Category: Nonfiction (Page 1 of 6)

Age of Loneliness

BY: AUDRA LORD

This is an age of loneliness. This is what I’m thinking on the bus during my morning commute. I’m surrounded by a seawall of slack, blank faces, the impassive slate of cliffs. Nobody says a word; they just gaze into the cups of their palms, thirsty for plastic wisdom and blinky emoticons, which have mostly replaced emotions. Even liking something nowadays is a deliberate act.

Everyone is lost in the magic of tiny screens, wrapped in private thought bubbles, protected from the silence by noise-canceling earbuds, selecting the clatter of podcasts or the hum of iTunes over the warm body in the next seat. Their faces are still, but their fingers are industrious: it’s a factory of people engaged in the same repetitive swipes, clicks and taps, over and over and over again.

Aside from the tapping, nobody makes a sound.

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TCR Talks with David Ulin

BY: Heather Scott Partington

David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time was rereleased this fall with a new introduction and afterword that speak to our contentious political climate. Ulin–critic, author, and ruminator in the best sense of the word–reframes his 2010 argument for the role of books in 2018’s dysfunction, fake news, and fractured narrative. Can reading save us? Ulin isn’t sure, but he sees value in resisting cynicism.

The author spoke recently with critic Heather Scott Partington by email about the value of engagement with the written word: an “empathy machine” and our “ongoing human conversation.”

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TCR Talks with Gloria Harrison

By: Jaime Stickle

My introduction to Gloria Harrison was the short film Let’s See How Fast This Baby Will Go, based on her essay of the same title, first published by The Nervous Breakdown. It is the true story of a nineteen-year-old woman in labor, on the verge of giving away her baby, who first stops to buy a car. That woman is Gloria.

Gloria Harrison is a storyteller whose work has appeared on The Nervous Breakdown, This American Life, The Weeklings, Fictionaut, Other People with Brad Listi podcast, The Manifest Station, and Sweatpants and Coffee. In January 2017, a short film adaptation of her story that appeared on This American Life, “Let’s See How Fast This Baby Will Go,” was released by Australian director Julietta Boscolo. It is currently playing at film festivals around the world.

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Bread and Circuses

BY: Wendy Fontaine

While roasting a chicken for dinner and mixing banana bread for the weekend, I turn on the television to listen to the news, mostly for background noise. The regular reporting is on hold, though, as the driver of a red Ford Explorer leads the California Highway Patrol on a chase through North Hollywood, Studio City, and Sherman Oaks. Normally, these pursuits happen at night, under cover of darkness on relatively empty freeways, blue lights flashing through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. But this chase is different: it is happening at five o’clock in a residential area near the Westfield Fashion Square shopping center off Woodman Avenue. I know the area well; it’s one block from my yoga studio, two blocks from my favorite nail salon.

I set the oven to 350 degrees, then turn up the volume on the television.

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Pockets and Corners 

BY: Chelsea Catherine 

It’s hard to feel positive in negative twenty-degree weather. In negative twenty-degree weather, car engines freeze. Batteries freeze. Wind kicks up off the ledges of buildings, swirling like hurricane eyes over snow-encrusted cars and stoplights caked with ice. People hunch in the streets with scarves over their faces, eyes watering in the wind.

My boss walks to and from the state house in this weather, along the streets in the state capital of Vermont surrounded by mountains and rivers, a quaint, colonial-feeling town that’s made of brick and Victorian-style buildings. She wears heeled boots that rise to just below her knees and a paisley dress that ties around her waist. A sunflower-colored peacoat. Just like the spikes of color in her dark hair. She doesn’t take the coat off at our office until thirty minutes after arriving—until the small heater under her desk has finally warmed her body. Then she stands and walks past my desk, and the sound of her tights rubbing together fills the room. I force myself not to look up as she passes the first time, but on the second round, I watch the stretch of the green paisley around muscle and fat.

Near the water cooler, she turns. “So, what’s going on?”

I glance away, my cheeks heating. “I’m just—”

“What are you working on?”

I swallow. My heart beats heavy in my chest like it always does when she catches me off guard. Sometimes I lisp when I try to reply. I always say words wrong. Talking on the phone in front of her is an effort. “The Op-Ed you gave me.”

“Oh, good.” She doesn’t look like she’s caught me staring; she doesn’t look mad. She never looks mad. She’s calm, sometimes forceful. Sometimes she’ll smirk in my direction, looking at me from over her shoulder. You’re cute, she said once when I managed to crack a joke. I like you.

She turns again, heading for her office, and I tell myself not to stare. It’s creepy. I’ve read that less than 4 percent of the population is LGBT. My boss is statistically straight, just like every other girl I meet. And I know from experience that although I might be cute, there’s nothing that would make her interested in me for real.

+++

My hairdresser and I have known each other for twenty years. She paints my hair with bleach, setting tin foil along the strands, then twirls me in the chair so she can do the other side. It’s dark out, even though it’s barely five o’clock. Snow rests along the parking lot in a hardened shell, charcoal colored from dirt and tire tread.

I sit rigid-backed, blind with my glasses resting on the countertop before us. My hairdresser, while crunching tin foil around another lock, asks loudly, “So, like, what women do you find attractive in movies and stuff?”

I hesitate, glancing at the blur of a man sitting across from me, then the stylist who runs shears across his brown hair. I’ve never met either of them; I don’t know their politics or their beliefs. “I don’t know,” I lie, playing with a ring on my finger. A scar crosses my knuckle just below it, a gift from a boy I wanted to be friends with in middle school. He and I played violent games—with quarters, bottle caps, safety pins—always trying to one-up each other. I wanted his swagger. I followed him around, mimicking his posture, his walk, the way he talked to others. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

“For real?” my hairdresser asks.

I shrug.

Salma Hayek is my number one Hollywood crush, followed by Paget Brewster and Yara Martinez. I’ll watch any movie Kajol is in, and I’ve suffered through all seasons of American Horror Story for Sarah Paulson. Pretty much any middle-aged actress with dark hair, a gun, and an attitude will catch my eye. I don’t hesitate to fall for famous people. They’re safe. There’s no rejection in loving them; they’re untouchable anyway.

“That’s so weird,” my hairdresser says. “That you haven’t thought about it.”

I smile. People have been asking me questions like this for three years now, since I came out. At first, I jumped at the opportunity to finally discuss the people I wanted to discuss, to be open about things. But now when people ask, I smile and change the subject. I’m not even good at being gay. What could I tell them?

+++

I’m sixteen when I travel to Peru with a group of students from the high school where my mother teaches. I’m friends with most of them—we play basketball together in the spring and summer, driving for hours to compete in tournaments and sharing milkshakes on random pit stops.

We fly in to Lima and travel to Aguas Calientes, the base of Macchu Pichu, by train. Mountains rise like daggers on all sides of us. The winding Urubamba River bends between us. The town rises sharp in four- and five-story wooden buildings, narrow and crooked. Railroad tracks run through the cobblestone streets. The hot springs is not far, and in certain moments, the smell of it carries on the wind.

One afternoon, we paddle along the river in rafts, then stop at a pebbly beach after the rapids. Everyone strips down to bathing suits except me. The sun shines, but I’m still cold. I sit on the edge of the water, dabbling my toes in it. From behind me a shriek echoes.

I turn to find my closest friend playing near the edge of the water with one of the boys. She is eighteen, confident in the way high school seniors are. She wears a small bikini that barely covers her body. I glance over at her, watching her fling water in the air.

A jolt of heat splashes through my body. I turn away. Look back. Turn away again, chalking the rush up to jealousy. When she saunters over to me, I look away, stuffing the feeling down as far as I can.

“Hey,” she says. “You look sad.”

“I’m just cold.”

“You sure?”

I force a smile. Something inside me wants to say more, but my words are stuck in the back of my throat. She is the type of woman I’ll cry over later in life—sure, steady, but vulnerable in moments. Out of my reach. “I’m sure.”

I pick up a pebble, smooth and lavender colored with tan and white layers, and roll it between my fingers. I turn, wanting to gift her the small rock, but she’s already moving forward again, back to the water and the boy, the splash of the Urubamba River against the shore.

+++

After work, I head home to a mid-sized one-bedroom apartment in the capital of Vermont. The roads rise and fall with the hills, crusted with frozen snow and licked by salt. My apartment rests in the corner of an renovated old barn. Large, long windows spill light onto the carpets. Wind whistles through the cracks.  

This is how most of my days look: work, home, write, work out, write. Drink. The bottles stack up under my sink, brown and tan glass. Eventually, I get tired of writing and log in to Facebook. I’m three beers in, more than I’d normally drink. My fingers cruise across the keyboard. A friend got a new car, a friend got a promotion, another friend is getting married.

Finally, I wander to the profile of a woman I loved when I lived in the Florida Keys. I scroll through her feed briefly—she’s posted about a bunch of boring things I don’t care about. Nothing new. No pictures. I scroll up. She hasn’t changed her main picture. It’s still the same one she’s always had, a little blurred, grainy, but still that blonde hair, that stupid five-year-old smile, like she’s smiling for a school picture. It hurts to look at her. It hurts to think about.  

I still can’t accept that I left the Keys and it didn’t matter to her. It’s hard for me to accept that I fucked up so badly with her, that when I left we were fighting. That we will never get the chance to say a proper goodbye. I still ache for her sometimes at night, or occasionally when I’m at the bar. Sometimes I think maybe if I hadn’t been such an awful drunk, maybe I would still be down there. Maybe if I didn’t love her so badly, we’d still be slumming it at the beach on Big Pine Key, chasing crabs and stingrays in the water.

After a while, I click out of her profile and finish my beer. The apartment building is quiet save for the wind. I fall asleep to the tinkle of sleet against the windowpane.

+++

I decide life needs to be more than YouTube workouts in my living room, so that weekend I force myself to a drag show at a bar downtown. I sit with my back to the door, cold wind gusting in every time someone opens it. I buy IPAs and wave at the queens I know as they line up at the bar for drinks. The place is packed; all the seats are filled. At least ten to fifteen people stand behind me. They hover, their voices filling the space. The smell of wet wool and beer inundates. I try to ignore the feeling of panic and shame rising in my chest and sip my IPA.

From across the bar, I spot a woman with dark hair. She’s a bit older than the general crowd here and dressed in a svelte black winter coat. I sit there, just watching. For a second, I imagine her looking over at me, maybe catching my eye and asking me what I’m drinking. Maybe buying me a drink.  

I wonder what she does for work. She looks like an accountant, someone held tightly together, easily unmade. These are the woman I like the best, but I’ve learned it’s better not to try with them.

I’ve learned a lot as time has passed.

When I first came out, I would’ve gone over and talked to her. When I first came out, I would’ve done just about anything for a woman’s attention. My sudden grasp on my sexuality made me feel invincible, and the invincibility lasted for about a year and a half, until my failures started stacking up, and I began wondering if I’d never figure out how to be with someone.  

The woman across the bar finally gets her drink—it looks like a margarita. Then she disappears into the crowd.

+++

There’s no window near my desk at work, so sometimes I linger at the water cooler, soaking up warmth from the rays of light that spill in through the glass. Beyond the office, the Winooski River bleeds through a thick layer of snow and ice. Most of the river is covered and frozen, except for a small branch close to the bank. A bridge rises over it, grayed from salt. The sun reflecting off the fresh powder is blinding—unbearable, almost.

So much of my life seems unbearable. The cold, the weather, the job—I mail bills and make website updates, format Excel spreadsheets and fill out member applications. I watch the clock. I’ve had this heaviness on me since the last girl I dated broke up with me, this feeling of being buried.

“Ugh,” my boss yells from her office. I turn. From where I am, I can see where she sits at her desk, the office door open, a black shirt clinging to the waist of her jeans. She looks good in jeans, but not as good as she looks in dresses. They suction to her waist, her chest. How she looks in dresses is what makes me forget how to speak, what makes me knock things over when I’m close to her. “Is it time for a drink yet?”

I smirk. Reflexively, I take a sip from my water bottle. Sometimes I’m so fond of her that I think maybe something is wrong with me. Like when she hunched over her desk one Friday, about to cry, worried about budgets and finances, and I felt this well of wanting, both for her and to make everything better. It surfaces in me now, watching the curl of her hair over her shoulder.

“Is that water in there?” She eyes me from over her shoulder, grinning. “Or something else?”

A smile threatens. “This is my good bottle,” I manage. “But if you see me with the green one . . .”

She lets loose a laugh, round and full, and the sound of it settles somewhere in my stomach. Warmth spreads through my body. I turn around, heading back to my desk with a smile. It’s always been like this for me—so easy to feel so much from one moment, so simple to feel pleasure through one interaction. But it’s been a long time since that’s happened with any regularity.

Now, I wake up in the morning excited for work. Not for the tasks and demands or the warmth of the office, but for the hope it gives me that happiness still exists, even if just in pockets and corners, small pieces I can flesh out and hold in my hands briefly before watching them fade away.


Chelsea Catherine is a PEN Short Story Prize Nominee, winner of the Raymond Carver Fiction contest in 2016, a Sterling Watson fellow, and an Ann McKee grant recipient. Her short story collection “ISABEL” was a finalist for the 2018 Katherine Ann Porter prize. Her novella, “Blindsided” won the Clay Reynolds novella competition and will be published in September of 2018. 

Last Will and Testament: A Mad Lib

By: D. Gilson

I, D. Gilson (legally Duane Paul Gilson II), of Lubbock, Texas, revoke my former Wills and Codicils and declare this to be my Last Will and Testament.

 

Article I

Identification of Family

 

I am married to no one and all references in this last will and testament to “my spouse” are thus stricken.

 

The names of my children are charred bits of bone and hope my mother threw into the fire. Ashes of My son, the doctor and dust of Here’s a Christmas picture of my three grandchildren. Though if I had had a daughter, I would have liked to name her Ezra.

 

Article II

Payment of Debts and Expenses

 

I direct that my just debts, funeral expenses, and cost of last illness be first paid from my estate. My largest debt is somewhere over $100,000 and under $200,000, owed to the U.S. Department of Education for its ability to sell me a bachelor’s, two master’s, and doctoral degrees, thus training me to enter a profession where I could never possibly pay these dues back in full. Their website ensures that student loans are forgiven upon death.

 

In a PNC checking account, you will find a couple hundred dollars. In my house, which is rented, you will find some costly midcentury furniture I should never have bought but which will result in some additional assets (find a gay buyer, tell a sad story of how I died). A retirement plan with the State of Texas yields an additional few thousand. Comb my computer. If there are any essays, photographs, or miscellanea you can sell or use to blackmail someone, then by all means.

 

Article III

Personal Representative

 

I nominate and appoint Will Stockton, I guess, as Personal Representative of my estate. He will likely not enact the following wishes, for which his soul, should either of us believe in souls, shall burn forever in Hell, should either of us believe in Hell.

 

Article IV

Funeral Instructions

 

Section A: Absence

 

Billy Graham says, “Two of Jesus’ greatest miracles actually took place at funerals, and He was present at both of them. By being there He showed not only His compassion for those who were grieving, but also His power over death.”

 

I don’t believe in Jesus, but I do believe in guilt.

 

For anyone on the attached list who does not attend my funeral, please send them a life-size cardboard cutout of me along with a note bearing simply Reverend Graham’s words and signed, Fuck you from the other side, XO, D.

 

Section B: Remembrance

 

My funeral should be held at Moxie Cinema, the place where I first fell in love with the movies, located at 305 South Campbell in Springfield, Missouri.

 

In lieu of eulogies, I ask my eulogists to form a Third Eye Blind cover band. Robby Hipp on guitar, Will Stockton on drums, Taylor Baldwin on keys, and my nephew Nicholas Mitchell on bass, which he will have to learn, which should be fine since he has dropped out of college and has plenty of time on his hands.

 

The band should begin with “Semi-Charmed Life,” the only song anthemic of my life. They should then segue into a cover of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” a gentle reminder to mourners that in lieu of flowers or gifts for my sister, who will surely try to take advantage of this situation, donations to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are requested in my memory.

 

One final instruction for the band: after the last song, and before the encore of “Jumper” nobody will be expecting, one of you should read my favorite poem of all time, Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.” I don’t care which of you reads the poem, but it should be the one who will break down the most, thus demonstrating to all those gathered how greatly they should miss me.

 

Section C:

 

For pallbearers, I request that the rowing crew from England’s Warwick University, naked, carry my body, clothed in a Tom Ford slim-cut suit, out of the theater. The boys should take me to the edge of the sea, place me upon a raft, light it on fire, and push me out as Elton John’s 1997 cover of “Candle in the Wind,” sung for Princess Diana at her funeral, plays on loop. I have always felt she and I have much in common.

 

Instruct the stars to spell out my name.


D. Gilson is the author of I Will Say This Exactly One Time: Essays (Sibling Rivalry, 2015); Crush, with Will Stockton (Punctum Books, 2014); Brit Lit (Sibling Rivalry, 2013); and Catch & Release (2012), winner of the Robin Becker Prize. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University, and his work has appeared in Threepenny Review, POETRY, and The Rumpus.

Developing World

By: Bonnie Lykes

I was barely ten when we lived on the side of an Arizona mountain, in the very last house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. That year, Pop left to marry someone else. After the divorce, my mother wanted us to “grow like flowers” without “micro-coercion, excessive grooming, or physical punishment.” But the long dirt road to the bottom of the hill and the harshness of the desert felt like punishments. I was left alone most nights. My loneliness sharpened, and the peculiarities of the house seemed to compound my anxieties. The walls curved to vanishing points that gave way to a series of half-round windows; the eccentric lines combined with the rough desert magnified my longing for security. The property—a showcase of artistic vanity— sprung from a bed of tough granite. All around me, I felt the ego of grown-ups. I didn’t know I was neglected.

That year, swarms of difficult moments rearranged my world. Fresh confusion plagued me as I walked to and from the school bus through the gray slate. Left to my own wits, I became a kind of creature with tangled hair and dirty ankles. Right after the divorce, mom switched me from a private to a public school, so I’d “blend in with other kids.” No one engaged my interior world, and I assumed I was broken in some unfixable way. Later that summer, there would be a hazing—like a payment to some hell-bent force. I would face a crossroads to my self-worth that took shape like a distant thunderhead: its formation began when Mom knocked on my bedroom door at the top of June.

She wanted to discuss the month of July. She told me I’d stay with Mrs. S. at some doublewide trailer near Tijuana. Mrs. S. was a funny, outgoing British lady whom my mom had met at a party the year before. She was divorced too and had become Mom’s favorite acquaintance. Her American daughter, Chimmie, also ten, would also be there. Chimmie had crystal blue eyes and stunning white hair. She went to a Catholic school, so I only saw her when Mom sent me to their Phoenix house to play the role of “friend” at their beautiful adobe in a gated community. Mom pruned her eyes and shot a look she’d use to evoke sympathy at charity functions, “Chimmie needs a playmate.” I nodded, but a pit of anxiety expanded in my gut because Chimmie mocked with a particular math. Years later, I finally told Mom how mean she was. But these days, I never told Mom anything. Her mind was too full.

For her July, Mom was set for China. She was off to an Asian folktale workshop, having studied Mandarin for years. My brother would visit another friend’s family. My nineteen-year-old sister had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She ran down the mountain in her nightgown and broke the window of a small church. She drank furniture polish later that night. I remember the day she left forever to a halfway house. Her chemical vomit left an amber stain that went right through to the mattress.

As if to prepare for the worst, I packed my red suitcase for Mexico, days before the trip. I thought of Chimmie’s games where I’d jump over a big stick and she’d hit my calves in midair. But sometimes there were Clark Bars and swimming in their turquoise pool, so I’d go numb. I shoved my feelings down to what felt like a dry towel. It burned in my gut, but there was another consolation.

I really liked Mrs. S. She had curly orange hair and made me laugh, even though I didn’t always understand her jokes. She acted in London theaters and played bit parts in movies. I loved the drawing of her exaggerated cartoon face that hung on their kitchen wall.

Twice, Mom sent me to their house in town for a sleepover. I learned to brace myself for Chimmie’s dares, her jabs at my natural way. On the second visit, I ran down their hall and told Mrs. S. I was homesick and wanted to leave. She never seemed to notice anything Chimmie did. She just said, “You’re from the mountains; we live in town. It’s alright, darling.” Then she patted my cheeks. Her hands smelled like Pall Malls. She’d habitually snatch them up from a spinning spiral holder on their coffee table.

On both visits, Mrs. S. disappeared past the kitchen’s swinging door for long stretches. I thought she was baking something complicated, maybe baked Alaska. Eventually, she’d go upstairs to bed. I knew Chimmie would always get me, tripping me, ripping stuff from my hands. I just wanted Mom to take me back to the mountain and the dirt road.

Mom’s psychiatrist told her to go out as much as she could to get back in the world. She’d head out the door for folk dancing, singles’ parties, alumni retreats, bridge games, luncheons, and sculpture unveilings. Sometimes, maybe I’d get dropped off at a weird church for a talk on Buddhism or sex education.

And before Mexico, I mostly stayed in my room. In days of summer, who would care? I meandered past Ocotillo at dusk, sat on flat rocks looking out on the valley, tanned myself with baby oil in 105-degree heat, played Alice Cooper loud. I ate TV dinners and ice cream. I might talk on the phone with my legs slung high on the wall. I ran down the long hallway of shag carpet like a rail that connected food and sleep. My hair had enormous mats as big as doughnuts but became a gold halo when my sister would brush it out, before they sent her away. At night, no one heard the portable black-and-white TV blaring ads for burgers and detergent. My brother yanked it away if I went to the bathroom. I’d shriek. He’d slap my head.

The nearest neighbor was a half-mile down the hill. I’d check windows for Mom. We’d say hi in the front entry, if I was still awake. Mom’s silky shirt collars offered a kind of affection. Her perfume, sharp with gardenia, floated like a drug; helped me feel love. I watched her dress or undress by her vanity. Did Chimmie really need me in Mexico? She might turn a tennis racket into an electric guitar, so I’d focus on zany games. It was finally time to leave.

On the plane, I sat next to a man with a red face who chewed a ton of ice. I hated his noises, his belching, his weight shifting, and smacking face. Grown-up men made me nervous. Mom knew a man who lived down our road, Mr. Saks, who kissed me too hard on the cheek and sent me flowers on my birthday. His dark suits and rough face scared me. I tried to sleep in the seat, but the man stole my armrest.

I landed late, around nine at night. I stood at the Mexican airport. Beautiful Spanish faces shone from ads. I felt bread-white. I held my suitcase like a dead balloon. Past the gate, Mrs. S. lumbered over. “Did you fly alright, darling?” Chimmie smirked when she saw I’d really come. She pushed the ends of her white hair. “We’re going to Tijuana tomorrow.” Then she looked past me, like I’d already left.

Mrs. S. guided us along, her large lips greased with dark lipstick. Outside, her big hand steered us to a small rental car. We whizzed off on a quiet highway. Spanish billboards flitted by, sparking my curiosity. I stayed quiet in the back. I heard them mumble between the headrests. We came to the trailer park. The tires crushed gravel, and salty sea air surrounded the car. Soon, my head stuck out from cot covers at the foot of Tracy’s bed. Before I knew it, morning pushed in with loud light.

Stepping into the living room, it felt like I stood at the top of a slide with no bottom. There was a green, oversized shark poster and flat, tan carpet. Mostly cheap furniture; fine for a summer home. Chimmie and I shared a room on the left side and Mrs. S. was way on the other end.

In the fingernail kitchen, Chimmie slid a bright plastic bowl of flashy cereal toward me. Why did the trailer smell like fish? Chimmie looked sweeter than I’d ever seen her. She watched my face like a funny paper. I took a bite. Her eyes prickled, “It’s just a little crawfish juice.” The first strike. I looked down and pushed the bowl toward her. I swallowed fast. She looked so happy. Mrs. S. came in and smiled too. Her orange curls were wild, and she whisked eggs. I looked at the cereal and felt the towel twist inside me.

Soon, we got in the car and headed into the long, busy neck of Tijuana. I stared out at palm trees by the road, some ratty others bright green. I saw round, brown mamas in loose cotton skirts who didn’t hurry toward a thing. We parked and started down the main street, eyeing the lay of small shops. Small kids ran in and out of side doors. Adults sat on the pinkish rim of a giant fountain and spoke in complicated clucks.

Young men pointed down alleys to get Chimmie and me to make a run for it and go with them. They chirped and whistled, “Puta! Puta!” Some hissed from dark archways. Chimmie whispered, “Puta means whore.” I knew they saw us one better than street dogs. They wanted us dumb. I felt like Sunday morning bacon. Like special tangy meat they wanted to consume down grimy alleys. Chimmie said it was our blonde hair. School flashed behind my eyes; I thought of the boy who followed me at lunch and threatened to rape me. Whenever I saw him, the towel in me burned.

Mexico was hotter than Phoenix. My cheeks flushed as I followed Mrs. S. past doorways with my eyes half shut. Chimmie darted to whatever caught her eye. The sidewalk had chunks missing, so I watched my red rubber thongs. Shop owners waited in red and blue doorsills. They tugged wooden toy snakes on the dirty cement. Clothing, fresh and orderly, was folded tight in plastic bags on high shelves. I thought about my leather school shoes on our gray dirt road. A rock broke one heel so it spun in a circle and finally came off. I went to school anyway. My ankles were now white but usually tattooed with gray slate.

I knew the Mexican people saw my shame. I looked at the curio and big-eyed dolls strewn across the walls. Their hair brushed; their alabaster legs and arms, so clean. I tried to comb my hair out before getting on the plane but hid the mats in braids. The part on top of my head was a crooked clue. I looked up at a row of carved faces and leather coin pouches. Money really upset Mom after Pop left. I remember her cleaning the bathtub; tears streamed down her face. I put a rock in my lunch bag, so I could leave more bread in the fridge.

As we walked along, the dilapidated stucco buildings and dark alleys pushed their smells in our faces like an invisible fist. Poverty mixed up with bright colors overwhelmed my senses. I figured the entire town wanted Mrs. S. to pull an endless roll of cash from her big red tote bag, usually pushed tight to her rolling hip. She did pull Pall Malls out and lit the tips with cheap flicks. Her sandals snapped as she led us in her long, blue shorts hemmed above her bulbous knees, with Chimmie and me in our sundresses. We turned the corner and saw the groceries Mrs. S. bought that morning were gone. She’d forgotten to lock the car. She yelled, “Bugger!” Her voice sounded like a kazoo.

We saw taco stands selling peso tortillas with mysterious fillings. Of course, Chimmie wanted me to buy one and chuck it down. “No, you,” I mumbled back. Down the street, older men lined up outside a crumbly stadium for jai alai. I knew how they’d chatter at our hair if we went close. Tired of feeling so white, we faced the traffic and headed back to lot nine.

As the dusty dark settled on the trailer, we opened our shopping bags on the coffee table. We took out brand-new embroidered peasant tops, feminine and fluffy, set free from factory pouches. From thick, tan paper, I unwrapped a puppet with a sombrero. Chimmie admired a blue bead bracelet against her tan wrist. Then Mrs. S. sat on a stool in the center of the room. The air slowed down. She had a blue ceramic cup in her right hand she’d brought down from a high shelf. Chimmie’s cheeks changed color slightly. I felt a change coming from Mrs. S. A pretend theater curtain, strung high with dark velvet and fringe, slowly opened on imaginary cables to show her in a new way. Now she was ready to begin a surprise. I wondered, Will she sing? She held the cup tight; her tan knuckles curled around the rim. She hid a bottle behind her, but I saw it. With robotic motion, she turned and poured. She drizzled in the cup, then into her face while her shoulders stayed stiff. She tipped the cup down her throat fast in expert, measured sips. Chimmie started to rummage in the drawers of an end table. Two minutes passed. Mrs. S. had things to say.

She began to gurgle half-sweet insults. “Why don’t you girls put on your bikinis and show yourselves off down at the beach?”

Chimmie rolled her eyes, “It’s way too late to go swimming.”

Mrs. S. shot back, “Why should you girls take up so much room inside here, after I took you everywhere, following your every whim?” Chimmie pulled out a board game. She started to inspect the pieces.

The air was charged. It felt like an agreement was being broken. Mrs. S. was no longer a grown-up who looked after us. She became more agitated. “Must I sit here and twaddle through the night like some ridiculous auntie?” she spoke like she scored a prize for each syllable. Chimmie and I sat cross-legged on the hard carpet under the lamp’s haze. Chimmie knew how to mind herself. We both knew we had to play the game with minor fascination. I hated board games, but not now. Mrs. S. wanted to give us everything she had, as though a hidden director lived in the acid of her gut. When she stood, the trailer boards creaked beneath her long, bent toes. Her lips, juicy with chewed lipstick, tightened. Chimmie and I limped half-mindedly over the rules with the fake money mostly missing. We both wanted inside the two-dimensional plot on the floor.

Cigarette smoke pulsed from Mrs. S.’s nostrils like a canon at rest. She spat a bead over the hedge of her stiff bosom. “Don’t bother to pretend, girls! I don’t give a damn bang if you have fun!” Now she eased into a real swagger. Her body relaxed. She interrupted herself only to pour, away from our line of sight—why bother?—behind a chair, straight into the cup. The air crackled with chemical change; the light turned gray. Her performance framed by the thin trailer walls meant to tell a truth; her truth. The alcohol loosened envy from the dark side of her brain; the unblended bits from her dark kitchen held down in the day. Her large jawbone, now well-oiled, wanted to slam us hard and good. She wanted expose things that would hurtle beyond this moment.

She bellowed how perfect little Chimmie popped farts like a pellet gun all through the night. How we both had nothing but bird scat between our ears and would never learn what we need to know about what makes the world worthwhile. How we understood nothing of what it meant to be intelligent or useful to anyone. How we ate like pigs and were, in reality, two perfect goats. How we thought we were beautiful but were only broken, dumb dolly-dolls with “stuffing for purpose.” She moved the angle of her body and pitched herself toward me. I felt an imaginary red dot on my forehead. She leaned low, right in front of my nose, “Chimmie is faaaar more practical than you!” Spit hit my eye.  

Practical? It was nothing to make me run out the door and cry. I looked down then saw her turn for me again. Her eyes sharpened, “Poor you, you could walk outside and get lost and no one would miss you!” Chimmie smirked at the game board. Mrs. S.’s spine straightened, “You’d be lucky to be like Chimmie—she’s got far more reason to exist!” The spotlight on me felt like an apology to Chimmie. A burnt offering, an unspoken, “I’m sorry I drink, darling. We’ll make this other girl a sacrificial lamb, from my blood to your blood.”

But, like the absurdity of fish oil on Fruit Loops, none of it added up to a real world. I worried. Was she telling the truth about me? I remembered Mrs. S. from all the hours earlier. The one who smiled in shops when we held ponchos against our chests, checked in with my mom on the phone, recited a silly poem to soften a hard minute. She was gone. Gone, like the planes that flew here. The towel burned and twisted in my gut and shot a question to my brain: Can I still like Mrs. S.?

I stared at the red gamepiece in my hand. In the world of the game, it was my move. Sitting cross-legged beside the pilly sofa, there were no other moves off the painted board. White buds of saliva pressed out of Mrs. S.’s mouth corners. “Just what the high holy hell do you girls expect from me?” Then she slumped over with a thick exhale, her performance complete. The imaginary curtain bumped shut on the thin carpet. Chimmie snapped, “Good night!” But the night was not good.

Long after the days of this time, we learned Mrs. S. was Chimmie’s grandmother. Chimmie’s sister, Grace, was Chimmie’s real mother. If the world were right, perhaps neither Chimmie nor I would’ve been in that trailer with Mrs. S. at all. Grace lived on a ranch somewhere in Arizona. But we didn’t know this in Mexico, or on any other visit. The night or the cup never mentioned.

I saw Chimmie only one more time. Late in the summer, weeks after Mexico, Mom and I went to their turquoise pool for a barbeque at their Phoenix adobe. There were Clark bars. I remember meeting Grace there, too. She sat quietly, her pale blue eyes watching Chimmie swim. Her striking white hair beautifully arranged.

Eventually, in the next few years, as my moments flung gradually toward adolescence, my days became brighter. I learned how to care for myself. I made real friendships and found love in new places. And so did my mother.

That Mexico night, under the cot covers inside my minds theater, Mrs. S.’s misery made an encore. I watched her painted lips twist and smile. I changed my thoughts out, like currency, into shredded sleep. I decided, that second, how nothing could matter unless I said so. Soon, it all traded for sun through the thin curtains. Chimmie’s flaxen hair looked like a soft cocktail onion through the top of her bedspread. I looked at the small digital clock on the nightstand: 6:00 a.m. They, and the trailer, were still. The outside air sent a cicada’s chirp through the window. I slipped out the front door, not letting it hit the metal frame. I knew the beach was very close. I chased the smell with bare feet.


Bonnie Lykes has been published with outlets such as Crack the Spine Literary Journal, The Penmen Review, “Strange Recital” podcast, and most recently, her work was chosen for the annual book collection Crack The Spine VI.  For two years, she hosted and produced “Non-Fiction Railroad Hour” on the “Writer’s Voice” on WIOX 91.3 FM in Roxbury, New York. She co-founded a 501c3, The Reservoir Food Pantry, in Ulster County and provides children’s grief support in Shelton, Connecticut. She is currently enrolled in the graduate writing program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Our Breasts: A Love Story 

BY: Andrea Hoag

 You have your hands down the front of my wedding dress.

Each time we think my breasts are arranged so they’ll fit into the tight bodice, you try again with the zipper and one pops back out again.  

We give our bodies over to the laughter, turning red and crying.

We invented laughter.

No one acquainted with either of our families has any illusions about the ceremony starting on time.

My mother is back to bang on the door, but our eyeliner will have to be repaired and once we get going like this, there’s no stopping us.

“Untie me,” I sob between laughs. “I can’t breathe!”

I purchased a corset hoping to make the beautiful satin wedding dress fit me properly.  

Both of us know I am making a big mistake.

***

I’ve been back here without you a half-dozen times.

It’s been relaxing, enjoyable, but never the same.

As I sit on the beach beneath the enormous orange ombrellino I’ve rented for the week, I often wonder if you ever bring your children here the way I do.

My children are teenagers. (So are yours.)

Old enough to play in the waves without me worrying. Old enough to scribble notes on postcards to their father, my ex-husband, without my nagging.

My mother dozes on the lounge chair next to me, the pages of a mystery novel blowing in the breeze. I wonder how you’re coping without your mom.

This is the first time I have dared to wear a swimsuit.

I finally found one with enough fabric to cover the scars that extend beneath my armpits. The reconstruction is convincing. As long as I keep my arms down, no one would ever notice anything amiss.

***

Our parents tell the story so often we know it by heart.

Here is the scene:

Two blonde babies have just begun walking without help, toddling towards each other across a crowded cafe. One has just received her first pair of shoes that morning.

The babies know the families should be friends before the adults do.

Both sets of parents are serious young professionals drawn to this small Kansas town by jobs at the university. They are so earnest. They are heartbreakingly beautiful but don’t realize it.

The little girls are placed in wading pools, photographed with black-and-white film as they cavort, little nudists. Inseparable. Birthdays a month apart are celebrated with backyard parties and cardboard hats with rubber bands that dig into chins as Jamoca ice cream cake melts on paper plates.

Now, here is that scene again:

Two blonde babies toddle towards each other across a crowded cafe.

They recognize instantly they will be friends forever. (They won’t.)

The story is told, again and again, for thirty-five years.

Until it isn’t.

***

The little kids are banging on my bedroom door, but you’ve got your body wedged up against it so no one can get in.

No one has seen them yet, not even my husband. I knew from the start I’d show them to you, though.

I slip the loose cotton shirt over my head and turn back to face you, the meat on my chest healed enough now that it’s nearly pink again.

Where they were, now there is just a disfigured flap of skin. It looks like a drunken housewife tried sewing a Thanksgiving turkey’s flesh together after stuffing it, but gave up halfway through.

That was the best they could do after the MRSA.

I am lucky to be alive everyone keeps saying. Because being alive is the thing.

I cover myself, and you hug me, sobbing, even though all our children are still banging on the door.

You are the first person who comforts me.

Not my mother, not my father, not my husband. You.

***

We are twelve and the only thing that matters to us is growing breasts. We are desperate to have them.

You want me to ask my mother to take you bra shopping. I finally work up the courage, hoping I will get one, too.

“Her mother wouldn’t want to miss that,” my mom says, driving me home from our sleepover. “It’s a rite of passage. And she’s not going to get Cooper’s droop if she waits two more weeks until her mom gets back.”

Another day, we are set loose downtown to haunt the shops lining the street where we met a decade earlier. Your father has written your name, address, and telephone number on a slip of paper to place in your pocket in case you become lost.

I know how he feels. Since your parents’ divorce, since you were taken across the sea to live, I am always worrying about you becoming lost, too.

We go to Woolworth’s thinking we’ll look at the bras ourselves but chicken out.  

Both sides of the staircase to the basement are lined with bookshelves we’ve wanted to inspect closer all summer. The paperbacks are decorated with busty blonde ladies being carried in the arms of Ken-doll men. You are braver than me, placing one of the books into your basket next to a liquid lip gloss. You’re leaving town soon: it’s now or never.

We hide in the bathroom at Pizza Hut, and you flip through the pages until you find the book’s center, decisively ripping it in half so we can read it at the same time. We vow to trade halves when we see each other again at Christmastime. You and I lean against the bathroom counter paging through our respective halves until you elbow me, pointing out a paragraph where the man has taken the woman’s breast into his mouth. I worry that I may throw up I’m laughing so hard, my body bent double so my face is perilously close to the filthy floor. Your face is red from giggling and your eyes are squinted nearly shut with tears. So many tears I wonder if your new contacts will float out of your eyes. I’m certain we invented laughter.

***

How many letters do we exchange in twenty-seven years? Thirty? Fifty?

Email doesn’t exist. We churn out novellas, folding our secrets into blue air mail envelopes scrawled with the words TOP SECRET.

So many secrets entrusted to mailboxes half a world apart: first kisses, drinking escapades, lost virginities. My high school life may be in tatters, but an envelope with your familiar scrawl makes everything better for a day.

You tell me everything. I tell you everything.

Until later, when I don’t. Much later.

And by then, I have gone on too long not telling you everything and it feels too late to begin again.

***

You tell me we will always be friends as you pass my sleeping infant back to me.

You are whispering to avoid waking her.  

“Through it all…our marriages, our parents’ deaths, our divorces…”

You look at me carefully, thinking perhaps you have intuited something about my fresh marriage that I have not.

But I know. Of course I know.

I am hoping you have no idea how bad things are. You have flown halfway around the world to make certain I am not falling apart.

But I am. The baby won’t latch on. She won’t stop crying.

My husband disappears for three days while you’re visiting, so I don’t need to explain something’s wrong.

Three summers later, you know the end is near. But this second baby is here. We organize a joint family picnic, the hot breath of Kansas July on our necks as we struggle to keep bugs away from tender toddler calves. When my new baby cries, I am so dazed you have to remind me to pick him up.

“Hold him close to your body like this,” you say, pulling your own child to your breast.

I can’t feel my body anymore: that is one of the things I can’t tell you.

We give the babies to their grandmothers and escape to the playground with a bag of Oreos you had the foresight to hide beneath a bag of hamburger buns when all the food was being laid out. We are just two bodies again now, giggling on the playground like we did during our childhood summers.

We invented laughing, you know. We invented it.

You have never been able to find Oreos in Holland, so we eat the entire bag as the sun disappears, certain we may throw up if we don’t stop laughing. Everything is just like before, except that the ancient metal merry-go-round is gone. Parents a generation after ours petitioned the city to get rid of it, worried it was a danger to their children. We lie on a timber jungle gym staring up at the hot summer stars, our heads so close together they are touching.  Is this safer?

***

I’ve drifted off and my arm has escaped the shade of my umbrella, burning in the Mediterranean sun.

The waves splash against the shore, the seagulls scream in the air, and a man over the loud-speaker breaks into the techno music echoing across the beach to intone the name of a missing toddler.

You’ve fallen asleep over your novel, but I want to wake you up and tell you’ve I’ve learned a new word: ondellare.

The waves. They ondellare.

The sunscreen you’ve slathered all over your back smells slightly foreign. Your sand-colored hair dances in the beach breeze but doesn’t wake you.

I lift your book carefully: it is filled with so many i’s and j’s and k’s and l’s.

I feel a familiar twinge of envy over this whole version of you in Dutch that is wholly unknown to me. Are you different in Dutch than you are in English?

I nudge your sandy arm.

“We should go topless.”

You raise your head the direction I’m pointing. The Italian girls throw their heads back in laughter displaying lovely white teeth as they cavort in the sand with their boyfriends, their taut little breasts firm and immoveable.

Our mothers went to Ravenna for the day in a rental car. They might cluck to themselves about the girls and their breasts if they were here, but only because they’re both stuck in mastectomy bathing suits.

We have an entire week left to kiss boys, sleep until noon, lie in the sand, meet our mothers for supper and then dance in discos until 3 a.m. Each day we start all over again.

The evening meal takes place in a communal dining room with elderly Italian pensioners sitting at the same table each evening. And each evening they pause at our table to rub their ancient hands across our blonde young faces and congratulate our mothers upon their daughters.

We slip out as soon as we can to join all the other people our age, watching the young families wheel strollers up and down the main street for their evening passegiata. We cannot imagine being the young mothers. Sexless. Off the market.

The wide sidewalks are crowded with outdoor tables filled with late-dining families and old men chain-smoking as they watch soccer on scratchy TV sets, appraising us with their eyes as we pass.

We lean on each other as we walk, arms intertwined like the Italian girls. Every group of boys we pass stares into our eyes with electric interest, a new sensation for us. When they tell us we are beautiful, we collapse onto each other’s shoulders laughing, bursting with joy.

There are no Americans here. The Italian boys think we are German, pressing flyers into our hands in the hopes we’ll visit their discotheque.

“Deutschland?” they call after us.

“Nein!” we squeal in unison, doubling over with laughter. I’ve been taking German in high school just because you are.

You stand up and dust the sand off your knees, grinning as you slip the straps off your shoulders, exposing your pert breasts to the salt air. You have always been braver than me, but I’m wriggling out of my bikini top, wishing my breasts were as buoyant as yours.

We press our hands across our chests like makeshift bras and dash through dozens of umbrellas with sleeping signoras, smoking men, card-playing grandfathers, kicking up hot sand as we run, throwing ourselves headlong into the undulating waves for cover.  


Andrea Hoag is a longtime book critic whose reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Minneapolis Star-Tribune, among others. She is currently completing work on a collection of essays. You can find her on Twitter at @AndreaHoag.

Summer 2018


Mathieu Cailler
Fiction Quickenings

Chelsea Catherine
Nonfiction | Pockets and Corners

Frannie McMillan
Poetry July 4th

Bonnie Watts
Poetry | What

Carol Guess
Drama The Incident

Emily Townsend
Nonfiction | The Innocent Non-Threatening White Young Woman

Lucas Cardona
Fiction My Magazine Life

Michael Seeger
Poetry | Passing Storm

Carolyn Núr Wistrand
Drama | Watchwomen

D. Gilson
Nonfiction | Last Will and Testament: A Mad Lib

David Starkey
Poetry | Five Arguments in Favor of My Beatification

Art Hanlon
Fiction | East China Sea

Nels Hanson
Poetry | Calendar

Elizabeth Bruno
Poetry | Skinny-Dipping

Stephen Elliott
Fiction | Los Angeles Stories

Andrea Hoag
Nonfiction | Our Breasts: A Love Story

Carolyn Supinka
Poetry | First (Found) Fig

Stephanie Kaplan Cohen
Poetry | Suicide

Valerie Miner
Fiction | LA Fourmi Faim

Danielle Joy Foley
Poetry | The Beginning and The End: A Love Poem with 2 Parts

Bonnie Lykes
Nonficiton | Developing World

Liska Jacobs
Interview | TCR Talks with Liska Jacobs

The Coachella Review is a literary arts journal published by the University of California, Riverside–Palm Desert Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts.

 

The Innocent Non-Threatening White Young Woman

Emily Townsend

Fuck. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK.

The cruise control clicks off, and the car slows from 70 to 0 mph in thirty seconds. I am literally eight miles away from the Shell outside of Palestine. I swear I was going to fill up.

I should’ve known better. I should’ve stopped at the sketchy pumps thirty miles back in Cayuga or Mildred. As soon as I saw that “unleaded fuel only” red light blink on, I knew I was pushing it.

Evidently I pushed it too hard.

The steering wheel does not lock, so I’m able to drift to the edge of the road, crushing blooming Indian paintbrushes and brown-eyed Susans. There are two houses on either side of HWY 287. One has a car in the driveway. I consider knocking on their door. No, what if the owner has a shotgun tucked away in the living room and, upon my knock, snatches it for their safety and swings their door open with the gun in my face, screaming, “What the hell do you want?” I can’t trust this nearly uncivilized stretch between Tennessee Colony and Palestine. TC has three correctional facilities—what if a former convict lives in this place? The porch holds two rocking chairs. Perfect spot for a former convict to sit with his illegal gun on his lap, bullets inserted in the hatch, watching for young women to run out of gas and pull over by his house. The other house looks domestic and nurturing, but just as rundown as this supposed former convict’s place. I think there’s a Dodge peeking out around the corner, but I can’t tell, and I’m not going to approach it. Stranger danger!

I get out of my 1998 Grand Am Pontiac, already faulty as hell, what with the right headlight springing out of the screw, the engine rumbling louder than an orca breaching the Pacific Ocean, the dashboard almost detached from the interior. It’s 82 degrees, yet the hot afternoon sun feels like it’s 103. A light breeze hits in a contraction of eleven minutes or so. I’m melting. My heather gray shirt drenches into a darker gray. Why am I wearing full-length leggings? I want to peel my skin off. I fucking hate Texas. I hate this fucking place.

My phone is fully charged from being plugged in to play music, but there’s no service. How in the world does an iPhone not have service where there are telephone poles streaming along the streets? I call my mother eight times in the hopes that somewhere along the ringing the wires will magically pick up my desperate plea. I feel like I am calling a lifeline on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. I am twenty-one, and I have never been in a situation like this, at least, not alone. When I was eight, on a road trip with my father and brothers, we ran out of gas in the middle of Utah. I try calling AAA. No signal. Okay. Think about the movies where the main character runs out of gas. None come to mind. Damn it. I’m gonna die out here. Bury me in the backyard of the supposed ex-convict’s place.

I stand by my car, dialing numbers, hoping someone would pull over and offer to help. The good citizens of East Texas will surely help. Texas is known for their three-gallons-of-sugar-sweet-tea-hospitality. I mean, that’s what everyone says. “Everything is bigger in Texas!” So somebody’s gotta have a big heart and a spare tank of gas in their trunk. Somebody. Gotta have it.

My hazard lights faintly flash against the stupidly bright sun approximating the vernal equinox. I don’t exactly plead for attention. My thumb isn’t sticking out—I don’t need to hitchhike. I just need gas. Even an eighth of a tank will do. I’ve got a gift card to Kroger, and that’s where I was gonna get fuel if I had made it past the Shell. Twenty cents off needs to be used by March 31. Even though it may look like help is on the way because I’m on my phone, I want to scream that I am a false statement, I’m not just standing here fiddling around, please save me. I am the stereotypical damsel in distress, and I deserve to be rescued.

Am I not an innocent, non-threatening, white young woman? Why is no one pulling over? Why do they deliberately speed up and glide in the middle of the yellow stripes when they pass me? Is it because my car is silver with a green hood? I presume that because I am an innocent, non-threatening, white young woman, I would immediately get help from, preferably, a nice person whose motives are not to kidnap me and take advantage of a body that can’t run anywhere and then dump me off in a ranch’s little lake. This is why I hold off on calling for help. I make eye contact with a few drivers rushing by, but none slow down, none have made their way up the hill and swerved around back to me. I’m sure a passerby might think, I won’t help, but I’ll bet you someone behind me will help, and I secure all hope into that supposedly serendipitous stranger that will save me. It’s a chain of karma, a reverse sequence, in that the passerby is passing on their karma to someone else, but perhaps they are entitling themselves to their own dose of karma—if they were to break down miles later, would they be in the same situation as me? Would they assume that someone would stop and ask if they need help?

Motorcyclists zoom by. I rest more hope in them than anyone else. All they have to do is pull over, take their helmet off, and ask, “What’s wrong?” It’s easier than pouring an Arnold Palmer. Just ask two words. I know I don’t look like I obviously need help, i.e., a flat tire or smoke coming out the hood, but I would never, in my free time, pull over in the middle of nowhere with no phone service in the fucking heat and just stand outside to soak in the sun. I mean, why would I spend my last day of spring break stuck on the side of a barren highway? I have better places to be.

The sun hurts my eyes. I’m sick of this. I get in my car, thinking it recharged or some shit, and to my surprise I make it up the hill, and then it fucking does it again. The acceleration dwindles down and I barely manage to park on the side, dangerously closer to the road to avoid falling into a slight ditch. The telephone poles have extended up here. I try calling AAA for the fifth time. Nothing. Whoever installed these telephone wires did a shit job.

 

12:45. I’ve gotten desperate.

I remember my school journal is in the backseat. Trying to make my tiny handwriting big enough for the near-blind to see, I scribble out “Need gas!!” and leave it upright by my back window. I stand around outside a bit more. Someone’s gotta stop. They have to. It’s polite. Southern hospitality. It won’t take too long. I am harmless.

The cars that have crosses hanging from their rearview mirror do not stop. They’re possibly ignoring me because I’m an atheist. But how do they know? Do I have a broken halo above my head? Where the heck are the good people? Is everyone on this highway a bad seed?

I tinker with five different scenarios because I have a foolishly wild imagination, and I know better. I know better about everything, but I did not know better this time.

Scenario one: A complete stranger pulls up. We do not question each other’s murderous/advantageous/innocuous motives. There is full trust. There’s a glowing haze as the stranger gets out of their car. We are two people colliding on one highway out of a four million mile public road network in the United States. The stranger genuinely wants to help. They either have a spare gallon in their trunk or a cell phone that actually reaches a signal. Water in the cupholder. Maybe a dog to pet because stroking an animal lowers your blood pressure, and I’m pretty sure I’ve inherited my mother’s crazy high BP. If they don’t have extra fuel, if they can’t contact AAA or anyone, they would stay with me until I am taken care of, until maybe another person stops by to help, and we would chat until someone competent arrives, and through the conversation, perhaps we will fall in love, if the stranger is a young adult man. This is the story of how we met, we’ll tell our kids twenty years later. We met when your mom stupidly ran out of gas on her way back to school. I’d playfully nudge him and look at him with a lot of love. The stupid rom-com trope of the man saving the woman from despair will be real. We will be living proof of sappy dramas. James Cameron will adapt a film based on us, and we will appear as the old version like Jack and Rose and have much more attractive younger actors play out this awful day in a three-hour motion picture. I would pay good money to see that. What a grand love story.

Scenario two: A complete stranger pulls up. Because I am hesitant to get into someone’s car without a full criminal inspection and cannot accurately judge their character based on appearance—because I know better—I offer them cash to bring back a tank of gas while I stay with my car. A sound compromise—they can buy snacks with whatever’s left over. But then they could take my twenty bucks and never see me again. Free money. Bad karma. I hope they lose my cash somewhere. Or they could forget where I was stranded. They could take HWY 19 instead of back to 287 if they were to get gas at the Shell that’s on the intersection between the two routes. It can be confusing. I wouldn’t feel bad if that was the case.

Scenario three: A van of complete strangers pull up. It is the kind of van soccer moms lease for five years until the kids outgrow their sport. Sliding doors. Rotten orange peels in the trunk. DVD player overhead; headphones latched onto the handles above windows. I look like I’m sixteen. I look like I could be the daughter of a middle-aged couple. The southern mama in the van acts as though she is looking out for another mama’s cub. “Oh darlin’, what happened? Do you need help?” the southern mama says. The kids in the backseat offer me fruit gushers from their tournament. The southern daddy uses my situation as a lesson to their kids: “Don’t be stupid like her and run out of gas.” I trust them enough to take me to a gas station and back all in one piece, not spliced like an orange.

Scenario four: No complete strangers pull up. No one is good. Good Samaritans don’t exist. There is no good in this world. I am the center of the universe; my problem is far too difficult to solve. I need every single scientist to help me out. I need someone to lift and sliiiiide my car to a gas station. I’m not being overconfident here. I mean, I assume I will get out of this situation somehow. Maybe I’ll call 911. They will always answer when a signal does not exist.

Scenario five: No complete strangers pull up. I decide to walk eight miles to the station. I tie my hair up, place my Chapstick in my pocket, move my valuables to the trunk, groan that my Thin Mints are melting in the backseat. I abandon my shitty car, leave behind a Nikon D750, a new Free People dress for graduation, schoolwork that I didn’t touch over the past week, spilled Epsom salt behind the passenger seat. I take my tripod as both a walking stick and as a shield. I can’t be too far from the nearest gas station. If there are bears out here, I will win the fight. I will not die out here, no. “An Innocent Non-Threatening White Young Woman Dies While Stranded on 287” will not be my headline in the Tennessee Colony/Palestine papers.

 

Three days ago, I took an Amtrak train from Austin to Fort Worth and sat in the observation car for six hours, editing essays and feeling miserable about some bad news. I had drunk a venti iced cinnamon coconut milk macchiato right before boarding, and, as you can imagine, my bladder was pulsing by the second hour.

“Can you watch my stuff?” I asked the forty-ish-year-old man at the table behind me, who had his laptop and some papers out. I put my complete trust in him to keep an eye on my table, which had a brown purse and a red backpack with my camera gear and a suitcase zealously over-packed laying out. He nodded. I hurried to the tiniest bathroom downstairs, not even thinking about the possibilities of this stranger taking my stuff. I hadn’t memorized his face in case he did take it and went hiding in one of the nine cars with my awkwardly girly luggage. People could pass him off as carrying his wife’s things. It would be so easy to steal thousands of dollars’ worth of items in one clean swoop. At the next stop he could just get off, and I’d have no verification of the thief. But I didn’t think about this too hard because I’ve left my stuff unattended in cafes and libraries without alerting someone to watch it, and nothing happened. It’s a universal thing to trust strangers in a small space with your belongings.

I returned and my stuff was positioned exactly as I had left it. I tapped his table and said thanks. An hour later, he asked me to reciprocate this action, and I, of course, had to say yes. What I found odd was that he moved his stuff to my table, when I abandoned mine for the course of six minutes. He was gone for the fifteen minute stop in Temple and returned smelling like smoke. He grabbed his laptop, mumbled thanks, and headed toward the end of the train, presumably back to his actual seat.

How is there a clear, wholesome trust put into strangers mindlessly watching someone else’s stuff as they take a bathroom break for five-ish minutes, but there is absolutely no trust in helping out a girl on the side of the road?

Best case scenario was scenario three, where the risk of something going awfully wrong is incredibly low. There are very few American folktales of girls being marooned on the road as a lure to kill people. In what I can recall from my plethora of western America horror documentaries from my childhood, the appearance of innocent-turned-murderous applied to solo sketchy-looking men, not women.

I’m different. I’m not a violent person at all. I would never hurt someone. Please just pull over and help me out for twenty minutes, and then you’ll be on your way, I’ll be on mine, stubbornly yelling at myself for being so stupid.

 

12:57. It is time to call the Big People. Commit to Scenario Four.

I forgot to ask who I should be looking for. I guess it’s a cop car. I did call the police, after all. But I don’t know which direction it’ll come. I should’ve told her I have a green Washington sticker on the right side of my back window. Not that there are like eleven other 1998 Grand Am Pontiacs named Doris just lounging gasless on the side of 287 with a girl dehydrating in the heat, but still. Just in case.

Then I think about what I would do if someone did finally pull over and offered to do something. “Oh, someone’s coming. Thanks, though! Ya, should’ve showed up ten minutes ago!” I shouldn’t get mad if someone did finally assist me. It’s not their fault that they arrive ten minutes after my phone call. Their path is not the same as mine.

 

It’s terribly boring waiting for help.

I alternate entertaining myself by opening my door to let a breeze in and actually getting out of the car, walking around it, staring at the useless fuel receptacle, cursing at its emptiness even though it is my fault I ran out of gas, and then getting back in the car. My left arm sticks to the door, and I glare at myself in the mirror. I take a selfie so I can remember how stupid I am. This will go on Facebook later, I think, so I can share my survival story. Imagine me on an MTV show alongside a cast of other strong survivors who have gotten through an extraordinarily long amount of time waiting for their Starbucks order or fought over the last medium-sized couture dress at Burberry on Rodeo Drive. Imagine me on the cover of TIME as 2017 Person of the Year, arms crossed with fake oil smudges to relate to this story, and as the audience reads, they will gasp and pity a standard non-threatening white young woman who got stranded for an hour in the desiccating spring sun but still relate to the situation, just a little bit, not completely, because it is my situation; you can’t take my story away from me. I am the strongest woman alive for sticking it out for an hour. This is a fucking intense hour. I mean, of course, I assume I will make it out of here. That’s how headlines are made. “Strong Woman Survives Hour-Long Abandonment on Highway 287 Without Help.”

 

Big Mike’s Wrecker Services is this red truck with the logo scrawled in neon green like a Monster energy drink. The tow dolly is also a disgusting shade of green, the kind of green found on the walls in early 2000s skating rinks and in Limited Too spring catalogues. Seems legit.

Out comes this white guy a few years older than me, who is presumably not Big Mike, because I figure the owner of any type of services would have been dressed a lot nicer and not in Bud Light pajama pants and a Cowboys shirt with a torn left sleeve. He introduces himself as Jeff. This guy’s got a real southern accent, and I cringe internally. I know I’m supposed to be grateful for the help, which came speedily yet slowly after twenty minutes of my 911 call, but that accent rips my muscles into shreds. It’s not an aesthetically pleasing sound for me, being from up north.

And even though I’ve lived in the south for fifteen years, nothing prepares me for the horrendous voice, and I almost want to deny his service so he could go away. I can call the 911 operator again and demand for the operator herself to come get me when her shift is over. But. Assistance is here. I shan’t refuse it. “I know the operator said I’d bring you two tanks of gas, but the way our roadside service works is, it woulda costed you feefty-five dollars. It’s still the same price to tow, though, so I thought towing you would be easier.”

If I can just get past the culture shock, I’d have said that there is no logic in his reasoning. Now I have to pay $55 to tow my useless car and then an additional $20 for gas. I know I have a gift card, but still. The cash I’d give him was meant for unnecessary dinners away from the repulsive cafeterias on campus.

But I’m really hot and running dangerously low on my own fluids, so I accept. I awkwardly stand on the passenger side and watch him load good old shitty Doris onto his towing thing. Jeff works fast and makes sure she’s secured, strapped in, though at this point I don’t fucking care if I lose this car. She has been the most expensive hassle the past six years. I’ve been in a rear-end collision with her, I’ve nearly blacked out from the lack of AC as I neutrally drove through the car wash, I’ve skidded along medians on rainy nights, I’ve been stranded in my high school parking lot because I let the battery run during my free period to listen to music on the radio. Every three months, I lose money that I’ve saved because of this damn car. I haven’t been able to buy anything new because of her. Every time I got close to affording a new camera or cool clothes from Urban Outfitters, Doris just had to throw a fit, malfunction, break down in some way. She was a fussy teenager in my fussy teenaged years.

 

“All right, it’s good. Hop in.”

I amble over to the passenger seat because the last time I got towed there was only one row in the truck, not two. I open the door and a girl is sitting there staring at me with this expression of “bitch, whatchu doin’ coming up to sit next to my man.” So I go to the backseat. The dashboard has a Confederate sticker. A large Chicken Express cup sweats in the cupholder. Jeff constantly looks in the side mirror, and I begin to question his authority to tow my car. I do need it after all. Just for four more trips from Nacogdoches to Mansfield to Nacogdoches to Mansfield.

I still don’t have a signal, and I repeatedly try to text my mother that everything’s fine now, ignore the fourteen calls in the span of twelve minutes. The girl yaks on and on to a friend, and Jeff whips around and apologizes, clearly embarrassed.

“We have a client,” he hisses at the girl.

“So? I don’t care. It’s not like we’ll see each other again after this.”

How does she trust me to not remember her chatter yet no stranger would stop to help me out? I could be recording her right now. She’s prattling about some military ordeal, Skoal dip she gotta buy for her brother. Their tension lightens up, Jeff and the girl, and I attempt to figure out their relationship. Are they dating? Married without rings? Cousins? Incestual cousins?

 

“What side is your gas on?” Jeff asks as we approach the Shell station. “So I can pull you right up to the pump.”

I tell him it’s the right side, the unusual side compared to cars these days.

As I wait for Jeff to finish checking out the information on the car, write up the license plate, and fill out the receipt, a guy at the pump across from us inquires, “What happened?”

Where were you ten miles ago? I think. Why couldn’t literally anyone have asked me that when I was stuck? “Oh, I ran out of gas. Haha. Whoops.”

There is no risk in asking after the problem has been taken care of. All he can receive is my simple answer: no gas. He can nod and walk off knowing that I’m okay, I’m fine, I have filled up my tank with fuel. But if he had asked me all those miles back, there’d be a risk between us both, and the stigma of hitchhikers and broken-down cars returns. If he were to have pulled over, we’d run through all of my scenarios, particularly Scenario 6.1: A complete stranger pulls up. They act nice. Normal. They coax me into their vehicle, assuring me that I’ll have my problem fixed. They drive past the designated gas station. “Hey,” I quiver, trying to keep a strong voice, “where are you going? It was back there.” And I catch a devilish squint in the rearview mirror if I am in the back row or a hand on my thigh traveling up if I sit beside them. A quick escape is not an option, but permanent escape is. I am sexually abused and mutilated and murdered and dumped on the side of the road or dragged into the pine trees and left to decompose among the squirrels and deer, and my mother will never be able to find me because by then my phone will have died and the tracker wouldn’t track me, and because there’s no fucking signal anyway, not even the police would be able to track my phone, but they would find my shitty car, and my mother would blame my shitty car, but not me because she didn’t know it ran out of gas; it could’ve been the radiator or the oil or the engine or the battery.

Or there’s Scenario 6.2: A complete stranger pulls up. I am the kidnapper, the one who pulls a knife on the driver, slashes them, disposes of them on the side of the road, makes it seem like they were the one who was stuck, out of fuel, and I scurry off with their vehicle, jutting in short bursts because it takes me at least three miles to get used to such a smooth engine compared to my shitty car, and I lightly tap on the brakes since my own brake pads are awful. I have to slam my foot all the way down to brake, but this vehicle—this shining lovely 2010 Ford whatever—is so goddamn smooth it’s like spreading butter on a warm bagel, and I drain their bank account from whatever cards are in their wallets, and I get the hell out of Texas and become a fugitive known as the Highway 287 Innocent Non-Threatening White Young Woman Killer.

 

Jeff returns from his truck and rips off a pink sheet. “Here’s your receipt. If you call Triple A, they will reimburse your feefty-five-dollar bill.”

“Thank you so much for coming out,” I say and almost add “because it seems like you just got out of bed,” but I decide that that is not an appropriate thing to say to someone who probably did just get out of bed to rescue you from running out of gas.

I fill up a quarter and make my way into Palestine, where I stop at Kroger and spend ten dollars of my gift card. I silently berate any car that looks similar to those who passed me even though they would have already been in Rusk or Alto by this time. I plug my music back in, roll the windows down, and carry on to Nacogdoches.

 

On Highway 84, a small Armadillo trailer is off to the side in Lasiter-Hill Community. The sun coruscates through the pine trees, shining on a couple pacing around their vehicle. The middle-aged man inspects the gas cap; the woman stares at the cars dashing by. They don’t seem terribly frantic to get out of this situation. They have each other.

In the three seconds of held eye contact with the woman, I consider stopping. I really do consider this. It would be good karma, I suppose, to send forth the karma I received from calling 911, who called a towing service, who dragged my dumb car to a gas station.

But I don’t. I know better. They look like they are handling it well. Like it had happened to them before.


Emily Townsend is a graduate student in English at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her works have appeared in Superstition ReviewThoughtful Dog, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Santa Clara ReviewcahoodaloodalingKettle Blue ReviewWatershed Review and others, and are forthcoming in cream city review and Burnt Pine Magazine. She is currently working on a collection of essays in Nacogdoches, Texas. 

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