Tag Archive: Mag Latest Issue

  1. Meet the Winners of the 2024 Wallace Prize!

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    Read the winners of the 2024 Wallace Prize on the YDN website or in our digital issue.

     

    Maude Lechner is a senior in Berkeley College, majoring in English. When she is not reading or knitting, she’s usually writing stories about women who date (literal) monsters. Maude wrote “Camouflage” during her residency at Wildacres Retreat.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Adriana Golden is a senior from the Bay Area who now calls Davenport home. She studies English with a concentration in fiction, performs sketch comedy, and conducts psychiatric research at the Connecticut Mental Health Center. Her fiction has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review

     

     

    Cal Barton is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. He is an English major in Morse College and fancies himself a master procrastinator. Cal enjoys almond croissants, art galleries, and making up phrases.

     

     

    Aya Ochiai is a junior in Timothy Dwight from Skagit Valley, WA (i.e. not Seattle). She is majoring in mechanical engineering and environmental studies and until recently, avoided writing at all costs. She requests that you not report her to the police for the contents of her essay (pretty please).

     

     

    John Nash is a senior in Benjamin Franklin College. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, he majors in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and works in the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. 

     

     

    Zoe Larkin is a writer and a Cognitive Science major (as a joke). She’s from California but she currently lives in the moment.

     

     
    Arden Yum is a junior in Benjamin Franklin studying Cognitive Science. She is from New York City and writes a weekly newsletter called Ad Hoc.
     

     

    Lara Mohamed is a freshman in Benjamin Franklin college from Arlington, Virginia. In her free time, she enjoys spending hours at her desk writing essays and poetry. She plans on majoring in global affairs and history. She is a first-year liaison for the Yale Arab Association, Assistant Secretary General of Branding for Yale Model United Nations, and an upcoming peer liaison for the Afro-American cultural center for the next school year.

  2. Announcing the winners of the 2024 Wallace Prize

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    The Yale Daily News Magazine is thrilled to publish the winners of the 2024 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: “English Station” by Aya Ochiai ’25
    Second Place: “Maishe’s Bower” by John Nash ’24
    Third Place: “Chicken Person” by Zoe Larkin ’24

    Honorable Mention: “Bathhouse” by Arden Yum ’25
    Honorable Mention: “My Grandparents’ Villa” by Lara Mohamed ’27

     

    Fiction:

    First Place: “Camouflage” by Maude Lechner ’24
    Second Place: “Deliverance” by Adriana Golden ’24
    Third Place: “Poster Child” by Cal Barton ’25
    Honorable Mention: “The Skin Shed” by Cal Barton ’25

     

    Learn more about the 2024 winners here.

    Thank you to the many students who submitted and the anonymous panel of professionals who volunteered their time and expertise.

  3. NONFICTION: Bathhouse

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    This piece received an honorable mention in the nonfiction category of the 2o24 Wallace Prize.

     

    Niseko, Japan. 

    After sliding off my snow-soaked boots, I walk barefoot on the mahogany floor to the elevator, down the hallway to our room, through the unlocked door. The front desk gave us a key when we arrived—not an electronic card, a real key strung to a piece of smooth wood—but we never bother to use it. The room is small for four people; there are two twin beds and two makeshift cots atop the tatami mat. The walls are made of cypress and absorb the sounds of our voices. I undress and unfold one of the tan linen sets from the stack in the closet. I slip oblong beads through loops to fasten the top. The pants fall only to my shins. 

    The Women’s bath is marked by English letters, Japanese characters, and a red engraving of a woman in a dress, with lines of steam emanating from her scalp. Inside there is a dressing room: one side is lined with vanities, the other with braided wicker baskets. I tie my hair into a loose bun, take off my uniform, and place my belongings in a basket. When I meet my eyes in a vanity mirror, I instinctively look away, afraid that someone will catch me staring. I walk to the opposite end and open the inner door, switching places with a pocket of vapor. 

    For a moment I am alone in the dark, cavelike chamber. I tiptoe along the jagged stone until I reach the bath, testing the temperature with my fingers before getting in. The water is gently simmering, and I move toward the edge as the door opens again. A woman enters. Her body is pale, almost luminescent in the hot, damp haze. There is no meekness to her nudity, but there is no pride either. She lowers herself into the bath and sits perpendicular to me. She knows this ritual better than I do. We do not look at each other out of politeness, or modesty. Only our heads are above the water. I want to turn mine toward hers, I want to study her face. 

    I am thinking about my body moving through the snow, my frozen toes pressing against the polymer plastic boots, carving my skis into each turn. It was only two hours ago, but the distance feels immense. In the clear gray water, I imagine the minerals seeping into my skin, softening my hangnails and calluses, and the heat and pressure of the steady stream untangling the knots in my muscles, setting them in place. My legs are tired. They float to the surface. – 

    Earlier that day, on the mountain, wind swept the top layer of snow into levitating spirals. I could not measure the steepness of the slopes until they were underneath me. After four years, my turning felt imprecise; one ski lagged behind the other. I was frustrated at how difficult it was to remember how to position my body, how to allocate weight on each foot. The snow was incessant and came down in thick, jagged pieces. But the barren trees were beautiful, as if transposed from the watercolor forests on Japanese screens, where the ink branches taper off into a single point. They collected snow on their upper edges, dark brown outlined in white. In the afternoon, I took off my mittens and slipped two coins into the outdoor vending machine. My fingers shivered as I popped open the metal tab to take a sip of lemon soda, crisp and sweet. 

    That morning, my mother fell on her very first run. She was a hundred feet from the bottom of the mountain when her vision went completely blank, snow and sky indistinguishable from one another. When she described it to me later, using her index and middle fingers to mime out what happened to her legs, I couldn’t fully picture it. She lost her balance, she sped across the snow, she tumbled over onto one side, she heard her knee crack. And then there was incredible, sharp, unbearable pain. My father was behind her. He stopped, removed his skis, called the emergency patrol, and waited for them to arrive. 

    I was unaware of all of this. My brother and I had already reached the base when we craned our necks to make out the two halted figures: my mother, horizontal, and my father standing beside her. We wondered what was taking so long, why he could not just pull her upright. I was getting cold and impatient, curling my hands into fists to keep them warm. Then the orange-jacketed patrol arrived, placed my mother in a sled, and pulled her downhill. My dad came down to tell us he was taking her to the hospital. He gave us a couple thousand yen for lunch and instructed us to bring their gear back to the hotel. The afternoon of skiing felt forbidden, like testing fate. I was careful not to go too fast, not to push my luck. – 

    The woman gets out of the bath, rinses herself with the hand shower on the opposite wall, and disappears into the changing room. It is silent besides the ripple of the jet. In the water I begin to mouth breathy half-sentences that dissolve in the humidity. In summers spent alone, sometimes I would not say a word aloud until the mid-afternoon. My thoughts swam around in my head, amorphous and unfinished, until I had to order coffee at a counter, or call a friend to catch up. But now I speak into the empty room to hear my voice directed only at myself. I verbalize my observations, about the space, the sensations. I think of my mother in the local hospital, in the ambulance, and my strings of words start to resemble prayers. I look at my pruned fingertips and pretend they are wrinkles. I clasp my hands together, interlocking my knuckles. When I get out my skin is so soft, as if its outer layer has been shed. 

    After four days of this ritualized bathing I am starting to understand that here, the body is a reverent thing. Back at home, I bite my nails, I wake up too early, I drink alcohol, I cram my toes into tight shoes and tape bandaids on my blisters. I hate the beach, I cannot swim more than fifty meters, I do not particularly like getting wet. But in this place, each body is softened, purified. Healing is not a luxury but a daily practice. Each day I bend my knees and carve snakelike patterns into the snow. I lose circulation in my fingers and toes. I create tiny tears in my muscles. Then I sit in the bath and they are repaired.

    I am a tourist, and this is a hotel, but something about the hot spring water still feels preserved, like the minerals are unchanged, like this stream feeds into itself and continues forever. I think of my worn body becoming sound, my young body aging, my skin fading in the winter and then deepening again in the sun. I think of returning to this place when my wrinkles are real, sinking into the same bath, catching my gaze in the mirror and holding it there. 

     

    My mother declares that she will never ski again. She mourns the next eight months that will look different now that she is hurt. For the three days, she sits reclined in a massage chair while my father, my brother, and I go to the mountain. We all wear the same jackets and snow-pants that collect moisture during the day and dry draped on the furniture at night. We eat boiled clams and pickled root vegetables and fragrant rice out of clay pots for breakfast. We wait for the shuttle to pick us up at ten. We take the lift up and down the mountain, breaking for an hour to eat lunch. After enough runs, my body starts to remember how it used to move. The shuttle returns at four and the drive home feels longer because we are all exhausted, and our stop is the final one. By five, I am in the bath. Dinner is at seven. My brother and I alternate who retrieves the wheelchair from the front desk and who returns it after we finish eating. My mother props her leg up on a stool and asks us how the snow was. It was good, we tell her, but we couldn’t see anything. You have to be careful, she replies. In bed as I am waiting to fall asleep, I prepare myself for the snow and eagerly anticipate the water. For three days I glide through the motions. The plans are laid out like the next morning’s folded clothes. 

     

    My mother gets surgery a month after we return to New York. When I visit her from school a few days later, she has graduated to white ergonomic crutches. She smiles when I bring her water and her laptop and ask about her pain. 

     

    I do not know what it feels like to tear my leg, but I know it can be just as much a psychological burden as a physical one. Last year, I ran too fast for too long, ignoring an acute throbbing under my kneecap. Afterward I was in such agony I could barely walk. I went to a doctor who told me I hadn’t broken or fractured anything. I wouldn’t have to get operated on or wear a brace. Instead, he printed out a prescription for physical therapy and a map of clinics in the city. I’d have to slowly build strength in my hip flexors, hamstrings, and ankles if I wanted to keep running. 

    I never went to physical therapy, even though there were dozens of locations nearby. A part of me didn’t believe a series of banded exercises and calf massages would heal me. The other part was just impatient. After a few weeks of rest, I ran a mile without stopping, but as soon as I tried to go farther, the biting pain returned, and I walked back home. 

    I hurt myself in March, and I didn’t begin truly running again until July. I was sick of being injured, so I built up distance slowly, and I stopped when I started to feel my knee throb. At the end of the summer, I ran ten miles on a paved bike path in California that wove between the highway and the dehydrated brush. I started at the coast, headed inland, and listened to a podcast about being an American in Paris. When I passed other runners, we lifted our hands and waved, sometimes mouthing hello or good morning in between our heavy breaths. The cushioned outsoles of my sneakers floated along the concrete. The wind carried the salty ocean air eastward. There was no pain. I finished the run a few blocks away from the house I was living in, and as I walked back sweaty and thirsty and panting, I felt like crying. 

    If I had taken myself to therapy, or committed to doing a mobility routine each morning, I could have recovered faster. But I was so frustrated at the time it would take to heal my knee that I did not want to invest in it at all. I saw my body as hindering me from activity, from progress. My body was separate from myself, an instrument I was randomly granted and had to manage. I used to complain to my parents for passing down the genetics that designed my short legs, shallow-set eyes, scoliosis. My curved spine was not me; it was a mistake in my hardware. 

    But in the bath, I was inextricable from my body. I could not be angry at it. I felt the millions of little pieces shifting around, reforming myself after a day outside, and I was grateful. I understood why athletes use saunas and ice baths to recover after putting their bodies, themselves, under such immense stress. I used to hate stretching after exercise. Now I know it is just as essential as the run. It untangles all the knots. 

    My mother never got to go into the bath again; it was too difficult to maneuver after her fall. But she has been to physical therapy, and she is boarding flights and going into her office and visiting her two kids at college on crutches. She cannot run the marathon in September that she signed up for, but she will be able to walk without assistance by then. Her anger toward the incident has softened into understanding, to hope. We are gentler around her, and she is gentler toward herself. The first night we arrived in Niseko, my mother went to the bath without me. She told me she was the only one there. I wonder where she sat, if she said anything aloud. 

    I am writing this now trying to remember the route that takes me back to the bathhouse, my footsteps on the wet stone floor, dim, warm, quiet. The water we shared, the single steadiness that made us new. Imperceptibly, powerfully, without consideration for who we were or why we had come. A mother and her daughter. A swollen knee, a steady heart. A sinking into oneself. A secret spoken aloud, swallowed by the steam.

  4. NONFICTION: My Grandparents’ Villa

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    This piece received an honorable mention in the nonfiction category of the 2o24 Wallace Prize.

    Every inch of a typical Nubian home along the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt is covered in  bright colors. In a village, one house might be blue with bright red on the side and yellow on the  top. The house built into the hill above it may be very similar, except it is mostly yellow or  orange instead of blue. None of the doors are locked. Paintings and sculptures of crocodiles and  palm trees fill the exterior walls of the house, highlighting the Nubian people’s gratitude for the  land they live on. Nubians create beautiful artwork using the palm fronds of date trees and play  songs on the oud, an eleven-string Middle Eastern instrument that is very similar to the lute, near the river. Nubians live among centuries-old artifacts and land filled with unmined gold in places like Wadi Allaqi.

    With deep connections to their land, my grandparents and the Nubian people never anticipated the day when their most valuable asset would be stripped away from them. The Egyptian government, led by President Gamel Abdel-Nasser, wanted to build the Nile River Dam in 1964. This project was advertised as a source of prosperity and as a way to make the country more technologically advanced, but that came at the expense of the indigenous people. The only alternative to leaving their homeland was drowning to death, so my grandparents and about fifty thousand people rushed to pack their things. Carrying children in their arms and boxes over their heads, the Nubians waited in long lines to be thrown into crowded ships.  

    The descendants of the Kingdom of Kush and the Black pharaohs of Egypt had once  submerged the heads of their babies in the Nile River’s blue waters for good luck. Now, they  watched as the river flooded their land, swallowing their centuries-old histories. One of their  most precious artifacts, the Abu Simbel temple, would have been buried underwater had it not been for UNESCO. Many women miscarried during that year, their bodies witnesses to the  horrors of Nasser’s decree. Nubian musicians started singing about the hardships of displacement and the longing for their land. 

    When my grandparents and other Nubians arrived in their new “homeland” in Kom  Ombo, a place just over thirty-two miles away from Aswan, they were shocked to find it along a  mountain in a desert filled with scorpions. Unlike their land, where any seed planted into the  ground would quickly grow into a tree, this land was unsuitable for farming. Finding himself  jobless, my grandfather searched for a new place to call home. With barely any money, he  moved to Hadayek Helwan, a quiet suburb of Cairo. Nubians were ostracized due to their Arabic  accents and Blackness, so they naturally gravitated toward banding together. Many, hoping to  keep the sense of community they had lost, followed in my grandfather’s footsteps, until, slowly,  they became a large portion of Hadayek Helwan’s population. They might not have been in  Aswan anymore, but like the wind, they followed each other wherever they went, holding tight to all they could of their past. 

    In Cairo, my grandfather was now at the lowest rung of the social ladder. Everyone in his family had been a farmer, so he was not equipped with the necessary skills or tools to find a job. It took many years for him to improve his social standing. He joined the army and worked as a chef for an oil company before heading to America to work for the Ambassador of Libya to the United States. Once he had saved enough money, he bought a three-story villa. While the gray building with little color, a tiny garage, and a garden was nothing compared to the house he grew up in, it was something my grandfather was proud of. My grandparents spent part of every year in this house, going back and forth between Egypt and the United States, until my grandfather got sick, and they moved to the United States full-time.

    Over the years, whenever I visited Egypt, I spent my time in the villa. The villa had two  living rooms, but one had fancier sofas, a chandelier, and a keyboard piano. My grandmother  found it necessary to create a space that was untouched by her messy grandchildren. As a kid, I  played hide and seek with the stray cats that snuck into the villa. I picked mangoes and dates  from the villa’s trees, but over time, because of our neglect, the trees withered. Our friends liked  to play in the garden and veranda because they did not have a similar outdoor space in their  house. Many of their families had not been as lucky as mine had. Their financial situation had  not changed too much from when they first arrived in Cairo, and society kept inflicting  challenges on them to keep them at the bottom. 

    The third floor of the house was usually off-limits as it was mainly used for storage. A trip to the third floor was like traveling through a time machine. There were old suitcases from the 1980s and broken TVs. A lot of the things in the storage needed to be thrown away but my  grandparents did not want to go through the hassle of cleaning out the storage, especially since  they were older and did not want to go up all those stairs. The third floor opens onto the rooftop, where we used to dry our laundry. The rooftop was like a stage where all our neighbors could see us and talk about us. Thus, we resorted to using the balcony on the second floor. 

    From the rooftop, you could see the villa’s street and the street next to it, called Mahmoud El-Shamy. One time, a visitor at the villa thought Mahmoud El-Shamy must be a carnival or amusement park, we were so eager to go there. It was simply the name of the street where everyone gathered, and you could drop by unexpectedly and find people sitting on the street, often munching on snacks from the nearby store. There were usually some kids playing soccer, hopscotch, or some games that they could play without needing toys. Sometimes the Nubian men would gather there after work. Nubian women also went to Mahmoud El-Shamy whenever they needed a break, but it was more likely to be younger, unmarried women there. 

    The adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, came from the local mosque and echoed through  the house five times a day. It woke me up early in the morning. I would always rush to pray at  the sound of the adhan, feeling a sense of shame if I didn’t. I felt more connected to God when I was in the villa. Not only did the adhan bring me a sense of peace, but seeing people who had way less than me devote so much of their time to their religion pushed me to become a better Muslim.

    Eventually, all my grandparents’ children and their families moved to the United States, mostly to Virginia, which is where many Nubian Americans live. Even when Nubians move abroad, they try to retain their communities by staying together. Despite moving abroad, my grandparents refused to sell the house, which was a living reminder of their Egyptian heritage. When someone broke into their house, they had relatives install barbed wire around the gates. The only time my entire extended family could visit the villa together was when one of my mother’s five siblings got married. Once, there were multiple villas in the adjacent streets, but when some of those villas were sold, money-hungry individuals replaced the villas with tall apartment buildings. With only our villa surviving, whenever we were back in Egypt, everyone came to know us as the “people of the villa.” The mysterious ones that showed up every few years whenever they seemed to remember their house. 

    Sometimes, the villa was a community center. I would wake up with my curly hair spinning in all kinds of directions and boom, I would spot someone in our living room having a conversation with my aunt. The house was always occupied by our local friends working hard to make up for the eighty percent of the time when we were abroad and the house was silent. They would drop by unexpectedly, sometimes for a cup of tea. Unlike Americans, they were not overbooked, and gossiping about something for hours was a perfectly acceptable way to spend their time. 

    Even without the visitors, my family—with my aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, mother,  and grandparents—was enough to fill the house. For my younger cousins, the two-month  vacation was a big upgrade from the sleepovers we had every Saturday night at my grandparents’ house in Arlington, Virginia. Unlike the house in Virginia, lacking in toys, the villa became the site of my cousin’s treasure trove as they tracked down decades-old photos and scanned the pages of the Arabic Mickey Mouse magazines they could not read, piecing together the remains of their parents’ childhoods. 

    In 2013, when I was eight years old, we went back for my Aunt Mona’s wedding. Now that I had exhausted all the opportunities to search the villa, and was growing up and becoming more curious, Cairo became the site of my new treasure hunt. I visited a museum in Tahrir Square with my mother and two siblings. I remember seeing the artifacts filled with dust, and it was hard to see the artifacts because many of the glass containers did not have working lights.  Many artifacts were stolen from the museum’s storage during the 2010s. It was rumored that  high-profile members of the government sold the artifacts to make fast cash for themselves. The day after my aunt’s Henna Night (a traditional celebration for brides), the country installed a 9:00pm curfew. My aunt was forced to move her wedding to the morning. Military tanks  loomed in front of the church. A little after the Arab Spring, the coup that would allow President Sisi to grasp power was unfolding before my eyes. This began a period of mass arrests and killings. My ten-year-old self did not understand what was happening during this time. When I left to go back to the United States, I was so preoccupied with back-to-school plans that I did not think about the military tanks or events I witnessed. 

    After I finished middle school, we returned to the villa. My family dynamic was different, which surprised the Nubian locals. My parents had divorced earlier that year, which is  something that is often looked down upon by many Arab communities. More specifically,  Nubian communities, who have witnessed their culture being suppressed over generations, can  only rely on themselves to sustain their cultural values. The Nobiin language used to have more  words, but when older members of the community died without passing the entire vocabulary of the language to the next generation, those words were forever lost. Now, people speaking Nobiin must occasionally mix in Arabic filler words to make up for words they do not know in Nobiin. Our history is carried by our families, not by the Egyptian government. Photographs of our displacement are stored in people’s homes and Facebook pages. Nubians’ remedy to these threats to the preservation of our culture and history is to keep future generations connected to the culture. Even as Nubians become less centralized and move abroad, there remains immense  pressure to continue the practice of marrying another Nubian to keep children immersed in their culture and historical background. My parents’ divorce made people feel uncomfortable.  However, since the rules had already been broken, I felt more liberated from this cultural  expectation. I could carry on the culture in a different way than just passing it onto the next generation. 

    After all my mother’s siblings had gotten married and Egypt entered a period of some stability, we flew from the United States to Egypt for another summer vacation together in the villa. This fell in the summer after I graduated from high school. The problems with a house that was not lived in began to catch up to us. The adults were all arguing over the beds that needed new mattresses, the rooms that needed air conditioning, the shower heater that only worked in one bathroom, and the old kitchen that desperately needed renovation. They did not want their vacation to turn into a segment of HGTV’s House Hunters International Renovation, but nobody was willing to make a separate flight in the future just to fix the house. However, it was not just the house. It took hours for everyone to get ready to go somewhere, and we always needed a microbus. Everyone was tense and annoyed with each other by the time we left. 

    The suburb, Hadayek Helwan, changed too. Four years before, my brother and I had felt like millionaires when we converted our American dollars to Egyptian pounds. Everything in Egypt was so cheap that we paid about $0.05 at the local store for sugar cane juice. Now, after the pandemic, the price was much higher. Hadayek Helwan had also become increasingly crowded and auto rickshaw vehicles, or “tuk-tuks,” filled every street corner. Many of our extended family members moved away, chasing after the same quiet sounds that had initially brought my grandfather and them to Hadayek Helwan. 

    I began noticing things that never crossed my mind when I was younger. When my family went to visit the pyramids, the cashier was insistent on us paying the price for foreigners. He argued that we were not Egyptians, but rather Sudanese or of some other ethnicity. He assumed that our Blackness made us different. While we speak the same dialect of Arabic, not many Egyptians recognize or understand our complex history. They may listen to our music, which was carried by Mohamed Mounir across multiple countries, or watch Bakar, a cartoon show centered around a Nubian Egyptian character. However, as I learned when a truck driver commented on the darkness of my skin when I was crossing the street, Nubians are subject to racist comments in their daily life. The Egyptian government once used our Nobiin language, which is solely spoken and not written, as a secret code for the military because we were the outsiders in Egyptian society, and few people understood our language. My family became “foreign” at a new level in 1964 when we went from outsiders who were left alone to oppressed minorities. 

    The villa is all we have left. It is a cultural hub, where we can practice our culture in a  vacuum, without fears of assimilating into mainstream Egyptian culture or being judged. It was big enough for everyone to gather and anyone was free to use it as their venue for their events. The memories of us dancing to Nubian songs, cooking together, or participating in some other bonding experiences made the villa feel like home to many members of our community. 

    On that recent trip, I started treating Egypt like a treasure hunt again. My second cousins who lived in Egypt were now in college. On the metro, people put products from napkins to hairbrushes and small toys in my lap. Unless you paid for the product, they came back to pick it up again. Many of the sellers were small kids or women, but that might have been because we were in the women’s only metro carriage. They mastered the art of showing you the product while leaving just enough time to hide it when the metro arrived at stations where there was a huge police presence. My second cousins often carried on conversations in Nobiin in public spaces, leaving me and others on the metro clueless. They had learned it from their grandparents and at that moment, I wanted to rush home and have a study session with my grandmother. I wanted to have the words flow off my tongue easily. However, part of me did not want to go through the hassle of learning a new language, especially after years of Arabic and Spanish studies. 

    We often took metros to museums because one of my second cousins, Salma, was an art  student, so she got access to some of them for discounted prices and was willing to give me tours of them. I had another racist encounter with an Egyptian outside of the Coptic Museum of Cairo, where again people assumed that I was not Egyptian due to my race. At the Museum of Egyptian Civilization, an object immediately caught my eye. From outside the glass cover, I peeked into a piece of my culture embodied in a dress and veil. The traditional Nubian dress was mainly orange with touches of blue and brown that formed oval shapes. The veil was long and thick, reaching the floor so that when a woman walked somewhere, it would cover up her tracks, and no one would know where she was going. It allowed the woman to be mysterious. The mannequin was also wearing three pieces of gold. The gold necklace on her chest had circles that resembled coins and a crescent shape with blue touches. I had always wanted to be able to point out a Nubian item in the museum. After all these years, I had finally found the treasure I had been looking for.

  5. NONFICTION: Chicken Person

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    This piece received third place in the nonfiction category of the 2024 Wallace Prize.

    Before you see the birds at Tardif Poultry Farm and Feed in Coventry, Connecticut, you hear them: a cacophony of clucks, chirps, crows, gobbles, and squeaks. And before you hear them, you smell it. Shit. Chicken shit and duck shit and goose shit and dog shit and cat shit and bunny shit and chukar shit and pheasant shit—phosphoric and pungent and earthy and undeniably shitty. When I pulled up to Tardif wearing cherry red cowboy boots—my best salt-of-the-earth cosplay—Joshua Beebe, the farm’s owner, gave me a translucent plastic shoe-condom. He wore shit-brown sandal Crocs. Open-toe. 

    Across from the Tardif general store, a cageful of Oreo-colored kittens mewed. Their mother slinked by, dropping off a billet-doux in the form of a feather-shedding songbird corpse. “Looks like they brought a present,” Joshua said, collecting it with his bare hand. 

    Blue-tinted sport sunglasses wrapped around Joshua’s baby face. He’s twenty-six. Younger than his Eeyorish baritone sounded over the phone, expounding the importance of prestige poultry preservation. His spotless shirt telegraphs business owner – invoice-tracker, client manager, avian geneticist – rather than farmhand. As do his efficient answers. He’s helpful, but not warm. Open, but not friendly. He seemed more comfortable when I was a disembodied voice; face-to-face, he’s flighty. He answered most questions looking not at me, but at a bird. 

    We plodded past cages of zebra-winged Chukars down a hill to a huge fly pen. “People bitch about the Mallards being out,” Joshua said. “Well, they’re literally wild.” Mallards flowed towards Ernie, bringer of feed, in an undulating wave of duck. But come empty-handed, and they dart away. There’s no sit, stay, come. These birds are specimens, products, investments—not pets. 

    His polarized glasses reflecting the teeming waterfowl mass, Joshua told me he worried I might be an animal rights activist, scoping out his farm in order to publish some scathing exposé. What? Me? Exposé? Joshua, I wanted to scream, I’m a cool girl! I didn’t bat an eye at the chukar I witnessed post-mortem, belly-up atop the cage of his executioners. I get it—birds meet their Maker for all sorts of reasons. Some get sliced up for state autopsy after testing positive for Bumblefoot. Some get butchered by their besties—if a hen sees even a drop of blood, she’ll kill the wounded to boost her social rank. Like Mean Girls, but with more lethal pecking. 

    “If someone sees something dead, they freak out,” Joshua said. “If I got sad over every dead bird, I probably would have killed myself years ago.” 

    Tardiff sits on rolling hills along Route 31, past a sign hawking “99 cent coffee – any size.” Logs clutter the gravelly lot, as do fugitive flighted birds, who, despite their infinite freedom, loiter atop the very cages they jailbroke. Loyalty. Or hunger. Joshua’s farmhouse overlooks stilted pheasant pens and plastic pools of Peking ducks. A commercial chicken coop flanks the general store, as does a roomier enclosure of floofy white menaces I’m politely informed are classified as “domestic Sebastopol geese” and not “spurned swiffer-dusters back for revenge,” as their appearance implies. Maple trees frame the pastoral scene. Rusty farm implements abound. I’m not too proud to admit I was charmed. 

    ☼ ☼ ☼ 

    The Tardif family settled here in the 1800s: four brothers, a hundred acres each. Josh’s great-grandfather had six daughters, whose progeny still dominate Route 31. He also had one son, childless—the last to bear the Tardif name. In 1931, the family lost the land. Ninety years later, Joshua shelved at Staples and dealt tractors and ran a construction company until, at 21, he bought the wooded acres back. He cleared the land, turned the timber into coops, and founded Tardif Poultry Farm and Feed.

    It’s not an egg factory. It’s not a backyard hatchery. Tardif is a bastion of rare and heritage poultry: a place where people understand that a Leghorn and a Buff Orpington are both chickens, but only in the way that a Toyota Corolla and a ‘62 Ferrari 250 GTO are both cars. Joshua procures elite specialty breeds in all of their “recognized colors”—recognized, that is, by the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection.

    In the 1850s there was a speciality chicken frenzy, because the parties involved had the misfortune of existing before TikTok and psilocybin and recreational Pickleball. America caught “Hen Fever.” Patient zero was Dr. John C. Bennett, who wrote in 1849 to the editor of The Boston Cultivator decrying that “many persons have been imposed upon and deceived into the purchase of spurious fowls, supposing them to be pure bloods.” To ameliorate this grave injustice, Bennett called for an exhibition of exemplary American breeds – Plymouth Rocks, Yankee Games, and Wild Indians. He also solicited delegates from abroad: Cochin Chinas, Great Malays, Pearl White Dorkings, Bavarians, and English Ravens. It was like the United Nations. But with more shit. Ten years ahead of dog shows and a century prior to the induction of dinosaur nuggets into the kitchen table canon, Boston’s Quincy Market hosted America’s first poultry show. 

    “Everybody was there,” an eyewitness testified, like a high school girl recounting a party. “The cock crowed lustily, the hens cackled musically, the ducks quacked sweetly, the geese hissed beautifully… the uninitiated gaped marvelously…” 

    More than 1400 feathered hopefuls showed up for judging, only to be turned away on account of no one had any idea what made a good bird. Bedlam. Ignorance prevailed until, in 1874, the newly-formed American Poultry Association gathered in Buffalo to ratify the Standard of Perfection: a 104-page, 46-breed bird bible. 

    “The Standard of Perfection has everything from head width to leg length and feather color to beak color to temperament to how many points are on their comb to how many toes they have, the color of their skin to feather under-color,” Joshua explained. Thirty-three parts of a bird can, apparently, be hot or not. A good comb, a bad wattle; a marvelous lesser sickle, a middling stern & fluff. Beauty standards rival Victoria’s Secret: the ideal “Shape of Female” includes hackles that are “abundant,” ear lobes “small, oval, fine in texture,” and eyes “large, bold, expressive.” An “underdeveloped or thin breast” is a defect, and “rumplessness” is disqualifying. 

    Joshua took care to show me the variegated polychrome plumage of a Golden Pheasant. But we kept our distance from the dishwater-brown ducks. Tardif is the only Northeast farm that supplies game birds for field trials (“fake hunting,” Joshua calls it). These drab birds are vital to business. Nevertheless, human interaction is minimal. 

    “You come and you feed ‘em and then you leave,” Joshua explained. “You don’t want ‘em to like people, you want ‘em to run from people…”

    Stoic geese eat out of Joshua’s hand; Bobwhite quail retreat at his every advance. But only one bird came onto me: minding my business, I found myself face-to-face with a tiny cock. He scuttled to my feet, crowing defensively. 

    “Don’t be a pain in the ass,” Joshua chastised. To me, matter-of-fact: “He’s not going to attack you.” Not to delegitimize Alektorophobia, but it was hard to imagine how this banty little bird could hurt me. What could he do, ignore my texts? 

    “They get a little aggressive?” I asked. 

    “He does,” Joshua said. 

    “Does he have a name?” 

    “Nope.” 

    “You don’t name them?” 

    “No. If I had to name him, I’d name him ‘Asshole.’”

    ☼ ☼ ☼ 

    Some are born poultry farmers, some achieve poultry farming, and some have poultry farming thrust upon them when the house they buy as a young barrister in Cootamundra, Australia, comes with ten “chooks.” The latter category includes my father. When I was eight, this story made me want to be a chicken mom. Bad. In a campaign my father characterizes as “manipulative,” I performatively devoured books on sexing chicks and mending talons and treating salmonellosis, gushing about what a valuable learning experience rearing cute little chickabiddies would be. My father relented, allowing me to adopt a peep of six jerky, skinny pullets. 

    Not chicks. Pullets. The teenagers of chickens, in the “I hate you, mom!” portion of their lives—a sentiment they voiced in honky, squeaky, voice-changey clucks.

    If you raise chicks, they might imprint on you. But my pullets were adopted in the sullen springtime of their adolescence. When I opened their coop, they bounded into the yard without so much as a glance. And it was fear of becoming coyote lunch, not homesickness, that brought them back at dusk, nature’s curfew.

    My geriatric labrador begged for attention with big puppy eyes. Even the demon cat we kept for a month occasionally nuzzled me. But the chickens? At best, they’d cluck appreciatively as I laid out grain. I loved them. They loved my utility. 

    Unfortunately for my pullets, my love language is physical touch. So I became a skilled bird catcher. Cornering my chickens, or descending from above, I’d freeze them in a squatted posture of submission. Then, for a moment, I could hold them. 

    The more my hens evaded me, the more I sought their affection. I named them after beloved celebs, teachers, and friends. I chased Birdie Sanders; I cried when Mr. Nolte drowned in a pool like a faded movie star. It was painful to tell my friend (Gina Gillis) that my Ameraucana (Gina Gillis) was assassinated by a coyote (name unknown). When one was bumped off by my fluffy Aussiedoodle pup—who wailed if we so much as played Bananagrams without him—my parents determined it must have been an accident. Manslaughter at worst. 

    Joshua didn’t grow up with chickens. Until he was fifteen, when someone’s idea of an Easter gift was six tractor-supply chicks. 

    “And then it all kind of spiraled from there,” he said. He directed his gaze to the game fowl scuttling around their grower pen. “I didn’t really have any friends in high school.” As a kid, I regaled classmates with facts about Arancanas (blue-green eggs!) and Silkies (sold as a cross between birds and bunnies!) and Ayam Cemanis (black to the bone, the Prada of the barnyard!). Because I had soooo many friends. 

    ☼ ☼ ☼ 

    The farm’s office-slash-store has one sign praising God and approximately seven thousand signs praising Chickens: poultry show ribbons, United Orpington Club trophies, a red rooster silhouetted against corrugated metal, and an impressionist composition depicting a biddy and her offspring perched on the words “Chicks Rule.” On a table was the 2006 Standard issued by the American Bantam Association, which asserts that “No scaly-legged bantam shall be given a first prize.” Curated local goods include “Chicken Shit” seasoning and plush bags stuffed with Angora Rabbit fur and edibles and candles scented “Butt Naked.” 

    “The chicken shit is really good,” promised Samantha, the twenty-something behind the counter. She wore corn-feed-blonde hair down to her shirt’s Champion logo and white shoes which had become brown shoes. I looked on as her Apple Watch-clad, baby-blue square-tipped manicured hands sorted through frozen bags of chicken feet, which perched beside loaves of bread. She moved sourdough to unearth another sack of interlaced claws – this batch scalier, greyer, and much, much larger. “Oh my goodness!” I said, nonchalantly. “What!? What?!” 

    “That was probably a Leghorn.” 

    Joshua hired Samantha six years ago, when she was fourteen. Their grandparents were friends. Their great-grandparents were friends. Her childhood home is visible from the store. A few months ago, they started dating. But in front of me, at least, they were professional, impersonal, if not awkward. The only evidence of their affection was the pen of cream-and-gray bunnies Joshua keeps for Samantha beside their shared home. 

    Joshua’s mother helps with bookkeeping. Joshua’s brother Justin is less involved – “he could go three weeks without looking at a bird and be happy,” Joshua says. The tedious farm labor is managed by Ernie, a bushy gray beard of a man whose youthful eyes belie his quinquagenarian status. Ernie does the daily feeding and watering—which takes an hour in summer and twice as long when the hoses freeze. When he starts the tractor, he whispers to himself, blastoff. He moved in with Joshua and Samantha after his house burned down. 

    “We were like…” Samantha lowered her voice. “‘I don’t want you to be homeless.’” So, the household is: Joshua, Justin, Samantha, and Ernie. Which makes them the New Girl of Coventry, Connecticut. Ernie stays behind when Joshua exhibits his Cochins, or drives five hours for a Canadian border bird deal, or spends time with Samantha. 

    Three minutes into our first conversation, Ernie told me he dated Joshua’s mom when they were in high school. “And I was a kid, you know, and she was, she was thinking about marriage and kids and I was thinking about freedom and, you know, living the rest of my life,” he explained. He said he likes working for Joshua. “It’s funny. His mother and I will joke about, ‘could have been your son!’” Then he laughed. A little too hard. 

    Samantha led me behind the store, where a greenhouse cast gauzy light over empty egg incubators and other farm paraphernalia I’m too suburban to identify. A hulking metal brooder heated the season’s last few chicks. Samantha wrangled one to show me the delicate dappling of marigold on the down of her tiny wing. Good news: it’s not a Rhode Island Red or a Brahma or a Buckeye. It’s a baby Buff Orpington, Josh’s favorite bird. 

    The first Orpington hatched in 1886 in Kent, England. It wasn’t natural selection that brought her into this world, but William Cook, an Englishman who dedicated his life to mating Spanish Minorcas, Chinese Langshans, and American Plymouth Rocks. Today’s Orpingtons also come in blue (gray), buff (strawberry blonde), and white (white). But the first Orpington was jet black—apocryphally, to hide London’s soot. She was a good layer. Made good meat. And most importantly, she was gorgeous. Cook traveled from Tasmania to South America to Austria to proselytize his Orpingtons. By the 1890s, they were – and this is the scientific term – hot shit. 

    Today’s Orpingtons are hardy. Heavy. Bodacious. Good for chicken pot pie; just as good for cuddling. And they’re productive: 200 eggs a year (they once popped out 340, but casual breeders prioritized vibes over oviduct efficiency). Weaknesses include a tendency to overeat, a tendency to overheat, and a tendency to go broody. 

    Broody is chicken-speak for “obsessed with motherhood.” A hen stops laying. Builds a nest with her own ripped-out feathers. Throw her off. She’ll come back. Take her eggs. She’ll burglarize her neighbors’ clutch. She’ll brood and brood and brood brood even if you patiently explain that the women’s rights movement has opened up a variety of possibilities beyond motherhood. The only way to “break” this is by locking her in a cage until she gives up on her dreams. 

    Despite their occasional lapses into Yellow Wallpaper-ness, Buff Orpingtons are so popular that in 2016, they graduated from the heritage conservancy list. They’re backyard-chicken basic. But Joshua’s Orpingtons are special. So special they bunk not with the riffraff but in their own rustic-glam bungalow, a freestanding structure with unvarnished wood, a sawdust-coated floor, and translucent roof diffusing golden sun onto three apartments housing carefully matched couples. 

    “Oh, wow!” I stammered, racking my brain for an incisive gallinaceous insight. “These are… big!” 

    Joshua apologized for their appearance. Bald spots revealed spindles popping out of pasty pink flesh—they looked like stuffed animals, cuddled to the point of destruction. It’s molting season. Nature knows no one has to look pretty. Come spring, it’ll be time to fulfill Joshua’s punnett-square prophecies. He’ll ply breeders with high-protein grain to “give ‘em some more energy to be… vigorous.” And if they still don’t wanna…? 

    “Artificial insemination,” Joshua mumbled. “If you flip them upside down and pretty much touch it the right way it’ll come out.” After Joshua jacks off the cock, he turkey-basters semen into the female. Then he hopes the resulting egg will hatch a little closer to the Standard. He’s playing the long game: birds are valued by genetic potential. Mallards are $25 apiece. The best Buff Orpingtons are worth $500,000. That’s like having six Lamborginis parked in your back yard, except the Lamborghinis squawk and lay eggs and are generally much less Italian. How does one prevent a poultry heist? “Most people don’t want to steal them,” Joshua said with a wry smile. 

    Joshua spends more time thinking about his birds than many people spend thinking about their own human children. Still, they’re farm animals. No cooing, no hugging, and absolutely no letting them inside. Except Pipsqueak, the only chicken Joshua has ever named. 

    A Blue Orpington, Pipsqueak fell ill in winter, so Joshua took her inside to convalesce. She became a house hen. When he came home, Pipsqueak recognized Joshua’s voice and bounded to the door. She was part of the family, sitting on his lap, following him around, and hanging out perched on furniture (with a bucket behind her, to catch the shit). 

    “She loved watching TV,” Joshua said wistfully. 

    “She’s out there?” I asked.

    “No, she died a while ago.” 

    “Did Pipsqueak… pass away from her illness?” 

    “No. She actually got murdered by a duck.” 

    Pipsqueak was a broody adoptive mother, raising ducklings as her own. One day one of her adult children attempted to mate with her, “because it thought it was a chicken or thought she was a duck or whatever.” He ripped her to shreds. A bloody Oedipal conquest: she took a boy under her wing. In exchange, he fucked her to death. 

    “So, yeah! It was sad.” 

    We dissociated in the direction of the big bird hutch, beholding their frenetic flightless dance. 

    “I have my peacocks down there. I like my peacocks.” 

    ☼ ☼ ☼ 

    Hen Fever broke in the early 20th century, which is why today TikTok is dominated by gyrating tweens and not Ring-necked Pheasants. During the Great Depression, people became less interested in niche feather aesthetics and more interested in not starving to death. Focus shifted from chickens’ beauty to their prolific ovaries. Breakfast: fried eggs. Dinner: deviled eggs. Supper: salad eggs. Dessert: egg custard, or maybe, I’m good, thanks! No one ate much poultry until World War II, when red meat was strictly rationed. Uncle Sam implored patriots to add flocks to their Victory Gardens; homegrown meat helped Americans survive. But after D-day, everyone gleefully returned to hamburgers and pork chops. Chicken demand dropped. 

    The chicken did what every sensible girl does after getting dumped: try to win the breakup. Determined to get consumers back, the USDA organized a “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest. The dream? Bigger breasts, thicker thighs, swifter growth: “One bird chunky enough for the whole family,” as a 1947 Saturday Evening Post article put it. Farmers fought to make the fattest bird fastest. Seventy years later, it takes only 48 days for a hen to reach slaughtering weight. A Chick-fil-a sandwich is $5, and no one cares whether it was a Leghorn or a Buff Orpington, or whether it loved watching TV. 

    ☼ ☼ ☼

    The chicken is rational. It eats what it can peck. It moves on. Joshua could feed them, Ernie could feed them, I could feed them. All they care is they’re getting fed. There was a German Shepard in Argentina that traced his owner’s scent 18 miles to his grave, where he sat awaiting his return for twelve years. Were I to be zapped by lightning, my chickens would wait maybe twelve minutes, and even then, they’d be searching for worms.

    The DSM might classify a chicken as a subclinical psychopath. An adorable subclinical psychopath. Not sadists. Not like cats. Chooks don’t kill for fun, they just don’t care whether you live or die. Diminished sensitivity to disgust. Low emotional capability. Chase and they run. Draw blood and they kill.

    I didn’t haul my chickens to college. I haven’t named a hen since high school. But I have a habit of finding chicken people. Chicken People: quirky, funny, easily spooked. Precious, skittish, strange. Beautiful. Better loved at a distance.

    ☼ ☼ ☼ 

    After my first visit, Joshua ignored my emails. And my follow-ups. Was it something I said? Had I driven him away? Would he like me better if I were a single-combed, medium-wattled, three-toed Buff Orpington? 

    Eventually, he picked up. Despite his resigned tone, I felt a flood of serotonin. And resented myself for wanting this so bad. 

    The second time I visited Tardif Poultry, the leaves were brown. All but one kitten had found its forever home. Gargantuan Dewlap Toulouse geese roamed freely around the yard, fleshy necks wobbling with every waddle. Joshua was hunched over a table in the general store, bouncing his leg during a phone call with a frustrated customer. Nervous? Annoyed? 

    Nervous, maybe—next week, he’d drive his best birds in a trailer to the Ohio National Poultry Show—the 150th anniversary of the American Poultry Association. A century and a half after Dr. Bennett gathered government officials and bird devotees in downtown Boston, a 1000 competitors and 10,700 clucking, shitting entries filled up acres and acres of warehouses in the slightly-less-urban Columbus.

    Exhibiting birds was once a lucrative business. Joshua’s about a century late. He schleps a trailer to random towns for a few hundred bucks, and the glory of a small blue ribbon. 

    I asked him to show me a winner. He pointed out a Black Orpington hen, marked for Ohio with a chic coral anklet. Her onyx feathers glittered iridescent gold-green in the sun. Her rose-colored comb had a single row of seven fleshy nubs, smooth and serrated. Her beak curved to a svelte peak. Her long talons were finely manicured—with the right number of toes. I swear she squawked in Received Pronunciation. She was the Emily Ratajkowski of this prestige poultry community, and she knew it. 

    Sans anklet, a nearby loser bird knew where she stood, too. Joshua flipped her over, lifted her tail feathers, and blew gently on her dirty cloaca—a chicken’s all-purpose orifice for egg-laying, copulating, and defecating. 

    “She could be wormed, but she’s also molting, so…” Joshua said. Sick or shedding, she wasn’t fit to be shown. Her scraggly white feathers slicked into a dirty gray-brown against her rump. She had patchy, pale-yellow talons – an automatic disqualification, according to the Standard. Joshua would never take her to Ohio. And he certainly wouldn’t let her pollute his gene pool. Fall is the off-season, so Tardiff had only 2000 birds. Come springtime, they would have 10,000 tiny beaks to feed. The loser might get lucky, might get adopted by a sucker who doesn’t know that domestic fowl are supposed to aspire to greatness. Or she might get culled. 

    Joshua sent Ernie to the commercial flock pen to retrieve a replacement for a customer who claimed his purchase had shuffled off this mortal coil. I followed him to a cage of wall-to-wall chicken. These weren’t the bougie Buff Orphingtons, cordoned off in their luxury condo. Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds and a few Thanksgiving turkeys formed huddled masses yearning to break free. Ernie waded into the coop, and I followed, sinking my boots into the muck and shit and mud. Sans shoe-condom. Because people can change. Ernie shot out his foot to detain a fleeing Australorp. 

    “The funny thing is that they love getting out of the cage, and then they spend the whole day walking around it, ” Ernie said. We struggled mightily to wrangle one of the plebeians, the poultry-tariat. Finally, he grabbed a bird. Out of many, one. She was plain. Pedestrian. Of no discernable pedigree nor plumage nor hackle nor shanks nor tail. Beautiful, no. But chosen. In a few hours, she’d be in a coop somewhere within driving distance. Maybe Nashua. Springfield. Ontario. She’d have a new flock of sisters to cuddle through harsh winters. Maybe there’d be a kid to protect her from tabby cat sadists, to treat her fowlpox with Seinfeld, to water her, to hatch her eggs, to tolerate her callousness, to love it, her quiet contempt, to mistake it for stoicism, to deworm her wormed ass, to watch her peck, peck, peck, to clear the corpse, to spoil her with daylilies and oregano and fat juicy slugs. 

    She twitched manically in a vain struggle to flap away – as though, if she were to wriggle free, she could do anything other than sprint home. She writhed and writhed until Ernie resorted to pinching her wings behind her tiny back, one-handed, as he dialed Joshua, who told him with a laugh, Never mind, you took too long, we found another. Her beak fell open, as in surprise.

  6. NONFICTION: Maishe’s Bower

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    This piece received second place in the nonfiction category of the 2024 Wallace Prize.

    The Vogelkop Bowerbird lives in the Arfak mountains of western New Guinea. It’s small, it’s brown, and it sounds like a jammed printer. In a jungle filled with resplendent birds-of-paradise, fairywrens, and jewel-babblers, you might think that the bowerbird would be easy to miss. But if you visited this region, you’d notice that the forest there is full of diminutive cottages reminiscent of hobbit homes. Each hut is a conical tent of orchid stems, two feet tall and three feet across, woven around the trunk of a small tree. In the front, an arched entryway opens out onto a lawn of moss. These display courts are the best place to see a Vogelkop Bowerbird. Each bower is built by a single male, and he spends most of his day arranging the ornaments in his garden. 

    The decorations at each bower vary widely. Delicate pink flowers, clumps of blue berries, and iridescent green butterflies are a few popular choices, but the objects are always vividly colored, and they are always displayed in neat groups. They aren’t collected for consumption; in fact, most of the objects are inedible. They’re selected exclusively for their beauty. When a flower wilts or a fruit rots, the bowerbird picks it up and throws it away. Signor Odoardo Beccari, the Italian botanist who “discovered” the Vogelkop Bowerbird in 1872 by ordering his indigenous porters to show him the houses of the creature they called the Tukan Robon, named it the “Bird-gardener.” In a monograph describing the species, he wrote: “it is wonderful to find that the bird has the same ideas as a man, that is to say, what pleases the one gratifies the other.” Unfortunately, Beccari didn’t notice the irony in ordering his porters to shoot a few bowerbirds for him to carry back to Italy. It turned out he and the bowerbirds both suffered from the same irresistible compulsion to spend their lives collecting beautiful things.

     

    Maishe Dickman is bald, with sparse eyebrows and a cropped gray goatee. We meet in the quiet arboretum in front of his pottery studio, which is hidden from the street by an imposing Romanesque revival. In spite of the rain, he’s wearing a plain black hoodie with white drawstrings and a pair of faded blue jeans. We exchange names as he hastily unlocks the front door. Once we’re inside, he invites me to set my wet jacket on a leopard-print armchair and flips on the lights.

    The lights illuminate a room full of pottery. On a sturdy table near the door, there are six low bowls, hardening on their bats, arranged in pairs on planks of particle board; six more large saucers rest upside down on the table itself, waiting to be fired. A bookshelf loaded with a variety of finished pieces fills the back wall. There are slender ewers with sumptuous rims and elegant hilts, squat crocks with flat lids, and plump teapots with short spouts. Some pieces sport rippled blue glazes, others are furnished with palettes of bifurcated ochre and black, and one bears branching white streaks that remind me of quaking aspens on a midwinter’s day. 

    There are also other things hiding among the pots. In fact, as I glance around the rest of the studio, I realize that many of the objects here aren’t even made of clay. The space above the door is festooned with six theatrical masks carved from wood that wear wild, bug-eyed expressions and bear imaginative combinations of legs, antennae, and wings. A forest of brass archery trophies sprouts from the top of a vitrine on the other side of the room. But before I have time to take a closer look at anything else, Maishe hands me a magazine. It’s an old copy of Ceramics Monthly. On the front cover, there’s a wheel-thrown platter with slips and low fire cones, glazed with a swirl of soft purples, yellows, and reds. “The cover of Ceramics Monthly is every potter’s dream that it may happen,” Maishe tells me. “I never felt in a million years it would ever happen to me.”

    Maishe often doesn’t like his own pieces, but every once in a while, he admits that a “special one” will happen. In 2002, twenty-seven years into his career as a production potter, he had amassed six special ones. He heard that Ceramics Monthly was having a competition for the cover, so he hired a friend to take professional photographs of his pottery and mailed them in. A couple months later, he received a letter back. His pieces had won. He shows me one of the winners, a large, bulbous Shigaraki vase with a fluted rim that sits precariously close to the edge of a cluttered desk. Its neck is black, its body wears a striated olive-yellow coat, and its shoulder is dressed with a streaky, off-white glaze that looks like cream cheese spread over a piece of burnt toast. I ask Maishe what he admires about it. 

    “Everything,” he says. He reveals that this vase is made from four separate pieces — each precisely measured to fit the others — that he joined together when the clay was leather-hard. He walks over to another special piece, a green kalpis accented with flourishes of purple and gray. “There are probably half a dozen different glazes on this piece,” he explains. Some glazes are poured on while others are applied with an airbrush; in some places, he applies almost no glaze so that the ochre color of the clay itself can shine through. Maishe tells me that he doesn’t think about the patterns in any detail before he starts glazing; instead, he chooses a color palette and arranges the pertinent glazes in labeled cups around his fume hood. Then he gets to work. 

    “When I’m in that mode, in the glaze-applicating mode, if the phone rings, I don’t answer. If I get shot with an arrow, I don’t feel any pain,” Maishe says. Ceramic glazes are fickle. All glazes look similar in liquid form — the colorful minerals inside only reveal themselves when they melt and oxidize in the 2400-degree heat of the kiln — and the appearance of an individual glaze changes with the mode of application. “It’s a Zen approach to feeling and sensing when you have just enough on, and which colors, and the order in which you put the colors on the surface,” he says. 

    Maishe leads me into the heart of his studio, where there are more plates and bowls hardening on towering wooden scaffolds. We walk past his pottery wheel to look at his patented sprung-arch downdraft kiln, the second of five kilns I’ll see today. He shows me his inventory of chemical colorants that make the base glazes: shelves of repurposed gallon mayonnaise jugs and metal tilt-out cabinets filled with powdered minerals like copper, cobalt, rutile, and iron. He explains vitrification and refraction and absorption. Then he offers to distract me from pottery. He walks over to a square wooden cabinet near the front door, opens it, and pulls out the top drawer. I gasp. It’s full of giant, iridescent blue and black butterflies. The next drawer holds several glittering birdwings from the South Pacific. They’re the biggest butterflies in the world. They’re also the most beautiful insects I’ve ever seen. 

     

    Maishe grew up in the Hill neighborhood on New Haven’s west side, just a few blocks from his current studio on George Street. He was surrounded by animals from infancy. His family kept chickens and pigeons in their garage, and Maishe gathered the eggs before he left for school. On weekends, he often walked to Edgewood Park to look for snakes. One day he found a snapping turtle excavating a nest. After the turtle left, he dug up a few eggs, took them home, and hatched them himself. In fourth grade, he got a paper route with his best friend, Thomas Pepe, and they pooled their money to buy a baby alligator. They agreed to share custody, but when Thomas took the alligator home, his parents weren’t pleased — they preferred apizza — so Maishe had to scrimp and save to buy out his friend’s half interest. After that, he kept the alligator for six more years, until it finally outgrew the bathtub, when Maishe and his mom put it in the trunk of their car and donated it to the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport. 

    Around this time, Maishe’s mother began begging him to volunteer at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. She may have just wanted him and his reptiles out of the house, but she also recognized that her son loved nature. Eventually, she convinced him to go. That’s when Maishe met Dr. Charles Remington, the intellectual patriarch of American lepidoptery. Remington had been walking through the museum when he noticed Maishe, just fourteen years old, asking to volunteer at the security desk. The professor approached Maishe and asked him if he’d like to work with insects; Remington had just started a division of entomology and needed volunteers. Maishe agreed, and the two became lifelong friends. With Remington’s encouragement, Maishe started collecting insects for himself, beginning with a Monarch Butterfly, which he caught in Fort Hale Park along the shore of New Haven Harbor. 

    Back then, Maishe didn’t know how to pin insects. But he took his monarch home, spread it, dried it, and attached it with Elmer’s glue to a piece of cardboard his mother had wrapped in black felt. “Before too long, in my bedroom on the wall, I had all these butterflies in contorted positions glued to this piece of velvet,” Maishe says. “I wish I had it now, my first collection, but that’s how my collecting began.” 

    With time and practice, Maishe acquired a reputation for meticulous preparations. Now, when he catches a butterfly in his net, he carefully folds its wings and slides it into a smooth glassine envelope that protects the colorful scales. After returning home, he’ll take the insect out, place it on a mesh screen resting over a shallow dish of water, and cover it with a plastic Tupperware. The humidity trapped inside this homemade relaxer rehydrates the appendages and renders them pliable, which allows Maishe to pin each wing and leg into the desired position on a foam board. Then, after the insect has completely dried, he’ll take the specimen off the pinning board, glue it onto a stamped paper triangle, and affix it inside a Cornell drawer. He uses depth gauges to position every insect in the same plane and prints special measuring devices on his data labels to present them at a uniform height. 

    Still, as with pottery, Maishe reserves his highest praise for others. He tells me about the personal collection of Mike Thomas, one of his friends and a global authority on dragonflies. “If you’re into bugs, you look at it and you drool,” he says. “The preparation is so beautifully, meticulously prepared. Every leg on every specimen is in the exact same position. It’s just extraordinary. It takes time, but in the end, it’s worth it.” 

    I think Maishe’s collection deserves equal praise. I’ve never collected insects, but I have a lot of experience with them because I once worked as an unpaid intern at a butterfly house in Missouri. I thought that the specimens inside his cabinets looked more vibrant and colorful than any living butterflies I’d ever seen, and I spent three months during the COVID-19 pandemic watering plants in a theater-sized greenhouse filled with four-thousand tropical lepidopterans. Maishe tells me that he feels morally obligated to maintain this exacting aesthetic standard. If the insects have to die for his collection, he says, then the least he can do is make sure they look really good. 

    Many scientists don’t see it that way. Academics tend to view specimens as evidence that certain organisms existed in certain places at certain times, as representative samples within a physical catalog of global biodiversity, or as source material for DNA sequencing. These are valuable applications in a world where climate change is rapidly shifting the distributions of some species and driving others extinct, but this rigid, scientific outlook doesn’t leave room for beauty. It emphasizes quantity over quality instead. 

    As a result, some people in the Peabody still scoff at Maishe because he openly approaches collecting with an artist’s eye and an artist’s sense of appeal. He admits that he isn’t interested in identifying every insect he captures by studying the shape of the genitalia under a microscope, and he refuses to collect insects that show up in his net with tattered wings or missing legs — he tells me he lets them go so they can mate and make perfect ones for next year. But Dr. Remington saw the advantage of having someone on his team who approached insects from an aesthetic perspective. “Charles was the ultimate scientist,” Maishe says, “and he appreciated the fact that I saw things other scientists didn’t see.” Over the past sixty years, Maishe has traveled the world collecting insects and discovered dozens of species. Seven of these carry the specific epithet dickmanii. They’re literally named after him. Maishe doesn’t describe them himself — he leaves the technical work of species identification to the “real” scientists — but he’s humbled when his colleagues honor him with a name. In his lifetime, he estimates that he’s donated 10,000 insect specimens to the Peabody Museum alone. Still, he always keeps the two or three most pristine specimens of each species for himself. 

    Why? Earlier, when he showed me a few drawers from his insect collection, he’d pointed out a tray of small butterflies that were pinned upside down. The surfaces of their upper wings, he explained, bore simple patterns of black and white, but the underneath sides were painted with a variety of amazing colors. “A lot of these color combinations are things that inspire my color combinations, like the rusts and the browns and the ochres,” he said, waving his hand over the glass lid of the Cornell drawer. “I’m not trying to copy a butterfly pattern, per se, but some of the colors are, to me, very inspirational. And that’s what I do. I open this and go, ‘ah.’ I’ve seen these a thousand times, but they’re beautiful.” 

     

    In high school, Maishe excelled in math and science, and audited Dr. Remington’s biology lectures at Yale, but he also loved drawing — at school, he looked forward to his shop classes the most. He wanted to study architecture at Yale, but in the 1960s, Yale didn’t offer architecture classes to undergraduates. Plus, Yale forced freshmen to live on campus, which his family couldn’t afford. Instead, Maishe studied industrial design at the University of Bridgeport. Each semester, he took an intensive class specializing in a different material. He decided to take ceramics his sophomore year, even though he had never worked with clay. When he sat down at the wheel, he fell in love. “I was always, from childhood, kind of a hands-on, hands-dirty kind of person. And it was just so gratifying to take a lump of mud, take a lump of clay, and form it into an object, into a shape,” he says. After graduation, he worked at an industrial design firm in New York City for five years, saving his money and taking graduate-level courses in kiln architecture and glaze chemistry on the side. Then, while visiting his parents in New Haven, he saw a for-sale sign in front of an old Victorian home. The price was ridiculously low: $52,000 dollars for the house in the front and a carriage house in the back. Two weeks later, he paid for it in cash.

    Turning the old carriage house into a studio required a lot of work. He hired a friend to wire it; his dad helped him build his first kiln. He even convinced the city to temporarily close George Street to run a gas main into his backyard, although Maishe suspects they only did it because they knew they would make their money back. Maishe produces between 5,000 and 10,000 pieces a year — mostly tableware like plates, bowls, and mugs — and each piece has to be fired twice: an initial bisque firing, to harden the clay, and a second glost firing to vitrify the glaze. This consumes a lot of gas. “One time, I shut the studio down for a renovation and I didn’t do a firing for about four or five months,” Maishe tells me. “The gas company called me and sent a representative over to find out if I needed anything.”

    While he refurbished the studio, Maishe also labored to make the property feel like a home. When he bought the place, a crumbling asphalt parking lot filled the yard, but Maishe wanted a garden. He also wanted to lose weight, so he went to the local hardware store, bought a pickaxe, a sledgehammer, and shovel, and started busting up the pavement by hand. After he’d filled six giant dumpsters with rubble, he ordered thirty dump truck loads of topsoil and started his garden. When his kids were born, he planted dogwood saplings in their honor. Now the trees are forty years old, and they fill the garden with beautiful white flowers each spring. 

     

    One week after my second meeting with Maishe, I’m in the bowels of the Peabody Museum, sticking pins in the skin of a Common Yellowthroat: a small, North American wood-warbler with an olive-brown back, a cream-colored belly, and an eponymous yellow throat. When I’d told Maishe I prepared avian specimens for the Peabody’s collections, his eyes lit up. Just a week prior, he’d heard something crash into his window, and he’d found a dead bird laying on the ground outside. He’d thrown it in a Ziploc bag in his freezer, meaning to give it to Kristof Zyskowski, his friend and the manager of the ornithology collection at Yale. When I told him I worked for Kristof, he gave it to me. I took it back to the museum and prepared it myself.  

    Although I consider myself a biologist — unlike Maishe, who identifies as an artist — I share his philosophy in preparation. I compare skinning birds to surgically extracting the candy from a candy bar: I make a tiny incision along the sternum with a scalpel, peel back the skin with tweezers, excise the soft tissue with scissors, stuff the “wrapper” with cotton, and then sew the “wrapper” back together. In the end, it should be impossible to tell I’ve tampered with the packaging, but when Kristof taught me to skin during my freshman year, I struggled to meet this standard. I’d tear the skin or stain the feathers with blood; once, I accidentally cut off an entire tail. Now, hundreds of skins later, Kristof sometimes jokes that my skins look better in death than the birds looked in life. Still, I’m rarely satisfied. I like to walk through the collection to study specimens prepared by previous generations of naturalists, noting postures and proportions I want to emulate in my own craft. Kristof says that scientists tend to preferentially use the prettiest skins for their research. This makes sense; whenever I open a drawer, my eyes naturally gravitate toward the most beautiful specimens. I swell with pride if any of them are mine. 

    Some visitors to the collection have a different reaction. Elaina Foley wrote in the San Antonio Review that she was infuriated and distressed by the sight of hundreds of cotton-stuffed bird bodies in the Peabody Museum. In her essay, Tenderness and Rot, or Why I Should be Allowed to Burn Down the Peabody, she argues that preserving the birds in this way strips them of their right to decay, objectifying them and asserting human hegemony over the natural environment. Is she right to claim that natural history collections are inherently problematic?

    When I ask Maishe if he’s been criticized for collecting insects, he leans back from his potter’s wheel, wipes his muddy hands on the green towel draped over his left leg, and tells me about an incident in Trinidad, when a group of American birdwatchers admonished him for killing insects he’d caught in his net. On other occasions, guests at his annual open house have complained about the trays of insects he sets next to pieces of pottery they’ve inspired. When people are critical, Maishe listens, but he doesn’t make excuses. “That’s just what I do,” he prefers to tell them. “I’m sorry you don’t agree with it.”

    I also ask Maishe how he situates collecting within his ethical framework. “With a lot of guilt,” he responds, looking down at the unfinished mug resting on his potter’s wheel. The wet clay glistens under the fluorescent lights overhead. “I have actually released very, very rare insects because at the moment of sticking them with a hypodermic needle, or throwing them in a jar of cyanide, I felt something,” he says. When Maishe was seventeen, he was a world-class archer who competed at the U.S. Olympic trials. But his father, a World War II veteran, was a sworn pacifist, so he’d never gone hunting. When he finally shot a deer with an arrow during a hunting trip with friends from high school, he was taken aback. “It was a god-awful bloody mess,” he tells me. “The deer was in an enormous pool of blood, and it didn’t make me nauseous, but I just thought to myself, ‘why did I kill you?’” 

    The same feeling sometimes confronts him when he kills an insect, but he rationalizes it. He thinks that bugs are incapable of feeling fear. Their blood is a different color. But he swears that he’ll never shoot a vertebrate again. That doesn’t mean that he won’t collect them. A Turkey Vulture, a Barn Owl, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk are mounted on the walls of his studio, and there’s a boar skull nestled between two vases on his bookshelf. He found all of them in the trash outside the Peabody Museum, but Maishe likes them. He thinks they’re beautiful.

     

    After I’ve finished skinning the Common Yellowthroat and set it in the fume hood to dry, I walk back into the collection, find a drawer labeled Amblyornis inornata, and pull it out. On the acid-free paper there are two Vogelkop bowerbirds. Their feathers are browner than I imagined; one has a bullet hole in its bill. 

    I pick one up and turn it over in my hands, but my eyes eventually wander toward its neighbors. On the same shelf, there are two birds labeled Sericulus bakeri. These are Fire-Maned Bowerbirds. Both specimens are male, and they have jet-black bodies with large yellow patches on their wings and luscious orange crests that pour down their backs like torrents of lava. Unlike Vogelkop Bowerbirds, male Fire-Maned Bowerbirds do not arrange colorful gardens in front of their bowers to woo prospective mates; instead, when the drabber females visit their bowers, they display themselves. 

    In The Evolution of Beauty, ornithologist Richard Prum argues that these elaborate courtship rituals are both products of sexual selection. In each species, he says that females have aesthetically remodeled male behavior and plumage by choosing to mate exclusively with males who satisfy their subjective aesthetic preferences. This doesn’t explain why female bowerbirds have aesthetic preferences in the first place. In many other bird species, courtship rituals are extremely utilitarian. Among terns, a group of acrobatic seabirds closely related to gulls, females require prospective male suitors to feed them small fish as tokens of their devotion. Male chickadees must shower their female partners with seeds. In each case, the benefit to the female is obvious: she can spend less energy foraging and redirect that effort toward laying bigger, healthier eggs. So why on earth do female Vogelkop bowerbirds prefer museums instead of buffet lines?  

    Psychologists have often asked the same question about humans. When Odoardo Beccari ordered his porters to shoot the bowerbirds, he didn’t want to eat them. He wanted to stuff them with cotton and sell them as specimens to Italian museums. To his surprise, his indigenous porters were equally enthusiastic about hunting birds for their feathers. Long before the first Europeans arrived in New Guinea, Papuans were using the plumes of bowerbirds and birds-of-paradise in ceremonial headdresses, amulets, and shields, and Beccari actually had to ask his porters to spare a few birds so that he could watch them interact with their bowers. Beccari thought that his Papuan companions wore primitive clothes, worshipped primitive gods, and lived inside primitive mud huts that “did not follow the example of the Amblyornis,” but they treasured fancy feathers just as much as the most sophisticated Italians. Both cultures were united by their obsession with beauty.

    What makes beauty so desirable? Beccari was still sailing back to Italy when a German physicist named Gustav Fechner offered an answer. In his book Vorschule der Aesthetik (which translates to Preschool of Aesthetics), Fechner wrote that the perception of beauty was determined by a mental threshold of pleasure. Sensory experiences that surpassed this threshold were aesthetically pleasing; experiences that fell below the threshold were not. 

    Today, psychologists still don’t understand how sensory organs translate external stimuli into sensations of pleasure, but modern neuroscience has established beyond doubt that pleasure is essential to the perception of beauty. In the past ten years, multiple studies have shown that the same neural pathways associated with substance-use disorders are also active when individuals look at beautiful objects or hear beautiful sounds. Beauty is a drug, and all sensory beings are addicted to it. Throwing pottery and collecting butterflies simply makes it easier for Maishe to get his fix. 

  7. NONFICTION: English Station

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    This piece received first place in the nonfiction category of the 2024 Wallace Prize.

    I was on the 212 bus from Lowe’s back to campus; the sun had half-set and from Grand Ave, I saw the silhouette of a strange structure. Three smokestacks towered over the river and cables strung together giant metal columns. As I searched Google Maps and scrolled through the building’s Wikipedia page on the bus, I found out it was an abandoned power plant named English Station. I read that Ball Island was a tiny man-made piece of land in the Mill River between downtown New Haven and Fair Haven. English Station was built on Ball Island between 1924 and 1929 and operational until around 1991, burning coal and oil. It was owned and operated by United Illuminating, which is still the public electric company for the area, until they sold it in 2000. 

    Having grown up in semi-rural Washington State, I wasn’t used to seeing things like this, the remnants of industrial history. My hometown of Burlington, WA was founded and settled by westerners only about 40 years prior to the construction of English Station. Funnily enough, I’m technically not an official resident of the town because I live in unincorporated Skagit County, making me ineligible to vote for mayor (though I can vote for my fire district chief) or access free public library membership. My valley produces lumber and seeds; we’re most well known for our tulip festival and berry dairy days parade. It’s the kind of place where flocks of swans and geese feed on the leftover crops in the fields in winter and a self-serve corn stand operates on the side of the road–4 for a $1. It’s the kind of place where “I got stuck behind the train” is a valid excuse for any occasion–oil trains can take up to 30 minutes to pass. 

    In Connecticut, industrial history is easily visible around us. At Yale, in the underground machine shop where I work, I often uncover bits and pieces. I’ve found heavy cast iron bar clamps stamped “Made in CT”; I’ve found glass syringes labeled Becton-Dickenson (a company founded by the father of the Becton that a Yale building is named after) matching a set in the Smithsonian’s American history collection. A vertical milling machine, the basic machine that in conjunction with the lathe, has enabled practically all subtractive metal machining since, is called a Bridgeport as they were invented and manufactured there. These unfamiliar tidbits made me curious about industrial history and infrastructure in this area and its environmental implications. 

    *** 

    I visited the site of English Station for the first time on a hot September Sunday. On the way to the island, I saw that its soil was held in place by sheets of black corrugated steel rising up from

    the river. It took some climbing and crawling and some handiwork with a wrench and pliers, but I was on the other side of a barbed wire fence plastered with “PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING” and “KEEP OUT” signs. An automated voice droned, “You are trespassing on private property. Leave the area immediately. You are trespassing…” It faded behind me until it clicked off when I was out of reach of its camera sensor. I breathed heavily through a respirator. The only other thing I could hear was faint circus-type music from a boxy tan building on the riverbank. I continued toward English Station’s concrete entry archway, feigning confidence. The paved ground was clean compared to the littered roadside in front of the fence. Few people had been here recently. 

    To the side of the main building were smaller brick structures whose purposes I couldn’t ascertain. I poked through piles of rusted steel, curled and mangled, and peered into the side buildings. The entrances and doors were boarded up and gated, but broken glass said that people or maybe strong winds had gotten in. I brushed through knee-height weeds and grasses to touch vines growing from the poisonous land, up pipes on the brick walls. The branches grew through windows and up to light fixtures, wrapping up wires and pipes. A bright orange sign warning of PCBs was buried in leafy weeds–proof that there was still life in this soil. I read before I came that the site is currently undergoing consideration for environmental remediation because of the asbestos and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls–chemicals harmful to biological systems) found in the building and water. This process has been going on for several years, but there has been little progress. 

    *** 

    The second time I visited the site, a laundry basket floated in the river, tied to the bridge with a bright yellow rope. My eyes followed the string up to a man who introduced himself as Michael. He told me that he crabbed here every weekend, usually catching several blue crabs. He didn’t look like any fisherman I’d seen before. My image of fishermen was shaped by friends who went away for the summer to work on fishing boats up to Alaska and by drunk men who came through the McDonald’s drive through where I worked, early in the morning, offering dungeness crabs in exchange for a McMuffin. 

    I asked Michael whether he was worried about chemicals from the power plant. He said, “Of course, you can tell that the water’s different colors from the morning to the afternoon. There’s definitely some shit in there. But I still crab here and tons of people fish here to feed their

    families.” He used to work for a green chemical company in the area where the general rule was that “any chemical is destroyed if you have enough water.” It sounded like the claim of “the ocean’s too big to pollute” from back home. 

    I proposed we take a look inside and he agreed to come with me. The pathway I had used last time had been blocked off by new sheets of solid steel bolted in place. Michael said that security and barriers–barbed wire fences and padlocks, cameras and alarms–around the site had increased in the past few years. I found another way through, but if that path were blocked, I doubted I would be able to get in again. Not the time to turn back, though. This time, I didn’t give the recorded voice much thought. I still felt highly surveilled; I wore a cute blue dress to try to look innocent if I was caught, but recognized that that wouldn’t work for Michael, who was a tall, broad-shouldered Black man. The cameras were the only things that were new and maintained on this dilapidated site. They weren’t placed surreptitiously–they were bright white and stuck out from walls and poles. 

    Aside: I do not claim to have made logical, smart choices throughout this adventure. Still, I knew I wanted to do this. 

    I noticed some things I hadn’t the last time, like lighting bolts engraved in stones that decorated the top of the building. I walked to a back entrance where I remembered that I could get in by loosening a rusted bolt holding a locked fence in place. My hands shaked as I wrangled with my wrenches, but then we were in. 

    Careful not to step in areas where the floors looked like they could fall through, we made our way through an area with a massive dumpster-like tank with several slots that looked like a larger version of library book return slots. It must have been the main furnace. Delicate sheets of severely rusted metal cracked under my boots, like autumn leaves. Thin layers of grimy liquid in troughs and pools made it unclear whether what I was seeing was real or just a reflection. A bamboo forest of narrow pipes grew from the ground to the pipes above. Sheets of white plastic hung from pipes overhead like moss draped from a tree. Standing beside a giant spool of steel cable, I was a tiny mouse with a spool of sewing thread. I could see massive vertical pipes that probably were too big to wrap my arms around, like giant tree trunks bare of leaves or branches. It brought me back to running through the forest and jumping over the ditch in my elementary school yard or backpacking through the evergreens of the North Cascades–chipmunks left piles of pine cone remnants on tree stumps. 

    Letters and numbers–some kind of code–were scrawled across concrete and brick in chalky white paint. Diagrams labeled “FLOOD CONTROL” were displayed on walls. One note said, “Caulk electric manholes in August.” Looking up, pipes of all diameters crossed and snaked their way through the limited airspace. Two pairs of chambers–shaped like two sets of lungs–were large enough to fit a small apartment. It felt like the skeleton of a great living being–its bones, fragile and brittle. I could imagine electricity flowing, pumping through the place. Electric currents and impulses travel through bodies, sending messages and regulating heartbeats; electric shocks can kill or bring back life. 

    I came to an area where the building was open from the ground to the roof. Some parts of the upper floors had been demolished–evidenced by doors in a wall tens of feet above the ground. I adventured up to the second floor, up a set of surprisingly solid stairs with yellow paint flaking off the handrails. Light streamed in through massive windows like stained glass in a cathedral–a sanctum of energy and electricity, a testament to modernity and industry. A crane that could lift 40 tons hung from I-beams above us. Though it wasn’t raining outside, it was in here. I chose to believe it was water. A cylindrical chamber matched another one I’d found outside–I assumed from my limited knowledge of power generation that heated and pressurized fluid was pushed through these to spin turbines to generate electricity. I wish I could’ve seen the turbines as well, but they had been removed in a partial demolition a few years ago. 

    Up another level, where the floor was only steel grates, it was too dark for my phone’s flashlight to help much. A floor below me, a desk had two drawers still ajar–gloves and papers strewn across the top like someone had left in a hurry. Michael called me over to another room. On the powder blue wall was a grid of switches, colored light bulbs, and tiny TVs: the control room, like something out of a movie. There was a corded phone with no number pad or dial; perhaps its only purpose was to make announcements to the building. It reminded me of the phone we used in the grocery store I worked in to communicate to the other employees and make silly advertisements on donut days and other goofy made-up holidays. A clock was stopped at 20:04:55. I wonder about the people who used to work here. What were their days and nights like?

    I thought of my brother, who’s a construction worker back in Washington. He wakes up earlier than I do, even though I live three time zones ahead. He breathes in dust and pours concrete while I listen to lectures and write papers. I think of what my life would’ve been like if I hadn’t come to Yale; I’d probably be a welder or carpenter. But I’ve got weak hands and early-onset arthritis and so I’m here in college (not that I’m unhappy to be here of course; I’m incredibly privileged and lucky). 

    Michael indicated that we should leave. As I rebolted the gate and climbed back over the fence, I realized I didn’t want to go quite yet. I thought back to something I had noted that I was supposed to look for. I had posted in Facebook groups for Fair Haven history and United Illuminating retirees, asking whether anyone could share memories of English Station. Kevin, who worked there in the 80’s, recalled that “in the front entrance area, there was a large impressive plaque with the names of the guys that worked at the Station who served in WW2. I’m not sure but I think more names were added for the guys that served in Korea.” I didn’t find the plaque. 

    Outside the fence, while I talked to a couple on the bridge, Michael disappeared.

    *** 

    I needed to learn more about power plants. When I went to English Station, I felt like I didn’t know enough to understand how various elements functioned. 

    Yale Central Power Plant (CPP) stands on the intersection of Grove and York Sts in New Haven, catercorner to Yale Law School, about a 25 minute walk from English Station. Upon approach, it looked fairly similar to English Station–brick foundation with lighter stone accents, arches and towers. The CPP was built just a few years before English, in 1918. But this place is whole, with unbroken window panes and well maintained and manicured lawn and bushes. 

    Troy, the plant manager and my tour guide, had only been working there for six years, but he rattled off the history of the plant, every upgrade and expansion. He explained that pipes and cables carry electricity, steam, and chilled water to every building on campus (although West Campus and the medical school have their own power plants).

    CPP is cleaner and more efficient than English ever was. For example, cogeneration heat recovery steam generators recover heat from the natural gas turbines to make steam and increase the productive output per quantity of gas burned. CPP is also much smaller; it produces up to 16 MW (megawatts, a unit of measurement of bulk electricity), compared to English’s 200 MW (in the 50s, according to Kevin). 

    The general shapes and silhouettes of CPP’s inner workings were similar to that of English. Endless mazes of pipes were the same, but these were neatly painted and color-coded, not rusted over. There were physical rotary gauges, but also touch screens. The floor was clean, walkways were clearly marked with yellow tape, and fire extinguishers and exit signs were everywhere. A corner contained spare hardware and an array of gaskets neatly organized in blue buckets and racks; also a strange cardboard container labeled “GREEN DUST.” On the 2nd-ish level, what they call level 29 as it’s 29’ above the ground, the view down to the floor level was incredibly reminiscent of that of English, but with more color, especially safety yellow. A shiny orange crane hung from an I-beam on the ceiling, just like in English. Louder here though. On the roof was a beautiful view of campus in its fall colors and a questionable railing constructed of grayed 2x4s, yellow clamps, and blue rope. Cooling towers rose above us. 

    In the control room, a room filled with computer screens to monitor and command every machine and system, I met Bob. The first thing he said was, “What do you think is the most important machine in this building?” 

    I tried to be sweet, “You?” 

    “The coffee machine!,” he responded. That brought me to the reality of the plant’s employees and their work–12 hour shifts, 4 days on, 4 days off, switching days and nights each cycle. Many of them stated that they worked a lot of overtime–one said he worked nearly 90 hours last week. Still, they’ve been happy with how Yale treats and pays them. 

    CPP was less majestic than English Station. Light didn’t stream into darkness. The enormity of things didn’t overwhelm me. Maybe I didn’t understand its beauty through all its complicated electrical systems. Although it was running in front of my eyes, I couldn’t see the spinning blades and fiery furnaces the way I could imagine in English, where the equipment was cracked open.

    Still, CPP let me imagine what English Station might’ve been like back in the day. I imagine that English was grimier and nastier than CPP is now. CPP has fairly stringent environmental regulations to follow; they monitor nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide emissions. Most of the workers spend their days sitting and monitoring screens and occasionally running checks on the equipment. Automated systems control which systems run and how much they run. It’s a job you want to be boring. There was an array of red emergency stop buttons in the control room. 

    *** 

    In my research, I found an aerial photograph of New Haven in 1940. At that time, New Haven was a heavily industrialized city–the smokestacks of English Station prominent in the cityscape. Kevin explained that “During WW2 it was running full blast burning coal, feeding the many industries in the area involved in war production. It was guarded by an armed uniformed security force during the war.” 

    From the Fair Haven history community, most of the comments about the site were about the smell and pollution. 

    “The smell was horrendous. The water practically glowed green.” 

    “That place caused folks to develop asthma in Fair Haven! Even the soil in Fair Haven is bad for planting unless you join a community garden or create raised beds.” 

    “I too remember the green water. You could actually see where the Mill and the Quinnipiac come together. Although the Quinnipiac wasn’t that clean either.” 

    “We lived close to the river and it smelled bad, then they brought piles of oysters and it was worse.” 

    “I grew up in Fair Haven in the 60’s and 70’s. The Mill River smelled so bad that we would hold our breaths and run across the bridge near the plant. I can also remember a protest march … where we dumped perfume into the river.” 

    I also found an insurance map from 1901 that shows that Ball Island and its first power station, called Station B, were already constructed at that point, but the majority of the island was used by L.A. Mansfield Lumber Yard. When I first learned this I thought, “A lumber yard in New Haven?” In my mind, lumber comes from my kind of place (Washington is the second largest lumber producing state after Oregon and my county is among the highest in Washington).

    Sawmills and stacks of logs and lumber line streets large and small. When my school district was running low on funding, we started selling timber from district-owned forests. According to my driver’s education (but unverified), Washington is one of the few states where you’re allowed to speed to pass lumber-hauling trucks. But 120 years ago, there was a lumber yard here on Ball Island. 

    *** 

    While writing this piece, I grew curious about energy sources and power plants back in the area I grew up in. I had long thought that most of our energy came from dams on our valley’s river. Turns out, the majority of the dams on Skagit River are owned by Seattle City Light, making up about a quarter of their energy and contributing to their 88% hydroelectric energy source mix. In contrast, Puget Sound Energy, the private company that provides electricity in my area is only 31% hydroelectric power. I found out that Puget Sound Energy’s largest-capacity natural gas power plant is hidden in the woods just 3 miles from the house I grew up in (practically around the corner in country measures), between a truck testing facility, a lumber yard, and the dump. I guess I knew that there was something there, but it’s pretty well concealed (it’s not even labeled on Google Maps), unlike English Station, which stands strikingly on the Mill River. I passed by English Station once and it begged for my attention; I passed by my home station often and never really questioned it. I don’t know what to make of it. 

    English Station showed me a piece of New Haven and greater New England’s past–the kind of messy, grimy industrial history I never knew before. English told me a tale of the massive industrial development and the following deindustrialization the U.S. went through as part of becoming the nation it is today. She showed me beauty and life in electricity and machinery, along with the dirty reality of environmental and health issues that go with it. But she also reminded me of home and made me question the way things are there too. 

    I don’t know what the future of English Station should be, and I don’t think I should have any say in it. Let’s just say I’m just an outsider who likes rummaging through places I shouldn’t be.

  8. FICTION: The Skin Shed

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    Illustration by Anna Chamberlin

    This piece received an honorable mention in the fiction category of the 2o24 Wallace Prize.

    Here’s Lisa May, in late-night lamplight, crying on the edge of her bed. 

    Not long ago, the boy was in her room. He stumbled through his speech: eight months of sun, they had a good run, but now, things just weren’t working out. He let this hang and ran his tongue along his teeth. Then he left. 

    Lisa May is studying the way her toes can hide themselves in the shag carpet. She alternates between sob and screech. Her nails are restless and dig into various patches of the bedspread. She notices this and forces herself to be still for just two seconds. One Miss-iss-ip-pi Two, and now she’s back to fidgeting, fingers here, fingers there, combing through her hair until she finds it: a cold metal zipper at the back of her head. 

    It’s a strange feeling—sitting, reaching back, pinching this zipper between thumb and forefinger—but Lisa May knew this was coming. 

    The house is quiet. Across town, Lisa May’s parents clink glasses with gowned strangers.

    The zipper warms between her fingers. 

    Now: Lisa May stands and unzips herself. (This is tricky, because it’s hard to reach the center of your back.) She steps out of her skin and studies its puddled mass, lumped like dirty laundry on the floor. Her old self is a deflated cage of flesh and hair and sundress. It looks as though it’s been melted. What were once bony arms are now rumpled empty sleeves. Her face, looking up at her, sags like a cheap Halloween mask. 

    She should be horrified, and she is horrified, but more than that, Lisa May is awe-struck. So that’s what her hair looked like, all this time? Her eyebrows always looked fine in the mirror and in photos, but here, now, seeing them on the floor…

    She’s tempted to take a picture. (She decides not to.)

    What should a girl do with her old skin, anyway? Keeping it under the bed is creepy. Hanging it in the closet beside her clothes is a no. And you can’t just put something like that in the trash! That would be disrespectful.

    So Lisa May scoops up her skin and goes downstairs to bury it in the backyard. With a scuffed white shoe she drives a shovel-head into the ground. Dropping the skin into the hole makes no sound. 

    Back inside, the deed done, she washes her hands and looks at her naked self in the mirror. She is red. She is bone and sinew. Last year, in her biology class, an anatomical model sat in the corner. It had eyeballs instead of eyes and there were tubes in all sorts of places. One day, some kid took the heart out of the model’s chest, held it up to the fluorescent light, and announced that henceforth, the model would be named Greg. Lisa May looks in her mirror and thinks of Greg. 

    She isn’t in pain but feels like she should be, so she takes a painkiller. She puts on a t-shirt and underwear (she just realized she was unclothed) and climbs into bed, turns off her light. Sleep will fix this. 

     

    In the morning, her mother fries bacon, her father attacks a crossword with a pencil, and when Lisa May comes down the stairs in sweatpants and a hoodie, with a face red and hollowed, eyes protruding, completely skinless, her parents quietly stop their activities and embrace their daughter. This three-person hug is maintained for some time. Lisa May’s mother cries, assures the okay-ness of things. Lisa May blinks big, wide blinks. 

    “Was it the boy?” asks the father.

    Lisa May nods.

    “What’d you do with the skin?” 

    “Buried it. In the backyard.”

    Her father beams with pride. “A proper burial! Good for you. Did you give a eulogy?”

    She cracks a smile. “No. No eulogy.”

     

    Lisa May receives a talk about skin-shedding. Even though it’s taboo, skin-shedding is perfectly natural and healthy. It can happen at any point in life. It will probably happen multiple times in her life. Her father first shed his skin when he was eighteen, too. A girl dumped him. He tossed his skin in a lake, he can’t remember the name, but it was the lake down by Egret Park, and his skin floated and bobbed like a plastic grocery bag. Her mother’s first shedding came in third grade: her family moved across the country, she forgot a favorite teddy bear, and that was enough to make the zipper appear. 

    “So, honey, there are two ways you can go,” Lisa May’s mother says. “You can wait a few days, maybe a week, until a new skin starts to develop. Or, if you’d like, your father and I are perfectly willing to take you to a shop. There’s a new one downtown, isn’t there, David? What’s it called? The Skin Shed?”

    “The Skin Shed, yeah. Very clever.”

    The mother looks at Lisa May’s featureless red face. “It’s up to you, honey.”

    “Mom, aren’t those, like, super expensive?”

    “Helping you move on is worth any cost.”

    “Some kids at school say those places are immoral. You reject the natural course of growth.”

    Her dad grunts. “You take drugs when you’re sick, don’t you?”

    “Think it over,” her mom says. “We’re happy to drive you there.”

     

    One more look in the bathroom mirror and Lisa May makes her decision. The family car rolls downtown and stops between a pet supply store and WE BUY GOLD 4 LE$$, where a narrow, easily-missable shop displays a simple sign: The Skin Shed.

    “Do you want us in there with you?” Lisa May’s dad asks, looking over his shoulder into the backseat.

    “I think I’d rather be alone.”

    “Alright. We’ll be just around the corner. Call us if you need anything.”

    A bell dings when Lisa May enters. She approaches a front desk, behind which sits a woman with short gray hair. The woman could be very old or very young. It’s hard to tell. She gives Lisa May a smileless smile and speaks like winter: crisp and short and bitter. 

    “How can I help you.”

    “Hi, um, I’m looking to get fitted for a n-new skin?” Lisa May whispers from within her hoodie.

    “No need to whisper, doll. Don’t be ashamed. Skin loss is the reason we’re in business. Just go through that door and back to the waiting room. Someone will be with you shortly.”

    “Oh. Thanks. There’s no paperwork or anything?”

    “Here at The Skin Shed, we don’t believe in wasting your time.”

     

    The waiting room is more of a waiting hallway. Five folding chairs face posters on the opposite wall. One reads “Starting Over After A Divorce?” and shows three panels: woman with ruined mascara studying used tissue; woman without skin standing before bonfire; woman with new skin sitting on barstool and laughing a beautiful laugh.

    Two chairs down from Lisa May, a skinless man in a sleeveless shirt picks at his fat, red arms and mumbles. “Hiding, hiding, everyone shed skin hiding, hiding from world like burn victims. Victims of so many house fires. House f-aye-errs! Hah!” He lifts his hands and pats different parts of his skull, patpatpat, the way one pats pockets when looking for lost keys. 

    A lab-coated man appears at the end of the hall. “Mr. Curtis?” The skinless man stops his patting and turns. To the extent that he can emote, he looks pleasantly surprised. “You can follow me now, Mr. Curtis.” 

    Twenty minutes later, the two men return. Mr. Curtis has skin. He’s an older gentleman with full cheeks and slicked silver hair. “Really, I can’t thank you enough,” he is saying to the man in the lab-coat. “If she could see me today—well, I’m sure she can see me from up there, and I can guarantee you she’s smiling.” Before he leaves, Mr. Curtis addresses Lisa May. “Young lady, it does get better. Just you know that.”

    After walking the older man out of the shop, the professional introduces himself to Lisa May as Dr. Link. He invites her to follow him, and the two walk into a room with three mirrors and a stepstool.

    “Now, Lisa May, I’ll have you step up here. I’m going to ask you just a few questions while I take your measurements.”

    Dr. Link smells like a clean bathroom. He looks down his nose at a white measuring tape.

    “Lisa May, when did you shed?”

    “Yesterday.”

    “Your first time?”

    “Yes.”

    Dr. Link smirks. “Congratulations.”

    Lisa May doesn’t know whether to thank him.

    “And what was the cause?”

    “Cause?”

    “Surely there must have been some inciting incident.”

    “There was a boy.”

    “Ah, yes. Always a boy.” Dr. Link measures her arms, her legs, the circumference of her neck. 

    “Doctor, can I ask what happened to that older gentleman? Mr. Curtis?”

    “I’m afraid information about clients is strictly confidential.” Dr. Link comically looks over both his shoulders, then whispers, “Mrs. Curtis died last week.”

    “Oh.”

    “They were married forty-one years. You can imagine what that would do to a person. How long the natural recovery time would take.”

    Lisa May watches three bone-and-muscle selves be measured by three Dr. Links in the room’s mirrors. 

    “Alright, now for the fun part,” Dr. Link says. “Hold out your hand.”

    Lisa May does as instructed and feels a pinch on her pointer finger. “What was that?”

    Dr. Link holds up a white device the size of a lighter. “Finger prick. Blood sample. We extrapolate from your DNA to compose your new skin. Do you have any photos you would want considered for the design?”

    “Can I scroll through my phone?”

    “Please. Take your time.”

    After some scrolling and squinting, Lisa May turns her phone to Dr. Link. “This is when I was happiest, I think.”

    On the phone screen: Lisa May has her arms around friends. It’s a group photo from prom. Everyone smiles. Lisa May’s sequined dress catches every fragment of the scattered dance-hall light.

    “A beautiful choice,” Dr. Link says. “We can work with this. Send it to the number taped above the mirror. I’ll be back in less than half an hour.”

    Dr. Link disappears, and Lisa May sits on the stepstool, sends the photo, and stares at her alien reflection long enough to drown out any suspicion. 

     

    “Have you ever been scuba diving?” Dr. Link asks when he returns. He carries a clothes-hanger cloaked with a black trash bag. 

    Lisa May stands. “No, I haven’t.”

    “Well, putting one of these on is exactly like putting on a wetsuit. You step in, pull it up over your foot and ankle, then your other foot and ankle, then your knees, and keep going from there. It can be frustrating. And remember, there’s a zipper. The zipper will dissolve after a couple days. It’s there to help you get dressed.” Dr. Link pulls off the trash bag, tosses the hanger to the floor, and sets a circular tan-white-blue thing on the stepstool. It looks like an abstract rug. 

    Lisa May steps onto the circular mat. Her toes wriggle until they find their homes. Her feet become fleshy-white once again. She rolls her new skin up her calves, her thighs. Her eyeballs scan left, right, up, down, and she flails her red, bony arms like some prehistoric beast. She finds the armholes. She feels complete.

    Dr. Link helps bring the zipper to the back of Lisa May’s head and looks with her into the mirrors. “Well, what do we think?” 

     

    Lisa May laughs as she comes through the front door of her house. She does a little dance, enjoys making her new skin move. 

    “They really did an incredible job,” her dad is saying. 

    “I’m so proud of you,” says her mom. 

    After the three eat dinner, Lisa May is presented with a cake. “Did you get this while I was being fitted in the shop? You did, didn’t you!” 

    Her mom lights a candle and smiles. Her dad jokes that he feels they should sing. The icing reads: New Skin, New Me, Finally Free!

     

    Upstairs, Lisa May showers and prepares for bed. For the first time, she can scrutinize her new features in the familiar bathroom light. Nothing is out of place. Her eyebrows have kept their parenthetical shapes. Her hair is the color of wheat, as always. She has kept her favorite mole on her left cheek. If that boy could see her now, he’d know what a mistake he’d made. Her skin looks healthier than ever, and her nose looks— 

    An itch. Probably nothing. Itches are natural with new skins, she thinks.

    Her nose is slender and straight until it curls up just at the tip. Her eyes are still gray-blue. Her lips move—

    It’s the zipper. The zipper itches. There’s a space the size of a thumbnail on the back of her skull and it beckons for her awareness. She fiddles with the zipper and looks at herself and now she’s crying and wiping her eyes on forearms that are new to her, that she was given, no, not given, purchased, she purchased new forearms and a new face and new hair and all this newness but those same sad eyes, broken and alive, and now she rips the zipper down her back but it’s cheap and it snags on freshly-made skin and she screams from the pain and scrapes herself away and runs down the stairs with her face and neck deflated and shredded into strands, strands that hang in scraps from her collar and make plushy noises as she runs and enters that hot humid garage and she’s getting light-headed and she grasps the shovel her hand grabs the handle a hand with a foreign back she does not know the backs of her own hands the freckles and scars should be there but aren’t and the garage door opens (opens, opens) to darkness and she wipes at lidless eyes and hobbles outside and once she finds that old skin she can rinse it and wear it again. 

    Now she is stabbing the ground, now here, now there, stabbing and stabbing and where, where, where did she bury her body?

  9. FICTION: Poster Child

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    Illustration by Thisbe Wu

    This piece received third place in the fiction category of the 2024 Wallace Prize.

    When the girl named Lucy Tatum was found just outside town she was thin and dead and the color of old teeth. 

    Before they found her body, though, the Tatum girl was missing, and the library was printing flyers of her face in black and white. The image was so over-exposed that Lucy could have been anyone, so the librarians (knowing colored ink was a luxury the library budget could not accommodate, not even for a missing girl) gave the after-school group left to their care all the red and orange crayons that could be found and, after brief instructions, told the kids to go to town. Lucy’s hair was a family of flames; Lucy’s hair was a red parabola atop her head; Lucy’s hair was a curly orange waterfall. The Lucy variations were posted on telephone poles and windows and cash registers. You could walk down any street and she would follow like the sun. Go for a run, and you’d experience a flipbook effect: Lucy’s hair flickers, grows, evolves. 

    There was a Lucy posted under the stop sign at the end of our lane. My little brother Pat and I were walking our bikes to the main road when we first saw it. I had only that day heard she was missing. There was a big assembly at school. They brought out the state flag for the occasion. 

    “What’s with her hair?” Pat said. He squinted at the poster like it was a museum piece. “And what’s with her eyes?” There were black caverns where there should have been eyes. I hate to admit that, combined with the hair, this made Lucy look a bit like a demon. 

    Pat turned to me and giggled. “That’s what you look like when you’re late to breakfast in the morning.” His hair bounced as he laughed.

    I punched Pat’s arm. We mounted our bikes and rode into the dusk. 

    *** 

    “They’re holding a candlelight vigil later tonight,” our father said at dinner the next day, chewing his chicken. “We should go. To show our support.” 

    “What’s a candlelight vigil?” Pat asked. 

    Our mother was doing a juggling act with pans and hot pads in the kitchen. “It’s a night event,” she said over the clanging of various kitchen instruments, “where people come together with candles to show the heavens their support for a cause.” These were the days when Mom was getting in touch with her spiritual side. Her nightstand had been turned into a shrine for some sort of river goddess, much to our father’s dismay. “Ohhh,” Pat said. “Like in that movie.” 

    “What movie?” Dad asked. 

    “I don’t remember the name.” 

    Gone Girl,” I said. 

    “Yeah, that’s it! Gone Girl!” 

    Gone Girl?” Dad asked. “Why have you seen Gone Girl?” 

    Pat, never missing a chance to throw blame on me: “Christopher was watching it with his friends.” 

    “And you were watching it with them? Isn’t it rated R?” Dad turned to me. “Why did you allow this?” 

    “What was I supposed to do?” I said. “Tell him to leave? It’s not even that graphic or anything.”

    “No, yeah, it’s not that bad,” Pat said. “The only graphic thing is when that guy is on top of the Gone Girl and she slits his throat and he dies, right there on the bed!” Pat looked at me. Mom looked at me. Dad looked at me. I looked at Pat. “Why would you tell him that?” 

    “You let Pat watch that? He’s in elementary school, Christopher!” 

    “Next year I’ll be in middle school.” 

    “It’s just a movie, Dad!” 

    “No, that’s not a movie, you know what that is, that’s junk food for your brain—no, worse than junk food, it’s like drugs for your brain—” 

    “—oh my, no, drugs are drugs for your brain! Movies are movies!” 

    Mom did some aggressive pan-clanging to silence the argument. We swiveled our heads to the kitchen. 

    “We can talk about this later,” she said. “You boys should get dressed for tonight.” 

    “Dressed?” I said. “What do we have to wear?” 

    “Something that looks nicer than what you have on.” 

    I opened my mouth, but she pointed a spatula at me before I could say anything else. 

    *** 

    In the grassy area in the middle of town, everyone was slowly everywhere. People carried paper lanterns, lighters, flashlights. Some carried small candles that fit in their palms, and some carried tall candles that dripped wax onto silver trays. For some reason, everyone was whispering. Lucy’s face watched from streetlamps and store windows. 

    Teachers and neighbors and adults we didn’t know asked Pat and I how we were holding up. Neither of us really knew Lucy Tatum. She was younger than me and older than Pat. Mr. Tatum ran the hardware store by school, and when we would go there with Dad, a redheaded girl would sometimes bring us the screws or brackets we were looking for. Other than that, we never saw her. We said we were holding up fine. We were told we were strong boys. 

    Pat, perhaps out of some protest toward our mother, had buttoned his one good dress shirt all the way up so that it squeezed the color out of his neck. Untucked, without a belt or a tie, this looked ridiculous. I told him I liked his fashion sense. He stuck his tongue out at me. We held our candles and longed for music. 

    We turned at the sound of some commotion. Mr. and Mrs. Tatum were swimming through the crowd. Old ladies would take Mrs. Tatum’s hands and say that they were so terribly sorry, that no one should have to go through this. The men would tell Mr. Tatum that the authorities, being so hard at work, would surely find Lucy soon. But the Tatums were visitors from another world. Mrs. Tatum would let her hands be taken and blink and nod. Mr. Tatum’s head mumbled at the ground. 

    I was watching when the change occurred. Pat’s math teacher tapped Mr. Tatum’s shoulder and Mr. Tatum snapped up, turning to look over each shoulder, trying to locate himself as if he had just awoken from some terrible nap. 

    “Where is she?” He turned to someone. “Where is she?” Another turn. “Where is she?” 

    And then, turning again, his gaze fell on Pat. Pat froze. Mr. Tatum hurried to my brother. 

    “Where is she? Where is she? Do you know where she is?” 

    Pat swallowed. Mom and Dad and I were frozen.

    Pat spoke through a tight throat. “I don’t know.” 

    Mr. Tatum seized Pat’s shoulders. Something happened in the air between them. “You have to find her,” he begged. “You have to find my girl. You have to find my Lucy. I know she’s out there. I know she’s out there. You have to find my girl.” Pat was a mannequin in a button-down. Mr. Tatum let him go and shuffled away, mumbling. My parents flocked to Pat and, not knowing what to say, hugged him. People slowly began to roam again. A woman in an I Love Lucy shirt set her candle on the ground and started to pray. 

    *** 

    “I have to find her,” Pat said. It was late and we were both in our beds. These were the first words anyone had said since the vigil. 

    I turned to my other side to face Pat’s bed across the room. “He was just saying that, Pat. Mr. Tatum’s really scared and stressed, you know.” 

    “I know.” 

    “But he wasn’t choosing you specifically. He doesn’t expect you to be Sherlock Holmes or something. You just happened to be in his sight, that’s all.” 

    “Maybe.” 

    “Try not to worry about it and get some sleep,” I said. I rolled onto my back and closed my eyes. I heard Pat reposition himself under his covers. We tried to watch our eyelids, to follow the pools of neon as they appeared and sucked themselves up and appeared again. 

    “I’m going to find her,” Pat said. “And you have to help me.” He knew that recently updated, post-disappearance family rules required me to follow him around.

    I mumbled an okay and thought about candles, and red hair, and the girl being somewhere and everywhere in the night. 

    *** 

    Pat shook me awake in the morning. 

    “Chris! Chris! We gotta go!” 

    “What?” 

    “We gotta go find Lucy!” 

    He was wearing a tan vest covered with Cub Scout patches. I had never seen this vest before and to this day have no idea where it came from. The straps of his Star Wars backpack were clipped together across his chest. He stood there in his hiking boots and sucked on the straw of his water bottle. 

    “What the hell time is it, Pat?” 

    Pat looked at his wrist, at a toy spy-gadget watch with lots of buttons. He pressed some of these buttons and furrowed his brow and gave up. 

    “I don’t know. Probably seven. We’re not gonna find her if we spend all morning in bed.” 

    “It’s too early, Pat. We can look for her later.” 

    “Actually, I just got this watch to work, and it’s seven-thirty-seven. So.”

    I groaned.

    Pat started handing me things—jeans, backpack, first aid kit, duct tape, binoculars, notebook, Oreos—and soon we were out the door, marching into the morning air. Under our stop sign, Lucy was sagging. Her red hair leaked past her shoulders. She had been hit by a sprinkler in the night.

    “We’re going to find you,” Pat told the poster. He studied some kind of map he had drawn, a mess of geometric shapes on yellow construction paper. “Don’t you worry, Lucy.” 

    *** 

    Lucy Tatum was not in any of the main shops in town. Lucy Tatum was not off the side of the path in the park. Lucy Tatum was not behind the arcade. Lucy Tatum was not in the wooded area behind the school. Lucy Tatum was not in the front yards of the Samuelsons or the Franklins or the Delgatos. Lucy Tatum was not under the bleachers at the old baseball field, or under any cars at the gas station, or in any dumpsters by the power plant. 

    “Pat.” 

    “Yeah.” 

    “You know the police have been looking for Lucy, right?” 

    “Yeah.” 

    “And you know they’ve been looking pretty hard.” 

    “Yeah.” 

    “So why are we looking?” 

    “Because maybe she’s somewhere they wouldn’t think to look,” Pat said. “Some place only a kid could find.” 

    We walked down bike trails and under power lines and along a creek that spit us out across town. No Lucy. Pat offered me half a KitKat and crossed locations off his map.

    “So we’ve been behind the school.” 

    “Pat.” 

    “Did we check by the old chapel?” 

    “Pat, listen to me.” 

    “And we looked around the baseball field.” 

    “Look, Pat, the girl’s probably dead.” 

    Pat stopped putting check marks on the map. 

    “In all honesty,” I said, “Some creep from out of town probably snatched her up, and now she’s on the side of a road somewhere—somewhere far from here—and it’s only a matter of time before we hear about it.” 

    Pat tried to kill me with his eyes. He unleashed upon me what was, in his world, the worst insult imaginable: “That’s something a grown-up would say.” 

    We kept looking. 

    *** 

    We were walking on the sidewalk, heading home, when Pat stopped. 

    “Hey,” he said, “let’s stop here.” He turned to a light blue house with peeling paint and a sign on the porch that read: BARTHOLOMEW LARKIN — SOOTHSAYER EXTRAORDINAIRE. 

    “My god, Pat, we are not gonna ask that old hippie if he knows where Lucy is.” 

    “Why not? The police probably haven’t thought to ask him. He might know something we don’t.” 

    “Oh, what, like who the stars say you should marry? Mom’s started up on that shit, you know. That’s why she’s been so bossy lately.” 

    “His name’s Bartholomew. Like a wizard.” 

    I snorted as Pat went to knock on the door. Knock knock knock. There was no answer.

    “Too bad, Pat. Guess we’ll just have to head home.” 

    Pat pressed watch-buttons that made defeated beeps. We turned away from the door and stepped off the porch. 

    “We’ll try again tomorrow,” Pat said, and then the door swung open behind us. A man with quiet eyes and thinning gray hair stood in the doorframe. He wore a robe that looked like something you’d find in a costume shop; the inside lining, I could see, was patterned with five-pointed stars and white-tipped magic wands. A jack-o-lantern smile sprouted on his face. 

    “You boys look like you’re on an adventure.” 

    Pat and I exchanged looks. 

    “I’m terribly sorry to say that I am closed for the day, but if you’d like a tarot reading, palm reading, divination, you come back tomorrow.” 

    “No thanks,” I called out with a wave, and the old man went to close the door, and Pat blurted: “We’re looking for Lucy Tatum.” 

    Bartholomew Larkin took his hand off the doorknob. He looked past Pat, scanning the horizon like a stormwatcher. 

    “Oh my,” he said. 

    “The missing girl.” 

    “Yes.” 

    “And we were wondering if you might be able to help us.” Pat fiddled with the straps of his backpack. “We thought with all your divinations and stuff you might know something the cops don’t. Like where to look.”

    I rubbed at my eyes with my palm. Bartholomew kept looking at things we couldn’t see in the distance. 

    “I read symbols on cards and creases in skin. I’m afraid looking for a missing girl is a job for the police. It’s certainly not a job for me, and it is most certainly not a job for young boys like yourselves.” 

    I was stunned. The most agreeable thing I had heard all day, coming from a man who believes in bird-omens. I tugged on Pat’s sleeve to go. 

    “However,” he continued, looking at us now, “there is a place, past the bend in Robin Road, that I find most helpful when I need to connect with what is lost.” I tried to think of where Robin Road was. I had never heard of it. 

    Pat gasped. “The Spirit House!” 

    I looked at Pat, looked at the old man. The old man nodded his approval. “Over the years I have known men who swear that this factory or that hotel is haunted—a terrible, insensitive word, haunted, don’t you think?—just because they heard noises and were too slow to catch sight of the source. But The Spirit House, well, I can confidently say that, in all my years, I have never known a more popular rest stop for those on their way to higher places.” 

    I pictured a ghost on a bench, blowing on a cup of hot chocolate and kicking her feet, waiting for the bus to the afterlife. My brother beamed. “Thank you, Mister Larkin!”

    “Be safe, boys,” the man said. The door closed, and the robed man was swallowed by the blue house, and Pat was dragging me down the sidewalk in the direction that wasn’t home. 

    ***

    In the last of the day’s light we passed a Lucy with hair like yellowed weeds, a Lucy with cartoonish slanted eyebrows, a Lucy whose mouth had been ripped by the wind, leaving a paper flap drooping below her nose. 

    “The Spirit House is where all the ghosts go to live,” Pat was explaining to me in fast rushes of words between breaths. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of it! And I can’t believe you never knew about it when you were in fifth grade. Me and my friends talk about it all the time.” 

    “We’re talking about that abandoned house, right? Out past where we took piano lessons? That’s just a party spot. It’s where Don Parker was thinking of throwing the homecoming afterparty.” 

    “I thought you weren’t cool enough for parties.” 

    “I go to parties. I go to more parties than you.” 

    “I’m eleven.” 

    “Look, even though I’ve never been to that house, I’m pretty sure I would’ve heard by now if that place was full of ghosts.” 

    Pat stopped listening. As he walked he scribbled in the notebook he had packed, sketching little blobs with eyes. 

    “And because I did a research project on township planning for history class last year, I know for a fact there’s no road anywhere near here called Robin Road, so whatever you and your friends and that old man—” 

    Pat’s hiking boots stopped. He was pointing. I followed his finger. 

    We had found ourselves at a dead end. The words K  EP OUT were painted on a sad wooden barricade sitting at the end of the street. Beyond, things sloped into a ditch. To the left of the barricade was a narrow gravel path cutting through patches of bare dirt. My eyes found a long metal pole, driven into a splotch of dead grass beside the path, on top of which sat an egg-blue box with a perch like a tiny diving board. A birdhouse. “Robin Road,” Pat said. 

    When I look back now, I can remember having the feeling that I was in a moment I might have dreamt—or maybe a moment Pat had dreamt—and in that dream world, ghosts stirring in the party house was a reality as obvious and irrefutable as air. As I lifted my head to see that birdhouse, I somehow knew this would be my last real adventure, my last chance to be an explorer of the essence of things, and I can see now that the best days of my remembered summers are compressed into that one final breath of childhood, taken on a road known only to construction paper cartographers and old men who think they can read the stars. 

    And suddenly Pat and I were the same age, racing at the running speed known only to children, down the path and through the brush and finding ourselves in the field with the abandoned house. 

    *** 

    It was a small single-story. Vines had taken custody of the walls, and the porch covering folded over itself to touch the warped boards below. Corpses of shutters peppered the perimeter, fallen the short distance from their former heights. What windows remained were cracked—lines snaked across their bodies like veins. 

    Inside, there were only a few rooms, all branching off a main hallway. A desk lamp and a collection of empty picture frames claimed the floor of one room. In another, bugs crawled between the threads of the rugs, and rust flaked off an old file cabinet, its drawers littered with crushed beer cans. Mold dripped down all the archways, yellowing the corners and seams, making the edges of the house like those of an old paperback. I smiled at Pat. “Are you ready to solve a mystery, Sherlock?” He smiled back. We looked in cabinets and cupboards, in the bedrooms and the bathroom, under bed frames and under coffee tables, and then we saw a door unlike the others, slightly ajar, with light crawling under it. A shadow swept by. 

    Pat poked me. “Look.” 

    I’m not sure what we were expecting to find. It was just a broom closet, with a hole in its back wall that opened up to the field outside. The shadow had come from a rat pacing in its pool of moonlight. It scurried when we saw it, but not before giving us a look of pity, as if to say, I’m sorry I’m not a missing girl

    Pat and I looked at each other, willing new ideas, before the lock between our eyes was broken by dust, snowing down between us. We heard a creak from above.

    “Mister Larkin called this place ‘a stop on the way to higher places,’” Pat said. “Do you think he was trying to tell us there’s an attic?” 

    We roamed with our heads tilted up until Pat found it: a pull for the attic steps. He jumped to reach the string, and jumped again, and on his third jump he caught it, and a hatch opened, and a ladder accordioned down to my feet. I grabbed Pat’s wrist and held a finger to my lips. We crept upward, tensing with each uncooperative creak. 

    At the top, I helped Pat up into the long A-shaped space. On the other end, shadows of trees spilled through a window frame, shuffling around on the wooden floor. A short curtain riddled with holes rippled in the breeze, shifting its weight in a dance with the night. The girl was not there.

    Pat hugged my waist and let soft slow sobs into my stomach. Pat’s other adventures, I realized, had all been imaginary; dancing between trees with cartoon characters, waving branches in battles with invisible enemies. For the first time in his young life he had lost. I scratched his hair and looked out the window frame. 

    “We’re never going to find her, are we,” he said, wiping at his eyes. I wasn’t sure if this was a question or a statement. I took his shoulders and prepared myself to be a big brother, to lie and say that everything would be okay. I made him face me and noticed he was holding a crumpled piece of paper. He let me take it from his hand. It was one of the posters: Lucy Tatum wearing waxy, crayon-drawn, sunset hair. 

    “I was going to give it to her when we found her,” Pat said. “I was going to tell her she was famous.”

  10. FICTION: Deliverance

    Comments Off on FICTION: Deliverance
    Illustration by Emily Zhang

    This piece received second place in the fiction category of the 2024 Wallace Prize.

    Dr. David Rosen had lived in Lubbock long enough to know how to survive. He knew when to introduce himself as Dave Rose (almost always) and when to introduce himself as David Rosen (almost never). He knew to drive over to the nearest wet county to buy a bottle of red wine for the Sabbath. It didn’t matter much. They all knew he was a Jew, anyway. In some ways, it protected his career as only one of three obstetricians in all of Lubbock County. The men weren’t worried about him chatting up their wives while he saw them naked, sliced them open, sat between their legs. He was an undesirable, an outcast, and therefore not a threat. 

    He had other secrets. When he wanted to read about the latest European fashions, he knew to hide McCall’s Magazine within his copy of The Saturday Evening Post or Life Magazine, as he did now in line at the deli. 

    Behind him waited a pregnant woman and her young son. He peered over at the woman’s magazine. Pierre Balmain’s spring collection, available now, displays the artist’s–– David had read the same article moments before. He folded his sandwiched magazines closed. The boy behind David wore a cowboy hat and clutched a stuffed horse under his chubby arm. The clothespin of his diaper was visible above his toy holster. The horse dropped to the ground with a lifeless thump. The boy began to cry. He turned to wipe his face on his mother’s skirt, but she whisked the hem away. 

    “Don’t you muss my clothes, now,” she said, not looking up from her magazine. 

    “What happened, cowboy?” David said. 

    “Sport got hurt,” the boy sobbed. A snot bubble inflated above his lip. 

    “Well son, I have treated many cases like Sport’s before. Let me take his pulse.” David dropped to one knee and the boy held Sport toward him with a shaking arm. David tipped his right ear to the horse’s side and nodded his head in pace with an imagined heartbeat. “Just what I thought. What I hear is nothing but pure equine diastolic and systolic homeostasis.”

    The boy stared in fascination. The woman looked up from her magazine. 

    “In other words, Sport is fit for the Kentucky Derby.” 

    The boy wiped his nose on the back of his hand and hugged the horse to his chest. David offered him a square of peach-colored taffy from his coat pocket. The boy accepted it with a slobbery smile. The woman made a show of cleaning the boy’s face with a handkerchief and beamed. “My word, you must have a little one!” she said. 

    “Not yet, ma’am,” he said. 

    “I’ll pray for you to have a child,” she declared. 

    “I’ll pray for a wife first,” he responded good-naturedly, sending both the woman and the cashier into peals of charmed laughter. 

    “Well Timmy, say thank you to the nice gentleman,” the woman fluttered. 

    “Thanks, mister,” Timmy mumbled to the floor. 

    David leaned down to shake the boy’s hand, but with this movement, McCall’s slipped out of Life and landed on the floor, pages splayed suggestively. 

    The cashier looked away quickly and the woman’s eyebrows shot up her face. David grabbed it quickly. 

    “For my wife,” he said too quickly, then, “I mean, it’s not mine––” 

    “You’re sick,” spat the woman. She dragged Timmy out of the store by his armpit. He wailed. Through the glass door, David and the cashier watched the woman stick her fingers into Timmy’s crying mouth. She pulled out the piece of taffy and flung it away as if it were a poisonous insect. It stuck to the sidewalk like shame. 

    David took his sandwich and placed two quarters on the counter so softly they didn’t make a sound. He didn’t turn around when the cashier shouted after him that he needn’t return. He kept walking to the hospital, where he’d save the lives of other women who feared and hated him. ***

    “You must have a little one!” 

    The woman’s words burrowed into David’s mind. He agreed with her: he must. He had always thought so since he held his baby sister. But in this, he felt unusual. 

    It seemed to David that the wives were the ones who wanted the babies. The men were the ones who sighed and obliged, rolling and grunting on top of their wives until the wives were made women (the men were already men). The women took up the babies and made the house into a nest. The men took up golf and shooting and automobiles and football to keep them out of the nest until cocktail hour. 

    In his free time, David thought about the fathers of literature. King Lear misunderstood his children. Mr. Bennett neglected his. Agamemnon traded Iphigenia for good fortune. Pap Finn tried to kill Huck. 

    Meanwhile, Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon to avenge her daughter. Marcel’s mother kissed him goodnight without fail. Marmee still found time to feed the paupers after feeding Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. 

    Less virtuous women appeared in literature, of course. There was Emma Bovary. And Anna Karenina. But Emma and Anna never beat their children, molested them, or demeaned them. They simply refused to let their offspring disturb their quest for pleasure. In this sense, they were bad mothers, or relatively good fathers. 

    The problem seemed rooted in older books, David thought, in his own and in that of his neighbors. 

    Abraham held Isaac’s bound body over the flames, hearing a voice in his mind drone out the terror of the boy. 

    God let them strip Jesus naked, let the thorns bite his scalp, let them drive nails through the palms of his son.

    It could have been a fable, but David once saw his neighbor, Mr. Cullins, watch the neighborhood boys make fun of young Cathy Rae Cullins when a spot of menstrual blood bloomed onto her skirt and Mr. Cullins did nothing to stop them. The way David saw it, the events were connected. 

    So he dreamed. He would be the protagonist of a yet unwritten book in which the father was willing to insult a god or commit treason or climb the cross himself to keep his baby alive. 

    *** 

    David made it through the day. He delivered one baby and prescribed penicillin to one woman who tore. 

    He drove home from the hospital. He parked in the gravel driveway of the yellow ranch house he was paying off. He sighed every time he saw it. He never thought he’d buy a house here, here where he could see Park Avenue Baptist Church from the kitchen and First Baptist Church from the bedroom. “The things we do,” he muttered. He had nailed the mezuzah on the inside of the door frame, rather than the outside. It didn’t matter. Some neighborhood boys put a block of bacon in his mailbox last week. They were probably the same ones who tormented Cathy Rae. Maybe they were the sons of the boys who socked him on the playground in junior high. Cruelty was hereditary. 

    He entered and paid Mrs. Jenkins, the maid. He ate a plate of roast beef that she left in the oven for him. She always overcooked it, but he never told her. On some mornings when he picked her up from the bus stop, she sported a fading bruise on one eye or the other. He noticed things like this. He wouldn’t add to her troubles. 

    Now he lay on his back. Richie’s head lay on his chest. A cylinder of hot ash fell on David’s bare stomach. He fought the urge to flinch while the ash curled into a gray feather and left a tiny welt. He didn’t want to disturb Richie. 

    This Richie was Kenny’s boy Richie. His name wasn’t Richie Matthew, singular, but Richie Matthews, plural. 

    “Like there are two of you,” David would say, a smile lifting his face.

    “No sir, my daddy would’n’a made the same mistake twice,” Richie would laugh bitterly. 

    “If there were two of you, I’d go out and find you both,” David would respond. 

    But David knew what Richie meant. Kenny Matthews had been the mayor of Lubbock for nineteen years. He owned four stores downtown. He was on the board of the bank. “I led this town straight through the war and back,” Kenny Matthews would say as if the dusty drugstores of the Panhandle were the beaches of Normandy. 

    Kenny would have considered his son a mistake if he knew what Richie did. He wouldn’t have set up Richie with the job at the bank. He wouldn’t have bought Richie the Buick Skylark that the whole town envied. He wouldn’t announce to the world that Richie was his. 

    Richie was praying. He always prayed, afterward. 

    David watched Richie. His face in prayer did not look so different from his face in pleasure. This was the type of observation that would offend Richie, that would remind Richie that he was, in his own head, damned. 

    “Amen,” Richie muttered and lit a cigarette of his own. 

    The two men exhaled in hazy silence. 

    David tilted his head from one side to the other. He waited for Richie to speak. After his prayers, usually, Richie would talk his ear off about his day at the office. 

    But today, Richie was quiet. He studied his cigarette intently between draws. How small it looked in his hands, ribboned with veins and muscle. Richie was proud that his physique now looked the same as it did the day the town carried him out of the stadium on their shoulders. It was his last game of the senior season. Team Captain of Texas Tech Football was closer to a royal title in Lubbock than Mayor. With a touchdown, he shared his father’s crown. 

    “Well, have you given it some thought?” David asked at last. 

    “Sure,” said Richie.

    “And?” 

    “Dallas is far.” 

    “And? You like driving.” 

    “Not for five hours.” 

    “Look, I have to go down to Dallas for the conference anyhow. No one would know us there. Don’t you want to eat with me in a restaurant, Richie? Don’t you want to see what my face looks like in the daytime?” 

    “You know I do,” Richie responded, quietly. 

    *** 

    Richie walked to David’s house at 5 am, before the light came. (People would have seen the Skylark in David’s driveway.) 

    Dallas announced itself when the lone ranch houses began to huddle into neighborhoods. The city center rose up in brick buildings painted white and yellow and pink. Richie insisted on staying in the car while David sat through an hour-long presentation from the other physicians. 

    “I phoned for a lunch reservation at the Adolphus Hotel,” David said excitedly. He pulled the car up to a line of valets wearing gloves. A valet stepped forward and opened the door for David, then Richie. Richie stared openly. 

    Cuidelo bien, señor,” David instructed the man, handing him a nickel. 

    A su servicio,” he responded, taking the keys. 

    After the man drove off, Richie turned to David and asked under his breath, “Did you tell him we’re brothers?” 

    “No Richie, I told him to take care of the car.” 

    “Well I couldn’t understand,” Richie retorted. 

    “Well now brother, let’s go on in,” David said soothingly. He put a hand on Richie’s shoulder and tried not to notice when Richie shivered like a horse shaking off a fly.

    The two men walked through the oak doors. When they stepped inside, Richie drew in a breath. The ground had a thick red carpet and a glass chandelier sent light shifting across the paneled walls. “David, you shoulda told me. I’m not dressed right for this thing.” 

    “It’s fine, Richie, we’re just having lunch.” 

    The maitre d’ greeted them. 

    “Please wait while we prepare the table, gentleman,” he said. 

    “We wouldn’t have to wait at home,” Richie grumbled. 

    “Stop grumbling,” David chided. 

    The maitre d’ returned and led them to their seats. He handed them leather-bound menus. “Can I offer either of you a cocktail to start with?” he asked. 

    “No,” said Richie, louder than necessary. 

    A waiter materialized to take their order. 

    “I’ll have the sole meunière, but may I have the beurre blanc on the side?” David asked. “An excellent choice, sir,” responded the waiter. “And you?” 

    “I, uh, the tuna… car…paccio,” said Richie, uncertainly. 

    “He’s an adventurous eater,” David told the waiter mischievously, and Richie kicked him under the cover of the white tablecloth. 

    After the waiter returned with their plates, Richie’s eyes widened. The tuna carpaccio was a tower of fleshy, dull pink bricks. 

    “I didn’t order this,” Richie protested. 

    “This is indeed the tuna carpaccio, sir,” the waiter responded. 

    “Where is the tuna? What’s this pink stuff?” 

    “The tuna is the pink stuff, sir. As you know, it is our signature preparation of raw fish.” Richie’s face colored darker than the tuna meat. 

    “Can I offer you a different dish to replace it?” offered the waiter.

    “Naw, I’m fine,” Richie said. 

    “Oh Richie, have something else!” said David. 

    “I said, it’s fine!” responded Richie, lighting a cigarette. 

    “Sir, may I offer you a cigar in lieu of––” 

    “Just go away,” responded Richie. 

    David tried to catch his eye, but the smoke obscured him. 

    *** 

    David and Richie spent the five hours back to Lubbock in silence. 

    Richie turned on the radio somewhere near Weatherford. He fiddled with the stations until Elvis Presley’s voice filled the car. 

    “I’m sorry,” said Richie. 

    “I’m sorry, too.” 

    “I know you love this song,” said Richie. 

    “I know you love me,” said David, a smile pushing up his face. 

    “That’s right,” said Richie. He looked out the window. The prairie spread before them. 

    *** 

    David was smiling in the post office, which was little more than a dark, cluttered room. He was mailing a letter to his baby sister––well, a baby no longer. She was a Radcliffe girl now. David always looked forward to dropping off his letters and copies of annotated novels. It wouldn’t stop him that Mr. Edward, the postman, was always in a dour mood. 

    The elderly woman in front of David was not paying attention. She didn’t realize that she was at the front of the line. Mr. Edward coughed aggressively. The woman spun around and sent a stack of envelopes cartwheeling to the floor.

    “Not to worry, ma’am,” David said. He knelt to the floor and began scraping up handfuls of envelopes. 

    “What’re you doin’ that for, Rosen?” snapped Mr. Edwards. “Everyone knows Jews can’t go to heaven anyhow.” 

    *** 

    Back in Ben Jackson’s Motel, David leaned on his back and looked at the ceiling fan he saw twice a week. The ceiling was covered by a floral printed fabric, which had been chewed threadbare by hungry moths. The fan was creaky and plastic. It might have been his favorite view in the world. Richie sat stiffly against the pillows. 

    “Want another smoke?” David offered. 

    Richie shook his head, then nodded. 

    He clamped a cigarette between his teeth and sat back against the headboard once more. He chewed on it, unlit. 

    “You’re worrying me, Richie,” David said to the fan. Then, “It’s fine that you didn’t like the lunch. It’s fine. We won’t do it again. We can just stay here. We can figure––” 

    “David, I’m engaged.” 

    David blinked. 

    “But how?” 

    “Same way as everyone else.” 

    “But… how?” 

    “How?” he mocked. “Don’t play stupid, David. By asking her.” 

    David felt tears spring to his eyes. The ceiling fan was underwater. Or he was. Richie’s face softened. 

    “I proposed. To Georgia Lou Dickinson. She’s a real good girl. She golfs at the club.” “I see.”

    “Her momma and mine are friends.” 

    “And you like her?” 

    “Yes.” 

    “Enough to marry her?” 

    “Yes.” 

    “You’re spitting in my face, Richie.” 

    “This ain’t about you, David. Our time’s run out, that’s all. We’re barely living. We only see each other twice a week. We sneak over to the Black side of town. We pay Ben Jackson, more than his rooms cost, to keep his mouth shut, and he asks for fifty cents more every week. We can’t do this forever.” 

    “Maybe we could. If we’ve kept it from your all-seeing daddy, I don’t see why we couldn’t keep it from your wife.” 

    “Don’t be stupid, David. That would never work here.” 

    “So let’s leave! Let’s leave, men can live together in other places, we could go to Europe.” “I know you hate it here, David. But I don’t know where else would be as… comfortable for me. This is my town. These are my people.” 

    “But they hate us,” said David. 

    “No, Dave,” Richie said, rolling onto his side. “They hate you.” 

    *** 

    David forked another clump of mashed potatoes into his mouth. They stuck to his palate. They had no taste. Mrs. Jenkins was a poor cook, but David was worse. He had given her the week off during the lead-up to Richie’s wedding. He could barely hold himself together at the hospital, much less at home. He didn’t want her to hear him crying, cursing, throwing a book at a wall in just the next room over. The house was small. One man doesn’t need much space when he has no one else. 

    The ceremony would be at First Baptist Church, the one visible from David’s bedroom. He dragged his mattress from the bedframe and slept on the kitchen floor.

    “I’ll wake up alone again tomorrow,” David announced to the room, his voice muffled by the potatoes, and no one corrected him. 

    He sighed. Dido killed herself when Aeneas left her. In the stories, the forsaken always kill themselves. David thought about it. He would take his razor blade and press the dull side into his wrist, waiting for the courage to flip it. Then he would remember the glass boxes of babies with half-formed lungs, open guts, jaundiced skin. Until the hospital could hire a proper neonatologist, he was the only person in town who knew how to save them. He’d slap himself and put the razor away. 

    Richie was the forsaker. Sometimes the forsakers killed themselves, too. Like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. Cheaters. Adulterers. Sinners, as Richie would say. But both women traded practicality for passion. Richie, on the other hand, traded passion for practicality. If the logic held, he would have a happy ending. 

    David looked at the invitation again. It was printed on thick paper, pale pink. He knew Richie didn’t choose it, didn’t have anything to do with planning the ritual that would consecrate his normalcy. He felt angriest when he thought of Richie handing the baby off to Georgia when he went to watch a game. Fatherhood would be an afterthought to Richie. A checkbox, a credential. A degree perhaps, a doctorate in being a normal man with a normal life. 

    Maybe it would suit him. The muscles of the town’s football hero would soften into the figure of a father. 

    Jealousy knotted with David’s loneliness, and he cried for a while. 

    Afterward, he shaved his face and put on his suit. He shined his shoes and combed his hair. Then he walked out the door to watch his lover marry a girl who golfed at the club. *** 

    David watched from the back of the church. He sat alone. Afterward, he fought his way to the front of the receiving line. Richie clapped the men on the back as they embraced him. Georgia tossed her head this way and that to accept kisses on the cheek. Her veil followed her like a tail. Her dress was like something out of the Dior book last year. He congratulated Georgia on her taste. They made a good couple, David conceded. She had a sunny, freckled face. Her smile was earnest, like Richie’s. Their child would look like her, he felt with certainty. 

    And then they were in front of him, arm and arm and smelling of perfume. The felicitous couple stared at him blankly. Georgia broke the silence. 

    “Dr. Rose! You delivered my niece!” she exclaimed. She tugged on her husband’s arm. “Richie, this is the man who saved Caroline’s life!” 

    “Congratulations, Richie,” said David, extending his hand. 

    “Good to meet you, doctor,” said Richie, shaking it limply. 

    *** 

    David left the reception early to go to the hospital. He stood up just as the waiters wheeled out the cake, so no one noticed when he left. They probably wouldn’t have cared anyway. For a second, he thought Richie might have noticed because he held up a napkin to his face as if to hide a pained look. Then Richie moved the napkin to the back of his neck and it became clear that he was simply wiping away sweat. 

    David drove to the hospital by himself. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel in rhythm to the radio music. An Elvis song came on. David switched the radio off. He tried to swallow but found his tongue was as heavy as lead. 

    The West Texas Hospital was a single, four-story brick building. David had completed his residency in a hospital with four different buildings. Meanwhile, this hospital had the look of a hypertrophied schoolhouse. The red brick edifice was accentuated by white detailing. Steps led up to the front door. Dual flag poles with the Texan and American flags stuck out of the middle of the roof like television antennae. When he accepted the job, he had planned to stay a year, no more. But Richie was tree sap––no, amber, he thought. And David was an ant. 

    There were very few cars parked on the block surrounding the hospital. It was Easter weekend. His own staff was on leave. Half of his nurses had been at the wedding that morning, glowering at Georgia through their congratulatory smiles. 

    David checked his watch. 8:27 pm. If the invitation was correct, the reception would be over by now. Everyone would be home, drinking their illegal whiskey in the privacy of their kitchens. “Evening, Alice,” he greeted the woman at the front desk. “Evening,” she responded, not looking up from her book. 

    He walked to his small office in the maternity ward. The paper calendar on the wall was still pinned to February. He didn’t want to see the word “April” printed at the top, in the same font that it had been on the wedding invitation. Otherwise, his office was tidy. A folding cot leaned against the wall for overnight shifts. A hanging skeleton model shook when he walked or sneezed. He stacked his medical textbooks in two adjacent towers on his desk. He thought they looked like a ribcage. Behind the stacks stood the framed picture of his sister. A heart behind bone: the metaphor was complete. David did things like this to entertain himself, to keep his artistic mind alive. He didn’t tell Richie about it. Richie wouldn’t have found it clever. 

    A knock at the door startled him out of his reverie. 

    The voice cleared its throat. David looked up. One of the nurses was standing in the doorway. “She’s ready to push, doctor. Mrs. Ryder. In room 41.” 

    “Thanks, Stacy.” 

    David read Mrs. Ryder’s chart on the walk to room 41. This was her seventh birth in nine years. She had outstanding hospital bills from the last three. Her hospital gown stretched over her belly. A shabby dress lay on the chair next to her. He walked in and introduced himself. She moaned in pain. “Just not another girl,” she panted.

    It was a fast birth, but a hard one. The baby was hard to turn and her shoulder got stuck on the way out. She was frosted in a wax that left David’s hands white. For a millisecond, she was the youngest human alive. 

    “A girl,” David told her, holding the baby out to Mrs. Ryder. 

    “Tom wanted a boy,” she wailed, not even reaching up. “Now he’s going to reenlist!” “What will you name her?” he asked, trying to redirect her attention. 

    “I don’t know yet,” she said glumly, still loopy from the laughing gas. 

    The baby made a choking noise but didn’t cry. Her pink skin took on a bluish tint. She looked Otherworldly. 

    David rushed her into the empty triage room, brushing against a metal scale and sending it crashing onto the linoleum floor in his haste. She was losing oxygen. This was common among neonates, routine, boring, almost. 

    But David would do it himself. He used a syringe to aspirate her tiny throat. The mucus released and the baby screamed. 

    The thought of bringing her back to Mrs. Ryder while she was bemoaning the baby’s gender felt cruel. He looked up and down the hallway. The ward was empty. The pink linoleum floors reflected the fluorescent ceiling lights. He darted into his office, the squalling baby held to his chest. He pulled off his white coat and unbuttoned his shirt. He held her to his bare chest. Her body vibrated with the power of her vocal cords. 

    He held his index finger above her mouth. She clamped down on his skin with her slippery gums, suckling on it, instinctually searching for milk. She didn’t care who he was, what he was. She was hungry. She trusted him for her survival. 

    Affection surged, unbearable in its strength. Perhaps he could feed her. He could make formula. He could treat her colic, her coughs, her fevers. He could read to her. He could buy her pretty dresses when she was old enough — the nice clothes and schoolbooks that her parents couldn’t afford.

    Her sticky eyelids blinked once, twice, then settled closed. He carried her back to the triage room and set her into an empty bassinet. He tucked the thin cotton blanket over her and swaddled it under her back. She had known the world for fifteen minutes. No one taught her how to breathe, but still, the blanket rose and fell. 

    “You deserve a name,” David told the bundle. 

    He backed out of the room, step by step, and closed the heavy door behind him. He walked up the hall, then down the hall, then back again. The grotesque sticking sounds of his rubber-soled shoes against the floor made him nauseous. He felt old. He would only be older tomorrow. He found Nurse Benson at the nurses’ station, folding a stack of diapers. 

    “May I have a moment?” he asked. 

    “Mrs. Ryder is feeling well,” she said. “She’s used the bathroom and is eating without trouble.” “Thank you.” 

    “And the baby?” 

    “That’s the thing, Nurse Benson. I – I tried with the syringe. Then forced respiration. I even gave her oxygen.” 

    “Oh no––” 

    “Nothing would have helped. Her lungs themselves were underdeveloped. She passed.” “Oh Doctor, I’ll pray for that poor baby.” 

    “And so will I. Stacy, could you please talk to her? In a gentle way. A way she can understand.” “Of course..” 

    The two stood in silence. She continued, 

    “And then I’ll fill out the paperwork and––” 

    “I took care of all that,” David assured. “I won’t make your job any harder. Not on Easter.” “You’re too good, Dr. Rosen,” she said. 

    Dr. Rosen waited until she had walked out of sight.

    *** 

    Someone else might have asked where the frenzy came from. But he knew what was happening. His adrenal glands had released adrenaline, which diffused into his bloodstream and was transported into his capillaries that were finer than lace. He put on his coat and packed the photo of his sister into his briefcase. He walked into the triage room and lifted her out of her bassinet. She didn’t wake. David took this to be her agreement. She chose him back. And then he walked down the three flights of back stairs and left through the front door. 

    “Good night, Alice,” he said, knowing she wouldn’t look up from her book, not for him. And then he was on the road with her, the tiny creature, her body still streaked with the fluids of her birth. She nested in the crook of his left arm. He kept his right hand on the wheel. “I brought you into the world,” he murmured, and it wasn’t even a lie. 

    It was a virgin birth. An immaculate conception. David created a daughter without original sin. Sin––that was all those people cared about. They wanted heaven so badly that they made life hell. He was cleaner than all of them.

  11. FICTION: Camouflage

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    Illustration by Anna Chamberlin

    This piece received first place in the fiction category of the 2024 Wallace Prize.

    I won’t deny that it did take a while for me to get used to him. The first time I met him was at a dinner party. We were sitting across from one another, which I think may actually have been a strategic choice on the part of Tabitha, my old college roommate and the hostess of the party. She knew I was single.

    He was wearing a button-down shirt and knitted vest—very college professor-looking. And of course the glasses, which I only found out later were actually non-prescription; he wears them so that people know where to make eye-contact.

    And I’m sure it would be disconcerting for most people looking across the table at their dinner companion and seeing the Monet print on the wall behind them, and watching their utensils move without apparent hands to move them, the fork lifting the chicken off the plate seemingly of its own will.

    But the fact of the matter is that, as a nurse, I spend my days with plenty of people who have some part of them about which they are very self-aware—a scar or a malfunctioning limb, for instance. So at that dinner party, I already knew the proper etiquette with such people: look at their eyes; don’t stare when you think they can’t see; engage with them as people, not bodies. In other words, treat them the way they want to be treated, instead of selfishly satisfying your sick human curiosity.

    So that’s what I did with Simon. I didn’t even look to see if the chewed food was visible as it slipped down his throat. (It isn’t, by the way. It disappears when it gets past his lips.)

    For these reasons, I like to think that he was comfortable with me from the start. I’m not sure, but I think he was giving me looks across the table. I liked the sound of his voice when he talked: mellow, with clearly enunciated “d’s” and “t’s.”

    After dinner, Tabitha brought out Pictionary, which she knew was my favorite—we played it all the time in college with the girls on our floor when we were stressed out over exams or presentations. Simon’s glasses were aimed at me as the teams formed. So I took the first leap: “Want to be my partner?”

    “I would like that,” he said.

    We won before any of the other teams could even make it past the first corner of the board. Clearly, we were on the same wavelength.

    Simon walked me to the Subway that night. I remember it was a little disconcerting, standing with him in the dark, his voice and the flash of the street-light on his button-down the only indication that he was there beside me. He moved silently. I couldn’t even hear him breathing, really. I wondered how hard it must be to live like him—to walk down a street at night hardly noticeable—and then, if someone did notice you, to be stared at relentlessly until you were out of sight, to feel their eyes on you, searching for your neck or hair and finding only jacket, pants, shoes, and glasses. And then during the day, only those stares, endlessly, people whispering as you walk by, maybe little children even daring each other to go up and see if their hand would pass through you. Some people look at you and scream. Others faint dead away. And they only know you’re there in the first place because you put on clothes that morning like everyone else, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, when going outside with nothing on would maybe allow you to walk down the sidewalk blissfully anonymous like every other person in New York City.

    When he asked me for my number, I gave it to him.

    We met in the corners of cafes, in dimly-lit bars, in parks on the very edge of Manhattan, the swings at the bottom of the pier on the Lower East Side. He liked to go to places without many people and I accommodated him. We talked for hours on end over the littlest things: my feelings on scrubs, a slide he loved as a kid, our mutual love of Ethiopian food.

    Our relationship wasn’t physical at first, just shared company. I had a hard time initiating anything since I didn’t want to grab the wrong thing or touch the wrong place. And I hated that I couldn’t give him physical pleasure—he had likely gone so long without it, and he deserved it from someone. It didn’t have to be me, just someone. But it was me, and I was willing to give it to him. I didn’t know how to approach him about it. Luckily I didn’t have to; one night after sitting on the couch for a few hours and reading together, I felt him touch my cheek. I turned my head and he kissed me.

    That night, in the bedroom, I wasn’t sure what to do. When he took his clothes and his glasses off, I had a horrible moment where I felt like I was just sitting in the middle of my bed, naked and alone, illuminated by the wall lamp, aroused for no real discernible reason, and yet fiercely perceived by something I couldn’t see. It felt like every wall in the room was looking at me with lust. And then I saw the impression of his knee in the blanket, felt the mattress shift beneath me and his body stretch over me, his hands lifting my arms over my head.

    The secret to having sex with an invisible man is closing your eyes.

    Our first apartment was on the Upper West Side. It was small—only just affordable between our two salaries. We shared an eclectic taste in decor: he liked busy, consuming patterns, and I liked Art Deco. The apartment became a wonderland of furniture and art. The biggest room in the apartment was the living room; we filled it with asymmetrical plant stands and a white and blue seersucker couch and, best of all, we covered the walls in stick-on wallpaper—angular gold lines zigzagged across the white background ambitiously, darting up and down the length of the wall. My mother lent us a carpet she had bought in India, a mixture of light yellows. Somehow the room worked. I liked to sit on the carpet the morning after a night shift and lean my head back against the couch, my eyes closed, letting the sunshine paint the inside of my eyelids red, listening to Simon make a delicious breakfast that I likely would not taste before I fell asleep.

    There were occasional fights. I wanted children, he didn’t. We compromised and bought a fish tank for the living room. Simon didn’t care much for the fish. We would squabble over dishes.

    Our largest fight took place at our favorite Italian restaurant a few blocks away from our apartment. I believe in God and Simon doesn’t, but before that night it was one of the few things we had avoided really talking about. Simon said some pretty atheistical things in the middle of his meatball and I got mad and stormed out, which meant he had to pay the bill himself and run after me and he absolutely hated drawing attention to himself and his condition in that way. I did feel bad later, after we’d made up and were lying in bed, thinking about how awful it must have been for him to run through the streets, people leaping out of his way in terror. I thought that if I was different from everyone else in a deeply irrefutable way, I might not believe in God either.

    “To tell you the truth, sometimes I feel like God,” he said when we were lying in bed.

    “That’s blasphemous,” I told him.
    “I know,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
    Then a few minutes later he said, “Because nobody can see God.”

    “Okay, stop now,” I said and he really did stop.

    But it was something I had wondered about occasionally. That maybe God’s biggest power—or his only power—was that nobody could see him. Would that make him the wind? Or just a bunch of atoms, something visible but invisible to us? When I really thought about it, I realized Simon’s existence was in some ways a proof of God’s existence. Simon was real, a person who thought and felt. And yet, if you weren’t looking for him, you wouldn’t find him. God was much the same way. Although that was true for God all the time and only true for Simon when Simon was fully naked.

    But other than that, we got along well. Simon worked at his law firm, I spent long hours at the hospital, and at night we played board games and watched movies and talked. Simon seemed happier than he ever was when we first started dating, and I liked to think it was because he finally had someone to understand him, to appreciate him, even with the one big thing that made him different.

    I started to wonder about marriage. Did I want more than our apartment, our committed monogamy? I came from a traditional family—I didn’t have a single unmarried cousin. But maybe Simon wasn’t ready for that. Yet, I wanted him to be the one to propose. 

    I spoke with Jeanine about it. She was a nurse on my floor and one of my good friends at the hospital. We played good cop, bad cop with patients. I was the one who politely told you to take your medicine, who gave you a hug if you asked for it, who told you it was okay to feel so overwhelmed that you didn’t do any of the things the doctor told you to do.

    There was nothing polite or affectionate about Jeanine. Her charges were disgruntled but healthy.

    I knew Jeanine would give me her honest opinion on marriage, so I asked her about it when we took our lunch break together on a Thursday.

    “Consider why you dated him in the first place,” she said. We were sitting together on a bench in Central Park, eating our Halal cart lunches.

    “What do you mean?”

    “Why did you want to start a relationship with him? What drew you to him?”
    I thought back to Tabitha’s dinner party. “I thought he was smart. His jokes were funny. And he was interesting.”
    Jeanine speared some falafel with her fork. “Is that all?”
    “I remember wondering if he’d ever been in a relationship. Given his condition.”

    “Ah,” she said, pointing the falafel at me. “So you pitied him.”

    “I didn’t pity him. I felt for him. There’s a difference.”

    She shrugged. “There’s a fine line between empathy and pity.”

    I tried to remind myself that Jeanine’s bluntness was the reason I had started this conversation in the first place. “I wanted your opinion on whether or not Simon and I should get married. I didn’t ask you about Simon as a person.”

    “And what I’m saying to you is you need to make sure Simon is the right person before you even start thinking about marriage.”

    “Simon is the right person,” I said.

    She put down her fork and gave me a supremely patient look, one I’d seen her use on tough-customer charges but never on me.

    “Okay, what?” I asked.

    “I don’t mean this in an offensive way,” Jeanine said, “but you are a carer. You care about people, you care for people. That is the reason you are in this line of work. But when you care for someone—I mean in the sense of taking care of them, not in having feelings for them—there is something implicit in the relationship between the caregiver and the care-receiver where the caregiver has the most power. The caregiver is not the one who needs help, who needs kindness. Rather the caregiver is so able that they have the capacity to help the care-receiver. And again, I don’t mean this in an offensive way, but I have known you for a long time, and I know that you get a high off of caring for people because it makes you feel good about yourself. It’s one of the things that makes you such a good nurse. But the reason you started dating Simon is that, in a subconscious way, his condition makes you feel superior to him, and you like that. And I don’t think that makes him the right person for you to marry. It would be like marrying a patient.”

    She closed her styrofoam container and stood up. “I had to get it off my chest,” she said. “You’ll thank me later.”

    She began walking away toward the exit to the park. I wanted to say something to make her realize how much she had hurt me, to make her turn around and come back and apologize or say that everything she had said was a joke. Instead all that I managed to yell after her was: “I am not a carer.” It sounded pathetic even to my own ears.

    Jeanine had created a twisted version of reality in which my entire career and personality was built upon my need to feel above everyone else, a world in which my self-aggrandizement drove everything I did. She made it seem like I became a nurse to feel better about myself, instead of helping people. All I’d ever wanted to do was help people for their own sakes. And giving me such a motive overlooked all the hard work I’d put into becoming a nurse: my long nights of studying for tests in nursing school, my weeks spent volunteering in hospitals to fulfill my “field” requirements, the hours I spent explaining systems and procedures to other nursing candidates who didn’t understand the material as well as I did. My night shifts, my day shifts, patients yelling at me for simply being in the room—Jeanine hadn’t considered any of that.

    Not to mention this apparently completely selfish part of me that had caused me to form a relationship with Simon out of supposed pity. Pity! What about love? What about romance? Yes, Simon was different. Yes, people sometimes ran away when they saw him coming down the street. And yes, maybe there were moments in which I found pleasure that I was the one holding his hand when all those people were running away. But that was because of how much I loved him, not because I wanted to be his caregiver.

    I switched my shifts for a week to avoid Jeanine. The patients suffered for it; it meant they either got good cop or bad cop. It took another two weeks for me to forgive her enough to speak with her again, and another month before we resumed our friendship—albeit a slightly less intimate one. I did not bring up marriage again.

    Nor did I bring it up with Simon. I became distracted by a strange thing that started happening at our apartment. It was only strange when one understands my nighttime routine. Usually when I came home after a day shift, I would drop my bag by the front door, wash my hands in the kitchen, and then sit for a moment in a white wicker chair placed at the entrance of the living room. After catching my breath, I would stand up and head to the bathroom for a quick shower before heading across the hall into the bedroom. Simon was almost always sitting on the bed reading a book when I got home. Our bedroom was his quiet space. Then we would have dinner together.

    The strange thing was that, about once a week, when I came in and sat down on the wicker chair, stretching my legs out and letting the aches and complaints of the day fall from me, I began to feel a tingling sensation all over my body. It was as though I had just emerged from an ice cold bath. Shivers would run up and down my spine, light and awful like spiders’ legs. My brain felt claustrophobic, trapped in my skull. The sensation was thoroughly and singularly unpleasant and would last until I got into the shower.

    Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t stop sitting in the living room after work. But what I have to remember is that most of the time, everything was normal—the wicker chair was still the relaxing refuge that I was so used to. Most of the week I thought I was just imagining it, but I would get home one night and the sensation would come back just as strongly as before.

    I hated complaining about physical or mental problems like this to Simon. Nothing that happened to me even seemed bad enough to complain about in comparison to what Simon had to go through just by walking down the street. The only person I did describe the sensation to was Tabitha, who told me she had felt something similar when she was pregnant. She recommended I take a pregnancy test. I assured her it was extremely unlikely that I was pregnant, but I took a test anyway. It came up negative.

    I considered asking Jeanine, but decided against it.

    But I did start to feel a little bit like I was going crazy. While riding the bus home, I would become anxious about whether or not I would feel the sensation. Would it happen today? Nursing was a stressful job, and I was tired of that stress remaining until I was in my apartment’s bathroom, feeling safe knowing that Simon was in the bedroom waiting for me. On the bus, I would try to imagine the moment I would come into our bedroom, fresh and clean, my hair still damp, and then Simon looking at me, taking off his glasses, pulling me down onto the mattress and making love to me before cooking dinner for us both.

    The paranoia built regardless. One Thursday, as I sat on the wicker chair watching the light fade out the window, my skin prickling, the hair on the back of my neck standing up, feeling like I was being stuck with one thousand tiny needles, I realized I had had enough. I didn’t care if it made me seem crazy, but I was going to get to the bottom of this.

    I looked all over the room. Nothing. I stood up and walked to the bathroom. I closed the door almost all the way, leaving it open just a half inch. I turned on the shower, and, still standing on the bathroom floor, I pulled the shower curtain along its rail, the curtain rings squeaking their metallic protests. And then I wedged myself between the sink and the door and looked through the crack.

    For a minute, nothing happened. I began to seriously consider booking an appointment with a psychiatrist. And then I saw the bedroom door across the hallway open and close by itself, which meant that Simon had left the bedroom, naked for some reason.

    Except then I heard the telltale groaning of the springs beneath our bed, which meant that Simon had just clambered onto the bed. Which meant that he had not in fact been leaving the bedroom; he had been entering it. Which meant that he had been standing naked in either the kitchen or the living room, because this was, as I stated before, a small apartment.

    I turned, heart beating, undressed, and stepped into the shower. I leaned my head against the cool tiles and let the water run over me.

    Could it be true that the entire time this sensation had been because, somehow, my body unconsciously was aware that Simon was in the room with me, naked, silent, watching me, without letting me know that he was there? Of course the feeling that someone’s eyes are on you always carries with it a vague unpleasantness. But the awful sensation I’d been feeling in the living room was more than that.

    I remembered the atmosphere in the room the first time we had sex—that terrible, aching loneliness, feeling like my very presence on a bed was an excuse for everything around me to look at me lasciviously. Feeling helpless, trapped, weak. The sensation I had been feeling in the living room was very similar to how I felt then. And Simon had been in the room with me then, even if it didn’t feel like it, about to join me on the bed. So was it really him in the living room? And if it was him… why had he been doing it?

    I tried to assure myself that I was overthinking things, that today was a fluke. Maybe Simon had been in bed waiting for me, naked, and then decided to take an Advil in the kitchen. But then why hadn’t he told me he was in the kitchen when I came in? And really, why would he be completely naked? His feet got cold easily; wouldn’t he at least put on socks?

    It seemed impossible to me that Simon would use his condition to do something that he knew was wrong. After all, he tried so hard to be normal, to maintain friendships and go to work and get exercise and watch movies in an actual movie theater. Though he had never told me so explicitly, I was sure that he had thought to himself many times that if someone gave him the opportunity to wake up one day and be visible, he would take it in a heartbeat. His condition was his weakness, his medical problem. Wasn’t it?

    My stomach was churning, my head throbbing. I grabbed onto the curtain railing for support. I needed to get out of the shower before I slipped and hurt myself. I turned the water off, got out, and toweled myself dry, taking deep breaths and trying to clear my head. There was only one thing to do in this situation.

    I wrapped myself in my bathrobe and entered our bedroom, my discarded clothes held loosely in my arms.

    Simon was sitting on the bed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, reading the food section of The New York Times. His glasses were on. When I came into the room, he put down his newspaper and said, “Hello, my love. How was the hospital?”

    “Simon,” I said. “I want to ask you something. And I want you to tell me the truth. Can you do that?”

    “Yes,” he said.

    I put my clothes in the hamper, then crawled onto the bed and toward him, sitting cross- legged in front of him and putting my hands on either side of his face so that I could feel his cheeks, his mouth, his forehead.

    “What are you doing?” he asked.

    “Do you sometimes stand naked in the living room and watch me when I get home from work without letting me know you’re there?”

    His eyebrows twitched beneath my fingertips. It was a few moments before he replied. “Of course not,” he said, holding my hands and moving them away from his face. “Why would you say that?”

    And then, only because I was so close to him, I heard him swallow.

    “I think you’re lying,” I said.

    He let out a choked sound. “Oh really?”

    “We’ve been together for two and a half years,” I told him. “Do you think I don’t know by now what you sound like when you lie?”

    “I think you’re paranoid. I think my invisibility is starting to burrow inside your brain.”

    I glared at the wall behind his glasses. “I have been perfectly comfortable with your condition the entire time we’ve been together. You know that. I have respected you and seen you as a normal human being, despite all the struggles that you have to face.”

    The coverlet undulated as he moved restlessly. “Why do you always treat it that way? Like my invisibility is some sort of health defect.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I love you, but you always talk about the fact that I’m invisible as though it’s something that holds me back.”

    “Doesn’t it?”

    “No!”

    “Simon, you can’t even walk down the street without people screaming.”

    “Thank you so much for reminding me. Actually, and I know this might shock you, but I don’t think of my invisibility as a curse. It’s a gift. It allows me to do things nobody else on Earth can do.”

    “Like spy on your significant other while you’re naked?”

    He let out a long sigh and dropped his head. The sleeve of his T-shirt lifted—he was scratching his head. “It was just once, my love.”

    The words floated between us, almost physical.

    “It wasn’t just once, was it?” I asked him, but it came out as more of a declarative sentence than a question.

    Slowly, his glasses shook back and forth.

    My heart was beating so loudly that I could feel my pulse in the soles of my feet. All this time it had been him. And all I could think was… “Why?”

    He turned to face me more fully, mimicking my cross-legged position. He took my hands in his. “I want to preface this,” he said, “by saying that I love you. I love you so much, and you have been so good to me. So I want you to understand what I’m about to tell you.

    “When I take off my clothes and I’m just standing there in my body, it feels… I wish I could make you understand how it feels. Like I’ve become nothing, but nothing in a good way. Have you ever felt that? Being nothing?”

    I shook my head.

    “It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world. Like I’m the air, or like whatever is in me is also in everything around me. Like I am everything around me. It makes me feel like I could go anywhere in the world… walk over the Atlantic, go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Nothing feels impossible. I know you think I feel powerless because of my invisibility. But it’s really just the opposite. Being invisible is a deep kind of satisfying, like stepping on a leaf and hearing it crunch.”

    “But why did you spy on me?”

    He squeezed my hands. “The first time I watched you in the living room was an accident, I swear.”

    “Spied on me.”

    “Spied on you. Whatever you want to call it. It was an accident. Ever since I was a little boy, sometimes I just feel like I’m going to go crazy if I don’t lie down with nothing on and just become nothing and full of the air and so I took off my clothes and I went into the living room and I lay down on the carpet. And then you came in. And I watched you sit down in your favorite chair, and the wicker was creaking beneath you. And I watched you close your eyes and kind of loll your head to one side. I remember your hair had come out of its bun and you pushed it back and one of your eyes twitched a little. And the way your thighs filled the seat and your toes dug into the carpet near my head.

    “And suddenly I had this feeling like I was the chair beneath you, or the hair on your head. And I loved you so strongly in that moment, and I think it was partly because it felt like you were mine. Like something about the fact that I could see you and you had no clue I was even there meant that you were mine in a way beyond relationships and friendship, something deeper than any of that. I know I sound insane to you. Like a creep. But I just became hooked on it, that feeling. I knew you wouldn’t like it but I… well, every so often I did it again.

    “I am sorry that I abused your trust, and I’m sorry that I spied on you. And I’d also like to apologize if this whole confession has disabused you of the notion that I never take advantage of my invisibility. I don’t know that I can promise to never be naked again just to capture that feeling of nothingness, but I will promise to never do it in front of you without you knowing. I’m sure you’re very angry. It might take you time. But I love you, and I want you to forgive me.”

    I sat there, reeling, his invisible hands and my own love tethering me to him. The whole room seemed to be spinning.

    “I don’t know if I can,” I said. 

    “Can what?”

    “Forgive you.”

    “Oh.”

    He gently let go of my hands and got off the bed. “I’ll go make us dinner,” he said. “What do you want? I’ll make anything you want.”

    “I think I’m just going to go to sleep,” I said.

    “Okay.”

    I listened to him open the door.

    “I’m so sorry,” he said, and then there was the sound of the door gently closing.
    I lay there on my side of the bed, barely thinking, just listening to the clinking of pots in the kitchen and the sound of somebody’s air conditioner in the air shaft outside the bedroom window. And then, unbidden, it came to me—once again I was sitting next to Jeanine on a bench in Central Park, chicken and rice on my lap, and she was telling me that I had started dating Simon because I felt superior to him.

    Jeanine had been right, of course. I saw that now. When I looked at Simon across Tabitha’s dining room table, I had seen someone uncomfortable in his own unseen skin, someone who wanted to be more like me: normal, able, content, accepted, secure. And I had gotten some sort of intrinsic, primitive satisfaction from the belief that I was superior to him, that I could give him the normal relationship he’d always dreamed of. In my head, I had held the power in our relationship, a power born in cloying pity and pretended understanding.

    But it was Simon who had held the power all along. It was Simon who had spied on me again and again, watching me possessively, near predatorily—and aroused, no doubt. I thought to myself that it must feel marvelous to do that to someone, to look through the one-way mirror of your body and watch someone shiver. My anger was replaced with a sizzling curiosity as I imagined the feeling of that power, a curiosity that remained even after Simon returned and lay down beside me. It kept me tossing and turning while he snored gently by my ear.

    In the morning, I lay still and listened to him dress and make coffee. Before he departed he came back into the bedroom to kiss me softly on the cheek and murmur another apology.

    Once I heard the front door close, I got up, dressed, and called my shift coordinator to tell them I was sick and would not be able to go to work. Then I left the apartment and went to the local hardware store and bought three small cans of non-toxic white and gold and gray paint.

    At home, I undressed in the living room. The window was curtained but open and the cool air caressed my skin as I uncovered myself, removing layer after layer until it was just me— organic me—standing there in the middle of the carpet. I put down some newspaper and got to work, drawing the paintbrush dipped in white up one arm and down the other, along my legs and breasts and back. And then waiting for it to dry before applying the gold in strips, bending the lines around my elbows, slashing a streak of gold across my stomach. Touches of gray to mimic the natural shadows in the room. And finally, the last, delicate applications. A thin coat of white on my eyelids, on the insides of my ears, on the outsides of my nostrils.

    The hours that remained before he came home were really hours to practice. I stood against the wall by the couch and stilled myself, inch by inch, learning how to freeze a body that longed to stretch and scratch, learning how to blend in, Galatea choosing to return to stone.

    I began to feel it; the thing he had described. As though I was the room, or the breeze from the window. Less human and more a collection of textures, or even less than that. Losing myself to grow larger than myself.

    And when he finally did come home, the door opening and his suit entering, briefcase dropped by the door, I closed my eyes and let him sweep his unsuspecting gaze over the living room before sitting hunched on the couch and pulling a pen and Hallmark card out of his inside blazer pocket. He began writing a letter,

    My love, allow me again to tell you how sorry I am…

    I stood next to him, chameleonized. Today, I was God in the room. Tomorrow, maybe he would be. And wasn’t that equality?