Bryan R. Monte – AQ29 Autumn 2020 Book Reviews

Bryan R. Monte
AQ29 Autumn 2020 Book Reviews

Hester, Diarmuid, Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper, University of Iowa Press, ISBN 978-1-60938-691-7, 319 pages.
Horn, Bernard, Love’s Fingerprints,, Circling Rivers Press, ISBN 978-1-939530-09-7, 134 pages.

This summer I received two interesting books for review by authors with completely different family dynamics. The first is Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper, about American enfant terrible gay author Dennis Cooper, by Diarmuid Hester, a rising star in LGBTQI literary scholarship. Cooper has long been the ‘bad boy’ of the American gay writing scene for the post-Stonewall generation. At polar opposites, is retired university professor Bernard Horn’s book Love’s Fingerprints, which describes the love and connections that held his family together through four generations and their experience of emigration, the Holocaust, family conflicts, and failing health, as well as Horn’s engagement in the natural and political worlds.
      Hester’s Wrong draws on archival materials as well as interviews with Cooper and those of his admirers. Spending ‘more than a decade’ on this project, Hester provides an excellent overview and summary of Cooper’s works from his early poetry and magazine Little Caesar, to his mid-life George Miles novel series, the deletion of his online blog by his provider due to a complaint, and ending with film collaborations with Zach Farley in the early 21st century.
      Hester’s biography includes interesting aspects of Cooper’s dysfunctional family and their lasting influence on Cooper’s writing. Hester outlines Cooper’s artistic pedigree from his painter grandmother to his alcoholic, former-concert pianist mother and his earlier aspiring writer and later aerospace manufacturer father. Hester documents Cooper’s education, public and private, his parents’ divorce, his circle of friends, their attendance at punk music and art venues, and their recreational drug use.
      Hester continues Cooper’s work as Beyond Baroque’s Director. Here, Cooper changed an open mike reading format to a programmed one. (I believe ‘curated’ is the word now used in British and American English). This caused lasting animosity with some of the earlier generation of poets and writers who had previously attended. This tension lead to Cooper leaving Beyond Baroque in 1983. In the meantime, he programmed punk and new wave writers and artists more closely affiliated with the LA contemporary cultural scene.
      Where Hester’s book really becomes interesting for me, however, is in Chapter 6 “If There Actually Is Such a Thing Like New Narrative…”, which describes the Small Press Traffic Bookstore workshops on 24th Street in Noe Valley, San Francisco and New Narrative Writing. I attended SPT’s gay men’s Tuesday night writing workshops from January/February 1983 until July 1984. During this time, I graduated from Berkeley, founded a gay magazine, No Apologies, and later won a fellowship to Brown University’s Graduate Writing Program. If this chapter is representative of Hester’s work in the remainder of the book, I think I should be able to estimate the overall accuracy of Wrong. In brief, the things Hester got right were due to his own scholarship versus interviewee information, sometimes obtained decades later, which almost always contains a few inaccuracies due to faulty memories.
      Hester’s description of the then competing New Narrative and Language schools of writing and their styles in San Francisco in the 1980s is spot on. His assertion that the New Narrative groups’ leaders talked a lot about gay community building as well as good writing is also correct. His description of the purpose of New Narrative writers versus the Language writers in San Francisco is also quite good. New Narrative promoted a self-critical, self-reflexive writing style, which was more like a conversation with the reader, as in the early novels. On the other hand, the Language school produced self-contained narrative entities composed of rapidly changing images from which the reader had to build his/her own narrative. New Narrative’s subject matter was the gay and lesbian community and its writing, which the mainstream press had not yet embraced. The New Narrative writers rightly saw Language writing as a privileged art form for writers who didn’t have to fight for visibility.
      Hester also correctly observes that practically the whole New Narrative movement was included in the second issue of No Apologies. I created this magazine in July 1983 after I discovered just how difficult it was for gay men and lesbians to find publishers for their work. I wanted to preserve and disseminate some of the good work I had heard in these workshops.
      However, there is one inaccuracy in Chapter 6 from information obtained from a Kevin Killian interview. On page 103, Hester quotes Killian as saying that when I went to Brown’s Graduate Writing Program, ‘he (Monte)…took No Apologies with him,’. Killian states further that ‘The materials I (Killian) had left over, gathered for No Apologies, I (Killian) used to start up a new magazine, Mirage,’.
      This is incorrect. The split between Killian and me occurred five months after I had left for Brown. Before that, Killian and I corresponded and telephoned each other regularly from August 1984 to January 1985 exchanging around 10 missives each to coordinate work on No Apologies #4’s upcoming East Coast-themed issue.
      It was Cooper, however, who unwittingly caused my break with Killian. On 8 December, after Cooper had read at my invitation with Olga Broumas for Brown University’s Gay and Lesbian Union, I walked him down College Hill to the train station. On the way, I asked Cooper if he had a piece I could add to the interview I had conducted with him in New York in October for No Apologies #4. He walked a few steps further in silence, then told me he had already sent one to Killian.
      It was for this mis- or lack of communication and other reasons mentioned in my memoir of Killian in AQ27, that I stopped working with him in January 1985 and published No Apologies on my own. However, Hester would have only known about this if he had read Killian’s correspondence with me (now at Yale’s Beinecke Library) or my Killian memoir in AQ27, which came out in March 2020, probably after he had already completed and submitted his MS.
      Overall, I found Wrong to be informative, scholarly, and accessible. It covers sixty years of Cooper’s life in just 319 pages (including a 20-page bibliography and a seven-page index). In addition, Wrong is not mired in technical or academic terminology and provides a good overview and generous excerpts of Cooper’s books so it felt as if I were reading them again. Wrong is an engaging book, which I found sometimes difficult to put down. Fortunately, the book is modular enough that it can be read one chapter at a time without losing the thread of Hester’s description and analyses. Many chapters also include conclusions with Hester’s suggestions about what each means to Cooper’s development as a writer specifically, and/or to LGBTQI writing in general. I believe any Cooper fan or scholar will certainly find Wrong essential reading.
      In contrast, Bernard Horn’s poetry collection, Love’s Fingerprints, is a work written from the right side of the tracks of family dynamics and in a more traditional thematic and stylistic approach to literature. The love and relationships between father, mother, son and siblings is tender, palpable, and binds his family down three generations despite anti-Semitism, emigration, a North American trans-continental relocation, and war. Many of these family links are reinforced thematically with Biblical and classical references, many in the poems’ epigraphs.
      Love’s Fingerprints is divided into five parts: a prologue ‘A Self-portrait with Music’, and four longer sections entitled ‘Hear!’, ‘Dreams of a Black Panther’, ‘Red Red’, and ‘The Ideal World’. In “Hear!’ Horn introduces his parents and grandparents. His father was a 1930s Polish Jewish soccer star and his grandfather was a butcher. They emigrated to Canada during the Depression. His Ukrainian mother also emigrated to Canada with her mother.
      Horn has many poems in this collection about his athletic father and his bright mother. These poems especially depict the strong bond between father and son and between his father and his grandfather. In ‘Sunday In the Park’ father and son are ‘clandestine in their complicity of watching each other,’ at sport, his father ‘showing off with a soccer ball to his European soccer buddies’…‘easily heading the ball between makeshift goal markers’ who lovingly though doesn’t say anything when his son ‘missed an easy pop up and a grounder too’ during his softball game. The Victorian rooming house, where his father played poker and rented a room to change into his swimsuit, is described in ‘The Porch’. On the beach, his son watches his athletic father swim ‘through and beyond breakers,/far beyond the rotted jetties, as the sun set, as you vanished in the distance and the darkness/ on a moonless Saturday night in July alone,/except for the eight-year-old-boy staring out to sea’.
      The bond with his mother can be seen in ‘The Work of Our Hands’ which describes how his mother rinsed gently his hair, even though ‘at ten she witnesses her father’s murder’… ‘at twenty,…brought her aging, half-willing mother/across Europe, the Atlantic, and half of Canada,’…and ‘at thirty-three, left her own beloved extended family there/and led her husband and three-year-old son/to New York…to escape a sister-in-law/bent on dismantling her marriage.’ ‘The Blue Corduroy Blazer’ describes his ‘math prodigy’ mother’s advice to ‘Save up,’ and ‘Buy one good suit,…a pair of pants, a couple of double stitched /shirts, top-of-the-line-ties, fabrics of/quality.’ This first section continues with additional family poems ‘To my Brother’, ‘Portrait of My Mother Knitting’ the long, prose poem/memoir ‘My Father, the Swimmer’, and ‘Wind Hair’ about three granddaughters, among others.
      Horn also addresses the Holocaust in ‘The Merit of Ancestors’, ‘Try to Remember”, ‘What My Father Revealed’, and ‘What My Mother Revealed’, and his own personal experience of anti-Semitism in ‘Jew Cap’.
      The second section contains more poems about Horn’s own family, friends, upbringing, and contemporary events. ‘Cinderella’ describes the reaction of two young girls watching the speaker’s daughter try on her wedding dress in Israel. They ask Horn if his daughter is Cinderella, and their mothers mouth “Say yes,”. ‘At Capo Vaticano’ he describes the rescue of his granddaughter as she fell from some rocks and was about to hit her head. However, Horn’s son-in-law, grabbed her by the ankle just in time. Later, the little girl is shown playing with her sisters oblivious to the danger she’d survived. Then follow two poems, ‘My Daughter’ and ‘Asphaltine’ also about the speaker’s daughters, as well as a remembrance of a grad school party in ‘Forty-Five Years Ago’ of a professor passed out on the living room floor and his wife weeping over the kitchen sink.
      This section also includes two strong, long poems: ‘Sappho’s Blues: Four Songs’ and ‘Dreams of a Black Panther’. The first mixes classical invocations and images with modern, musical, poetic modes The second is a pastiche of Horn’s childhood love of learning, which led him to speak out of turn for which he was punished, his college years discussing politics in a Boston coffee shop, the observation that all the metal in us is produced in stars, and the stony New England soil which still produces daffodils and homes for rabbits.
      Part 3 ‘Red, Red’ is about mankind’s engagement with the natural world. Whether swimming through it and admiring its beauty as is ‘The Snorkelers’ off a Red Sea reef, or coming eye to eye with a raccoon trashing his waste cans or with a great ape in a zoo rolling its eyes as children tap on the glass of its enclosure in ‘Raccoon’, Horn describes inter-species awareness and connectivity. ‘Above Leuk’ describes a medieval church’s walls built from human bones as expertly as ‘The master wall builders from Connecticut,…who worked /mortarless, as they tossed stone rubble/from a cleared field perfectly/into place’. ‘Sycamores’ describes Nature’s healing effect on Horn. Here he leaves ‘his perfect Cambridge apartment’ at 3 a.m. to ‘make my eight mile loop along the Charles’ to clear his head. In the title poem of this section, ‘Red, Red’, the phrase ‘Is that all there is’ is repeated twice to unite the surprise of a damaged, bleeding hand in the first stanza and ‘raspberry red stained lips and teeth in the second stanza, the first time as disappointment and the second, as a celebration of satiation.
      The book’s final section is ‘The Ideal World’, though I found this a bit misleading, because I felt much of its imagery, thoughts, and perceptions are part of the real world. Here Horn explores the topics of meditation in ‘The Silence’ and ‘Mind, Feel’; film and the human drive for sex and death in ‘Strange Love’ and ‘Death, Rothko Said’; the haunting memories some music brings in ‘Schubert’; and a selection of political poems mostly based on personal experience. ‘Hope. Heartbreak’ is about a remembered conversation with a hijab-wearing Palestinian woman in a hallway after a lecture. Here, the woman, who knew his work well, asks about the use of temporality in one of his poems. Unfortunately, Horn never heard from her again. At the poem’s end, Horn years later wonders if the woman still feels the same about his work due to the on-going conflict in Israel and Palestine. This terminal section ends with the section’s title poem. Here Horn writes that the strongest example of political/social change, is not ‘the fear filled bravery of those who face down the instrument of /tyranny’, but a child, no more than three in her mother’s arms yelling the contagious chant: ‘“The people demand social justice.”’
      Love’s Fingerprints is a varied, engaging, and accomplished poetry collection, another excellent book in Circling Rivers’ growing collection. AQ

Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad – The View from My Windows

Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad
The View from My Windows

Visual artist Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad writes: ‘I work primarily with acrylics and gouache, and like to paint scenes from everyday life. I find making mixed-media collages meditative and relaxing, and I use a wide variety of paper bits and cloth remnants in my pieces. These two artworks are from a series that I put together during the lockdown, when the windows of my workspace were my only eyes to the world outside. In my mind’s eye, I saw the places I had been to. I found solace in my recollections. The view through the windows in my artworks are places that hold significance for me which I hope to visit again when travel becomes possible. These days at work in my studio, I look to nature for inspiration through open windows.’

Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad, Outside it is Glorious acrylic and gouache with oil pastels and distress inks, 2020


 

Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad, Freedom, acrylic and gouache with oil pastels and distress inks, 2020

Wendy Kennar – Could I? Should I? Would I?

Wendy Kennar
Could I?, Should I?, Would I?

‘Can you still teach?’
      ‘Kind of,’ I answered.
      ‘You either can or you can’t. We can’t continue with this process if you can still teach.’
      It was November 2012, and I didn’t know how to respond to the CalSTRS (California State Teachers’ Retirement System) repre-sentative sitting across from my husband and me.
      ‘Can you still teach?
      There was a part of me that could still teach, that still wanted to teach. I’d only been teaching for twelve years. I wasn’t supposed to be looking into retirement this soon.
      But this wouldn’t be a traditional retirement. This would be a ‘retirement due to a disability. ’
      Could I still teach?
 
 
In my mind, the answer was simple. Yes. I still had the passion and the drive to go to school each day and create an environment within room 7 where children felt loved, safe, and empowered to try their best.
      Should I continue to teach?
      That was a different question. The answer was more complicated, and I was becoming less and less sure. I knew I shouldn’t be spending my lunchtime alone in my classroom, leaving voicemails for doctors, crying and pleading for their soonest possible appointment. I knew I shouldn’t be biting my lip, struggling with pain in my left leg, as I walked around the classroom checking on my students as they worked independently at their desks.
      Yet, how could I admit I was no longer able to teach? I had gone to college with one purpose—to become a teacher. Teaching is what I did, and who I was. If I wasn’t a teacher anymore, who would I be?
      I continued teaching after I first became ill, and I continued teaching after receiving my diagnosis almost a year-and-a-half later.
      I had initially considered my disease as nothing more than a minor inconvenience. It was a chronic condition, but so was my asthma. And fortunately, my asthma didn’t affect me on a daily basis. I assumed my autoimmune disease would work the same way.
      I assumed wrong. I learned that my disease wasn’t just a chronic medical condition; it was a chronic medical condition causing chronic pain.
      I told doctors that sometimes my legs hurt, as if I had repeatedly bumped into the sharp corners of a coffee table. Sometimes my legs felt heavy, as if someone had placed piles of books on them. Sometimes, it felt as if invisible shackles were attached to my lower legs, making it impossible for me to walk as quickly as I wanted. Sometimes my left calf felt hard and tight as if it was experiencing a never-ending charley horse.
      I had always prided myself on being a “tough chick.” I didn’t give up on things just because they were hard or more challenging or less desirable. After all, I was the girl who had gone to college while commuting on city buses. (A commute that required six buses a day and involved a total travel time of between three and-a-half to four hours.)
      I was the woman who had taught fourth graders until two days before my son was born. I was the woman who walked into the hospital on a Sunday afternoon, and six hours later, delivered my son through a natural, non-medicated childbirth.
      But this situation was different. There was no end in sight. This disease wasn’t temporary. I came home each day with less and less of myself to give my family. My thirty-plus fourth-grade students got the best part of me. I came home, and my toddler son got the rest of my energy. By the time he was in bed, I had almost nothing of myself to offer my husband. I felt increasingly fatigued, unhappy, and uncertain about how I could maintain my current pace.
      Working as an elementary school teacher didn’t provide me with a lot of opportunity for special accommodations or modifications. I couldn’t cut back on hours. I couldn’t just take a day off at the last minute. (A teacher’s absence must be called in ahead of time, sub plans must be provided; it is often more work to be absent than it is worth.) My rheumatologist had provided me with a note exempting me from teaching physical education. (I partnered with another teacher who helped during p.e. time.) I used the school elevator when I wasn’t with my students. But other than that, there was no way to lessen the burden, the stress, and the sheer will it took to effectively teach a roomful of children.
      I hadn’t even known there was an alternative. I thought I was living the life I was meant to be living. I had everything I had wanted—a healthy son, a loving husband, a fulfilling teaching career. Daily pain was just an unwelcome addition.
      My rheumatologist had advised me to explore my retirement options. At each appointment, he’d ask if I was still working. ‘Of course,’ I answered early on.
      My answers gradually changed. ‘Yes,’ I’d answer with slightly less enthusiasm.
      ‘I’m trying,’ I admitted.
      My husband and I met with the representative of the teachers’ retirement program to find out how the process worked. After the initial meeting, I spent hours completing pages and pages of forms that also required comprehensive medical documentation. My rheumatologist had his own packet of forms to complete, and I found out later, my school principal was also required to fill out her own set of forms. Upon receipt of my application, it would be reviewed to determine if I qualified for retirement. I was told the review process could take months. I asked my doctor if he thought I’d qualify, and he believed, without a doubt, I would.
      If I didn’t qualify, the decision would be made for me. I would continue to teach. This disease affected every aspect of my daily life—my sleep, my mood, my energy. I wanted to feel better for my son, for my husband, for myself. But I didn’t know if giving up teaching was the way to accomplish that.
      And, I still didn’t see myself as disabled. In my mind, my late grandmother had been disabled. She was a senior citizen who had suffered several strokes, whose body struggled with rheumatoid arthritis. She relied on a wheelchair on her bad days, and a cane on her better days. That wasn’t me.
      But I also knew that physically, I wasn’t the same teacher I had been when I had started teaching. Walking field trips were no longer possible. We used to walk to a neighbourhood park for picnics with our pen pals from another elementary school. We used to walk to the local Apple store for workshops. Those field trips had ceased. And, my leg had “given out” one morning while my class was testing, and I had fallen. (I quickly popped back up and assured my students I was fine though I was quite shaken.)
      The final decision came within days, not months. The state of California had approved my request for retirement due to a disability. I didn’t know what to make of the quick acceptance. Had the state of California quickly (and much more readily) acknowledged what I had spent over two years trying to ignore and deny?
      The school principal wrote a letter to my students’ families, telling them of my upcoming retirement and reassuring them that a substitute would finish up the school year. My students told me later that they knew something was wrong before I passed out the letters and told them the news. I closed our classroom door, something I usually only did during testing situations. They told me my face turned red. They told me I looked like I wanted to cry.
      They cried. I cried. I promised them that they were still stuck with me for about one more month. I told them we still had a lot of work to do. Nothing was changing during our last month together. One of my students told me he would start rubbing his bracelet, the kids called it a “superhero bracelet,” and ask it to fix my leg. And I wondered if I was doing the right thing.
      My co-workers wanted to throw me a retirement party. But I didn’t want to celebrate. I regarded retiring as failing. I couldn’t teach any more. My body couldn’t do it. I was disabled. What was there to celebrate?
      On the last day of my teaching career, my students came to school in their pyjamas for ‘Read Across America’ day. My students snacked and read with their second-grade reading buddies. And for the first time in my career, I didn’t participate. I couldn’t end my teaching career in flannel pyjamas. I needed my pants.
      The school acknowledged me with speeches and flowers at our weekly all-school assembly. And after school, we gathered at a nearby restaurant. Almost our whole staff, former teachers, our former principal. Colleagues who generally didn’t attend anyone’s retirement celebration came to mine.
 
 
It was March 1st, 2013, and I was less than a week away from my thirty-seventh birthday.
      To a certain extent, I have become a different woman since then. I am a stay-at-home mom. And when asked what I do, I reply: ‘I’m a writer,’ instead of ‘I was a teacher.’
      But there are times I desperately miss teaching. I miss bringing my electric grill to school and making quesadillas for Cinco de Mayo. I miss reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda with my class and then showing them the Danny DeVito film, as we compare and contrast the novel and the film (while snacking on honey graham crackers, in honor of the character Miss Honey). I miss our games—vocabulary bingo, multiplication volleyball, MadLibs. I miss taking my kids to sit outside on the front lawn for a social studies lesson, encouraging them to imagine they’re really college students, out on the front lawn of the quad…
      ‘Can you still teach?
      Seven years later, and I still don’t have a simple answer to that question.
      No, I can’t still teach in a traditional classroom setting. There are days I wake up and slowly shuffle out of bed and am grateful I don’t have to stand in front of a room full of children all day long. There are days I struggle to get out of my desk chair, and I’m thankful that no one is around to see me struggle.
      But, yes, I can still teach. I won’t ever stop teaching. I teach my son every day. I teach him values and morals. I use my extra teacher resources to supplement his classroom lessons. I teach him tricks to learn his nine times tables.
      And I am a freelance writer. I draw upon the experiences of my teaching career to write about education-related topics such as why we should never stop reading aloud to our children and how to get the most out of a parent/teacher conference. Most importantly, I am teaching through the use of my written words, educating others about my autoimmune disease and invisible disability.
      Retiring from teaching was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. And at the same time, it doesn’t feel like it was my decision to make. I used to see my retirement as a sign of failure. As a very public acknowledgement of what had largely remained hidden and invisible.
      Now, seven years later, I don’t see my retirement as a sign of failure, but as an act of bravery.
      Can I still teach?
      Yes.
      I taught myself that bravery takes many forms. And taking a leap of faith, being forced to imagine my life differently, is brave. AQ

Pia Bhatia – Reunion

Pia Bhatia
Reunion

‘There’s nothing we can do’ would have been far too final for the Bharadwaj family, too conclusive, not enough loose ends.‘There isn’t much’ suited them far better. If they only had the language to make fun of themselves and each other. Ravi, the oldest, was perhaps the one their parents could pride themselves most on, was a chartered accountant. From his three failed marriages spawned nine different children—nine—and he confused their names and ages frequently. Next in line stood Arjun, an animal rights activist who had, for the entirety of his life, puzzlingly resembled a pig. Worst of all, however, was Neesha, wildly creative and supremely sharp, for whom their parents had spent years paying for gifted and talented student classes. When she missed the Ivy League by what was generally understood to be a hair, the parents could neither hide their shame nor the other siblings their satisfaction. The Bharadwaj’s, defying norm and comfort, had put all their eggs in one basket, and they began to crack open, one by one, spilling wastefully onto the floor. She locked herself in her room for six days, coming out calmly on Sunday. The family never spoke of it again, and she abandoned her pursuit of academia, trading it in for a rich foreigner and a steady supply of new clothes.
      Should they have chosen to laugh about the awkwardness that came to define them, perhaps they would have been close, even exceptionally so. Instead, they had only their hands for language, their fingers to speak. For Arjun, one is stuffed in pockets and the other scrolling through Twitter, and there is a broad palm on his shoulder, patting slowly before being withdrawn, rejected. Ravi’s. Ravi himself places his elbows at the front desk, then remembering it is considered rude, holds its edge like he is hanging off a cliff, then remembering it is unhygienic, gives up and opens his phone as well. Neesha sniffs, painfully aware that they have nothing to say to each other. She looks at her feet, crimson block-toe heels on a hospital floor. Nothing glamorous about that.
      After a few silent hours in the waiting room, they shuffled into Room 105 of the hospital’s west wing, wholly unprepared to see their mother. Mina Bharadwaj’s friends, had she had any, would have described her as selfless. More candidly, they would have said she made her selflessness known at every available opportunity. Her children responded to this in different ways—Ravi was wracked with guilt, Arjun practiced millennial indifference religiously, and Neesha—Neesha wasn’t sure what to make of it. She would never understand the choices her mother had made, often resenting her for making them, but now they mirrored her own. They gathered around their mother’s bed now, watching her lie comatose, seeing her no longer as their mother but as herself. An old woman, who, Neesha knew, was once unmistakably beautiful. Her mind gets to work, smoothing her face, lining her eyes, painting her lips a deep plum. Before she can see the finished product, the disgust takes over, erasing her canvas. “I wonder if she can hear us,” says Arjun, regretting it instantly. She had always slept like the dead, with stone eyelids. The doctor tells them she’s doing well, as well as she can be. One of the nurses said she saw her smile yesterday afternoon. A most peculiar thing.
      Mina, of course, knows exactly why she was smiling. She wants to laugh like a child, reassure her children that they shouldn’t be worrying. What a boring life she led, she thinks, and listen to what it produced—listen—to her spoilt darlings argue from somewhere above the clouds. Like the Gods, she giggles. If the Gods’ lives revolved around real estate. More than anything, she wants to tell them how happy she is here. She is lithe and free, her surroundings changing by her own invention. Mina sits in a strange garden, the tall grass sighing above her in a gentle archway. The flowers are alive as well. They kiss each other wantonly, stems twisting around each other. She has not felt desire like this for years. It rained last night, and saplings open their eyes out of the soil. She has to tread carefully with them, careful not to step on them like those crabs on Digha beach from a lifetime ago. Otherwise they cry out, and then there’s hours of inconsolable tears. This is a part of her mind that she lost long ago, a pain-induced numbness from her childhood she may never trace nor understand.
      Now she hears the doctor’s voice from the sky, and so she tunes in. And there it is, the unacceptable nothing they are able to do. The pulling of the plug, a religious ceremony of modern medicine. It was a good thing Mina was measured, timid when she reached this place. Nothing dies here, everything is forever, only open to metamorphosis, which is enough. She does not have company yet, her mind is unable to devise a perfect person that isn’t infuriatingly predictable. This is a place for artists, she thinks.
      Back at the hospital, the Bharadwaj’s read their mother’s decision. She wrote it in her thirties, so no matter what it says, it isn’t fair, she was a different person then. After trying for years, she had her children late, when all the women in her life battled new demons. This was another thing that kept her from their company. The hardest time, though, was high school, finding condom wrappers and love notes their bedrooms, trying to piece together the secret worlds they kept from her. Once, Arjun remembered her storming into his room and finding him with another young boy, trying her hardest not to react, sealing a ridge between them indefinitely. If she had been angry, like she was with the others, things would have been different, but her face was pinched. He only ever saw her make that expression again was the evening after Holi, when their father played cards his friends and drunk too much, and Arjun had helped her clean up the mess he had made on the carpet afterwards. Her eyes squinted slightly as she scrubbed, mouth twitching. Then he understood. It was revulsion.
      And so it was there in writing that their mother wanted to die, and under no circumstances were they to stop her. If only they were so close as to have discussed this at some point, if only there was little to be said and be repaired. Their mother, who superstitiously clung to their lives and took paranoid care with her own, chose death over miracle, and worse, she requested it immediately. Ravi walked out of the room, his lawyer on the phone, already discussing loopholes. His knees bounced, a habit that was once the reason he was denied a job offer in an interview. Neesha and Arjun stare blankly. There is too much they share with their mother for them to feel the disorienting pain of grief, too much pride to cry. They are adults now, calm and stoic, old enough to have learned that no feeling lingers longer than embarrassment.
      But still, there is too much pain to be indifferent. Mina strains to hear the rest, but it’s strangely quiet. There is a lemonade-pink beach here, and sleepy mountains. The sand is soft, endless. It’s so perfect, she almost forgets the way she begun to die—friendless and alone in their house, freezing cold, her husband long gone and her children deliberately scattered around the globe. It was probably the dog who noticed first, she thinks bitterly. Her insecure, doting Doberman, another contradiction to its breed. He was a good guard dog, though—having a dark, muscular creature bound towards you with its teeth bared was enough of a deterrent for anyone. She smiles. Apollo could have been immobilised by anyone with a belly rub, but of course no one knew that. The smile turns sad. Where is he now? She wonders. In the first few weeks of her being here, she created hundreds of puppies, and some follow her as she walks over to the water. The waves part, and they begin to run, making a beeline through like a school of fish.
      As a schoolgirl, Neesha had been her mother’s favourite. She woke up early every day to help her with her homework and braid her hair. They were beautiful women, and like many beautiful women, they shared an understanding of what it meant. They loved to be envied, to be disarming. For her daughter, Mina made special allowances. It would be easy to say that their relationship began dying when she didn’t get into those schools, but she knew it hadn’t mattered enough to break her mother’s heart. No, it was her fault, Neesha knew. With her husband and their friends, she became a different person, a girl who’d indubitably been popular in high school, whose degree made for dinner party conversation and little else. It was too painful to switch back, and so she made excuses to avoid her home on holidays. It was as if none of her old clothes fit, and she was indecent without them. She wondered what her mother would have said to her now, what her parting words might have been. Would it have been pity, she thinks, or contempt? It was hard to tell. Memories of their mornings together had blended into one, but they existed, she knows. Her mother’s voice has become her mind’s, and Neesha knows this is how she will remember her.
      Her mother had specially requested, the document reads, to be ‘let go of’ immediately. There is no reason for anyone to wait anymore. “What could she possibly have been thinking…” Ravi mutters, and the other two smile privately at his furrowed brow. He looks like their father reading the news in the morning, struggling to make sense of the acronymic parties and policies splashed across the front-page headlines. Their father, who never trusted nurses with painted nails, who joked to the world about having such a big heart he needed to be large to hold it. At home, he was vacant, a stranger to his children, then his wife, then himself. On her birthday, Mina’s mother-in-law had taken it upon herself to tell the children how her son had died as if they had not already known. Lost in her story, she had forgotten to finish it, and began to stare into space, quiet, until an aunt of theirs had taken her to her bedroom to lie down.
      Perhaps they had been an unhappy family, and not just a distant one, as Mina had always described. But she and her husband had not been an unhappy couple, at least not to begin with. They sacrificed for one another – she her ambition, he his wandering eye. It worked, the thin thread that tied them together, sparse but sturdy, but the weight of becoming parents had snapped it at last. She wonders where he is now. Without realising it, this world she has created has become a tribute to him, an attestation to what their lives should have been. Without noticing it, she has been waiting for him all this while.
      And so they stand together at the foot of their mother’s hospital bed while doctors come in silently, gently removing tubes from her sleeping body. It is mechanical and fluid, their condolences are solemn. Now, there is nothing anyone can do. To someone watching, they wouldn’t look like a family—individually, each has the capacity to be stared at, businessman, peacock, and pig, but together—together, they’re unremarkable. Arjun considers asking them to breakfast at Ayaz’s, where they always went for birthdays, the only family tradition they really had. Perhaps it is too early still. Neesha and Ravi might have considered agreeing to go. Instead, no one says anything, and Ravi mumbles and leaves, patting Neesha on the back in a distinctly avuncular way. He will make the funeral arrangements, he mentions over his shoulder, as he walks out of the room. Arjun is the next to go, not bothering to pretend he has to. Neesha stays until the nurses return. In a movement, she slides off her wedding ring, slipping it onto her mother’s finger, whispering a promise.
      Mina, of course, knew none of this. She guessed. It poured again at night, and in the morning, the voices in the clouds were too faint to hear. To feel this invincible, to inhabit this beautiful body, was wondrous. Of course she had been pretty, but now her body curved and flattened like a goddesses’; some women would be willing to lose years off their life for this sort of thing. She had taken up cliff diving, amongst other dangerous pursuits, knowing nothing could touch her anymore. Stripping down, she poised and fell, cutting the water with her hands. It slid off her skin like the pain did.
      There was never any traffic this early in the morning, and so the three Bharadwaj’s found themselves driving their cars in a line, a row of ducks. Slowly, they sectioned off. Once more, Ravi was first, already on his way to his parents’ house to sort their belongings. Arjun followed, turning left into Ayaz’s, ready to eat the meat he had sworn off for three years alone in silence. Neesha did not make it through the whole length of her driveway. Turning, she steered into a street she had never been before, looking for unchartered territory, driving until she recognised nothing and couldn’t find her way home.
      Something shifted. Mina gasped for air, paddling desperately, feeling for the warm embrace of the water, wondering where all the salt went, why she was no longer buoyant. Up above, the clouds are gone, and the sky is clear. Through her spluttering and the crash of the waves and the wind, she heard a familiar laugh behind her. An old friend, now a young man, holding a new ring that looked familiar, too. AQ

Nate Ealy – The Unfortunate One

Nate Ealy
The Unfortunate One

Of all the dates Leah Hempfield had been on, none of them ended by walking out of the police station. Sure, when she’d gone on dates with Mike their car broke down, the movie skipped at the theater, and it’d rained on their picnic, but nothing like this.
      ‘Our string of bad luck continues,’ Leah said.
      She walked with her arms crossed careful not to step on any cracks. The night air made the hair on her arms stand up. It reminded her of the weather the night she graduated college two years ago, and the fearful dread of the unknown that followed. Instead of her early twenties cap and gown, tonight she wore a tight red dress with a high slit up her thigh. It was the perfect dinner tease, not suited for a late night walk through Pittsburgh.
      ‘You still look beautiful.’ Mike kissed her on the cheek.
      Leah placed her hand on her cheek and smiled. ‘You always say that after something goes wrong.’
      But that wasn’t true. Mike told her she was beautiful every time he saw her. Leah liked that about him. He treated her better than all the other guys in her past.
      ‘It’s just another adventure.’ Mike hit the walk button for the crosswalk even though there wasn’t any traffic.
      He turned and pulled Leah in close giving her another kiss, this time on the lips, and squeezed her butt.
      A car sped by and the passenger yelled WHORE out the window.
      Mike flipped them off, but they were too far gone for it to matter.
      ‘I can’t believe that,’ Mike said.
      ‘It’s just our luck.’ Leah grabbed his hand and crossed the street.
      They continued walking down the street until they got back to the restaurant. It wasn’t one that magazines would feature as to why you should visit Pittsburgh, but for locals, it was a good night out. They then grabbed the rest of their belongings that the kind officers wouldn’t let them take in the cruiser, and then left. The wait staff offered coupons for them to come back another time, but Leah refused.
      Mike walked Leah back to his car. It was still sitting in the parking garage racking up a bigger bill by the hour.
      ‘At least the old Ford’s still here. I’m glad it’s not towed or something,’ Mike said.
      ‘After everything that’s happened to us, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did,’ Leah said.
      Mike then opened the door for her and she got in. Not until she started riding with Mike had a man ever done that before for her. Leah didn’t even know she wanted that, but now she’d experienced it, she realized that she did. A few minutes later, and one long goodnight kiss, she was in her apartment.

###

      Leah walked in and threw her handbag on the couch before slumping down. Her chest almost fell out of her dress, but she didn’t care anymore. They only person who could see her now was her roommate Steph, and she had her own boobs to look at.
      ‘Steph! We need to talk,’ Leah shouted.
      Not even two seconds later her brown-haired roommate emerged from the kitchen, without pants, and eating a bowl of cereal.
      ‘Tell me everything!’ Steph said as she sat down beside Leah. The cereal in the bowl sloshed to the side but didn’t spill over. Steph muted the TV that had the hockey game on.
      Leah sighed. “You’ll never believe what happened this time.’
      ‘A bird shit on you?’ Steph said.
      ‘Do you see any on me? No. We were accused of being accessories to theft. Arrested and taken downtown like criminals.’
      Steph blinked a few times, and then it hit her.
      ‘Wow. That’s gotta be the top of the ladder for you,’ Steph said.
      ‘Don’t worry. The manager and security cameras cleared us. But I think Mike’s bad luck. I mean, something always goes wrong when I see him,’ Leah said.
      She then kicked her shoes off and watched them spin through the air. They smacked the floor across the apartment with a loud THUD. One landed perfectly upright, while the other fell onto its side.
      ‘You guys get all the fun stories.’ Steph downed the milk in her cereal bowl and got up. She went back to the kitchen and returned with her phone.
      ‘I think the bad luck is a sign,’ Leah said.
      ‘Oh what?’ Steph set her phone down on her lap.
      ‘That maybe Mike and I aren’t meant to be. We’re bad luck for each other,’ Leah said. She curled up on the couch.
      ‘Have you asked him about it? I bet he just enjoys everything. He probably tells all of his friends everything that happens when you two meet up,’ Steph said.
      ‘Maybe.’
      ‘Don’t be stubborn about it. You know he’s better than any other guy out there. I’d kill to have a guy like him.’ Steph said. She then got up and returned to the kitchen.
      Leah sat on the couch and looked at her phone. Maybe this bad luck stuff was just nonsense after all. Maybe.
      ‘But look. I can get you back on Tinder too or whatever app you want. There’s tons of dick out there to get on. I just don’t think there’s better than Mike for you.’ Steph came back from the kitchen with a glass of wine this time.
      But would those other guys want to see her? Would she be good enough for them? If the past was any indication of the future, Leah most certainly would not be. If she wasn’t good enough for Mike, the best guy she’d found thus far, she couldn’t be good enough for a swipe right. That’s why she was chronically single at age twenty-three.
      Leah shook her head. ‘No. I just want things to go right. I’m getting tired of it all.’
      ‘Don’t be tired of it. Things are going right.’
      ‘That’s not what I’m starting to think. These smaller things are warning flags for bigger things down the road,’ Leah said. She looked down at her own phone. The background was a smiling picture of them laughing on their third date a month ago. That was when the movie projector slipped and they had to sit in the theatre for an hour waiting for repairs. She knew that all of her friends from school had wedding pictures as their backgrounds.
      ‘I don’t want to break up with him, but he’s totally bad luck,’ Leah said.
      ‘Then keep being stubborn and text him and be over it. Don’t let your fear of being an old maid stop you from finding something great. I think you’re your worst enemy here though.’ Steph stared at her phone swiping left and right.
      But Leah couldn’t do that. She’d gone out too many times with Mike Aster to up and leave him so mercilessly. He’d given her a chance when so many other guys hadn’t. The strings keeping her attached to this man didn’t come from her head but from her heart.
      She genuinely liked him, and if given the time, could grow into love.
      Leah didn’t want to leave Mike. She wanted the leave the bad luck.
      ‘I think I’ll just talk to him about it,’ Leah said.
      ‘Would you want my grandma’s lucky rabbit foot? She gave it to me before I moved out of my parents’ house to keep me safe and I ended up with you as a roommate, but she had it when she met my grandfather, too. So I guess there’s a little bit of good juju in it. If you want I can let you use it the next time you see him,’ Steph said.
      Leah smiled. ‘I’d like that.’
      She got up from the couch and started to strip on her way to her bed. By the time she’d changed clothes, Leah had two Snapchats from Mike, one telling her she had a good night and one where he had no clothes on. Both made her smile.

###

Two days later on a sidewalk in Point State Park, Leah hugged Mike Aster. He scooped her up in his arms and swung her around like an Olympian throwing the hammer toss. He met her with a kiss at the end.
      ‘I’m so happy to see you,’ Mike whispered in her ear.
      Leah smiled and took his hand. They started to walk down the sidewalk passing by older Pittsburghers walking their dogs. The rivers were high and dirty with springtime muck just a few feet from the sidewalk, but the sunshine falling down was warm.
      Mike had on a simple outfit: t-shirt and shorts.
      Leah had on a white long sleeve shirt with khaki capris. In her pocket was Steph’s lucky rabbit’s foot.
      The park was green with the late April rains, and Leah loved the way the trees smelled. It was a nice break up from the urban concrete that lined the rest of the city.
      ‘So you said you wanted to chat a bit?’ Mike asked.
      ‘Yes,’ Leah added. ‘It has been a whole two days since we left the station together.’
      She was careful not to step on any cracks in the sidewalk but tried to keep Mike from noticing. He hadn’t said anything yet so she figured she was in the clear.
      ‘What’s up?’
      Leah took a deep breath. ‘I’ve been thinking.’
      ‘Now that’s a scary way to start a conversation.’ Mike locked eyes with her.
      ‘Well, I’ve just been thinking that every time I see you, something bad happens. It just feels like we’re bad luck.’ Leah said.
      ‘Nah. I think it’s been fun. I’ve never had a boring time with you. Bad luck doesn’t exist anyway.’ Mike smiled.
      ‘It does. Luck, good and bad, really does exist out there,’ Leah said.
      ‘C’mon, seriously?’
      ‘Yeah! Bad luck is a thing and we really have it.’ Leah said.
      Mike shook his head. ‘No, I don’t agree with you.’
      ‘How? It’s like the universe is telling us to stop seeing each other,’ Leah said.
      There. It was out. She could exhale.
      Mike carved his face into a thinking man’s scowl and looked away. ‘I have to admit that things usually do go wrong when it’s the two of us, but as for luck? That’s bullshit. Luck doesn’t exist like that. The universe isn’t in complete control here either. It’s you and me.’
      ‘Luck had been pretty good for me until you came along,’ Leah said.
      ‘Luck’s like a saying. It doesn’t really exist though. Like when people say “oh my god!” They’re not really calling out to god.’ Mike said. He then stopped and grabbed Leah’s other hand. ‘I think we make a good couple. I was hoping you wanted to see me today to make things official.’
      Leah felt a jolt inside her body. That was exactly what she wanted, but she wasn’t ready for the consequences of it. What more things could go wrong in her life? Would she potentially lose her job for this relationship? If she became Mike Aster’s girlfriend would their rent go up and she lose the apartment with Steph? It would all point her to the same thing: heartbreak.
      But what if she did become his girlfriend? Her mind saw infinite smiles, endless kisses, and passionate sex. The positive possibilities all pointed to one thing: love.
      Leah squirmed her hands out of Mike’s grip. ‘I think we should try a few more dates.’
      ‘A few more? Leah, we’ve been seeing each other multiple times for months now. I’m ready to go the next step.’ Mike said.
      I’m not ready for my car to get repossessed or my mother to have a heart attack. I don’t know what’s going to go wrong today because I saw you, but I can’t even imagine what’ll go wrong if I go further with you like that. I think we should just stay friends for now.’
      Leah crossed her arms. She had to let her thoughts out. She couldn’t risk all the bad luck in the world for a single lover. Even so, she could feel the heartstrings that connected her to Mike pulling tight, too tight.
      ‘Are you that scared of me?’ Mike asked. ‘Or just that crazy stubborn?’
      Leah had to let a young man on a bicycle go by before she could answer. The biker sped by in a neon flash.
      ‘I’m not scared of you, Mike. Maybe I am stubborn, but I do really like you. I just think that bad things happen when we’re together,’ Leah said.
      She leaned in to kiss him, but Mike turned his cheek. He then started to walk away.
      ‘Mike, please, say something,’ Leah asked. She wished now that she hadn’t let go of his hands.
      Mike kept walking down the sidewalk under the shade of the trees. Leah knew that if she let him go in a city as big as Pittsburgh, she’d never see him again.He’d never answer her texts or Snaps. So she grabbed the rabbit foot in her pocket tight for second, squeezing all the good juju out of it she could. Then she went up behind Mike and wrapped him in a big hug.
      She then heard a whisper, a faint, almost imagined whisper.
      I love you.
      Leah let go of Mike and waited for him to turn around. She didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure of what she heard, but Mike didn’t say anything more. He only began walking.
      Right then a big, fat horsefly bit her neck. Leah slapped the bug and watched it fall to the sidewalk below. When she looked up, Mike Aster was gone and her heartstrings snapped. AQ

Camilla Holland – Two Tickets for the Resurrection

Camilla Holland
Two Tickets for the Resurrection

Her fingers sift through layers of tissue paper to free each crystal droplet, jewel and pendant. Frilled edges of glass scatter prisms of light across the room, bright reflections bounce off the multi-faceted, glinting diamonds. Even in the weak winter sunshine rainbow shapes waltz on her living room walls.
      Her brother Paul is travelling by train to visit. A trip to the portrait gallery and then some music will appeal to him, especially Mahler’s Second Symphony. A concert in the grandeur of the century-old, sandstone-built Usher Hall will evoke memories and nostalgia. She bought a pair of upper tier tickets in a frisson of extravagance when she was passing the box office a few weeks ago. An orchestra plus the massed vocal ranks of a choir, with a sprinkle of international soloists, will certainly indulge the senses and conjure up escapades of the nineteen-seventies teenagers Paul and Joyce.
      Joyce fondles the cold pieces of coruscating glass and hums the symphony’s slow movement to herself. Once mounted on the black iron frame the baubles will speak of dark matter, swirling galaxies and twinkling stars. They were both fascinated with the cosmos and had watched and dissected the television footage of Aldrin and Armstrong as they walked on the surface of the moon in 1969.
      Paul’s birthday is February the fourteenth, a romantic date that no-one would forget. She remembers Paul taking her to London on the train, a three-hour journey, when she was sixteen and he was celebrating his eighteenth birthday. He’d got tickets for the film ‘Gone with the Wind’ and she wept, it was so enjoyable.

*

Paul’s only daughter teaches in California. She doesn’t write to Joyce, not even a birthday card, but Joyce always sends one to California.
      Joyce and her husband had no children, but she feels the faint pang of two disappointing miscarriages. Now she is a widow and she has just celebrated her first Christmas alone.

*

Joyce prays that her big brother Paul approves of her impetuous Gothic chandelier. When she saw it in the antique shop she imagined it suspended from the elaborately-corniced ceiling in the living room of her nineteenth-century Edinburgh apartment.
      One Christmas Day she recalls that Paul ridiculed her traditional Christmas dinner of turkey and kilted sausages with Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes. In a meandering telephone conversation he had extolled the virtues of the nut roast and hummus they were cooking hundreds of miles away in Devon, iconoclast that he was. And perhaps still is.
      Joyce doesn’t want the chandelier to spoil his visit. But wait a minute.
      It’s my apartment, she thinks, the beds are comfortable, the view is pretty good for a European city—Edinburgh Castle tracing the skyline in a ribbon of gold at night, and her company will be spirited and sisterly. The Usher Hall concert will be a triumph. Excitement is building in her chest. Their shared love of Mahler, his Resurrection Symphony indeed, will reignite their sibling intimacy on his birthday.
      They were raised as Roman Catholics so the Gothic symbolism of her chandelier will be familiar. He served as an altar boy while Joyce, in the congregation, inhaled the incense, recited from her missal, and knelt for the Credo.
      The hard glass components tinkle and clank against one another as she sorts them according to size and follows the plan of where each will hang on the skeletal black structure. On the dining table she marshals the jewels into neat rows of soldiers, a kaleidoscope of brilliance impatient to be slotted into the dazzling overhead array.
      Joyce places a chair below the ceiling-mounted chandelier and steps up to attach the glimmering treasures one by one. She polishes with a lint cloth each crystal before she slips the thin wire into its assigned slot on the iron frame. The chandelier hangs right above the table where they will drink a champagne toast on Paul’s arrival. Prismatic beams will mosaic across their faces. Joyce smiles, anticipating Paul’s smile.
      Optimism swells and her fingers dance as she drops scintillating shards one by one into place.
      It’s nine years since her brother visited. He came for their mother’s funeral.
      Not a visit. No, it couldn’t be called that. He stayed less than twenty-four hours.
      Joyce has made eight trips to see him in the past fifteen years. She’s just counted them in her head.
      But he’s never come to visit her.
      Her stomach churns. She slots a rhomboid diamond into place. It glitters.
      His interest in his only sister is an illusion.
      Not one phone call.
      Fifteen years of rejection.
      How stupid I am.
      The chandelier sparkles through the tears as they seep from her eyes, refracting the radiant ranks.
      Dusk has fallen as she finishes her masterpiece. She steps down from the chair. It is ready. In the darkness she gropes her way to the light switch by the door.
      The moment has come. She breathes deeply and the switch illuminates the chandelier.
      She gasps. Her hand rushes to her mouth.
      A blaze of mottled colours fleck the white walls. She walks to the table, reaches up and nudges one droplet – it tinkles against its neighbour, sending a wave of rainbows dancing around the white walls. Iridescence flickers on the pinkness of her hands, flashes on the black window glass and reflects back.
      Her spirit lifts in the presence of such Gothic glory. Surely she is wrong? The parents who raised them were intelligent, compassionate and inculcated a sense of love, family and justice into both of their children.
      A bottle of good champagne chills in the fridge. Slices of French Brie and a pile of nutty oatcakes sit on her favourite silver tray. When she has collected Paul from the train station they will chink glasses, tuck into the little feast and reminisce.
      She selects two crystal glasses from the sideboard and places them on the silver tray. Joyce invokes her blessed mother’s soul to join them as they commune in her chapel of light.
      The phone rings.
      Her sister-in-law. ‘Paul’s gone down with the flu.’
      ‘Oh.’
      ‘He won’t be coming to visit.’ AQ

Juliana Johnson – The Lake

Juliana Johnson
The Lake

In the summers, you stay with your aunt, who lives in the middle of the woods somewhere near a lake. Most of the time, she would leave you alone, but this summer is different. She confronts you in the kitchen one morning, saying she heard you crying last night. You tell her you’re fine because if you tell her the truth you’ll cry again, and when your boyfriend left you he said you cry too much, so it feels so shameful to do it now, though you know it isn’t. Then again, some nights you cry hard enough you think your heart just might stop. So maybe he was right.
      You start going out to the lake after that, sitting on the edge of the dock. It’s better than crying inside anyway. Inside, the walls reverberates the sadness back to you. It clings onto you. It becomes the wallpaper and the blankets you sleep in. The grief becomes the air. Somehow, you think if you are outside, it will all go elsewhere. It could stop being yours to bear alone.
      You walk out to the lake one night, trying to learn how to let go of the past. You cry and the tears fall into the lake and the water ripples. This time, you will not sit. You want to swim.
      You walk to the edge of the dock and sit for a second before pushing yourself into the water. The initial crash is thunder and then nothing. There is no sound except the blood rushing in your ear. You sink for a second and then come back up the top, breaking the surface. The moon above you lights up the whole lake.
      You float on your back, the silver water holding you like he never could. The water doesn’t say it loves you only to say it never really meant it. The water doesn’t break you. It just keeps you afloat.
      You’re surprised it can. You have felt so heavy with grief lately.
      You read somewhere once that when you die, you go back to the earth. Your body rots and becomes nothing more than dirt.
      Instead, you like to think the dead become water. They become the vapour in the air, which becomes the rain in the clouds, which become the oceans and the rivers and the lakes. Maybe right now you’re floating in a pool of other people’s stories, and that’s why the lake can hold you and your story up so well. Maybe they’re listening to you. Maybe they think you’re silly for being so sad over some boy, or maybe they sympathize.
      You’re crying here, on your back on the lake surface, but he was wrong. You don’t cry too much. It’s just enough. The tears, filled with memories, run off your cheeks and become nothing more than lake water. He becomes nothing more than water. Meanwhile, you can hear your heart beating steady as you float. AQ

Gracjan Kraszewski – Footprints is a work of genius!

Gracjan Kraszewski
Footprints is a work of genius!

I nod, nod, nod, nod. My interior self, ‘Bob’, is just about off the knob relative to the plod and trod concerning all things metaphysics, mimesis, and sub-atomic machinations of the most muscular, deft diplomatic stripe.
      The doctor keeps scribbling. He does not look up once, not even when taking a break for a breath between the furious pen pressing.
      Footprints is a work of genius! I think, and hear myself internally say, in preamble to an immediately forthcoming discourse, if he allows it, concerning this very same topic. The guy put women’s shoes and boots on his hands and feet, dipped them into many buckets of various colors, and just plodded (ah, right, that’s why that word) around his studio until he was done and was ready to display it and ready to have someone bid six, maybe seven, figures plus sincere praise and pedantic sycophantism gratis.
       ‘Okay, but, doc, but, bro, dude but listen, okay? Okay if I speak on one more thing before we finish out here? Right. Good. Post modern art, bruh. I’m talking at the time like called mid-century, you see from all the French students in the streets ’68 plus Dubcek east of us plus MLK far to the west, that time, like ’68, like late ’60s where we just flushed about like a waterfall swirled in the historiographical revolutions toppling top-down analytics into bottom-up, bottoms up celebratory drinking parties for the common man, soon the common ‘person’ because this and that always eats its own, like look what then happened about all types of identities and identifiers decades later, right?, this time, ’68, where we say mid-century and we know 20th, where we say fin de siècle and we know 19th, so this time to my timeframe being framed as we speak, here, frames like those things that maybe even they can’t make all this shit look even passably painting-like, a frame of mind, nothing, it’s nothing because nothing itself means jack shit, we’re past the void here, post-nihilist, because when you can’t explain if the painting is upside down, or right-side up, or left, or right, or what color is that color there on the canvas, or that it is, what is, and really is that anything?; or, okay, but that’s not part ‘of it,’ okay…so this time, doc, feel me when I try and keep it on point and just to the facts. Modern art, five things of import: One, the first thing, is that you have be good at playing the ape game, the imitation game, and, because it’s fundamentally about subversion and inversion, literally in the latter inverting like 180 degrees ideas of good, beauty, form, transcendence, truth, meaning, logos, unto, like, bad, ugliness, scattershot shitstormtroopering, imminence, falsehood, absurdity, and, bro doc bro doc doc, cod, cape cod, doc, cape cod league bro, bruh-doc, dawg, and especially, most especially chaos. So that’s number one: Art used to mean something and that thing, those things, were both objective and objectively good so if we want to be effectively subversive—and that’s the whole fucking fuckcluck pointed point; to fight against, and ultimately destroy, try to destroy at least, die trying, die hard, die hard 2, die…you, you get it, to try and destroy all that is solid, sensible, sane and sacred—we need to effectively develop new ‘schools of art’ that say things we all know are shit are actually good and they’re the ‘new thing’, the new avant-garde whateverthefuckever who cares so long as people are effectively fooled by this ape-imitation to say, in effect, the old ways are out, the new way is here. Okay, so then #2 is to start backing up the trucks full of cashlootdimenickelstacksstcakedcoinage and just straight filthy, dirty, expletive-ridden suscio as fuck facil dinero and start dumping it all over this ‘new art’. It’s just insider trading in Oligarch finishing school. If all these art collectors get together and agree to buy endless piles of this shit pseudo-art then—because people worship money, am I telling you something new?—the prices go up, the buzz goes up, general interest climbs and peaks and keeps buzzing all the way unto what they’re really after: legitimacy. If all these rich people are paying like $20m a painting it must be good, right? I mean, to me it looks like shit but, but that guy just paid $20m so, well it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong; silly me. Legitimacy. Legitimacy. Bruh-doc, Doctor Brother, legitimacy is what we absolutely need, so these they do say, kay? But to really seal the deal the money just won’t do. We need three and four. #3: get these pieces into the museums. How silly does silly me commoner feel when, already rebuked form his absolutely correct first impression that the urine-stained (by the artists’ own sample! The visionary character is found in an impregnable dedication to authenticity) detached toilet seat was, indeed, as valueless as it appeared/appears/will continue to appear to be, he sees said seat hanging in prime real estate within MOMA? And then, #4, something for the true holdouts, the hardest to get common sense critics for whom money and (all) integrity-(and honesty)-for-sale museums won’t bring across the divide, the chasm, that separates art from not-art. #4: Get some academic(s)—if you have to ask does this academic, forcement, forcement as in see: by necessity, have to have a PhD from Harvard or Yale and an undergrad degree from Brown or Berkeley and a current endowed chair at Dartmouth or Princeton? you’re really f***** beyond hopeless, brother; here, for this type of work, even Northwestern need not apply—to write impossibly dense, wordy, inscrutable articles, really as impossible to comprehend as the artwork they’re writing about in the first place, the subject matter (now that, finally, is art), and have it published in the most reputable, most scientifically screened and hyperbonk peer reviewed journals with one message: THIS IS ART AND IT IS GOOD AND YOU MUST LIKE IT AND APPROVE OR ELSE YOU’RE WRONG OR, WORSE OF ALL, A COUNTRY BUMPKIN-LIKE FOURTH RATE FAUX-INTELLECTUAL LIGHTWEIGHT MUCH TOO LIGHT IN THE HEAD TO UNDERSTAND, TO ‘GET’, REAL ART. And there you have it, my doc. I cannot, will not, but, again can not, I do not posses the requisite hairsplitting skills to stop the disco-dancing of all those angels on the pinhead to better, I mean more precisely, cannot any better explain this whole con game to you than that, than I just did, kid; ah, okay, but chu-wanna rid, me, wanna put a lid, on my arguments? Not so fast. A review? One: Perfect imitation game making what was once good bad, and what was once bad, ugly, abhorrent the new ‘good’; two: money to prove legitimacy; three: museums to prove legitimacy; four: a treasure trove of the best and brightest academics and critics proving legitimacy in legitimacy is thy name legitimate journals that only a fool would doubt are in fact legitimate. Five is just one: Step five is the con completed successfully; confirmed; the Z back to A completed loop, 5, Z, that’s all of us, the sheep publicly fleeced for their pleasure certainly not ours, we wearing the itchy wool sweaters of shit ass fake art without the slightest complaint, no, not even a peep, not even a murmur of discontent, rather, an approving and docile smile of passive submission.’ AQ

Mandira Pattnaik – Bustle

Mandira Pattnaik
Bustle

Days before my eighteenth birthday, I met her at the ramshackle hole-in-the-wall shop in old Kolkata. The place was merely a rendezvous point sandwiched between the cinema hall that screened cheap song-and-dance capers and the grocery where Mum maintained a running account. Ivanna she called herself. But I strongly doubted her. Auburn hair, crimson headband—she was a foreigner, and foreigners in these parts meant only one thing.
      ‘Ivanna from Greece. Want some?
      I stuffed her palm with cash I’d stolen from Mum’s purse. She pinched my cheeks as she’d a toddler and fished out some grayish-silver tablets from her batik-printed bag, careful not to be too conspicuous.
      Cash was supplanted with tablets.
      I went home to the drone. Most times it was a cacophony; only sometimes got denuded to a static. Those were the rare minutes I could count my life without having to deal with my head.
      I had lived with that soup bubbling inside the orb balanced over my neck for quite some time, but found it boiling over on Friday last, when thousands of us, students in our jeans and tees, spilled onto the streets, without flags or banners, the air thick with cries of, ‘Enough is Enough’. We had taken the abuse and injustices for far too long. Something had snapped somewhere.
      Our peaceful marches rattled the citadels; we stood defiant against sturdy walls of power. We were crushed, we fell, were born again like amoeba, ready to face more water cannons and rubber pellets.
      I began to return home to more voices; more drums beating, directing me. Now there was no stopping. I was slipping more and more into my own dark canyon.
      Someone suggested the tablets. They eased me into sleep for a few nights. Later on, I dreamt of grey skies that were surrendering to the rumblings within and slashing themselves with a silver blade, pouring out torrents. I dreamt I lived in a saucer which clouds filled several larder-full, me devouring it one moment, filling my canvas with idyllic peasant homes, rustic women working in verdant paddy-fields, and the next instant I was drowning. How I cried for help in the quiet of my room!
      The second time Ivanna invited me to her rented place on Sudder Street where tenements were stacked precariously like they were forced upon one another to prove some formulae on gravity or equilibrium, and held together by the roots of wild creepers growing in their crevices. Miscellaneous flags, festoons, cable wires hung over them, but they stood in stoic silence unmindful of the intervention of time.
      Just at the bend, she had come to receive me for I didn’t know the way. The skies had opened their wounds again, this time for real, and we were caught in the sudden shower.
      We stood without words under the awning of a shop, evaluating each other. She was older by at least a decade; I showed off the thin hairline on my upper lip, brushing it with the tip of my index.
      When the clouds were done, spent on an unrepentant afternoon, she led me into her tiny apartment; into what had drawn her to this city; into the details of a mundane job as a store clerk back home that had allowed her to buy this trip.
      To return the frankness, I told her about my family, my landscapes, the bustle in my head which no one seemed to hear, before I paid for what’d suffice to shut those voices for the next few days.
      I turned to see her waving at her door when I left.
      But that was it. There was no third or fourth time. She had disappeared.
      The rest of my years at Art College were spent looking for her. Not that my supplies weren’t coming, but I had lost all interest in them. My mind used to dwell on where she might be. All I wanted was—closure.
      During this time, the silver lining in my rudderless life were the colours of the rainbow stashed in my satchel that helped bind the voices within, that held me together.
      Immediately after college, I left for Europe, living for some years faintly aware that if I ever met Ivanna, I owed her gratitude. I’d easily have been pulled into a bottomless abyss where a racket would be pounding my ears, playing uninterrupted, and opium only blanketing the drone for some time.
      Instead, she chose to remain the girl in crimson headband waving to me, framed by a dark-mahogany door. AQ

Judy Upton – Urban Foxes

Judy Upton
Urban Foxes

Life’s hard on the streets of Brighton. It’s the constant uncertainty of getting enough to eat, and finding somewhere to sleep that’s both safe and reasonably dry and warm. I worry about Esme. She’s alone, she’s pregnant and she’s a fox.
      I once heard a celebrity pet owner say the thing she loves about animals is that they don’t judge you. It’s not like that actually. At least it’s not with foxes. They’re actually judging you all of the time. Every moment you’re in range of one of their senses, they’re making tiny assessments. Like why are you offering food? Is it poisoned? Is it a trap? When those golden eyes lock on to yours they look for the slightest signs of aggression, hostility or deceit. Foxes live in a world of deceit, but then don’t we all?
      It was all so different when I first met Esme. It was early last autumn, the start of my ecology degree. I went on a freshers’ pub crawl, wearing the same beer-company sponsored t-shirt as everyone else. And like everyone else I drank too much and ended up skinny dipping at 4 a.m. I’m not a person who likes to stand out from the crowd, so I did my best to blend in.
      Esme has never felt the need to conform. She does exactly as she pleases. She doesn’t skulk or keep close to the walls and hedges. She’s bold and swaggering; sass personified. Her fur shines like burnished copper, her brush is full and ermine tipped. She’s the vixen queen and she knows it.
      I tried to make friends with the other two girls I was flat-sharing with. I probably tried too hard. I thought I was lucky to get that room. The third girl in their group had decided to take a year out from her course, so there was a vacancy. Only then she changed her mind and returned, wanting her room back. She and her flatmates wanted me gone and stupidly I hadn’t insisted on any kind of contract. It meant I had to find somewhere else to live in the middle of term when there weren’t many vacancies and the few there were, were out of my price range.
      I did find somewhere. I do have a roof over my head, even if the circumstances aren’t ideal. I suppose in that sense I’m better off than Esme. My beautiful Esme. The first time I saw her, I was walking home, slightly worse for wear, and she was a little way ahead of me. She must’ve heard my footsteps behind, as she turned and looked. Her gorgeous eyes met mine. She stood transfixed, just staring at me, as I looked back at her. And I felt something I can’t put it into words. This beautiful wild animal, with her tawny fur, sharply pricked ears and confident poise—it was love. From my side anyway.
      I saw her again the next night. This time she was dragging the remains of a KFC box under a hedge. When I peered through the branches, I discovered a big, overgrown garden, a sort of mini wilderness. The house was a large detached one and it looked like it hadn’t been lived in for some time.
      I can tell Esme by sight from any other fox. But I also know nearly all the foxes in this neighbourhood by sight now. They’re all subtly different—in colouring, face shape, and one has a nicked ear and another has a long scar on its chest. With Esme, the black smudges at the side of her nose reach almost up to her eyes, as if she is wearing mascara that has run in the rain.
      I often spend hours crouched in the street, or in a shop doorway watching Esme. Some nights I stay out until dawn. It’s awkward now there’s the lockdown, but I’m as stealthy as a fox. I clamber through the hedge into the wild garden and there’s no one to notice me. That way I don’t see Tim, he’s the owner of the flat I’m staying in. He works at a DIY store and they’re open again now, thankfully.
      When I first met Esme she would sometimes stand or sit with her head pointing at the sky, and screech. At first I thought something was wrong, that she might be in pain or some kind of anguish, but it’s actually a mating call. Fox sex is brutal – the male bites the back of the female’s neck and his penis is barbed and sticks inside her. She screams at every painful thrust. I’ve seen many foxes mating, though not Esme, I don’t think I could stomach it. Not with the way things are in my life.
      Male or dog foxes tend to stay with their partner while the cubs are young, bringing them food. It’s a relationship built on raising young together. I’ve named Esme’s mate George. Sometimes she can be short tempered and nippy with him, but often, after a long night apart foraging in different locations, they greet each other excitably like dogs.
      My parents live in Australia and I couldn’t afford to go there at the start of lockdown. I didn’t like to ask them to send me the airfare as I know their business is struggling at the moment. Now of course it’s too late anyway until normal flights resume. I’m stuck in this situation, even if it is one of my own making. And I can’t tell anyone about it, but Esme.
      When I answered Tim’s advertisement, I knew what I was doing, and it seemed like no big deal. It meant the room was rent-free and he wasn’t repulsive or anything like that. In fact he seemed quite normal, and I suppose he is really. He said he’d only want sex a couple of times a week, and I thought that was fair enough, I could handle that. I’d had a few loveless encounters before, who hasn’t? I didn’t fancy him, but as I say he didn’t really turn me off or anything. But I hadn’t really thought about how it would make me feel. I hadn’t thought about that at all.
      Tim isn’t rough, he doesn’t rape me, but it’s meaningless, it’s mechanical. I’m just an object to satisfy him. He has a girlfriend who’s teaching in India at the moment, and our arrangement is, he says, just a convenient way of getting what he needs in the meantime, without it being a relationship. But living like this is killing me. It’s creeping into my soul and eating it away day by day. It’s not I feel ashamed, used, dirty or worthless. It’s more that I feel as if I am no longer whole.
      Now though I’m turning into a shadow. I’m learning invisibility. I’ve managed to avoid Tim seeing me at all for two weeks. I’ve been staying out all night with my fox. Perhaps I’m gaining some of Esme’s spirit. I’m becoming a wild creature. I trust no one. I show no one my vulnerabilities. If any human comes near I shrink back, muscles tightening, ready to fight or flee. Like Esme when under threat, my hackles rise. I bare my teeth.

****

Esme has had her cubs! There are four of them. Her den is under the decking in the overgrown garden. I think it must’ve been their first time popping up above ground. They’ve big blue eyes at this age and they’re into everything. One chased a grasshopper, another tried and failed to eat a worm; the living spaghetti curling around her muzzle.
      Tim is having an illegal party tonight. He’s invited friends around despite the risk of Covid 19. He wants to introduce me to some of them. Actually what he wants to do is share me with them. He’s even offered me money. I said ‘yeah alright’ in a little meek voice, like the cunning ghost I’ve become. I took his stinking money. I nodded and forced a smile when he told me to ‘dress up for once, not those grungy jeans.’ The fridge was full of food ready for the bash: pizzas, burgers, sausages. He’d ordered it all in earlier. While he was in his bedroom getting ready, silent as Esme, I emptied it all into two big bags. My belongings were already stashed in a suitcase in the front garden. All I needed to do was slip out of the door.
      Foxes cache their food to make it last. Esme will have enough to feed her cubs through their most vulnerable weeks. Me, I’ve been caching cash, and with the extra money Tim has given me in advance of tonight’s activities, I reckon I’ve enough to live on for a while. The first things I’ve bought are a sleeping bag, and a chisel to loosen the basement window of the empty house. I can live here. It’s far enough away from Esme to respect her family’s privacy, but near enough to keep each other company. She knows I mean her no harm. She knows I’ll provide for her whenever I can. Together, living on our wits, and what we can scrounge, I know we’ll both survive, wild and free.
AQ