I returned to Yale this past fall, I knew that something was different. I was emerging from a summer living on my own in Paris. I’d felt like a Real Person, coming back to my apartment in the 18th arrondissement to cook the couscous recipe I’d found on the New York Times cooking website and read Eileen Myles’ “Cool for You” and lean over my balcony as the sun set. More importantly, perhaps, I fell in love with another queer person for the first time. Someone who wanted to know all the people who led up to the person I am now: The die-hard women’s soccer fan; the middle school track star (an experience we shared); my 10-year-old self, long brown cornrows tucked up into a fishing hat, ever-immortalized by the memory of a stranger referring to me as a “little boy.” It’s not that those selves ceased to exist when I stopped giving them a seat at the table of my gender presentation, just that no one had ever thought to ask. But after a summer of long transatlantic WhatsApp calls, poem recommendations, a not-inconsequential number of I Love Yous and an ocean’s worth of wishful thinking, they told me they were invested in our being friends. Just friends. So when I came back to Yale, emerging from the ruins of rejection but finally secure enough to find the person I wanted to be, I knew something had to give.

    ***

    Steph’s hands take center stage when she’s cutting hair. Before she begins, she deposits her rings on hooks on the counter, but gold chains still grace her wrists. Her signature combination of impulsivity and intention is evident in the nimbleness of her fingers. She is careful with the designs she shaves into her clients’ fades — October saw a lot of spider webs, but she’s done broken hearts and a variety of geometric figures. Blending, she tells me, is like bringing out shadows in painting. Just like drawing or sculpture, cutting hair is an art form.

    But the experience starts before her clients even sit in the chair. Steph’s hair cutting station speaks to the personal touch she brings to each of her clients. The traditional assortment of clippers, combs, brushes, razor blades, aftershaves, tray of clipper guards (attached to clippers to determine the length of the cut), shears in electric blue antiseptic barbicide, are framed by the snapshots she keeps tucked into the mirror. 

    Steph notices that Nico walks into the store before I do. What I notice is her reaction to his valiant kindergarten attempt to scare her, one which she humors with her characteristic sincerity. “You scared me!” she gasps, clutching her chest, after which she quickly goes to hug him and gives dap to his older brother Gianni, an old friend of hers. She heads to the cupboard to get Nico his Big Boy Chair and Special Cape, emblazoned with images of The Avengers. He hops up into his booster seat.

    “You gotta tell Stephanie picture day is tomorrow, you’re wearing a tie,” Gianni says. He shows her a picture.

    “Sarah!” she calls over to another barber. “Do you want to see a gentleman? Look at his outfit.”

    Nico is all smiles and long lashes, clearly proud to be getting a big boy ’do for picture day. Steph will have to cut faster than she does with her adult clients; kids are fidgety that way. She quickly gets to work, starting with the longer guards, as hair starts to fall. He quickly stops her, politely requesting that she blow dry some of the shorn hair off his neck. She laughs and complies. Nico didn’t always have a fun time with haircuts. Gianni tells me that he used to have to sit in the chair with Nico and hold him down. Now, though, Nico’s a pro. When Steph wants him to go still so she can start detail work, she calls “statue check.” I can see the focus in his eyes as he goes stock still. In her hands, he will be picture-perfect. “Lemme get a wallet-sized photo,” she quips. “Gimme all the selfies.” She applies gel to her palms and finishes up the coif with a swoop and a flourish.

    This sense of ease is Steph’s trademark. She calibrates her rapport to each client and each person who walks through the doors.

    She makes it look easy, but I know it can’t all be, especially in a space as male-dominated as the barber shop. It’s one of the few places where male vanity is indulged, praised even. Egos are on full display for both barber and client. For those who see Steph’s double otherness as woman and lesbian as an issue, her easygoing personality helps take the edge off. She knows that for many who encounter her, she provides a different vision of what being gay looks like. Sure, there are days when people ask her if she’s a boy or a girl (whether with malice or sincerity, she doesn’t say). Her response varies with her mood. Sometimes, as a joke, she makes them guess. 

    “I always had to fight for myself, fight for my own respect,” she says. “I have to bite back and bark back anyways.”

    So when a 17-year-old client points up at Ellen DeGeneres, whose eponymous talk show is playing on one of the screens overhead, and says, “Look it’s your mom,” she just laughs. 

    ***

    Though I’m no fan of Ellen’s, ahem, centrist politics, I must extend credit where credit is due. Ellen is, by all indicators, America’s Most Famous Lesbian. The Guardian described her as the “darling of both middle America and the coasts,” no small feat in our polarized present. She came out to nationwide audiences in a 1997 Time magazine cover with the headline, “Yep, I’m Gay.” Though Ellen wore her hair long into the early ’90s, by the Time shoot she’d been consistently keeping it short for a few years. I can only describe the look as very, very turn of the millennium and very, very gay. Her hair is parted down the middle. The top is feathered and falls gently onto her face. For many across America, this was their first glimpse of what a lesbian looked like. And it looked pretty good.

    But in our era of prestige broadcast TV, innumerable streaming services and cable channels aplenty, there is more queer representation in the media than ever before. In a report by GLAAD, 8.8 percent of series regulars on broadcast television in the 2018-19 season were LGBT+, a record high since the study began 14years ago. For the family saga crowd, there’s 15-year-old Elena Alvarez on Netflix’s new spin on Norman Lear’s “One Day at a Time.” For the fans of high drama and intrigue, there’s Annalise Keating, who is revealed to be pansexual on Season Two of “How to Get Away With Murder.” And any list of lesbian representation would be incomplete without Bette Porter (and the rest of the cast of Showtime’s “The L Word,” now back for a rebooted “Generation Q” last December). These characters and figures show us that there is no one way to look like a queer woman.

    And though nowadays, more and more straight women are defying the male gaze with bobs, pixie cuts and other short hairstyles (and all power to them), the Big Gay Chop, as many affectionately call it, is still an important stepping stone for many queer people. A recent article in The Sophian, the newspaper for all-women’s Smith College, shed light on the “Smith Chop.” They write: “It’s hard to pin down the start of the specific ‘Smith chop’ term, but alumni from the ’70s and before remember dramatic haircuts being popular — although at the time, they weren’t usually influenced by Smith-specific hair culture. … In the ’90s and 2000s, students could head down to ‘Celebrations’ in the Quad for a quick haircut. The annual event began in 1992 after incidents of homophobic chalkings on campus, and it has since served as a night of vigil, dance and activities celebrating LGBTQ+ students — including several years of head shaving booths.” The combination that college provides of communal identity exploration, especially at places like Smith that are somewhat removed from the patriarchal gaze, is a potent one.

    Long hair or short, Bette Porter long waves or Ellen DeGeneres pixie cut, one thing is certain: No matter what queer people look like, the ability to choose how you want the world to see you, to affirm through your appearance exactly who you know yourself to be and embody a turning point in your life, is a thrilling one. 

    ***

    A few weeks ago, Steph started taking Wednesdays off. She’d been working six days a week, Monday through Saturday, since she got in the business at 18, but from overworking, she feels like she’s 30. Though she’s grown up with her career, now she wants time to build herself too. She’s made it this far on instinct. And for once, in my anxiety-ridden life — a world built on worrying about my GPA, on over-preparing for exams, on obsessing over every word in every essay — I’d like to do the same.

    The undercut is the perfect haircut for this phase in my life, drastic enough to feel like a change, nontraditional enough to let queer folks know what’s up, but subtle enough that I can easily cover the shaved part of my temple when I’m home for the holidays. Still, I slept only intermittently the night before I went to get it done. I’d never gotten a Real Hair Cut before, only a couple of inches trimmed now and again. I tried going back to bed and briefly had a dream that Steph texted me to cancel my appointment.

    The day of my haircut is my first time at MLB on a Saturday, and the shop is full of life. Each chair is occupied, barbers and clients chat in English, Spanish and Spanglish, accompanied by the soft buzz of clippers. Though I’d floated the idea of getting an undercut to Steph on my very first visit, I hadn’t brought it up in the weeks since.

    I finally see the barber who cuts hair in the seat I use on my Tuesday visits; his name is Jose, and his hair is even longer than mine. Steph reassures Jose that I’m not cutting off all my hair — he hates it when she shaves women’s heads.

    My hair is in a twist-out when I arrive. Steph diligently parts it, taking down two twists so that the section that is getting shorn will be even, and I put the rest in a bun on top of my head so it’ll be out of the way as she cuts. She offers to count down to the moment of truth. But the morning’s nerves are gone now that I’m in Steph’s chair. 

    “No counting,” I say. “Let’s just do it.”

    The razor whirrs. It’s cold against the back of my head and smoother than I anticipated. My dark brown curls fall to the ground. It’s over before I even think to count how many passes it takes to shave it off.

    Steph asks me about the particulars, how short I want to make it, if I had any designs in mind. I’d spent the past few weeks looking at photos online, but nothing really caught my eye.

    “I’m just gonna hook it up,” she says, and moves to grab the next clipper.

    Though I’ve spent a month watching Steph, this time, this most monumental time, she won’t let me. Gratefully, I’ve watched her enough to know what’s happening behind the scenes. This time, I can feel the difference in the guards, tell which are the detail clippers by their sharper feel on my skin. She angles the clippers against my head, so I can tell she’s designing something, though I can’t see what. The razor blade, which she uses to shore up my edges, is rough against the nape of my neck.

    And then it’s over. A far cry from the four hours I’d spent getting my hair twisted the Saturday prior. She lifts the mirror so I can see. From my ears down, my hair is gone. Into the left side, she’s carved a spiral. It’s bolder than I would have chosen, and I’m glad I let her choose for me.

    “You’re a new woman,” she says. 

    And as I emerge into the crisp Connecticut morning, the biting air blowing against my head where there is no longer any hair to keep it warm, I know I am.

  5. FICTION: The Sea Leash

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    The sea had already killed two people that summer. A woman who had traveled south from Médou eagerly waded into the water with her skirt hoisted up so that the hem only brushed the waves. A wicked riptide encircled her bare knees and dragged her out deep into the water where she fought so hard to breathe that she drowned. A week later, it ensnared a second man, a French tourist. He did not drown, but the Lakulese who dove in after him did.

    The fishermen themselves dared not transgress the slope that the waves had carved into the beach. They cast an enormous net into the ocean and spent all day retracting it by its long, ropey umbilical cord, their bare feet never leaving the sand. But sometimes the Americans or the French or the Nigerians or the Turks emerged from their respective embassies to brave la Cabane du Pêcheur, a beachfront restaurant with more outside than inside, to get a good look at that coastline they’d heard about. Pygmy goats with nascent horns nuzzled the trash sprinkled in the brush flanking la Cabane, and orange-colored wild dogs with pink, swollen teats stood resolute beneath the palm trees, panting delicately. They trained their eyes, slits and circles, on the strangers munching on bowls of roasted cashews, brushing flies off the sticky bottle mouths of their Castels, and burning their pale soles red on the bleached sand. A man riding a skeletal, bone-colored horse approached and offered them a ride for a few hundred CFA. With no takers, the horse plodded on, leaving soft, crescent moon-shaped indentations in the damp sand that faded under the rush of the tide.

    The visitors took to the waves, laughing and splashing with an electrified kind of curiosity. Little girls with pink-purple headscarves and no French to speak of sat on the cliff of the sand dune and watched them with dark, somber eyes, careful not to touch the water themselves. Then the sun sank, and the visitors retreated back to la Cabane, having enjoyed their taste of adventure for the day.

    At night, the tourists disappeared and the mélange of French, English and Yoruba faded, but the sound of the crashing waves still echoed over the sand and made the palm fronds shiver. It rolled like distant thunder across le Boulevard de la Mer where putt-putting, two-wheeled zémidjans careened past. It thrummed in the cavernous access center of l’Ambassade des Etats Unis d’Amérique where bleary-eyed members of the Local Guard Force stood watch through the night for car bombs. It finally seeped into the lobby of the chancery itself and dissipated into a soft slush that kissed the glass covering the face of the Marine in the security booth.

    Sgt. Beckett didn’t look up. The whisper subsided back into the ocean with a hiss.

    “Jack Bauer, I have you loud and clear. How me?” she said.

    It was the last radio check of a long night, otherwise she might have snorted into the mic. She was not in fact speaking to Jack Bauer. She’d heard a lot of codenames in her two years as a Marine Security Guard, first with the Sarajevo detachment, then the consulate in Chengdu. But an ambassador, the president-appointed Chief of Mission to the Democratic Republic of Laku, asking her to address him once a week as Jack Bauer was a first. Sometimes Sgt. Beckett was unsure if she was running comm checks or a phone sex service.

    The Ambo replied that all was well on his end and disconnected with a burst of static. Beckett exhaled slightly. It had been a dull night monitoring the cameras, remotely opening the maglock doors and politely redirecting calls from people asking for visas in broken English. Laku certainly couldn’t hold a candle to Sarajevo or even Chengdu. It was a small place, the kind of landmass you learn the name of once for a middle school geography test and deftly purge from your mind later. But every embassy, no matter how small, got a detachment of Marines to defend it.

    As Beckett marked the Ambo accounted for, she heard the maglock door behind her open with a whoosh. LCpl Parris slogged into the tiny box of a room dressed in his service khakis. His freshly buzzed hair was wet from a shower, and it had dampened the edge of his dark green cap.

    “Morning,” he said. The fatigue in his voice emphasized the drawl of his accent, making it sound like the back of his mouth was as wide as the bed of an F-150.

    Beckett checked the clock. 0542. “You’re early,” she said.

    He shrugged and mumbled something about melatonin. She looked at his reflection in the window closely. Laku was his first assignment, and he’d arrived only a month before. Beckett had learned long ago not to ask about homesickness, but she made a mental note to drag him to the gym with her later. Dips and Drake could do wonders for the spirit in her experience.

    Beckett knuckle bumped him on the shoulder as she turned to leave. “There’s half a Monster in the mini-fridge. Good luck, bud.”

    He positioned himself in front of the monitors under the smiling photographs of the Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission and gave her a stoic thumbs up. She loved that kid. He made her want to build a porch just so he could rock a chair on it.

    “Beck?” he said as her fingers closed over the handle of the maglock.

    “Yeah?” She was already thinking about drawing her blackout curtains and maybe popping some melatonin herself.

    “Is there a drill today?”

    Beckett paused, thoughts of sleep draining from her mind. It was Tuesday, and drills were always scheduled on Wednesday. However, when they least expected it, the Regional Security Officer had been known to pay the LGFs to climb the walls so the Marines could practice corralling an intruder. Once he’d slipped the USAID interns the keys to the gardener’s golf cart and made the Marines chase them all over the compound while the students gleefully blasted the Mario Kart theme.

    She joined Parris at the monitor he indicated, hoping he’d made a mistake. Maybe it was just another rising junior who’d been rustled out of bed and handed a rubber gun to rob the detachment of yet more sleep.

    On the pixelated screen of the monitor, she could make out a man pacing agitatedly near the south wall. Was he just drunk? He probably wasn’t high — drugs were an out-of-reach expense for most here. He was soon joined by another man. Then there were four people. Then an entire crowd was pressing against the wall of the compound. They crashed against it like a flood, arms raised in fists. As Beckett watched, one threw an object over the top that spun round and round before smashing onto the manicured grass — a bottle spitting fire.

    People in white button downs and brown pants, the LGFs, were sprinting across the other screens. It was disorienting to watch as a man disappeared on one screen to reappear on the far left. The phone on the desk began to ring like a church bell in a thunderstorm.

    Beckett didn’t even bother to pick it up. “Hit the alarm,” she ordered Parris.

    He did so, and the undulating tone echoed throughout the embassy, shrill and unignorable.

    “You’re on,” she said.

    Parris nodded and swept the excess papers off the desk in one fluid motion. He took up a pen, preparing to take down information. Meanwhile, Beckett slung on the vest hung from the hook in the corner and buckled a helmet under her chin. The alarm meant the Marines would get suited up and break hatch, and everyone else would, in the words of Lance Corporal Von Engel, “Stay fucking put or I swear to Jesus H. Christ…”

    Beckett tore open the envelope stashed in the filing cabinet that revealed the combination to the gun safe. She fiddled with the lock until it opened and slung an M4 over her vest. Parris eyed her and then turned back to the monitors. She thought she heard him mumble, “If I’d waited 15 minutes” under his breath.

    To be a true-blooded American hero. It was in the job description, but rarely was there such an opportunity to earn it.

    Beckett tore open the maglock door and sprinted into the atrium. She took three flights of stairs two at a time until she burst onto the roof. Von Engel was already there on the southwest corner, reading a sit-rep into his radio. His sunglasses glinted under his helmet as she joined him. Von repeated his report for her and then added, “Probably another ‘I hate America thing.’”

    “You think so?”

    The crowd was rapidly multiplying and pressing up against the wall. Signs and banners, too distant to read, cropped up like cardboard flowers, and two more flaming bottles landed in the grass and fizzled.

    Von shrugged. “It’ll pass.”

    Despite his casual manner, she could tell he was buzzing with excitement. Von Engel was a man who loved three things in life: the military-industrial complex, his Boston terrier back home in Indiana and his Juul. He did not reserve tenderness for much else. Beckett remembered one night when they had invited the interns to the Marine Residence located across from the chancery on the compound. “Like a super nice frat,” the interns observed, except with a well-stocked gun safe.

    As Von Engel was lining up a shot, Miguel, an intern from some liberal arts school in Connecticut, asked him why he had enlisted. “Because I wanted to kill people,” Von responded bluntly. He sunk two stripes in opposite pockets, and poor Miguel didn’t speak for the rest of the night. 

    Beckett had smiled to herself. It was the line that they had all learned to say as a joke, as a cover for whatever pain, or exasperation, they’d rather not share. She knew, thanks to last year’s Fourth of July turning into a sloppy rager after the dignitaries left, that Von was there because his mom died in Enduring Freedom. He knew she was there because it was her way out. 

     

    Beckett’s hometown was seeded in that part of the South where God is widely known to show His favor with the gift of McMansions and His disapproval with Supercuts hair styled with an opioid addiction. Mr. and Mrs. Beckett weren’t divorced, but Emily thought they should have been. She and her older brother Dylan had learned as children to make themselves scarce on Monday nights if their father’s team lost. Unless they wanted an earful of the bickering blowout that would follow, rekindled by the loss but caused by nasty tempers and reinforced powerlessness that years near the bottom had fomented. 

    The Craig’s List playset in the backyard was their fortress. They migrated there, rain or shine, by unspoken agreement. When they were little, Dylan would push her on the swing or they’d play Egyptian Rats under the striped tarpaulin. One year, Dylan declared swinging childish and card games geriatric. They sat in silence a while, before he pulled a pack of Marlboros out of his sock and, making sure she was watching, casually lit one. For the few months he was at community college, she had sat on the swing set alone on Monday nights, twisting around with her toes dug in the dirt. When he moved back in carrying the scent of grease or dust whatever his alternative to school happened to smell like, he’d forsaken their spot and preferred to exacerbate the Monday argument with a few snide comments before sliding into a friend’s car that rolled up and never stopped long enough for her to see who was driving. 

    It was why she did not expect to see him there that evening. Fall was rolling in and with it a wet chill that cut through her hoodie and frosted the metal playset. Emily was standing beneath the bar holding up the swings and eyeing it apprehensively. She curled her fingers around it and, with a little hop, tried to pull herself up, but to no avail. She dropped with a grunt. Emily looked down at her legs that seemed even scrawnier than they were in the too big, hand-me-down jeans. How could she be so skinny and yet so heavy?

    She tried a dozen or so more times and was staring at the tiny, red callouses beginning to pop up on her hands when the screen back door slammed. She looked up to see Dylan striding across the scrub grass.

    “Emmy,” a sugar sweet cheeriness laced his voice. “Are you doing pull ups?”

    Emily’s heart sank as Dylan reached the playset. He grabbed the chain of the swing in his fist and leaned against it. “Whatever for?” he asked. 

    “There’s a test…”

    His eyes darkened and then became, if possible, even more gleeful than before. “Oh my God,” he said. “Are you going to… enlist?”

    She wiped the flakes of paint stuck to her palms on her jeans and said nothing. 

    “They’ll own you,” he said. “Send you wherever, whenever. You have to do everything you’re told no matter what. And you’re a girl, so they’ll probably post your nudes on Facebook, too. But that’s just what a buddy of mine said.”

    Again, saying nothing seemed like the best course of action. 

    “Get up on the bar,” he said suddenly. “You can’t do a pull up, but you can do a chin hang, surely.”

    Deciding it was less painful to just get it over with than make an excuse, Emily once more curled her fingers around the bar and jumped. Her legs seesawed back and forth a moment before she could hold them steady. Already her heart was beating faster and her hands shook, but she endeavored to keep her face completely devoid of discomfort even as pain was lancing down her back. She held it as long as she could, willing herself to be strong, but it was too much. She dropped with a crunch onto the shriveled leaves, and pain shot through her ankle ligament. She hopped a little as surreptitiously as she could until it subsided. 

    Dylan whistled through his teeth. “Twenty-six seconds. Well. It was a nice try.” He tugged her braid as he left. “My little sister, the killer.”

    Emily bit back tears as the screen door slammed again. Once more, she curled her fingers around the bar. Staring up at her fists raised against the white sky, the metal driving a harsh boundary across the clouds, she pulled. Her knuckles were so white the bones appeared to burst through the skin, but she kept pulling.

    She didn’t raise herself up that day or the day after. She started by just hanging until she surpassed 60 seconds, then she did pull ups with her mother’s infomercial resistance bands looped around her knees. Even as the metal rod iced over, and she landed past her ankles in snow, she kept her place beneath the bar.

    She’d known after the first day she’d been brave enough to walk into the recruitment center on her way to school: This was her way out. There was no way she could pay for college, not without loans, and she’d seen what debt did to people. But it was more than the temptation of the GI Bill. To have her Supercuts hair in a bun and her jeans swapped for a uniform identical to everyone else’s. To be where hard work directly correlated with respect and nothing, not rank, money, nor respect could be inherited, only earned.

    It was on the first bright day of the new year, when the sun fools one into thinking it’s warm, that Emily once more took a deep breath and pulled hard with her eyes squeezed shut. After a moment, she opened them and looked down. Her chin had cleared the bar. With a gasp, she released her grip and landed on her feet, but her treacherous legs collapsed and she curled over on her knees. Shuddering on the snow-covered ground, not from cold, but from the spasms in her back. There was perhaps a tear or two also, but the air was too frigid for that nonsense.

    Many months later, still wrecked mentally and physically from her last test, the Crucible, Beckett’s eyes hunted through the crowd for him. She found her parents, an empty seat between them despite the packed stands, but no Dylan. It didn’t matter. She squeezed the medallion the drill instructor had given her in her callous covered palm. She’d gotten out. 

    Even when the nights in Post One were long, or she got food poisoning eating something dodgy from the Port, or she was once again uprooted and sent to a new country, she thought, I got out I got out I got out. Every drop of sweat, every blister had paid off. Every ounce of effort had been rewarded. It was a fair trade, and she’d make it again.

     

    “I bet they’ll try to climb.”

    It was still pitch dark, but the chill of the night was beginning to lift slightly. The protesters were coming at the wall and clawing at it, as if tempted to scale it.

    “When they know the legendary Von Engel is waiting for them on the other side?” Beckett asked.

    “That guy,” he pointed to a man who was kicking the wall and shouting with particular ferocity. “I bet he’s gonna do it.”

    It was less Von Engel’s tone of voice and more his grasping at the possibility that made Beckett wonder if he even saw Lakulese protesters at all. Whenever they drove north to the firing range, she always suspected he was seeing whoever had set the ERP that blew up his mom’s convoy. They’d all lost friends, but the possibility of death, suffering it or dealing it, had always been more real to Von Engel than most.

    No matter what Dylan said, the day she had decided to enlist, killing hadn’t much come into Beckett’s mind. Even shooting a bullet ripping through a paper target or stabbing a bayonet into a football-like dummy hadn’t felt real, but the urgency and importance of their mission had been deeply ingrained in them. Now she was seeing parts of the world her classmates couldn’t pinpoint on a map, but it had always been clear that the cultural immersion part of the foreign service was for the Ambo, the FSOs, the interns. It was their job to go out into the world. It was her job to keep the world out.

    “Don’t bet, Von,” said Beckett dispassionately. It was easier to talk about inane things. Like doodling in class, it kept her mind focused on the situation at hand. “You know what happens when you bet. Take pool for instance.”

    Von Engel wouldn’t take his eyes off the protesters to glare at her, but she suspected he wanted to. Von Engel regularly challenged her to pool but had yet to defeat her. He would gab about angles and ricochets, but to Beckett it was a simple game. She only had to care about her side. In a single shot, you could create as much chaos for the solids as you wanted, but it didn’t matter as long as she sunk her stripes. 

    Beckett shifted her gun strap and rolled her shoulders. 

    “Antsy, Sergeant?” Von Engel asked

    “Just sore,” she replied. 

    “You do the Murph yesterday?”

    She had gotten exercise, but not the Murph challenge. Something that made her sore as she hadn’t been in well over three years. And though she tried not to think on it, it had strained her peace of mind, too.

    It had taken Todd, the ambassador’s husband, some persuading to get her to go out with him yesterday, not to mention even the thought of using her mangled French in public made Beckett nauseous. But relaxing at Bruster’s for the afternoon was too good to resist, even if Miguel did invite himself right before they left. Bruster’s was an expat haunt by an inland lake. She’d mostly spent the afternoon sitting on the dock and watching the French nationals splash around. Their light-colored skin under the brown water made it look like they were swimming in Coca-Cola. She wore an oversized puffy white shirt that had belonged to her father over a pair of beige mini shorts that she would not have dared wear anywhere outside an expat haunt. She enjoyed the slipping by of Africa time and the nipping gnaw in her stomach as they waited for lunch with her ankles crossed over the water. 

    When the French pursued their errant beach ball far enough away for the water to settle, she caught a glimpse of her reflection. With her white oversized shirt and beige shorts, she brought to mind a Kennedy taking the sun. Beckett stood up quickly and went to look for Todd to inquire about lunch, careful to scuttle the image with the tip of her toe as she went. 

    They ate fish beneath the canopy before catching the puttering boat back through the tunnel of mangroves to Todd’s car. The engine and his Bob Dylan CD rumbled to life at the same time, and they took off down the road bordering the beach. After a few minutes of knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door, Miguel tapped a finger on the window. “What’s that, Todd?”

    Beckett looked up from her book. At first, she thought he was asking about the man under a tree hacking a coconut with a machete or the other man wandering past who was prattling about his wares, a stack of branded baseball caps, in Fon. But these were ordinary enough sights for the beach road, especially as they got closer to La Cabane.

    “The horse?” she asked, indicating a man sitting on a ghostly animal who was chatting with some vastly disinterested beach goers before an audience of girls in pink headscarves. 

    “Nah, farther,” Miguel said. 

    Beckett and Todd looked, and she saw what had interested him. Down the beach, there was a long line of people swaying. They were pulling on an enormous rope that wove through maybe 60 of them and disappeared into the waves. The other end squeezed the life out of a tree trunk like it was a pulley. As the car rumbled closer, she could see each had a T-shirt wrapped around the rope underneath their grip. They swayed back and forth as they pulled to the music of a man picking out a dancing beat on an empty oil drum tied around his neck with a length of twine.

    “They’re fishing. It’s a net,” said Todd. 

    “A net?”

    “Look down the beach, all the way down there. See that other line of people? They’ve got the other end of it. By this evening maybe, they’ll have come together and got it out of the ocean.”

    Beckett strained her eyes. So far down the beach as to be almost out of sight was another line swaying against the horizon.

    “But evening’s still hours away,” cried Miguel. 

    “You want to see?” Todd asked, already pulling the car over. He seemed at once encouraging and resigned. “You can go pull with them. They’ll let you.”

    Miguel flung open the door eagerly, and a moment later, Beckett followed. She felt the hot sand fill the gaps between her toes and her Chacos and the sea wind push under her shirt. The fishermen were very welcoming, especially to Todd who was muscled and well over six feet. They made room for them at different points on the rope, and Beckett looped her bandana on the rope before wrapping her calloused hands around it. Holding the rope was like holding a snake that continually wanted to spring out of your hands. It was very thick; her fingers and thumbs couldn’t meet. She trained every day and never scored below first class on her fitness test, but still, it was hard work. The sun was in her eyes, and they were far from the cooling sea spray. Nevertheless, she gave it all she had, focusing her eyes on the back of the man’s head in front of her and swaying to the dancing rhythm. 

    Though she started near to the ocean, in what seemed like an hour, she found herself near the tree line though there was no discernible change in the rope, nor sight of a net. Before she could rotate down to the beginning again, she noticed Todd and Miguel waving her over. Forcing down her misgivings, she dropped the rope, nodded at the fishermen and followed them back to the car.

    Miguel reached past the sergeant sitting in shotgun to turn on the AC and declared he was inspired to join the Peace Corps. 

    As Todd started the car, Beckett rolled her tight shoulders and asked, “How much will they get once they pull it in?” 

    Todd considered. “It might fill the trunk of my jeep.”

    Beckett froze and gaped at him. “All day, they’re pulling. And that’s all?” Todd nodded. His fingers tapped on the steering wheel. His mind seemed to have drifted outside the car. 

    “They can’t do something else?”

    Todd looked at her and then at the concrete skeletons of unfinished buildings and helmetless zémidjans zooming around. “Like what?”

    Beckett had no answer. The conversation fell back into silence and Bob Dylan.

    “You know I’m not an officer, just a hubby, right, Emily?” Todd asked suddenly. “So what I say isn’t real and doesn’t matter one titch.”

    She scanned his tan profile and nodded.

    “His excellency, the President of Laku, has been in power 16 years at this point. Given that he always wins with 98 percent of the popular vote, or higher, I’d say the results this morning are a given.”

    “Are you talking about the elections today?” asked Miguel. He leaned forward in between their seats, scrolling through his feed on his phone. “I saw on Twitter that they’re about to call it for the incumbent. Did you know he and his inner circle account for about 30 percent of the wealth in this country? All that oil money. I heard the challenger, what’s-his-name, the neo-communist, wants to nationalize it. Get some redistribution going.”

    “That ‘neo-communist’ is also more willing to accept aid and technology from a certain great power, not the US,” said Todd. 

    Beckett leaned down to pick her book up off the weather mat to gain a respite from Miguel’s fish breath. “What are you saying?” Beckett asked Todd finally.

    “The elections. The voting. Everything that’s already happened or might happen later when they’re tallying up…” Todd turned the car onto le Boulevard de la Mer. The wheels ceased their bumping and continued smoothly on the paved road. “I’m definitely not saying we helped. But maybe I’m saying we knew, and maybe we could have done — or said — something about it, and maybe we didn’t. And if that were true, man, it would really eat me up and make me want to get away for the day.”

    Beckett cast around for something to say to fill the silence. “It’s not our job to make the world fair,” she said finally. Todd nodded, in a casual, swaying motion. He adjusted the rearview mirror. “You met the president’s son, didn’t you, Miguel?”

    “Yeah, with Parris and Von and the others at Code Bar a few weeks back. He wanted to do a lot of shots with us. Tequila, Tambour…” said Miguel. He leaned back against his seat and was quiet for a minute, deliberately absorbed in his phone. “I heard him say to Parris, ‘My ancestor got rich selling your ancestors into slavery.’”

    No one seemed to know quite what to say. Beckett opened her book, but the words crawled around on the page like ants. She tried looking out the window instead. Now that she had seen the rope carve grooves into the trees with the force of the fishermen’s pulling, she couldn’t stop noticing the scarred trunks all the way back to the embassy. They rose out of the sand everywhere Beckett looked. She bet her old classmates’ parents would pay their interior designers a lot of money for one. She imagined a swarm of mid-career professionals armed with Alex & Ani bracelets and ramen-colored balayages harvesting the art like a swarm of locusts so fast that the trees just disappeared. The rope with nothing to hold it, snapped back on the fishermen and knocked them into the sand. Boing! 

    Todd parked the car in the embassy lot. Beckett thanked him for lunch and then tried and failed to cache some sleep before her 2200 shift started. She doubted her fatigue would matter.  Nothing ever happened at night.

     

    The next morning, the crowd had grown to the point where it spread into the street. From the roof, she could hear the mob take up a chant, a word that they bellowed into the morning mist. A floodlight flashed over the signs, and her burgeoning suspicion was confirmed. 

    “It’s not ‘everything’ they’re angry at us for, Von. It’s the elections.”

    “So sore losers.”

    “Must be.”

    “I mean, the guy whose name they’re chanting, he’s basically a communist, right? So no loss.” Von put the radio to his lips as he prepared to make another report to Post One. 

    “If you mean he’s planning to ‘get some redistribution going,’ I guess, yeah.”

    Something in her tone must have momentarily diverted Von’s attention. He paused and moved the radio away from his mouth and looked at her sidelong, his face unreadable under the helmet and sunglasses. “Sergeant. Respectfully, get your head in the game.”

    The game? For a mad moment, Beckett thought he was talking about pool again. But this was her job. This was what she was here for. It was how she had gotten out.

    Her mind spun like a dial and landed familiarly on her training. Her eyesight hopped from roof to grass and landed on the wall in time to see two arms and then a head appeared on top of it. A protester had started to climb and might even try to come in.

    Sgt. Beckett knew the rules of engagement like the back of her hand. He wasn’t theirs, hers and Von Engel’s, to deal with. Not unless he was armed. She hoped to God he wasn’t armed. 

    The man pushed himself up on the wall and swung his legs over. He dropped like a stone to the ground. Von began speaking rapidly into his radio, but Beckett didn’t hear a word. Everything felt unreal from their perch, staring into the patchwork darkness and floodlight with nothing to touch them but the wind.

    “Sergeant.”

    One shot. One shot focused on sinking her quarry. The ricochets, the collisions, the ensuing chaos on the table didn’t matter. That was just the game. Wasn’t it?

    Beckett got low on the edge of the roof like it was the table and shouldered her gun, reminded irresistibly of a pool cue. She trained her sights on the man below. He was staring down one of the other Marines and a few LGFs who had run out to detain him. Something metal flashed in his hands.

    It was a gun; it had to be. Her finger, near rigid with tension, cradled the trigger. She put the scope to her eye.

    In doing so, she caught a glimpse of light in the distance, far away from the floodlights of the compound. As she watched, transfixed, the sun crested the horizon over the ocean. In its glow, she could just make out a long, skinny line of people traversing the sand, swaying to the beat of an oil can ticking away forever. Holding on tight day after day as though trying to tame the sea.

    In a flash, the blue sea became the sky, the rope, a cold bar traversing it. She was 17 again, a girl in her scrub grass backyard trying again and again to pull herself up on an old playset. She could hear shouting in the distance. Her parents — no, the crowd amassing outside the gates.  

    I got out I got out I got out

    “Beckett!

    A 100-plus men and their families struggling to pull a net out of the ocean halfway across the world. She had gotten out. How could they ever?

    “Emily!”

    Dylan?

    “Take the shot, Sergeant!”

    The scope shuddered against her eye socket. Her hands — her hands were shaking. She crushed the gun into her shoulder and tasted copper in her mouth. She harbored a prayer, a bargain in her heart. Only if he got too close, only if he started shooting, only if it actually was a gun then—

    BANG

    Beckett instinctively clapped a hand to her ringing right ear. She smelled smoke on the wind, coiling from the barrel of Von Engel’s gun.

    When she looked down her scope again, she could see a dark mass on the ground where the man had been. He was still.

    With an ear-splitting roar, the wave crested the wall and crashed onto the sovereign soil.

  6. NONFICTION: Little Neck, New York

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    When I tell people where I am from, I tell them “New York City.” If they are a New Yorker or if they are familiar with the city, I tell them the edge of Queens; if they know Queens well, I tell them the Bayside area; and if they are Queens natives, I finally tell them Little Neck. My general answer in college has been, “I live on the edge of New York City, but I went to school in Manhattan.” I am quick to attach the latter clause. Most people do not think of suburbia when they hear New York City. They think of Manhattan — skyscrapers, mustard yellow taxis, Broadway and crowded streets of people in everything from business attire to absolutely no clothes at all. During my childhood, my family went to Manhattan on weekends once or twice a year. In classic tourist fashion, we only ever went to and took pictures at Times Square.

    My home, however, has always been Little Neck, which is next to Great Neck, where F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” takes place. I realized only that the book took place so near my home when I opened up to a map included in the beginning of this edition of the novel. It took me a few seconds to realize that “West Egg” was Great Neck, that one could walk to Fitzgerald’s former home from my home in 10 minutes, that staring at me, in the preface of this renowned American novel, was Little Neck, my small, obscure hometown.

    Little Neck is a relatively unknown part of New York City, but at its core, it is a suburb, a place and idea that Americans know very well. My parents immigrated to Little Neck from Korea in 2001, a year before I was born. Until I was six, we lived in a small apartment next to the Little Neck Long Island Railroad, or LIRR, station. My parents had a lot of trouble in that apartment: The train blared twice an hour, the landlord charged them fees that he was supposed to cover and mice lived in the thin and crumbling walls. In 2006, we moved to the house that we’ve lived in for the past 14 years. The two-story white brick house sits at the top of an inclined street next to other white or red brick houses that look just like mine, all with the same tiled roofs and wide-eyed windows. Cars occupy every potential parking space because everyone has their parking space. It’s rude to take someone else’s. There is a one-story house near the bottom of the street with a Cadillac Escalade parked in its driveway. I have always noticed it — its eggshell radiance, the sheer mass of its presence — because my father used to say to me that his dream was to buy a Cadillac Escalade, but that the people down the street were bastards because they left it still in the sidewalk instead of fully in their driveway. At the very end of the street, a very big Labrador lives in a one-story house, and he barks and aggressively gallops toward me every time I walk by. My sister says that that dog once jumped over the fence and chased her up the street. The other dog in the neighborhood who hates me is Coco, my downstairs neighbors’ shrieky brown dog the size of a purse, who, without fail, comes to the window and shrieks at me every time I am at the door.

    Many of the residents of Little Neck are immigrants, most of whom are Asian. We do not talk to one another. Not many people speak English fluently, so aside from the occasional hello passing by one another, in Little Neck, the immigrants can rest their tongues from the workout of English. The only time we ever talk to our neighbors is when we have to divide shoveling labor after a snowstorm or when renters have to ask the homeowners to fix a door or a pipe. The only reminders the residents of Little Neck have that their neighbors exist are when they make a ruckus. The sound made when you close a window is enough to let your neighbors know that they are being too loud. This past summer, my parents shut their windows in the early evenings to block out the traditional Chinese music that an elderly Chinese woman blasted for her nightly stretch and dance sessions with her girlfriends. After 10 p.m., we shut windows because of the cackling of the Italian family next door having gatherings with friends.

    Little Neck also has a significant population of elderly white folk, many of whom sit with each other on front porches in the early evenings. One day after school in the fourth grade, an elderly lady sitting outside a chestnut brown, ivy-covered house in the middle of the street struck up a conversation with me and my mother. I was worried that this elderly lady might be racist and yell at my mother, and by extension, me. “Go back to your country” or “speak better English” — something along those lines. Instead, she shared her life story with us, strangers. Her husband had built the house, and he’d died a few years before. After this conversation, we never saw her again, and a few years later, the home was torn down and replaced with a two-story house.

    ***

    My love for Manhattan sprouted concurrently with my dislike for Little Neck. It began in the seventh grade when I started attending my new school on the Upper East Side.

    “Manhattan is a grid, so you can get anywhere if you know the street and avenue.”

    “Megan and I live in the same apartment building.”

    “You’ve never been to the Met?”

    These concepts were foreign to me. Queens is the largest borough of New York City in terms of land mass, and its street system is convoluted and disorganized. Little Neck has houses, not apartments, and it didn’t have world-renowned tourist attractions. The idea that you could live so close to your friends was, in particular, astonishing to me. I had always been jealous of the characters I saw on television who were friends with their neighbors; now, I was jealous of the kids who lived in Manhattan.

    I didn’t have much mobility growing up in Little Neck. My parents never trusted me to go anywhere on my own, so I always traveled with one of them. Even the nearest park was mostly off-limits because my mother never wanted to walk me there when I asked. Constrained by my parents’ unwillingness to accompany my travel requests, I spent most of my time indoors. But even without my parents’ protective umbrella over me, I didn’t have much of a reason to travel. All my friends from school lived at least 10 minutes away by car, and I had no friends in my neighborhood to whom I could walk within a few minutes.

    I started taking the LIRR every day in the seventh grade to commute to my new school in Manhattan, and with my ticket for unlimited monthly rides came more mobility than I had ever had. I quickly realized, however, that my newfound mobility paled in comparison to the freedom my Manhattan peers had enjoyed their entire lives. Manhattan kids could walk anywhere they wanted and know exactly where they were going. Manhattan kids lived a floor above their best friends, and Manhattan kids were never bored. In Manhattan, there is a Hungarian Pastry Shop, a Central Park, a Whitney Museum, a Hudson River to satiate your every need.

    Throughout high school, if I ever wanted to escape home and do something fun, I’d commute to Manhattan. Since Little Neck offered me nothing, I left it as often as I could. And when I came home, I always noticed how quiet Little Neck was in comparison to the bustling city. Everything moved in Manhattan — its people, its lights, the latest fashion trends and the newest Broadway shows — and I loved it. I saw Little Neck’s silence, thus, as the absence of life, a snow globe where nothing changed besides the wrinkles on its residents’ faces.

    Manhattan meant liberation. Manhattan was where I could do anything and everything without my parents watching and being a part of my every move. While my parents were experts on the streets of Queens after over a decade of driving, they knew much less about the nitty-gritty of Manhattan: how quickly to walk in the streets, what kinds of apartments people lived in, how far people walked to get from place to place. They were shocked whenever I told them I had walked from 72nd Street to 116th Street. Trips to Manhattan were still vacations to them, and Manhattan was an impossible metropolis where we could live only if we won the lottery.

    While I feared racism from elderly white people in Little Neck, I walked confidently in the streets of Manhattan, where my interactions with people were solely defined by my good English instead of my parents’ broken tongues. Additionally, my presence in Manhattan, this place of wealth and extravagance, signified mobility, a sign that I was already living a better life than either of my parents. Little Neck was the rung of the immigrant ladder my parents were stuck on — like an English word their Korean tongues could not stop stuttering on — that I needed to escape. Manhattan was mine. I was in love with the dream Manhattan enveloped me in, the affair it enticed me to indulge in, to break off my loveless, unhappy marriage with Little Neck.

    ***

    When my parents moved to America, they still owned an apartment in Korea. Though I’d wondered why they didn’t sell it, I always assumed that they planned on staying in America. My mother frequently told me in my childhood that one of her greatest desires was to own a home, and since she owned a home in Korea, I thought she wanted one in America. And one of my father’s favorite hobbies was to surf the web for home sales in the States. I grew up thinking that my home was their home, and that my home would always be their home.

    This February, my father asked me and my sister if we wanted to live in Korea for a few years, before I went to and after my sister graduated from college. We both said no. My sister interpreted my father’s asking as a sign that he wants to go back to Korea. I was surprised. It had never occurred to me until this moment that America may not be the end goal for them, that they might want to move back to Korea.

    The more I thought about my parents returning to Korea, the more I thought it was a good idea. I thought it’d be ideal for them to be near family and to be able to speak comfortably and fluently with anyone around them. Moreover, each day spent in Little Neck was a day closer to the bed in our house becoming either of my parents’ deathbed. I knew that my parents would want to be buried in Korea when they died, so I didn’t see why they should extend the time they were away from home. I had grown up. They didn’t have to stay for me.

    I asked my mother what she planned to do once I left for college. Did she intend to stay in Little Neck? Or did she want to go back to Korea?

    “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it,” she said. “There are a lot of factors to consider.”

    I was surprised by this response as well. I had expected more certainty from her, more fervor to live, to not make this rung of the immigrant ladder her last. And I didn’t know whether my mom actually liked Little Neck or whether she was simply too afraid to say goodbye.

    I’ve always known that I would leave Little Neck when I grew up. I never imagined myself staying there. My parents came to America to give me an adulthood that did not mirror my childhood. That’s what immigrants do. My new home would be Manhattan, or Brooklyn, or Washington, D.C., or Chicago, or anywhere in California. But not Little Neck.

    A month after my conversation with my parents, a pandemic struck and decimated New York City, the city I loved so dearly, and shocked me back into the home I had been trying to escape for six years. My last LIRR ride was on March 13, 2020, the Friday before quarantine began. I got home around midnight after hanging out with a friend on the Upper West Side, my favorite place in Manhattan, and I got off the train without a glance back at my mobility, which I’d be saying goodbye to for an indefinite period of time. I had not realized that the ride would be my last. I had expected to spend the months I had at home before heading off to college in Manhattan with friends. Instead, quarantine brought me back to Little Neck, the place I thought I’d be saying goodbye to forever.

    Interestingly, besides people wearing masks on walks, nothing really changed. The elderly folks still sat together in the early evenings to chat. Coco still barked at me whenever I passed by. Streets with tons of space for pedestrians to distance themselves, the quiet of the days and nights, the boredom of it all — in the face of an upheaval of life as I knew it, Little Neck may have been one of the only parts of New York City to remain almost completely intact in its pre-pandemic form. My small, obscure hometown.

    Stuck at home, I tried to find mobility within Little Neck. I took walks with my mother and sister frequently, and I also started biking. I used the kid’s bike that my parents had bought for me when I was eight years old, which I had barely used in the past decade. There had been no need. And because of biking, I discovered the full extent of Little Neck’s beauty. There are wide roads flanked by trees, with sunlight outlining each leaf such that they glow together in a sum greater than its parts. There is a green lake hidden next to the former-Fairway-Market-now-turned-Food-Bazaar and contoured by a curving road full of cars. I stopped once next to the now-closed Toys-R-Us and Burger King and gasped at the sight of the vast trees clashing with the apartments and roads of Little Neck. The natural landscape coexisting with commercial buildings and cars. American suburbia captured in one picture.

    At some point in quarantine, my father asked at the dinner table if we thought it was a good idea to move to another house. To buy a house in America. My mother was silent. When I was younger, I would’ve immediately and excitedly said yes. Two months ago, I might have asked, “Are you planning on going back to Korea?” But at this moment, I responded, “No, I like this house. I don’t think we need anything more. It’s a good house. It’s a good neighborhood.”

    What I truly meant was, “I am afraid to leave. The older I get, the more I become my own person, the less I want to let go of the things that shaped me. The place that raised me. And I love Little Neck. I cannot imagine coming back here and seeing another family live in this house. I cannot imagine Little Neck not being our home.”

    In May, my parents took me and my sister to Little Neck Bay to get some fresh air. The rocks next to the water were free to sit on. I had never been here before. Waves crashed into the rocks, and looking out onto the water, across the bay, I could see the faint image of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. The dream. Yet I was happy where I was standing. I wanted to be in Manhattan again in the future, but not for some time. I wanted to bask in Little Neck, in its quiet steadfastness and stillness. I looked to my parents as they gazed at the waters and wondered if they were thinking about their two homes. If they thought they had achieved the dream, if here, in Little Neck, this was living enough. I wondered if they’d return to Korea, and I wondered if I would return to Little Neck.

    When I take the LIRR to Manhattan at the end of quarantine, I will forget about Little Neck. I will be lost in the excitement of it all. And when I leave Little Neck for Manhattan or Brooklyn or California, I will proudly tell people the name of my new city when people ask me where I live. But I will remember Little Neck whenever I sit down and talk with a stranger about their life story. I will remember when I hear a neighbor close a window because I am too loud, and I will remember whenever I talk to my parents, wherever they are. I will remember Little Neck, my home.

    A few weeks before I left for college, before I left Little Neck, my mother and I stood on our balcony and looked at our street. The setting summer sun coated all of Little Neck in orange light. The elderly people set up shop for their nightly chats, a dog down the street barked at an innocent pedestrian and neighbors silently took out the trash. I told my mother that I had never realized how beautiful Little Neck was until I was stuck here.

    She said, “Your father is always looking for other places to live, but I have always liked Little Neck. I was so happy when we got this house.” She paused and then proceeded, “I love this place. Do you?”

    “Yes,” I replied. “I do.”

  7. FICTION: In Heat

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    The bitches lived in the shed — a dilapidated, yellowing structure in Flora Hopewell’s backyard, by the pool. Probably, it was meant for storing shovels and birdseed and rusty wheelbarrows, but Flora’s parents weren’t the type of people to own objects for upkeep, so instead they kept dogs: A reality that my mother found appalling, and I amazing. When I remember Flora’s backyard now, sounds of whimpering and growling carry clearly over algae-infested pool water, unfettered by chlorine and skimming nets.

    The first time I entered into the dogs’ shed, I was 9, maybe 10, wearing a pair of pink cowboy boots with spurs on the side and soccer shorts and a red sweatshirt from the Gap. I had dressed myself. It was a warm day in early December, the day of our first sleepover — Flora and me.

    Flora, at the time, was the most popular girl in my class, despite her unibrow and the fact that she was new — her family had just moved to Charlotte from Orlando. She was very loud and very funny and a very confident dancer, though not a particularly good one. I was a very good dancer, though not a particularly confident one. Flora was one of seven siblings and lived in a big yellow house with blue shutters in the third fanciest neighborhood in Charlotte — the neighborhood where my mother wanted to live. Her father was a businessman. Her mother was a dog breeder. Everyone in her family was Catholic.

    We became friends after being seated next to each other on a field trip to the Asheville Zoo. It was a two-hour drive and we chatted the whole way — about what, I couldn’t tell you. We were at the age when girls’ friendships are confounding for their sheer simplicity. She was very silly and I was very serious, or at least I presented as much. She was determined to prove me otherwise. Or maybe not. Sometimes I think I give her more credit for transforming me than I should.

    Flora was the one to lead me to the shed, sprinting ahead in her blackened bare feet, leaving me to stumble after her with her younger sister. At that time, Flora still found the dogs thrilling, before the years of vomit and piss on her bed linen turned her against animals for good. 

    Babies! Flora cooed, swinging open the door, unleashing the red-orange glow from the heater lamps so that it poured out onto her shins, illuminating a thick hairiness that shocked me then. By the time I reached the threshold of the shed, she had already submerged and re-emerged, a near-fetal puppy squirming in her palms. It looked repulsive, but I knew I was supposed to find it adorable. I tried cooing, too.

    With a finger to her lip, Flora shushed me. 

    “They’re sensitive now,” she said. “Keep your voice soft.”

    Then, she turned to her little sister, whose halo of brown frizzy-curly hair burned orange in the glow of the shed’s lights.

    “Go back to your room. This is my sleepover!” Her voice was loud. Already, she had forgotten her own rules.

    Her sister frowned, tears welling in the corners of her eyes, and scurried away. I entered the shed with a strained smile.

    Inside, warmth radiated. The ground was covered in dog shit and blood — a Hades for puppies.

    “Why are the moms bleeding?” I asked, petrified. 

    “It’s very hot in here,” Flora said. “They bleed from the heat.”

    I nodded, beginning to wriggle out of my sweatshirt as I stared at the groaning, swollen dogs and their hairless children.

    “They look like soggy noodles,” Flora said, staring at me, staring at the puppies. 

    I nodded. She laughed.

    “Want to hold one?” Flora asked me.

    I wasn’t comfortable around dogs at the age of 9. I wasn’t comfortable around any animals, really. At my house, there were no pets — too dirty and too loud and most of all too expensive. I didn’t mind. Their sharp teeth and clawed paws made me skittish. 

    “Yeah,” I said and looked at Flora, forgetting to smile this time. 

    One of the dogs was buried beneath the rest, all of them wriggling over one another, struggling to latch hold of their mother’s teat. Flora slipped her small hand through the mass of naked puppy bodies, and grabbed the smallest body between her pink-polished, chipped fingertips. 

    “The runt,” she said to me, grinning. “Usually, my mother says not to hold the runt. But it’s so cute! Isn’t it?”

    I convinced myself that it was.

    “And, also, sometimes, I feel bad for it. It’s soooo tiny,” she said, scrunching up her nose. I nodded and mirrored her, scrunching mine up too.

    “Hold it!” Flora said, dumping the puppy’s small, pallid body into my hands. It was warm and wet, probably from the excess milk and piss that its brothers and sisters leaked.

    “What kind is it?” I asked Flora, whispering, trying hard not to wake it.

    “A dog!” She said, erupting in laughter. 

    “No,” I said to her, blushing, my voice dropping so soft that it was closer to silence than sound. “I mean, what kind of dog?”

    “A King Charles Cavalier,” Flora said proudly. 

    This meant nothing to me but sounded magnificent. I nodded. 

    “And by the way, it’s called a breed.”

    “What’s her name?”

    Flora yanked the runt from my hands, flipped it over into her palm, and inspected its genitals. 

    “What are you—”

    “Oh,” Flora said. “You’re right. It is a she.”

    “What’s her name, though?” I repeated.

    “These dogs are nameless. Each one is named Nobody. We sell them. My mom says they’re not ours to name.”

    Again, I nodded. Dogs for sale. Named Nobody.

    For the next hour we sat in silence, stroking the bodies of all the babies, trying not to disturb the mothers, adjusting to the stench of shit and puppy breath until it smelled to us like fresh air. I was at once petrified and proud of the presence of so much life younger than myself in one enclosed place. It felt like I imagined babysitting would feel one day. Maybe even better. I nestled a puppy on my knee, another on the crook of my crotch, and more and more climbed atop me. The minute heaviness of each body pressed into my skin, sunk into my muscle, and I let myself warm to them. The spots where the puppies laid went tingly, but not the kind of tingly of a sleeping limb — the opposite, something much more awake. I closed my eyes and smiled. And then I remembered my cowboy boots, their heaviness and pointiness and side-spurs, which glinted in the heat lamp’s orange glow. I didn’t want to crush one of the puppies, and I didn’t want to spur a puppy either. But I had the acute feeling that if the puppy ran into my spur, or wriggled itself beneath the sole of my boot, then that would be a cosmically justified fate. And this knowing scared me deeply.

    “I am going to have as many babies as a dog has in a litter,” Flora announced, interrupting my trance. 

    “How many babies is that?”

    “Eight, but one will die, probably. Just like my mom’s eighth baby.”

    “One will die?”

    “There’s always a runt that dies,” Flora said. “Seven is a holier number, anyway.”

    I nodded, unsure of what she meant.

    “Seven babies is a bunch,” I said, to say something.

    “No, four is a bunch,” she shot back.

    Flora kept petting the dogs. I kept quiet. 

    Eventually, both she and I began sweating, droplets forming on our foreheads like liquid kibble.

    “I’m hot,” she announced finally. “Let’s go.” 

    So we did, unearthing ourselves from the bodies of the puppies, and rising once again to our feet. I wiggled my toes in my boots.

    “Your cheeks are so rosy,” Flora said. 

    I touched them, feeling the hot pink flush. I don’t think the flush was so much from the heat and dogs and the humidity of the shed, as from a related but estranged thing. A thing hunkered in the gutters of my own body.

    Flora grabbed my hand and yanked me out of the shed.

    “Gooooodnight!” She sang to the dogs, locking the door with the bolt, forgoing my hand for the door’s metal.

    “Goodnight,” I whispered, too. The 30-degree Carolina December air cut the ties from my body to the dogs. I watched my hot breath turn to clouds, then turned to the pool to breathe its air. 

    “It smells funny out here,” I said, sniff-sniff-sniffing.

    “It smells funny in there!” Flora said. “You just forgot.”

    She grabbed my hand again and pulled me around the weed-ridden pool, through the weed-ridden garden, to the back door of the yellow house, then toward her bedroom. There, the carpet was soft, and the walls white, and her bed a humongous boat-like mechanism, with a headboard that read “Flora” in painted pink cursive letters across the middle. Besides the bed, not much furniture populated the space, save a night table and a bean bag chair in the corner. There were no dolls and there were no animals, only traces of fur and her own dead hair strewn about the white carpet and bed sheets. The light to her closet was switched on, white-yellowness creeping from beneath the door. It reminded me enough of my own bedroom. I sighed, shut my eyes, opened them again. Relief.

    “I like your room,” I said. “What now?”

    “Let’s shower. You’re so stinky!”

    “Hey… you too!”

    I followed Flora into her bathroom, where the tile was white and black, and we both stripped down to our undies.

    Hers were blue, striped, tattered by the elastic. Mine were pink, they said Friday on the front. Humiliatingly, my mother still picked out my underwear to correlate with the day of the week. I knew I was too old for that, and damned myself for forgetting to change.

    Flora pulled back her floral shower curtain and turned on the tap. “Tadaaaaa!” She sang, then stripped down.

    I stared at her, then slowly slipped off my own underwear, slinking them down my skinny thighs. Though I had a few sleepovers before, none with such little adult supervision. I followed Flora’s lead blindly, desperately.

    She hopped into the tub and stretched the length of her body out, so that her toes sunk under the tap and her shoulders laid flat against the floor of the plexiglass shower-tub. 

    For too long, I looked at her glistening body, at its hairiness and its length. Flora was shorter than I, by five inches probably, with brownish skin and blonde hair with dark roots. It was never dyed — it must not have been — we were too young for that, surely. But it looked like it could have been bleached. Her unibrow knit her round face together, shadowing the bow of her plump lips. I shivered, desiring to be under the flow of the warm water with her.

    “Come in!” She motioned for me to join her.

    On the edges of the tub, there laid half-empty shampoo bottles, and bubble bath, and toy boats, and pink soaps. By the faucet, there was a purple razor, belonging to one of Flora’s older sisters, surely.

    “Sit down!” Flora said. Though my toes were in the tub, I was still standing, looking down at her body, which was now fully submerged. I watched the water inch closer to her nose, to her mouth, then sat down. I squeezed my back between the faucet and the wall and pressed my legs together. From there, I could see her vagina well. I closed my eyes, took a breath.

    “I see that you have pubicle hairs,” Flora announced.

    “I have what?”

    “Pubicle hairs. They are hairs of adults,” she repeated. 

    I ran a finger through the mousy, brown-black locks that ran from my head down my back. She erupted into a giggle-fit again.

    “Pubicle hair is the hair around your BODY, she said. “And when I say BODY, I mean your private parts.”

    I peered my head down to my vagina. Obviously, I had already noticed the hair there.

    You don’t have to be embarrassed. It just means you’re growing. 

    I crossed my legs, pressing them tightly together. 

    “Then where is your hair?” I asked.

    “It’s coming along,” Flora said. “I am just not as mature as you yet.”

    She pronounced the “t” in mature like it is in titillating, instead of using the “ch” sound like my mother did.

    “It’s nothing to be embarrassed of,” she said again. “It’s just like, you are the puppies when they are 6 months old, when they begin to get their grown-up coat. I am the puppies when they are, like, 6 weeks old.”

    “But we are the same age.”

    “No, you’re January. I’m March.”

    She switched off the faucet. I leaned my shoulders deeper into its warmth. I could see her naked body, with all its lumps and flaps, perfectly. I didn’t close my eyes.

    “You could shave it, you know,” Flora said to me then.

    “Shave what?”

    “Your pubicle hair, duh.”

    I must have given her a petrified look — she rolled her eyes at me. 

    “My sister does it all the time. She’s 15.”

    “But I’m only nine!” I said. “Shaving is for teenagers.”

    “It’s not a big deal,” Flora grinned. “It won’t hurt, and then we will be matching! We’ll have matching bodies, like we’re from the same litter.”

    I shuddered again, though it was too soon for the water to be cooling.

    “Hand me the razor,” Flora demanded. 

    I turned my torso and grabbed its lavender rubber handle, inspecting the sharpness of the blade before placing it delicately in her hand, just as she had placed the puppy in mine. 

    “So basically, it’s simple,” she said to me. “You just put it on your skin, press down and pull back. But not too hard! Or else you’ll begin bleeding.”

    She mimed the action on her own body, leaving space between the razor and her skin. I looked on, nodding.

    “Do you want to do it to yourself? Or do you want me to do it?” She asked. 

    “I’ll do it,” I said, taking the razor back again, bringing it beneath the water’s surface toward my body.

    The water obscured the hairs, but I could count about 10 there, all dark and all thick and all womanly. I looked at Flora, and she smiled at me, encouraging me to go on. I felt like crying.

    “Wait!” Flora said. “Do you want suds?”

    “Suds?”

    “Like to suds up your skin before shaving.”

    I faltered.

    “They smell nice,” she said. “And my sister does it.”

    I sudsed up my body with Mr. Bubbles, the cherry aroma pulsating through my nostrils, then put the razor to my skin and pulled back. Flora watched me, quiet for once.

    After a long second, I pulled the razor up from beneath the water’s surface, inspecting the blade for hair and blood.

    “Did you get any?”

    “I see some hairs. But do you think they’re mine?”

    “Whose else would they be?”

    “Maybe your sister’s! Leftovers.”

    “Oh.”

    Flora plunged her head beneath the surface of the water and opened her eyes wide, then emerged again, gasping.

    “My eyes burn, yikes!” she said. “I think you got them. But you better go again to be sure.”

    I made another stroke with the razor blade. More hair appeared this time on the the metal grate. 

    “Got them!” I announced, beaming. 

    Flora drained the tub, tears streaming down her cheeks from the soap in her eyes. We hopped out.

    “Good job,” she said. “Now shake your booty! We are both naked baby doggy-doo-doos!”

    I emerged from the tub and began dancing, grabbing for Flora’s white towel on the hook and swaddling myself in between spins. We walked out of the bathroom without brushing our teeth, Flora dropping her towel by the threshold. I realized then the rust-red stain on my own towel. I looked down to see avenues of blood streaking my vagina. I had cut myself with the razor after all.

    “I am sooooo sleepy,” Flora announced. “I never get this sleepy at sleepovers. Usually, I stay up until 5 a.m., super hyper. But I am sleepy now and I think I will sleep.”

    She wriggled into her pajamas — a green polka-dotted cotton set.

    I was humiliated by the blood oozing out of me, by the stain that I’d left on her towel. Surely, Flora would see it in the morning, and if she didn’t, then her sister or her mother would in the late afternoon in the laundry bin. I snuck back into the bathroom to put my dirty underwear on beneath the clean ones my mom had helped me pack in my overnight bag, hoping that it would keep the blood from bleeding through the cloth onto Flora’s sheets. I slipped my nightgown over my double-undies and slunk into bed. Flora’s breathing steadied beside me. The whole night, I remained rigid, desperate not to wake her, terrified that a bit of my insides might stain her pink sheets, revealing to her the true reaction of my body to our bath time.

     

    In the morning, I woke to penetrative sunshine and the sound of Flora’s mother’s voice by her door frame. She’d made pancakes, she came to tell us.

    Flora rolled over to my side of the bed, took my shoulders in her small hands and shook me.

    “Pancakes! Let’s go,” she said, her hot puppy breath beating down on my lips. 

    I excused myself to the bathroom, and locked the door, and checked my underwear. The blood had dried, not even seeping through to the second layer. I put on my shorts and my boots for the day, and had breakfast with Flora’s family. Hours later, my mother picked me up. I was sad to go, but Flora promised to invite me back. And she did. For the following years, I spent as many Saturdays as I could at Flora’s house, playing with the dogs, helping them nurse, watching them mature and leave for new families. As we got older, the two of us spent incrementally more time away from the puppies and in her room, or by her pool instead. We bore our growing, hairless bodies to the sun and complained about the barks and stench of puppy shit that still festered, not far away, in the shed.

  8. NONFICTION: Everyday American Delusion

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    Joanne works nights, so when she said she could only talk at 1 a.m., I wasn’t surprised. Nor was I inconvenienced. Quarantine offers little incentive to wake and sleep with the sun; I was ready for a late-night chat.

    I’ve known Joanne for almost three years, during which time her stories about work have intrigued me without fail. Joanne is a psychiatric nurse at Framingham State Hospital, a government-run facility for patients with chronic mental health conditions.* Many of Framingham’s patients spend months or years inside. Some are committed by courts; others self-admit.

    Framingham is a virtually closed world. The facility offers no emergency services; it isn’t a place that might receive someone at imminent risk of suicide. Nor does it offer care to patients who are physically, rather than mentally, ill. So, in these pandemic days, when self-containment is the goal of all, Framingham seems exceptionally well-positioned.

    But as soon as Joanne and I got on the phone, I could tell something was wrong. COVID-19, she said, had hit the hospital hard. More than 90 of her coworkers had tested positive, as had hundreds of patients in the mental hospital’s many wards.

    As a result, life inside Framingham shifted dramatically. Patient housing was completely reorganized to make space for two new units — one designated for COVID-19-positive patients and another for those who refuse to be tested. To equally distribute the risk of infection, hospital leaders removed staff members from the units where they typically work, instead placing them in a rotation of all units (including the COVID-positive and COVID-possible ones). And medical professionals from the Military Health System were called in to provide new, rigid structure for this facility in flux.

    But, Joanne says, none of these changes has brought about as much strife as the introduction of PPE, or personal protective equipment.

    Just as news of COVID-19 entered the mainstream, Joanne and her fellow nurses began wearing protective gowns and full-face masks (which, Joanne notes, have caused some sort of mutant acne in her nose pores). But soon after the staff began suiting up, a surprising order came down from hospital leadership: “Stop. The masks are scaring the patients.”

    When Joanne shared this news with her friends and family, most were, like me, shocked. We had been assured that masks were the key to safety (nay, survival) in workplaces like Joanne’s, where the daily tasks of feeding and bathing patients make close physical contact unavoidable.

    But hospital leadership had a reason for its counterintuitive order — and it was something bigger than face mask fright.

    Framingham, like many mental institutions across the country, was experiencing something that’s been recognized only a few times throughout history, a phenomenon I’ll call “synchronous delusions.” Patients throughout the hospital, typically entrenched in their separate psychic realms, had begun to experience delusions about the same thing: infection.

    Though pushback from doctors and nurses ultimately caused hospital leadership to backpedal on its order, a bit of wondering is warranted. What made Framingham’s leadership so afraid that they were willing to risk the lives of their employees? And what do we risk when the disparate minds of Framingham come together?

    To answer these questions, and understand the power of delusional minds united, we must first understand how those minds operate apart.

    ***

    No single illness is dominant at Framingham. Many patients exhibit complex, comorbid symptomologies — hallucinations, paranoias, fantastical obsessions — for which traditional diagnostic language offers few helpful descriptors. What unifies these distinct cases is a phenomenon doctors generally call delusion: a blurring of the outside and inside worlds.

    Some of our clearest insights about delusion come from the foundational texts of psychology — specifically, one of Sigmund Freud’s most expansive case studies, of a “delusional” man named Daniel Schreber. In that case study, published in Freud’s 1911 book “Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia” — whose contents are just as pithy as its title — Freud forwards a simple model of the non-delusional, neurotypical mind: It is insulated, keeping the inside world in and the outside world out.

    Freud goes on to explain that between these two worlds lies a boundary, a mental membrane, whose impermeability is the hallmark of the sane mind. It allows us to clearly see the limits of our reality: Unlike our thoughts, the outside world is something we see, not something we generate.

    That isn’t to say that neurotypical people aren’t affected by the outside world. On the contrary, the tragedies and traumas of external life constantly attempt incursion. But, when confronted with these triggers, we are aided by a series of defenses, fortifications for the threatened barrier between in and out. We rationalize, or repress, or joke — anything to keep the outside out.

    The difference in delusional minds, Freud says, is simply a more permeable membrane between in and out. Delusionals experience a freer flow of outside realities into the self — and a readier projection of unconscious life onto the waking world. In other words, what’s inside the delusional patient — her fears, hopes and traumas — can manifest around her, making it difficult to separate mere thoughts (“I am afraid of monsters”) from truths (“There is a monster standing before me”).

    The content of these delusions is highly individual. Upon walking into the psychiatrist’s office, one patient may see the doctor himself, while another sees Jesus in his place. And on the way out, the first patient may bid adieu to a pleasant waiting room nurse, while the second perceives a winged Siren singing tunes of temptation to the wayward patient-sailor. These differences are the product of an individual’s mental life — the paranoias and traumas, fears and dreams, which are uniquely hers.

    That’s why it’s startling that Joanne has noticed synchronicity.

    Joanne told me that one Framingham patient, a middle-aged woman named Amy, has eschewed her long-standing pattern of delusions — a revolving door of grandiose past lives — in favor of a new obsession with tracking down the coronavirus vector. Paul, a patient whose near-catatonic depression has long rendered him indifferent to reality, has begun reacting violently to the television, which he regards as a pathogenic entry point. Some patients theorize a grand conspiracy, a fictionalized pandemic used by the governments of the world to control their unruly citizenries. Others resist interacting even with their nurses for fear of instant death.

    The halls of the mental hospital, once discordant, have begun to ring in euphony — like a tuning orchestra unifying at once around the piercing A of the principal oboe. For hospital leadership, this reality is understandably striking. But it isn’t unprecedented.

    ***

    The 1950s were a decade of American exceptionalism. In the precarious days of the Cold War, the United States touted its model of “free,” free-market democracy — a system of government that was superior to the subversive communism of the Soviets and their ever-growing bloc.

    So, on October 4, 1957, the country received a shock when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. The New York Times called this feat of innovation a prestige triumph for Russian communism, and politicians lamented the beginning of the end for American hegemony. The public panicked, insisting that the U.S. government divert much-needed domestic program funding into the creation of a new space program and the fortification of an already massive military apparatus.

    This panic leaked quickly into mental hospitals. Although the so-called insane asylums of the 50s weren’t known for consistent or accurate recordkeeping, many medical professionals remember a reality similar to the one Joanne describes today: an uncanny alignment of disparate minds, an episode of synchronous delusion.

    One explanation for these shared panics is that, if delusions are based on an individual’s internal fears and drives, both crises touch on a fear shared by all. Fears of illness, loss of loved ones and death seem like perfect candidates.

    But that explanation doesn’t account for the uncommonness of synchronous delusions. The last 60 years have seen innumerable crises: AIDS, wars in the Middle East, even an attack on America’s biggest city. None of these — let alone the more silent, statistically deadlier threats of cancer and obesity — have prompted episodes of synchronous delusion.

    What, then, places threats like Sputnik and COVID-19 above the rest?

    An article by Wayne Pines, a former FDA bureaucrat, argues that both Sputnik and COVID-19 have exposed fundamental gaps in the United States’ dominant institutions. In Sputnik’s case, it was our nation’s defense apparatus, capacities for research and science education standards. Today, we see the weakness of our health care institutions and the inadequacy of our system of disaster readiness — the dark-room committees and secret security missions that we imagine must be scattered across the government’s nameless agencies, planning for something precisely like this.

    We all count on these institutions to make us feel secure. Delusional patients do the same. But when these institutions are upended, finally exposed for their fallibility, a truly fundamental fear is triggered.

    In the mental hospital, when one stimulus is powerful enough to breach all patients’ mental membranes, successfully invading everyone’s internal worlds, synchronous delusions are the result.

    But I’d argue that something like this happens in the outside world, too.

    ***

    Joanne has worked at Framingham for more than 30 years. In that time, she says, she’s seen it all. Tasks that would feel foreign to the average person — inspecting, restraining, observing patients while they sleep — are quotidian to her. Psychotic behaviors we might consider incomprehensible are, for Joanne, like a second language.

    Because Framingham is a chronic facility, Joanne has known many of her patients for years — longer, she says, than she’s known her own kids. Some patients have been there as long as Joanne has. Some even longer.

    Over the years, Joanne has learned a lot about these patients — what good and bad days look like, which family members they miss, what holidays they love. She knows which patients want cookies on Christmas and which want brownies, and she adjusts her holiday-season baking orders accordingly.

    Joanne sees her patients’ illnesses as separate from their personalities and intellectual capacities. She knows they’re people. So when she began to understand that an episode of synchronous delusion was unfolding at Framingham, she wasn’t too surprised.

    “Of course my patients are all delusional about the pandemic,” she said. “We all are.”

    Sure, we’ve all seen the news stories about survivalists and supermarket robbers coming out of the woodwork. But that’s not what Joanne was talking about. Joanne explained that, in rare moments like these, when we can see the weakness of our institutions, many people slip into irrationality — their own “small-scale delusions.”

    She was talking about people like my dad: the hyper-preparers who try to purchase so many garbanzo beans and Purell bottles that the local supermarket implements a one-per-customer rule.

    She was talking about people like my brother: the vigilante doctors who stockpile every medication that’s been called a Coronavirus Cure-All by the alt-med press. (My brother, in fact, has acquired 120 doses of hydroxychloroquine, and he’d prefer you didn’t tell his pharmacist that his upcoming six-month trip to malaria-prone Zambia is fake.)

    And she was talking about people like me: people who called their ex’s mom, Joanne, under the pretext of writing a story about Framingham, who actually just wanted to incite a late-night reunion. People who only knew enough about Framingham to produce such a convincing pretext because a week earlier they’d spoken to Joanne’s son, their ex, under a similarly compelling, COVID-19-related pretext.

    Reaching out to my ex-boyfriend and his mom felt reckless. But something about these troubling times pushed me into nostalgia. And recent headlines like “Coronavirus: Stop texting your ex, it’s not a good idea,” “Why Exes Are Reconnecting in Coronavirus Quarantine” and “Tempted to text your ex during the coronavirus lockdown? You’re not alone” suggest I’m not the only one.

    When we look closely at these widespread irrational behaviors, the synchrony of our “small-scale delusions,” we’re transported back to Framingham. Indeed, by pulling back the curtain on our fallible institutions, crises like COVID-19 don’t just unite patients in chronic mental hospitals. They unite us all.

    For neurotypical people, trust in institutions is a tool for keeping the outside world out. We’re protected by our self-assurances, by the knowledge that there’s a plan for this.

    But when these institutions falter, we are left defenseless, and the stressors of the outside world begin to creep inward. We project our fears onto unwarranted canvases and take disproportionate action in response. Gradually, we begin to generate, rather than merely perceive, the world around us. In other words, COVID-19 has caused us to barrel toward what Joanne’s patients experience every day: delusion.

    ***

    COVID-19 has the potential to show us something powerful — that delusion doesn’t live on the other side of an immutable medical rift. Rather, the pandemic shows that the stuff of delusionality is inside all of us already.

    Yet our culture, not simply our medical institutions, continues to obsess over the question of how they are structurally distinct from us. We’re hungry to know what makes a psycho — and we seek to confirm that, whatever it is, we don’t have it.

    Perhaps we do this because we resist seeing sanity as a sliding scale, one on which so-called neurotypicals and so-called delusionals are scattered variously rather than divided starkly. We resist acknowledging that there’s nothing we did to deserve sanity and nothing our parents did to earn it for us. We resist seeing the shame in locking away those whom chance did not favor.

    We can see this resistance play out in pop culture — “Mindhunter,” “What Makes a Murderer.” And we can see it at Framingham. The goal of the hospital leadership’s no-masks order, then, wasn’t safety — it put staff and patients at exceptional risk. It was to hide the uncertain realities of COVID-19 from patients — to deceive them. Perhaps the leadership feared that patients would see our crumbling world as evidence supporting their delusions. Or perhaps these leaders knew that, if they allowed patients a peek beyond hospital walls, they’d see a panic on the outside that looks uncannily like the panic they feel on the inside.

     

    *“Joanne” and “Framingham State Hospital” are both pseudonyms. All patient names in this article have been changed to protect privacy. All other details are fully accurate.

  9. FICTION: Party Monster

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    It’s not a crime to like parties. I know this. But after all of the pretty sucky things that have happened to me during and after parties, you’d think I would stop liking them so much. I have been vomited on and I have vomited. I have watched a drunk 10th grader pee down the side of his father’s car. I was once at a party where a bunch of assholes were dancing in the upstairs living room and the floor caved in onto the kitchen and a girl named Jessica was crushed by the plaster and dancers and she died.

    But I still go to parties, because parties are usually fun, and in Chillicothe, Ohio, fun is in short supply. I’m pretty good about what I do at parties. I don’t drink to the point where I black out, only to the point where I vomit. I don’t hook up with guys I haven’t spoken to before, and so if there’s a guy I like at a party and I don’t know him, I make sure to speak to him before I hook up with him. Usually, I’ll ask him his name and then we start making out, but sometimes it’s just “hi.” It’s enough, though. And most of all, I stick close to my girlfriends so that nothing too terrible will ever happen.

    As you can see, I’m cautious. But sometimes cautious people do break their rules and they drink so much that they can’t remember anything about the previous night. This means that they also don’t know if they broke any of their other rules because they can’t remember if they hooked up with anyone or whether their girlfriends were anywhere nearby. Actually all I sort of remember is that everyone was shaped like erasers and kind of waddling around. I don’t know, everything’s fuzzy.

    This is all to say that I blacked out at a party. It was just one time. But I did. I woke up the next day in my own bed with no memory of the previous night. Someone had driven me home, according to my mom. My mother is very understanding and does not mind me going to parties because she never went to parties as a kid, and I think she’s in awe of me. The next morning after a wild night she’ll pass me a Vitaminwater for my hangover and then prod me for details, nodding with her eyes wide open, looking just like our rescue pug, Edgar. And then my father will stumble downstairs and yell at me for staying out so late and being a disappointment, and my mom will then yell at him, and then he’ll yell at my mom and then I go to school.

    Anyway, after the night I drank too much and blacked out, I woke up in my own bed. I was a little nervous about not knowing what had happened, mainly because I had been planning to hook up with Thomas which was a three-years-in-the-making hook up. I had been preparing for it with well-timed eyebrow raises in every single class Thomas and I shared since the first day of high school. Now, a junior, I had gone to this party — which was thrown by Arvin, an excellent guy — ready to finally seal the deal with Thomas, who I haven’t mentioned has killer biceps and a slight lisp, both of which are kind of my thing.

    But I had blacked out, which meant I couldn’t remember how amazing our hook up had been, or really, if we had hooked up at all. So as soon as I got to school — with a killer hangover, I should mention, slightly lessened by my mom giving me Gatorade with breakfast — I asked Lisa about what had happened. Lisa has been my best friend since last year. Before that Sarah was my best friend but she got demoted to third-best friend because she dated an ex. It’s a long story and not materially important to what I’m about to tell you but at any rate, I talked to Lisa.

    I didn’t want Lisa to know that I had blacked out. I have a reputation as the responsible member of our friend group, since I’m the only one who usually only vomits and doesn’t black out. So I framed my question carefully. 

    “Hey, Lisa,” I said. “Wasn’t Thomas so cute last night?”

    “Yeah, girl,” she said. “But did you see Armand? I’ve never seen a muscle shirt actually work before. I was like, totally into him.” She looked around, even though the hallway was pretty empty, and said, “he wasn’t a great kisser but he was good at everything else.”

    “Wow,” I said. “Good for you. But back to Thomas for a second, didn’t we look great together?”

    “Yeah!” Lisa said. “Did you hook up?”

    “Didn’t we?”

    Lisa smiled and looked confused. I had the feeling that my long-awaited hook up with Thomas hadn’t actually occurred. Well, I thought, back to the suggestive eyebrow raising. Maybe I would even throw in a wink or a smirk. We would hook up the next time Arvin threw a party, and I would only get drunk enough to make my memories of the night great to think about afterward, instead of deleting them from my brain entirely.

    “Hey, I took some great pictures last night,” Lisa said, pulling out her phone. “Megan was so wasted. Wanna see?”

    “Hell yes,” I said. Neither of us liked Megan. I did feel kind of like a hypocrite, since I was also completely wasted last night, but it was really only that one time, and Megan was a bad person, so I couldn’t feel sorry for her.

    Lisa scrolled through her photos of the previous night. Once Lisa reached a certain level of drunk during a party she would start taking photos. All of the photos were taken with ill-timed flash and artsy angles, though I think the angles had to do more with Lisa being very drunk while taking the photos than with aesthetic choices.

    We looked through the photos and even though I had blacked out, I felt that I understood the sort of party it had been, because I had seen photos like these a million times before. Trevor humping a door. Megan, absolutely smashed, passed out on the carpet with half a tit out. One blurry photo obviously taken while Lisa was in the middle of hooking up with Armand. Me making out in a bedroom with someone. Another shot of Megan, throwing up into a garbage can on the front lawn.

    “Hey,” I said. “Go back to that one of me.”

    “Oh, this one?” She scrolled back to it. “Yeah, you two were really going at it.”

    She had taken it through a crack in the door leading to what looked like a spare bedroom in Arvin’s house. Actually, Arvin’s house was so great for parties because it had so many spare bedrooms.

    I was on the bed, with a guy who was sort of hard to tell apart from the darkness of the room.

    “Is that Thomas?” Lisa asked.

    “Can you make it bigger?” I asked. She magnified the photo. 

    “Turn up the brightness,” I told her. She turned up the brightness.

    In the photo, I was making out with what can only be described as a large, furry monster. 

    In a teasing tone of voice, Lisa said, “Oh my god, you were so adventurous last night! Is that a literal monster? I didn’t know you were into monsters.”

    “I have no memory of this,” I said.

    “Bro, there was a monster at our party?” Lisa said. “That’s crazy.”

    “Yeah,” I said, sweating.

    I had made out with a monster? I had never done that before. Actually, I had never even seen a monster before, ever, except for imagining a squid-like monster under my bed when I was a kid. But actually that monster was just a squid, not really a monster. And the monster in Lisa’s photo had been big and hairy, and I was pretty sure it had horns.

    So I went to talk to Arvin about it after school. Arvin’s house was about a 20-minute bike ride away. On the way to his house I had to pass the cemetery, which is always kind of awkward because Jessica’s pretty new grave is right at the front of it by the gate, and it makes me remember how I was the one who asked her to go get me a beer from the kitchen, right before she was fatally crushed. But her death wasn’t really my fault or anything. My mom told me to make sure I wouldn’t blame myself and so I don’t.

    I knew Arvin would be at home because he always did the same thing everyday after school: sit in the driveway next to his house on a folding chair, blast 80s music from a speaker and smoke weed. I don’t know what Arvin’s parents did for a living, but I got the feeling that they were basically never home. 

    Arvin’s weed was especially skunky and I wasn’t a huge fan of the smell, but I would still hang out with him after school when I had nothing to do. This is mainly because Arvin’s parties were so great, and I wanted to make sure I was invited.

    He nodded at me as I left my bike at the curb and approached his folding chair. “How’s it hanging?” he asked.

    “I’m good,” I said. “Killer party last night.”

    “Thanks, dude,” he said. “Somebody absolutely trashed the bathtub, though. Do you know who did that?”

    “How do you trash a bathtub?” I asked.

    “They emptied out all of the bottles under the bathroom sink into the tub,” he said. “Now it’s all pink? And the drain is making weird noises. I dunno. I gotta fix it. But my parents get home a few days from now, so it’s cool.”

    “Cool,” I said. “So, listen. Lisa and I were looking through some photos from last night—”

    “Love Lisa.”

    “Right, and we found one where … was there a monster at your party last night?”

    “Oh yeah,” Arvin said. “That was Steve.”

    “Oh,” I said.

    “Yeah, Steve’s this monster who lives in the woods behind my house.” He nodded at the trees behind him. “Right there. He’s pretty chill.”

    I looked at the woods. They were normal suburban woods. It wasn’t dark yet.

    “Do you think Steve’s in the woods right now?” I asked.

    “Well, duh,” Arvin said. “You think he’d be at a supermarket or something?”

    I laughed because I wanted to stay in Arvin’s good graces, but really I had no clue what monsters did. Sure I had never seen a monster at a supermarket, but I had also thought until a few hours ago that there weren’t any monsters living in Chillicothe.

    “I’ll see you around, man,” I said to Arvin, high-fiving him and then walking past him toward the woods.

    It didn’t take me very long to find the monster. Only about 60 feet into the woods, I came across a sort of teepee in front of a tall evergreen. The teepee was made of red leaves and long, thin sticks, strung together artistically with twine. I walked around the teepee until I found an opening. Steve was sitting inside, looking at his phone.

    “Hey,” I said. “Steve?”

    He looked up and said, “what up?” Slowly, he came out of the teepee, unfurling his long limbs.

    Here’s my description of Steve. He was seven feet tall, with foot-long horns that shot up from his head like an impala. I’m only five foot five, and the height difference was pretty hot. His body was covered all over with thick, short, brown hair, his face was long and expressive and his ears had tufts at the tips. His arms hung down to his knees and his fingers ended in long, black claws. He was wearing Levis but no shirt, and I could see that under the fur he was very heavily muscled, with an eight-pack and meaty biceps, which as you know is totally my thing. So even though he was a monster, I felt justified in hooking up with him because he was sexy.

    “Do you remember me?” I asked Steve. “From last night?”

    “Oh, yeah,” Steve said. He bent down and squinted in my face. “Sorry, what’s your name?” Probably because of the massive fangs protruding from behind his bottom lip, Steve had a slight lisp. This guy checked all my boxes.

    “I’m Celia,” I said. “We hooked up?”

    “Right, right,” Steve said. “How are you, Celia?”

    “I’m good,” I said. “Listen, Steve, did we have sex last night? Everything in my memory is a little fuzzy.”

    “Yeah, we did,” he said, scratching his arm with a claw. “You were great.”

    “Thanks,” I said.

    It was a little awkward. I knew what I wanted to ask but it was hard to get the words out now that I had this sexy, somewhat frightening, behemoth in front of me.

    “You used a condom, right?” I asked him.

    “Yeah,” he said. “I always use protection. I mean, it’s kind of hard with condoms, because of my…” He looked down at his pants and then back to me with an expression that said, “You know how it is.”

    I certainly did not know how it is. I had a sinking feeling that my blacking out the previous night had cost me memories of interacting with the most interesting penis I was ever likely to find.

    “I like your place,” I told him.

    “Thanks,” he said. “My mom gave me the sticks but I built the rest of it.”

    “Cool,” I said. 

    He seemed open to me asking more questions so I asked him, “Just wondering … what do you eat?”

    “Rabbits.”

    “But you don’t have a fire,” I said.

    “No,” he said.

    “But you have a phone,” I said.

    “Yeah,” he said, a little defensive. “How are these things related?”

    “Oh,” I said. “Um, do you have Insta?”

    “Yeah,” he said. “Follow me?” I followed him.

    The conversation sort of died out.

    “Well, I guess I’ll see you whenever Arvin throws another party,” Steve said.

    “Sounds good,” I said. “Hey, why have I never seen you at any other party in the neighborhood?”

    “The ceilings aren’t tall enough for me usually,” Steve said.

    “That sucks,” I said. “Well, see you around.”

    “Yup.”

    I left the woods.

    Steve was definitely a major hottie, but after chatting with him for a few days over Instagram I felt that we hadn’t really struck up a connection. I figured that if I ever saw him at another one of Arvin’s parties I might hook up with him again, but for now I was back to getting with regular humans and not monsters.

    After I met Steve, I had a few pretty shitty months. Second semester junior year was a bitch and I always felt like I was failing my classes, even though I actually had C+s in all of them. I was stressed out, and so tired that I fell asleep in class all the time. Gym was the pits. I’m great in bed, just ask Steve, and I like to bike, but I’m pretty terrible at all other athletic activities. On top of that, third-best friend Sarah dated another of my exes and we had a massive blowup in front of the entire school during an anti-smoking presentation in the auditorium. Everyone saw it because we were sitting in the first row and I had to stand up to get a good angle for slapping her.

    Meanwhile, my rescue pug Edgar kicked the bucket when he fell down the stairs, which just sucked because he was finally starting to get a following on the Instagram account I had made for him. And worst of all, I finally managed to hook up with Thomas and it turned out to be 100 percent not at all worth all those years of effort I had put in to make it happen. Thomas may have killer biceps but he also has clammy hands and a tendency to shove his tongue down your throat as far as it can go. And I had to pee the whole time we were hooking up.

    But then, a few weeks before the end of the semester, I got really nauseated during math class. I went to the bathroom and promptly vomited straight into the sink. There were a few freshmen in there who caught it all on video but that’s not important.

    So it seemed I was pregnant, which did explain why I had missed my last two periods.

    As I rode my bike to CVS after school to buy a pregnancy test, it occurred to me that it was exactly three months after I had hooked up with Steve. 

    Buying the pregnancy test was awkward as hell, so in an act of defiance I threw in a box of condoms and some lube just for the hell of it and stared the cashier down.

    Half an hour later, two little assholian lines were looking up at me from the plastic stick. I could hear the lines whispering, “Celia, you fucking idiot, you got a monster fetus inside of you.” I wondered what had happened with the condom Steve had used. Maybe his wacky monster penis had torn it somehow, or maybe it had come off. Either way, he was most likely having a grand old time in the woods somewhere while I was the one stuck with a pregnancy I didn’t want and a really embarrassing CVS experience.

    So I did what any self-respecting pregnant 17-year-old would do. I went to Lisa’s house and cried my way through two boxes of tissues. Lisa had no advice for me other than that if I decided to go through with it, she had a long list of baby names that she had been pulling from minor characters on her favorite ABC Family shows. This didn’t make me feel any better so I went home to my mom and cried my way through another two boxes of tissues.

    For once in my life, my mom was actually angry with me, instead of being in awe, probably because she’d had a kid before so she knew all about it and it didn’t seem like anything special. But when she learned that the father was Steve she said, “I’ve never been with a monster,” and then went back to being in awe and asked me a million questions about what Steve was like.

    Finally she asked me if I wanted to have an abortion. The answer was undoubtedly “yes.” I wasn’t ready to have a kid. If I had a kid I wouldn’t have time to do anything I liked to do, like going to parties, and I probably couldn’t go to college, where the parties were supposed to be even better than in high school. I didn’t have a job or any money saved up to support a baby. And although I was sure I could teach a baby all kinds of great selfie poses and how to ride a bike and how to do a keg stand, I didn’t think, when it really came down to it, that I would make a very good mother.

    On top of everything, I wasn’t really sure what kind of baby I would hypothetically be giving birth to. Would it be a weird hybrid of monster and human? I thought it would probably grow up to be super hot, the way mixed-race people are so much hotter than normal people. And as much as I wanted to contribute to the Earth’s pool of hot people, I still really didn’t want to have a kid, especially a monster-y kid.

    When my dad got home, my mom and I told him everything and he yelled at me for getting pregnant and being a disappointment, and then my mom yelled at him, and then he yelled at my mom and then I got on the phone with Planned Parenthood.

    I live in Ohio so, of course, it was a whole thing. I had to fill out a bunch of forms and do a screening and our insurance didn’t cover it so it was really a bitch. It took a week just to set up a final date for the procedure. I spent every night on the phone with Lisa, crying and complaining, but all that venting made me feel better about how stupid I had been.

    I didn’t tell Steve, either about the pregnancy or the abortion. It seemed to me that, considering he had meant to use birth control and he lived alone in the woods, he wasn’t really interested in being a father. We weren’t dating; we hadn’t even texted in like a month. And really, in the end, it was my decision, as the pregnant person, how much information I gave to anyone, if I gave it at all. I thought it was probably better if only a few people knew, and after I had had the abortion I could quietly go back to my normal life, although I was probably going to have to start taking the pill so that I wouldn’t have to rely on just condoms anymore. And also, maybe, I would have to stop having sex with monsters. But they were so hot! But their penises couldn’t handle condoms! But so hot! It was going to be a tough decision.

    The morning of the procedure, my mom, Lisa and I all sat together in my dining room sipping iced tea and talking about literally anything other than babies. They had both agreed to come with me to the appointment because I was nervous. My dad was at work. 

    I took deep breaths and mentally prepared myself. It wasn’t that I was anxious about getting rid of my baby — that I was sure about. I was actually really scared about undergoing surgery. I had only had surgery once the previous year when I had got my wisdom teeth out, and that wasn’t bad at all because they had given me Vicodin and it was the shit. But this surgery was going to involve a doctor having their hands inside my vagina and I was super not into that.

    It was time to go. We went into the front hallway to put on our shoes, and my mom was double checking that we had all the right forms, when there was a loud knock at the door. I opened it.

    It was Steve. He was panting, as though he had run there. Behind me I could hear my mother gasp as she got her first glimpse of him. He was too tall to come inside without ducking, so he just stood awkwardly outside the doorway.

    “Steve,” I said. “What’s up?”

    “Hey, so, listen,” he said. “Arvin told me that you’re pregnant because of me, and that, um, that you want to have an abortion.”

    “Who told Arvin?” I asked him.

    “Sorry, that was me,” Lisa said, quietly.

    I made a mental note to demote Lisa to second-best friend once I had the time.

    I sighed. “Yeah,” I said to Steve. “We’re actually just about to leave to go get the procedure done.”

    “Celia,” Steve said, “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I want to raise the baby with you.”

    “Well, the thing is I’m having an abortion,” I said.

    “I think I would make a good father,” he said. “I’m willing to take on the responsibility.”

    “Steve,” I said, “I’m having an abortion.”

    “Why?” he said.

    “Because I’m 17!” I said, throwing up my hands in exasperation. “I don’t want to give birth. And we only had a one night stand that I didn’t even remember afterward because I was so fucking drunk. You didn’t even remember my name the next day!”

    “Celia, language,” my mom said.

    “Sorry,” I said. “Just go away, Steve, will you?”

    “No,” he said. I thought it was pretty ballsy of him.

    “No?” I said.

    “Here’s the thing,” Steve said. “From the moment I met you I could tell that you have, like, a really strong womb.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “So I’m a monster, right? There aren’t that many of us. We’re kind of endangered, I guess? And my mom always told me that if I came across a girl who smelled like she had a strong womb, I should get that girl to bear my child. And Celia you have a womb that’s like, I don’t know, made of iron or something. So please have the baby. You wouldn’t have to do any of the work. You wouldn’t even have to raise it. I could raise it. The hardest thing about it would be that monster babies do get their full-sized horns in the womb, but after that I would do everything so it wouldn’t be a big deal at all. Please don’t have an abortion, Celia.”

    This was a lot of information to take in.

    “What does my womb smell like?” Lisa asked behind me.

    “Uh, it’s pretty weak,” Steve said.

    “Aw,” she said.

    “Hold the fuck up,” I said. “Steve. Did you actually use a condom, or did you lie about that because you were trying to get me pregnant from the start?”

    “What? No,” he said. “Why would you think that?”

    “Because of literally everything you just told me,” I said.

    “Okay,” he said. “You got me. But here’s the thing, you have to have the baby. Either you call off the abortion or I guess I have to  hold you prisoner in the woods or something until you give birth.”

    “What the fuck?” I said. “You’re crazy!”

    “Are you calling off the abortion?” he asked me.

    “No!” I said.

    His lips curled back in a sort of wolf-like snarl, which actually would have been really sexy if he hadn’t been bending down as though to grab me with his claws.

    “No, you don’t!” my mother said. I whipped around. While Steve and I had been talking, it seemed like she had gotten all of the guns out of the hall closet. Now she had my dad’s Browning hunting rifle aimed straight at Steve.

    “Step away from my daughter,” my mom said. I had never seen her so badass before.

    Steve snarled again and backed out of the doorway but he didn’t leave.

    My mom passed me and Lisa each one of the handguns, all the while keeping her rifle trained on Steve.

    “Get out of here, Steve,” I said.

    “I’m not leaving until you agree to have the baby,” he said.

    “I swear to god, I will shoot you in the face,” I said. I turned the safety off and raised the gun at him menacingly.

    He gave me one last snarl, I guess trying to retain some dignity, and then scrambled off the porch. I looked out of the doorway to watch him fleeing down the road.

    “Holy shit,” Lisa said. “Did you see him snarl? That was so hot.”

    “What are we going to do if he comes after us again?” I asked my mom.

    “We’ll take the guns with us,” she said. “Turn your safety on, Celia.” She looked down at her watch and said, “Oh no, we’re late. All right, ladies, let’s get in the car.”

    We went out to the driveway with our guns up in defensive positions and packed ourselves into the car. My mom was driving, I was in the passenger seat and Lisa was in the backseat with the guns. Lisa and I looked around as my mom pulled out of the driveway, but there was no sign of Steve. I thought maybe he had gone back to his woods, but I couldn’t be sure.

    We began the drive to Columbus in tight silence, all of us nervously looking out the windows for signs of Steve. There wasn’t much traffic on the highway, so we had a clear view of everything around us. My mom put on Light FM which reduced the tension a little. In some ways, this new Steve development was great because I wasn’t nervous about the abortion at all anymore since I was so angry. Who was Steve to say what I should do with my body? Not to mention he had purposefully impregnated me. I was probably the angriest I had ever been, other than the time that my at-one-time-best-friend Jeanine had switched out my ketchup with hot sauce in the middle school cafeteria just to make me look bad in front of my crush, Cody Atkinson. Yeah, I was definitely madder that time, but I was still pretty angry at Steve and my anger burned away all of my fear about a doctor sticking things in my vagina.

    Suddenly Lisa said, “Hey, isn’t that Steve?”

    The left side of the highway was bordered by woods and that was where she was looking. We all craned our necks, and sure enough, there was the asshole, running on all fours along the edge of the woods, following the car.

    “Step on it, Mom,” I yelled, and pretty soon we were doing a hot 80 miles per hour, the wind roaring through the open windows. Still Steve kept pace with us. He was inhumanly fast but he was a monster.

    “Lisa, can you get a good shot at him?” my mom yelled.

    Lisa braced her elbow on the car door and fired. Her bullet went right into a passing tree, not even in line with Steve at all.

    “Shoot,” Lisa said.

    “Lean back, Mom,” I said, taking off my seatbelt and getting the rifle from the backseat. I leaned across my mom and took aim. I’ve always been a good shot. The only thing my father and I do together is yell at each other after I come home wasted from a party and go to shooting ranges together to practice.

    I tracked Steve’s path as he weaved in and out of trees, waiting for the right moment, until a big oak forced Steve to expose himself outside the protection of the woods and I took my shot. I wasn’t sure exactly where I had hit him but he howled and collapsed to the ground. He disappeared from view as our car raced forward.

    “I got him!” I said.

    “Great work,” my mom said. “Now, put your seatbelt back on.”

    “You’re amazing, Celia,” Lisa said, but it didn’t change my mind about demoting her.

    I wasn’t sure if I had killed Steve or just maimed him, but goddammit I was willing to do it again if it meant I could get my abortion. I clutched the rifle to my chest as our car raced toward Columbus.

    As we entered Columbus, we kept looking around for Steve, since it was possible I hadn’t killed him, or not managed to maim him enough to keep him from following us.

    “All right, this is it,” my mom said as we parked next to the Columbus Planned Parenthood. “We’re five minutes late. Let’s hustle. Oh, and bring the guns, just in case,” she said.

    There was a security guard standing outside the front door.

    “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “What do you think you’re doing?”

    “We are late for our appointment!” my mom said.

    “I’m getting an abortion,” I said.

    “We’re being chased by the monster that got her pregnant,” Lisa said.

    “I don’t care who’s chasing you,” the guard said. “You can’t come in here with guns.” He was reaching for his own gun.

    Suddenly my mother was pointing her rifle in his face. “My daughter needs her abortion now!” she screamed.

    “Mom, you’re so cool,” I said.

    “Put down the gun, lady,” the security guard said.

    “Let us in!” my mom said, poking him with the barrel of her rifle to make him move aside. She kept the rifle pointed at him and waved us into the Planned Parenthood.

    The waiting room was empty but the receptionist at the desk had heard the commotion outside. As Lisa and I entered she squeaked, “I’ve called the police! Don’t come any closer!”

    “But I’m here for an abortion,” I said.

    “Don’t hurt me!” the receptionist said.

    “Let go of me!” my mom said. 

    I turned back and found that the security guard had somehow managed to pin my mom to the ground just outside the door. 

    “My daughter needs an abortion!” she said.

    “Shut up!” the security guard said.

    “Everybody calm the fuck down!” I screamed.

    The receptionist began to cry.

    Then suddenly there was a brown blur leaping over the security guard and my mom, and Steve hurtled into the room. He was bleeding profusely from his right thigh. He growled at me, circling me on all fours. I have to admit it was really sexy. It didn’t change that Steve was an asshole, though.

    Lisa had backed herself into the corner of the room, terrified, and incidentally demoted herself to fourth-best friend.

    “You shot me in the leg,” Steve said.

    “You threatened to kidnap me, you fucking weirdo,” I said. “How did you even get here with that leg?”

    “I work out,” he said. God, he was so hot. “That’s not important. Celia. Bear. My. Child.”

    “No,” I said.

    He snarled and kept circling me.

    “I’m going to kill you,” I told him.

    “What the heck is going on?” the receptionist said, sobbing.

    “Celia!” my mom shouted from beneath the security guard.

    I could hear police sirens in the distance.

    “You’re such a bitch!” Steve said. He let out a howl, and then, before I could blink, he had launched himself at me, claws out.

    And suddenly it was bam, bam, bam, bam, bam as I shot Steve over and over again. His blood spattered all over me and his body jerked and twisted until he finally crumpled in a heap on the floor, looking kind of like a really gross rug.

    I turned to face a horrified doctor who had just emerged from an examination room.

    “Hey,” I said. “I’m here for my 3 o’clock.”

    Anyway, so of course it had to be a whole thing where Lisa, my mom and I had to answer a bunch of questions at the police station, but it turned out fine because shooting a monster who attacks you because he wants you to have his kid is actually considered self defense. And then I got my abortion.

    Steve ended up buried a few graves down from Jessica in the cemetery, which made it even more awkward every time I had to ride by.

    Even after everything, it’s not like I don’t go to parties anymore, because I do. I go to all the parties. And I still vomit. But I make sure to never, ever drink until I black out. 

    I have hooked up with one monster since, but it wasn’t an issue.

  10. NONFICTION: The Weight in Her Voice

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    One Friday night in mid-January, I called my mother. I was starting an hourlong drive to my friend’s house in northeastern Connecticut. It was 30 degrees in New Haven. Though it was just after 5 p.m., the sky had already darkened. I shivered as I walked to my car. I hadn’t spoken to my mother in weeks. But I wanted someone to accompany me on the drive. I knew that she would answer — nothing Mom could be doing back in small-town Texas was more important than talking to a daughter who almost never reached out.

    I turned my car’s vents on full blast, sat on my hands and waited for Mom to pick up. Three rings later, and she did. Her voice reverberated through my headphones. There was something slightly off about the sound.

    “Hi, baby girl.”

    “Hey. I’m driving to my friend Jessica’s and figured I’d give you a call… I know I haven’t talked to you in a while.”

    “I’m so glad you called. It makes me happy to hear your voice.”

     “It’s freezing here. It snowed last week and there’s still piles of it laying around.”

    “It’s been pretty chilly here, too,” Mom said. “Not as cold up north, but enough to make me not want to go outside.”

    I tried to imagine what my face looked like as I listened to Mom speak. It must’ve been somewhere between a grimace and a grin. I began almost all of our calls with the same kind of justification, either to prove to myself, to my mother, or to both of us, that the conversation was real. Once upon a time, there’d been four years of silence between us. Even now, I wasn’t sure if I was truly glad to be talking with her again.

    Talking about the weather did nothing to warm the inside of my car. The engine temperature gauge still pointed beneath the coldest indication marker. I gave up on preheating the car, adjusted my headphones slightly and reversed out of the parking lot. Something still sounded off about Mom’s voice. My sense of ease lessened as my car slid onto the road.

    I’d learned back in high school that Mom’s tone of voice could tell me a lot about her state of mind. If she sounded high-pitched and talked a little too fast, I knew that she was in a manic phase. If she spoke with slow and immeasurable exertion, I knew that she was depressed again. In those early years, I was still learning how to live with Mom’s bipolar disorder. I spent many nights on the phone with her while she was held in Hunt County’s Behavioral Services Center — otherwise known as Hunt County mental hospital. I’d learned the absolute highs and lows of her mental illness. I saw how intoxicating the mania could be, how debilitating life was in the mania’s absence.

    Mom had been completely off her medicine when she was in the mental hospital. She was as unhinged as I’d ever seen her. At the time, I was especially vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of her mental illness. I was 15 and dreaming of leaving my alcoholic father and moving in. A year later, I even forewent caution, tried, and failed, to live with Mom. That botched mother-daughter reunion had taught me one thing: Mom’s bipolar disorder was like a whirlpool. If I got too close, I would be sucked down with her.

    New psychiatrists, new genetically tailored cocktails of medication, and a few more stints in the mental hospital had apparently helped Mom regulate her mood and her sound. I’d heard the difference when I called Mom a few months earlier. It was the first time we’d really talked in almost four years. That conversation and a few other intermittent ones had assured me that Mom was sane, far from either of the poles that had haunted me as a teen.

    Sure, these more recent conversations involved unspoken negotiation. What was okay to share? What wasn’t? What conversation would lead to a red zone? How could the conversation be navigated back to green? I tried to stay away from talking about her new husband, Danny, but I’d begun making tangential references to him. I’d learned not to talk about how Mom fucked up raising me and my brother, John. We at least began talking about the positives of the whole thing, mental health stints, unstable households and all. I felt stronger. Mom seemed stronger.

    But this conversation that January night was somehow different. Something about Mom’s voice pricked me.

    I tried not to ask what was wrong. But I was so damn curious. What had happened, given the months upon months of clear voice and sane mind, to cause this new tone?

    “Should I ask?” I thought to myself.

    “No,” my mind answered back. “You know she’ll tell you, and you can’t just remove that burden once she shares it.”

    I’ve had versions of this conversation since high school. Each time, the voice in my head would change tactics slightly. It would try something new to convince me to back off. Each time I had the conversation, the voice grew stronger, smarter. Just as its arguments increased in complexity, so, too, had mine. Today, I felt like arguing back.

    “But she’s been so much better. Shouldn’t I give her a chance?” I really wanted to give Mom a chance, but I couldn’t just forget all the past times I’d been hurt.

    My mind wouldn’t let me just forget. “You know how precarious this is,” it reminded me. “Do you really want to risk losing what little ground you’ve gained with her?”

    I knew I was giving myself good advice. I knew that I came up with this advice because it’d protected me before. But I wanted to try again. I always want to try again. “She seems so much better,” I thought to myself. “Maybe we’re ready to gain more ground. Maybe I’m an asshole for not listening.”

    I figured I wasn’t a kid anymore, that we were moving into the adult version of our relationship. I figured that this time would be different from the others because I would be the one asking, because I would be the one inviting Mom to share her pain. In the face of my refusal to listen, the voice in my head backed off. Just as it had done many times before, it gave me the space to repeat the exact same mistake. Maybe I was a fool for hoping it would be otherwise.

    I had to ask.

       “Is everything alright? You seem upset.”

    Mom was in the middle of explaining how her most recent UTI was causing her a lot of pain and that she had no money, even more no money than usual.

    “Do you really want to know?” She sounded incredulous. I could tell she wanted to talk.

    I said yes.

    ***

    There’s this hidden entrance to the interstate that I only recently discovered. It lets you skip over two onerous downtown New Haven traffic lights and spits you directly onto the open road. You enter it on South Frontage Road just past York Street. To the untrained eye, it looks like you’re pulling into a parking garage. It’s actually a shortcut — a poorly lit tunnel under the parking garage. It feels like it shouldn’t be there.

    Right now, the shortcut is a little mangled because of all the construction on the South Frontage Road on-ramp — what do you expect when multiple on-ramps merge, then, within half a mile, split into I-91 north, I-95 north and I-95 south? You have to be careful. The tunnel is always darker than the open road.

    I was driving through this entrance to the highway, trying to manage listening to my Mom, reading my phone’s GPS and getting onto the right highway — after all, there were three to choose from. Residential New Haven, with all its muddied and hardened snow, with all its well-lit intersections and street-corner homeless, with all its pizza shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, all of it untouched by memories of family — all of it was behind me. Ahead was a dark and empty I-91 and my mother’s voice. Jessica’s house felt so far away.

    “I haven’t told anyone this except my therapist, not even Frank and Connie,” Mom said. Frank and Connie were my aunt and uncle. “That’s part of the problem, actually. I stopped seeing Marjorie. I’ve been looking for a new therapist.”

    “Wait, what’s wrong with Marjorie? I didn’t know that you were still seeing her.”

    Mom sighed. “She said something hurtful to me about Danny, very judgmental. And it wasn’t good for me to hear that. So I’ve been looking for someone else. I just saw this lady in Winnsboro last week and was telling her what’s been going on. And you know how hard that is for me to live through everything again with someone new. The Winnsboro lady also said some mean things about Danny. I’m still trying to find someone to see.”

    “What did they say about Danny? And why does it matter? Aren’t these appointments about you?”

    “I’m trying to get Danny to go to therapy, but I have to find someone who will be sympathetic.”

    “But why does Danny need to go to therapy? And why do they need to be sympathetic?”

    I was missing something. Mom had been seeing Marjorie since I was 11. I remember the countless times John and I had sat together in Marjorie’s 1970s-upholstered waiting room, waiting for the soft-spoken, spindly grey-haired woman to return our mother to us. While Mom worked through her problems every week, John would play discordant keys on a redwood piano and I would scribble into my notebook stories about murderous fathers and kids trapped by their parent’s insanity. Later, I remember when I was 16 and Mom forced me to go to a joint session with Marjorie. We’d “discussed” the “issues” that had come up when I moved in. Marjorie had played so much of a background role in my adolescence that I’d forgotten she’d been there. She’d blended into the wallpaper of my memory, invisible until my mother reminded me that she had always existed.

    Mom had been insulted by Marjorie before but had never left her. A 10-year patient-therapist relationship seemed like something too large to throw away over a comment about a marriage that was only a year old.

    Mom waited a second before she told me.

    “He’s been saying things. Hurtful things to me. About my body… He wants me to get bigger. He’ll say, ‘Oh it looks like you’ve put on a few pounds, that’s good.’ Or when I walk by him, he’ll grab my fat roll and say ‘Oh, I’d really like to see you balloon with a baby in your stomach.’”

    My mother already weighs over 250 pounds. I can’t even remember if I said ‘what the fuck’ out loud or if I kept it in my head.

    “Mom, that’s not okay. He shouldn’t be saying those things to you.”

    “I know that, Lydia. I know, and it makes me so upset. I joined that Big and Beautiful dating website, and you know I’ve never paid for a dating website before, but I paid for this one because I wanted to find someone who would love me for me, not want me to get bigger. I don’t want to get bigger.”

    “You don’t want to have another baby… do you?”

    “No. Danny already has 10 kids, and I don’t want anymore. Besides, I don’t even think I can. A few years after you were born, they performed endometrial ablation on me. I was having really heavy bleeding from some of the medication my psychiatrist had prescribed me, and when I switched doctors, they took me off the hormone therapy treatment and did the ablation instead. It basically burned my uterine wall. That with all this weight — it would be very hard for me to have kids.”

    I didn’t know what to say. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I remembered the telephone boyfriend Mom had who’d said very similar things about her weight. I remembered the conversations I’d had with Mom when she explained that some men fetishized big women, that she herself had grown so big to stop people from looking at her. But to hear the same type of conversation from her husband — someone she’d been with now for over a year. My mother’s vulnerability was men. It always had been.

    Halfway across the country, I shook my head.

    When John had called me at the end of my sophomore year and said that Mom was trying to get married again, I wasn’t surprised. When he told me that the new husband, Danny, had 10 kids and had been accused of rape by his previous wife, I was appalled, but not surprised. John and I had told Mom that if she went through with it, we wouldn’t speak to her. We wouldn’t have a relationship with him. She’d gone through with it anyway. John and I both gave their marriage a year. Her last marriage hadn’t even lasted a month.

    The marriage had survived the year, but this conversation was making me think it had been crumbling and that Mom had been hiding that fact. It was a new turn of events.

    ***

    My sweaty hands stuck to the steering wheel. I squinted and looked out at the empty Connecticut highway before me. I was nearing Meriden, my GPS inching forward in mile increments as I approached the exit to merge onto I-691. The heater had finally warmed up, and now the car felt too hot. I tried to look in my rearview and saw only fog. I looked down: back window defrost was on. I shook my head and continued to squint.

     “Mom, if he’s harming you, physically or mentally, then you need to make sure you’re putting your own comfort and safety first. You don’t have to put up with this.”

    She pivoted, as well. “Well, he’s gotten much better. He’s not as selfish anymore. When we first started dating, see, we only did what he wanted to do — only watched his movies and did his hobbies. Well, he lets me pick the shows sometimes now. And he’s really sweet to me. He puts up with me waking up screaming, and he does things for me.

    “I just want him to see someone. It’s not just the comments about my weight. He also won’t kiss me. Maybe like once a month. Sure, he pecks all the time but I’m talking about tongue kissing. That makes him very uncomfortable. And sex makes him uncomfortable, too. He can’t even say dick or vagina. He just says down there and points. If we try to have oral sex, he goes soft because it makes him uncomfortable. And he won’t talk about it.”

    When I start backing away, my mind goes fuzzy. It stops cataloging everything in detail. It tries to protect me. It was a skill I’d perfected back in high school — emotionlessness. And I felt it now. I felt myself retreating from her. My responses felt more disconnected. I would bear everything that my mother was sharing, but I wouldn’t let her know that she was hurting me.

    “Well, even if he won’t talk about it, I can guess why he’s like that,” I said. The words felt callous on my tongue.

    “You think he was sexually abused?”

    “If I had to guess, it was by a man.”

    “I was thinking something similar, but I don’t know because he won’t tell me. All he says about his childhood is that his female family members told him he was good for nothing. He went through a lot of verbal abuse, and I know what that feels like. The only person who ever cared about him was his grandmother, and that’s why he’s on this whole Catholicism bent. His grandmother says that he’s not a real Italian if he’s not Catholic. And that’s the only person he cares about.”

    “Wait.” The mask slipped a little. “So that’s why you’re converting?”

    “That’s the only reason,” she responded. “And it’s becoming a lot more than I expected. All the classes to learn how to be Catholic and all the restrictions. So many restrictions. They basically want me to say that I see the error of how I’d been worshipping before… I’ve been Southern Baptist basically my whole life. I was happy with my relationship with God.”

    “I know you were.”

    “I didn’t think I needed to change it.”

    “Then why are you changing it?”

    “Because Danny wants to prove something,” Mom said. “He wants to be a full Italian. But it’s expensive. We both have to get all of our previous marriages annulled before the Catholic Church will recognize our marriage. An easy way is to ask your Dad to give me his marriage certificate to Cindy Jo. But then I’d have to talk to your Dad. And then there’s still Johnny and John to get annulled, too.

    “The other option is to pay for the divorce certificates. But we don’t have any money because of his child support and all my UTIs. And to do all this without money, I’d have to fill out pages of paperwork explaining what happened in the marriage and argue why it should be annulled and then hope that it gets approved. But a lot of what happened in those marriages was very traumatic for me, and I don’t think I can write it all down just for this. Even for Danny.”

    “Well can’t you guys just go to the Catholic Church and not be Catholic? Why does it have to be official?”

    “Because Danny wants to receive the sacrament. He says it doesn’t count if he can’t do that.”

    John and I had laughed about the Catholicism gimmick, about how Mom was giving up one fundamentalist religion for an even more restrictive one. It was funny from a distance, but hearing it from my mother’s mouth saddened me. She didn’t sound manic. She didn’t sound depressed. She sounded trapped.

    I knew the feeling well. I’d worked so hard to leave my parents’ issues behind me. I’d traveled halfway across the country to go to college and escape them completely. The plan had worked as long as I severed myself from them. But this phone call was renewing our connection. It was one I’d asked for. The line, invisible from Sulphur Springs to Connecticut, had roped me and was pulling me back in.

     

    In some places, the speed limits in Connecticut are much slower than in Texas. As you leave New Haven, the speed limit’s 55. Once you leave New Haven’s city limits, the number of exits decreases, and the winding highway straightens. And thus, the speed limit rises.

    For much of my childhood, the speed limit on the highway through the center of Sulphur Springs was 70 miles per hour. But there’d been complaints that it was too slow. So the Department of Transportation did a test, and at some moment in time before I could drive, the speed limit was raised to 75. There’s an equation that can predict how many more deaths a stretch of highway will see given each mile-per-hour increase in the speed limit. The speed limit outside Meriden was 70. I was going 85. My foot inched down on the accelerator.

    “Mom, you need to talk to Danny. Tell him these things you’re telling me. If you don’t want to be Catholic, you don’t have to be. Y’all are in a relationship together. These are conversations you can have. He needs to make sure you’re comfortable, not just you doing the same for him.”

    “That’s why I want him to go to therapy, Lydia. I really think it would help him, but he completely refuses. He says I’ll just try and blame everything on him and that it’ll be his fault and he won’t do it.”

     “Have you read that book I gave you?”

    “No.”

    I began to feel stupid. “Have you started writing anything at least?”

    “I really need a therapist to do that. It’s hard for me to think about that stuff, Lydia. I told you, I still wake up screaming at the top of my lungs, and I don’t want that to get worse.”

    The last time I was home, Mom and I had gone to Chili’s. We’d sat in her car for an hour waiting for a table. Once inside, we’d talked for two more hours. I talked to her about my education, how it had helped me realize that a lot of what we’d gone through together had been the product of our circumstances and not our own fault. I told her that I’d forgiven her and that, in the process, I felt more powerful. I encouraged her to do the same. She’d been interested. She’d asked questions — how she could start, how she could learn to use her traumas as a strength to help others. I’d given her a copy of my professor’s book about writing. I’d said, read this and start where it feels comfortable. It’s your story. You get to write it, so write it first for you, not for me. I’d left that conversation feeling like a new breakthrough had been made. I thought I’d convinced Mom to try the path that was working for me. I’d hoped that she did.

    I’d convinced myself of a lie. I’d become invested in Mom getting better, in believing that she was. The cycle was reinforcing itself again.

    Mom needed love so badly that she married anyone who would have her. She didn’t realize what she was getting herself into and how her new husbands’ issues might exacerbate her own. The partner who was meant to accompany her had succeeded in further isolating her. And here lies the conundrum: Still, she hoped. She’d married Danny because of hope; she was trying to force him into counseling because of hope. It was intoxicating, watching my mother hope in one hopeless situation after another. Even after four failed marriages and 20 years of abuse and loneliness, she still hadn’t learned. She still thought that she wasn’t worth anything more.

    How do you convince someone they’re worth something?

    ***

    My drive was coming to an end. The GPS told me that my exit was approaching, 15 minutes away. The roads near Jessica’s house were winding and poorly lit, nothing like the bright and well-trafficked neighborhoods in downtown New Haven, nothing like the unfaltering straight-edged rows of houses back in Sulphur Springs. I struggled to see where I was going.

    I also struggled to respond. I couldn’t process my role in my mother’s life. I was angry. I was tired of seeing my mother suffer. I was tired of suffering because of my mother’s suffering. I called her because I wanted a parent. I’ve kept calling her because I want family. I want some semblance of unfaltering, uncomplicated love.

    We started talking about my graduation. I don’t even know how I changed the subject.

    “Frank and Connie have already bought their plane tickets,” Mom said. “They already rented their hotel room and said they’re going to be there no matter what, even if there’s no ceremony. Danny and I still need to save up to get our tickets, but Frank and Connie said we could stay with them.”

     “How did Frank and Connie know what days to come? Yale hasn’t announced officially what graduation will look like for us. They don’t know if we’ll be vaccinated yet, so they haven’t released any details.”

    “Frank said they looked at dates listed on some website. I don’t know, but they’re going to be there, and Danny and I are doing everything in our power to be there, too.”

    I had to say it. “Mom, I don’t want Danny at my graduation.”

    She was silent for a few seconds, and the tone of her voice changed yet again. It was guarded. Insulted. “Can I ask why?”

    I couldn’t really see where I was going. It was cold. The windows were foggy. I kept driving. “Because I don’t know him, Mom. Because he hasn’t had any kind of role in my life. I’m uncomfortable around him.” I couldn’t stop. “My graduation is about me. It’s about celebrating my accomplishments and about having who I want to be there. I don’t want to be uncomfortable or feel awkward. I wasn’t sure until recently if I even wanted you there. I definitely don’t want Dad there, and I don’t want Danny either.”

    I was angry. I was cold. Five minutes away.

    “Do you want me there?” Mom’s voice was quieter.

    “Yes, I want you there, Mom. I just don’t want him.”

    The silence grew. I was swearing to myself. This was not how I wanted this conversation to go. This was not the right time.

    I could’ve sworn that the drive to Jessica’s hadn’t been so dark the last time I did it. But I couldn’t see. The GPS wasn’t helping. The other cars’ headlights were blinding. I tried not to drive off the road.

    Three minutes away.

    I couldn’t take it anymore. “Mom, I have to go. I’m almost to my friend’s house… It was nice talking to you.”

    “I love you.”

    “I’ll call you soon.”

    I turned into Jessica’s neighborhood. I drove and parked my car outside her house. I could see that it was lit inside. It looked warm. It looked loved.

    I shook myself as I got out of the car. I swallowed the weight, as I’d swallowed it many times before. I walked inside. I cleared my voice and hoped that it would be cheery.