by Carrie Esposito
The girl bounced past the paan stands drowning in shouting men and the boys shoving postcards of the Taj Mahal up her nose. She smiled at them like they were holding out flowers for her to sniff. But she didn’t buy any, and what use did they have for her smile?
I hadn’t seen her before, but I knew she was on her way to Crystal Bar, where my three children and I watched the foreigners come and go from our prime spot in front of the bar. Her matted blonde hair was bunched on top of her head, and she looked around, her blue eyes excited like the eyes of a goat who has found a string of grass in the slums. Shyam, who was always trying to sell his green elephant statues, jumped in front of her. He thrust some into her hand, and she looked at them like they were treasures instead of junk.
I didn’t understand why people like her came here at all. It’s the last place anyone should go skipping around, when they could be anywhere else, maybe on a breezy mountain, by the cleanest river, like in a story my father used to tell us, where children could jump in and drink the cold, cold liquid, without dying from the stomach curses. But enough of that.
Two-year-old Laxmi, my youngest, dropped her head in my lap. My mother called me a fool for naming her after the goddess of wealth. But she was born a girl in a tin-roofed shack, so what else could I do?
Her eyes were closing. I lifted my hand. I resisted stroking her silky black hair, and instead curled it in my palm, pulling her up by it. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, and though my chest burned, I ignored it. It was the time when all the foreigners were going for their late in the day drink, and her brown eyes, shiny like fine jewels, made us the most. Besides, if I didn’t tell her not to sleep when survival was at stake, who would?
That blue-eyed girl frowned at me now. I’d thought she was too busy paying for her elephant statues to notice. I pulled my lips in and dropped my eyes. It was my most money-making doomed look, the look that asked, but what can you expect from me, a woman who sits with three luckless children on a blanket? Her frown uncurled.
When she was almost on top of us, she crouched down. Her baggy dress brushed the dirt. These foreign women wore shapeless, too-big clothing, like they had something to hide. Or, to protect.
Instead of giving us money, she reached out and tickled Laxmi’s chin. Laxmi giggled. I had been like that once too, pleased by any attention. As I got older, I tried to fake that feeling. But my mother had seen it was impossible for me to be sweet, like my youngest sister, while we begged, so she told me at least I could not act like a goat about to knock the knife out of its slaughterer’s hands.
I glanced at Shivshankar, who was eight and my oldest son. “Tell her how you speak English.”
I sometimes sent him to beg on his own, and he came back with money, but also words. Precious words he had a gift for learning. And the more he could speak to the foreigners, the more they gave. Lucky for us, if a begging boy was a sad thing, that same boy with a special mind was too much to bear.
Shivshankar told her, and she clapped like she’d found out we were going to sing and dance for her, then let out a string of words in English.
He stared at her blankly, then lowered his head. “I don’t understand her American.”
I tapped the back of his head. “Listen again. It is English either way.”
She looked back and forth between us, then spoke more slowly. Shivshankar’s mouth started to move in the way that happened when he understood. When she stopped, he said the name of his sister, and then his younger, less clever brother, Ramadhuta, who was six. I’d named the boys after the most powerful gods, in a burst of pride for which my now dead husband had insisted we’d be punished. I’d laughed and said the gods had done all they could already.
“Maan, she told me her name is Amber. Isn’t that name so nice sounding?”
She balanced the elephant statues on her palm, while speaking to Shivshankar.
He looked at me. “She flies here to give things to everybody.”
This sounded like some kind of nonsense where people like her hopped around like the monkeys that sniffed and chattered while we emptied our bowels in whatever private place we could find.
Amber said something else, and he smiled widely.
“She wants to play with all the children. She says this will help the children do very good.”
I looked past her. She had wasted enough of our time already.
“Tell her to go away.”
“Can’t we play with the elephants? Please?”
Ramadhuta’s eyes, which almost never seemed to move, flicked over to the statues. I told Shivshankar fine, and Amber gave an elephant to each of them. Ramadhuta’s teeth showed as he and Shivshankar crashed theirs together, then zigzagged them apart. Laxmi laughed.
A camera gleaming in the front pocket of Amber’s dress caught the sun, then shot it back into my eyes. She asked Shivshankar something, ducking her head.
“She wants to take a picture of us.”
I didn’t ask why. All I needed to know was what it was worth to her.
I pulled Laxmi into my lap, feeling the warm lump of her through my frayed skirt and then the pressure of Shivshankar’s hand on mine. I held Ramadhuta’s ankle, because he didn’t like to be touched anywhere else. A click came from the camera each time Amber pressed a button on the top. It was a strange sound because now foreigners had phones attached to their palms, taking pictures of things like the man in orange who played for the cobra he’d stolen the venom from. But never of us. Most people didn’t want to look at us, even when they gave us money, so why would they want a picture? Amber, though, looked like she’d won a prize as she clutched the camera and babbled to Shivshankar.
He nodded at her, then said to me, “She says thank you. Herfather tells her to put everything inside the camera she loves very much.”
Amber rocked on her heels and still offered nothing, so, seething, I put my hand out. She blushed and pulled out a small wallet. She put a few rupees in my palm, but didn’t get up.
If she was waiting for thanks, I never gave it. I was sure the rest of her money was hidden somewhere. What she’d given me was nothing to her—a speck of dirt on a cow’s behind.
Someone scavenged a television once from the dump near our slum and found a way to get power to it. We all flocked to it like dumb beasts. A show blinked on for a few seconds, before power was lost. But it was enough time to see a bright green lawn with this house towering behind it, and these two beautiful foreign women, laying on chairs, who looked nothing like the rag-draped foreign women I saw here, but everything like I thought they should look.
Finally, a man poked his head out of the bar and whistled. He grinned at Amber like my husband used to when he felt like doing things to me in the dark while everyone else slept. Her steps dragged now like she didn’t want to go to him, but then why go? She could do whatever she wanted.
My children stared until the man took her by the arm and pulled her inside. The cool air that had leaked out was cut off. Shivshankar and Laxmi watched the closed door like they could will her to come back out, and Ramadhuta frowned. This was both troublesome and a relief, because his face hardly ever gave a feeling.
I counted the money. It was enough for some rice and chappati, but nothing else. At night, while my children snored and drooled, I dreamt of sending them, especially Shivshankar, to school. But even the uniforms they made you buy or one skinny book would cost too much.Besides, if I were senseless enough to come out here without them, I’d be stepped over or worse.
Though they never said, I knew they wanted to go. Their eyes, especially Shivshankar’s, followed the children in the morning who walked past us on their way to school. I had hoped for it too. When I was ten, I saw a sign taped to the wall near our slum. It was red and smooth, with a picture of a girl sitting at a desk reading a book. I put my next oldest sister in charge of the rest of my sisters, and idiot that I was, I went there, as if magic existed in this world. But before I got too close, I saw nothing but one man standing in the dirt, talking to a group of girls, and I knew it was a plot to trap girls like me. So I’d run away, so fast my eyes were blinded by dust that rose and rose and rose.
More foreigners went by on their way to Crystal Bar, but none stopped like Amber. A few dropped coins from their pockets onto our blanket, while they looked straight ahead, as if it had been an accident.
When Shyam started rolling his elephants in a blanket, it was time to go. That day, I’d told only my mother about the fake school while she cleaned the tears from my face and the mud from my legs. She’d talked to me about Lakshmi’s lotus flower, which Lakshmi stood on like a throne. It floated endlessly on the surface of the water without getting pulled into the sludge below. What my mother was trying to say was that we weren’t supposed to try for more than we had.
Yet she’d named me Banhi, meaning fire. I made of that what I could.
The next day, Amber hurried toward us, around that time the sun does its little trick by going down but making the air get thicker and hotter. Nothing better to do with no one to worry about but herself probably—no children or ill parents, like mine, who were counting on me, their first-born of eight and the only one still alive. All girls, much to their misfortune.
My children stared at her like she was the prime minister coming to visit. Amber sat down like I’d once seen a camel do, raising her behind and dropping her knees first. She showed my children the back of her camera. Our shrunken, bony faces looked like they should be staring up from a funeral pyre. Amber murmured to Shivshankar, and his eyebrows creased in worry.
“What is she asking?”
“To be with us in the camera I think.”
This would have to be worth more than the other one, so I nodded. She handed me her camera, and I closed my fist around it. I could sell it to the man who came hunting around our slum for things like this. But if I ran with it, my children would not be quick enough to follow.
Amber took Laxmi into her lap and put her arm around each of the boys. Ramadhuta didn’t even move away. Did she think she was their auntie? I gritted my teeth and held the camera close to my eye, but saw nothing but black. Amber laughed and moved the camera so I looked into a window that showed them far away and smiling on the other side. Her laughter made my hands shake as I felt along the top for the button.
“It’s the shiny round one there,” Shivshankar said.
I crushed it with my finger. Click, and again, a piece of us was hers forever. I suddenly wanted to claw the camera apart and take it back, but knew that was impossible.
She handed me some rupees. But then, she didn’t stand, and instead spoke to Shivshankar while keeping her eyes on me. I wondered what she could want now. Maybe for us to stand on our heads so she could have a funny picture to bring home.
“She says me and my brother and sister smile so much and she wants to be in our very good life. She will sit with us forever,” Shivshankar said.
I almost choked. Something poked my eyes. I clenched my teeth when I understood it was tears wanting to come, since I’d stopped crying after my youngest sister died.
I wanted to tear every hair out of her head and hollow out her belly and put hungry children on her shoulders to kick and scream and moan, and then silence them, so she would know the sound of silent children was the saddest sound of all.
I shook my head. Disappointment flashed in the eyes of my children, but they knew not to argue. Amber tilted her head as she spoke.
Shivshankar looked at me. “She wants to tell you there is a god who sits very still by a big stick. He has a belly like this.” He held his arms out in a circle. “And he is like you, she says.”
I’d never heard anything about this god who does nothing all day but grow fat. But if something looks like cow feces being eaten by flies, that’s what it is, and you don’t go around telling someone you see something else.
She asked Shivshankar if she could come back tomorrow. I busied myself undoing the knots in Laxmi’s hair until Amber walked over to the bar with her head bowed and went inside.
Amber appeared earlier the next day, jostling through the crowds with two gray plastic bags slapping against her long dress. She held the bags out to me, her face pink and her breath rushed. When I didn’t take them, she spoke rapidly to Shivshankar.
He turned to me. “She says rupees are not good for us and clothes are very nice and not too nice that everyone will sell them.”
She dropped the bags at my feet and pushed them toward me with her toe. The plastic snapped in a rare wind. That’s when everything came together. The clothes and the camera. Lakshmi’s front left hand—the one that showered golden coins—dangled.
I gathered the bags into my lap and told Shivshankar to ask her if she’d come back tomorrow. Glee made my voice higher pitched, but I didn’t need to hide it. Amber would never guess why. She nodded and did this clumsy curtsy-bow before going toward the bar. At the door, she looked to me. Lakshmi’s red smile sliced her lips like a gash. One cannot choose the forms the goddess takes.
Ramadhuta pinched the edge of one bag, pulling it back to look inside. I swatted his hand away.
“This is evidence. Follow me.”
I held Laxmi’s hand, soft and feeble as a flower on a prayer garland, and the boys trailed us to the police station, Shivshankar sometimes whispering to Ramadhuta to walk faster. The cheap plastic of the bags melted to the skin of my other hand.
My husband would have told me not to go, but he was a coward. He’d gotten himself killed during the construction of a foreigner’s office building by falling off the shaky sticks climbing its growing walls. He left me a widow, even lower on the ladder than I was already. But now, the time had come when I would fight my destiny.
The police station was stuffed between stores and tea stands, which leaned this way and that, all fighting for a spot. No one was inside the station, so my children and I squatted on the concrete floor to wait. Ramadhuta pointed to the chairs, but I swatted his finger.
“Do you want them to knock you to the ground?”
He lowered his head. Finally, the door swung open. The policeman who came in wiped sweat from his forehead.
“Go away,” he said. “This isn’t a place to get rest from the heat.”
I rose, but kept my head down. I had to show I had important business, but also that I recognized I was a fly to him and he could crush me if he chose. “I need to see Mukesh. He will be sorry if he misses this opportunity.”
Mukesh was an officer who came to our slum sometimes. He would work with anyone, if it would make him money.
The policeman sighed and went through a door, slamming it closed. He was fooling himself to think it was better in here. The trapped heat was worse than outside. But we knew not to move more than we needed. Laxmi lay her sweaty cheek on my shoulder.
Mukesh finally came out of the back and snapped his fingers. I lifted Laxmi and pressed her to my chest as we followed him outside and through the crowded streets until Mukesh turned into an alley. I stood against the damp wall and lowered Laxmi next to Shivshankar. He cupped his hand over her eyes as Mukesh faced me. The space was so narrow that I smelled his breath.
Mukesh fingered his pitiful moustache. “You better not be wasting my time.”
Before I could say anything, he reached out and gripped my neck. I struggled to breathe. Laxmi wrapped herself around my leg, pressing her face into my thigh. Shivshankar circled Ramadhuta’s waist, holding his younger brother’s arms to his sides.
Finally, the muscles in Mukesh’s fingers loosened, and some air made it down my throat, before he let me go. I choked out a breath. He sometimes beat the people in the slums that he worked with, just to remind them of his position, so I’d gotten off easy.
Shivshankar pulled Laxmi off my leg, and Ramadhuta stared at me. I told them to go to the end of the alley and wait with their backs to us, then told Mukesh about Amber.
I tugged on my earlobe. “I’ll do this when I see her tomorrow. And I must come to the station so I can know I’m getting my share. I can get more like her if you work with me.”
He nodded. He could, when the time came, still cheat me, but I had faith in his greed.
All that next afternoon, the minutes passed like the movements of a cow. When I used to beg with my sisters, we would sometimes play a game to see who could move her body as slowly as one of the cows around us. My youngest sister always won.
When the sky became darker, and Amber still hadn’t come, Mukesh glared at me every time he peeked his head out of a narrow alley across from us. I felt the pressure of his hands on my throat, knowing he only would have had to squeeze a little bit harder for all the air to go.
Then Laxmi’s nails dug into my skin as Amber walked toward us with that strange way she had of looking like she was floating. I had to force myself not to jump up as I pulled my earlobe. Mukesh ran to her, grabbed her tiny wrists, and cuffed them. She screamed, and a shudder rippled down my back.
Laxmi curled her fingers around my wrist. “Maan, no!”
My veins throbbed under her hand, but I shushed her. Mukesh dragged Amber through the crowds that parted and murmured, then came back together. We followed them, slipping through the crowd’s cracks. Laxmi was squirming too much in my shaking arms so I handed her to Shivshankar, who held her tightly against his ribs.
Mukesh pulled Amber inside the station, and we waited a few seconds before going in too. Amber’s pleas traveled down the long hallway. We followed the noise to a boiling office crammed with a desk and two chairs. Mukesh was forcing Amber into one of the chairs and cuffing each of her wrists to a chair arm. He pointed to me.
She turned as I squatted with my children against the wall. Her mouth trembled as she spoke.
Shivshankar whispered, “She asks you to tell him she helps all the time.”
I steadied my mouth from curling into a smile.
She looked up at Mukesh, who stood over her, swinging his keys and telling her in English what she’d done.
Shivshankar inched away from me. “You told him she put new clothes on us and took pictures of us doing the disgusting things?”
Ramadhuta began humming softly.
I stared ahead. One day they would understand. Amber twisted to face me. Satisfaction spread through me as I watched her realize I wasn’t who she thought I was.
Mukesh snapped his fingers and leaned toward her, speaking in English, as he rubbed a rupee note between his fingers. I licked my lips. A dusty fan didn’t stir the air.
Amber squawked, and the smell of urine dampened the air. I bit my lip, twisting my head toward the door.
But this would be over soon, and she could go back to her big house and green lawn and lay on a chair in the sun. And my children and me. We would eat samosas and gulab jamun. Then, I would tell the boys they were going to school. They would blush, but would be too solemn to smile. They would take their due from Lakshmi’s left hand, that I, and only I, had managed to turn in our direction.
Amber’s voice pierced the hot, quiet room.
Shivshankar spoke to the floor. “She has zero rupees.”
I slapped my leg, impatient now. Why was she playing games with us? I sprang up. Even though she wouldn’t understand, I said, “Don’t be stupid! Indian jails are no place for someone like you.”
Ramadhuta tapped his head against the wall. Mukesh lifted the keys, and I flinched, thinking he would gouge her cheeks with them, something to show her she should give in before this got any worse. But coward that he was, he only let them fall.
She didn’t turn to look at me. Her body rocked from side to side as she spoke to Mukesh. The chair legs that were a little shorter on one side tipped and tapped. Tip. Tap. Tip.
And then it was silent. She was still, except for her shaking shoulders. I squeezed Shivshankar’s arm.
He wouldn’t look at me. “She used her rupees to get far away. Then something about cold and ice and her father. Something that makes her sad.”
I closed my eyes so the room would stop spinning and saw Lakshmi’s hands, all four of them now, waving before they closed into fists.
I opened my eyes to Mukesh baring his teeth. The never-satisfied wanting that Lakshmi warned against flashed in his eyes, and dread rose in me as I saw how his life must be—a wife who complained for better jewelry than her neighbor, and friends who drove past his house with their bigger cars, and children who laughed at their father when he couldn’t buy them everything they wanted.
He collapsed the keys from one hand to the other, then yanked the camera from Amber’s pocket. He turned it in his hands, saying it was worthless, even as he placed it on his desk. She moaned, soft and low, like a cow calling for us to hear how it suffered.
I strode toward Mukesh with my hand up, wanting to stop him from whatever he planned to do with Amber now. He pulled me by the wrist to where Amber could see, then slashed his keys down my cheek, before pushing me away.
Mukesh raised his baton. “Go. Now!”
I went to my children and picked up Laxmi, who was crying without a whimper or sniffle or even a quick breath. She rubbed her cheek against mine, her tears a stinging river running down my cut skin. A river in which I might have drowned if it wasn’t for how I needed to hold her above the surface.
When we got back to our spot, Shivshankar walked past our blanket and to the entrance of Crystal Bar. I didn’t stop him, even though I knew the foreigners would cough and pretend not to notice his smell, and some might even laugh at him as he tried to explain in English how Amber needed someone’s help. A waiter might even kick him out before he got to say anything. No matter the shame, he had to try. He held his shoulders back as he went inside.
I sat in my same place on the blanket with Laxmi in my lap. Ramadhuta sat in his same place too, but with his back to me. With the end of my faded red shirt, I dried Laxmi’s face. She stood up and watched me without blinking, as if there was something she was hoping to see. There was mud on her cheeks from the dust on my shirt mixing with her tears, so I picked it off, piece by piece, until she, at least, was as clean as I could get her.
Carrie Esposito has had short stories published in The Georgia Review and in Mused, and she has received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train for one of her stories. She is working on a novel No Way to Fall Off This Earth, set in Brooklyn and India. You can find out more about her work at www.carrieesposito.com.
by Erin Debo
Smokestack, tall and billowy.
As I walk it always catches
the corner of my eye. I like to think
I have acquired-hypochondria,
but everyone acquires it.
It’s the newest manifestation of my O.C.D.--
obsession mixed with the compulsion
to find out every possible disorder
that could be festering in me.
When there is no diagnosis,
I begin to wrap myself in the phrase,
When I got sick,
When I got sick,
When I got sick.
Sick has its own realm of obscurities,
and yet the bricks from the smokestack
kept crumbling, piling on when I got sick.
Erin Debo is an Ohio native, and is currently pursuing a degree in Music Education. Her poetry has been a source for several musical compositions, and her work has recently been featured by ReCap Literary Arts Magazine and The Eunoia Review.
by Ariadne Wolf
I’m standing on the platform at a BART station. The older woman I started talking to a few minutes ago has turned away to take a call. I am left standing awkwardly alongside her husband, who has already expressed his regard for me by patting me, a complete stranger and a young woman besides, several times on the shoulder.
I’m feeling uncomfortable. I’m feeling frustrated and alone. I make up an excuse, and I start to walk away.
The man extends a hand for me to shake. I eye it nervously, then step forward and gingerly take the proferred hand. He slaps his other hand on top of mine and, when I attempt to pull away, he refuses to let me go.
Seconds pass, then minutes. Finally I am able to jerk my hand away. I stumble to a nearby concrete bench, feeling flustered and aggravated. I feel as though somebody just grabbed my ass on the subway. I feel the way I do all too often as a young woman traveling much of this country alone.
There are so many ways to tell this story. There are so many ways this story could end.
I could tell you about the man who moved his things over to the next seat so I could sit down on the BART train. I could tell you about the kind man at the airport Information counter who pointed me on my way. I could tell you about the man who checked me in at Global Entry, who made a point to smile at me, only at me, and to give me a calming look of kindness. I could tell you about the stiff man behind the desk at Global Entry, the man who warmed up to me quickly while I charmed him with my nerves and my vulnerability. The look that man gave me as I strode away was sweet and almost paternal, and I liked that. I liked how taken care of it made me feel, that one instance of feeling like a young girl protected by an authoritative male.
I will tell you, because I feel I ought to, that the man on the platform was white, whereas none of the other men were. I do not believe that this one identity always makes a difference but I believe in many cases, in many encounters I’ve personally had with misogyny, this one identity very often makes a difference.
I could tell you that the first man, like my father, was Joe Biden’s age. I could point out to you that he likely grew up in an era that told white men they could do anything they wished with women’s bodies, anything they could get away with. I could tell you how horrified I am that, yet again, I let a man fitting this demographic get away with treating my body this way.
Instead what I will tell you is this. It is natural, a biological imperative, to notice the people who threaten our survival. It is biological to recognize that our ability to defend the space of our own personal territory, whether that is our body or our room or our house, is vital to our survival. To obsess over any invasion into these things, any threats to our survival, is undoubtedly hardwired into our DNA.
Of the many, many men I encountered during that one day, that one trip to the airport and back, the only man to directly invade my space was also the man I gave the most of my time and energy to, all voluntarily. Most of the men I encountered ignored me, and I repaid the favor. The rest, a handful to be sure, were all sources of deep pleasure and kindness that I will take with me.
I am telling you this because I think it is so important to remember the kindness. I am telling you this because sometimes I live with the overpowering belief that every man I encounter will be a possible source of pain in my life. Not only does this cause me to do harm to the men in my life, it prevents me from keeping myself safe. This belief does not even allow me to do the one thing this belief is supposed to do above all: protect me
If I accept the notion that no man can be trusted, then I take the awful personal assistant jobs that are really only about playing mama to a grown man-child. I put up with the harassing comments from bosses, and even the impromptu and unwanted embraces from them. I allow men like that man on the platform, men like my father, to take up my time and energy, because I have myself convinced that I will never experience better treatment from a man than that.
In the end, the person who loses out as a result of this belief is me.
I know, I know. We’re feminists, we’re supposed to ignore the phrase “not all men” as the rallying cry of the closet misogynist. And yet…I find myself agreeing with this perspective. More and more, as I travel the world, as I encounter men from every corner of the planet and from all walks of life, the main thing I see is not what I expected to. The main thing I see is not misogyny, not patriarchy, not cruelty or the urge to abuse. Actually, what I see is a great deal of kindness, frustrated like mine is behind confused notions of politeness and contradictory ideas of how to be a good human being. What I see in the men around me is, fundamentally, something rather like what I see in myself.
I understand the need to skewer men verbally at certain times in our lives. I understand how doing this unites us women, creates a sisterhood that extends across cultures and even across time. I can think, god, men are awful, and I know somewhere in Medieval England Katherine of Aragon is pumping her fist in the air and cheering me on. I know somewhere my mother’s mother is screaming you go girl. I know that as long as I stay in this emotional place, I can walk into any women’s bathroom in the country and immediately strike up a kinship with the person next to me at the sink.
This all remains true. I’m just no longer sure it’s such a good thing.
What I am sure of is that believing all men are to blame for crimes like rape and sex trafficking is like blaming my teachers for not saving me from my father’s abuse when I was a child. Is this an understandable reaction? Heck yeah. Is it a correct one? A fair one? An adult reaction, even?
No, no, and no again.
I remember how I felt when I realized the only person to blame for my father’s abuse was my father. I felt bereft. I felt the world come crashing down. I felt as though my entire identity was in question, because suddenly my father was not The Father. Not God the Father, not the father of every grown daughter on this planet. Just mine. I was the only one who suffered through his actions. I’m the only one who has to live with what that feels like. Just me.
Similarly, when I accept that the number of men who would hold my hand hostage in public is actually relatively few, what I feel most strongly is my own aloneness. Suddenly I am not the victim of some universal Western experience of feminine suffering. Instead, I’m just me, caught up in a situation I could not control or escape from, suffering all by myself.
This is not an easy thing to feel. It is a terrible place for anyone to ever have to be. Yet this is the reality of pain, of being victimized. The crime is always unique. The act is always its own. And we, in the course of suffering from and coming to terms with it, we are on our own.
I am on my own with my personal pain, just as I am alone with my art. Whether both or either one ever means something profound or useful to another living being, is entirely up to me. This can be devastating, or it can be empowering. The choice is up to only me.
I cannot pretend to be any kind of expert on the men’s rights movement, or on the beginning of the slogan Not All Men. What I do know, however, what I know as deeply as I have ever known anything in my life, is that goodness exists in men as well as it does in women. I know that enforcing the already arbitrary gender divide in language and in communion was the single worst thing feminism has ever done for me. I know that I am no longer on board with it.
I know that feminism, amidst all the tremendous good it has done, has also bizarrely striven to convince very good men that the only thing separating them from being that old man grabbing my body on that platform and not letting go, is constant vigilance and a liberal dose of self-hate.
I know that this is not even close to being true. Not even close.
Ariadne Wolf works cross-genre in Creative Nonfiction, Fantasy, and Experimental Fiction, Screenwriting, and just about everything else you can think of. Wolf has completed her MFA in Creative Writing and she is currently exploring non-coastal America.
by Leslie Pietrzyk
Everyone in your Northern Virginia neighborhood belongs to the list serve because everyone’s mission is finding a reasonably priced plumber willing to replace a busted garbage disposal at five-thirty p.m. the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Also on the list serve will be requests from people seeking vacation plant-waterers and cat-feeders and mail-fetchers that start, “Looking for college student/recent grad home for the summer….” Also: requests from neighbors with dandelions and pokeweed crowding their mulched flower beds: “Any high school students available for light weeding?” Pretend not to understand that those requests written in that exact way are code calling for “white people” to do the work. And pretend that you didn’t tweak the front curtain aside to glance out the window after seeing the list serve warning, “Aggressive door-to-door solicitor @ W Maple; black man selling candy bars from cardboard box but was nervous that my (big!) dog was barking. Reported him to the non-emergency police #. Where’s his permit!!?”
When you’re riding the Metro and land a double-seat to yourself because you board at the beginning of the line, watch the car fill up as you approach the city. But pretend you don’t see how the white-collar black men stand instead of slide next to you, sharing your seat. Pretend you think that’s because they’ll be sitting at a desk all day or they’re riding only a couple of stops. Pretend not to see the blue-collar black man alone on a double-seat, how no one sits next to him, until the train packs so full that commuters can’t breathe. Pretend you are “brave” when you sit next to him, especially if the train is only slightly crowded. On the way back home, at Gallery Place, when you’re descending on the escalator, pretend you don’t look to see if the people waiting on the platform are black, because if they are, you’ll know immediately that it’s the green line arriving next. Pretend you’re not hoping to see white people waiting because that means the incoming train will be yellow to suburban Virginia. Pretend you’re the only one pretending not to notice this. Pretend that the black people notice too so it’s okay. Pretend that sometimes you don’t walk a few extra blocks after 9 p.m. to the Archives station because fewer “rowdy” and “noisy” teenagers wait there to catch trains.
Pretend you’re also “brave” when you pass through a sprawl of black teenage boys clad in hoodies (winter) or tank tops (summer) or T-shirts imprinted with the face of a dead black man or boy (any season) on the street where you walk daily in your historic suburban town’s shopping district. Pretend that they bother noticing a drab, middle-aged white woman wearing lavender running shoes purchased with a coupon at a strip mall DSW. Pretend they’re examining you closely with the male gaze. Pretend you’re fine with that. Pretend your breathing doesn’t race just a tiny, tiny bit. Pretend you wanted to walk this fast for cardio.
Next time you’re in DC, notice a young, striking black woman’s jazzy natural hair as she stands next to you at a red light at McPherson Square, her paisley-patterned maxi dress billowing like she’s in a model shoot. Pretend that your desire to compliment her hair isn’t about you. Pretend she would be happy to hear how pretty you think she and her hair are, you in your shlumpy clothing because you’re headed to a cut-and-color appointment. Pretend you’re not practicing the exact phrasing of this compliment in your head to get it right. The light turns green and off she goes, swift in her platform sandals, and now you can pretend that you changed your mind. At the hair appointment, pretend you’re not over-tipping the bad shampoo girl who splashes soap in your eyes and grinds her knuckles into your temples though you ask her to stop; pretend you “asked” when really it was “told.” Pretend to understand it’s okay to maybe be a little tiny bit demanding if you are physically in pain; nevertheless, tuck a ten in her tip envelope. Pretend you have a clue how to spell her name, which you’re going to have to pretend to remember.
Pretend you’ve forgotten a certain conversation from fifteen years ago when you were a sweet young thing at a happy hour of up-and-coming lawyers with first mortgages and first babies, all complaining that their cleaning women didn’t dust the ceiling fans, “not even when I pointed right at it,” a woman whined. Pretend that you said—instead of merely thought—“Dust it yourself,” and now pretend that it’s not driving you just a little tiny bit crazy that the ceiling fan in your bedroom is layered with dust and that, honestly, just how hard would it be for her to lift the damn Swiffer up there?
When speaking of it, always say “Prince George’s County” so you can pretend you never think “P.G. County” in a dismissive way. Pretend it wasn’t a big deal when you drove all the way there that one Fourth of July for fried chicken because the place was written up in the Washington Post food section, and pretend the chicken was better than it turned out to be, and pretend you didn’t mind waiting forty-five minutes for your order at the bar, and definitely pretend you didn’t think that the kitchen staff (all eight of them) seemed maybe a little tiny bit disorganized, especially since plenty of people want take-out fried chicken on the Fourth of July so it’s no surprise the day will be busy, and pretend you didn’t think for even four seconds about how you’d run things if you were back there in the kitchen, frying those chicken pieces yourself. Pretend to forget that you used to fry the Fourth of July chicken at home but stopped because it’s one thousand percent easier buying it, and your kitchen, clothes, and hair don’t reek of grease when it’s take-out chicken that someone else makes. Pretend their clothes and hair don’t reek of grease, and pretend they get off in plenty of time to make it to the fireworks.
In downtown DC, always have a dollar in a pocket that’s easily accessible so you can quickly pass it to a panhandler without breaking stride. Pretend you’re doing something principled, and explain to your friends walking with you, “I don’t care what he spends it on. Food, liquor, drugs. All I know is that it would be hard to live on the streets, so whatever he needs.” Pretend you’re not royally pissed when you don’t hear “thank you” or “god bless” immediately upon handing over your crumpled dollar. Pretend you don’t save the clean, crisp bills for your wallet. Pretend you’ve never walked into a NJ Turnpike McDonald’s and thought, “See, the Dollar Menu. So people can buy food for a dollar.” You also support Street Sense, the newspaper about and sold by the homeless, but pretend you’re not a little tiny bit pissed that they jacked the price from one dollar to two. Pretend that reading the poetry written by Street Sense vendors, filled with clichés and optimism and God, doesn’t make you feel impotently sad. Pretend you don’t imagine posting one of those poems on Facebook or Twitter and being heroically responsible for it going viral. Pretend a dollar will save someone’s life.
Pretend those canned vegetables you donate to the food bank would be right at home on your dinner table, that your husband would happily say, “Hey, hon, please pass over the bowl of delicious canned corn because I would really love me a second serving.” Pretend that you eat beans or tuna every night for dinner because you’re grateful for protein. Pretend that you prefer the store brands, and maybe even pretend that the people getting the food won’t notice that nothing is Del Monte, nothing is Jif, nothing is organic, nothing is bought at full-price. Pretend you would be bursting with appreciation for this bounty. Pretend that when you do eat canned black beans that you don’t shake on fancy hot sauce from Miami for flavor. Pretend you’re noble because you’d never grab expired crap from the back of your cabinets; you’re noble to throw that shit away. Pretend not to mind dropping off a bag of (unwrapped) toys from Target to a holiday gift drive, and that it’s okay to take your donation to a box in a busy realtor’s office, and pretend you don’t wish someone there or anywhere would thank you to your face and/or (but really and) pop a handwritten note with a real stamp into the mail. Pretend not to be pleased with yourself for imagining the smile of the black teenage boy enchanted by your gift on Christmas Day, a regulation basketball, and then pretend you don’t see the dozen or so basketballs already filling the box at the realtor’s office.
Pretend that you never notice that there is maybe one black couple at the parties you go to. Pretend not to feel instant relief when you see that couple there, clutching their glasses of Trader Joe wine. Pretend to have no idea that everyone around you is equally relieved, that the host of the party is thinking, “Look, I have black friends.” In a different conversation at a different time, maybe over brunch with women, pretend that you’ve been invited to a party at a black couple’s house. Or an Asian couple’s house. Or a Latinx couple’s house, and pretend you know how to use Latinx properly, without feeling nervous about screwing it up.
Pretend that when someone mentions “a professor,” the image in your mind is of a black person wearing tweed. Pretend this of lawyers and lobbyists, of CEOs and hipster entrepreneurs, of PhD students and research librarians and all scientists. Pretend that when someone mentions “African-American,” that athletes and musicians and Oprah aren’t in your mind at all, and neither are the homeless or single moms or “The Wire” or prison or a dead boy in the street. Pretend you’ve always seen “black man” when you think president or Santa Claus.
Pretend that the Washington Redskins honestly is a perfectly normal and excellent name for a professional football team worth 1.5 billion dollars, even though one simple google search shows online dictionaries calling that word dated, offensive, derogatory, contemptuous, and a racial slur. Shout, “Go, Skins,” at your large-screen TV, and pretend that’s acceptable. Pretend that if your burgundy and gold T-shirt doesn’t have the Indian’s face printed on it, then it’s okay to wear it in public; but pretend you don’t actually want to wear that shirt in public because it’s “lucky” and that’s why you only wear it at home. Pretend you’re not looking forward to the December 17th game against the Cardinals and your friend’s season ticket seats. Pretend you believe that one day the team’s owner will magically come to his senses and change Redskins to “Pigskins” and that doing so will undo all the damage of rooting for a team named after a racial slur. Pretend you don’t type #HTTR on Twitter during a tense overtime when the passing game has been sucking and the QB nails it.
Pretend there’s nothing more to say. Pretend this is the end. Pretend you admitted to all of it.
Read this, and pretend that it’s not about you.
Publish it under “fiction.”
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of SILVER GIRL, a novel, and THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, a collection of unconventionally linked stories that received the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. More info: www.lesliepietrzyk.com
by Kevin Casey
This was a fishbowl shaped like a giant brandy snifter,
furnished with crystal stones, a plastic plant, and a betta fish
that remained largely motionless in its stylized bonsai pond.
For the woman who set it on the receptionist’s counter,
it was a testament to her caprice, her sole challenge
to tedium, an oasis of color to brighten her day.
On the morning she arrived to find the cobalt drapery
of its fins hanging slack, she poured the fish’s lustreless remains
into the loo, committing them to the city’s waterworks.
But she returned the fishbowl to the desk, now holding nothing
but its glossy glass lozenges, high and dried of any meaning.
And when she pulled up anchor for another job, the fishbowl
remained in that same place for years, one of countless artifacts
we abandon and throw overboard in this sea of flotsam,
emptied of significance, knocking and bobbing in our wake.
Kevin Casey is the author of Ways to Make a Halo (Aldrich Press, 2018) and American Lotus, winner of the 2017 Kithara Prize (Glass Lyre Press, 2018). And Waking... was published by Bottom Dog Press in 2016. His poems have appeared in Rust+Moth, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Connotation Press, Pretty Owl Poetry, Poet Lore and Ted Kooser's syndicated column ‘American Life in Poetry.’ For more, visit andwaking.com
by Sophie Laing
When I walk home I imagine I’m gay
feels like a lighter step.
When I’m baking in the kitchen I imagine I’m gay
and I don’t feel as hungry for everything I make.
When I’m out of the shower and getting ready to sleep
I imagine I’m gay, picturing who might be beside me
thinking about what we will talk about
how there would be some little laughs in between
the few parts of our days we didn’t already talk about.
When I’m on a run, I imagine I’m gay
perhaps have a running partner or a biking partner
or am walking hand in hand to a sweet little neighborhood café.
When I’m out getting coffee, I imagine I’m gay
I think about what I’m wearing, I think about what my partner might be wearing
I think about how people might look at us.
I stare too long at the queer couples in the coffeeshop.
But I also smile to myself, my past self, my future self
and imagine that there’s a lot that can change in a year.
Sophie Laing is an upstate New Yorker who has been writing poetry since she was a kid. Her work has also appeared in Shards.