Fall 2021 Prose

Room 112

On the first night, Margot calls her parents from the balcony. The evening is warm and its moonlight softer than the fluorescence of her new room. Back home in Gothenburg it is still dinner time, and her mother asks excitedly about her roommates, her friends, the thread count of her sheets. Through the glass door of the balcony, one of her roommates is already asleep, or pretending to be, and hasn’t moved from her bed since Margot arrived. Another is off somewhere, her unmade blankets prickling the back of Margot’s neck with an unfamiliar anxiety—how does she have a place to be already? She was not expecting a slumber party, but she wasn’t expecting this, either; this mundane disinterest that has settled into their room. Their fourth roommate will arrive in the morning, and Margot finds herself wishing that this one will be hers, as if it is already too late for the others: as if after these four indifferent hours on campus, the other two have somehow slipped out of her reach. 

She tells her parents that everyone is amazing but jetlagged, and everything is fun but a little overwhelming. She reassures them that winter break is right around the corner and she’ll be seeing them in no time at all. The reception on the balcony is poor and the voices of her family are staccato, warped, sounding very far away. When the call disconnects, she does not move inside to call them back, even though she can picture her mother and father and her sisters crowded around the small kitchen table. It is the farthest phone call her sisters have ever made, maybe the first time they ever talked to someone outside of Sweden. Margot isn’t sure they even understand there is a world outside of Sweden. 

The balcony rail is square and wooden, rough against her elbows as she leans on it. When the older students helped carry her luggage from the bus, they kept telling her how lucky she was to have this balcony, that any of them would have killed to be assigned to this room. From here she can see the silver reflection of the football field, the soft fuzz of the wildflower garden, the edges of the town further back. A bead of sweat drips down her temple, snaking across her cheek and falling onto the railing beside her hand. Margot is suddenly aware of the way her shirt is clinging to her body and the damp itch of her hair against the backs of her ears, of the soupy heat that seems to weigh upon the balcony. Between the mountains that frame her view, the moon is closer to full than not. Margot wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. She stays outside for another moment, then she turns back to the silent, unmoving beds. 


Dalia is almost out of new activities to suggest to her roommates. She has already tried temporary tattoos, poker, and karaoke, and none of those have bonded them together in the way that she had imagined they would. Only Margot, tall and long-skirted and smiling, is still enthusiastic after those first drawling weeks. 

Now the two of them are sprawled on the balcony after lunch, painting their fingernails with Dalia’s favorite eggplant-colored polish. Margot sits with the tip of her tongue poking out of her mouth, serious concentration on her face, and Dalia is flushed with an immense gratitude for her, for the companionship, even if it might not quite be friendship yet. Margot is not like any of her friends from her old school in Beirut and Dalia is trying not to engineer their relationship, trying not to manually recreate all the experiences that birthed her previous friendships. Today they had smuggled a bowl of grapes from the dining hall and now try to eat without smearing their nails, using the pads of their fingers like talons to grip them one at a time. 

The sun is high overhead and slanting into their eyes, and the backs of Dalia’s thighs are warm against the wooden floor. Margot is playing music from her phone’s tinny speakers, something Swedish and bubbling, and Dalia doesn’t really like the sound of it, but still thinks that it is wonderful. 

“Coloring was never my best activity,” Margot says sadly, holding up her hand. Purple has spilled over the edges of her cuticles like a burst grape. Dalia takes a cotton swab, dipping the end in remover and reaching for Margot’s hand.

“We can edit it,” Dalia says, dabbing around Margot’s nails. “This might corrode your skin, but at least they’ll look pretty.” 

Glancing over Margot’s shoulder, Dalia realizes can see into the back window of the dining hall to a table overflowing with students. They are laughing and jostling and never staying still, like a shifting pattern of silent noise through the green-tinted glass. 

Dalia tries to swallow down the violent wave of envy that swells inside her, dense with guilt. In this moment she is absolutely sure that she would do anything to be at that table instead of on this skin-frying balcony with Margot. 

Then Margot accidentally eats a nail-polished grape, coughing and spitting it over the side of the railing. The bottle spills, purple pooling on the wood, speckling her shoes. She turns back to Dalia, wide-eyed, unembarrassed, and with a ridiculous contemplative expression on her face begins to describe the grapes-avec-polish like it’s some kind of French delicacy, the purple bringing out the umami flavor, the subtle notes of toxic chemicals, that rubbing alcohol undertone… 

Dalia is laughing so hard that their other roommate—Dofi, who still rarely leaves her bed and even more rarely speaks—comes and closes the door to the balcony, giving them a scathing look before slinking back to her corner. Now Margot is laughing too, grabbing her stomach. There are streaks of purple all over her white shirt. 


The noise in the room is insufferable. Dofi’s bed is across from Xiaoxiao’s, who is usually never in the room long enough for the door to close, but tonight she has a gaggle of friends packed into her corner. Dofi can’t see them across the curtain that Xiaoxiao has strung between her desk and the dresser, a little fortress of flower-print bedsheet, but every few minutes a high-pitched shriek erupts from the chatter, trailed by a cacophony of laughter, which hushes back into chatter. Dofi hasn’t seen Dalia or Margot since dinnertime, but she wishes one of them were there to tell Xiaoxiao to be quiet. She wishes one of them were there at all, even if just to commiserate. 

So now Dofi is on the balcony, despite it being past curfew, when Xiaoxiao’s friends are not allowed to be in the room anymore. Dofi thinks they would probably leave if she asked them to, but she also thinks she is not physically capable of drawing back that curtain and enduring a dozen disappointed, annoyed eyes on her. Instead, she’s on her bedroll in the open autumn air, the room sealed tightly behind her. 

Lying back, she can see a patchwork of stars to her left, cupped in the stretch of sky between the mountaintops and the sharp edge of the roof. She wishes the balcony were uncovered. Margot has complained loudly about how the bright lights around campus blot out the stars, but Margot is from a farm in the countryside and grew up spoiled by the Milky Way belted across the sky, horizon to horizon even when the moon hangs like a wiry toenail clipping. The sky outside Dofi’s window in Accra is never quite black, except for maybe directly overhead, if she cranes her neck out and straight up. Instead it’s kaleidoscoped in the purple, red, and green haze of the nightclubs and hotels, and the glow of the golden streets latticing the city. 

This self-imposed exile is actually the first time Dofi has taken a proper look overhead at night. At first she is bored by the lack of color, but after a moment, the gradations of white in the stars carve a depth into the sky that Dofi has never seen before. It’s like those worn Magic Eye puzzles her school nurse kept in a bin, that accordioned into three dimensions if she looked at them for long enough. She shifts so that her butt is directly against the railing, her legs sticking straight up in the air, and she knows she must look absurd if Xiaoxiao’s friends could see her through the window. 

Dofi wonders how anyone ever imagined the Earth was flat, lying like this. Her legs aren’t sticking up but hanging down, off the belly of the Earth, swinging against the expanse of black and white and shades of silver. She grips the bars of the railing so tightly that the corners slice into her palms. She tries to convince herself that this grip is the only thing keeping her on the balcony, that if she lets go, she’ll drop into the sky and spin until she falls into some other planet’s gravity and never escapes. 

Dofi tries to feel this. But the silhouettes of the mountains and the edge of the roof are blotting her view, and the floorboards are hard even through the bedroll beneath her. The sky is not enough to forget that she’s lying on her pillow outside with a fat pair of mosquitos whirring next to her ear. 

There is a sharp rap on the glass door behind her, and she turns to see Dalia’s face pressed up against the glass. Dofi lets her feet fall back down, pulling herself into a seated position as Dalia slips outside, closing the door behind her. 

“What the hell, Dofi?” she asks. “Did they kick you out or something?” Dofi can’t tell if she’s making fun of her or not. There is mascara smudged on the corners of Dalia’s eyes, and her cheeks are already flushed. 

“No,” Dofi says, “they’re just so loud.” Even on the balcony, she can hear the rhythmic thumping of Xiaoxiao’s music, punctuated by shrieks of hilarity from her friends. 

“It’s your room, too,” Dalia says, crossing her arms across her chest. “You can tell them to leave.” 

“I can’t kick them out,” Dofi says, but she doesn’t think that Dalia could understand what she means. Dalia crouches down in front of her, reaching out to grip Dofi’s shoulder. Her breath is warm and sweet, the edges of her lips stained the color of the pomegranate wine sold in casks down the street. 

“You need to be assertive, okay? You need to stand up for yourself.” She reaches out to grab Dofi’s other shoulder, wobbling unsteadily on her toes. Dofi doesn’t want her to faceplant so she cups Dalia’s elbows to steady her, and now they are both just squatted and squeezing each other on the floor of the balcony. 

“If you didn’t notice, I’m not so assertive,” Dofi says. Dalia rolls her eyes. 

“That is so stupid,” Dalia says, and Dofi feels a pinprick of hurt in her chest, defensiveness welling up like blood. But Dalia tightens her grip on Dofi’s shoulders, as if she could shock the willfulness into her, or maybe transmit a fraction of her own through her fingertips. 

“I will be the party killer tonight,” she says. “But next time, you come with me.” 

Dofi nods, still holding Dalia steady. She can feel herself smiling, at Dalia staring at her so intently, like this is the most important thing in the world: like she is on a divine mission to teach Dofi how to tell teenage girls to quiet down. 

“Okay,” Dalia says, using Dofi’s shoulders to push herself up. She holds a finger up to Dofi, then steps back inside the door to the room. 

Dofi leans back against the railing. The nights here are still warm and the hair on her legs prickles. She closes her eyes, searching for that falling feeling she almost caught a few moments ago. Before she can find it, the thump of music inside suddenly cuts off into silence. 


They’ve been at school for over two months and Xiaoxiao cannot believe that this is only the second time she’s doing her laundry. Her basket is heaped dangerously high with most of her closet, still dripping wet, seeping through the wire mesh and darkening the wooden floor of the balcony. It’s early morning, the sun still rising over the crest of the mountains, and the driers in the basement have a reputation for charring delicates, so Xiaoxiao is hanging her damp clothes on a line that she’s strung across the balcony. Her roommates are still asleep. Most of the campus is still asleep, she thinks, except maybe for the singular jogger she saw slip out of the dorm and disappear down the path into town. Xiaoxiao hasn’t felt this much silence since arriving to school, and it scratches uncomfortably at her skin. She’s never been someone who needed much time alone, always found comfort in the Tianjin cacophony surrounding her apartment, but now it’s almost intolerable to be by herself. It’s why the laundry never gets done. Carting the bag down to the basement, dragging it back up, taking the time to hang each piece—it snatches her out of real life for too long. It’s one, two hours in which the world carries on without her, and she knows it’s irrational but she can’t help but feel like if she’s gone for one second, she’s going to miss out on something monumental. Some kind of catalyst that bonds everyone to each other, closes their ranks, and Xiaoxiao will be stranded on the outside. But it got to the point where yesterday, she ran out of underwear and wore bikini bottoms under her skirt, and that was a wake-up call. She needed to wash her clothes or else soon she’d be wearing her Speedo racing suit as a bra and panties in one. 

But right now, there’s no time for introspection before people start waking up, and she’s not even halfway through hanging. The line sags under the weight of her closet. 

Her roommate Dalia has a dress that Xiaoxiao would love to wear before the weather tips into winter and she’ll be forced to hide beneath her puffy coat for a season. But Dalia has always felt so unreachable, she and Margot this impenetrable unit. Every time she talks with them, it feels like there’s a second conversation between eyes and expressions that Xiaoxiao can’t understand, this language of best-friendship over her head. Maybe she could ask sometime when she’s alone, maybe when Margot is off with her second-year girlfriend that Xiaoxiao isn’t supposed to know about. 

She drapes a pair of jeans over the line, but as soon as she lifts her hands, the knot at the end slips and falls. The neat row of pants falls to a heap on the floor of the balcony, a gray wool sock slipping through the bars. A startled gasp floats up from where the sock disappeared. 

“Hello?” Xiaoxiao peers over the edge and Margot is lying in her sleeping bag on the grass below, a book open across her chest. She’s pinching the sock above her head and frowning, squinting up at the windows above. “Raining socks?” 

“Sorry!” Xiaoxiao shouts. “Laundry accident.” 

“Laundry? That’s a milestone.” Her voice is light and teasing, and even if Xiaoxiao couldn’t see the smile spreading across her face, she’d be able to hear it. 

“I know. We should have a celebration,” Xiaoxiao says down to her. And then, just because she can’t help but ask, “Margot, did you sleep down there?” 

“Of course,” she says, sitting up, the sleeping back still wrapped around her. She looks like a giant orange worm that’s nested below their balcony. 

“You are so strange,” she says, because it’s true, and she hopes that Margot can feel the smile, the fondness, in her voice. Xiaoxiao has never slept outside one night in her life. 

“Can I join you next time?” she asks, in the same moment that Margot says, “You should try it with me.” They laugh. Margot balls up the sock and throws it back on the balcony, where it lands in the rest of the pile of wet clothes. Xiaoxiao realizes that the longer she waits, the more dirt will cling to them. 

“Go back to bed,” she calls down. The sunlight is still just foaming over the edges of the mountains, and there will be another stretch of silence before the wake-up bell fills the valley. 

“Congrats on the clean clothes,” Margot says, but her eyes are already closed, blonde hair pooled around her head and snaking out into the grass. 

Xiaoxiao stoops to find the edge of the clothesline, struggling to remember which knot her grandmother always used to fasten it. The pile of wet laundry soaks into the hems of her pajama pants. She’ll have to change before the others wake up. 


The wooden floorboards are so cold that Margot can’t tell if they’re actually frozen solid, or just well on their way. She’s wearing Xiaoxiao’s socks, the ones with inch-thick cow-print fur, but she’s still worried her toes will stick to them like a tongue on ice. 

The pizza box is in the corner where she left it, the cardboard lid damp and sagging. Since the first frost, they’ve been using the balcony as a walk-in (or was it walk-out?) refrigerator, tossing fruit, leftovers, even ice cream bars if the night would dip below freezing. Now she is bent down, stiff fingers fumbling for the pizza box, when she hears the door crack open behind her. 

“You’re going to freeze!” Dofi says, and Margot looks to see her swaddled in the quilt from her bed, breath already frosting the glass as she pokes her head out. Margot turns, her bulky coat making her movements jerky. 

“Only my nose!” she says. “It’s already numb, so don’t worry.” Dofi huffs a laugh, the air pluming from her nose like the snort of a dragon. Margot realizes it’s the first time she’s heard Dofi laugh while not on the phone with friends from home. It’s higher pitched than she was expecting. She opens the pizza box and displays it like she’s a game show host, waving her fingers in front of it. She feels a little ridiculous, but she wants to see if she can keep drawing out the smile that’s ghosting over Dofi’s face.

“Step outside to my restaurant, young lady,” she says, “it’s the finest pizza on campus.” 

“It’s the only pizza on campus,” Dofi responds, but then her slippers are padding onto the wood beside Margot. The pizza is a couple of days old and stiff as a board, and Margot is choosing to believe that’s only from the frost. It cracks in half and it’s too cold for her teeth, so she tries to warm it by cupping her hands over it and breathing warm air. 

“This is so gross,” she says, “Exhaling all over my food.” 

“Gross together,” Dofi says, and she’s sandwiching the pizza between her palms, trying to transfer some body heat into the crust. They both laugh. Margot feels a small flicker of pride in her chest, at this moment solidifying between them. She has often been content to let friendship come to her in its own time, but it feels good to reach out, to shape it, for once. 

Over the rail, the field and the mountains behind shine in the low morning light, the frost not yet consumed by the mid-afternoon sun. Eventually, the pizza thaws enough for them to bite it without icing the insides of their mouths. Margot hops from foot to foot, shaking out her toes to get some blood rushing back into them. Her nose is so cold she thinks it could snap off, and she can see Dofi’s cheeks flushing dark with each breeze. Still, they stay on the balcony until the last bite is finished. 


For the first time, they are all four on the balcony. Their suitcases are already swollen beside their closets, and tomorrow they will leave for the one-month winter break. They aren’t allowed to leave any food in the rooms, because apparently the mice become tenants each year while the students visit home. The girls are pooling their snacks and sweets, feasting on a last supper. Dofi dumps a whole bag of kiwis onto the pile of chips, cheeses, and candies encased in the circle of their legs. 

“I can’t even eat them,” she says sadly, “I wanted to be adventurous, but they make my tongue itch.” 

“Try everything once,” Xiaoxiao says, mocking Dalia. She has taken to nagging them with that phrase when she wants to do something stupid, but doesn’t want to do it alone. 

“Try everything once, including a severe allergic reaction,” Margot adds on, and Dofi laughs that high laugh. Margot has learned how to draw it out when she wants to, unspooling it like a ball of yarn. 

Dalia is rolling her eyes but also smiling, working with a knife to peel the skin from the kiwis in one long, thin curl that falls to the floor in a spiral. She opens her mouth to Margot, who pops in another of the gummy candies sent by Xiaoxiao’s parents, but which only cleared customs last week. 

The sun is balanced on the mountain ridge as it sinks, a pool of amber-colored light oozing up and spilling into the valley. Purple, pink, and orange slice through the bars of the railing and fall on them. Margot’s hair catches all the color; it looks like it could burst into flame at any moment. 

Xiaoxiao opens her phone to play some music. It’s not her favorite playlist but it’s one she knows the others will like, and the sound weaves through the stripes of sunlight and shadow. Margot lets up on Dalia and turns her teasing to Dofi, and within minutes they are laughing loud enough to drown out the music, anyway. The door to the room has swung open, and a draft of frigid December air rustles through the crack, threatening to freeze anything in its path. No one complains, though—the room is empty. The girls on the balcony are wearing their coats.

Fall 2021 Prose

Dredging the Pasig

The homely smell of Joseph’s excrement transports Maribell back to breakfast. She swallows the milkfish in front of her. It’s all routine. 

His family’s home changes every visit. What was two mattresses are now proper beds. His breakfast much better than the plain rice she first ate. 

His mom says, “Joseph, eat as much as you want. You are like our fishermen ancestors.” She smiles, before glaring at his father. 

It’s the joy in giving them charity that makes this foul heat bearable—what is just a meal out for Maribell is worth more what Joseph’s father makes each week. She could be under her freshly laundered flannel sheets, air-con cranked up to the max, reading some refreshingly depressing fan fiction. But this feels more real— in a place that her family doesn’t know exists. 

She leads Joseph’s body to the main road. As she walks, she notices a scar on his ankle, and uses his small hands to reach at it. There’s a stain on his blue shorts. It’s funny how it’s the same shade as his skin. 

The rusty corrugated iron slums stand ready for a Caritas ad. The odor of roof rot lingers when she breathes through her mouth. A cat brushes against her. She holds back a scream. In the candlelight of the last typhoon, her mom prayed a rosary for all these squatters. 

Next to the school, the barangay police station has one of those sixties’ concrete façades—a ruin of when Manila had a future. Somebody must have pocketed its renovation budget. Maribell finds Imboy at his cubicle: his big nose asks for Maribell’s pity. 

When she calls him, he makes a sign of the cross and asks, “Maribell, what happened?”

Imboy has been summoning her back in time for three months. Tonight, in the old future, Imboy texted her the details to tell his morning self. She then called Joseph to meet off the highway. Using Joseph’s stool to repeat the day in his body, she now relays who they will stop from being assaulted, robbed, or whatever. 

In the last weeks, Maribell and Imboy stopped two women from being kidnapped, but this time, it’s the first minor. 

Maribell says, “Life is so cheap here. Isn’t the fine for hitting someone with a car only eight thousand pesos?” 

He scratches his neck, “It’s not that low.” He adds, “If a kid peddling sampaguita flowers were run over by a car, the rich would be happy. One less person to bother them. I grew up here. I care about what you see as a disgusting helpless mess.” 

About two weeks into their arrangement, Maribell and Imboy passed a police squadron commanding the masses to go home. Peeking between the crowd’s gaps, Maribell saw a pulled-up undershirt and a pool of blood. A face hidden by torn cardboard, in thick marker: “drug pusher.” She couldn’t tell if the fermenting garbage smell was from the body or the crowd. She forced back her vomit. It could have been anyone. Before she could say anything, Imboy pulled her away to attend to their business: stopping a stabbing nearby. 

Their current victim will be last seen at the wet market next to that drug pusher killing. The market grows like a parasite street by street, with only the chronically congested highway blocking its spread. Festering below electrical wires that tangle between the buildings like pancit, it feeds off the chaos of people who wear their backpacks at their front. The heat of the concrete forces the construction workers to roll up their tank tops into crop tops. The damp garbage waits for nobody to collect it. A banner welcomes you to barangay hundred-and-something, with a mustached politician posing with his son. They both smile over their domain of knick-knacks and kickbacks and the street children making money too young. The only verdant thing is the squalid shirt she wears. 

The bell of the squat Spanish church chime nearby: noon mass.

Imboy turns to her, “Let me buy you something.” 

He comes back with balut. “Have you tried this?” He asks. 

“Of course, no.” 

He pushes the somewhat-developed duck egg into her mouth, she stumbles back, falling into a mangy askal lying in the trash. He laughs and cracks the balut for himself. He gives her money to buy something else. She comes back with a banana. 

She sees the Facebook profile of the victim off his phone: seventeen, studying to be a nurse, her big eyes sweeten her plain face. If she becomes an OFW1, she’ll find a foreign husband. 

“I’ll call her. Tell her that a kidnapper is out for girls like her,” Imboy says. 

“But we don’t know if the guy will go after someone else. It’s been a month now of these kidnappings. When you sent me back, you had no idea who the perpetrator was—no idea if it’s one guy. It’s on a random day. No suggestion of anything sexual.” 

She continues, “We’ve stopped crimes in your barangay, but what about your neighbors? What if criminals see how peaceful it is here and decide to pull your barangay down with them? I can’t help you forever. It’s like how they say Filipinos are like crabs in a boiling pot. Instead of helping each other escape the water, Pinoys will pull each other down. So, you’ll all die together.” 

Imboy laughs, “What are you then? Not Pinoy?” 

She looks at the people flowing past, saying, “It’s about time we catch this guy. We could let her be the bait.” 

“But what if we don’t stop him?” 

“Everyone we save could be another that he goes after instead.” 

“Okay, I’m game.” 

Imboy checks in for them at the motel that faces the market. A stifling lavender spray masks the outside stench. When the clerk asks for how many hours, Imboy resists looking down at his police badge. He says that Maribell is his son and that they are staying for a full night to visit family. 

Juice boxes line the counter. Imboy asks for two. He drinks on one and passes the other to Maribell. The juice corporation is her family’s business, so she has drunk refrigerators of this stuff since she was little. She can’t wait to get out of Manila and visit one of their plantations. 

“Don’t want it?” Imboy asks. 

“I’m not thirsty.” 

Maribell said the same thing when they first met. A taxi driverhad drugged his air-con to knock her out. But the taxi’s tire hit a nail, so they ended up at a vulcanizing shop. Barely awake, she struggled out of the car, and with all her strength, screamed out at the gutter kids, “I’ll give three-hundred pesos to whoever can get me human poop first.” While all the other kids ran around, Joseph pulled down his pants. His stool was like a worm fasting for Lent. 

She knew she could use a whiff of her own excrement to go back to the meal after her last visit to the bathroom, but she had never considered trying it on another human. Opening her eyes to see Joseph’s family at breakfast, she was set on getting home. 

Doing his patrol on the main road, the morning before the kidnapping, Imboy asked her, “Child, are you thirsty? Why aren’t you at school?” 

She claimed she didn’t need anything, but Imboy insisted. After drinking a whole water bottle, she explained everything. 

Imboy offered his phone to stop her past self from taking that taxi, and when Maribell asked him if he wanted any compensation, he told her to give money to Joseph’s family. He then added that she could help him clean up the area: help the people the police could not protect. 

By ten p.m., they spot the victim at home after class. Her name is Jhemmalyn: so tacky, so Pinoy. Half-watching the half-whites on a teleseryes with Imboy, she looks outside. The wet season’s rain pulls used shampoo sachets and other plastic towards whatever’s left of Manila Bay. How much longer until she’s out of here? Somewhere like Canada or Australia, where she’ll take her master’s. 

A hooded man enters the girl’s building. She calls over Imboy. 

They head downstairs. When the guy comes back out with the victim, her hands are tied, and a cloth covers her head. 

Imboy races at the kidnapper. Maribell can’t keep up. The guy laughs and fumbles out a gun to hold to the girl’s head. Maribell makes out more of his face and shudders. It’s worn-out and almost familiar. But, it’s just the rain. Her legs are too short. She’s still far away. 

Imboy aims his gun at the two bodies. “I’m a good shot,” he bluffs. The man hesitates. Imboy shoots. The girl falls, her shoulder bloody. The kidnapper kisses a scapular around his neck and runs away. Catching up to him, Maribell shouts at Imboy to call for backup. He props the girl’s body on his lap, then removes the cloth and tape on her mouth. 

She screams. Imboy says, “It’s okay, just flesh. We’ll catch him another day.” 

Maribell says, “No, I swear I’ve seen him. Maybe, today in the market. I can try to go back twice. I need to find someone new.” 

Before a crowd can assemble at the noise of the gun shot, she spots a little girl behind a telephone pole. Her skin almost as dark as the corner she hides in. Imboy says he will pay her for poo. 

She whines a few times, then holds it up for Maribell to breathe in. 

Maribell nostrils flare and her face contorts. Imboy looks into the blank eyes, as tears—almost concealed by the rain— stream down. Gasping for air, the newly conscious Joseph whimpers, “Where am I?” 


Imboy still wonders who Maribell is. He only knows that she’s young and from a rich family. If he told his mother about her, she’d ask the parish priest to bless their home again or for the healing priest to see Imboy. 

Imboy digs into the balut that reminds him of his grandmother. She always bought it for his meryenda when he was a boy in the province, where the sea breeze crashed into the mountain cliffs. Most of the family moved to Manila after his grandfather commanded his kids to not die with a plow in hand. Imboy’s dad likes to mention how he honored his father when Imboy’s older siblings ask to move out before marriage. Imboy’s dad retired from the PNP2 years ago, so his kids’ salaries are his pension. 

Imboy sits at the street corner with Joseph or Maribell. He has seen this four-foot body as two people. Joseph hangs around the other bowl-cut kids that smell like the sun. But, Maribell stands alone, one hand on her hips. Her eyes dart around like an askal looking for something to eat. Imboy has to wait to hear Tagalog (Joseph) or English (Maribell) to know who it is. 

Today, it is Maribell. 

He can hear a buzzer from the basketball court, where he plays with his friends after work. And, despite it being early afternoon, there’s music from a karaoke machine. The market vendors haggle with mass-goers, who buy anting-anting to ward off evil spirits. The new mayor’s photoshopped billboard blocks the sound and fumes of the highway. Underneath is a notice for a town hall on a cannery to be built over the squatter area. The mayor says that they are so close to the seaport that they’ll lose out on their future if it’s built somewhere else. The squatters have no right to live in their homes, but the barangay is putting up a fight. 

For Imboy, it’s about keeping the peace. Maribell asks him about what he’s been up to. They talk about the new high-rises in BGC and Makati. “It’s like Manila’s Pudong,” she says. 

A little girl in an oversized pink shirt scuttles up to them. She hesitates before tugging at Imboy’s tucked in shirt. She says, “Imboy, Pudong is the business district in Shanghai.” 

She then explains that she is a future Maribell. 

“You dropped your balut,” Joseph-Maribell says to him. The Maribells whisper to each other. Joseph-Maribell asks Imboy for money and walks home. 

The girl says, “We’ve decided to have a sting with the kidnapper, right?” Imboy nods. “Basically, you shot the girl and let the guy get away. You asked me to try to go back twice.”


“Let’s check into the motel then.” 

Imboy can barely pay for the whole night, but Maribell will give him money next time. He says they are visiting family and picks up two juice boxes from that cannery plant company, a token of goodwill for the people of the area. When they get up to their room, Imboy asks Maribell for more details. She says that around ten p.m., the guy will come for Jhemmalyn Baquiran, a girl he knows from mass. Imboy can take the kidnapper once Maribell identifies him. 

She points at the alleyway where Jhemmalyn lives. It’s there where he confronted the police chief of the barangay station about that extrajudicial killing months ago. He knew that the PNP were as corrupt and bureaucratic as the government, but these were officers of his barangay. The old family friends told Imboy to buckle up because there was nothing to do about a drug pusher. When he asked if any police were involved, they said, “Leave it up to God.” 

Maribell watches TV for hours. All these mestizos in these cheesy teleseryes. He’s only seen people like this in the nice parts of Manila or the children of island souvenirs and their white husbands: Twenty years older or kilograms fatter than normal. 

Maybe one of the actresses is Maribell—with fair skin, a sharp nose, and wavy but not curly hair. And she’s from one of those gated villages. The ones with the pleasant-smelling tree-lined streets, guards, and tall fences. Where they have their Toyota HiAces and sports cars ready for all days of the week. 

Maribell rolls over from her side of the bed to ask Imboy, “Can we go back to the station? I want to search up someone who might have been there.” 

“I can just call them.” 

Imboy gets another officer on the phone, “Can you check out the name Manuel, D as in ‘Dog,’ Javier, also goes by ‘Tato.’” 

“Yes, I have a Manuel D. Javier from this area. But I don’t know if it’s D as in ‘Dog.’” 

Imboy puts the phone on speaker, they say that he has been in jail for kidnapping a decade ago, assault two decades ago.

“What about three decades ago?” Imboy asks. 

“He was a teenager.” Imboy laughs, says thanks, and then hangs up. 

He asks Maribell, “Who’s Tato?” 

“He’s a guy who works with my family. The kidnapper looked like him. I didn’t know he has a record.” She looks away. 

“You know Imboy,” Maribell says, her voice more confident, “If I were from an area like this, I know how hard it would be to rise up, but nowadays, there are so many jobs in Manila. We have all the call centers, all those tech jobs. But, you know, it’s really like the Wild West out here, too. So many people move here from the provinces, working for a better life but get lost and can’t reach it. 

“I don’t know if I told you this—my family’s business really helps people, but it can get dangerous for us. We have a factory that was taken over by the communists near Tacloban—they killed two guards—and the government didn’t do anything. We had to pay the ransom. We’ve helped people send their kids to university—to other countries. I’m glad I was born into my family.” 

Imboy nods. It’s not worth asking how many times the company has had to pay off politicians or asked for forgiveness when smaller businesses would ask for permission. 

She looks out at the market, “Sometimes, I feel like the upper class has to assume the burden of morality for the Philippines, for the poor and the drugs. Lead the Philippines to the first world.” She pauses, “What we’d be if we were still in the US.” 

Imboy glowers at Maribell. She bites her lip. Imboy says, “It’s more like you rich decide what’s moral. You have the ear of government and the church and tell us what to do, what to think. You tell us to fry ourselves in our own fat.” 

“I don’t know. All I can do is try to get out of here and contribute my bit. Only thing I’m certain of is that it’ll rain soon because of this little girl’s shit.” 

On cue, the rain falls hard. It’s the familiar downpour of the wet season that comforts Imboy. When he was little, he hated how it forced him to return home—how his mom feared the dengue of dusk. But now he feels like the rain’s purr is only for him. Cooling the city into the night. Sure, rain could mean a typhoon, but typhoons—and earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes— will forever define his country. A car horn interrupts him. He rejoins Maribell in the teleseryes fest. 

One hour passes. 

Two hours. 

It’s almost ten p.m. 

“I think he comes by in twenty minutes,” Maribell says. “I’m hungry, can I go down to a convenience store?” 

“You can just go to that sari-sari store,” Imboy points with his mouth. “The owners keep it open until they sleep.” 

“My Tagalog isn’t that good. It’s easier at a convenience store, even if they shoo me out.” 

He looks at his watch and asks, “Want me to go with you? He may come earlier.” 

“He’s still in awhile. I can’t go out alone in my own body. I’ll come back if anything happens.” 

He watches Maribell walk down the street, as the white noise adds to the percussion of the rain. The lights of the countless billboards reflect onto the puddles around Maribell. They advertise diets, food, and clothes for those on the highway. He thumbs over the rosary he keeps in his pocket, when he spots a little girl coming back down the alley. It’s Maribell. 

She beckons a hooded man a few steps behind. He matches the description of Tato. 

Maribell watches at the door as the guy enters. Imboy runs down, shouting at Maribell. 

“Keep your voice down,” she pleads. “It’s not worth saving her. I’m protecting you, just go home.” 

He grimaces and pushes her into a puddle. He checks his pistol and sneaks up the stairs to Jhemmalyn’s apartment. Through the open door, Tato ties up Jhemmalyn. Imboy tackles Tato from behind—Tato’s head slams onto cold cement floor. 

Jhemmalyn tries to gasp for air. Imboy rips off the hood and tape covering her mouth. She asks, “Kuya,3 did they come after my parents too?” 

“Your parents?” 

“They are organizing protests against the cannery.” 

“Your kidnapping must be to scare them off.” He unties her arms, “But you’re all good now.” 

Imboy pushes Tato down. Jhemmalyn speaks to someone behind Imboy, “Hey, go home, child. This isn’t safe.” 

Imboy turns around a second after Maribell snatches his gun from its holster. She backs away, aiming at him. In the confusion, Tato pulls out his gun, and aims it at Imboy. Surly yet composed, he commands Imboy to sit next to Jhemmalyn, both with hands in the air. 

Maribell says, “It was going to happen either way.” She walks to the window. “God, I hate the rain.” 

She asks Tato, “Can you take this for me?” 

He reaches for the gun Maribell holds with disgust. 

At that moment, Jhemmalyn charges at Maribell. Imboy follows and rushes Tato from the side. Tato fires. Imboy feels no pain and grabs at Tato’s gun. 

Clutching her side, Jhemmalyn lies on top of Maribell. Her blood drips onto Maribell’s hand. Jhemmalyn uses all her strength to throw the gun to the end of the room. Maribell wriggles her way out, but Imboy has already handcuffed Tato. 

“I know it’s not pretty, but we are making your lives worth something.” Maribell points at herself, “So she won’t have to live like this —rummaging through the tr…” Before thinking, he pulls the trigger of the gun. 

“You demon!” He screams, but Maribell has gone back to the new future she created. The body collapses. The leg streams with blood. The little girl wails. Like ants, people appear out of nowhere and crowd outside the door. Imboy cradles the girl, calling for backup with his radio. Her cries soften. 

“Child, what’s your name?” Imboy asks. 

“Gabriella, po4,” she says.

“You’re so brave, you’ve stopped crying already.” 

“It doesn’t help, po,” The girl replies mildly. 

He can’t help his tears for this girl. Taking off his shirt to apply pressure to the wound, he feels her arms gently hugging him. Back and forth, he rocks her. Jhemmalyn groans behind him. She reaches for the cloth that she wore minutes before and ties it around her torso. She glances at the girl, saying to Imboy, “She’ll live. I don’t know about the leg.” 

A cop carries the girl away. More arrive with a stretcher for Jhemmalyn. They joke that she could remove the bullet out of her own body. 

One officer pats Imboy’s back saying, “Imboy, we’ll figure this out for you. Go home, your parents are worried.” Imboy gets up, and the officer adds, “I think you’ll be happy to receive a bonus from the mayor—for your troubles. I bet your dad needs surgery—how old is he now?” 

One after another, old women under umbrellas whisper, “Susmariajoseph.” Imboy makes his way home. From one shack, he can hear a family praying. From another, he can smell garlic and hear a high-pitched man yelling. A bullfrog ribbits from the creek nearby. He can see the tree that marks its end. Plastic bags hang like parols, choking the branches. 

A boy shouts behind him, “Kuya!” 

“What’s wrong?” Imboy asks. 

“I know you’re upset that the girl lost her leg. But you need to understand that my and so many people’s future requires my family. And your future—your family’s—relies on what you do next. Does that mean anything to you?” He grabs at her, but her eyes close, and the body falls towards him. 

Imboy grunts and changes course towards the police station. He shortcuts through the piss-smelling alleyways lined with floodlights, erected last year to deter crime. The old shadows have darkened. He looks up to the night sky as the rain clears. The lights of the megalopolis add haziness to the smog. He sees no stars.

1 Overseas Filipino Worker
2 Philippine National Police
3 Older brother
4 A sign of respect, like “sir” or “madam”

Fall 2021 Featured Prose

The Young Woman

Upstairs, a simple laborer complains of an infection. At reception, a new widow seeks relief from a nagging cough. In the middle of it all, the Young Woman awaits the News. Under the fluorescent half-light, the Young Woman melts like snow to pissing dogs.

The Young Woman arrives in a near-hyperthermic state. Beeps and clicks perform their own private marching song. Countless people speak across each other. Quickly through the gallery of lights, that off-white glaze, fading to black on rhythm. Light arrives, light departs, dark arrives, bleeding hearts. Sharp pins wince—two, three, four. Inside of eyes, umbrellas to storms. The Young Woman thinks of “It’s a Small World,” and about the season passes to Disney she will probably never use again. 

The attendings surrounding her speak of numbers and they wonder about many things; the Young Woman wonders only about the News. 

She wonders about the Bearer, about how he will present the News, the worry that he might not shoot her straight. He might attempt to cajole the Young Woman—to wrap the News inside semantics and history and justifications. If he does this, he will speak in the language of why. He will try to account for everything: each stray hair in the brush, every face-down phone, every early bedtime. All of this will feel fatally important to the Bearer: the details as penance, the accuracy of the brushstroke as a substitute for the evil in the frame. All of it will only further excruciate the Young Woman. Excruciating, at first, in the expected way. The Bearer’s craving for immediate salvation, the frantic apologia, the endless self-pity like a one-man special victims’ unit. It will all come together; to humiliate, to discolor, to crumble the Young Woman’s spine like dry cracker—to slice through flesh too surprised to know how to bleed. 

Excruciating, too, because she needs to hear it. The Bearer’s excuses, however malignant and self-serving, will strike directly at the millions of insecurities and anxieties that have completely overtaken the Young Woman in the wake of all of this. The curiously self-destructive member of her mental family is burned for confirmation. Whether she likes it or not, the relationship between the Young Woman and the Bearer has lent to a peacock’s frock of irrational emotions—the kind that would oblige any warm-blooded creature to sit there and take the beating, licking the wounds only after the blood has taken a moment to clot, knowing, by which they are born to feel, that there can be no return to real life until every last bit of stuffing has been ripped out of them. 

If and when the Bearer arrives with the News, the Young Woman wonders about the way that the Bearer will lie. His lies might be short and clerical: It happened on this night, we met at this place, I don’t know what came over me, it will never happen again. In this story, each detail will be its own weighted formality, each will serve the plot, each more divorced than the previous. 

Or perhaps his lies will be ornamental like fables, meant to coax the Young Woman, however briefly, into the Bearer’s shoes: It was a dark and stormy night, my new blood pressure medication had begun acting up, I had momentarily entered a state of paranoid delusion. Whatever the story, it will, of course, also be complete fiction, but a different sort of unhappy fiction, since this will be the one the Bearer actually believes, the one he has rehearsed, and the one he has come to love. It will all be invented, nonetheless. Even if it sparkles as genuine, even if the Bearer might hold deeply to its authenticity, the Bearer has no capacity for truth. The Young Woman has seen this before. This trait was, at first, endearing—the Bearer does well at parties, the Bearer gets on with parents, the Bearer dances slowly in burning rooms, etc. But now this charm is something else, in the aftermath of something serious, in a world where people cry and things matter. Now, only the rotting and decomposed roadkill on the shoulder of the major freeway. Whether the Bearer is in his current haze of crocodile medications and performative self-discovery, or in some new state of complete and total dissociation from reality, it will all be the same, still jamming like thumbs through blanched eyeballs. 

The Young Woman is wrapped in layers of blankets and warming structures. Her body is littered with treatments and therapeutics. Some numbers on the screen glare red, others sit still in green and blue. The well-educated men and women treat themselves to her body until the numbers change and a new crowd wanders in. The entourage talk, smooth but cold to the touch, think hand-carved iced at whiskey hour; the words to them come effortlessly. The leading man in the room makes the same tired joke about a smoke break after all of this. He makes this joke to every new person he sees. 

The Young Woman cannot shake the grumbling thought that her receipt of the News will reflect as much on her as on the Bearer. The antagonist clings to a script, there are only so many ways to play the part. This gives the Bearer something of an advantage. There is not much for him to do but apologize, to trim the foliage at its edges. But for the weeds, there are choices: She might hurl insults. She could attempt to empathize. She could cut the Bearer off before he’s even given the stage. She wonders if there is such a thing as nobility in the world of victimhood. 

She saw a girl once in a commercial. A thirteen-year-old named Dorothy, who sits in the oncology wing of Mt. Sinai, having has her video taken for fundraisers. You have to wonder about this girl. Does she like 80’s movies? The Breakfast Club? Sixteen Candles? Ferris Bueller? The real kitschy ones. The big homecoming dance, the male protagonist is out with the hottest girl in school, the tomboy girl-next-door walks through the door with ‘Only You’ by Yazoo playing in the background. Those kids are coming of age in the library and Dorothy watches her doctors whisper poorly about months and years remaining. 

Does Dorothy empathize with the cancer? Does she hope that the cancer will one day get its act together? Does she hope for the cancer to learn to tell the truth, for the cancer to go to therapy and really try this time? Even if the cancer could become capable of love and romance with somebody else’s body, doesn’t Dorothy know that she could never trust the cancer again? Dorothy might feel some pull towards history, wondering about the days when the cancer wasn’t so cancerous. There was a day when stage three leukemia was just Dorothy’s nose abruptly bleeding into her middle school boyfriend’s mouth. These were the days when the Young Woman dealt with the cancer’s bad PCP trip—clearing the guests from the apartment, rubbing his hair for 5 straight hours, taking him in and out of the bathtub as he continued to scream about how he couldn’t feel anything but also couldn’t tolerate the constant tingling across his skin. These also included the days when the cancer, instead of piggish obscenities during sex, would grab the Young Woman’s hair and tell her how badly she had ruined him, how he’d kill himself if she left him, how he’d never be able to fuck anybody else again. The Young Woman would latch to him like a spider monkey, wondering if somewhere deep inside she might feel the same. 

The Young Woman lies like a snow angel as the PA screams code blue. The capable bodies scamper and beg one another for tools and needles and paddles. A doctor barks twice for a tube and the machines kick and scream on behalf of the Young Woman. The whole room makes discordant sounds like black reapers with scraping steel on stones. It all proves unintelligible. 

In another room, unrelatedly, a kindly nurse with a face like oatmeal is on her lunch break. Like every day, the nurse sits haggardly at the feet of a coma patient. She swallows three bites of a cafeteria panini and starts to think aloud. 

“From what I heard, there was always some tension. But where isn’t there? Are there perfect families out there? I haven’t seen them. Most girls start acting up at thirteen, so I guess they got two or three more years out of her. But you know how girls can get. 

The first time I heard anything was the night with the house party. Amy brought a few friends over. Maybe five, maybe six, apparently, they find themselves in the liquor cabinet. Cheryl was always something of a wino so I’m not surprised it was stocked. But I guess they got pretty rowdy, real rowdy I suppose, since a few of the other neighbors called it in. Not me though. I know how kids can get. You have to let them live a little bit. But this was different, you know? These girls had a little too much fun. I heard that when the police walked in, Cheryl was holding some poor boy’s face above the toilet. His hair was in the toilet water. Disgusting. And then, later that night, even after the cops leave, one of the girlfriends is in Amy’s bed with the skinny boy who bags groceries at Pathmark. And would you believe they broke the bed?! They don’t teach you what to do in a situation like that. They do not come with a manual; I’ll tell you that. 

But it all really turned to shit when He came home that night. He wasn’t happy of course. You know how men can get. But that was the first time it got messy like that, from what I can remember. You could hear it down the block. He was doing this ‘I’m not your father but I will raise you like one’ routine. But Cheryl said it was something else that time, like something had really made Him afraid. Like Amy’s sitting on the split wooden frame on the ground and He’s in the doorway giving her everything He’s got. He’s going on about everything. He’s going on about the rabble in this town, how she’s a whore here, how she’s a slut there—all of that. Amy’s crying something serious, but He isn’t fazed the slightest bit—which is when she knew something was off. 

After that, I started to hear something here or something there. I ran into Lucy at the Bloomfield Bakery, and she told me that Amy got her belly button pierced on a weekend and that He put a hammer through a television. Another day she found a pack of cigarettes in His pillowcase, and would you believe they didn’t speak for weeks? Cheryl tells me He would lay in bed at night, muttering to Himself, “to get respect you got to give respect.” She kept trying to tell Him. ‘She’s 15, you’re an adult, this isn’t a level playing field.’ Nothing got through to Him. You know how men can get. 

It was maybe 2 or 3 months after that when the call came in. Somewhere around Easter or the sort, I think it was the Thursday before. They find her wrapped up in a tent bag upstate. And, to make it worse, they found her wrists bleeding from the copper wire she’d been tied up with. A damn shame, isn’t it? But you know how men can get. By Friday they get Him at a truck stop buying cigarettes. Maybe it was Saturday? All I know is by Sunday service He’s locked up. Not much news coverage, which was surprising. It was kind of a thrill when they did come, marching on down the street with their big cameras and all that. I felt like I was on the Real Housewives or something, you know? That next week we all took turns making food for Cheryl. What a sin, to have to cook and clean and grieve. I came over that first Monday with a pulled pork. When I showed up on Thursday with the lemon chicken, I saw that Diane had brought over a half-tray of lasagna on Tuesday. Can you believe that? Half of a lasagna. She couldn’t be bothered to make the whole thing? She’s just lost a daughter for Christ’s sake. Does it get any more tone-deaf than that? But what can you do? You know how women can get.” 

Earlier, the Young Woman was playing with language. Specifically, she was working with a phrase. “I just need to know.” That was the phrase. She conjured this phrase for if the Bearer danced around the important questions. The phrase she coined. “I just need to know.” That’s what she would tell him. She would cut him off, mid-ramble or mid-soliloquy, and she would say, “please, I just need to know.” 

That was the worst part. This imagined dialogue. That it seemed so normal when she considered it. Nothing about it seemed strange. Maybe it was an attempt to salvage the Bearer’s feelings, maybe, instead the last hanging speck of social decorum, but this felt like a pedestrian thing to say. But how deranged is that? How laughable a self-betrayal, to think that it was her job to pull all this information out of him? That she had to earn his admission of guilt? That she should not only expect but delight in his finally telling the truth. That the bar is so cosmically low that him saying “yes, it’s true, I did sleep with her,” is somehow a point in his column? 

The Young Woman considers how this plays out in television. It is always in one of two ways. The first way is the classical way. The man has fallen victim to that dastardly bug of adultery and the woman he claimed to love is rendered a helpless shell of her former self. The shots write themselves: tissues pile up in the bed she cries in, her silence erodes once-friendly lunch outings, she breaks down crying in the middle of a blind date with an innocently adorable lawyer from the West Village. The woman on-screen is extinguished; some man somewhere has filled some subconscious fantasy or another. Somebody wins an award for this depiction. 

The second version is the strong woman. This has quickly become the favorite of the new-age Lifetime executive. This is the feminist adaptation on the age-old classic. The strong woman leaves at the first sign of infidelity. She immediately and unflinchingly drops all attachment to the man who tried to destroy her. She goes on to sell a company for a billion dollars and the Golden Girls demographic sit in the theatre and weep with joy at the bravery and triumph on the screen. 

But, as it is with everything, the Young Woman feels both. And of course, with the same unfairness that has encompassed it all, the Young Woman feels the intense inability to feel either of these emotions comfortably, with the thought that the embrace of one completely undermines the other. To be strong is to betray her true feelings and to be vulnerable strikes a blow to the resilience she knows exists inside of her. This leaves the Young Woman with no legitimate salvation, only left to swallow each spoonful of tar until the question itself subsides. But for now, every happy memory she can conjure is collapsed. Every first kiss becomes shards of glass and nostalgia for apple cider is to death like sand in her mouth. 

All of this culminates in the ultimate metaphor, which is the waiting. This is the Young Woman in her hospital bed, arriving from surgery, grateful to hear that it is only bones and a lung that have collapsed. This is the Young Woman with her eyes transfixed on nothing but the framed photo of the New York City skyline at the foot of the bed, old enough to see the Twin Towers standing proudly. This is the Young Woman trying to watch television, but every so often, like a nail in a tire, pierced by the reminders of the upcoming news and its disgusting bearer. This is knowing the embarrassment of knowing she let the butcher have his way with her skin, her nerve endings grated like splintered wood. This is to feel as though somebody has attached a fishing hook to her belly button and was attempting to pull her stomach out through her back. This is every trace of trust flattened and seared like cheap steaks. This is tallying the minutes and the hours. This is the haggard nurse stopping on the way home for 40 Marlboros and a Powerball ticket. This is knowing that the phone will one day finally ring. That it will sound from the table next to the bed and that the Young Woman leap to the beeping, hoping only to love and to be loved back. 

Fall 2021 Featured Prose

Pack of 20

The 6 AM cigarette means a few things. 

First that my insomnia is back. Which means the sunrises are also back. This morning the softest pink clouds pass through the small gap between two tall buildings. Tinged with orange, blending at the edges like a creamsicle’s top and white ice cream bottom. 

Second that I am addicted to cigarettes, that first burn, when you’re staring down the thin white barrel, and next thing you know the paper is lit and the tobacco is lit. The last thing I was addicted to was Korean dramas. 

Third that Tristan is on my mind. He only smoked spirits, light blue, tobacco pouch in his back pocket always so European. He’s the one who got me hooked, the culprit in this strange accidental reality of mine. 

The 8 AM cigarette means one thing. 

Mom wants to talk. She’s on another island and only has service a few hours in the morning and at night. She likes to ask me questions, hear about my life, how I spend my time, what I’m thinking about. She’s the best listener. I could yap to Maile about nothing eternally, if only to hear her murmurs of contemplation and expressions of calm attention. Today we talked about the months I spent at a suicide prevention camp. She reminds me that I’m not there anymore, that I needed to be there. It’s no use describing that highly specific feeling of having a burly man monitoring you 15 while you relieve yourself, a 23-year-old college drop-out banished from house and home for three months. But clearly I’m not still bitter. 

The 2:30 PM cigarette means a few things.

I’ve woken up from a nap, disoriented, body craving. There will be a 2:36 cigarette.

It is the hottest part of the day and I am wearing a pair of cheetah-print biker shorts from Old Navy, lime slides and yellow nail polish, a Bernie Sanders t-shirt. Sitting on the limestone wall outside my apartment, passersby cross to the other side of the street to avoid my smoke. I imagine they do so because I am too intimidating, that scowl and pronounced pout. 

Mom’s coming over for dinner. I’ve prepared a simple selection of pupus, always preferring to snack on an array of small things. Plus then it feels a bit like a party? Not that Maile doesn’t always bring the party energy, because she does. 

The 8:00 PM cigarette means something new. 

Mom and I are in my spot sharing a light blue spirt. She leans back with casual elegance, reminding me she was young once. We speak of everything. Her affair, her businesses, her fears that life is passing too quickly. The stooge gets smaller and smaller as our intimacy grows, smoke gathering thick around us in clouds not unlike the mental fog that accompanies lighting up. At least for me, part of the joy of the cigarette is the simultaneous clarity and inevitable dissolution. We dissolve together into a shared night, laughing and crying and resolutely proclaiming this is not how we want to live. 

Prose Spring 2021


I didn’t expect to see him there on the A-Train, that afternoon, like most strangers you never expect to lay your eyes upon, but there he was. I was heading to Brooklyn, just let off from my job. New York was a disappointment at this point of my stay, surprisingly. Even people who hate NYC say its name with a whisper of awe, like it’s destiny for everyone to end up here someway or another. It was one let down after another: colliding into people when I stepped foot outside of my apartment, papers tucked to my chest flying everywhere, throwing up on the elevator of the Empire State Building, and a pigeon shitting on me at Central Park.

Everything I saw when I first got here was through rose-colored glasses, even the subway train, which was sleek and exciting at the time. I was fresh out of college, fingers crossed and dampening the just used airplane ticket and subway card I had, and the last memory with me was Mom, Dad, Eva, and Carter waving good-bye to me at the airplane terminal. Mom was crying, partly because she would miss me and partly because she was concerned that I was taking one suitcase to New York. (It was all I could afford after the hefty price of a 4-year university.) Dad’s smile was bittersweet: the machismo was getting to him, and I knew Mom would find him later with his eyes puffy. Eva and Carter both looked upset to see me go, but I know they both had plans to turn my room into their gaming hub. (The only person stopping them was Mom.)

“Bye guys. Love you.” I gave my parents one last embrace before I boarded the plane, not looking back. A five hour flight was ahead, the drive from Oakland to San Francisco nothing in comparison. Practically skipping to my seat (yes, a window one with no one else in my row), I settled in with my neck pillow and laptop. I opened the hatch that let me peer outside, and all I thought at the time was that the sky was the limit.

Now, though, I watched through the creaky car’s window, my chin on the back of the chair. We were enclosed in the tunnels of the subway. The walls outside changed with different signs, posters, people, and atmosphere, and everything blurred into one continuous streak as the train moved toward my apartment. A strand of hair landed on my cheek, and I blew it away with a sigh. This place hated me. The 10 million people here somehow wanted me out of their world, never to know their stories. Maybe I should book a ticket once I’m home? To where? D.C.? Boston? Boston seemed nice. The harbor, the history, it’s near Harvard. It may need some writers to inhabit its brownstones. Even some decent sports teams.

I slid around and let myself survey the rest of the train car and the few passengers. A man a few seats over banged on congos with a beat that sounded like Bob Marley’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” Further, and there was a man with a hot-dog stand and a sign that read “Pete’s Hot-Dogs: Best hot-dogs ever for Pete’s sake.” He’d just picked up the phone and began talking loudly in Spanish. Hello? What’s up? What do you mean I should know? I’ve been at Central Park all day, working … unlike you. Excuse me? I swear, if you don’t … give the phone to Melissa. I’m done talking to you. A few seconds passed by. Hi! It’s Dad … I love you too sweetie. How was school … The conversation soon melted into white-noise.

On my left was a man spouting words from a dictionary, thumbing into a random sliver of pages, furiously flipping to the page, and finding the perfect word to deliver his sermon. Some were simple. Prose. Noun. Written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure. Others were … strange? Ambedo. Noun. A kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details. I think he was high. Absorbed. Verb. Strongly attracted and interested. He sounded like one of those hippies who spouted their incoherent work at the Corner Café every Saturday evening, where sometimes I took shots of coffee spiked with liquor every time a writer had an existential crisis. This logophile’s words bounced off the walls of the train, leaving an echo that mixed with the clamors that arose every time we turned.

My attention went to my tote bag, and I opened it for an issue of the New Yorker, a subscription I bought for the “NYC spirit.” I wanted to see myself in these pages, but each week, when it showed up in its plastic protective packaging and some cartoony cover, it mocked me. I usually read at home: on my recliner, a dim lamp on my left, a mug in my right hand, a blanket wrapped around me. Now, though, everything turned into a hum as I read, even the word-lover, and I kept doing so until they announced the third-to-last stop before Brooklyn. The doors opened, I felt a single pair of footsteps get on and stop across from me, and the doors closed. When we began moving again, I looked up at the seats from across from me.

There he was.

He wore a black business suit, the blazer and dress pants, and tie that contrasted with white sneakers that were so clean they looked like this was his first outing in them. A leather briefcase sat beside him on the bench. The way his lips curled and his hair tossed over his head, like Leonardo DiCaprio in the Titanic, I would not trust him around my grandmother’s jewels. He was endearing: his brows furrowed as he concentrated on his thumb fiddling, and he slightly slouched against the back of the seat. I realized I was staring too long when our gazes met, and I quickly went back to reading, pretending nothing happened when, suddenly, he cleared his throat.

“Jaime,” he said. I glanced back up. He was looking straight at me.


“My name is Jaime.” He smirked at me, his eyes gleaming with the train car’s overhead light. Shadows from the shifting exterior danced around and painted his face.

“Lilian,” I said quietly, not looking directly at him. When I finally did, though, the smirk turned into a smile that showed his teeth. I loved his smile.

We struck up a conversation, at first awkward but soon a pleasant melody of introductions and life stories. He radiated charisma, from the way he told me about where he was at (Manhattan) and what he was doing in the city (consulting) to one of his drunk college stories from undergrad at NYU (after I told him what I do at the Corner Café). All I could do was laugh, and, somehow, when we got to his stop, his number was already in my contacts. The shadows followed him on his way out.

The poet delivered another line after his exit. Sprout. Verb. Start to grow.
That Saturday, I texted him after my reading. The magazine was open, its spine bending at the half-way point and faced-down on my lap. I typed eagerly, wanting to see his smile again.

Me. You, Picnic by that one big fountain in Central Park. In two hours.

He replied not even a second later:


I beat his time:

Be there or be ■.

My phone pinged once more.

Most definitely. 😉

He brought his guitar, and what began as a picnic and guitar strumming between the two of us ended as a concert with a crowd. He stood on the edge of the fountain and people clapped and moved to the rhythm of his smooth voice. At one point, while he sang, he hopped off, walked over to a bush of flowers, and came back to tuck a carnation behind my ear. When we returned to my apartment, we rushed up the stairs and shut the doors behind us.

A year later: our anniversary date. He’s smiled the whole time there. When we arrived at Bethesda, a Spanish band was there, playing music that comes out loud on speakers and gesturing our way. The people around us cheered, and when the speaker boomed our names, he got down on one knee. The light from the heavens basked us, masking out the dark of the early evening.

Not too long after, we are married. We spun and spun the entire night, the spotlight on us the entire time.

I eventually pop out two kids, and we buy a bigger brownstone in Brooklyn. We scrap our jobs and open a diner, which, miraculously, becomes a neighborhood staple. We go to Coney Island once a month, where the kids press their faces against the glass of aquarium habitats, eat fried food and pray we don’t see it again during roller coaster rides. Summers are for Montauk, a beach house that hangs our family photo, and we greet ourselves every year until the kids go to college in California.

Years and years later, and the diner is still alive. We are alive, all wrinkles and crinkles, and sit at the counter, waiting together at dawn for the pies to bake. I read; he enjoys his coffee. The sun penetrates through the window, shining on us, and he looks into my eyes and says something between a sip of coffee that makes everything perfect.

“I love you.” He smiles his smile, this time with dentures.

“I love you.” I look at him the same way and go back to reading.

I turned the page and blinked, the train’s shadows, lights, and rattles all returning back to me. I glanced up again, but he didn’t look back this time. Instead the phone in his pocket buzzed and he picked it up.

“Hello?” he asked into the phone. It was the first time I heard him speak, and he didn’t sound like he was supposed to. “Oh hi Sophie, my love … dinner at you parents tonight? Sounds good. What’s on the menu? … I love your mother, but you know pie has never been my favorite …”

The New York train car continued on, my life along with it. The overcome soon announced the last stop before Brooklyn, and I only heard his footsteps once more as he got off the train. To my left, the dictionary hippie was still preaching. He would later get off at my stop, with off into a different direction, maybe to the café or a community center or even to a family of his own, where they owned a pie shop or wrote stories or did consulting. But for now he left me with one last word:

Sonder. Noun. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own; a story that continues invisibly around you and without you.

I let Jaime, him, and New York go, leaving their world as a stranger.

Prose Spring 2021


The show at the Bransten opened at six, which meant Soojin should arrive at fifteen minutes to seven. That morning, her boss, Matthew, had explained, with uncharacteristic seriousness, that arriving earlier would imply she had nothing better to do on a Friday night. Later would suggest she didn’t know who Em Oldev was or why she mattered.

“Don’t walk. Don’t take the bus. Don’t even bother with the public transit section of Google Maps. I’ll be there at seven-fifteen, and I’ll introduce you. But don’t try to talk to Em before that. She hates when desperate strangers walk right up.”

Soojin had lived in San Francisco for seven months and spent almost every weekend biking two miles to this or that gallery in the Dogpatch; she knew the route by heart. Matthew knew all of this, or at least he should have by now, but he seemed so riled up that Soojin sensed it was the wrong time to remind him.

“Got it.”

Matthew seemed to expect more.

“Call an Uber at 6:30, get there at 6:45. See you at 7:15, don’t talk to Em before then.”

He broke into a smile. “See, Sue? That’s why you’re my favorite. That’s why you get the invite and the introduction. Imagine Oscar trying to remember just one of those timestamps. Goddamn nightmare.”

“Oscar knows time is nothing but a social construct.”

Matthew laughed. “Witty as ever. All right, I gotta go. You’re divine!” He was already walking as he said goodbye, calling over his shoulder without a wave.

Soojin held two different earrings to her neck and swished her head to see which sparkled more in the light. It was hard to tell through the cloudy veneer of the mirror, which she’d bought for cheap at an Austin flea market and hauled lovingly, maternally, down wet-tar roads in the salty sweat of August, up and down three different staircases, 1,750 miles northwest to the Mission District in San Francisco, and upstairs again into this white box of a room in the hopes that it would create the illusion of a space doubled in size. It was the sort of fixation Soojin’s mother would have condemned as stupid, American, materialistic, obsessive, and maybe it was. But the glass had been cut and warped at an angle that made Soojin look tall and willowy; it put her princess neck on full display.

Soojin decided on the watery pink crystal dusters and sipped her Chardonnay. Forty-five minutes until her scheduled Uber. Plenty of time to choose a dress and practice gliding in her new heels. She plucked a black gown from the floor and clasped it to her shoulders, swaying and humming a Korean folk song from her mother’s records — what was it called? Soojin imagined her mother singing along in her cardboard voice, warbling the long syllables, and losing her breath.

“Ahh-ahh-ahhh,” sang Soojin. She squeezed one eye shut and examined the world this way, half-submerged in memory. She made the shapes with her mouth, filling her cheeks with air and rounding her lips, but she couldn’t catch the words or their meanings. Damn it. Soojin slipped a white dress over her shoulders and drained her glass.

Her Uber driver, Mal, eyed her in the rearview mirror. “Soojin?” he asked, leaning too hard on the soo. Soojin considered correcting him. Didn’t seem worth it for an eight-minute drive.

“That’s me,” she said, and she closed the door on the hem of her dress, which tore in a small, private scraping sound as she slid into the middle seat. “Oh, fuck me,” she snapped. Her driver smirked from the right side of his mouth.

“You okay back there?”

Soojin checked her phone. Not enough time to change without making a fuss, without making Mal wait, without crossing the seven o’clock line into irrelevance. “I’m fine,” she said, more abruptly than she’d meant to, and she tore the offending strip of silk from her gown like a hangnail.

Mal nodded and hit the gas. Soojin lurched forward, not yet buckled in, and her face smashed against Mal’s shoulder. He snorted. “Buy me dinner first,” he deadpanned, and Soojin flushed deep and retreated.

This incident seemed to cheer Mal significantly. “You’re looking much too pretty for me,” he said when he’d begun to drive again. “But where are you going all dressed up and alone?”

Soojin clamped her upper lip between her teeth and didn’t reply.

“You go to a lot of parties?”

“Not really.”

“I don’t believe it for a second. A girl who looks like you? In this town, I’m sure all the boys are after you.”

Soojin willed herself to ask him what he meant, but she already knew, and he was careening down too steep a hill for her to escape. There was no good way to reply. Like catcalling. An airless compliment to a captive audience demands an answer: either thank you or fuck you. Either reinforces the catcaller’s sick amusement.

“You have a boyfriend or what?”

Three minutes left on the ride.

“I said, do you have a boyfriend?”

Soojin could see the stars through Mal’s sunroof, though not well enough to decipher any constellations. She only knew Orion and the dippers, anyway.

Mal was driving ever faster. “Hey, Soo-chen. I’m asking you a question.”

“You know what? Here’s fine,” said Soojin. Mal ground to a stop, the brakes shuddering, and Soojin felt the knife-edge of the seatbelt at her throat. She detangled herself and lunged for the door handle. Only after she’d flung open the door did she feel relief crack like a cold egg over her head: it wasn’t locked.

While slamming the door, she heard herself make the words out of habit: “Thanks for the ride.”

She must have imagined his reply. The door was shut to his muttering, and the clanging of a restaurant’s first dinner seating crowded the air; there was no way she could have heard him say, “Thanks for nothing, chink bitch.” It was only the pulse of fear in her ears.

In person, Em was shorter and more glamorous than Soojin had imagined. In the gallery light, the pudge in her cheeks spoke only of wealth, a lifetime of eating well in a privileged city. Her flat glass slippers laughed off her childlike height — no point trying to hide it — and her elaborately draped sheer dress flirted with nakedness without succumbing to it. Surrounded by painted nudes, pink-brown and three times her size, Em stood out in her whiteness, her clothed-ness. She was deflecting attention as much as absorbing it, the angel in a field of faceless sluts.

Soojin felt clumsy in her torn dress and tottering heels. She considered taking her heels off entirely and walking barefoot, but she didn’t want that kind of attention — quirky, iridescent. She wanted to project her seriousness, which was growing more difficult as she noticed slicks of WD-40 in the creases of her skirt.

“Do you think she’s going to give a talk?” said someone behind Soojin. She turned. The voice belonged to a tall blonde in a garish suit of orange florals.

Soojin was still registering her surprise at being asked when another tall blonde cut in. “She never does. She’s too famous for that shit.”

The blondes noticed Soojin then, as she stood open-mouthed before them.

“Yes?” said the first.

“I thought you were asking me,” said Soojin. “But you weren’t.”

“Who are you?” asked the second.

“I’m an artist.”

“Oh, where are you showing?”

“Nowhere yet,” said Soojin, and the conversation was over.

Five minutes to Matthew’s arrival, Soojin spotted Em talking to a woman with sharp bangs and her outfit’s opposite: creamy matte black from chin to toe, only the lower half of her face baring skin. Soojin felt a ring of recognition followed by a thud of disappointment; Em was talking to the only other Asian woman in the room. Soojin studied their body language. Was the woman in black an emerging artist too? In that case, she got to Em first and made her impression and took the minority slot in Em’s networking brain. In that case, Matthew’s advice wasn’t worth shit, and in that case, what was Soojin doing here, if only to be forgotten as the second, the lesser, the worse-dressed? The Asian woman seemed to have achieved her goal already – the two were speaking from seven inches apart, heads bent together in intimacy. So much for Em being unfriendly to strangers.

Soojin was staring now, but she didn’t care. She wondered what the other Asian artist’s work looked like. She wondered what her body looked like under her impenetrable clothing — flabby or taut, blank or tattooed, bony or muscular. Soojin resented the fact that she couldn’t tell. What was this woman hiding? It was August, and she was wearing a turtleneck and a coat with such long sleeves that not even her fingertips were visible. Maybe she had psoriasis, Soojin thought. This made her feel a little better. The Asian woman was showing Em something on her phone. Her work, no doubt. Em’s face lit up, and she nodded vigorously. Soojin’s stomach crumpled like an aluminum can. By the time Matthew strolled up, Soojin had mired herself in the certainty that she had lost.

“Cool dress,” he said, nodding approvingly. “Very industrial-chic.”

“Oh, God, don’t make fun. This night has been such an ordeal.”

Matthew laughed and clapped Soojin on the shoulders. “Well, lucky for you, I’m here now. And your night is looking up. Are you ready to go meet Em? You look stressed. That won’t do. I’ll get you a drink. Stay here.”

Soojin nodded and thought about how her mother would like Matthew, with his clipped, businesslike sentences and thick, straight hair.

The Asian artist talking to Em was dark-skinned and ruddy-cheeked. She wore no makeup, and her sparse eyebrows disappeared into her forehead. Her hair was wavy and reflected no light — unwashed? thought Soojin, or just unconditioned? It was becoming a trend among a certain sector of the SF art crowd. When Soojin told her mother about it, she received three bottles of Daeng Gi Meo Ri KI Gold Premium shampoo in the mail the next week. Soojin rolled her eyes when she opened the package, but the treatment actually helped. Her hair that night was thicker than ever and polished like bronze.

In a far corner of the room, people were tapping slender spoons against champagne glasses, and the echoes were gathering; Soojin’s ears rang. Neither Em nor her new friend noticed. They stayed bowed toward each other, and Soojin couldn’t look away.

The Asian artist looked like the Black-Korean roommate Soojin had in college, the one who called Seoul racist when Soojin was gushing about how much she wanted to go. The one who threw all her luminizing skincare products in the dumpster behind the dorms and told her they had bleach that would give her cancer. The one Soojin’s mother said must hate herself and her mother if she thought Korea was so bad. The one Soojin’s mother called ungrateful.

Now the Asian artist laughed, and the flat pane of her cheek caught the white light. Without thinking Soojin squinted, trying to name the woman’s shade: 302 Medium, she thought. Or maybe 303, which looked darker in the glass jar but dried to a dull, ashy hue. At sixteen, Soojin had spent eight months working behind the cosmetics counter at H-Mart; in the years since, she’d retained the ability to look at someone’s face for sixty seconds and rattle off a list of all the products they should use. She was testing herself on the Asian artist: White Lucent Brightening Gel for the ruddy cheeks; castor oil for the wispy eyebrows; a mucin sheet mask for the flaky mid-forehead. The game was harder from afar.

Matthew returned with two martinis. “Three sips of this,” he said, “and you’ll be ready.” He took Soojin’s arm, guiding her toward the back corner where Em and her new protégé were whispering.

“Em,” said Matthew. “Marlo. This is my lovely, darling, brilliant new staffer at the Gagosian, Soojin.”

“Hi.” Em smiled, and it had so much of her eyes in it — shining and earnest. Soojin couldn’t tell if it was real or fake. Who smiled like that at a stranger?

“I’m so happy to meet you.” The words dribbled out, as though Soojin was forgetting what to say as she said it.

“Are you enjoying the show?”

“Immensely.” Soojin paused. The other three seemed to be expecting more. Out came the rush: “The portrait of the nude examining herself in the mirror— first of all, the fact that they’re all headless is so fascinating— but that one in particular, I’m dying to see the woman’s face— I feel like she’s laboring to exert her sexuality, to see herself as desirable— she thinks she’s ugly, she thinks having her body painted is proof of its beauty—”

The Asian artist laughed, and Soojin stopped midway through a sharp intake of breath, realizing she’d talked too long already. Matthew pinched her upper arm, which meant, Keep it together. “Sorry,” said the stranger, and Soojin was startled by her flawless California voice: wide vowels, sticky y like she’d said it through a squelch of chewing gum.

“It’s just funny—” Soojin had expected, once again, for the other woman to have an accent. Not even a specific accent, just a vague marker of foreign-ness; she felt guilty about it and looked at her toes. “It’s funny you say that, because that nude is me.”

“Oh,” Soojin said. Matthew’s hand left her arm entirely, which meant, I give up on you. “Oh, I’m sorry— that was so rude— I didn’t mean to say you’re ugly—”

“Didn’t you?” the stranger asked. Soojin considered. Did she find this woman ugly? Marlo, Matthew called her. Soojin looked from Marlo’s face to her skin rendered on canvas, freckled and crepey. She felt the dizzy, sincere force of Em’s gaze on her.

“I don’t—”

Em’s face, Marlo’s face, Em’s body, Marlo’s body: they rippled in Soojin’s vision, as though they were standing at the surface of a twenty-foot-deep swimming pool, watching her sink beneath the water.

“I don’t want to be them, but—”

Soojin was overwhelmed by Marlo’s omnipresent body, massive and multiplied, every hair rendered in oily detail. Her wish to see the woman exposed and vulnerable had taken on a life of its own and grown monstrous, inverting the world so they were all standing in a room wallpapered with Marlo’s skin, which was ordinary after all, speckled with moles and faded scars and scattered cloudlike birthmarks and pimples and blurry tattoos, sagging at the breasts and arms and belly, wrinkled at the knees as though sucked dry after a long bath. Soojin looked at the space between two paintings because she couldn’t look at the woman who she had spent the whole night resenting for stealing her shot at fame, only to find herself the thief, the voyeur, the invader.

“They’re beautiful,” said Soojin, and her words were mist escaping a body that was fainting away. “You’re beautiful.”

Prose Spring 2021

Between Worlds

Sukanya’s heart lodged in her throat as she trained on the face she had tried to burn from memory. She wasn’t sure if it was nerves or the lack of sleep. 8AM on a Saturday, and she had been rudely awakened by a phone call from her mother.

“Sukku! You won’t believe who I just saw.” Her mother was right — she didn’t believe it. Not only because it had been five years, but because Ria would never be awake at 8AM. Without a pause for air, her mother rattled off a list of updates: Ria was looking beautiful but so thin and tired (dark circles under her eyes), they were out of the good kind of tea biscuit, and she had coordinated a coffee reunion for the two women at Sukanya’s favorite coffee shop in an hour.

Sukanya was surprised at how quickly she identified her former friend amid the throng of hungry, chatty café-dwellers fleeing the cold. Last night’s snow, tracked in by her winter boots, hadn’t yet melted when their eyes met. And then there was the slight eyebrow raise. The recognition. The five seconds of thick silence as woman walked towards woman.

Ria’s face cracked into a strained smile, and Sukanya realized with a pang that her mother had been right — she had retained all her beauty, the shining hair and chocolate skin that Sukanya’s mother claimed came from weekly massages with coconut oil. For a while neither woman spoke. They levitated like dust in a cocoon of other people’s bubbling conversations.

It was this same silence that introduced them during reading time in Mrs. Gardner’s classroom. Two years after Sukanya’s family entered permanent isolation. Two years after they fled upstate from the city. Two years after a white man with hate in his heart and a gun in his hand decided the earth should no longer tolerate the stain of her brother’s life.

Pressing a finger to her grinning lips, Ria had mischievously slid over a sheet of paper littered with clandestine words that no child should know. Fuck. Bitch. Cunt. A meticulously researched and curated document of Evil Words. That night, Sukanya read the words aloud to her parents while they scrubbed stains of tomato chutney off the tables of the family restaurant. Mrs. Gopalan had clapped a hand over her mouth in shock, Mr. Gopalan had dropped a half-filled water tumbler. While the soddened carpet chilled Sukanya’s slippers, they explained profusely that she was to never use those words, that she was to scrub them from memory like tomato chutney. They asked several times who had shown them to her. But their daughter held her silence, as she would learn to do for the next decade.

That night, crouched under her covers, Sukanya traced the Evil Words until her fingers were stained with graphite. A small light was lit in a small girl in a small apartment. The realization that she had the power to defy her parents, to say things that jolted them like a lightning bolt out of their quiet, isolated monotony. And from that night, until a very different one fifteen years later, Ria became Sukanya’s idol.

It was Sukanya who broke their levitation now, returning them to the ground. “I’ll grab us coffee,” she offered. Ria reached into her purse, but Sukanya waved her away. “It’s been so long that you’re practically a visitor here. Why don’t you find us a seat? Let me be a good host.”

At the counter, the sweet, slightly frazzled head of curls that Sukanya knew so well flitted around the grinder like a caffeinated fairy. Kelly broke into a smile seeing Sukanya’s familiar face emerge breathless after battling the crowd. “Imagine seeing you on a Saturday!”

“You can blame my mother.”

“I would never say a thing against Mrs. Gopalan,” Kelly replied with a short laugh. She clicked her pen shut — this was an order she knew by heart. “Latte to go?”

“Two, actually.”

“Oh, did you bring a date?” Sukanya, buried in thoughts from decades past, didn’t notice the edge, the small croak that had crept into Kelly’s jovial voice. Instead, she realized that she had no idea how Ria took her coffee. It was a sign of adult companionship that they had never shared, their path cut long before reaching that milestone.

“An old acquaintance. She won’t be here for long,” Sukanya replied. The rigidity in Kelly’s smile faded in relief, another nearly imperceptible change that Sukanya missed. They chatted amicably about the weather, plans for the holidays, until Kelly returned with two twin cups of coffee and a lemon bar wrapped in cellophane.

“On the house,” Kelly insisted, when Sukanya opened her mouth to protest. As she turned to leave, Kelly touched her hand lightly, her cheeks flushed. “If you’re not doing anything tomorrow night … there’s supposed to be a live concert in the park. My band is playing. Nothing big, just … you know.”

Sukanya clenched. This time, it was Kelly who didn’t notice. “I’m not sure if I’ll be free. Give me a call in a couple hours, I’ll be home,” said Sukanya, smiling tightly and scribbling her number on the back of the receipt, sliding wax over linoleum to Kelly’s calloused hands. It was a familiar response, the first step in a cycle she had memorized, much like her mother before her. A doomed phone call, one to be intentionally ignored. Three, four weeks passing in silence, until the event had slipped into memory. Then Sukanya would slowly reemerge, stuttering a light apology. “So sorry about a month ago…”

Twin cups in hand, lemon bar pocketed, Sukanya fought her way back to Ria, who was leaning on a windowpane, half asleep. She raised her heavily-lined eyes, murmuring thanks as she clasped the cup in both hands.

“Weird that we’re having coffee and not milkshakes, isn’t it?” she said drowsily. Sukanya was surprised she remembered those twilight evenings. For eight years, she had spent her idle time picturing the five-minute bike ride to the diner on 2nd Street with one-dollar milkshakes, her brief escape from the world. Now she had shoved the route so deep within her memory that it was lodged in some inaccessible place, the spokes in her bicycle and the creases in her sneakers becoming hazy and frayed.

When it became clear that Sukanya and Ria were attached at the hip, Mrs. Gopalan reluctantly acquiesced to two hour meetings on Friday evenings, after school and before the dinner rush. If her daughter had to have a friend, a reason (other than school) to leave the protection of the household, Ria was a permissible option. Her family had moved from California when her father accepted a professorship at the local university, making them the only other Indians in town. In India, the Gopalans and the Mehtas would not have even spoken the same language, and the entire country would have stretched between them like a gulch. But here they were as similar as siblings.

Every Friday after school, Sukanya would hum to herself, rubbing the menus so ferociously that the words Gate to India glittered like gold. At 4PM, like clockwork, she would burst into the kitchen. “Amma! Done!”

Mrs. Gopalan would press two dollars into her daughter’s hand. One for Sukanya, and one for Ria in case she forgot her money at home (how embarrassing would it be if Sukanya could not pay for her friend’s treat). “Please be safe, kutti,” she said as always to her half-listening daughter.

Sukanya would leap onto her bicycle and race to the diner, where Ria would join her, always a few minutes late. They would order one-dollar milkshakes. Chocolate for Ria. Cookies and cream for Sukanya. And for the next two hours, Ria would describe her world, a world Sukanya could never join. At first, they were the secrets of a mutinous child — a clumsy kiss from Ryan Wade behind the school, a detention note from homeroom. But as they grew older, the secrets matured as well. High school parties, hookups with older men, stolen whiskey from the basement…

In return, Sukanya undammed her river of secrets. The Evil Words she could not release elsewhere — how she felt strung between school and the restaurant, between her parents’ love and their paranoia. She said the things she would never tell her parents, because she loved them, and when you love someone you lie to them. Enveloped in the warmth of their chatter and the cold of fingers on milkshake glass, two girls grew like twin flowers in that diner on 2nd Street.

At 6PM, the spell would break. Sukanya waved goodbye, pedaling hard and fast back home. Cinderella at midnight. And she would arrive right on time, beads of sweat forming on her forehead, as early dinner-goers filtered into the red-carpet floors and tackily-decorated walls of Gate to India.

Sukanya never gave away a word. Even the night that Ria arrived thirty minutes late, stoned out of her mind and reeking of overripe cantaloupe, Sukanya stayed with her at the diner while Ria cried that her parents would finally send her away as they had threatened. At 9PM, when Sukanya returned home, her mother was in tears, her father enraged. Even as Mrs. Gopalan clasped her only remaining child to her chest, while Sukanya explained that Ria had wanted them to come home earlier, that this tardiness was her fault. Even then. She never betrayed her friend.

How odd it was, indeed, that now they had abandoned those precious milkshake nights for coffee.

“I guess that’s what happens when you become an adult,” Sukanya said, shrugging. Ria laughed. Short. Dry. Sharp. Sukanya searched her obsidian eyes for a hint of her thoughts. Was she, too, buried in aching memories? Memories colored with pain and fury?

“So.” Ria lifted her face to remove a stray hair. “What are you up to these days?”

“I’m in graduate school. Political science,” Sukanya explained.

“Oh, wow,” Ria whistled. “That’s amazing. College must have been so fun.” Her voice dropped to a whisper at the end of her sentence, and she had broken eye contact, studying the ring of magenta lipstick on her coffee cup. That was how Sukanya found out that Ria never attended college.

“It had its moments,” Sukanya replied. “How are you? Are you still with Blake?”

Ria winced. “No.” Short. Sharp. Silence yawned between them again, levitation returning. Then Ria lurched off the windowpane. “How about we go outside? I can’t even hear myself think in here.”

Outside, the town looked like the cover of a December calendar. Imperfections hidden under a white lacquer, wreaths pasted on the doors of mom-and-pop shops, the morning sun peeping out to witness the spectacle.

“I’ve missed this kind of snow so much,” Ria sighed, breathing deeply. “I’ve been in the city for the past few years, and it gets so disgusting so quickly. Looks like muddy slush within two hours.”

“That’s how I remember it,” Sukanya agreed with an apologetic smile. They skated tersely over the usual conversation subjects — the weather, plans for the holidays — as they strolled down Main and hit 2nd Street. Their street.

They paused under the green street sign, both thinking of the same evenings, both unsure what the other was thinking about.

Ria cleared her throat. “Blake … didn’t turn out to be who he said he was,” she said. Absent-mindedly, she traced a purple bruise on her wrist, the ring under her eyes that Mrs. Gopalan mistakenly attributed to exhaustion.

Sukanya saw Blake in her mind’s eye. Straw-colored hair, the combination of blonde eyelashes and blue eyes that her mother said made him look like a demon. The school had deemed him attractive, though.

Sukanya had hated him.

She remembered the first time she had heard his name. They were turning to part ways at the diner, when Ria caught her shoulder. “I’m seeing someone,” she had said shyly.

The next week, their conversations were filled with him. Details about his life that Sukanya had never wanted to know. How he and Ria had met after school. How he kept her secret from his parents, since he wasn’t sure how they would react to a brown girl existing in their lives. The scholarship he was chasing. His wet kisses. The messy, uncertain way they touched each other.

When the next Friday arrived, and Sukanya scrubbed the menus, and raced down the block, her eyes gleaming and eager, she arrived to an empty diner. She ordered a milkshake — cookies and cream — and squeezed into the booth, watching young people flit in and out, hands on waists and laughter in the air. She ignored the annoyed stares of couples eyeing the half-empty booth, forming words in her mind of everything she wanted to say, all the secrets she kept locked up inside her for a week. And there she sat, alone, until 6PM arrived and her smile had chipped and broken on her face.

She left slowly, checking every corner of the diner, waiting for Ria’s breathless face to pop in with an apology spilling from her mouth. Just wait, her heart insisted. She’s coming. Just wait. And repeated this refrain. JustwaitShe’scomingJustwaitShe’scoming, as she cycled home.

As the years passed, the hatred she had felt for Blake had gone stale. She was a twenty three-year-old woman, and he still a high school student in her mind’s eye, unchanging as time streamed on. Now, the old enmity surged. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered to Ria. She meant it. She reached out to touch Ria’s shoulder. “He’s an evil man, Ria. You deserve so much more.”

Something filmy and glistening passed over Ria’s eyes, and for a second Sukanya thought she might cry. Then she shook herself and cleared her throat. “Your birthday’s coming up, isn’t it?”

“December 10th.”

“Happy early birthday,” said Ria. “I haven’t been around for so many of your birthdays. Five, I think!”

Six, Sukanya thought, but she didn’t respond other than with a smile. Her eighteenth birthday was one of those memories that she kept locked without a key, buried somewhere deeper than she cared to search. But it was the first that sprung to her mind whenever she was in pain, when she had run out of fuel for her tears but hadn’t yet cried out her sorrow.

By that time, the weekly Friday meetings had slowly reduced to bi-weekly, then monthly. But Ria would always arrive early for the meetings she did attend, spluttering excuses and carrying treats in her arms. The excuses were always Blake.

Sukanya was dressed to the nines — a brand new dress (a gift from her parents), a hint of lip-gloss and mascara clumsily applied to her lips and lashes. Like most teenage girls, she had been obediently trained to despise the figure in the mirror. But today she felt beautiful.

“I’ll pick you up in the car,” Ria promised over the phone. Her 1983 Toyota Camry, a decade old and limping on wheels, was her pride and joy.
That night, Sukanya hadn’t scrubbed the menus — Mrs. Gopalan’s second gift. And ten dollars were in her hand instead of two (for something extra special). She was perched in a booth in Gate to India, smoothing the pleats of her blue frock and pinning her hair up, then down again. And there she sat, smoothing her pleats, changing her hair, until it got too dark in the restaurant to distinguish her skin from the air around her.

Her father tapped her gently. “Customers are arriving, kutti,” he said sympathetically. He switched on the golden lights.

“Oh,” said Sukanya quietly. She glanced at the clock. 5:45 PM.

Mr. and Mrs. Gopalan congregated briefly in a corner, unsure of how to balance their daughter’s happiness with the dinner money that paid their bills. They arrived at a compromise. Mrs. Gopalan grabbed her purse, a hidden gem at Value Village that was as old as her daughter.

“Come, Sukku! Let’s go to the mall. I’m not wasting my ten dollars,” she said cheerfully. She pulled a sweatshirt over her churidhar and held out a hand. Sukanya took it reluctantly.

Despite her best efforts, the mall did raise Sukanya’s spirits. A sweet woman complimented her outfit, and she and her mother strolled idly past outfits they couldn’t afford, giggling at their ridiculousness. They spent most of their time in a sunglass store, trying on the most horrendously gawdy spectacles they could find. They took turns, each selecting a hideous pair more offensive than the last. They posed like models on the runway. Between bursts of laughter, Mrs. Gopalan built her daughter her own gate to India with stories from her youth. Racing to catch the bus with her friends. Stealing her mother’s kajal and wearing three layers of it, thick and waxy, on her first day of tenth grade.

“I was very fashionable, you know,” Mrs. Gopalan said.

They left the mall grinning, arms linked, old Tamil movie songs on their lips. Sukanya sang the part of the film hero, her mother his lover. It was one of those blissful moments that never lasts, a patch of sunlight haunted by gloom. In fact, Sukanya didn’t even remember those songs, her gait, her happiness.

But she remembered the cluster of girls from her high school. They were crammed on a mall bench, chortling and chatty. As Sukanya passed them, they looked up. A brief moment. Brows furrowing. Eyes sweeping down, then up. A short, sharp, unkind laugh.

The old movie song solidified and crumbled in her throat. Her arms sank like weights in the ocean, her gaze dropping to study mall floor tiles. In that moment, she hated the world around her. She hated her clumpy mascara, her new dress. She hated that she had one friend. She hated not being an American teenager. She hated that she spent her eighteenth birthday at the mall with her mother. Singing songs of love she would never experience, the type that couldn’t be translated to English.

Steeped in embarrassment, Sukanya hadn’t noticed that her mother stopped singing as well. Her humiliation so strong that it radiated through the air in waves, and her mother had been caught in one, raised up and crashed down on a crest of shame.

They drove home in silence. Sukanya smiled as her parents sang her Happy Birthday, spoke graciously in Tamil to relatives on the phone. She ate exactly one piece of cake, commented on its deliciousness, and didn’t join her parents in front of the TV. She climbed upstairs, ripped off her dress, and cried into her bed sheets until her eyes were so exhausted and empty that they lilted shut.

Ria came to school on Monday with a bright pink card and a strawberry smoothie, overflowing with apologies. Blake’s car had broken down. No payphone around. Sukanya hugged her only friend and told her not to worry. Things happen.

Was this yet another apology? A reflection of Ria’s contrition projected five years into the future?

“If you’ll still be in town on the 10th, maybe we could do something,” Sukanya offered.

Ria bit her lip. “Well, that kind of depends on what you say,” she began. “I need a place to crash for a while.”

“Ria…” Sukanya scrambled for words. How could she explain the memories whirring through her mind, animated pictures moving a million frames a second? How can someone pluck one picture from a movie and explain the plot? The stone in her chest when she called the Mehtas the day after graduation, and Ria was gone? No phone number, no address, no goodbye?

“I know, I know, I’ve been a shitty friend. Hell, a shitty person,” Ria reasoned. “But what was I supposed to do, Sukku? When Blake showed up at my house, my parents had been screaming at me for a month since I finally told them I didn’t actually get into Villanova. I didn’t have a plan, didn’t have any money, and he had a van! He had ideas!”

Sukanya, still reeling from hearing her nickname fall casually from Ria’s mouth for the first time in half a decade, didn’t stop her, and soon Ria was spilling her secrets, undamming her Evil Words.

“I know it was stupid to take off like that. But I was a stupid teenager, and he didn’t give me any options! I had no life left here, Sukku. I had you, and I wanted to tell you, but he came at 3AM, and we were gone by 4, before my parents got up. They tracked me down when we first got to the city, gave me a call, but… oh God, Sukku. I don’t even want to remember what we said. I don’t think they’ll even look at me anymore. And Blake was so sweet to start off, bringing me flowers and chocolates. But one night he got really drunk and punched me in the face. I should’ve run. I should’ve fucking run. But I didn’t, and he was crying to me to stay, stay, and I did. I stayed for five fucking years. I left a couple days ago, no plan, no strategy, no nothing. I took my clothes and I got on a bus, no idea where to head next. So I thought of you. And I know, it was stupid. We haven’t talked in so long. But the next thing I knew I was heading upstate on an overnight Greyhound. I didn’t even know if I wanted to see you. I didn’t even know if you were still here! And God forbid I’d run into my parents. I didn’t sleep on the bus, way too stressed. But I guess I’m lucky that this town is so small, because the moment I got here I went to the supermarket on 4th to get breakfast, and of course I run into your mom. And she was so sweet, Sukku. She was so nice.”

Sukanya waited until Ria had finished, until tears were streaming down her face, her coffee, half-empty, growing cold in the frigid air. She massaged Ria’s back, turning towards the street to block her from the gaze of the curious passerby. And as she waited for her former friend’s hyperventilated breaths to slow, another memory. The last in a series, the closing call.

Sukanya had convinced her parents that she could stop commuting and pay for on-campus housing with her day job at Smoothie King. But by sophomore year, friendships had already been forged. People slunk around the dorm with keys in their hands. The movies she’d watched the summer before college revealed themselves to be false advertising, and Sukanya found herself alone, again, now away from her parents.

At nights, exhausted from class, from work, from research for grad school, she’d collapse into bed. In the five minutes between shut eyes and sleeping body, she would transport herself to the diner on 2nd Street. She would imagine Ria, twenty years old, driving home from college together. Laughs, long and soft and loud. Experiences shared.

She was napping after dinner on a Friday when the sound of hip hop from the next door over jolted her awake. And with uncharacteristic courage, she donned her warpaint (eyeliner and lipstick) and wrapped sharply on the door.


“Can I get a shot?”

Reluctantly, the gaggle of college students let her in. She had pressed sweaty bills into their hands, fifty cents for a shot, a dollar for a beer (overpriced — how else would they make money?). Sukanya had never been drunk. But she remembered Ria describing the feeling, that sense of indestructible confidence, swaying about the ground like a monarch over subjects. She chased that feeling, yearned for it, following it through the doors of the dorm and into a fraternity house.

But as the night continued, and the music flooded her ears, somehow too loud and muted at once, she realized that she would never get that feeling. She drank and drank, and the happiness drained from her body, as if there was no more room, as if the alcohol replaced its volume. And when the happiness ran out, and she was still drinking, the only room remaining was occupied by her tears. Those spilled as well.

“Ria! I have to tell Ria about tonight,” she cried, lurching onto her dormmates, strangers who couldn’t care less. When she begged them to walk home with her, they waved her off with vague instructions back to the dorm, unwilling to leave the party for the weird girl who insisted on coming along.

“Try not to die on the way back,” one of them called sarcastically as she left. The others laughed, but Sukanya didn’t notice. Her body and mind were choked with tears and vodka. She stumbled back to the dorm and slouched on her desk, by the telephone.

“I know she’ll call. Wait until she hears about tonight,” she mumbled, oblivious to the emptiness around her. Sukanya was certain she would call. Twenty years, and she finally had an act of rebellion of her own. A bridge between her world and Ria’s. She stared at the wall, forming her words, repeating the story in her mind to capture details already fading in fogged memory. “I have to tell her…”


And there she sat, until sunrise, the phone by her hand, the words in her mind. Until she was sober, and her head hurt, and she realized that she was twenty years old, waiting for a phone call that would never come, from a person who would never come.

Slowly, coldly, Sukanya pushed the desk away. She staggered into the bathroom and vomited. She washed her mouth. Brushed her teeth. And she slipped into bed. In the five minutes before eyes shut and sleeping body, she thought about nothing.

Sukanya knew she finally had that indestructible power she had chased. With one word, she could send Ria away. Cast her into sorrow. Reclaim the nights she sat alone in the booths on the 2nd Street diner, flicking her milkshake straw, holding back tears. But when she looked into Ria’s eyes, she didn’t see cruelty. She did not see that symbol of all that Sukanya couldn’t have, the wild nights, the Evil Words.

She saw a woman. Bony and shivering, alone and frightened.

“Ria, don’t worry. Let’s get your stuff. You can stay as long as you like.”

Tears of relief. Smiles that betrayed more gratefulness than words ever could. Embraces.

The two women and their twin cups of coffee walked back to the apartment, where Sukanya began boiling rice for lunch. She shouldered off her coat, and, hearing the crackle of plastic, remembered the lemon bar. She split the pastry, crushed but delectable, in two parts, handing one half to Ria.

They ate in the silence, citrus crème slipping on tongues. Every word that needed utterance had been said.

The phone rang. Mechanical cries filled the apartment, like a child whining for attention. Sukanya let it ring.

“Are you getting that?” asked Ria, not accusatorily but in question.

Sukanya hesitated. She thought of crafting an excuse, saying it was a marketing call. But instead she nodded, and walked towards the phone, holding it to her ear.


“Hi, Sukanya! It’s Kelly. I finally got a break here.” Kind voice, riddled with nervousness that Sukanya mistook for poor connection. “Just wanted to check if we’re on for tomorrow night? The concert in the park?”

Sukanya let the silence hold. She watched Ria, licking lemon crème from her fingers, leaning over the boiling rice, eyeing the photos on her wall.


Ria turned to face Sukanya, startled by her silence on the phone. Their eyes met. The eyebrow raise. The recognition. Ria smiled. Sukanya smiled back, and let go.

“So sorry, I was checking my schedule. Tomorrow night sounds great!”

Featured Prose Spring 2021

Coffee Breaks

Whenever I need a break from Kiosk Koffee I pad across the cramped and sticky floor, swing the bubble-letter Open to the cursive Closed, wipe my hair into a tall ponytail and go get some real coffee. It’s not that I don’t have pride in my work, I just know what I want. Regulars come to Kiosk to get on with their lives, not to revel in them. Sometimes I just want a little glitter in my piss. Walking quickly to avoid my boss’ general suspicions of the leisurely, I flip out my compact mirror from my purse (also mini) and lick my fingers to comb back my brows. It’s the quickest way to look less disappointed. I’ve been told by more than one person that I have “resting-washed-up face,” which wasn’t originally accidental.

I wouldn’t be so earnest about softening my aura except that the two new guys who work at real coffee look like god’s gift to Twilight fans. Not that I need to defend my taste in books, or guys. I just think it’s fun to pretend perky. These beautiful bastards could work anywhere they wanted in the whole wide mall. Nike. PacSun. Abercrombie. But they chose this commission-free Moby-Dick monopoly. I tell myself it’s not creepy to remain in regular need of their assistance.

I walk in and, if they’re not with a customer, the lanky boys will be busy pushing vape clouds under the counter or making Sharpie art on their skinny jeans. I’ve been at Kiosk for three years, ever since I graduated college and told my family I was moving back in. But the turnover here is ridiculous. Copies of the smocked and pocked-face youth rotate every few months. Apparently, this is the place for people with somewhere to move on to.

I’ve got a joke with myself for when one boy asks for my order. I say, “just my regular,” and he looks at me like I’m confusing him for the other, which, half the time, I am. The charm of it is that they’re both too lazy to follow up, so I’ll get something different each time. Whipped cream roulette. They work with stunning inaccuracy. It’s like an exhibit. I’ve got my own strategies for when I get harassed at work. It usually involves speaking only on the inhale, or in rhyme. Something disorienting enough for her (and it usually is her) to leave as soon as possible but not too rude as to be demanded the whereabouts of my manager. But these boys live like life couldn’t be less interesting. Or threatening. One time I literally made eye contact with one of them as he picked his nose while making my drink. He smiled and nodded what’s up. Christ, I thought. To be that free.

I grab my green-and-white cardboard and cover the logo with a sleeve. I leave some change for their services. “You boys keep me humble,” I say on my way out. And I mean it. Next I take the long way back around the block of shops to Kiosk. I love the way carrying the cup around makes me feel like I look like I have somewhere to be. I’m all, hey world, it’s me, but to-go. If I ever make a stop, it’s right inside Victoria’s Secret where the sale rack is. I usually just pick some tiny things up and put them down again but I’m always on the lookout for the underwear that’s going to turn my life around.

Once, I was feeling bold and took thirteen pairs into the dressing room, all balled in my fists under a silk black robe. I put on the robe, walked out to look in the mirror, made sure one of the employees saw me self-admiring, and then ducked back into the stall. I gave the robe back to the chick who looked closest to my age and told her thank you, but the material just didn’t look like it would last. I remember how she didn’t laugh, just pressed her lips and grabbed it back and spun away, but all the better that she didn’t watch me walk out of there, shuffling slightly with all thirteen thongs layered on top of each other under my jean skirt. That night after I got home I took all the tags off and tried on each of them individually. I wondered why none of them made me feel pretty. It’s because they’re stolen, I decided. My self-improvement panties would be a purchase, well-earned.

The worst part of this routine? I don’t even drink coffee. The sugar makes me break out. That’s right. I spend half of an hour’s wages worth in cash to be ignored by boys so tall I confuse them for handsome. They’re too boring to flirt back, but it works. I’m both their most and least valued customer.

These non-exchanges rile me up, so I try to make my walk back to work as soothing as possible. The mall is what I once would’ve called my happy place. Now it’s just my place. But it doesn’t matter if I’m happy or not because the mall takes care of me either way. Just like every kid who was ever breastfed in the mall, linoleum and fluorescents give me a stabilizing reverence. Every time I smell the enriched cinnamon yeast of a Wetzel’s pretzel I flashback to a pietà of my mother, swaddling my enormous howling head, my tantrum an ode to the forbidden Fruity Pebble special. Around five I was old enough to reach the coins forgotten in the fountains. I grew to crave the rush that came from first from hiding quarters from my mother and again from the glistening sugar glaze, which grew, as religious experiences often do, into a mild addiction. The bread of Wetzel’s, broken for me. I’ve come to recognize this time as something of a cocooning. Desire’s first impression, my mother always said, smooths its imperfections.

Now and again I’ll forgive myself for a bad skin day and take the escalator down to grab one last pretzel. If I have time, or my boss is visibly hungover, I’ll slow down on my ride back up and make a point of noticing things. Like the thin lines of afternoon light cast down from the domed skylights, or the way the giant fake plants draw any wanderers inadvertently to them. Some people think of the mall as man’s opposition to nature. But it’s actually the place we’ve built that most closely mimics it. The lights rise and fall with the same dedication to daylight as wildflowers. The displays listen to the turning of the earth, shedding and layering fads like leopards do fur. I would even say the mall defines the seasons, if not definitively ushers them in. Malls are neighborhoods. Colonies. Hives. In them we find ornamentation to set ourselves apart while growing more similar. There’s an ebb and flow here. If I close my eyes I could convince myself it’s a tide.

Life cycles in the mall. With property values what they are, even the big chains change location with Darwinian predictability. It’s sell or be sold. People swarm to celebrate brick-and-mortar births. And I’ve seen tears shed for stores passed. Kiosk Koffee, strangely, is the one constant. Rumor has it the mall manager’s husband had an affair with the guy who opened it back in the 80s. They’ve “been in business” together ever since.

I clutch and sniff at my lukewarm cup, finally back behind the Kiosk counter. I don’t flip back the sign. Instead, I trace the grain on the plastic wood counter, summoning the legacy of love, lust, survival, whatever has managed to keep it here. I wonder if my manager would put me on health and dental in exchange for short poems and more smiling. I chuck my coffee down the tiny silver sink.

Prose Spring 2021

Clinical Aphorisms

Ding. The doors slide open.

“Going down?” A physician points to the ground and lifts his pointed eyebrows.

Olivia nods and he gets on.

Olivia is on her 52nd consecutive ride down to the first floor of Langley Porter. She has been on the elevator for, more or less, the entire afternoon. She hovers her finger over the close-door button when another physician, a younger one with too much mousse in his hair, dashes toward the elevator, outstretching his arm to wave it in front of the sensor.

If the sensor weren’t functional, Olivia thinks, the elevator doors would slam shut, amputating the moussed physician’s arm. Inside the small space would be herself, Dr. Pointy Eyebrows, and Dr. Mousse’s right arm — dripping blood, dangling nerves, and all. The arm, then, would teeter on the elevator floor, rolling around a bit before finding a stable position from which to ooze its remnants. Perhaps the fingers would twitch, once or twice.

The phantom limb is the false psychological sensation that a missing appendage is still attached.

Olivia learned this in her freshman year psychology seminar, the one she’d had to fill out an application to take, as it was such a popular class. Rumor had it that you got to dissect a real human brain as a part of the curriculum. In her application Olivia had written a story about how her interest in psychology stemmed from having a great aunt who had multiple personality disorder, how Olivia would be the one to sit next to her at Christmas dinners because no one else wanted to, just in case she inhabited one of her aggressive personality states like the angry cop or the violent schoolteacher. The story was completely made up — really Olivia just could not believe that her small state university had the proper resources for cranial preservation, and she wanted to verify that fact for herself — but it got her into the class, and the rumor ended up being true. On an average Tuesday night in the middle of the term, a TA brought into the classroom a brain, which was a shade between pink and yellow, on a tray which looked like one of those black plastic serving platters used by fast food chains in mall food courts. It reeked of formaldehyde and something similar to fish flakes. “Here’s the corpus callosum,” the TA said, lifting the brain off its tray with gloved hands. “That’s the bundle of nerve fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain.” The organ looked much drier than Olivia had imagined it would be. It was wonderfully grotesque. She wondered which part of it dictated her appetite, or lack thereof — which section warned angrily against the consumption of nutrients that were crucial to her body’s health. The next week she switched her major from English to Psychology.

The brain serves as commandant of the human nervous system. Each hemisphere is responsible for different tasks. The right hemisphere houses facial recognition.

Dr. Pointy Eyebrows and Dr. Mousse exchange a look indicating they know each other. Here we go, thinks Olivia. The elevator begins to descend, the red number above the doors decreasing every few seconds.

“How is our Mister Christian Dior?” Dr. Pointy Eyebrows inquires.

Dr. Mousse rolls his eyes. “Oh, you know, still thinks he’s Jesus,” he sighs.

The elevator is hot and smells like paint. Olivia becomes one with its back left corner, resting both arms on the thin ledges that outline the walls of the space around her. Wherever she goes, she likes blending in, feeling small and undetectable.

“It’s like his wife wants him to be a lunatic,” Dr. Mousse continues. “So that she can continue collecting those designer handbags with his approval.”

One check for ‘derogatory comments about patients or their families’ and another for ‘a violation of patient confidentiality.’ Olivia frowns. She has yet to come across a physician who doesn’t break one of the rules she keeps track of. The elevator experiment has not refuted but raised her level of skepticism towards the institution.

The ride stops on the second floor, welcoming a pretty nurse with red hair. The doctors grow quiet. Dr. Mousse backs further into the enclosed space, making room. He gets so close to Olivia that she can sniff the gel which sticks firmly to his head. The redheaded nurse smiles at both physicians, then averts her eyes. Watch your step, Olivia thinks as she enters, there could have lain the puddle of Dr. Mousse’s blood, his amputated arm.

Dr. Mousse has a rear view of the redheaded nurse. A nurse’s uniform is typically not flattering. It is designed for simplicity, with minimal places for contaminants to burrow. It is designed for comfort, for easy laundering, and for cheap replacements. It is not designed to fit perfectly to individual body types or to highlight one’s noteworthy physical features.

A nurse who attracts attention while in scrubs is a well-shaped nurse.

Olivia will become such a well-shaped nurse, in a few years’ time. Her curves will attract the attention of her male patients and hospital colleagues, and that of a few females, too. By then Olivia will have recovered from her anorexia. Upon completing her treatment at Langley Porter, she will return to college and finish her degree in Psychology. The degree will be of no use at first. After graduation, Olivia will turn to her mother for advice on what she should do next. Her mother will say, with the practiced ambivalence she often exhibits, that Olivia should do what she likes. Olivia will then think about what she likes — and the first thing she will think of is coffee (even on her most stubborn days, when she refused food, she would accept coffee). Though she knows this is likely not what her mother meant by her advice, Olivia will get a part-time job as a barista at Blue Bottle Coffee, where a customer will return, day in and day out, and order a caffe latte despite being lactose intolerant. This is because that customer will be interested in Olivia and find her quite beautiful, and a caffe latte takes longer to prepare than a black coffee. While she meticulously designs an elm leaf within the milk foam the customer will ask her questions about her day, at first shy and careful, and then as anticipated routine. That customer will eventually become Olivia’s husband. While working at the coffee shop Olivia will also attend night school, where she will learn the skills necessary to become a registered nurse. She will take the NCLEX and fail. She will take it again and pass. She will celebrate by eating forkfuls of cheesecake from the local bakery that offers only seasonal flavors. The seasonal flavor, then, will be maple pecan. A month later she will get hired as a nurse in a pediatric psychiatry ward in Oakland. Whenever she works with a teen patient struggling with anorexia, she will think of how it has come full circle, her life. She will remember the little elevator experiment she conducted during her days in Langley Porter, when her arms were so thin and her heart so cold. She will not once breach a patient’s confidentiality.

Semantic memory processes ideas and concepts that are not drawn from personal experience. Retrospective memory recalls people, words, and events encountered or experienced in the past.

Dr. Mousse grins a little.

Ding. First floor.

The medical personnel exit, the doctors following after Nurse Redhead. A dejected man pauses in front of the door, waiting for Olivia to get off.

“Oh, I’m going up,” Olivia says.

The man shrugs ever so slightly and steps onto the elevator. From up close, Olivia can see the wrinkles on his face. He has many — on his forehead, surrounding his lips, pinching the corners of his eyes — though he cannot be older than twenty-five. He stares at the buttons to the different floors. None of them are pressed. After a moment he presses the button for the fourth floor. Then, he does something that Olivia has not seen anyone do yet: he turns, arms straight at his side, and faces the back of the elevator. The two are now face to face — Olivia staring at him, him staring at the ground. The elevator lurches upwards.

On the second floor, the doors reveal another physician, waiting. It’s a woman this time, one who wears big round glasses. She notices Backwards Dejected Man and scratches her nose. Olivia wonders what Dr. Big Round Glasses will do next. She gets on the platform and moves to the right, leaning her back against the side wall.

Facing sideways. How diplomatic, Olivia thinks.

Dr. Big Round Glasses smiles at Olivia and puts her hands in the pockets of her white doctor’s jacket. On the third floor, another female physician boards, one that recognizes Dr. Big Round Glasses. Even when prompted by this new physician, Dr. Big Round Glasses doesn’t break any rules.

“Are you thinking fluoxetine or fluvoxamine for Phillips?” asks the new physician.

“Mmmm,” says Dr. Big Round Glasses. “Why don’t we discuss this later?”
Olivia is filled with a feeling that resides between the realms of pride and relief. Finally, someone who is trustworthy.

On cue with the ding of the fourth floor, Backwards Dejected Man turns around. Upon exiting, he holds the elevator doors open, potentially sacrificing his arm for the doctors and Olivia. The doctors thank him and disembark.

“Oh, I’m going down,” Olivia says.

Backwards Dejected Man looks at her for a long moment before going about his day.

It’s a rare occasion for an elevator to make a straight shot from the top floor to the ground floor of the building. This next ride, however, is smooth sailing. No stops, no participants in Olivia’s study. She begins to feel lonely.

Loneliness is perceived isolation.

Before dissecting the human brain, and before going to college, Olivia lived at home with her parents, whose presence tended to make her feel more alone. When Olivia was aged fifteen months, her sister, who was just a year older, died of congenital heart disease. Olivia was never affected by the tragedy; her parents never recovered from it. They raised Olivia from a steady distance, as if afraid of becoming too attached. On the first day of first grade Olivia packed her own boxed lunch — a ham and cheese sandwich with an apple on the side. Her upbringing had instilled in her an independence that was concerning more than impressive for her age. She was always provided for but never coddled. It was as if her parents had exhausted all of their coddling capacity on their firstborn, and they knew from experience that the overprotection of a child had no benefit in the end. And then once in a while, usually on a birthday, or the anniversary of her sister’s death, her mother would drink a bit too much wine and pour out her affection for Olivia all at once. Through tears, she would ask Olivia if she knew how loved she was, how much mama loved her. She would ask Olivia until she answered in the affirmative, again and again, though the truth was that Olivia wasn’t so sure. In such moments Olivia’s father was usually seated in the periphery and silent, sipping on a drink of his own. Olivia found solace in friends, but they, too, came and went. On days that she struggled to find someone to sit with at lunchtime, she avoided the meal altogether, heading instead to the school library where she immersed herself in other, better worlds.

A friend is a person with whom one shares a mutual bond of affection. Friendships can increase one’s sense of purpose and belonging.

Back on the first floor, Olivia is greeted by Nurse Redhead and one of her nurse friends. Back already? What a short break, Olivia thinks. Or had the ride with Backwards Dejected Man taken that long? Nurse Redhead doesn’t recognize Olivia. She presses ‘two’ with her left hand while covering a yawn with her right.

“Tired?” the friend asks.

“I worked 18 hours yesterday, went home, closed my eyes, and before I knew it, I was back here.” Nurse Redhead yawns again. “I don’t know how I’ll make it through the night in my right mind.” The two look at each other and smirk.

One check for ‘raises concern about ability to provide high-quality patient care.’

The friend claps Nurse Redhead on the shoulder, and they return to work on the second floor.

Olivia decides she has had enough. She regrets not having ended her study on a positive note, with Dr. Big Round Glasses. She finally hits a button and feels a tiny drop in her stomach as she ascends.

The sinking feeling in your stomach is caused by a change in force as experienced by your organs.

Years after she gets married, and months after she retires from her nursing position, Olivia will feel her stomach drop one last time, while she’s on a rollercoaster with her granddaughter at California’s Great America. It will not be a large rollercoaster (her granddaughter will only be six) but still Olivia will scream and shout and when the ride is over she will say “Meemaw is too old for this! Let’s take a break.” Her granddaughter, whose name will be Claire Olivia, will smile and shrug and ask for ice cream. They will sit together on a bench by a popsicle stand and Olivia will watch as Claire Olivia licks her strawberry-flavored treat in pure bliss. While trying to get the last bite off the mid-section of the popsicle stick, Claire Olivia will drop a piece of it onto the ground and threaten to cry. Under the hot sun, the frozen dessert will melt onto the cement pavement by their feet. The small red puddle will remind Olivia of the pool of blood she’d imagined on the elevator, that day in Langley Porter, when she’d gazed at everything with apprehension, a deliberate kind of cynicism. She will think of that phase of her life as her own phantom limb of sorts, a psyche from which she is detached but still feels connected to at times. She will wipe her granddaughter’s sticky mouth with a paper napkin and tell her it’s okay, Meemaw will get her another popsicle. When her granddaughter beams up at her, Olivia will think that she would like to stay on earth, for as long as she can, with Claire Olivia. Olivia will not leave the earth for another year, and when she does it will be peaceful, in her sleep and without pain. To her family it will seem sudden. “She was riding rollercoasters just last summer!” they will say with exasperated voices. They will pour coffee on the grass beside her tombstone and whisper for her to enjoy.

The socioemotional selectivity theory states that the concept of an end drives one to live in the present.

When exiting the elevator, Olivia steps over the imaginary puddle of Dr. Mousse’s blood. Just in case. The fourth floor seems much more spacious than she remembers. Lots of windows. Wide hallways.

“Where have you been?” her roommate asks once Olivia enters their room, which could be the definition of bland. She wonders if she will ever leave this strange and suffocating space.

Olivia sits down on her bed. Her legs dangle off the edge, her toes point towards her roommate.

“Did you know that in 1995, Dr. Jack D. Ubel at the University of Pennsylvania conducted an observational study of inappropriate comments made in a hospital elevator?” Olivia says.

“No.” The roommate begins to comb her hair.

“Did you know that in 14 percent of the elevator rides, a physician breached the confidentiality of a patient?”

“Have you been reading?”

“Did you know that here, it’s even higher than 14 percent?” Olivia says. “But there’s this one doctor, she has these big round-”

There is a knock on the door.

“How are you ladies? I’m filling in for Dr. Cao tonight.” A doctor steps into view and adjusts her glasses, looking down at a clipboard.

Olivia smiles widely.

“This is her,” she says, and sits up straighter in her bed. She prepares to listen and to learn, as she has been doing all day.

Prose Spring 2021

yellow yolk (alternatively, mid-way reflections on a gap year)

I feel like a cracked egg these days, golden-yellow yolk threatening to seep through the fractures of my shell at any moment. Only, eggs are probably much cooler than me, because, when put in hot water, they become tougher, while I collapse further into myself. Science aside, how do they do this? How does anything know how to thrive under extreme conditions?

People once thought I was hard-boiled and tougher than anything. I was a scholarship student with a full ride at an elite university, how could I not be?

I once believed this myth, too. That I had triumphed through hardship, that I’d grown stronger for all of the suffering. All the final exams, the waking up at 4 am to finish psets, the all-nighters, the thousands of extra-curriculars, the panic attacks, the suicidal ideation — they’d all made me a better, more capable person. Right?

The answer to this question used to be one word as well: a simple, sweet, supportive yes, whispered in the acceptance letters, the financial aid package, the Instagram posts speckled with congratulatory comments. But now, I don’t know. I am on a gap year, the coolest and calmest of waters, and still my skin is so fragile. I sleep ten hours each day and still feel exhausted afterward. I can barely manage the teaspoon to-do list I scoop onto my agenda each day. The one class I am taking, I am still struggling to keep up with. Meanwhile, everywhere, I hear the birds chattering.

piece of shit lazy piece of shit waste of time waste of space look at you so privileged and so lazy what happened to high school you what happened to worthy you piece of absolute shit you disgust me how can you not do the simplest of things incompetent impotent piece of shit shitshitshit

I guess

what I am trying to say

is that I did not come out of the years and years of hot water a better version of myself. I instead arrived at college with half a decade’s worth of sleep debt and untempered anxiety and wells of sadness and an unhealthy addiction to validation from capitalistic definitions of success, all buried deep inside of me, biding their sweet, hungry time. Waiting for a lapse like this. Waiting to eat.

This isn’t to say that they’re just now making their appearance. They often lurched out in college, too. But in school I had other things to worry about. This pset and that meeting and this midterm and that financial aid form and this application and this and that and this and that and on and on it went, through rainstorms and hundred-degree heat and nights spent in libraries. Through barely bearable mornings and afternoons in random corners of campus, laptop open, spine hunched forward, fingers click-clacking onto the teeth of the keyboard. The birds still chattered, but in exchange for my worries, I had seeds to feed them.

But here, look at this test I got an A on, but here, look at my two part-time jobs on campus, but here, look at this summer internship and that fellowship. I could momentarily snuff them out, or at least dull the noise to a murmur, a hum, a background instrumental of teetering self-esteem.

But now, I am on a gap year, and I have no more seeds in my pockets. The creatures that birthed me are pecking at my shell, demanding to be fed, but with what? With a finally sustainable sleep schedule? With a somewhat regular eating routine? These birds don’t give a shit about my well-being. Where is your full-time internship, where is your finished book, where where where are all the things you promised me would make this year worthwhile, worth sacrificing everything else.

I am halfway through the year, and I still don’t have any of these things. I am halfway through the year, and the yolk keeps pouring out of my mouth in snappy responses to loved ones, spilling out of my eyes in snapshots of sobbing, coating my hands cold and clammy, dripping out of my pores lying in bed.

How long before I go full humpty dumpty? How long before I go splat?

Maybe I didn’t survive the hot water — I just postponed the heat.

And instead of growing stronger, I am collapsing.