Because I Can Pronounce Islamabad

Seated in the back row of my classroom
they have found their way
through the second floor maze of the two story building
in the middle of our small college
built on the edge of a desert,
which, these students will later say, is familiar to them,
in that way, I would suppose, all places
that look like home feel the same—
Perhaps it’s how afternoon light falling on the floor
makes predictable patterns or
how dirt smells after a long awaited rain
when the chest tightens, then releases,
making the empty space a friend.
At first they write poems
about vampires swinging dead cats in a garden of sunflowers
while aliens eat the faces off of every human left on earth.
Tell me
about your mother’s voice; your father’s hands
, I say. Show me
the plane ride to America. Your little sister
clinging to her blanket
. Sayed looks up from his notebook:
“But no one here can even pronounce Islamabad.”
Heads bob up and down like water lilies in a storm.
Write what scares you, I say, write
about the father on the roof top getting shot,
falling off, then falling into
the arms of his wife; write about watching
bombs dropping from the sky and
that child at the kitchen window, counting;
describe the map
of a woman’s body and its bruises;
tell the story for the stranger
who couldn’t help.

Lois Roma-Deeley

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When I Turned Sixteen Mother Let Uncle Kenny From Chicago Take Me For A Ride

1. Uncle Kenny let the top down on the Chrysler,
fedora protecting his tender scalp.

When I got into the car
he threw his arm over the bucket seat,
fingers grazing the back of my skimpy tube top.

2. PCH, left on Sunset, he took Deadman’s Curve
like a pro, then the slow cruise to
downtown. Like he’d been here before.

July baked my bare shoulders.
Like Uncle Kenny, I burned easily.

3. Sunset ended at Olivera Street.
My uncle chose La Golondrina Cafe.
I ordered the cheese enchiladas.
He ordered a double Margarita, extra salt.

Things I Learned At Lunch:
Dress Well.
Travel Light.
Marry Up.

My mom says you’re good for nothing, I said.

Uncle Kenny slid so close in the booth
his trousers tickled my thigh.

I once made love to Hedy Lamar,
he confessed.

He ran his tongue around the rim of the
margarita glass, licked the salt. His
blue eyes stared right past me.


When the mariachis reached
our table, Uncle Kenny pulled me from the booth,
spun me around the restaurant.

Like all big men, he was light on his feet.

4. The overpriced gold and ruby chandelier earrings
serenaded us from the store window.

5. How much damage, my mother reasoned,
can he do my girl in one afternoon?

6. When Uncle Kenny died soon after
in flagrante delicto, no one was surprised.

I heard it was his heart, my mother said,
but I know he didn’t have one.

She clipped his obituary out of the paper,
pinned it to the refrigerator with a magnet.

In my heart I knew differently.

I drove PCH north, left on Sunset,
an Uncle Kennyesque fedora
shading my eyes.

At Dead Man’s Curve
I threw my head back like I’d seen
Hedy Lamar do in the movies.

My chandelier earrings tinkled in the wind.

Alexis Rhone Fancher

Take Me Out/Tell Me My Name

To be an anchoress                  is to be a bleach bath
      is to do something                                             big in six minutes
              until you can manage half hours alone
          the need to be embedded              in a cottage with a baby
      adopted from Michigan            or Nicaragua
confused when cicadas            don’t whip summer’s end.
 
No one but me             cares so much about rain
        the pink photo album               the ski lift in June.
No one but me                         lies when I say
    I’ll let you know if I know anyone.
 
I lie when I say                         I have destination
    it feels like a block                    of sex insurmountable
the ghost of the storm             that never comes on.
    They say it’s best to have fear of death
            religion when everything’s maimed.
 
Bougainvillea hysteria              I fail the I.Q. test
     my greasy chest pains             one big love boom
clowns drawn on the window                            of the institution
        the crush of the day     my skull’s destination
        cicadas so desperate     to find a mate
 
               and the deadball fat kid
               hanging on the porchswing
               entwined by diamondbacks
 
                   is the Captain Black   of whatever I am
                   stuck in the back of this van.

Jessie Janeshek

From Motor City Mulch

If you take I-75 north from Toledo, you can smell Detroit’s aroma—
rendered fat next to funeral pyres of slag and smokestacks
sprouting from Motor City mulch. When asked what suburb I come from,
I say Detroit where children play in oil slicks like little bruises
in the shadows. Where else could you live as a troll
along a Rouge River? The gift that place gave me in never having to grieve
leaving it. A place where I once stood waiting for a lift
after my car battery was stolen and pimps lined up for me. I learned to
waterski on the Detroit River and still pick amoebas from my ear canals
Something in the water there killed humans and alewives
our side of the Ambassador Bridge. My father, a police lieutenant,
said bodies would float because of the gases (they were never Canadians:
riparian rights separated us from a country where they didn’t hunt humans).
On clear nights, the Big Dipper ladled goodness over there,
and only badness on our side. On I-94, a huge billboard loomed
with the Marlboro man trying to ride his horse out of Detroit.
That’s when I knew the auto industry was in for it, though
my old boyfriend played Russian roulette badly, racing onto Woodward
in his Ford Fairlane past 8 Mile where the drunks routinely rammed
cars into phone poles. In our closet at home hid the ‘67 riots gear,
helmet, and billy club we were never supposed to touch. Switchblades
my father confiscated: we devised stories about children who flipped them
open in the air, catching them closed without a knick.
My old house is officially in the ghetto now and this reminds me of
the Buddha who says we are all part of the present and the past. I know
I carry the ghetto in me. The Henry Ford Museum got Lincoln’s chair,
the one Booth shot him in, next to pieces of the first factory lines—
I always thought this was a coup for Detroit, where you sit down on the job,
you lose. Henry Ford was our man, though.
They named half of Detroit after him including the hospital
where I learned to put breathing tubes in the ones who didn’t make it:
the ones still warm and pliable, the ones who jumped
off overpasses, those finished off by rival gangs: my teachers
said it was for practice. Outside the hospital, I saw
rats large enough to lift manhole covers.
We all have to come from somewhere.

Renee Rossi

Souvenir of the Gilded Age

for Audrey Munson

American Venus, Miss Manhattan,
Beaux-Arts beauty frozen in iron,
in granite, in tapestry—her face

both ubiquitous and anonymous,
her torso cast in marble,
in bronze, on canvas and in film.

Girl o’ Dreams, her visage
on bridges, her simulacrum on coins—
over half of all the World’s

Fair statues were her, 1915
fairest-of-them-all. Nude she
made news, but when praise

of her curves gave way to
baseless slurs and scandal,
the Exposition Girl was exiled to

the realm of roller skates and lawn mowers.
Then the daughter who’d modeled for
the Mercury Dime’s Miss Liberty drank

bichloride of mercury and tried to die.
Audrey, heedless as moths, was shuttled
from hush to shush, from silent films

to an unmarked grave, fifty years
in an asylum in-between. Meanwhile
her beauty bathes perpetually

in the Pulitzer fountain, her torso
is touted as “Civic Fame” atop
the Manhattan Municipal Building,

while she herself along with her name
dwells only in the domain of rain-
gagged gargoyles, moss growing thickly
                                                   on their tongues.

Jessica Goodfellow

Dorothy: Since Arriving in the Emerald City

I’ve found the constant rain to be a bit of a drag.
Sure, it keeps the firs green and the poppies blooming,
but how many days of bright snowcapped mountains
and sunny shaggy-pony lollipop parades do we get each year?
Twelve, max? And two seasons: wet and less wet.

It seems the only way to reach me anymore is by hot-air balloon,
and I’m waiting for another lift-by-twister to take me back
to flatland, the gritty red dirt of my Midwestern home,
away from these azure seas and rainbow-hued side streets.

Toto’s right at home; more dogs than children
in my magical town, the coffee’s sharp and hot,
and no one remarks anymore on my plaid pinafore
and braids. I’m an eco-warrior in ruby heels,

with no prince charming but four gay best friends
who love to celebrate the solstice nude
riding down Fremont’s yellow brick road
on sparkly bicycles. I’m thinking of taking up engine work
at Boeing, running circles around the wizard’s palace in Medina,
maybe launching a new phone app: “Angry Flying Monkeys?”

Aunty Em, send me peaches and tomatoes grown in clay,
another round of Cheerwine and molasses cookies,
Uncle Henry’s salty taciturn postcards from Branson
stuck in the box. I get tired of the brilliance, cherry blossom
and rhododendron, rainforest and recycling. Volvos
and Suburus and bumper-sticker left-wing politics and vegan cafes.

Give me one more round of farm-hand, of shooting range,
of dry wheat field rustle and bluegrass preachers
on the AM before I relax into the Razzle-Dazzle
of this new technicolor and techno-driven Metropolis,
don my quirky glasses and drink enough Oregon Pinot
to wipe Kansas permanently off my map.

Jeannine Hall Gailey

Killer Pussies

On Monday, I posted on Facebook three Padaung women, their necks so stretched by brass rings they look like snakes. But this is an illusion: the weight of the metal pushes their collar bones down, collapsing their rib cages, slowly suffocating them while making their necks look long and keeping them safe from tigers. My younger sister texted to ask if she could be the woman with the lapis lazuli earrings and the green eyes.

On Tuesday, I felt hungry, angry, as if I still menstruated, so I posted the three Furies: Alecto and Magaera and Tisiphone, sisters born from their father’s lopped off cock and tossed into the Aegean Sea. Translated, their names mean: unceasing and grudging and vengeful destruction. Because I am a drunk I know that trios only work as a single unit.

I slept and when I woke I read some of Jean Valentine’s poems. I read about suffering and how God stopped talking to man somewhere in the middle of the Old Testament (such patience was all a lesson in the cosmic mute button.) Wednesday, I posted Job’s daughters, Cinnamon and Eyeshadow and Dove, dead in the rutted fields.

Thursday, Goneril, Reagan, Cordelia watching their father blinded.

My older sister in-boxed me with pictures of hair: should she dye hers back to its original color, brown-almost-black? Three hanks of hair, one charcoal one onyx one wing-tipped foil blonde. I was thinking of how hair changes, depending on the age or the season or the continent. Thus, Friday went to either three Valkyries or three nuns chased by Cerebus or an old scanned Polaroid we had to shake to dry: my mother sitting on the red velvet Queen Anne’s chair, my sister and I on either side, and the baby on her lap. Our eyes black as the jumpsuit of an assassin.

Some burkas and habits are a shade of blue indescribable–is it the sky on a clear autumn day or the ocean after a jellyfish scare or a mirage? That’s the color the three hidden women I posted on Saturday wore–even the mesh over their eyes was this blue, even their kidskin gloves holding big round loaves of bread and leather-bound books.

Sunday, and I posted on Facebook Russ Meyer’s killer pussies: Lori and Tura and Haji, all noir even in broad daylight, hot wrestler assassins under the sun of the Mojave, sweat stained sheer blouses knotted just below their breastbones.

(I think my father, if he has me and my two sisters on his friend list, would get this joke now that he’s dead and plugged in.)

Jennifer Martelli

Dinuguan, or In Honor of the Writer from New York Who Longs for Simpler Asian Food

Lola,

Forgive me for the times I scrunched my nose
at the pungency of what you called chocolate meat,
the offal cooked in pork blood, that saccharine
name meant to make pretty this ugly food, which
is neither white nor slips easily over the tongue.
This stew slopped brown in chipped porcelain bowls
on nights when there were no
strangers to say, in those half-polite,
half-strangled tones, how exotic.

Lola,

Forgive me for the ways in which I have yet to
unlearn this schoolyard shame, the infinite
times I refused our food in brown paper sacks, the
times I choked on WonderBread, on fluorescent
cheese, on limp potatoes, hoping to bury
that bite that reminded me of home.

Lola,

I promise you that someday, I will
bring this ugly stew, our guts splashed over white rice,
to the wrinkled children of the ones
who sailed their pale ships into Manila Bay,
who gum on buttered noodles and saltless greens.
When I crack open that Tupperware, I will
make them all smell the reek of our vinegar,
the stench of our garlic, the copper
stink of our spilled blood.

Anna Cabe

The Art of the Blues

“Yeah. Sorry. I mean, things have just been a little weird for us lately.”

He knows, but he doesn’t press it. Not yet. She stirs her coffee, quick flicks of the wrist, blackish-brown in a buttermilk mug. Warmth pressed through winter windows, pink morning rose of the sky, big painted mural (blue, green and purple) on the wall across from them. Two big and slow white fans, two small white flowers in a thin glass vase. The tables are wooden and carved with color. Bold, monstrous fairy-tale paintings in the corners and blackbird-themed memorabilia by the door.

The man’s hands are clasped in front of him. He watches her stir for a moment. No cream or sugar

“Well! Miss Jeanne.”

In front of him is a scattered stack of papers. He pulls one out and retrieves a pen.

“When it comes down to it, I’d say we’re a pretty nicely sized gallery. Small enough to stay intimate, but you wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with some fumbling start-up…”

His sentences trail into nervous laughter. He glances up. She is looking out the window. She is shaking her leg.

“And… if everyone takes a liking to your work—which I’m sure they will—we could probably book you for a week-long show this February.” He watches closely for her reaction. “How does that sound, Jeanne?”

“What did you say your name was?”

The man adjusts his glasses. Tie a little too loose, hair a little too messy.

“Ah—Griffin Henson? I’m with the New York gallery, remember…? We arranged to meet last week?”

The woman’s eyes are fast and violent.

“Right. Right,” she says, “I remember you. Julia spoke about you.”

“Yes! Yes, I’d hope she did. I’d like to talk to you about her, actually, as a matter of fact. What a shame she couldn’t come today—”
She looks at him.

“Well, what difference does it make?” she says. “She was going to talk to you about my work, anyway. There goes the middleman, right?”
“Yes, well,” he manages, stumbling, “yes, but, with everything that’s—”

She looks back out the window.

“—happened,” he finishes.

She does not respond but he watches her muscles stiffen. He hesitates. He leans in close. His voice is a whisper, fast and loud.

“It’s just that—it’s just that it isn’t too often that circles as well-known as Julia’s completely drop off like that. You understand. Historically, I mean. Usually there’s a slow fizzle, a sad decline, a long period of bleeding out after major players leave—but there hasn’t been a word since Waters left. It’s been silent. Absolutely silent.”

“So you’ve read,” she offers.

“Exactly. So goes the mythology.” He leans back in his chair. Ambience wells as people enter the restaurant. “Have things been happening, then? Did you know that you’re the first person I’ve managed to get a hold of?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“No one will talk to any press about it. I can understand that. I can, really. But it seems to me that no one can even find Julia.”

“Jesus. Why is everyone so hung up on her?”

He speaks wildly. “Because she knew everyone!” he says. “Didn’t she? Center of the scene? Thread of the Southeast? Everyone I’ve ever worked with from Georgia has linked back to her, somehow. Julia—I mean, she’s the one who got everyone together, originally, isn’t she?”

He remembers himself.

“Again,” he says, “so goes the mythology… Did you know I knew her?”

She tries to respond but the subtle sparkle of his eyes. They glitter like stars.

“I met her at a showing once. Well, we spoke briefly. You said she mentioned me? God, what a character!”

“Alright, dude,” she interrupts, suddenly, “you don’t have to flash your credentials around here. I knew her too.” She looks birdish and skeletal. She spits out her words at him. “I mean I knew her. You may not be as starstruck by me, but remember who you’re talking to.”

“Of course, of course, I read your op-ed, you know. Everyone has. But—”

“But what?”

He goes for it.

“I just wanted to know—if there was anything you could tell me? About everything?”

“Not a chance.”

He hadn’t expected that.

“Really?”

At first he cannot place the small shudders of emotion. The quiver of her lip.

“Really and truly?” he asks again.

“Look. Julia skipped town, alright?”

The tremble in her voice makes him pause.

A waiter sets down two plates on the table. They are identical: two eggs, sunny-side up, French toast covered in white sugar and fat blueberries, sausage, grits, and skillet potatoes. He refills Jeanne’s cup of coffee. His arm is inked shoulder to wrist in a black and purple sleeve.

She smiles and shakes her head. “Jesus, dude, try to hide your disappointment.” She taps her fingers nervously on the table. “The only one desperate enough to show up. Jesus. I’m here, anyway, aren’t I?”

“Ah, yes, well…”

She eats her food slowly. He looks at his.

“If you don’t mind me asking…”

“I don’t want to talk about how it ended.”

“But—if you don’t mind me asking, of course—how did it start?”

Something changes in her demeanor. It is a good memory for her.

“Well—sure. It was before I was around.”

He pushes his food to the side. He finds a piece of scratch paper and takes up his pen again. When he is ready he gives her a small nod and smile.

“She was dating Eddie when I met her. Experimental filmmaker, works a lot in 16 millimeter. Sort of lives out of his brother’s shadow, honestly, who I’m sure you’re more familiar with. M. Waters. You’re familiar?”

He scoffs. “Yes, Jeanne, of course. I know who M. Waters is.”

“I don’t know, man. I don’t know. Of course you do. Anyway, living out of his brother’s shadow—I’ll get to that in a second. For a couple, Jeanne and Eddie never seemed to know too much about each other. Like, last summer Julia told me that she was planning on taking German lessons at Emory, totally spontaneously, lifelong learner and all that, and—it must have been early September—early September I asked Eddie if she was still doing that and he was like, ‘is she?’ I mean, he just had no idea. And I don’t know, man, I was like, why don’t you know? You know? They lived together. Doesn’t that seem like something two people who live together should know about each other?”

“Absolutely. Absolutely.” He nods his head a little too enthusiastically. “Eddie Waters, then, right?” he says. “And how long did you say his films tended to run?”

She stops. “What? I didn’t. Ten or fifteen minutes, maybe?”

She eyes him for a second and he smiles. When she looks away he scribbles something down on the piece of scratch paper.

“The real hotshot was always Mac, of course. He’s who people know and look for. He’s the one selling t-shirts, he’s the one in the record stores, he’s the one people ask to paint murals on the sides of their buildings. Julia may have been the heartbeat, but Mac was always the crown jewel… and then there’s Kurt. You might know him better as Krog Dog. Sort of the underdog’s champion—get it?” She laughed a little. “He sort of keeps to himself, bit of a purist, bit of a recluse, the only one of us with a real old-fashioned Southern drawl. You’ll find his work on buses, underpasses, the bellies of big iron trains. A lot of his stuff around Krog Street, which is where he gets the nickname. A couple of little boutiques and this one gallery… and then there’s me—you know me—and Julia, a few others… Kyle P. Lewis, Sabina Strader.”

“One moment—and these people all know Julia, do they? Still active as artists?”

“Yes. They do. They are.”

She watches him coldly. He notices. He shakes his head a bit, smiles at her again, sets down his pen, clasps his hands one last time, and leans forward across the big wooden table.

“Right,” he says. “Okay.”

“Yeah. Like I said, it was before I was around. But everybody met her somewhere. Grabbing coffee, depositing a check, riding the train on their way to work. She was just kind of warm like that, I guess, making friends everywhere she went. Real mother hen of a woman. She was really, genuinely interested in other people’s lives. She’d ask about your dreams while you did time as a waiter, you know—who are you, what are you into, what are your values, what gets you up in the morning—that sort of thing. And people always get to the basic questions, but it was different with her. You know how it goes: ‘what’s your major’ in college and ‘what do you do’ afterwards. But it was different. Like she was getting at the real core of a person. You know?” She stuffs a large bite of French toast into her mouth, chews it only slightly, swallows loud and serpentine. “I mean she really helped kickstart a lot of people. Talked people who were working shit jobs into following their passions, or whatever. Anyway, word is she got the group together pretty easily, originally. Didn’t take a lot of convincing. Bought a little warehouse space around here—”

She motions out the window with her fork.

“Right over there, actually—”

“Right there? That building in the window?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“Right there?” He can see it through the window, low flat and limestone, three neon numbers humming above the door frame.

“Yes,” she says. “Right there.”

“I wouldn’t have thought it’d be—I mean, in this part of town—”

It is a rougher part of town. The café is popular and alive and out of place in the neighborhood. Outside it is hot concrete and dilapidation. She doesn’t humor him.

“Yes,” she says, “people don’t understand how quickly it’s been getting expensive. East Atlanta, I mean.”

He looks longingly out the window. “Wow…”

“…Yeah. Anyway, most of them already knew each other in the first place. Just from around town. Atlanta is—it’s no New York or L.A., I’ll tell you that. Coming down here with your suit and your tie and your shiny black shoes and your off-white business cards, all coldness and connection… I know your type. But this isn’t New York. You’ll learn. Atlanta’s the biggest small town in the world. Once you meet a few people, you’re never quite two degrees away from anyone in the community… which is why it doesn’t surprise me that you happen to have met Julia. Southern charmtresses like her are the people who bring us all together.”

Head on his hand, eyes on the warehouse, the half-muffled sound of Jeanne going on and on and on. He glances at his watch. And back to the warehouse. He dreams of the inside, like Warhol’s Factory, like Kesey’s Lodge, like the Columbia 30th Street Studio—some secret grotto filled with rose and gold and romance, full of magic, full of history, history in action, a supernatural creative cave which blesses people and times and places. “And then…?” he asks, half there, half enraptured, half attentive, half spellbound.

She senses she is losing him but she herself has grown interested in the story. She decides to reel him back in. She leans in: “Well, here’s the thing, Griffin… if you want to know a secret about her…”

He snaps his head back. Re-captivated. “Yes? Well, what is it?”

She looks around, lowers her voice, and settles down into the mode of the storyteller. There are a few disappointed grumbles from the surrounding eavesdroppers, who glare towards the table out of the corner of their eyes.

“Well… despite all of the mystique, or whatever, this fantasy everyone’s built around her, she was never too into it herself. Art, I mean. Mac used to tell her that we all needed faces, some people to walk the line between the artists and the gallery owners, the recluses and the journalists—give me a break, am I right?—but I always knew it bothered her a little. I don’t think the others did, but I knew. She ran art camps for kids, a do-it-yourself t-shirt company, and was always the one organizing the readings, screenings, showings, whatever… Once or twice she made an attempt at something really and truly meaningful, but I think she just didn’t have it in her at the end of the day. Couldn’t pull enough all-nighters, couldn’t shut off enough of the world around her to really dedicate some time to her projects. It just wasn’t in her. She’d rather have been a patron of the arts, foster the community, cultivate the spaces for the artists and creators—she was a total people person. I mean a real Southern girl. She ended up knowing absolutely everyone in town—and you said everyone, but I mean everyone. Couldn’t walk into a store without greeting six people. Anyway… Mac never really needed her, in that regard, had enough connections of his own, which always seemed to make her a little insecure. If she couldn’t hook people up, what did she have to offer, you know? It was always a battle between those two. We’re… I guess you could say Julia’s group was pretty high up on the food chain, but Mac is the only one who I’d say has definitely ‘made it’—”

Mac again. He looks at his notes. He is growing impatient, but he knows not to show it, so instead he says:

“Yes, of course. Mac Waters. I know a lot about him.”

But now Jeanne’s eyes glitter:

“I mean Mac has merchandise in half of the little stores in town. Those weird little square-eyed fairy tale monsters. The thick lines. The handwriting. I mean he’s woven into the cultural fabric. You’ve got to work on keeping up with everything to get a name on some of the other locals, but you can catch the M. Waters signature everywhere. Even if you don’t see the name itself, everyone can tell his work. You can always tell. Everyone’s seen it.”

“Yes, Jeanne, I told you, I already know all about him.”

“What?”

The scorn in her eyes startles him. “I—ah, we were speaking about Julia—”

“Mac is an important part of this story. Okay?” She looks straight into his eyes. “What do you mean you know all about him? I mean, you don’t know anything about him, really.”

“Right—of course—and I apologize—but Julia…”

“Right. Whatever. Sorry.” She looks around at the other tables. Her eyes pass more quickly over some than others.

“Well, it’s like I said. Great community organizer, unbelievably outgoing, but not much of an artist herself. She was drawing, like… this picture of an elephant when I met her, an elephant in a tutu, holding a glass of champagne in its hand. I don’t know. She looks up, gets this warm old dairy-cow look in her eyes—big and brown—and asks me to stand beside it and make the same pose. Which was a little offensive, at first, if I’m being honest. But she starts asking me questions, just about myself, and… I’d come to the warehouse originally to meet with Eddie. He was kind of my mentor at the time, but, you know, what I really wanted was to learn from Mac. I’m really not that into film…”

He forces a smile. “That’s a little dishonest of you.”

She looks at him oddly. She is about to say something when the waiter asks if everything is alright. It’s a small café, but very popular, and outside a small crowd of people are waiting for a table.

“I think we’re fine, thank you,” says Griffin, smiling. His teeth are straight and white as snow. The waiter lingers for a second but catches Jeanne’s eye and decides to leave them be.

“What I was saying,” says Jeanne, voice quick and authoritative, voice explicitly we are moving on from what you said, we will not address it, “was that she starts talking to me about my ambitions, and everything. You know, the whole spiel. I was a little short with her at first, but like I said, she’s real good at getting down to the heart of things. I told her I was still figuring a lot of stuff out and wasn’t too comfortable going into a lot of detail about myself, and she didn’t pressure me or anything, but… people like her just open you up. There’s just this warmth to them. Man, I don’t know. It was a couple of years ago, fresh out of college, working as a barista—aspiring artist at a coffee shop, pretty funny, didn’t think that would ever be me. I was a little hesitant about my future. She, uh… she had me…”

She stops, abruptly, stares off into nothing, fast forwards a little.

“But the funny thing was, when we were really getting into it, she pushes the drawing off of the desk. Just throws it on the ground. Gets caught under her rolling chair, wrinkles up, rips.”

“Wait,” says Griffin, “Jeanne, what were you…?”

“I mean, what kind of professional lets that happen? You know what I mean? It wasn’t anything but it was something, you know? I pointed it out to her all horrified and she just kind of laughs it off, her arm around me, box of tissues, whatever. That was her problem. She was always such a dilettante about everything. She just dipped her toes in. She’d pick up a hobby, explore it for a few months, and then move on. Never pushed any boundaries, never had the stamina to see anything through to the bitter end. Anyway—you wanted to know why she left, didn’t you?”

“Actually, I—”

“Well, I don’t know why she left, exactly.” That last sentence hurt her a little. “But I can tell you the last time I saw her. It was a couple of weeks ago.”

“You’re going a little fast,” he manages. But she’s going to brute force it.

“Always short on cash, you know how it is. Everyone has their side job. Even Mac, for a while, not at the end, but for a while. Half of the warehouse space—the room in back was the one full of color and film and chemicals, the one in the photographs, the picturesque little creative space, but the front room had these sad little desks and papers everywhere with these old and outdated desktop computers on them. We did our best to liven up the space, but it still looked depressingly bureaucratic. Like a tech start-up. That’s what no one tells you about being an artist. Unless you make it big, like big, you’ve got to find some way to pay the bills. We had the bassist and the drummer of some big-name band hanging around with us, would disappear for a few months at a time on tour, sometimes longer, but even they had their day jobs. Grizzly Bear can’t even afford health insurance, did you hear?”

He perks up. Artists are artists are artists. “Grizzly Bear? Are they who—”

“No,” she says. “No, they’re not. That’s not even the point. Listen. Julia. She comes in yelling about this grant, one day. She’s in a fury. She’s in an absolute fury. She brings it straight to Mac, in the back of the room, passing like six people by without even greeting them—which is unusual, super unusual. Eddie was always a little too reserved to make big decisions about things like that, but I was like, really? I hadn’t been there long, but I’d just thought I had some clout by then, you know? But I guess that’s how it was going to go, two top dogs, the big decisions start with them. She ends up getting Mac riled up about it too, which is saying something. He’s kind of a stoic, very serious about his work. They start talking about some real experimental cross-media kind of project, dropping names, Kurt and Kyle and Eddie and Sabina, others.”

He checks the names against his notes.

“She pulls me and Eddie in close, then, and I guess we’re technically now a part of the conversation, but it’s still mostly just her and Mac going back and forth, her arm around me, her attention on him. Starts listing filmmakers and photographers, painters, fiction writers and poets, musicians, anyone she can think of, to the point where it was a little absurd to think that we could bring together so many different disciplines into anything coherent. She wanted it to be this big community effort. Lift Atlanta up to the main stage. New York was over and California was dead. This grand gesture where they—what was it?—where they ‘transcend the cult of the individual’, whatever that means. You know she was an English major? She may not have had a lot of artistic drive herself but she sure as hell knew how to talk about it. Aesthetics and everything. Big into poetry, always talking Saadi, always talking Rilke. She wanted to be a professor of some sort for a while, but she later said she didn’t want to spend her entire life with intellectuals. The whole ivory tower thing.”

He can barely fit the words in. “Really, I wouldn’t have guessed—”

“Right. Right. Sorry. So things are buzzing for a while.”

“No, Jeanne, I’m genuinely interested—”

“I mean absolutely buzzing. People from all over Atlanta, people I’ve never even heard of are constantly in the studio. Others are always watching on the street, either curious after having recognized a face or two or curious because this usually quiet run-down little warehouse at the edge of their neighborhood is suddenly bustling. Someone’s always arriving or leaving, usually on supple runs, whatever, the door is always open. It’s crazy. But the problem is that it’s Julia’s project.”

“The problem?” he asks. “What do you mean the problem?”

“Well, you know… the two of them, Mac and Julia, always wrestling for creative control of things, and, I mean, you know. Julia has always been good with logistics and connections, but Mac just had the better vision, in the end. Great works are made by great artists, not great planners. But Julia’s so excited about it and everyone knows she doesn’t want to budge, plus, I mean, everyone adores her, and even though she’s suggesting all this silly stuff—”

“Like what?”

“Like elephants in tutus, man. I mean, honestly. She can’t take it seriously, it’s all just some big joke—she talks it up all grandiose but still wants it fun and accessible and silly, and… it just drains a lot of the… purpose out of it, you know? No one’s going to take us seriously if we don’t take ourselves seriously. Every night—only Julia, Mac, Eddie and I had keys to the place at the time, so one of us always ended up locking up—every night ended in an argument between Julia and Mac. She would leave, red-eyed and blubbery, to smoke a cigarette. Which was sad. She seemed so pure and peaceful and like she had it all figured out and everything, gave off this I-don’t-have-problems-because-I-meditate-and-I’m-friends-with-everybody vibe, but then she goes and smokes a cigarette. I mean, most of us are smokers, but Julia shouldn’t have been one.”

She takes a second to catch her breath, her voice having risen, the staff of the restaurant now too reluctant our too entranced to intervene, the people at neighboring tables whispering and texting—what a scene! or what is going on here! or you would never believe what is coming to light…!

“…either that or Mac would leave with his temper. Smack something right off the table, big swing of his hand like a golf club. His face stayed stoic but his body was all rage. Then he’d always feel a little bad and come in and clean it up the next morning, before anyone else came into the studio. I don’t think you can blame him, though. Creative control and all that. And then it falls apart. Mac has enough.”

He stares blankly at his notes. He listens to the dream unravel. A little heartbroken. The fabled creative machine, clean and smoothly running, revealed rusty and imperfect, whose cogs snag together and argue through the darkness.

“It was another one of those nights. Bloodshot eyes, dark bags underneath, stale smell of the fourth or fifth pot of coffee. Everyone else just tried to work as hard as they could. I think we knew it would fall apart, eventually, which is what sent everyone into such a frenzy. Maybe we could get this thing done before it all goes to pieces. But you never can.

“Julia’d already stormed out. Just me and Mac in the warehouse. Too much space for two people. He leans over this table for a second, looking over some of the projects—just staring at some half-painted canvases, completely still, long black shadow on the floor, bright splotches of new paint on top of the old ones on his jeans. It’s real quiet, and all of the sudden he tells me he wants Julia out of it. Actually, he says he wants everyone out of it but me and him and Eddie.

“Beckons me over and goes into this too-many-cooks spiel. Says Jeanne—one hand on my shoulder, the other gesturing towards some of my work, voice hoarse from exhaustion, eyes dark and tired—says Jeanne, you and I both know this project is going nowhere with so many people on board. But I think you have talent. You know I do. I think that three of us—you, me and Eddie—could really make something worthwhile.”

She is suddenly made aware of how loud she is talking. She leans in to speak more quietly. The other tables resume their usual conversations. Their waiter takes advantage of the brief lull in her story to slip the two their check, quick and without comment, as if he were trying to stay out of the frame of a camera.

“He really believed in me, you know?” She stirs her coffee idly. “I thought he did. I don’t know. I always kind of got weird vibes from him, to tell you the truth. But he was Mac Waters. He was Mac Waters, this guy that everybody we knew wanted to be, and he was telling me that he thought someone was holding me back. That felt so good to hear. You know?”

He looks down at his list of names and thinks about who to contact first. Kurt had sounded like he might be uninterested or difficult to talk to, but perhaps some of the others…

“…So I told him I’d think about it…”

She frowns softly. She twirls a finger around her hair. She stares at a dark spot on the wooden floor.

“I was real proud of that. I just told him I’d think about it, I didn’t commit to anything right away. This dark little feeling creeping over me. As uneasy as he made me feel about things, I wanted to impress him. You know?

“So I told him I’d think about it and he just nodded and I stepped outside and there was Julia. Side of the building. Always wearing one of three dresses, long and billowing. She sniffles at me and smiles, pink cheeks and nose, and we just made small talk for a while. Said she wanted to ‘get her hooves cleaned’ with me, meaning get our nails done—she had all these little phrases for things like that. I don’t know. We watched Mac get in his car and leave. He didn’t even look at us. Just moved. He always knew exactly where he was going. Julia, on the other hand—she’d float around all breezy, here and there, doses of attention. Anyway. She tells me Mac already told her that he was going to apply for the grant alone.”
“Wait, alone?” he asks. “I thought he wanted to work with you and Eddie?”

“He did. It was total bullshit. But I didn’t know what to tell her. I think I thought that I was going to be able to remain impartial, be friends with everyone. It was okay if they didn’t like each other, because I liked both of them. She says—she always tries to hide the Southern twang in her voice. I think she got some flak for it in college, so she’s all self-conscious about it now. I know she went to school up north. It sounds like it’s dipped in honey, though when the accent slips through. She says we-e-ell… I guess it was a little unrealistic, having so many people work on one project. Wasn’t it, Jeanne? Next time we’ll aim a little smaller, but this year let’s all support Mac with whatever he decides to do with it. He’s bound for some great things! And that was it. She nodded, seemed at peace with that, like she was saying it more to herself than she was to me. Speaking more out of need than wisdom.”

She reflects on that for a moment, reminiscing.

“Well? What did you do?” asks Griffin.

She looks up. She frowns. She leaves the question unanswered. She stirs her coffee.

“It ends up falling on Julia to let everyone know. The face and all that, sure, whatever, but I don’t think Mac would’ve bothered telling anyone even if she weren’t around. He would have just locked himself inside of the studio and let people wait around until they figured it out for themselves. And everyone’s fed up with Julia already—thankful for her connections, sure, but a little sick of her messing with the project—and now they’re all thinking she’s wasted their time. I think Sabina even ended up asking her for monetary compensation. Which she paid out, I’m sure, if it really did happen. That was another thing about her—she was real generous…”

“Jeanne, ah… what ended up happening with the grant?”

“I’m getting to it. Relax, Griffin, I’m getting to it. So totally unrelated to the grant project, Eddie has been working on this short film in celebration of a bunch of different neighborhoods in Atlanta. They all kind of run into each other, but each has its flavor. He’d shoot all this sweet and nostalgic looking footage on 16 millimeter film, no narrative or anything, experimental, you know. I’ve never really understood film. I also didn’t understand any of the technical elements of it—something about contact printing—but he ended up being able to transpose the images onto fliers and pieces of wood, any flat surface he could find in the neighborhood he’d shot the footage on. Displayed them alongside the screening. It was supposed to be this real holistic sort of thing, a representation of the neighborhood displayed on an actual piece of it, the image printed on the same material it depicted.

“When he’d finished, which was about a week after that night with Mac, we had this huge opening for it in the warehouse. All sorts of people showing up from the community, including people we’d worked on the grant project with. Since we didn’t have a lot of cash to spare for anything excessively formal, everything we hosted ended up with this little DIY charm about it. We played jazz standards on someone’s laptop speakers as people walked in, had an impromptu little bar on a long piece of wood we found, used cut-up paper towels as cocktail napkins. Krog Dog bartended for us. Half of the chairs were ‘official’—we had arranged it as a part of this experimental film screening series, put on more or less monthly, friend of Julia’s, of course—and half of them were just chairs we had found around the warehouse. It was that sort of thing, real cute.

“I don’t remember a lot about the night specifically…. I remember Julia, still a little jarred from the sudden collapse of the grant project, called Eddie’s film a ‘movie’, and man—you should’ve seen the look on his face. Anyway, the dude behind the series is this real wiry looking bald guy whose glasses are a little too big for him, always falling off of his face, to the left or to the right. He just finished a PhD at State, I’m pretty sure. Right before he starts playing Eddie’s film—his was the feature of the night—right before they play his film, the State guy goes:

“‘…and thank you so much to Julia for this wonderful space, and for hosting our screening tonight… Julia, do you have any words?’

“…and Julia’s totally anxious about it, of course. Big rosy blush, big Southern smile: ‘We-e-ell… I don’t know! Thank you so much for coming here! I think these screenings are so important to the Atlanta community!’

“Which was all fine and good. And then up to the front of the room struts Mac.” She lets his name hang in the air for a second.

“Big bottle of beer in his hand, big black shadow on the whirring screen behind him. No sound but his footsteps and the click of the projector. Mac Waters—won’t give his brother a moment for himself in the limelight. Flair for the dramatic. Would never let a sleeping dog lie. Ma Waters has a surprise for us all. Mac Waters announces that this screening is a part of a very special collaboration.”

He shakes his head. He knows. “No. Poor Julia. Poor girl.” He writes down something about the screening series, makes a note to get the name of the curator.

“Oh yes,” she says, “oh yes. Big old Mac unveils three huge paintings, fresh taut canvas, oil and acrylics. He calls them Kirkwood, Edgewood, and Reynoldstown. Monochromatic. Those thick lines. Square-eyed fairy tale monsters. I don’t remember what the holistic part of it was. How it tied into Eddie’s thing, besides being about Atlanta. Maybe it didn’t. I don’t know. It didn’t matter because it was Mac Waters. It was Eddie’s idea but everybody goes crazy because it was Mac. Waters. Even though he says they’re gonna try and use the grant money, if they can get it. Even the people who were kicked off by—well, they thought they were kicked off by Julia. You know? And it’s just him and his brother. He and his brother’s idea. Fuck community. Fuck interdisciplinary—I mean, what, paint and film? How fresh. How new. How… and Julia was absolutely heartbroken. Quiver of the lip, eyes going wide, but she just kind of looks down and smiles to herself. You know how it is. Anyway, that was the last time that I saw her.”

He watches her with hands clasped. She returns the look. The space between them is quiet but around them conversations, clinked glasses and silverware, the sound of cars passing. He feels that the story has ended abruptly, unfinished.

“And did you end up working with them?” he asks.

“What?”

“With Eddie and Mac? On the project?”

She pauses. “Yes, I did.”

He knows he can use this. “That’s right, artists,” loudly, dramatically, practiced, “always worried about their big break, never their peers, never their friends. And to not say a word to her…”

“Right, okay. Stop that right now. Alright, dude—as if you aren’t just as cutthroat.” I know you don’t have any real interest in my stuff. Jesus. Am I right? You flat told me that you couldn’t get a hold of anyone else. You think I don’t know that you just want the Julia story? I’ve seen what you’ve been—”

She starts to go red. Her sentences break down and her voice rises.

“You didn’t even write down shit for the first thirty minutes of our conversation. Nothing. Jesus, February, and I told you I’d be unavailable until the spring.”

His back is now straight and his hands are frozen on his lap. He looks slowly at the tables who watch Jeanne’s fury out of the corner of their eyes.

“Pass it off to an intern, rejection email in a few weeks—am I right or what? You’ve only been writing down—I bet you don’t even know my last name. What’s my last name, Griffin?”

He can’t quite remember… starts with an M…

“I bet you have a business degree. I bet they taught you that rat-faced smile in business school. Jesus. You can cut it. Forget it. You’re the last person Julia would ever want to talk to.”

The last phrase stings him and she knows, the tables around them are either quiet or whispering, the waiter passes them by—does not dare enter the fray. He is unsure of what to do. She looks away with rigid limbs for thirty, sixty, ninety seconds.

He offers her an apology.

“Whatever. It’s fine, honestly.”

“No, I—I wouldn’t normally—look. Things have been a little weird for us too—”

“It’s whatever, dude. Let’s get out of here. You’re embarrassing me.”

He doesn’t move. She gets out of her seat and strong-arms him out of his.

“Come on—come on. They know me, they’ll put it on my tab, I’ll pay for us later.”

She drags him outside. The morning sun had given way to the sloth of the high afternoon, humid and oppressive to the bone—wet fire of the South. They turn a corner. Pressed into the side of the building is a huge, wiry, square-eyed blackbird, beak curled into spirals, talons crooked, sable and plum, sun-washed, midnight and lavender.

“I’d be happy to—to look at some of your work, Jeanne—if you’d still like me to, I mean—”

“Yeah,” she says. Immediately. “Yeah, sure, that’d be nice. You owe me, anyway. I guess both of us should grasp at what we can.”

They walk in silence for a few moments. The trees get denser, green and white dogwood petals, as they move into a nearby neighborhood.

“What, ah… if you wouldn’t mind…”

“What?”

“When you first met? You cut off… what you were saying earlier?”

She considers it. “Oh.” She walks a little more slowly. “Sure. We can go there.” But she needs more prodding.

“…Do you remember where you left off?”

“Yes. Absolutely, Griffin, I remember where I left off. Jesus.” She takes a breath. “She had me in tears, is where I left off. Woman really whipped some shape into me, you know what I mean? …You know I graduated with a degree in Biology?”

“Biology, really?” he says.

“Yes. Really. Biology. Can you believe it. I have a Bachelor of Science from Wake Forest University. I don’t even remember how photosynthesis works. I was visiting my uncle when I first came to Atlanta, had just started applying for jobs. Biological jobs! I drew a bit, you know how it is… lost myself a little. Started spending more time at all the little galleries downtown than I did job-hunting or visiting with any of the family. Got carried away. Dreamt a little too big. Somehow found myself hanging out with Eddie Waters… not Mac Waters, not yet, but one sparkling degree away from the dream. As I said, I was, you know, trying to get in good with Mac, trying for connections, the whole show. We all are. Basically, we all are.

“Anyway, well… I told you about the beginning. How good she was at getting down to the heart of people. She quoted Rilke for me. I genuinely remembered that she liked to talk about Saadi, but I only remembered Rilke because of the quote. Do you want to know what it was?”

He walks a little more freely now, off the eggshells, out of the fire. “Sure. Of course I’d like to know,” he says. “What was it?”

“Well, I don’t remember, exactly. It was something to the effect of taking a good hard look at yourself and seeing if you would rather die than stop creating. Writing, in his case, but you know. If the answer’s yes! I would rather die! then you’ve found it, and you can move forward guns blazing, and never have to worry about whether or not you’re doing the right thing by trying to make it as an artist. If not—at least now you know, and it isn’t for you, and you can dedicate your time to other pursuits instead of worrying indefinitely about your future. Rilke said that no one who doesn’t absolutely have to create—no one for whom it isn’t life or death—should be creating. At all. Period. So I cried.”

He asks her why.

“Because I didn’t have to. Do you know what kind of blasphemy that sounds like to some people? It’s all about life or death. You can’t take that big of a risk with your life—to dedicate it to art, I mean—unless it’s absolutely necessary for your soul. You know? It’s this dumb little cultural thing, sure, but it’s there. I broke down and told her that I didn’t feel that way about my work—that I didn’t feel that way about anything. I thought I wanted to be an artist, but—I value my mental health. You know? I value my family. I value good food and good company. I could probably be happy taking soil samples. Or as a high school teacher. I’ve always loved dogs, I could train dogs, show dogs, Frisbee dogs, anything. There are a lot of things I could probably end up doing if it came down to it, and according to Rilke, someone who had made it—like, made it made it—and by proxy, according to Julia, this absolute fable of a woman sitting in front of me, who had made it in a sense that’s at least somewhat realistic to aspire to—you can never truly excel at anything that you aren’t willing to throw your life away for. It devastated me. I thought that was it. And you know what she does? You want to know what she does? She throws the book in the fucking trash.”

The violence of her gesture, two arms flung outward, sends her right hand straight into Griffin’s stomach. He winces. She doesn’t notice.

“She says, she literally says ‘Fuck Rilke!’ and throws the book in the trash. Letters to a Young Poet. It was an original printing, too. Well, maybe not quite that old, but—look. She loved Rilke and that copy was loved and used annotated and obviously sentimental. I mean she had the quote memorized, and then she just pulls the book off of her shelf, real nonchalant about it, and throws it away, and stands up to give me this huge hug, and meanwhile that stupid elephant-in-a-tutu drawing gets caught under her chair. Like she didn’t even care! She’d been working on that thing for hours, and she just ruins it, and—”

Her voice catches in her throat. Griffin looks at her, frowns, looks down, thinking, looks back up at her, really looks at her.

“It sounds like—you might miss her?” he says.

“What? …I mean, I guess. Sure. Obviously. But people come and go. That’s another thing you’ll learn about Atlanta. No one’s really from here. Everyone has external commitments. You know? …I mean, things have been a little weird lately, sure, but that’s life, you know?” She crosses her arms over her torso. “I mean, when you really think about it, she sold out on us, honestly. Could never get behind any kind of artistic statement so the whole thing just fell apart.”

The light alternately illuminates them and casts them into shadow as they walk, filtered in through the blooming trees. She looks down the street. Mac’s house is nearby. The lights are off.

“Alright. Alright. Do you want to know the real last time I saw her? It wasn’t at the screening. It was the day after. It was early in the morning, half-lit, sun coming up pink through the trees. There’s nothing like the canopy. A city in a forest. Some streets are just overwhelmingly green. She was half packed up already, the front door of the warehouse propped open, half of her stuff already in her trunk. You know it’s just me and Eddie and Krog Dog in there now? …it was one of those days where it starts out 40 and ends up 70. No real way to plan for the weather. I tiptoe into the studio. I tiptoe into the studio and I find her just sobbing on the ground. Just totally letting herself go. And this is someone who never cries. I’d seen her eyes get red but I’d never seen her actually cry. I mean, this is the person who crying people go to. She wasn’t a small woman, 5’10” or 5’11”, I think, but she had these dainty little flower sobs, out of character, uncanny, and the room is full of all these paintings I’ve never seen before, plus some honey-sweet chords on a—it was either an electric player piano or a synthesizer on a loop. I didn’t get a good look. The whole air is static, full of that same magic of myth, you know, the same glitter in the air you want to think every great artist has swirling around them—her eyes like two black roses, face flushed with color, and her, there, on the floor, just sobbing. A lot of half-finished projects for the grant were around her too, just spread out all over the ground, but I had no idea about the paintings. I just kind of panicked. I mean, she was so gorgeous and so sad. I walked out, walked up and down the street, walked circles around the block, dropped in a coffee shop, dropped in it again, just killing time, just killing a few hours, just pacing around—and I haven’t seen her since. I went back and there was nobody there. All of her stuff was gone. Everything was cleaned up but the paintings. They were all of people she knew—and they were the shittiest, absolute lowest quality watercolors I’ve ever seen. They were on printer paper. I lost it. I fucking lost it. I picked them all up, one by one—she captured this, you know, this something about everyone, don’t laugh at me, don’t laugh at me, their whole stories, their whole, don’t laugh at me, essence in these stupid, smudgy little eyes, but she couldn’t draw for shit. It was so bad, it was rushed—I tore mine up. I kept everyone else’s, but I tore mine up. I couldn’t stand looking at it. Do you want to see them? My building is four blocks down the street. Do you want to see them? Come on. They’re what you should really be looking for. Not my shitty fucking stills. They’re what you really want.”

Austyn Wohlers

Lunch Box

Once when I was in fourth grade, Tally McMasters came up to me and asked:

“Are you Chinese?”

I was waiting for my turn at double dutch. “No,” I said, eyeing the line.

“Are you Japanese?” she asked, peering at me intently.

“No,” I said, again. The line was getting shorter. I glanced at her face and saw confusion. She’d run out of options.

“Well, then.” Tally jammed her hands against her hips. “Are you Norwegian?”

I was one of two Asian kids at Sacred Heart Elementary School. Sally Wu was Chinese. Everyone knew what that was. Everyone liked chop suey and sweet and sour pork. And everyone liked that joke: ‘my mother is Chinese, my father is Japanese and I’m in-between.” Pulling the corners of their round blue eyes up, then down, then one of each, making a diagonal slant across their faces.

My mother made me beautiful lunches then, packed in a Hello Kitty doshirak box. A puffy heap of white rice, surrounded by tiny mounds of side dishes that glistened like jewels. Glossy anchovies, candied in soy sauce and sugar, freckled with toasted sesame seeds; crisp bean sprouts with vibrant, yellow heads; grassy watercress, steamed bright green; a perfect stack of roasted seaweed, shiny with sesame oil and sprinkled with salt; a juicy Asian pear, cut into precise quarters.

“What’s that?” Suzy Lawson stood, pointing.

“It’s my lunch,” I said, covering it with my right arm, like I’d covered my math test earlier.

“It looks weird,” she said. Suzy was mean and popular and never talked to me. Everyone was either afraid of her or envied her or some combination of both. Lacy Stevens and Jennifer Lewis dressed just like her in Guess jeans with zippered ankles and wore glittery, jelly bracelets but they weren’t as pretty. You always knew that Suzy was the best girl.

“Hey, guys.” Suzy’s voice got loud and the din of the lunchroom stopped to listen. “Look at the new girl’s weird lunch.”

The scraping of chairs against linoleum and the squeaking of sneakers as a crowd gathered around my table in the corner.

“Ew, look, you can see their eyes! Disgusting! What are those things, worms? Look, they have yellow heads! Seaweed? Oh, ew, seaweed feels like alien slime on your legs! Oh my god, the smell. C’mere, smell this!”

Fingers poked and prodded at my lunch, over my protecting arms. The tiny, perfect compartments were extracted as they crowded in, spilling and grabbing at my lunch. I tried to get away but the table was surrounded, the laughing and jeering continuing until nothing was left. The rice was smashed onto the table, anchovies dumped on the floor, seaweed scattered like a deck of cards. Through a blur of tears, I packed up the doshirak, the small, geometric containers empty now. One of my Twin Stars chopsticks was missing.

Over the weekend, I asked my mother to pack me SpaghettiO’s and Oreo cookies for my school lunch. Puzzled, she asked, “don’t you like your bahp? I saw your doshirak was empty.” I pulled away from her stroking hand on my hair.

“No,” I said, a new note of irritation in my voice. “I hate it. I want a normal lunch.”

I’d never spoken to my mother that way. On Monday morning, I opened my book bag at the bottom of the stairs. My SpaghettiO’s were in a plaid Thermos and a stack of six Oreos was nestled in Saran Wrap. There was also, hidden under a napkin, a small container of anchovies. I crumpled the plain brown bag closed, slung my book bag on my back and walked to the bus stop.

***

When I was a kid, there was this show called Stand-Up Spotlight on VH-1. Rosie O’Donnell was the host, before she had her own show, before she came out. Then she wore dresses that showed her legs and her hair was permed and feathered. The nineties were early and still recovering from an eighties hangover.

I wasn’t actually allowed to watch VH-1 though it would have been worse had I been watching MTV. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV at all on weekdays and certainly not in the afternoon when I was alone, sent home early from school to practice. To this day, I’m not sure what my parents had to do to make it okay for me to skip school. It probably didn’t hurt that I was a good student; quiet, Asian. I was getting straight A’s, so what could they say, really.

Robert F. Wagner Junior High School, P.S. 167, was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on East 76th Street, just ten blocks south of our apartment. Back then, 86th Street was a kind of DMZ, the demarcation line between uniformed doorman buildings and the projects. One time I was walking home from school and these two boys came up behind me. One of them snatched my report card out of my hand, his jeans almost down to his knees they were hanging so low.

Whistling, he said, ‘shit man, look at this girl’s fucking grades.’ The other boy peered over his shoulder and said ‘damn,’ as he took his baseball cap off to turn it around. I stood frozen and scared, the crowds of people on the sidewalk curving around us like ants around a stone. But I was invisible to them, just ‘this girl’, until the one who’d taken it handed the white card back to me. Only then did he look me up and down, making eye contact just once, with a short nod. His eyes were chestnut brown and in them, I saw something. Maybe it was respect, I don’t know. I do know that in that moment, I wasn’t really a girl to him, just a brain. So they threw me back.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

That particular afternoon, Rosie O’Donnell stood on the small stage, the black curtain behind her strung up with white holiday lights, even though it wasn’t Christmas. It was a cheap set but the logo on the corner of the screen shone like a spotlight. ‘Welcome now to the stage, a very funny woman. You’ll be hearing more from her after this, I’m sure. Put your hands together for Margaret….Cho!’

I was only half watching – my hand aloft between my mouth and the bowl of rice I was having for lunch, my chopsticks holding some of the myulchee that my mother had made – until I heard Rosie say, Cho. A Korean name. The last name of the first boy I ever had a crush on.
Now, Rosie had my full attention.

I watched as she left the stage, handing the mic over to a Korean woman wearing a dark blue dress. She was ordinary looking, almost plain. But to me, she could have been a unicorn in our living room that was how startling it was to see an Asian woman on TV. Not just Asian, but Korean. Like me.
And she sounded like me, too. Back then, I was always a little surprised to hear an Asian adult speak unaccented English, since all around me adults spoke English with a heavy coating of some Asian flavor. Whether it was my Japanese violin teacher’s swallowed consonants, the hard staccato of the Chinatown kids in AP Calculus or the guttural lilt of Konglish spoken at home, I rarely heard an Asian adult who sounded like me.

For the next seven minutes, I was enthralled. This was early Margaret Cho without swear words, raunch or detailed descriptions of athletic sex, which suited me fine. The high I felt from watching her was one of recognition. I wasn’t alone. There were others out there. Like me.

One joke I remember was when she told this story about growing up in San Francisco and sneaking out to a club and getting caught. I watched her monolid eyes widen in horror as she transformed into her mother, exclaiming loudly that ‘you cannot go to da clubs! That is where, you know, you get da, you know, da drugs! And da pots! and da COCAINES!

I felt a mix of guilt and glee as I identified with her. Not with the details – I was maybe fourteen then and wouldn’t have known where to find a ‘club’ even if I’d had any desire in my goody-goody heart – but the pluralization of nouns was something my parents did, too. The endless errors in my parents’ English put my teeth on edge even as I wanted to protect them from the world.

As immigrants, my parents experienced mini-humiliations almost on a daily basis. The A&P grocery clerk that pretended not to understand my mom’s request for a price check on the family-sized Fruit Loops; the United Airlines gate agent who sneered and over-enunciated when she told my dad we couldn’t sit together, raising her voice like he was deaf; the Lincoln Center ushers who rolled their eyes and cackled at each other, saying ‘I can’t even deal’ as they yanked the Yo-Yo Ma tickets out of our hands, taking for granted that we wouldn’t understand. But I understood and they cut me, even as I also wished my parents were different. Wished them better.

***

Being Asian in America is a peculiar experience. One can argue that all racisms have their own particular flavor. That the experience of racial discrimination differs from race to race. The underlying drive of racism is to oust, shame and eliminate that which is different. The motivation is to erase the quirks and particularities of different cultures and races in the interest of creating a dull, smooth homogeneity.

In my experiences of racism, the cuts are small and insidious.

Asians in America are the prototypical ‘model minority’. We are smart and studious. We are good at math. We are quiet and docile. Louis CK jokes about his relief when an Asian doctor enters the examination room and we laugh. We are obedient. We are bad at sports. We are blind followers of authority. We lack creativity.

The racism occurs in tiny, daily abrasions.

“You wear a sunhat? Oh, how cute. That’s how you Oriental women keep your skin so perfect and porcelain. That’s why you never age.” It’s a humid, August afternoon in Vermont and we’re sitting on the porch, sipping gin and tonics. He’s a friend and he uses the term ‘Oriental’ with some irony, smearing the t, to rhyme with ‘kennel’. But I can feel the jeer underneath the ‘just kidding’ snicker, even as I laugh weakly and adjust the brim of my hat. I watch the lime float in my drink and I boil a little hotter underneath the afternoon sun. In silence.

“You know what? You’re actually really smart. I had no idea. You do this quiet, sweet Asian girl thing and hide who you truly are.” This time the friend is white, an artist, the mother of a bi-racial child. In the plush candlelit confines of this downtown social club, the insult here is, once again, framed by what seems like a compliment – you are smart. But if ever there was a backhanded compliment, here it is. It feels like getting slapped, knuckle-side up.

In one misguided Dear Abby-esque swoop, this woman insults my intelligence, gender and race, in less than thirty seconds. And of course the question I long to spit back at her is, why are these things mutually exclusive? Why does my demeanor – perhaps understated, perhaps subdued – negate the possibility of intelligence? I like being quiet. I like my softness. I like my gentleness. I like my girliness.

I like my Asian-ness.

If there is an error in perception, that these things cannot co-exist with big words and actual opinions, why does she present this seeming contradiction as a problem on my part? This paradox is a product of her own narrow-minded perceptions and yet she drapes it over me, dressing me in robes of deception and cunning. To her, I am the wily geisha, the shrewd dragon lady.

And yet.

I keep these thoughts to myself and clink martini glasses with her, even as I file away this abrasion in my mind, throwing another log on the proverbial fire of my feelings of injustice.

My rage.

Why stay silent, you may ask?

I ask that, too.

Injustices can happen on such a microscopic level. One hesitates to point them out because, by doing so, one risks pulling the skin open, creating a gaping wound where before there was only a paper cut. Because what if I’m wrong? What if I’m just being crazy?

But then again, there is death by a thousand cuts.

Because if I were to, say, jump up in indignation at either of these people, it draws into the light the complicated peculiarities of racism towards Asians.

The slippery quality of insults sandwiched between compliments.

Both would likely consider what they said to me as praise, approval. Compliments. What’s your problem? Because, let’s face it, Asians are successful. We are socially and economically prosperous. We work hard and have made the system work for us. To complain about racism can be tough because we do not necessarily experience the same disadvantages that other minorities experience. We are well-educated, well-employed, middle to upper class. We marry interracially, make beautiful Amerasian babies, live in white neighborhoods without resistance.

So what more could these Orientals – gooks, chinks, slant-eyes – possibly want?

There is a disdain, a looking down upon Asians. We achieve and over-achieve and yet we are not equal because we are a threat in the unspoken competition that is ongoing. A wrestle for the top prize with a very real, worthy opponent. But, we have to be perfect. And when we’re perfect, we’re TOO perfect. We are conformist and boring, just a bunch of automatons. All look same.

And yet.

In my toolbox, there are at least two Asian jokes that I tell to counter my social anxiety. I tell them well – both about Asian businessmen with a penchant for flipping their l’s and r’s – and they are funny. They succeed in getting a roaring response, without fail. I do an exceptional Asian accent and I enjoy telling them. I have had more than one first date tell me that I am not like ‘normal Asian girls.’ This is said to me admiringly, as he wipes away tears of laughter.

These jokes are my way in. A way towards social acceptance.

And yet. Again.

I worry about contributing to the Asian stereotype. Just as I worried and felt guilty even as I laughed at Margaret Cho’s imitation of her mother. Because it was funny and it was true and I felt finally, finally, seen as the child of Korean immigrants, living in the in-between space of old country and new.

But how to also convey the tenderness and affection I felt for Margaret Cho and her mother upon hearing that joke? Doing that accent was a way of acknowledging a difference. Acknowledging the struggle contained within that accent that holds our real love for our mothers.

When my mother speaks English, she adds articles and pluralizes her nouns and confuses idioms and blurs her subjects and verbs. But she is also a doctor and a mother and a wife and a daughter. She is a great cook. She is smart as a whip, so smart she’s never kept a calendar in all the years I’ve known her because she remembers everything her family has to do every day; dates, phone numbers, addresses. She is fiercely loyal and she loves me every day like I am the only thing that matters.

When she was twenty-five, she came to this country alone, with five hundred dollars hidden in the handle of a vanity mirror. She learned to speak English by leaving her television on all day and night, listening to advertising jingles for Tide detergent and Wrigley’s chewing gum. And she cried every night for six months, wondering if she would ever see her family again, even though she was the one who ran away.

Her accented English has a flavor all its own. And hearing Margaret Cho imitate her own mother made me feel less alone in loving my mother in the full glory of her incorrectness.

***

One of the few stories my mother tells of her youth is about medical school, when a fellow student grabbed her hand at a picnic, stroked it and said he needed to marry the girl who belonged to such soft, white hands.

My mother’s skin is rougher now. Eczema bubbles up and peels back the skin on her still small, still girlish hands. She wears disposable plastic gloves that make a crinkling sound when she mixes the kimchee in a stainless steel bowl. The kitchen lights are on even though the afternoon sun streams in from the window. The Manhattan skyline beckons, so near yet so far from where we are here in New Jersey. I sit at the marble countertop, my own hands folded neatly in my lap.

“How did you know that Daddy was the one?” I ask, staring out the window at a ferry crossing the Hudson, a frothy trail of white foam streaming behind it.

“The one what?” she asks, turning the bowl around as she stirs the cabbage and red pepper paste into a bright red mound, lovingly massaging the fiery mixture between the cool leaves.

“The one you would marry,” I clarify.

She sniffs and pauses to push her glasses up on her nose with the back of her wrist. Her hands are still now.

“I guess I felt safe with him. Something about him made me think I could rely on him. We used to talk on the phone every night. Once, I decided to hang up on him. I wanted to see if he would call back or not.”

She looks down at the bowl and continues her mixing. The kimchee makes a moist sound, like someone opening their mouth to speak. I’ve learned to be patient through my mother’s silences but when she turns the steel bowl on the marble a third time, I ask if my father called back.

“Yes, he did,” she says, her head bent over the bowl again. “When he asked me what happened I just told him that we’d gotten cut off somehow. But on our second date, he asked me to marry him and I said yes.”

Startled, I watch her face and ask again, how she knew.

“The first time I went to your father’s apartment, I opened the refrigerator and all I found was an old onion and a box of baking soda. Did I tell you he weighed less than 120 pounds when we met? He denies it but it’s true. He never really gained weight after the war. He’s a real doongboh now – a real fatty.” She snorts and turns to scoop the kimchee into the glass jar waiting in the kitchen sink. “He weighs about 145 pounds. He even has a little belly,” she says, a little proud.

I move to help hold the jar still and watch her nestle the cabbage leaves into place. I rotate the jar as she tamps down the kimchee. The smell of garlic and vinegar makes me sneeze. When she’s done, I turn the lid on top with my clean hands.

“Why do you think Daddy won’t let me move out?” I watch my mother’s hands slow as I ask this. She pulls the gloves off, revealing her small, peeling hands, a Band-aid wrapped around her index finger.

“Your father is bohsoojuhgeen, very conservative. I think he’s never gotten over growing up poor and a refugee during Yoogeeuh, the Korean War. He has strange ideas about how to keep you safe. He believes that saving money and leaving it to you is safer. He’s wrong, he’s being stupid.” Her voice is rising now and her knuckles are clenched. I look up to see her eyes blinking fast behind her glasses.

And then, there is a look on her face that is new to me. One of sorrow and shame and determination. It breaks something in me and I start to cry. I hate crying in front of my mother. She is a Pusan woman, she is moodduddukheh, stoic. The Pusan people are strong and deep, like the sea they live and breathe beside. I know she hates when I cry, too, so I duck my head, the tears falling silently into my lap.

To my surprise, I feel my mother’s hands cover mine and I look up. Her face is turned away from me, looking out at the Manhattan skyscrapers and the ferry that is crossing to the other side. It’s been perhaps fifteen years since I last felt my mother’s hands. They feel both foreign and familiar. The shape is the same but they’re not nearly as smooth as in my memories, when she pushed back my bangs to check for fever or when she held the back of her hand to my cheek to see if I was cold.

We sit in silence, watching the ferry continue its crossing.

Tricia Park