Helia Rethmann – The Truth About the Children You Rooted For
J Saler Drees – Wings
Jeffrey Higgs – Know Guns
Antonio Hidalgo – Looking Up
Lucy Alice – The Weight of My Wings
Laura Espinoza – Paris
Maeve Smith – Romance, ‘Blaise and Posie, Northbridge Park, Charleston SC’
Christopher Stolle – Last Rites
Erika Haines - The Gull, The Wind, and a Prayer
Rachel Nix – Spring Came, Prayer
Sergio Ortiz - Someone asked me for an Edelweiss from Rilke
Lorin Drexler – Wrestless, Drema, Rapidly
Matthew Steele – Vicious, Hyasinge, who can suck the musicland
RT Castleberry – The Bars of Bethlehem
Liam Rogers - My Apologies to John Constable, Tate Gallery, Ferlane, East Bergholt (1817)
Grace Pasco – What “Apart” Meant
Bruce Colbert - Donuts, señor?
Hayley Hudson – Sessions
Alice Pow – and the antelope eat the grass
Imogen Myslinski – Larvae
Kathryn Malnight - Lessons I Learned from Repeating Sophomore Year
Racing Robots, Brawling Buddhas
Tony Adamo offers us, " a most hip thank you."
Susan Marie is a Broadcast Journalist, Radio Producer, UNV [United Nations Volunteer], Human Rights Advocate, Public Relations Executive, Spoken Word Poet, and Published Author.
The first time David Shimamura met Leo Kropotkin was at an open mike at Mi Casa Cultural Center on Park Avenue in Albuquerque. The feature was a Chicana who read poems about domestic abuse. She was applauded for her efforts. But for what, David wondered—the intrinsic worth of the poems, the courage of her testimony, the shared experience with the predominantly Hispanic audience? If the latter, how was the performance any different from group therapy? Isn’t there something a little bit unseemly about “performing” raw, unmediated trauma? Were there “spoken word poets” who built a career on the psychology of victimization? Shimamura was slightly offended that his own cultural inheritance, a nuanced sense of the public and the private, was being violated. But he had long grown weary of identity politics. Skin doth not make the man—nor a president.
All these thoughts passed through David’s head as he listened to poets from the rural north of the state, a queer Diné poet, a South Valley down-with-the-homies poet and Kropotkin. Shimamura was steeling himself for another orator who wore his person-hood on his sleeve like a stinking badge, but Kropotkin didn’t quite fit the mold. He was tallish and stooped, Blakean and Jewfroed, in pumpkin-colored cargo pants and a Sex Pistols tee-shirt. He scowled, or maybe it was astigmatism, behind his sea-of-green granny glasses. The Lennonish-Britpunk fashion bells “problematized” his look. Kropotkin was meaning to fuck with your head, not console you.
David knew that. He’d shared stages with him at other venues and book parties but this time found himself standing next to him during the open mike. He said something about how the audience would applaud sentiments they shared or opinions they agreed with like a political rally.
Leo’s head swiveled and his eyes glared.
“They’re her friends,” he snapped, then turned back to the lb. of pages in his hands.
Over coffee, Shimamura reminded him of that first encounter.
“That was one of the voices in my head,” he said, “I’ve got a lot of them.” Kropotkin admitted to a rare form of bipolar disorder. Later he would inform Shimamura that he heard voices in ancient machinery. So he was either a visionary or a nutcase—or both. Shimamura was drawn to contraries.
This time he listened intently to Kropotkin who held a sheath of papers in his left hand and gesticulated with his right. He read like a runaway train. The intensity was riveting. But more than that, it was like listening to jazz for the very first time when you flash that the moment is the key, the bright moment, as musician and listener partake in the shared communion of discovery and the gates open wide to the flood. Something of the same thing happened as Shimamura listened to Kropotkin read. He read at break-neck speed—David thought of Robbie Blake’s motorcycle accident—there were 16th notes, it was blinding, it was Birdalive. But it wasn’t sheer mechanical virtuosity.
In the midst of the speed, Shimamura heard snatches of words and phrases—gone summer, the cell’s ghostly ventriloquism, mujahideen snake oil—that leapt out of the monsoon stream, that told him, The Kid is a goddamned poet. How rare is that? Kropotkin was, in other words, a camarado. Still more and better, he appeared to have come to his dystopic visions the hard way─he had earned them. He didn’t just appropriate them from Philip K. Dick novels, although he’d absolutely read them, because no one could write like Kropotkin without having read. That was a cold fact.
As it turns out, Kropotkin told Shimamura later, he had cut his teenaged bad teeth on—you guessed it—the Beats, especially Burroughs, Brautigan, the Romantic poets, Villon, Charles Simic, Lorca, the odd grabbag of an aspirant poet. But The Kid had serious ambition. And he was smart. He knew enough to know that he had been temporally jettisoned from his Polish grandparents’ Holocaust to the Jewish suburbs of Detroit and one didn’t have much do with another. So Jewish identities were made complex for him as were generational ones for Kropotkin the seer. He had an uncle who had relocated with his family to Israel.
There was some of that difficulty in the poetry so Shimamura didn’t get much the first time around. Who does? But he got an inkling. He knew Kropotkin was after bigger game than the consolation of identities that rang as hollow as everything else in the Age of Obama. He was ready for a new sound. Kropotkin was one of the ones who was bringing it. You may not like the message, but you don’t kill the messenger.
Soon enough, Shimamura came to understand that it wasn’t yet a movement per se, but there were a handful of 20something anarcho-insurrectionists in Burque. They were too fucking rageful and impolite to deconstruct tropes and memes within the safe, decorous walls of academia. They wanted to go at the marble edifices of power with the metaphorical fury of a hammer and sickle—and sometimes the real thing. They were, in other words, mad as hell. If this was happening in Albuquerque, wasn’t it likely that it was happening in every single city of appreciable size in this country?
So David cast his lot with the cabal of millennial revolutionaries since he saw nothing at all else on the eventless horizon. He was a traitor to his generation. Boomers were either hopelessly complacent or hysterical, Tibetan Buddhist or lapsed Marxist, gardeners and tour guides to Asia, permissive parents or born-again fundamentalists. But few of them, unlike Kropotkin, were interested in the worthy task of destruction. He was in, not out. Kropotkin’s response to the hallowed Sixties was that he remembered not Woodstock but the tedious anniversary of Woodstock when the endless reshowings of the movie colonized the true memories of people like David’s sister Toshiko. She re-called the three-day celebration of peace and love as “lots of mud.” So Shimamura shared Kropotkin’s disgust with the commodification of and sentimental nostalgia for what, after all, was only a golden snapshot, though the music was often glorious.
Put another way, Kropotkin confirmed Shimamura’s essentially left-progressive, radical heart. Leo wasn’t a dogmatist—there was a libertarian streak that ran through his anarchism like a Susan Sontag grey hair extension—and he actually saved most of his firepower for liberal hypocrisies rather than the easy idiocies of the Tea Party, and he had a considerably large blind spot when it came to Gaza. Still, he could spot the hierarchies of power and figure out how they worked. That was all to the good. Still, it was an odd bond—a 60-year-old, Japanese American teacher who had reinvented himself as a novelist and a 25-year-old, Jewish American anarchist poet.
The conspiratorial mind was blind to chronological age.
Kropotkin sank into the sofa, laptop on lap, neck U-shaped, back C-shaped, eyes burning through green glass, his posture predicting a future old codger who inched along the sidewalk in Vientiane like a walking T-square, gazing out at all the fit young backpackers, that is, if he was so fortunate as to be able to leave the country. Shimamura bit his tongue. Hey, it’s America, everybody gets to choose his own poison. For Leo it was poor body alignment. You get what you pay for.
“Hey,” Kropotkin said.
“Hey,” said Shimamura. When in millennial company, he had quickly learned to adopt their slacker grunts and clicksongs like they couldn’t be bothered. But he suggested they move to a table in Lost Wages coffee shop near the University of the Faux-Intelligensia of which they were non-dues-paying members, supporters of tax-deductible charity organizations, or the National Trust of whom they should have been indigent beneficiaries. Every loser and deadbeat in here, for that matter.
They sat next to the long table crowded with the Philip K. Dick Fan Club. They were talking about how Dick anticipated virtual reality by decades.
Yeah, thought Shimamura, with geeks like you guys who sit around coffee shops talking about a sci-fi writer who wrote bad prose, dosed himself on acid, probably engaged in CIA mind-control experiments and went nuts. But Dick had his revenge after death with countless film adaptations. Was science fiction nothing, David thought, but a bastardized sub-genre like Leslie Fiedler said? Did it matter that some of the authors were prescient about the dystopic consequences of technology or were they in fact servants to the new order? Kropotkin was writing a poem about the founder of the Luddites.
“So?” David asked.
“So,” Kropotkin answered.
“I mean, you know, like what’s happening?”
“My book, Significations, is in galleys with Burning House Press and I’ve got two other manuscripts waiting to go out. My nerves are on fire. I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done. I drive editors to the looney bin. I’m scheduled to read in Portland which they tell me is quite clean. After a cop stopped me in Gallup for loitering on a corner in front of a drive-through liquor store, they put me on probation. Electricity crackles through my limbs. It feels like a defibrillator. I’ve got 120 pages of a novel that I cannot finish because I can’t do narrative. Why am I unemployable?”
“Let’s take the last one first. You have an associate’s degree in philosophy from a community college. That shows you can think, which is liability number one. Then there’s that permanent scowl across your mug that indicates a bad attitude. Take it from me─I know. Then you don’t adhere to any dress code known to humankind, which would be cool if you were applying for a job at a tattoo parlor, a titty bar, or a smoke shop, but probably a drawback if it’s a paralegal gig.
“So congratulations on the book. Narrative is an invention of order.”
Shimamura launched into auto-pilot professorial mode—he taught professional development and resume writing courses at Bedlam College, even if he disapproved of such conformity (everywhere such compromises were being broached—the shits are killing us, Mailer wrote in the ‘50s). Kropotkin took the paper wrapper from the straw in his raspberry iced tea and shredded it in 1/2s, then 1/4s, then 1/8s, then 1/16s, 1/32s, and onward into subatomic particles and the infinitesimal, leaving a pile of dollhouse confetti on the glass-topped table. It looked like a mound of cocaine. Shimamura was reminded of his father Toshio’s obsessive-compulsive eating disorder at the dinner table. Kropotkin listened but his stubborn intransigence would reject Shimamura’s modifications.
He stared silently at the pile of handmade confetti.
“Did you go to the open mike at the Drunken Flower Wednesday night?” Shimamura asked. Kropotkin required prompting like an autistic child.
“I did,” Leo said. “Sean O’Malley hosted it like he does everything else in this town. He had a Chicano sidekick to represent.”
“O’Malley, the notorious stage Irishman?” Shimamura said of the once-friend, now-sworn enemy whom he threatened to punch the next time he saw him. “The one who lays on the thick Belfast brogue only when he’s performing? The one who’s down with the IRA and against fascism and police brutality and writes poems for the Policeman’s Benevolent Association that’s an oxymoron in itself? The one who’s a local progressive hero who was fired for allowing high school students to write poems saying if Jesus was alive today he’d be dealing mota in the barrio? Like I haven’t said subversive shit or taught Ginsberg’s “America” in the classroom that ends with the line, ‘America go fuck yourself with your atom bomb?’ The one who couldn’t get into the MFA factory at the local University of Not-Much (UNM) since his poetry is shit? Shit.”
“How was the reading?”
“Spoken word isn’t poetry, it may be something else like dramatic monologue but it isn’t poetry. The poets don’t read poetry, they don’t know what a poem is or how it’s shaped, it’s self-expression, soap opera, telenovela, stand-up comedy, a Complaint Bureau, acting school, but it ain’t poetry. Poetry is something else.”
“The distillation of something through image?” Shimamura asked.
“Something like that,” Kropotkin said. “The problem with definition is that you can always find another to contradict it. I’m against schools and poetics. But I know poetry when I hear it.”
“And slam or spoken-word returns poetry to its oral sources,” said Shimamura, “a good thing, the bardic tradition, except the democratizing influence assumes that every-body can be a poet. Therefore everything is equal. Therefore nothing’s of value.”
“There are good poets and clever lines or phrases,” Leo said. “I want to encourage that. But mostly my friends and I sit around and IM one another and snipe and trash all the truly horrible stuff we hear. And there’s a whole lot of it. Like listening to the first poem someone ever wrote or wondering whether a poem, which is so badly written, is about a father swinging his son on a tire slung by a rope on a tree, or whether, in fact, it’s about fellatio since the context is so vague and the verbs—clutch, grasp, squeeze—could go either way.”
“Spoken-word seems more a symptom of a vaster problem than a new development in poetry,” David said. “It’s a sociological indicator that there’s a shitload of socio-sexual trauma and abuse out there that’s going untreated in the US of A, so instead, it’s vented by victims in a public forum before 500 people when that may not be either the safest environment or the most effective remedy for mental issues and pain and anguish on that order.”
Now Kropotkin was awakened from his catatonic stupor. He sat bolt upright.
“I can’t stand this impulse toward therapy, comfort and healing,” Leo shouted. “What I want to do in my poetry is unnerve, upset, disturb. When Ginsberg read “Howl” at Gallery Six in San Francisco there were people weeping in the audience. I want to have the same cathartic effect. I don’t want to hear people read about their gardens or their travels to Tibet or 12-step programs. When that Nazi white supremacist shot those black parishioners in that Bible study class in Charleston, I didn’t want to offer him my forgiveness or clemency, I don’t believe in that shit, I wanted to make sure that he went to prison where the brothers would make him their bitch and ream his anus and tear him a new asshole so he can’t sit down for a month. I wanted him to get exactly what he de-served. So I don’t want to hear about recovery or miracle. I want revenge.”
“Rhetoric is an argument with others,” David said, quoting Yeats, “poetry is an argument with oneself. It’s something to do with an exteriorization of an inner disturbance. And it has to be a strong disturbance, a catharsis, to rise to the level of poetry.”
“Exactly. It’s not a panacea or anodyne or a prescription either. It transports you into The Great Unknown.”
“After I read your book, Rants, I wasn’t able to sleep. My arms and legs kept flapping like dolphin flukes, seized by electro-convulsive shocks, my scalp on fire. It wasn’t just the heartbreak of psoriasis.”
“That was my intent,” Leo said. “It’s a Manual for Re-wiring the Human Circuit Board.”
“So you’re reading Benson.”
“Benson gets it.”
“The hidden structures of power. The Deep Web. Los Paranoias.”
“Something like that. How we’re all neurally reconfigured. He predicted the Internet.”
“There’s a Robbie Blake-Benson connection. Benson was friends with Richie Vallejo at Harvard. Vallejo had a prickly, competitive friendship with Robbie. Who didn’t?”
“Blake’s a primitivist. A genius but a primitivist.”
“Yes and no. Depends on which version. Blake 2.0 or another one? The Whitman acolyte, the one who’s always dropping his g’s? I’ll give you that. That Blake was a sort of ersatz Okie. But the songs on ‘Billy the Kid’ are perfect American parables. ‘Maximally Like Rain’ keeps spilling out like a Surrealist waterfall. He and Benson are both maximalists in the end.”
Leo has gone on to shredding David’s straw wrapper, deep inside an undiscoverable arroyo of his brain.
He pulls himself upright, governed by a tyrannical clock that reminds him Death is not far off. Time ought not to be frittered away in idle talk.
“Hey, I’ve gotta go,” Kropotkin said in a hurry, failing to meet David’s eye. “Later.”
Shimamura remains at the table and wonders whether the conversation ever took place. He goes back to reading Calvino.
Richard Oyama’s work has appeared in Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, The Nuyorasian Anthology, A Gift of Tongues, Malpais Review, Mas Tequila Review and other literary journals, and his first novel, A Riot Goin’ On, is forthcoming.
I want to soar like a dolphin thru cosmos
Sparkling fire colts I wish to ride
Throw myself into the chasms of the abyss
The battle of the senses I am aching to fight
I want to love myself to extinction
In a twirling dance with the Nix
In the wuthering wild water of spring
Suckling the nectar from the purling rill
I want to dwell in the depth of all souls
Roost still in the fire
Catch hold of the zephyr
Your hirrient foliage I wish to wed
Breed shivering stars
In heat rupture my clarity
Breathing in tender cascades of iron
Thru cutis in infinitely narrow space
I want to bear the fruit of rock
Erect the muted speech into my home
For perpetuity devour all emptiness
Radiating a yearning as brief as a sun
Everlasting my weightlessness´ planet
My beloved nothingness´ All
Ravenous for satiating starvation
Subsiding quietly thru the verge of my creation
Unisonal intercommunicating sinfonia
Maria "BaaM" Garfjell is a Stockholm-based artist, who in addition to photography and visual arts divides her time between projects in poetry and writing, Spoken Word, voluntary cultural work and different creative workshops.
Sacrifice, Resentment, Loss and Love: Reflections on Motherhood
We had to get a little drunk before she told me. She seemed the least likely person in the world to suddenly want to get pregnant. “I know, I know, it makes no sense. It’s a hormone thing. I was so sure I never wanted children.”
“Don’t do it,” I blurted out. If I had been completely sober, it probably wouldn’t have come out like that, but I would have thought it.
“That’s why I didn’t tell you, cause I knew you were going to try to talk me out of it.”
How did she know that, I wondered, when I didn’t know it myself? “But you never seemed to want them.”
“I didn’t, and I know it’s illogical, but logic has taken me this far and it’s time for hormones to take over.”
Leaving that statement aside, what surprised me even more than her announcement was my reaction. What did this say about me, about my relationship to my own children? It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Another friend in her mid-forties had come to me asking for advice about whether she should adopt. I didn’t give her any (and she did adopt the child), but I had felt the ‘no’ then as well.
Partly, in both cases, it was selfish. These are women I enjoy sharing time with, enjoy working with, and there would be less time available for that if they had kids. I was also concerned about their feeling that they needed to be mothers. I didn’t feel they were in any way incomplete being in the world as they were. I didn’t think they needed children to make them whole. In contemplating them as potential mothers, I felt a profound sense of loss. It’s as if I thought of having children as falling into a whirlwind that wouldn’t let them go for years. I mourned their impending absence from my life and sought selfishly to avert it.
Motherhood inevitably involves loss. Beyond the opportunity cost of what else you could be doing, the loss of relationships in the isolation that is motherhood, the loss of sleep and peace of mind, there are the daily losses of the children themselves who are always leaving you. This concept of motherhood as loss speaks to my own experience as a single mother of three boys close in age. The last of these graduated from high school this June. Perhaps this gives me enough distance to consider what this long 22-year journey of motherhood has meant to me in a way I couldn’t when it totally consumed me. Motherhood is supposed to be the central fulfilling aspect of a woman’s life, but when I was living through it much of my consciousness was obsessed with a crushing daily round of mind-numbing detail, along with lots of unexamined guilt, self-blame, and anxiety. On the other hand, there was and is the love. Janna Smith describes this as a “potent spell.” It was a love unlike any I had ever known, that at times fills me with sheer delight and joy at their very existence, and wonder that I have been able to witness their becoming. When women speak publically about their experience as mothers, they sometimes acknowledge the cost, but say the love “makes it all worth it.” I can’t seem to put these things on a scale and add up the balance. I can’t lay one beside the other and make sense of them.
It’s hard to explain to anyone like my friend who has not experienced it, the immensity of motherhood as a life-altering event. I remember a student who found herself pregnant unexpectedly, saying, “I don’t know what I will be doing in ten years, but I know I will be doing it with a ten-year old.” Since doing whatever you are doing with a ten-year old changes the nature of that doing, it seems odd to me that this transformation is represented as universally positive. The social worker Jennifer Kogan notes in her blog that in our culture there is no ceremony to mark new motherhood. While women find themselves the objects of attention and care during pregnancy, as soon as they give birth, the focus shifts to the new baby, and there is no acknowledgement of “the seismic shift …when a woman experiences interrupted sleep, sore body parts and no time for self-care.” Motherhood is always described as “sacrifice.” The definition of that word which comes closest to how it is used in this context would seem to be the third listed in my dictionary: “the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.” What strikes me about this definition is that in the case of motherhood, the higher or more pressing claim, the child, seems to totally erase or render irrelevant the surrender or destruction. To consider just what is surrendered or destroyed when someone becomes a mother is viewed as being tantamount to attacking the child itself, yet in no other context of “sacrifice” would this seem to pertain. In the case of motherhood, even to acknowledge that something prized or desirable was lost is unthinkable. No mother I know ever admits that they wish they had not had their children. It is the deepest taboo to concede you ever had a moment of rethinking your decision to have a child.
A tendency to deny negative feelings about decisions, especially in regard to relationships, is natural. Back when I was married, when I used to get together with other married women, it amazed me how they never said anything even vaguely negative about their husbands until they were close to divorce. I wonder if we feel that it reflects on us and our choices. We know we are not supposed to marry someone who doesn’t live up to our feminist ideals, so we present our husbands in the best possible light to each other. In terms of children, the taboo is much stronger and there is no divorce option. On top of that, children are perceived to be a reflection of oneself. No one will admit that they sometimes don’t love their kids “more than anything else in the world,” and that maybe sometimes they would trade them for something else, or sell them to the gypsies. It might be acceptable for the parent of an extremely difficult special needs child to admit that in their darkest moments they wonder if it’s all worth it, but this is only acceptable if they follow it up with something redeeming about how much the child taught them or how they, in essence, don’t really mean it. It seems akin to abortion or birth control advocates parading out testimonials from people who had to take birth control or have an abortion because of some horrible medical condition. But don’t some people just use birth control because they want to have sex without pregnancy and have abortions because they don’t want to have a child? Don’t some people wish they never had children?
In the case of motherhood, there is no forgiveness for going back on one’s decision, even in these extreme cases. Dawn and Richard Kelso were universally vilified for abandoning their son Stephen off at a care facility. They left a box of supplies and notes on how to care for him. Their son would never be able to walk, talk, speak or control his bowels. The parents had provided round the clock care for more than ten years, but still they were not only blamed for their decision, but arrested and charged with child abandonment.
An anti-abortion website has this statement: “Women regret having abortions. Women don’t regret motherhood.” But this would not appear to be true. The “I hate being a mom” discussion thread is going strong on the secret confessions website. One woman writes, “I thought I was the only one. I feel so guilty; I love my daughter, but…” Another writes, “I most certainly NEVER would say this pathetic, mind-numbing phrase that we’ve all been subjected to our whole lives: ‘but they’re worth it. It all goes by so fast.’ BULL!!! They are not ‘worth it’ and each day is the longest of my life.” Another says poignantly, “I really hate it too. I feel that I have lost everything that was me.” One particularly long rant on this blog goes on for six pages listing the unreasonable demands put on mothers, such as “We are supposed to be dynamite in bed, but also get up and take care of everyone. Sleep deprivation is a badge of honor.” or “We pick up toys and clothes and things so often it seems ludicrous to even bother.” She writes, “We feel guilt, despair and frustration 99% of the time.” Even in the middle of this rant, though, she notes, “Some of the more daunting issues we deal with include—God forbid—serious damage to our kids during childbirth or from accidents, the (I can barely write this) death of our children…We are vulnerable and responsible.”
Although this rant is not followed up with the obligatory “but it was all worth it,” I am struck by how strongly this tirade acknowledges the love this woman feels for her children. She cannot bear to conceive of their deaths. She lives with guilt, despair and frustration because of the love.
I hesitate to tell my friend about that. It sounds so sappy, so Hallmark card, so trite. It sounds like the kind of thing people say to manipulate you into feeling that you won’t be a full and complete woman if you are childless. Yet I cannot deny the power of the love either. My love for my children overwhelms me even now. When my first son was born, I remember how strongly it swept over me. Maybe it was hormones—he himself would certainly say it was—but I knew instantly that I had never known what love was before. It was nothing like I had ever experienced with friends or lovers or even what I myself had felt as a child for my parents. There were no conditions to it; he did not have to prove himself worthy of it. I didn’t even seem to decide it. It just was, and it was so potent that it eclipsed everything I knew about myself. Alicia Ostriker writes of the power of a mother’s love as, “the dazzling circuit of contact without dominance.” And there is power in that love. It is indeed a potent spell.
The power of that love was sometimes all I had to get me through. I became a single parent when my oldest was four and my youngest was only a month old. I raised them alone. Sometimes my life seemed like that of the mythological Sisyphus perpetually rolling a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down and start again. Albert Camus wrote a whole book which ended with the conclusion that Sisyphus was happy. I didn’t buy it, but perhaps if he was, it was only because he had no time to reflect on his situation.
“I don’t know how you do it,” people would say. How did I care for three young children and keep up with my full time day job as a tenure-track professor at a small state college? They were always asking me how I managed. I grew impatient with the question. The only answer that made sense to me was that getting through every day was a miracle—I tried saying that—“I’m working miracles every day,” but the answer still seemed inadequate. On some level I didn’t believe I was “making it”. What did that mean anyway? Surviving? Perhaps the truth was I wasn’t making it, and that people just didn’t know what that looked like.
I wasn’t the kind of woman who always saw herself having children, who played with baby dolls and dreamed of her wedding day. I felt like an imposter when I got married, as if I had been miscast in the role. I didn’t take it for granted that I would be a mother, so when I first became pregnant, I consciously gave myself over to it. All the same, I wasn’t the kind of mother who focused on the details, who remembered all the permission slips and picture days or who made sure everything was all-organic. I fussed about some things I now don’t see as all that important, but my life allowed little time for any serious fastidiousness.
Yet despite sometimes failing to mind all the details, I always loved them desperately. Regretting motherhood is not the same thing as regretting your children. It’s not the children themselves we regret, but there are other costs. This is the kind of story I would tell my friend about how love and loss can combine into exquisite pain:
Final exam week 1993 in the lounge of the English Department building, I had to confront my child’s babysitter. Another student had told me that the babysitter who was watching Marc, who was only seven months old, had put him on her dorm bed and yelled at him to shut up while she tried to study. She called him a stupid baby, and probably other things that the student wanted to spare me. The one who had come to tell me felt badly about ratting the babysitter out, but felt worse for the baby.
Marc wasn’t an easy baby, and infant care was hard to find. From the time he was born in October through the rest of the school year, I had kept him in my office, calling in babysitters when I had to go to class or meetings, paying them by the hour. The current babysitter was named Amelia. She was from Vermont, blond and young. She was an English major, studying to be a teacher, not like some of the early childhood majors I would later hire, who would coo and fuss over the baby.
Amelia was no nonsense, but she seemed to like Marc in her way. She would put hats on him sometimes and talk to him as if he were an adult, and smile at the effect. Marc was not the easiest office mate, and it was fortunate that understanding people occupied the other offices on my hall. An older woman whose office was two doors down twice volunteered to take Marc for a walk around campus in his stroller to quiet him. My students watched for the stroller parked outside to know I was in my office, so her taking him for a walk gave me a space of uninterrupted work time. She once remarked to me that Amelia wasn’t the typical babysitter type, but she could tell Amelia really loved Marc. I thought so too; maybe I still do.
I was crying when I confronted her. I was at my last raw edge, and unsure even what any of this meant. Amelia sat impassive on the couch opposite me. She did not deny anything. I hadn’t expected she would. For Amelia, things are what they are. I asked her why she did it, and she told me she was under a lot of pressure with exams and papers she had to get in at the end of the semester. This made sense. Amelia was a procrastinator, a good thinker sometimes, but not a good student.
“But why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t do it?” I asked her. I was still crying but my voice was steady. I held Marc close to my chest as if to protect him.
“I felt bad saying I couldn’t do it,” she said, her face still expressionless. “I knew you didn’t have any alternatives, so I didn’t feel as if I could say no, but I knew I couldn’t handle it.”
What she said was true, of course, and maybe it was disingenuous to tell her now that she should have said no anyway. I rocked the baby in my arms as if I were keening. I felt strangely as if I should apologize to her. The situation seemed like a cataclysmic event for which I was responsible. But would apologizing to her imply less love or care for the baby? They were both people I was supposed to in some sense protect and nurture.
“I’m only twenty years old,“ she said, her voice beginning to betray emotion for the first time. “I’m not ready to be a mother. If there’s one thing I have learned from all this, it’s that.”
In that moment, even though I was a decade older, I didn’t feel as if I were ready to be a mother either. What they don’t tell you when you are thinking about becoming a mother is that sometimes there are no alternatives, and that the conflicts between your work and your children are at times impossible to resolve in any satisfactory way. When I say work, in this context, I refer to life work, not necessarily employment.
For a mother who would be a writer, as my friend and I both are, or any kind of artist, there is always ambivalence. Anne Lamott in her book Operating Instructions, joked about how after her son was born, she could not believe that she had ever been the functioning person who wrote the article she needed to proof. Adrienne Rich describes how the women in her poetry group wrote a letter to the editor in defense of a woman who had committed infanticide, and then began to talk about their own frustrations. Alicia Ostriker says that they never tell you “that they whine until you want to murder them. That their beauty prevents you.” Eventually, after years of sacrifice, we are expected to let go of our children, but in order to do that well, we need a self to return to when we do. We have to sustain that self somehow.
Adrienne Rich never wrote about her children because the writing was for the part of her she tried to sustain away from motherhood. Yet motherhood has the capacity to connect us to our creative selves as well. When I became a mother, I felt connected to other women in ways I had not previously, as if I had entered a secret club, which I did not know existed. Motherhood has also brought me in touch with all of my own demons. Alicia Ostriker wrote, "The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption." Sometimes, more often than I would have believed possible, it was as if motherhood granted me wisdom. Things came out of my mouth, which were wise, because my children needed to hear them. Often I was humbled, frightened, absolutely vulnerable and just terribly, terribly alive, to the point where I could feel the blood rushing through my veins as I held them. And there were moments in which I was fully present with them in a way that feels like a gift. I remember entering their worlds of pure imagination, building Lego castles under a table covered in a blanket we called our bear cave, the sweet milky smell of them as babies, and even the hard moments of being with them when they were in pain…
None of this felt experience of mothering would seem to be honored in the public celebrations of motherhood. I was out with a friend of mine in Santo Domingo one Mother’s Day. The restaurant was crowded with elderly women seated at tables with grown children, often without husbands. My friend remarked that they honor mothers on this day, but disrespect them for the other 364 each year. Husbands cheat on their wives, maintain other families, yet bring their wives out to dinner on this day. In this country as well, we celebrate the sacrifice of mothers without doing anything to support them or to make it possible for them to live fuller lives. We create holidays for those who are marginalized and their observance emphasizes just how out of the mainstream those honored are. These tend to be women; consider Teacher Appreciation Day, Secretary’s Day, and other ghettos of the chronically unappreciated.
Public discussions of motherhood seem to always miss the mark. They center on the logistics of combining its responsibilities with careers, but always in ways that keep these things absolutely separate. Thus we talk about the availability of affordable childcare, or even flexible schedules, but not what mothering could contribute to the public sphere, not how we might benefit from having mothers in positions of power, not how to be with your kids and be engaged with the public wider world at the same time. I used to appreciate meetings which provided childcare, but longed for gatherings which would have allowed me to be with my children and other adults at the same time. The isolation of motherhood, the sense of being cut off from any meaningful adult contact can be deadly. Even more lethal is the sense that no one else shares your experience, that you are the only one not fulfilled absolutely by motherhood itself.
When we conceive of motherhood as a private matter, see our children as property or project, we doom ourselves to isolation. When one of my friends discovered that she could not have children, she asked to be my labor coach for the birth of my second child. She thanked me afterwards, saying that the experience made it possible for her to adopt children, because in the moment of his birth, she realized he was not my baby in the sense of belonging to me, but “that all of our children belong to each one of us.” This is not another easy assurance about villages raising children. I want to pause and look deeper. When people would ask the renowned child psychiatrist Anna Philbrook why she never had children, she would reply, “Why, I’ve had other people’s children, dear.” She is one shining example of mothering in the public sphere—which is where, perhaps, mothering needs to enter in order to minimize the loss, and to strengthen those minute gestures of love that stitch the world together through often invisible work. One last story:
Last May I went to Costa Rica where my oldest child was doing a semester abroad. He met me at the airport, and hustled me into a cab, which he directed in Spanish to his host family’s home. When we went walking out in San Jose that night he placed his body between mine and the street, as if to protect me. I walked with this man who moved with confidence, and who approached me with such tenderness.
Later, we were talking on a Costa Rican bus about the people in his program, and how sometimes they bring their novios down to spend a weekend at a resort. I told him this bothered me, that it seemed to pervert the purpose for which they’d come to the country. He thanked me for that thought, and said it disturbed him as well. “You can’t treat this country like a tourist destination,” he said, “when you are in somebody’s home.”
I felt chills when he said that, and I turned to look at him full in the face. “Yes,” I told him, “You are right.”
I am moved by him. It’s not only the pride of a mother. I am moved by his understanding of the basic humanity of those with whom he lives and works in this program, in this country. It moves me in a human way. We are mother and son, friends and intellectual equals, separate and yet still somehow joined spiritually, and I feel my love for him as strongly, but differently, than I did when he was first placed on my breast and I first looked into his eyes.
But I am not going to end this essay with any facile assurances about how it is all worth it, or about how I am going to rush back to my friend and tell her I didn’t mean it and that she should get pregnant by any means necessary. I hope she knows that I will love her (and her child if she has one), no matter what. Yet I still I return to the loss, the sacrifice and the tradeoffs. The love mothers feel for their children should not keep me, or any woman, so desperately isolated. It should enable us to gaze upon other people’s children with love, to recognize, as Sam did when he spoke to me on the bus, our precious common humanity. My friend should not have to disappear from my life, or from the public sphere, because she becomes a mother. The loss and the love, the easy stories and the painful ones, all matter. I can’t put this into a formula, try to balance one against the other and conclude that it is or isn’t worth it. It feels more as if the love and the loss do not belong in the same equation. I want to hold both things up at the same time, lay them side by side without comparing them. Perhaps I want to bring them together to transform the public image of mothering into something that will give us pause, that we will stop before and gaze upon in wonder.
Meg Petersen is a mother, a writer and a teacher.
Reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius –
We build beautiful and enormous palaces
of the mind but live in a dilapidated shack
I am the one
who wrote the Word
and now I become
written by it
in this eternal circle of
Li Po said, in the name of happiness, I
too must be happy with all
Someday we’ll be there
But for now is just Mahler’s 9th
and the gradual merging
of musical notes with
the ordered chaos of
And our sloth hearts
beating in unison
taking us towards this simple
you were created
Now create something
Peycho Kanev is the author of 4 poetry collections and two chapbooks and he likes to drink his wine slowly on this earth so apparently devoid of angels.
During Time-Out, I Transform Into The Wicked Witch of the West
I grip the doorknob,
She kicks the wall,
a time-out tornado.
It’s enough to unhinge
a house. Bells fall,
clang on the floor.
My face itches,
but I won’t let go.
One minute ticks by
in ant bites,
I step away
from hands that clench
a metal knot
to see green skin cloned,
a hideous match, right down
to the lone telescopic eye.
I let loose the wolves.
I summoned a murder of crows.
I charged the black bees
to silence my own child.
I had no choice.
She stole those slippers.
And her fatal tears
Dayna Patterson is Poetry Editor for Psaltery & Lyre.
[blue haunts black & i know you when]
blue haunts black & i know you when
i roam the foothills of our youth birdlike
& eat the bread from our clay pot of thorns [unmedicined]
& you & i in divine dark hatch white in the belly
as shine breaks open: the fire-horse in the frostless field
& [orbs] the light
& we are the things that take shape
& we let the things without shape take shape
as the birds turn into coins
& then music the darkling fugue [the salted nocturne]
& the black wind crumbles
& still we hear those halcyon crowns somewhere
Jay Sheets studies creative writing at Goddard College and is a former poetry editor for the literary journal, Duende.
Hungry Ghosts of Park Avenue
The view from the Park Avenue penthouse apartment was gorgeous. Carl noticed it immediately that first night at Phil’s when he stepped out of the private elevator and into the partly crowded cocktail party. The front tips of Carl’s shoes touched the base of the floor-to-ceiling window as he stood there, mesmerized by the vastness of New York City’s streets. The towering, wide-angle view of the world was almost spiritual in that it impressed upon him the gut feeling that things seen and unseen were all connected.
There was no Lexington or Thirty-fourth. Names didn’t matter as asphalt roads morphed into dissected veins, glowing red or blue-white with light from the cars that flowed through them like blood. He could even see over the Hudson River into New Jersey. Borders between places broke down and Carl saw it all as one. The streets were all one, the land was all one, the people—with their almost identical features of heads, arms and legs—were all one. Carl smiled for the first time in a long time until Reggie tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Yo. This motherfucka’s giving out coke like it’s candy. You better get some.”
Carl turned his head away from the one to look at the many people who filled the apartment. He didn’t feel completely comfortable walking around them. They looked cold and almost aristocratic in their bearing—the type of people who may murder as a by-product of a power grab. Carl and Reggie were dressed in clean but shabby clothes that had been worn and washed and worn many times before. Compared to the crisp blazers and pretty dresses around them, Carl felt out of place.
He said so earlier, but Reggie dismissed it with, “Nigga, please. We gonna have a good time.” Despite the fact that he was white, Carl went along with the label and the plan of action.
This short verbal exchange was a real world recreation of the relationship they forged while in the man-made world of prison. Inside, Reggie talked with a lisp and got the attention of men who hadn’t seen a woman in years. Carl wasn’t one of those men, but the two became friends behind bars and met up again after being released. After hanging out together in shelters and rehab clinics for six months, Reggie began a relationship with a high-class addict who later invited them to his Midtown home for drinks.
After being tapped on his shoulder that first night at that apartment, Carl asked Reggie, “Are you fucking this guy?”
“What you think?”
“I don’t want to assume.”
As they walked toward the center of what Carl would call the fourth living room, Reggie said over his shoulder, “Yeah, we fucking. It ain’t nothing. He likes taking care of me. Makes him feel good. Let’s just get what we can out of it while it lasts.”
Carl looked around at the high ceilings, Victorian-style furniture, and pretty chandeliers. He shrugged his shoulders in agreement. He didn’t like the idea of Reggie whoring himself out, but that was the nature of freedom, such as they had it. Reggie had choices and he was free to choose whoring.
Phil greeted them with a smile and open arms. His Gieves & Hawkes cashmere blazer and crewneck sweater were both midnight black and gave the impression that his upper body was a dark void with disconnected hands and a head on top. His smile was possessed with a slight mania and when he reached Reggie, he kissed him full on the lips in front of the mingling guests—many of whom raised their eyebrows or giggled to themselves. Phil’s chemically fueled tunnel vision led his focus from Reggie to Carl, who he met with a bear hug full of familiarity. His smile remained as he asked, “So you guys want some coke?”
Reggie laughed as he said, “Fuck yeah.”
The three walked a short distance to a table. On it was a small pile of cocaine that Carl guessed to be about half a pound. Next to it were some playing cards, one of which Reggie grabbed and used to separate himself a thick line as Phil asked Carl, “How do you like the place?”
“It’s extremely nice. I was just admiring the view. You must stand there for hours whenever you have a day off or something.”
“I don’t have...” The sound of Reggie’s snorting filled Carl’s ears. “... days off. Don’t look out the window much either, I’m afraid. I guess I’m just too used to it.”
Reggie lifted his head from above the table and interrupted, “The man is rich, Carl. I told you that.”
“That doesn’t mean he can’t take a day off once in a while,” Carl responded, a little annoyed at the tone of Reggie’s interjection.
“No, Reggie’s right. I don’t have a job to take days off from, and that’s because I’m rich. You can call me a trust fund baby if you’d like.”
Between lines Phil gave Carl a quick biography that included being lucky enough to be born to a mother who was born to a grandfather who helped found the public relations industry in America. His claim to fame was cleaning up the reputation of a national mining company after its owner hired local police to shoot into a crowd of striking workers and their families. He published industry articles and books that called the general population stupid sheep. He made millions.
Phil was raised without a care and that was part of the story he told Carl. Reggie laughed loudly, and often, at whatever part of the life story was said with wit. Phil was charming and handsome, with loose curls of salt and pepper hair. Carl wondered why he was seeing Reggie who, in his straight eyes, was also handsome but had the same air of working-class poverty that Carl had.
Again, not wanting to assume, he left the mystery where it was and bent over to do a line. The immediate rush made him jolt his head back and rub his nose. Phil and Reggie had disappeared into the small crowd of guests who fluttered about the spacious main room with its high ceilings and transformative views.
Beginning to feel the drip at the back of his throat, Carl looked around with excited eyes. He noticed some of the strange looks he was receiving, but began to look right back as he stared at breasts and asses. It was a temporary spike in libido that was an exception rather than the rule in his life since prison.
He had been a mechanic who thought that stealing high-end cars on Long Island made more sense than fixing low-end ones in Queens. For five years he was right, and he had sent many a luxury vehicle to overseas clients in shipment containers. A Porsche 911 Carrera became his downfall, and he spent five years with people like Reggie, whose own crime was being unlucky enough to be born to poor parents and taking drugs to forget that fact.
Phil’s quality cocaine raised Carl’s dopamine levels along with his erection. I’m not that ugly either, he thought as he kept staring at body parts. His eyes eventually landed on a woman who struck the perfect balance of attainable but attractive. Feeling fantastically confident he walked up to her and said, “This is my first time in Phil’s apartment, but I’m hoping he’ll give it to me if I’m nice enough to him.”
She smiled politely and said, “If only it were that easy.”
“I’m persistent. And my name’s Carl.” Carl reached his hand out to the woman.
She grabbed it and said, “Nancy.”
“Hi, Nancy. So, how do you know Phil?”
“I only know him by association. My friend is his wealth manager.”
“You mean, like an accountant.”
Nancy looked downward with a patronizing smile that Carl noticed but didn’t care about. “Something like that,” she said. “I saw you and your friend earlier. You guys sure do make an entrance.”
“Him more than me. I’m the quiet one.”
“So how do you know Phil?”
“Same as you. Through my friend.”
“And how does your friend know him?”
“He and Phil regularly have sex. At least that’s how I understand it.” Carl grabbed a champagne flute off a passing waiter’s tray. Nancy pursed her lips slightly in embarrassment.
She said, “Well, that’s pretty blunt.”
“I wouldn’t think Phil would fault me for it. Someone who has two handfuls of cocaine on his living room table in the middle of a party isn’t one for social graces. Or at least not ones we’re used to.”
Nancy laughed as Carl bent his head back a little and nonchalantly drank half the glass. The bubbles burned his throat, but they tasted good so he didn’t mind. He heard Nancy say, “You’re absolutely right, Carl.” His dick moved at the sound of his name. “Phil is a little eccentric.”
“That’s one way to describe it. I think it’s admirable though.”
“Well, in his case at least, it’s made him pretty down to earth. That is to say, he’s not pretentious. To have as much money as he obviously does and not look down on my friend is kind of rare. I would imagine it’s rare anyway.” He looked Nancy in the eyes as he talked.
She said, “Maybe you’re right.”
“Hopefully. Who likes to be wrong? Hey, did you try the…” Carl pointed his thumb at the flat tabletop.
“No. I haven’t.”
“Do you not…” Carl trailed off again, implying words that may have assumed too much if said out loud.
“Yeah, a few times. I like it, but you can get lost in that stuff if you’re not careful.”
“I think any vice, in moderation, is perfectly fine. C’mon. Let’s do a line off Phil’s genuine marble table. We may never get the opportunity again.” Nancy giggled as she followed him to the end of the room, grabbing her own champagne flute from another passing server.
They each did two lines, but with a lot of talk between each snort. Nancy’s expressions loosened as Carl spoke about observations that made her giggle. It was the coke talking. In general Carl didn’t bother with the opposite sex other than what was required of him in places like clinics and benefits centers. He remembered liking sex before prison, but his desire to pursue most things, whether a career or pussy, had deflated against the stronger desire to do nothing.
In Riker's island jail, and then later in prison, Carl was a nobody. He liked it that way. He never got involved in any disputes over sleeping arrangements or commissary items or lunch privileges. He used his mouth for breathing, not talking. What he couldn’t avoid, however, was the madness around him. He had seen an inmate overdose on drugs sold to him by prison doctors. He had seen somebody’s cheek gashed open with the thin edge of a lunch tray. Carl had seen the blood-soaked pants of a prisoner who claimed that guards had gang raped him just minutes before. That prisoner was Reggie and, while Carl tried to keep a low profile, the two shared a starved need for human kindness that made them friends and fellow addicts for want of an escape plan from life’s horrors.
Carl was sure Nancy had a much tamer version of the same story. If not, then why the two lines? Why the increasingly sexual flirting?
Carl knew from experience that despite their negative effects, quitting drugs was only something done in the context of alternatives. You needed something better. To feel the love and happiness lacking in his real life Carl sniffed cocaine, he shot up heroine, he smoked meth—though only occasionally.
He didn’t want to get in Nancy’s head too much so he said, “Phil neglected to offer me a tour of the place. I volunteer you for it.”
“Is that so? I’ve never been volunteered for anything before.”
“It’ll be fun. I promise.”
Carl rarely smiled. Mainly because his teeth weren’t in great shape, but with Nancy he also avoided it to add an air of aloofness that he could tell she wanted. He only smirked and did so as he waved her away from the crowd and toward one of the hallways. He had no knowledge of the apartment’s layout but figured that if they wandered around enough an area without people would show itself.
As they slowly drifted from one area of the apartment to the next, Carl made conversation and asked Nancy what she did for a living. She said she worked for a major electronics company as the head of its in-house graphic design team. She helped design product packaging, among other things. Carl was sincerely interested as he looked for the next available turn. He asked if she enjoyed it. She said she enjoyed it immensely. She admitted, though, that her personal life suffered for it. Her office was her primary home, turning her real home into nothing but an expensive box with a bed on the Upper East Side.
Carl said, “We all chase something. The best you can do is at least be aware of what it is you’re going to catch.” Carl thought that sounded profound. The two stepped into a large broom closet where they began making out.
Though his teeth were not in great shape, Carl’s breath smelled like mint. He religiously showered and always wore cologne. They were all attempts at covering up the fact that he moved from place to place and occasionally lived in a men’s shelter or a cheap Bronx motel. Carl and Reggie traveled around New York City like a scripted buddy drama as they stole, injected, laughed, and continued to draw breath despite themselves.
While fucking Nancy on the closet floor, he began to disassociate. Stepping outside of the moment, Carl saw himself and asked what, exactly, was making sex with Nancy feel so good. For one he enjoyed the feeling of her warmth against his body—the heat was recognition that another human was touching him. Also Nancy’s tightness as she held him inside felt glorious. Maybe most importantly, however, there were the moans of pleasure that let him know he was good. Carl liked being reassured that he was good at something.
The whole experience was wonderful, and like the cocaine high, he wished it would last forever. That was always impossible and he felt the end coming as Nancy wrapped her arms around his neck and lifted herself off the ground from her former missionary position. She began to silently tear over what Carl recognized as some hidden trauma. He sat up, grabbed her tight, and slowly grinded her hips against his as he said, “I've got you. You’re safe.” She grabbed him even tighter and he could feel her come. After a few quivers, she relaxed and kissed him slowly on the lips.
“Damn, you’re good,” she said in one breath. He soaked in the compliment. He felt it on his skin like a cooling balm and smiled slightly as Nancy stood up. She picked up one of her fallen diamond earrings from the floor and sniffed up a few last tears as Carl removed the condom she had given him to wear.
“C’mon.” she said. “Let’s head out. The tour isn’t over.”
They walked through the remaining rooms and halls of the penthouse. They had sex again in one of the studies then walked back to the crowded main rooms where they continued talking. They had more champagne.
After some time had passed, they were greeted by Phil who also had his fingers wrapped around the stem of a champagne flute. He had as much energy as before but looked slightly disheveled. The black void of his blazer and sweater was disturbed by the white of an undershirt poking out from beneath his collar.
As if they had just met, Phil gave Carl a huge hug and kissed Nancy on the left cheek. Carl asked, “Where’s Reggie?”
“Oh he’s passed out in the bedroom. How are you two? Enjoying everything? You know, I was going to get a DJ, but I thought that would really kill the vibe in here. I want people to hear people, not some pre-recorded, electronic blips and bumps. Do you think I made a bad decision?”
Nancy said, “I think everyone’s having a great time.”
“That’s what I want to hear!” His eyes darted around for a moment and he said, “Nancy, I think I see your friend James. Let me see if I can grab his ear for a second.” Looking back at them he said, “But before I do, let’s have a toast.” Phil raised his half-full glass to meet with Carl’s and Nancy’s. “May we get all we want and more!”
As soon as the glasses clinked Phil moved on. Carl thought it was a fine toast and drank slowly as he and Nancy walked to the window to cast their eyes on the city.
That first night at Phil’s home was almost perfect. The nights continued, however, and eventually turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months, and one morning Carl woke up on a couch in his underwear with dried blood from his nose covering his mouth and jaw in a scabby crust. Time had flown by, but as he slowly sat up all Carl could think of was that first night.
Whatever he and Nancy shared was short lived. They exchanged phone numbers but neither called the other. Reggie and Phil started seriously getting into heroin. Carl began increasing his dosage as well but not to the level of those two, who needed to shoot up in the morning just to get out of bed.
Still groggy from the night before, Carl got up and walked around in what could have looked like purposeless steps as the vague feeling of hunger slowly drove him to the kitchen. He could hear echoes of rough sex from the master bedroom. It was Phil, Reggie, and maybe another guest. There were moans of pain and Carl involuntarily remembered a scene from two weeks ago where he walked into the room and saw Reggie penetrating Phil from behind while a skinny, milk-skinned woman grabbed his curly hair and thrust her baby-sized right fist into his throat.
Carl wasn’t sure what he was looking for. He aimlessly dug through the refrigerator until his palm hit a carton of lemonade. Grabbing it, he walked back to the same couch he had just slid off. He put his mouth on the carton opening, but stopped short of drinking when he suddenly noticed the rough feeling of his skin. He turned left to see his reflection in the hallway mirror, which showed him the crimson mask that covered his lower face. He was disgusted but not shocked at the sight of what was around his mouth. He sighed and as his shoulders dropped so did his head.
What had been driving Carl was instinct. He felt, from the fog of his subconscious, problems that he was constantly trying to fix but just couldn’t because he didn’t have the right tools. If Reggie took time out from shooting up and asked him what would make him happy, Carl probably wouldn’t have an answer. Not a real answer anyway. Not one that would satiate his needs and leave him feeling content for more than a few hours. Indeed looking at his wilted figure and scabbed face Carl realized that the happiness he had gained at Phil’s had worn thin long ago. Carl had no other solutions forthcoming to soothe the unnamed pains that drove his actions.
When he was stealing cars he loved the thrill of doing something illegal. He craved the attention that flashing money got him. Most important, though, was the knowledge that his life was wholly his and that the decisions he made were not directed from on high. After that power was taken from him, drugs provided an easy escape from the cage he was in. The end result wasn’t hard to predict and Carl could see it quite clearly in his own reflection.
He felt hurt and walked a little slower to the massive window he had noticed that first night. The beauty he had seen then was gone. Past the thick glass, there was just concrete, dirt, and dirty people who moved like they were possessed by unseen forces that dragged their legs left and right.
Alex Clermont is a writer born and raised in New York City where he received his BA in English creative writing from Hunter College.