The Furious Gazelle

Literary as hell.

Tag: non-fiction

“A Swarm of My Own,” an essay by Leslie Hall

O, the bee drama.

Yesterday I took the day off work. It was supposed to be the day I painted my beehive in preparation for a swarm. Last month, when I was taking a beekeeping class, I had put my name on a swarm list. The swarm list is a list of local beekeepers who want to take custody of a colony that’s gone rogue.

“Gone rogue” is my paraphrase. There are a variety of reasons that bees might up and depart from a hive—this group of bees on the move is called a swarm—to seek a new home.

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“Near the End,” a memoir by Janet Buck

Near the End

Janet Buck

Your skull is packed with razor thoughts, as Father is dying a horrible death, his camel chin, so tired of rising to meet your buzzard eyes. And yes, you have the power to take a papercut, turn it to rivers of blood. There’s a catheter bag taped to the hair on his leg. You know, when pouches of urine pull on the tube, it hurts much more. “I’ll empty it” is all I say. You’re busy with some young woman, bleached-fried hair, doing your nails—donning a silk-slick negligée–clearly the skin of a Python with those aging spots. Next she’ll dye your old coiffure, see if she can change the world. Yours, not his. I hate that fact.

You treat his dying as if it’s yours. He doesn’t deserve that Hell-made pickle of your tongue. None of us deserve your tongue. But go ahead, do what you do: tear down shrines, release the memories of lives that matter, toss them with that snotty tissue in the trash. When he’s gone, it’s free-fire zone. I have a mouth; I’ll use it then. Because of you, every step I make to hold the conch shell of my father’s hand is a field of mines. I’m the one who scratches the genie’s itching head, rubs his shoulders with all the power in my wrists and fingers, in my arms, as he quietly reads the news. Do you know your sour words are bile and hairballs in his throat? I make him crêpes for breakfast when you refuse to switch on morning coffee pots, but manage to open a gallon of scotch, telling someone watching you drink from a bed stand cup: Oh, it’s only apple juice, you say. And we pretend that we believe to save him from the whipping post.

I hate the thought of my father making love to a woman built of shale and splintered wood. That heavy clay horse in the pompous living room you never use but had to have—like six mink coats—will do just fine. I could come up from behind, knock at the door of a head filled up with pharmacies you never needed from the start. And you. You over there—the one with eyes glazed over same as donut holes, the one who will not hold me when he’s gone—I’ll bet you’re stealing his morphine pills.

***

It’s over now. I stand beside him, stumbling over syllables. “A Love Poem to My Father” is the piece I wrote. My wrist too weak to hold the frame, a hospice nurse helps me out, reaching underneath to steady the paper pinned by glass, now hit by cold November winds. She knows these cracking cricket sounds will live forever in my voice. You are screaming, Get that body off my bed! I wish it were some bullshit job of paraphrase. Where’s that horse? A thick, black zippered body bag is on a stretcher telling me there’s no tomorrow.

           


Janet Buck is a seven-time Pushcart Nominee & the author of four full-length collections of poetry. Buck’s most recent work is featured in The Birmingham Arts Journal, Antiphon, Offcourse, PoetryBay, Poetrysuperhighway, Abramelin, The Writing Disorder, Misfit Magazine, Lavender Wolves, River Babble, The Danforth Review & other journals worldwide. Her latest print collection of verse, Dirty Laundry, is currently available at all fine bookstores. Buck’s debut novel, Samantha Stone: A Novel of Mystery, Memoir & Romance, was released courtesy of Vine Leaves Press in September, 2016. Janet lives & writes in Southern Oregon—just hours away from Crater Lake, one of the seven wonders of the world. For links, announcements, and interviews with Janet, visit her new website: www.janetibuck.com

Racing with Mortality by Alenka Kuhelj

Racing with Mortality

(In memoriam of my father)

by Alenka Kuhelj

 

““My toenails are getting brittle, I can barely manage to shape an aesthetically correct arch on the big toe,” she thinks to herself, in a state of panic, as she tends to her nails after showering. She glances at herself in the mirror, quickly looking away as her view fixes on her disheveled curls, which have become so sparse that the light from behind easily penetrates through. Her memory drifts back to her youth, when, looking at her father’s foot as he sat, bent over, trimming his toenails, she – even then – forcefully told herself that that would not happen to her. She thought that she was only afraid of those porous, brittle nails in which the years engraved elongated furrows, like the rings indicating the age of the dying stump of a sawed tree. Now, looking back, she knows that it was actually a premonition of passing, of dying away marked by the slow drying out of the body. As if it were trying to get away from her increasingly arid body, her hair is crafting its magnum opus: ever more unmanageable, ever more dry and removed. She had managed to bury the thought of those nails deep inside her for decades… or at least she thought. Being honest with herself, she realizes that that isn’t exactly true. Even before, she had had to chase away, with a conscious energy, as if she were shooing away an annoying bee that would not leave her alone, the thought of her aging father’s toenails. It is now twenty years since her father’s passing. And how many times the thought that dying around the age of fifty or sixty has a dual effect has crossed her mind! You die young, which is terrible, because you didn’t live to experience everything you could have: you leave behind a family that still needs you, you had ideas about what you wanted to do, where you’re going to go the next day, the next month, the next year… but you left, before the pains of old age could set in, before you had begun your descent from the high point of your life, before your extremities started to grow disproportionately, before you had “three legs”, as children like to joke about old men who need canes to move from point A to point B; before you needed those protective undergarments that give seniors a reason to appreciate the discreetness of online shopping.

When the end does come, death is truly terrible only for those who remain behind, and who feel their loss as an act of betrayal, of abandonment, that causes great pain as it tears at the body and soul. Before you understand how losing someone and that final, eternal loss can cause bodily pain, that incomprehensible tightness in the chest that spreads through the entire body, eventually reaching the head, where it produces a sensation akin to the brain exploding. A BOOOOOOM that never ends… and you suffer, and suffer. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in God and eternal life or reincarnation and inevitable repayment for the good one has done on Earth (it’s not like anyone believes he’s ever done anything bad); but until she receives confirmation of the existence of that wondrous world that follows life here on Earth, her belief is not exactly sincere. She believes, and yet she doesn’t really believe. Thinking about it, only now she begins to understand the saying “those whom the gods love die young”. Soon after the death of her father she felt a hatred towards those who would tell her that: both the young, who were more subdued in their consolation, and those with more experience, who were more brazen. In either case, the words were always somewhat muffled, as if the speaker didn’t fully believe them, and had rolled them around in his mouth before uttering them, skeptically, but in the hope that they were true.

She isn’t exactly pleased with these thoughts, as her conscience pries at her, as if to say that it is okay that her father died. But within herself, she knows that they eat away at her only when she thinks of others, of those around her who would be taken aback if they knew what was going through her mind. Courtesy for “others” was something she grew up with and something that, truthfully, she does not like. “What will the neighbors think if you… when you…” were words that echoed in her ears when she was younger. And even later, when she had a family of her own and problems that she didn’t really attempt to conceal, these and other “neighbors” were with her the whole time. But it didn’t always bother her when someone would mention this person or that person who was spreading this or that rumor about her. She would simply wave it off, as if to say: “Let them have their fun, seeing as they don’t have a life of their own.” If she really thinks about it, those things that we say in passing, that someone “doesn’t have a life”, are truly awful. It’s a fate she would never wish for herself or her loved ones. Lives are variably long or short… but they are always limited. Each of us has an expiration date. We just can’t read it. She thinks of a bar code, made up of numbers and thin black lines, stamped on every person she meets. Her lips turn up at the corners to form a smile. She also looks at herself. How intuitive would it be, she thinks, if that bar code were stamped on our left shoulder, in the back, where the shoulder blade ends, in the spot where some people get tattoos of butterflies, hearts, crosses, circles or countless other things that people can think to have inked into their bodies. She herself has been toying with the idea of getting a tattoo for several years now… the sign for eternity, that spiral design. She’d get it where the back and neck meet. She has yet to get up the courage to do it. At the last moment, there’s always something holding her back: a son who doesn’t want too youthful a mom (since they’ve been giving away tattoos that only last until the next shower with chewing gum, he’s equated tattoos with youth), or even the ridiculous thought, grounded in statistics, that a person with a tattoo has a harder time finding employment than someone with “clean skin”. She’s never been fond of excuses, and yet she’s always let them put a damper on her life. Until now. It’s just a matter of finding the nearest parlor, and she’ll get the sign she wants. But it has to be hygienically spotless. Maybe tomorrow… Her afternoon is already booked, as she had promised to take her daughter shopping. Her daughter’s recent shopping ideas often leave her confused. Thanks to the internet, her eight year old knows exactly what she wants and where to get it. Which wouldn’t be that bad if, outside the entrance to a store, she didn’t point out whether it’s OK for a mom in her forties (she doesn’t say it explicitly, but by scanning her from head to toe with a smirk on her face) to shop there or whether she would be “so embarrassed”. “It’s my fault,” she thinks, “I let her behave like she’s going through puberty.” At the same time, she is aware that she is proud of her daughter, because she reminds her of her and the rebellious energy she had in her youth. Again she thinks of her father and of how he understood and supported her in nearly everything she did when she was young. If it wasn’t something completely stupid, he was prepared to overlook it; sometimes, he would even take part in her capers. That’s probably why today she is permissive with her own children. Even when they remind her how aged she looks in their eyes. She would usually take their critiques in good stride, but today, with her thoughts drifting towards ephemerality and the inevitable end, she can’t bring herself to smile at her daughter’s concern with the age of a twenty-something crossing the street. Furthermore, her husband’s inquiries (it’s been two months now) about what she wants for her birthday are getting on her nerves. She knows she’s in the wrong here; her husband loves her, and the gift is his way of doing her bidding. But why, for the love of god, must he point out, every time, the ordinal number of this birthday, and with it her age? Of course, the poor guy has no idea that she’s being haunted by the thought of mortality and that every night, she prays that she’ll have a long life and that she’ll be with her children long after her and her husband, or even her children, have become grandparents. But now, she’s beginning to wonder why God doesn’t appear on high and explain to her that she can’t be the first person to live on Earth forever (well, besides her children, and let’s not forget her husband, whom she loves and would not want to lose). She’s been entertaining this idea of immortality and her self-serving uniqueness in this regard since her early youth. Even as a child, she would seek out a place to hide from reality and the ephemeral world. And she would find it in books. Sometimes, with a cold sense of purpose, she would look for her “special” immortality in all kinds of different literary genres. She read through entire chests of books, and yet she never got outright confirmation, except maybe in science fiction and humorous books. She knows that it would befit her, at this age, to come to terms with the silliness of her youthful ideas, but she can’t stop being herself… Deep down, she can’t let herself lose her childhood belief in eternal life. She admits that recently she was mad at her husband after he shared his own identical ideas about immortality with her, thereby shaking her belief that hers was a unique wish. Of course she didn’t admit that she herself has a similar wish and that up to that point she had thought that that’s just how it’s going to be. Only for her (and then of course for the ones she chooses). “Let him live in the world he took from me,” she thought to herself, sticking her nose in the air and contorting her face.

Summer days are long and even the children, who bombard her with their daily wishes about what they’d like to do, play, eat and drink and take up the lion’s share of her time, exhaust their repertoire of demands and needs by evening. That’s when her email time begins. It’s mostly ads unnecessarily cluttering her inbox. Sometimes, when she’s stressed out, she’ll intuitively smack down the delete key, deleting a mail that she actually should read. That’s exactly what happened today with an email from a friend. It’s someone who she won’t see for years at a time, even though she lives just a few blocks away. They keep in touch through phone calls and emails. The days are too short for her to get together with her girlfriends or join them at the gym or yoga or even at a store. It’s different with family friends. Entire weekends will be reserved for them, and it’s easier because she’s making plans for the whole family. It’s easier than if she were to go somewhere by herself. She knows that that’s pretty unusual for women her age, and her friends tell her about how their children are already independent and they have a lot of time for themselves. Some of her friends with teenagers don’t even know what to do with all the time, and spend their days surfing the web for things to do, from vegan cooking classes (who knows, maybe they’ll become vegans) to book clubs, or clubs for lonely hearts, as she likes to call them. She doesn’t mean to be rude, but she really doesn’t get how anyone can be “on the go” (home-work-home) all day and then want to share emotions felt while reading a book, before going to bed after a hard day’s work. Her thoughts return to the email from her friend she was thinking about before she got sucked into a mental vortex of responsibilities and excuses. She could detect in her friend’s mail the same fear she herself was experiencing: that she has a backlog of things that still need to be sorted out in her head. Mental sorting never was her strong suit, but now she’s feeling it just as acutely as her friend, who wrote about how, over dinner, when her husband wasn’t home, she explained to her only child, a teenage girl, that she isn’t the only child in the family, and that she had lost two children in previous pregnancies. She says things are better at home now, and her daughter isn’t so temperamental. She’s even putting less energy into slamming the door to her room; now she’s gentler about it, as if she were trying to tell her mother that she understands the loss that she previously couldn’t even begin to imagine. She thinks to herself that she should be grateful that she never had an abortion. A few years ago she did want to adopt a child, but neither her husband nor her son took her seriously. Only her daughter, four years old at the time, was cheering for it, as she saw an opportunity to get a playmate. For her part, she wasn’t decisive enough to convince her husband about her excellent idea, as she had in numerous other matters. Thinking about her determination – or lack thereof – she gets lost in a train of thought. She misses herself. She misses the ideas that, when she was young, she almost always managed to bring to fruition. Or, as she called them, her projects. Even if they were small, and outwardly unimportant – knitting a sweater or reading, over the summer, the works of Shakespeare taking up an entire rack at the local library – she would always go about them in earnest and see them through to completion. Over the years, there were fewer and fewer projects. With a job and a family came responsibilities and fewer and fewer projects. Then one day, when there were no more projects, she realized that she herself had ceased to exist. She felt as if she had lost that joy she once felt with herself… as if she could only take pleasure in the successes of her children and her husband. She had long since stopped being able to derive joy from her work-related achievements, even though many a co-worker would jealously keep track of her every change of office or move to a different floor as if they were following her career. As the number on the button she pressed in the elevator that took her to her office grew, she lost her enthusiasm for the work she did. She found that she needed challenges and that the higher up she was, challenges were harder and harder to come by. It’s not that she was complaining about her work, which, at this point, had become pretty much routine; she found herself missing the rush, that pleasant feeling of excitement that comes from finishing something and anxiously waiting for someone to acknowledge that she had done well. Now she’s the one who metes out recognition to young people, that is, to those just setting out on the path she once walked. Sometimes, of course, she can’t. And she really hates that, because she remembers how she was and the times she waited, with high hopes, for praise from a superior, or at least a smile, or a passing nod signifying approval. Now, reflecting on herself, the projects, the challenges, she’s increasingly convinced that she can’t stay on this track. She needs a change of direction, to rekindle that spark of joy she once had, before she began exclusively caring for others and dealing with their problems and wishes. Her children bring her great joy, but their problems and tribulations, and often also their demands and screaming, occasionally drive her crazy. Especially when her daughter decides that the day ahead is going to go according to “her rules” and begins barking commands already during morning bathroom rituals. Those are the most exhausting days. But what of it? She understands her youngest child. She’s trying to make her voice heard in the family even if that means establishing a military dictatorship of screaming and orders. She then thinks about all those parenting handbooks she read over the past seventeen years and the measures they recommend. Before her son was born, she remembers, she bought books not only on infant care, infant psychology, how to bundle a baby, and similar topics. She went beyond that, thinking and reading about the kind of things she can expect as her son becomes a toddler, as he takes his first steps. By the time he was born, she had already hit puberty in her reading. She always was theoretically prepared, knowing in advance how to act when one of the situations foreseen by renowned pediatricians and child psychologists arose. But truth be told, she can’t even begin to recall all the times she raised her voice or slammed the door to enforce her authority. And each time she knew that that was unacceptable, and not in line with contemporary child rearing trends. But in her defense, those manuals only foresee the child’s behavior, and fail to take into account whether mom got up on the wrong side of the bed, or sang in the shower, or barely managed, with her last atoms of strength, to drag herself into the kitchen to make her morning coffee. By the time her daughter was born, her faith in theory had waned, and she handled parenting on a day-to-day basis. She used some charts and calendars with rewards and sanctions (which she would erase from the chart on the refrigerator a day or two later) with her daughter, but her fervor for the academic side of parenting had passed. She also found that if the books say that over ninety percent of children behave in such and such a manner, that doesn’t mean that there is any certainty that her offspring will fall under the average. Actually, the opposite was true, and her children almost always fell outside of it. Who would have though…?

Meanwhile, her quest for faith in the existence of god led her in the opposite direction. Instead of searching for answers in books and scholarly articles, in her search for god, for eternity, she withdrew into her own world and away from institutionalized faith. She found several similarly minded souls with whom she shared the experience of having a wish fulfilled at the wellspring of life and hope and a belief in the existence of a parallel, ethereal world. And that had sufficed until now. But as she grows older, she finds herself wanting to find that from which she had been running all this time: a community of believers, of those who share her beliefs, guided by trust and humility before God. But she still doesn’t know where she belongs. In the environment where she spent her youth, there wasn’t a choice – either you belong to the one and only religion, which operated in the background, or you were an atheist. The thought always brings her back to her political education teacher at the university, who – this was under communism – explained that there are two types of people: those who believe in the equality of all people, in Marxism and Leninism, and those who believe in the “cat’s tail”. “Better to believe in a cat’s tail than Marx and Lenin as the fathers of all creation,” she thought to herself even then, as she listened to the lectures of this now deceased professor. Now, as she searches for a place for her soul, jokes from her youth don’t really help. Except when she and her husband revisit those times to regale their children their children with tales of how under communism, jokes about political leaders were not allowed, of how there was only one legally sanctioned political party, and it would recruit children in schools for its youth organizations, and of how parents were jailed because of children who, in their innocence, would repeat what they had heard their parents say over the weekend. As her children listen, their jaws drop and their eyes grow wide. “I’d like to take a peek inside their children’s souls to see what’s going on there as they listen about my youth,” she often wishes. She believes that despite her descriptions of life at the time, her children can hardly fathom the reality of that uniform, forced education. Parents at home had to go along with it if they wanted to remain with their families and have some semblance of a normal life. Her memories again drift to her father, who had had the habit of drawing the shades the moment it got dark outside. Then he would relax a bit, and sometimes even tell a joke or relate an event having to do with politics. He also read banned books, hiding them in a specially built shelf in the attic. Recently, she found herself rather annoyed with her mother on several occasions, as she caught her shutting the blinds the same way her father once did. She tried to tell her that shutting the blinds was something from a different time, but she couldn’t sway her. How many times, she thought, have I tried to tell her: we live in a democracy now, everything is different and nobody cares what she does at home… at least not in the sense of reporting “anti-state activities” to the police. Her mother would always cast a sideward glance at her as she spoke, and she could see in her eyes that she didn’t believe her, and that she shouldn’t even bother because she wasn’t listening. Everything her father did her mother continued doing, for twenty years now. As if time stood still for her when he died. And maybe it did, and the scene on her life stage froze. People come and go, but she just watches them from her little booth with no doors, without a key or even a lock. Every time she thinks of her mother she’s brushed by sadness. When her mother lost her husband, her father, she became an ice queen. Waiting. And nobody can help her, because she won’t let them to help her.

There once was a time when she had a delightful obsession with the changing of the seasons. The way she saw it, they went in the following order: winter, spring, summer and fall. In school, she was actually bothered by how, when they teach the seasons, they start with spring. She found it highly illogical, as winter begins, or continues, at the coming of each new year. As a child, she eagerly awaited the first day of school. At the end of August, her parents would “equip” her with a multi-purpose fall wardrobe, including new shoes suitable for rainy days and pelerines which could be turned inside out depending on whether it was raining or not. She still happily remembers the first days of school, when, still dark from the summer sun, she would anxiously await the rain and bad weather so she could show off her new clothes. She found spring especially pleasant, as the first warm rays of sunshine began to heat the air. Like every child, she too needed new clothes for each season, and nothing could beat shopping for spring attire. Even before the school year came to a close, it was like a fashion show, and she would plan a new outfit for each day as they days grew nicer and nicer. If she really thinks about it, the happy feelings that accompanied the changing of the seasons were more about fashion and shopping than what she feels and sees today. Really. Recently, when she looks around, she also notices her natural surroundings. Looking through her window throughout the year, she marvels at the leaves of three big, old trees. She watches them change colors and listens to their rustling, which can be soft, like the caress of a mother’s hand, or angry and uproarious, as if driven by some unstoppable force.

She also remembers the “problems” she had with numbers and letters. As she rode the bus to school, in her mind she would juggle the letters of the words that flashed before her eyes. She would split them in half, and search out the “middle” letter; if it was a long word, she would first classify it as odd or even, and then would look for the middle. Quickly and aptly, especially when the bus drove through the industrial zone, which was full of signs. Today, people on buses have their eyes fixated on their cell phones, playing games, sending emails, searching for their next vacation destination on Google… Nobody sees where they’re going or how the surroundings change with each new day. She thinks to herself that it would be interesting if passengers had to fill out a survey about what they had seen when they step off the bus. Well, she wasn’t much better when she was young. Back then, people couldn’t even begin to imagine cell phones. But it wasn’t out of the ordinary for people to carry books or magazines with them, or to stare out the window and think about who knows what. If she were to mention this to her children, they would almost certainly roll their eyes. As she is wont to do in such situations, her daughter would ask: “Mom, were there dinosaurs around back then?” Her son would wisely keep quiet and wait for his sister to finish saying out loud what both of them were thinking.

She realizes that as the years go by, she’s increasingly drawn to the sea. When she was roughly the same age as her daughter is now, a family friend said, in passing and out of the blue, that the older a person gets, the more they are drawn to the earth. She doesn’t know why, but she’s never been able to forget those words. Maybe it’s because at the time, she found this statement from a thirty-something friend of her mom and dad who had always had a way with jokes hilarious, or because, even as a child, it made her think of death. The reason is unimportant. What matters is that the “joke” has stayed with her ever since. But when she stops to thinks about it, she realizes she can no longer identify with it. Compared to the sea, the earth doesn’t mean much to her. Yes, the sea, not the water in rivers or lakes. Not water per se. That infinite blue surface with shades of blue, green and even, along the shore, brown which can’t be captured in a photograph no matter how hard one tries. That murmur that can at any moment change from a light rustling and plopping on the small stones on the shore to a forceful roar and crash, as the waves collide with the large rocks as if the latter were attempting to defend the land from the sea, mutely and stoically absorbing its onslaught. Both scenes challenge her to think about how small and powerless man is, about how, even though he has equipped himself with all kinds of technology, and even sent it into outer space, man attempts to create the illusion of his supremacy over nature. And the sea just splashes on, as if laughing at his failed attempts. Every summer for the past couple of years, she’s chosen to go on vacation to the same beach. The children are already starting to get sick of it, and every spring, as thoughts of the sea begin to gnaw at her, and as she browses the web for summer vacation destinations, she wonders out loud where they should go this summer. Her children stop her and tell her not to waste time on the internet because she already knows exactly where they’re going and that she, that is they, will eventually decide on the same destination as last year, and the year before… Yes, it’s obviously a corner of the earth connected to the sea, a corner that decisively draws her in, to the point that she can’t imagine summer without it. Her husband, who usually only joins the hunt for a vacation near its end, when he needs to take out a credit card and make a payment, quietly shares her love for the sea. It is as if he also feels that indescribable pull that the infinite sea has there, at that very spot. He’s a man, so he’ll never come out and say it. He doesn’t reveal his feelings like she does, but that doesn’t bother her. She even likes how, in the middle of a torrent of words, as she tries to explain a thought that has come over her, he’ll gently take her hand and, without looking at her, let it go, letting the energy of love and approval flow through his hand and into hers. At that moment they are one, two little people, standing on the shore of the sea as it reminds them that it will be there eternally, long after they are gone.

 

Alenka Kuhelj is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. She is a Professor of Law at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Alenka is the author of many short stories and an unpublished novel. For the past few months, she has been working on a memoir set both in Communist and post-Communist times. She loves her husband Bojan and their two kids, Max and Athena. Her main interests include writing, history, justice and fairness, and the beautiful sandy beaches of Rhodes.

 

“You Will Find It” by Stephen Pisani

Sarah got back to me pretty fast with the name and number of a psychiatrist in Myrtle Beach. “Are you asking for yourself?” she said. “Yeah.” She didn’t prod any further. That was a few days ago, and I still haven’t called. I think I need pills, but I’m not sure how much they’ll help. I am lonely, and sad, and I feel like a fucking loser. Most of that is my own fault though.

I chose to quit an alright job where I made pretty good money so I could attend graduate school for writing in South Carolina. I left New York voluntarily, moved away from my family and friends to live in a place where I knew no one. I told myself, before I left my decent job and even better family, that I would get a job as soon as I got to Myrtle Beach. Six months later, I’m still unemployed, and some days I struggle to put even one coherent sentence on paper. My writing started at lukewarm crap, and then it baked in the Carolina sun until it turned into sweltering shit. Apart from class, I go days without leaving my apartment. “What’s the weather like today?” my mom asks me. The fuck if I know. I look around and the walls are white, and the blinds covering the windows are white, and the door is double-locked and white. All I see is white. “It must be snowing,” I say. And now, when life is something I can reach out and touch, a physical manifestation sitting on my chest and suffocating me as I beg for one last breath, I’m going to Boston, where a blizzard is expected to turn the whole city into one giant white space, for a big writing conference.

The conference sounds promising enough. I write a little, and I like to read other people’s writing. Plus, my friends are going too, and they like writing and reading also. But we leave tomorrow, and I’m staring at a map of the weather on my phone and thinking, “Snow. Just fucking snow.” In between the texts from the three girls I’m going with, the excited messages that range from “How many beers do you think you’ll drink throughout the trip? Over or under 50?” to “Boston tomorrow! What what!!!” and various appropriations of “wicked” and other Boston slang, I’m just praying this storm front from the Midwest materializes and pounds New England with enough fresh powder to make the peaks of the Rockies look like they exist in a hand-held snow globe.

I wake up the day of the trip and open two websites on my phone. Weather.com doesn’t disappoint; there is a storm coming, it says, and Boston is going to get hit hard. Spirit.com is not being as cooperative; we don’t give a shit if God himself threatens to strike the plane down mid-air, it says, this flight is leaving Myrtle Beach on time.

I had never even heard of the AWP conference before Sarah and Brittany asked me to go a few weeks ago. We all started hanging out sporadically at the end of last semester, around the same time I started seriously thinking of going back to New York, and this was the first mention anyone had made of AWP. “Seamus Heaney is the keynote speaker,” Brittany said. I guess that was supposed to really entice me. The only problem was I didn’t know who he was, and when I looked him up and found out he was an old Irish poet—“he might die soon” is what Brittany said to unsuccessfully convince other people in our graduate program to go—I wasn’t any more intrigued. But I agreed to go anyway, almost immediately, because what the fuck else was I going to do, spend the weekend looking for marks on my white walls or stepping over garbage as I moved between my ugly flowered couch and the bed sheets I’d stopped cleaning months ago?

And then Brittany said, “Coastal is paying for the whole thing!” Hold on, so you’re saying school is reimbursing us for the entire trip, and I can hear an old Irish poet spit a few rhymes? Good deal, I told her. Our friend Annie decided to go also.

I pick up Brittany on the way to school, a few hours before the flight, and she spends the twenty minute ride saying how she hopes it doesn’t snow, showing me the scarf she bought for Annie, and asking me if I think she’ll like it.

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s real nice.”

“Are you sure?” she says, playing with the frayed ends of the white and black piece of fabric around her neck. “Maybe I should just keep it for myself.”

“No, she’ll appreciate it. Trust me.”

It’s not the easiest thing in the world to instruct a girl to trust you. It’s even harder when you’re sharing a hotel room with the girl, and only a few days earlier you confessed to having unrequited feelings for her. We were sitting at the bar we go to before class sometimes. I don’t remember exactly how I phrased it, except that I sounded pretty fucking stupid, and immediately after, I wanted to dive onto the floor, gather the words together, dust off the sticky beer and stale bits of leftover food, and shove them back in my mouth.

I felt my insides churning as Brittany prepared to respond. “I just want to be friends,” she said. She followed that with, “We’ll find you a girl in Boston,” and my stomach dropped into my sneakers.

I figure Annie and Sarah know about it by now, because girls tell each other those types of things.

*

The drinking starts in the airport terminal. For Brittany and Annie, who are sitting next to each other on the plane, it continues during the flight. By the time we leave the baggage claim and wait outside in frigid, but dry (fuck you, Weather.com) Boston for a taxi, they are both loopy and all three of them, Sarah included, are joking about how I will have had enough of them by the end of the weekend. I almost had enough before we came. Of me, not them. As my loneliness grew and my mind started to stray from American literature and contemporary collections of short stories and composition and rhetoric articles that read like they were written in Mandarin, I debated whether I’d skip the trip to Boston and go back to New York instead of waiting for the week-long spring break this weekend precedes. I was hoping the weather would make the decision for me, though I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it to New York if it snowed in the Northeast anyway. Regardless, I’m getting to New York next week for spring break, and I’m not coming back to Myrtle Beach. I haven’t told anyone but my mom.

“We’re not from here!” someone shouts as we fight the wind to climb into a taxi.

“Where are you going?” the driver asks.

Our hotel is two miles away, and Sarah, sitting in the passenger seat, gives him the address. I’m squished in the back with Brittany and Annie and the luggage that wouldn’t fit in the trunk. They’re still giggling like a couple of school girls. The radio is on, and they serenade the driver with a version of “Lady in Red” that they revise so the lyrics are “Cabbie in Yellow” or some shit like that. It doesn’t really matter, because it’s fucking awful, so off-key and shrill that if this was a cartoon, all the windows of the cab would pop out and the rearview mirror would shatter into a thirty piece jigsaw puzzle. But it’s funny too, so I laugh, and maybe the whole weekend will be full of shit like this, funny cab rides and impromptu karaoke and things that the girls will tell everyone back at school. And poetry readings and literary panels too. I almost forgot about those. I’ll tell everyone in New York about how informative they are.

“I hope there’s not an extra charge for this,” I joke with the cab driver.

He laughs, but then I realize I wasn’t really kidding, because he gets “lost”, and our two mile cab ride costs fifty-five dollars. The credit card machine is attached to the back of the passenger seat, and I swipe my American Express. Brittany reaches to hand me a twenty dollar bill. “Don’t worry about it,” I say. Annie laughs. She and Brittany grin at each other.

We get to the hotel around one in the morning. By the time we unwind, we only get two hours of sleep. We take the train to the conference in the morning, where the line for registration is crazy long and crazy slow. The cavernous room is full of writers and booths and signs advertising “AWP Boston: March 7-9, 2013” and future dates in Seattle, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. An hour or two passes before Sarah and Annie decide to step outside to smoke a cigarette. Brittany says she has to pee, but I sense she doesn’t want to leave me by myself. Before Sarah and Annie left, everyone was bullshitting, passing the time with idle conversation. Now I can’t think of anything to say, and neither can she. The only thing that comes to mind is how pretty she looks, that I like the way those black-rimmed glasses frame her face and flowing dark hair, but I’m not an idiot. I know she won’t appreciate the compliment, not from me anyway, and I tell her it’s alright, that she can go to the bathroom.

As Brittany walks away, someone in line behind me says, “Hi. What do you write?”

“A little bit of everything,” I say, and if there’s a way to sound more obtuse I’d like to know what it is. I do write a little of everything though, but none of it well. I write fiction, and it’s bad. My critical analysis is verbose and hard to follow. People tell me I write sentences that are way too long, and I agree, but instead of trimming the fat I write longer sentences because staying in a moment you’re somewhat enjoying is much easier than moving on to another that will probably suck. “You’re such a good writer,” my mom always says, but I’m pretty sure she’s obligated to tell me nice things. It’s somewhere in the fine print of her parenting contract. Sarah is more honest. “I can’t see you ever being a non-fiction writer,” she said once. “You don’t express yourself honestly enough.” I just say vague things like “I write a little bit of everything,” and people, like the woman in line, generally leave me alone.

The girls return, and we finally register. Everybody splits up, but it’s finally started to snow, hard, and I tag along with Annie to the Converse store so she can replace her soggy canvas shoes with a pair of Chucks and so I don’t have to be by myself.

Around four, we meet Brittany and Sarah at a panel featuring a professor from our school. I haven’t really looked at the schedule, so I don’t know what it’s all about. They wanted to come though, so I’m here. The room is half-empty. There can’t be more than forty people scattered through the rows of chairs. It’s hazy outside and the snow is still falling, so it isn’t a great day for the twelve thousand writers at the conference to try to see Boston. It’s a better day to take in a panel or reading, and it looks like we’ve picked the least popular one.

The time slot, I soon figure out, is dedicated to a poet who recently passed away. One after another, his friends get up to the podium, struggle through the emotions of vocalizing what this guy meant to them. They get choked up, and they cry, and they have to pause when the memories overwhelm them. They must all be poets, because poets are friends with other poets, I figure, and because their words are so fucking beautiful. Words about how vibrant this guy was. Words about how much his work touched their lives. Words about how just knowing him made them feel grateful to be alive. Words that I want to write and feel.

By the time our professor adjusts the microphone and clears his throat, he’s following a number of difficult opening acts. He starts talking about friendship and loss, nothing that hasn’t been covered already. But what he talks about is so moving, means so much to him, and because it means so much to him it means so much to me, and I don’t even know the guy he’s talking about, and I only just introduced myself to him a half hour ago. If I was the type of person to cry at something like this, I would. But I’m the type of person who cries when he doesn’t want to, when it will make him look like a fucking pussy, when he’s on the phone with his mom in the apartment he hardly leaves, surrounded by empty cans of beer and the demons that have multiplied over time, telling her how much he hates himself, that life is worthless, that he doesn’t know how he’s gonna go on, and she’s urging him, “Don’t talk like that about yourself. Please, please, just come home. We’ll buy you a plane ticket. You can worry about getting your stuff later. Please come home.”

I’m the type of person who thinks too much, and I’m thinking of other things so I don’t remember exactly what our professor says, but everyone claps when he finishes, and Brittany is wiping tears from her eyes a few seats over, and God fucking dammit, this is the type of shit I should be crying about too.

I wake up around seven the next morning with no recollection of going to sleep. My throat is dry, and my head is pounding.

“Can you get me a glass of water?” Annie asks from the other bed in a whiny you’re-the-guy-so-you-should-do-this-for-me voice. Brittany is still asleep next to her.

I give her a blank stare. “Come on. If it was Brittany you’d get it for her.” She doesn’t actually say that though. “Fine,” I say, and I walk downstairs to the lobby for a glass of water.

In return, Annie fills me in on the details of last night. She and I skipped the Heaney reading, which I already knew. We went to the bar across the street from the convention center instead. Brittany and Sarah met us after the reading. We had already run up a hundred dollar tab. That doesn’t sound right, and it starts to get fuzzy from there, but I know Brittany and I were taking shots, probably because she said, “Let’s take some shots!”, and I’m sure the light danced off her eyes, and if she had said “Let’s go jump off the fucking roof!” I would have done that too. Annie and Sarah decided we should leave, and Annie held me up on the subway to make sure I didn’t fall.

“Get the fuck off me,” I told her. She said “OK,” let go of my arm, and I stumbled to the floor of the train.

“Sorry,” I say. I do drink, but I don’t like to drink until I make a fool of myself. I also curse, a lot, but I have no patience for anyone who curses at women. “I’m sorry,” I repeat.

“It’s OK,” she says. “You were fine. Funny, actually.” We’re eating breakfast at this point. I usually don’t eat breakfast; my sleeping pattern ranges anywhere from three or four in the morning to noon or one in the afternoon. I also don’t eat when I’m hungover, but I’m chomping on bacon, hoping that maybe I won’t hear Annie recount all the embarrassing things I said and did last night through the gnashing of my misshapen teeth. After I go home, I don’t want them saying things like, “Remember that loser who made a fool of himself in Boston?” Brittany meets us in the hotel lobby around the same time Annie finishes her morning coffee.

It’s snowing harder today, so Brittany, Annie, and I take a cab to the conference. We seek out a panel one of them has marked on her schedule. Sarah is already bouncing around somewhere. This is her Woodstock, and the hardest decision for her is whether to go see the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Rage Against the Machine, and fuck the scheduling gods for having them play at the same time. I’m looking at the Excel-type grid of all the panels and readings like it’s a teeny-bopper festival, and I have to decide whether I’d rather not listen to Justin Bieber or not listen to Taylor Swift. What I really want to do is go into a port-a-potty, close my eyes, and stick my fingers in my ears until I can’t hear any of the noise anymore. What time is that at? I don’t see it on my schedule.

We get seats in the back, but the small room fills up quickly, and by the time it’s standing room only, Brittany rustles my arm. “Look, it’s Junot Diaz,” she says, referring to the Pulitzer Prize winner. We’re reading him in one of the classes I’m about to leave behind.

But, “that’s not him,” I say. The guy by the door is sheet-white, definitely not Hispanic. He does have a goatee though, like Junot.

“It kind of looks like him,” I say. We all laugh. Brittany blushes, shrugs her shoulders.

The panel starts, and we’re all tired as fuck. We didn’t get enough sleep again. The writers seated at the tables surrounding the podium dive into their topic, “This is Your Brain on Fiction.” Brittany’s head tilts toward me sometime during the first presentation. I feel it resting on my shoulder. I’ve taken my jacket off, and I’m wearing my favorite T-shirt, the one that says “Sarcasm: Just One of My Many Talents.” It’s true, depending on how you look at it. It’s also soft, but not as soft as Brittany’s hair nestled against it. She shuffles, trying to get comfortable, and I try my best not to move. For the next thirty or forty minutes, my body is still, and it may be sappy, pathetic, hard to believe, and/or just downright sad, but for the first time all weekend, my heart isn’t ping-ponging inside my chest, protesting to get out. My mind isn’t working in overdrive. This must be how it feels for your brain to momentarily relax.

*

The next day is the last of the conference, and Brittany, Annie, and I do a lot of sightseeing. It’s still cold, but it has finally stopped snowing. We go to both Cheers bars, then cut through a park where a guy is making weird-sounding music with a weird-looking tuba-like apparatus draped over his whole body, before meeting our professors for happy hour. The plan is to go to the conference dance party at ten and stay up for our flight back to Myrtle at six, which is really five because tonight is daylight savings time.

We leave the bar to meet Sarah before the party, and I step aside to call my mom. I’ve been doing this all trip, and the joke has somehow become that I’m a gambling addict, that I’m leaving our hotel room to bet on games. The truth is I want to discuss the logistics of moving home with my mom, what I’ll do with my apartment, dropping out of school, and all that. Or, more accurately, that’s what I tell myself I’m doing.

I move to a far corner of the convention center with large ceilings and huge bay windows that offer a great view of the bars across the street. I have my mom on the line, and I start crying again. I cry because I want to go home, and I don’t. I want to stay in Myrtle Beach, and I can’t. I want to make it to the airport in a few hours, and I doubt whether I can last that much longer. I want to care about the rest of the trip, but I know it’s about to end and I haven’t taken the time to enjoy any of it because I’m too worried about other things. “Just breathe,” my mom says. I can’t. I can’t stop crying because I can’t figure out why I hate myself so fucking much. “I’m alright,” I say, which isn’t true. There’s no way she can believe it either. I hang up.

Brittany texts me while I’m washing the dried tears from my face in an empty bathroom, the only other occupant a janitor running a dripping mop over the black and white tiles.

We’re going to the Sheraton Hotel,” she says. I don’t have a schedule with me, but I assume that’s where the dance party is.

OK are you there already?” I say.

Yea,” she says. “Go into the mall. You will find it.

When I get to the ballroom of the Sheraton, it is dark, very dark, and loud, incredibly loud, and I somehow find the girls waiting on line for drinks. It’s an open bar, and Annie gives the bartender twenty dollars as a tip. We’re standing off to the side of the dance floor, which is packed. Everybody is drinking beer except Brittany, who is swaying her hips as she takes swigs from a glass of red wine. I’m not a dancer and never have been. I look out at the group moving around under the lights, and I’m not sure what the fuck I’m looking at, but for the most part it doesn’t look anything like dancing.

Courage foams at my mouth in the form of all the beer I’ve guzzled today, and I ask Brittany to dance. She purses her lips, slinks away from me a little. I ask her again, and a third time, and by this point I’m so pathetic and so desperate and maybe it’s because she can see that I’m pathetic and desperate that Sarah tells Brittany she should just dance with me.

The dancing starts the same way we ended up going to dinner together a few months ago. It was the first time we all hung out at Brittany’s apartment, a week before fall semester finals. There were five of us, and we were all drinking. Out of nowhere, Sarah suggested that Brittany and I should go out. But Sarah was drunk, flicking the remnants of her cigarette into an ashtray on Brittany’s balcony. It was December, but warm enough to be outside, even at two in the morning. I was drunk too, so I didn’t think anything of what she was saying. The next day, hungover at Bob Evans, she said the same thing. I brushed it off again. I wasn’t going to ask Brittany out. We don’t have much in common. I’m ugly, and she’s anything but. She doesn’t have any problem talking to people, and I’m socially inept. “Most days I feel like dying” never seems like the best conversation-starter.

I texted her anyway. “Hey, what are you doing tonight?” I said.

Going out with my family,” she said. “Why what’s up?

Sounds like fun. Was just gonna see if you wanted to grab dinner or something.

She said “thanks anyway,” and I started drinking. It was only two in the afternoon, but I didn’t know how else I was going to spend the rest of the day. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth PBR she asked if I would want to go out the following night. “Yea, definitely,” I said, and we went to a bar for dinner and drinks.

Winter break started at the end of the week, and she offered to drive me to the airport for my flight to New York. On the way, she talked about the Christmas shopping she had planned for later in the day. We pulled up, and she tried to find a space in front of the Spirit sign. I told her she could let me out anywhere. The Myrtle Beach airport is small, just one terminal. She parked right behind one of the oversized yellow speed bumps.

I watched her whole body contort as she tried to drag my heavy luggage from the back seat. “I’ll get the bag,” I said with a laugh.

She smiled, and I pulled the bag out myself. She stood on her tippy-toes in front of me. Her sunglasses were on top of her head, her black-rimmed glasses over her eyes. I wasn’t sure about the look, but she was pulling it off well and I had other things on my mind anyway.

Our lips collided, but to call it a kiss would denigrate the term. There was no grace, no rhythm of movement. Her face got red with embarrassment, but she was still smiling. We tried again. My hand cradled her cheek as I leaned in. The second kiss, much like the first, was more accidental head bump than concerted act of passion.

When I returned from New York, she politely declined my request to go out to dinner. “I have reading to catch up on for my thesis,” she said.

Crushed, and already emotionally spent (I’d spent the month-long break visiting a psychologist, trying to tighten the precarious grip I had on my life), I said, “No worries. Good luck with your work.” I don’t know whether she had an inkling about my depression and anxiety, but I should have told her turning me down was the best decision she ever made. Probably the easiest, too.

Brittany tires of dancing with me after a few songs. “I have to use the bathroom,” she says. I walk outside as well. Sarah and Annie are standing in the lobby talking to two of our professors. After a few minutes, Annie leans over and whispers in my ear, “We have to go.” She hands me a glass of red wine, then says, “Go find Brittany.” I don’t bother asking why I’m giving Brittany a full drink if we’re leaving anyway.

The music pounds the inside of my forehead as I walk back into the ballroom. The dance floor overflows with the awkward, flailing bodies of hundreds of writers. If you want to see bad, strange, abysmally poor, incredibly bizarre dancing, go to AWP. If you want to be able to find the girl you think you’re in love with who doesn’t feel the same way in a huge, dimly lit sea of people where you can’t hear someone standing right in front of you because the hack of a DJ is blasting music so fucking loud you feel it pulsing in your feet, don’t. I finally spot her talking to a guy with an overgrown beard to the side of the dance floor. I’m a guy with an overgrown beard too. It’s the only feature of mine I don’t hate, but I guess she likes his better.

She sees me approaching them and waves in my direction. “Hey Stephen, this is Jake,” she says. Or Larry. Or Allen. Or Bob. Or Jose. Whatever-his-name-is extends his hand. He looks nice enough, and I extend mine as well, but I really want to toss this glass of Merlot in his face, watch the red beads free themselves from the tangle of his beard and drip onto his white T-shirt.

“Here,” I say, handing her the glass instead. Then, I say “nice to meet you” to the guy, followed by “we have to go” to her.

We catch a cab outside. Brittany and I sit on the back bench of the white van, Annie in the chair in front of her and Sarah in front of me. Annie starts nodding off, and I make a joke about the guy she was texting while we were at the dance party. Maybe the joke is more mean-spirited than I think, because she doesn’t take it very well.

“Shut up,” she says. She’s twisted her whole body around to face me. “At least I tell you things.”

“What?” I say.

“I tell you things about myself.”

I look at Brittany, then Sarah, but I can’t see her face because she’s sitting right in front of me and it doesn’t matter anyway because it doesn’t seem like either of them is paying attention to Annie and I. “What are you talking about?” I say.

“You heard me.”

I was just trying to make a joke. “I don’t even know what you want me to say to that.”

“All those phone calls, leaving the room. Who were you talking to? Who’s Frankie V?”

“A friend from home,” I say. “Why?”

“I saw a text from him on your phone today at lunch.”

“So?”

“I feel like I don’t know anything about you, Stephen,” Brittany chimes in.

Maybe this whole thing is premeditated, some sort of intervention for a guy who is struggling to tread water. If the idea is to stomp my head below the surface and keep it there, it’s working. “That’s not true,” I say, and I honestly don’t know whether that’s true or false. I’m a guy, and I’m quiet. Plus I’m worn out and tired and I’ve drank too much and haven’t slept near enough during this trip.

“Yea it is.” This time it’s Sarah’s voice I hear from in front of me.

Annie says something else, and I say, “Whatever. You’re so drunk, you won’t even remember this conversation tomorrow.”

She turns to Sarah. “I’m done with him,” she says. She throws up her hands and turns her face toward the ceiling of the van.

When we get back to the hotel, they stay outside so Annie and Sarah can smoke a cigarette. “Let me get the key,” I say to Sarah. I take the elevator to the room, where I start packing my shit into my duffel bag. Annie and Brittany’s clothes are scattered all over the room. Sarah sends a text that says “Love you, Stephen. Everybody’s just tired.” When they return, I try apologizing to Annie. She ignores me and walks into the bathroom.

Brittany lies down and goes to sleep. Sarah must still be downstairs. I leave the room and find her in the little dark restaurant attached to the lobby. “Can I talk to you for a second?” I say.

We sit at a table in the corner of the room opposite where Annie and I ate breakfast yesterday. I don’t even care if I cry now. Tears are dripping down my face, and we sit for a few minutes in silence, minus my hysterical heaving.

“What’s going on?” she says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve been depressed and anxious for a while.” I wipe my face with the back of my hand.

“That why you asked me about the psychiatrist?”

I nod. I usually mumble and stutter my way through conversation, so how, or if, she understands what I’m saying when I’m crying like a two-year-old is anybody’s guess.

“You should call him when we get back,” she says.

I shake my head. “I think I’m going back to New York.”

“That doesn’t matter right now. You need help.”

“I’m sorry.” I worried about this type of thing before we came, that if I had an anxiety attack, or a breakdown, or worse, they would be responsible for me. I’ve already given my mom a tour of the place in my head where the demons breed. I’d rather not show other people around up there, for their own sake.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Sarah says. She reaches her hand across the table and lays it on top of mine.

“I feel like such a failure,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

“We wanted you to come with us,” she says, squeezing my hand. “We like hanging out with you.” Then she reaches into her pocket, pulls out a pill, and puts it on the table between us. “Take this,” she says. “It will relax you, get you through the rest of the night.” It’s small, like a grain of rice, and I can’t see how something so insignificant will do any good at this point.

I sniffle. “No, I’m alright,” I say. This isn’t my brain on pills. This is my brain on loneliness. This is my brain on self-deprecation. This is my brain on making too much of things. This is my brain on wanting to die, and not knowing exactly why.

“Just relax,” Sarah says. She tucks the pill back into the pocket of her jeans. “Slow down. Breathe.”

I’m trying to. I swear to fucking God I am.

 

Stephen Pisani is a Long Island, New York native and a graduate of Coastal Carolina’s MA in Writing program. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Lake Review and Soundings Review. Everything he knows about a good story he learned from his grandfather, Max.

The Rescue Fish by Phyllis Wrynn

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