Featured Prose Spring 2021

A View of Sydney Harbour from the Plane

When I returned to Australia this time, in one of those tense restless moments in which I’d stretched my arms out and felt as though my palms were pressed hard against the walls, clunky in the corners, enclosed, I walked to the local cemetery.

And I cried.

It surprised me, too — the cemetery is an old one, and in Australia, which means that I have no relatives buried there; no connection to the people beneath the soil. Most of the cemetery has long been turned into a park, and the remnant gravestones are crumbling gently in the shade. It is pretty. It is calm. A destination for casual drinking; sex; strolls.

But I’d cried. I’d taken a walk to clear my head, wandered through the long grass, admired, as a history student, the porous Sydney sandstone church, remarking to myself that only Sydney would have such anachronisms as gothic architecture built from Victorian sandstone, read the words written on the gravestones — and promptly welled with tears. The words were:

Edward Adams, born Kent, 1792, died Newtown, 1844.

Followed by his loving wife Alice, born Glasgow, 1795, died Newtown, 1852.

And so on. The pattern was a British name, a place of birth outside Australia, and the place of death: here. I recognised the place-names, minutes from where I’d grown up: Redfern, Newtown, Macdonaldtown. The abrupt richness of connection in an unexpected place — the sudden ability to reach out and touch, feel, almost physically, the lives of these people in a deeply Australian space, a deeply detached space, startled me into sentiment.

It was clear to me too that this restless walk, this heightened emotion — this period of waking up exhausted from dreams of waiting rooms and mirrors — was no more and no less than a youthful and visceral struggle against filling the same space now that I’d filled at seventeen.

My most important memories, I realised, had always been of moments outside Australia; of life before Australia; even, for a time, of life after Australia. Memories of the period now called: before being sent back. I self-diagnosed my symptoms as the trauma of being sent back to blue skies.
In short, I finally grasped that it was because I’d grown up here that I wanted to leave.

Perhaps it’s because my Chinese name labels me: like water. I was born between oceans. My name in Hebrew means migration. So, at four, I moved like the water between shores, as my parents did, as their parents did. At birth, to my right was the salt of the Mediterranean, beneath me the salt of the Red Sea. Four years later, I must have realised that if I were to follow the waterway through the Persian Gulf, down the Arabian Sea, skimming leftwards through the top of the Indian Ocean, then finally I would arrive here, next to the Pacific.

Funny, then, that my first experience of Australia was being scared of the shower. We were renting an apartment, and there was no bath. I was afraid of the downpour, of standing, gasping, beneath the deluge of water rather than being bathed in it gently below my chest.

My second recollection sees us moving into our first house. I am running and running down that long unfamiliar Sydney corridor and an unnoticed corner of a wooden cabinet looms closer and closer until bang — I’ve hit my head against its sharp point. I fall and burst into tears.

My father picks me up and says, in Hebrew,

“Oh no, Hagar, you aren’t used to it here yet, are you.”

Some oddness of the sentence must have struck me even then, made me file away the words for later perusal. Now I understand that this memory is about my father’s disorientation and not mine.

Most years we return to see family. One afternoon, at a beach café, I ask for directions to the toilets. I ask in Hebrew, the language of my father; our Biblical language of lullabies; of dirty jokes; of memory and history. The waiter looks at me for a moment — then answers in accented English. Afterwards, bemusedly wiping water off my hands, I recount.

“Do I have an accent?” I ask.

My father shrugs. “Maybe you pronounce your reishs a little softly.”

There’s something familiar about the memory — generalised, even, or boring from repetition. In my second year of college, I’d stuck my head out of my dorm room and said something to a Chinese Canadian friend. Her older brother was visiting, and they were passing on their way out to dinner. Later that night, returned, she breathlessly divulged to me, “My brother told me that he’d hallucinated you spoke to me in Mandarin!”

We laughed. I had, of course, been speaking Mandarin. I’d spoken Mandarin and Hebrew before I knew English. You can still hear my fumbling accent sometimes, concealed in my lisp. Somefing. Fank you.

When I was born, the nurses in the Jaffa hospital laughed about the blonde Chinese baby. It was an image that took a struggle of forty-eight hours to produce: a large blonde infant exiting, with difficulty, a small sweating Han mother. Back in China, during parallel visits to see my quietly aging grandmother in her empty apartment, the aunties would thrill at my fair skin; that nose; the ungainly height. It was a common event, in those warm damp Chengdu days spent helping my grandmother carry home heavy plastic market bags, for someone to stop us and ask: “Is she a foreigner?

Ta shi waiguoren ma?

It’s the sound of that question, of that memory, that always rings so familiar. I could unwind for you a reel of similar moments. In Australia, it’s a scene sometimes set at the train station, sometimes at a crossroads, laced through with the familiar urban smell of warm concrete and crunchy Eucalyptus leaves and Thai lunches. In it, a woman asks me and my father, “Where are you from? Is that French?”

My father responds stiffly, “We’re from Newtown.”

I supply, “It’s Hebrew.”

End scene.

The soundscape changes with the setting. In the U.S., after I’d moved there for college, it was always the irritating metallic noise of the accusation: “But your accent isn’t Australian.”

So I embrace it. I’ve learned to thrill in my difference, be excited by it, dampened when I find similarities in another. If the only label left to me is migrant, then I know to enjoy being a curio. It is, after all, branded on me by my name, like an advertisement of restlessness. I get meaning from changing contexts. Homesickness — never experienced it. There’s a special peace, a special calm, a particular looseness of the shoulders in rebuilding a new life in a new place. No connections to the people or the landscape; no longer entrapped in boxy categories, desperately struggling and wriggling my fingertips. How can I describe that as a quality of the air?

It must have been a prescience of this restlessness, then, or a building desperation, that was behind the moment at sixteen in which I’d realised that my greatest wish had become to leave Australia. It’s because life in Australia is too easy, I’d theorised. I have nothing to struggle for, nothing to light me on fire. When I reach into my web of thoughts it feels grey.

Years later, when I did leave for college in the States, I learned to say instead that there is not the burden of history pressing down on Australia’s shoulders. The loss of that heavy weight in a young and removed society makes life both easier and emptier. The rich brilliance of the denseness of bodies and stories that give life in other, older societies that particular fermented tang that drives me wild that connects me, that sparks the thrill of emotion roiling around the eyes, does not exist here. But with that loss so too is gone the heaviness, the sadness, the maddening echo of drowned voices. Hence we immigrants desire to come here: for the calm of the unwritten.

That is to say, the landscape outside my window is filtered through memories of memories. My father’s sadness. My migratory instinct inherited from generations leaving bloodshed. Once, over a bowl of pasta at the local Italian restaurant, my mother said to me suddenly: “Did you know that only one of your grandmother’s four siblings survived? He was really her cousin — adopted by her father after his own parents died.” He had survived because he’d been exiled to Tibet. My late grandfather, remembered in stories of his gentle friendliness, his hopelessness at bartering, had only had a brother. Who’d hanged himself, said my mother over the gnocchi. A heavy weight pulls down rope. The sadness of the stories comes abruptly, in moments; patches; odd, intimate moods. A twin confession from my father at dinner: “We used to sit around the radio and listen for a name we knew. Everyone did that — listen for family members. You’d send descriptions to the Bureau for Missing Relatives.” I think we were eating fish that time, or maybe tofu.

Let me restate, again: looking out my window, at the echoing gentle emptiness of sun glinting off roofs and the harbour through the gum trees in the distance and my easy, easy, easy, life, I say, “I feel like the lucky child of a turbulent 20th century.”

Though of course Australia has an ancient multitude of threads of memory, embedded into the clouds of the blue Sydney sky and the shine of its waves. But this history feels carefully, deliberately wiped from the edges of my reach. Others must feel the emptiness from this too. You can see it in the breathless panting excitement at the one blood that we are allowed to remember, Australia’s own tomb of the fallen soldier.

“I’m sorry, Hagar, but you’re white.” I was fifteen. We were sitting in the library, in our ironed little school uniforms. The allegation confused me. The sorrowful coppery Anglo face that looks down at me from beneath its curved hat in the park memorial is familiar to me as a face in a social function. Its Australia, I’d thought, was barbeques and ANZAC Day and beaches for more than my one month of determined sandy public transportation at the height of summer.

So when I was sent back, in the March of this year, when the coronavirus threatened to twine its feelers into the college room I shared so many miles away from my parents, it was to look down and see my feet stepping backwards until I was curled in a ball in my childhood room, suspended in that web of innumerable strings that had defined me and my life and my future mine. To rebuild my self here, to sit in the park next to the cemetery on an empty afternoon, was to be forced to hold up the mirror of this country to my face: to experience the horrified jolt of seeing nothing reflected back.

Though perhaps it was good to have been sent back. The difficulty of building my life from the deliberately clean slate of new places, the effort of carefully considering each brick before placing it, was slowly destroying my body. The past year made me feel sometimes as though I was gazing down into a calm deep dark emptiness that one sees in the depths of the sky or the sea at night; that if only I’d stretch out my arms and let myself fall, the emptiness would calm my overheating mind.

My horizon reduced to the few streets around my house again. I know them like my body, can feel their map in my mind, touch their lengths. The cemetery is nestled in a corner over there — right here, see, between this dimple and this freckled line. I cried, there, abruptly; a breath ago, a week ago, a half-year ago, from a moment of overwrought relief — a laugh of recognition. The looking glass in the cemetery was suddenly crowded. In the reflection were threads of stories, winding towards their end in Australia.

A final confession: my name has yet another meaning. Biblical. The exiled girl who finds an oasis.

Featured Prose Spring 2021

The Salmon Season Gets Shorter and Shorter Every Year

When my father was twenty years old, the same age I am now, he took a summer job at a fishing plant and cannery halfway down the Aleutian Islands in Chignik, Alaska. The youngest of ten children, my dad began shipping himself out of his hometown of Spokane, Washington in the summers when he was seventeen. He first followed his older brothers Matthew and David to a chuckwagon ranch at the base of the Tetons in Jackson Hole, and then on up to Alaska, where Matthew worked on the boats and David ran the processing plant at the Aleutian Dragon Fishing Company. His age wasn’t an issue. By the tenth kid, my grandparents didn’t know how old he was, and they didn’t care.

There’s only one photo in our house from my dad’s time in Alaska. The picture itself is blurry, and my dad looks caught off guard, maybe mid-sentence. The background is all muted greys and whites; low and boxy concrete warehouses line the back of the dock and mountains dusted in snow rise sharply behind the buildings. The foreground is all yellow, my dad dressed in a floor-length rain slicker with a hood. His strawberry blond hair, which these days grows thick and long, is closely cut and mostly covered by a yellow ball cap. In the photo, you can’t read the words on the hat, but I know that it says “Aleutian Dragon Fishing Company” because my mom still has it. She wears it with her own floor-length yellow rain slicker, a gift from my dad on their first wedding anniversary.

My dad says that my Uncle David took the photo, and he knows that it’s early May because they’re out on the docks and not in the processing warehouses. This means it’s the twenty-four hour opening of the halibut season when the fishermen’s permits line up with the halibut spawning and they can catch hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish in a single day. The Chignik plant’s bread and butter was salmon — ten-pound red sockeye salmon in the early summer and forty-pound king salmon starting in August — but in late spring there was a sliver of halibut season. Since Alaskan halibut can be seven feet long and 500 pounds, the fish didn’t fit in the warehouses and the processing was done right on the docks. They’d hold the fish up on a gaff hook and use a machete to hack off its head, just below the eyeballs. They’d have to take turns, and my dad’s job was to re-sharpen the blades in between rounds.

My Uncle David started at the ADF Chignik plant when he was twenty-one and has worked in the Alaskan fishing industry ever since, though his job these days deals more with dwindling populations and plummeting fishery health. In the late 80s, he was in charge of recruiting college kids to work at the plant. He started with his brothers, which is how my dad got roped into the job, but he also recruited at college parties, convincing drunk Washington State students to sign contracts that they wouldn’t remember in the morning. My dad told me that his brother lured him to Chignik with the promise of adventure and the chance to make what was advertised as “a fuck ton of money.” He did, but only because in Chignik, you kept working as long as fish kept coming in, and back in the 80s, the fish never stopped coming in.

In the photo, there are a bunch of trough-sized metal bins full of severed fish heads over my dad’s left shoulder. The insides of the bins are smeared with the same blood staining his rain slicker, which never came out no matter how many times they washed and replaced the gear. The plant workers used to toss the heads into the bay to chum for marine life, but the fishermen (who were all Alaskan Natives — Aleuts, mostly — and passed Chignik Bay fishing permits down their families for generations) told them that the silver-dollar-sized cheeks were the freshest, most succulent flesh of the fish, so the plant workers saved the heads for the fishermen to take home in exchange for beer.

The Chignik plant processed fish twenty-four hours a day for five months in the summer, and the kids who worked at the plant often had shifts of up to sixteen hours with breaks for meals. They slept in bunkhouses where they hung blankets over the windows because it was sunny for twenty-one hours a day. For the first two summers my dad worked on “the slime line,” beheading and gutting salmon as they wound down a conveyor belt in a wet, freezing concrete warehouse. To entertain themselves, they listened to 80s rock mixtapes (he laughed when I asked if they had CDs) and flung fish hearts at each other — five points if you hit your buddy in the face and three points for every minute that he resisted the urge to wipe the guts off his eyebrow. Respect was earned around the eight-minute mark. My dad volunteered to work the overnight shifts because he made double the money and got to see his brother Matthew when the fishing boats dropped off supplies from Anchorage. On those nights, he lived on coffee, Copenhagen chewing tobacco, and Snickers bars while a half-sun washed dusk over the landscape at two in the morning.

They usually showered every day, but sometimes you were so tired that you took off your bloody rain gear and boots and fell into bed. They played pranks on each other and made ridiculous bets and swore off eating fish for the rest of their lives. Once, he and his friend Todd made a bet as to who could go the longest without showering, and they marked the days on their bodies in Sharpie. My dad won $100 off Todd for going twelve days. Five years after their last summer in Chignik, Todd confided that he had in fact showered on Day Six and re-Sharpied his body. My dad forgave him.

They played poker for days on end and once in a blue moon got an off day to go into town (two streets, single-wide trailers, and a dirt landing strip). There was a woman who sold baked goods out of her trailer and remembered the boys who returned summer after summer. The sole restaurateur of Chignik, she made about $30k a summer selling bread to the fishermen and donuts to my dad and his friends.

After three summers in Jackson Hole and three summers in Alaska (two and a half in Chignik and then a couple months spent helping clean up the ‘89 Exxon Valdez oil spill after a falling out with an asshole boss at the processing plant), my dad once again followed his brothers to Colorado, where he felled trees with some guys he met in Alaska and then worked at a ski repair shop and cobblery, which is where he met my mom. Uncle David kept trading fish for a living. Uncle Matthew went on to accumulate more adventures and hone his storytelling craft. My dad made him my godfather, in hopes that I’d pick up one of those gifts. I’m almost twenty-one and I wonder when I’ll be shoulders deep in fish guts with the nerve to tell stories about it. My mom still has the yellow hat and slicker, and when my dad goes out of town, we eat salmon for dinner.

Author’s father in Chignik, Alaska, 1986.
Prose Winter 2021

Birthday Card

Grandma’s house was on the top of a hill with no view. Driving up the crowded hillside for the first time in almost ten years, all the houses I used to think looked like easter eggs had somehow grown uniformly washed-out. We turned onto her street where some bigger lots had front yards with shrubs that sprouted chain link fencing and guarded two-car garages. The garages, I supposed, were for things and not cars because the cars were strung along the asphalt where the sidewalk should’ve been. The street sagged in the middle, and yellowing lawns baked in front of empty porches. It might’ve looked so exhausted because of the late July heat, thick as a nosebleed. But it was probably because she was gone.

I hate to say it, but I wouldn’t have remembered the exact day Grandma Clara died, except it was the day after my sixteenth birthday, July 24. She’d left me a message two days before. I remember I’d gotten home from driver’s ed, checked to make sure my mother was still at work so I could make some Top Ramen, and played the voicemails. Grandma Clara always called on my birthday, or whenever she remembered, and she’d always repeat herself, saying I had to get out to see her out where it was “California calm.” In the voicemail she only said she’d try again, and there was a card that should make the mail before Sunday.

I used to get dropped off at Grandma’s on weekends when we lived in the valley and mom had to work. But since we moved to Michigan for mom’s old boyfriend’s Amtrak job we’d never been back. I used to tell Grandma not to take it personal, we never went anywhere. The truth was, I stopped asking to visit when I hit high school because it was always the same answer: “If she wants to see you,” my mother would say, “she knows where to find you.”

She hadn’t called on my birthday or the day after. I was in the family room watching Antiques Roadshow when I heard mom put the landline on speaker and continue washing dishes. Maybe her hands were wet, or maybe she figured I wasn’t around because I heard the police still on speaker say they’d taken her mother’s body from the bathtub where it had been for 60 hours. “Autopsy pending,” I heard a man say. “Sure,” mother cut him off before she hung up, followed by, “that’s all right.” What else should she say, I guess, if she didn’t want to know. Still made me mad. We flew out the next week because estate services said everything had to be gone by the end of the month. I wasn’t going to go, but was told it was my last chance to grab anything before it got sold or dumped.

“We’ll get some stuff we can remember her by and some stuff we actually want,” mom said in our kitchen as she packed her suitcase with empty bags. She didn’t say much on the flight there except to tell me I didn’t need the Biscoffs. I only spoke to offer to split the earbuds so we could watch Wedding Crashers for the second time that summer. She said yes but didn’t laugh until the credits when I asked if I could drive the rental.

We didn’t stop for lunch, just drove straight there. I was starving, but the combination of the air conditioning and the second hour of Rush Limbaugh made me nauseous. The moment the car stopped moving I turned everything off. My mother said nothing, just pointed to some knocked-over squirrel feeders. “What?” I said.

“So nice,” she said, “to know she cared about some living things.”

“Don’t worry, they’ll die too,” I said, wondering if Grandma had actually managed to take the dependent rodents with her. She would’ve loved that, hippie hoarder that she was. We idled in silence while my mother corrected her drawn-on eyebrows, nearly permanent now that she had the habit of casually ripping out her brow hairs with her fingers. I was losing my patience and more nervous than I thought I’d be. I swallowed snot and jiggled the child-locked door. “Devin,” mom said with her eyes still on the mirror, “don’t open the door.”

“Thought I was here to help,” I said. “No, the house door,” she said. “The house will smell like her.”

“I know.”

“I mean like dead her,” she said, now looking straight at me.

“I said I know.” I found the lock, forced the handle, and blew my nose onto the wavy hot concrete. Mom got out halfway and drew one of her two-part breaths, exhaling forever. She looked so much older. Made me more annoyed. I thought about how slowly she’d moved in LAX, tripping over herself on the escalators, and how I’d actually felt sorry for her then. I watched her find the hide-a-key — the rock hadn’t changed — click it into the padlocked garage, then shove up with what looked like the last of her. Inside, hundreds of cardboard boxes lined the walls, all different sizes, five, maybe six deep in places, stacked to touch the ceiling.

We hesitated together on the threshold of the garage, which was surprisingly cool and deep. My decade-old memories of my grandmother, always busy preparing lunches, pulling weeds, or ordering toys I’d wanted off paid programming ads, were beginning to fade. Mom’s paranoia was replacing them, about Grandma’s drinking, her run-away debt, bad teeth, fat dog. From what little mom had said about growing up with an alcohol and credit-addicted single parent, I’d guessed there would be a lot of stuff. I was expecting it, just the sheer amount. But then I realized I probably would never see it all. I thought about crying. Maybe, if it had been a dump, we could’ve called a scrap truck.

Except what we had was a library, a temperature-controlled collection of everything Grandma might’ve breathed on since, like, the forties. She never really touched it either, by the look of the boxes’ sharp corners, how they hadn’t softened from age or being moved around. Each box had a Sharpie name tag on one side with her strange all-caps writing. My mother had already turned back to light a cigarette. I started reading the tags as fast as I could.

Hello, my name is: PANTS. FORMAL. ’71-’82. Hello, my name is: XMAS COUPONS (ALL). Hello, my name is: DRAWER ORGANIZERS. Hello, my name is: BUTTONS. (SINCE ’00). Hello, my name is: MELINDA — DOLLS (FOR DEVIN).

It would take months, maybe a year, to go through it all. But I could figure something out. I could block off the street, get a crane to arrange the boxes on a mile-long blanket where I could splay everything out, look at everything one at a time, then all at once. Sure, an inconvenience to the neighbors, but I could turn it into a museum, free of charge except for a suggested donation for my troubles, call it “Clara’s World.” Or I could make it a theme park with a Maze of Memories, games to win rodeo paraphernalia, rides like Tupperware Tumbler. I’d have info plaques with her favorite salad dressing flavors and get the catalogs she loved to sponsor the merchandise. There would be a big book at the end that everyone had to go out of where they would write down things they loved about her, even if they didn’t know her and were just there for the experience. Or I could win Antiques Roadshow.

“God, be near,” I heard mom say as she pulled out her notebook. “Who gets the house?” I asked. “The bank,” she said, continuing to write.

“Bank accounts?”

“Not your business,” she said, “even if there was anything.”

I waited. “Too bad,” I said, the closest I’d come to a condolence. I walked back into the heat of the driveway and scanned the street for neighbors, mailmen, dogs, anyone that she might’ve known by name or who might’ve known hers. My mother’s bleached, perm-curled hair had fallen over her made-up eyes, still on her notebook. I couldn’t believe it, she could write nonstop, but she refused to talk to me. I grabbed the key off the car hood and slipped it in my giant sweatshirt pocket. “I’ll check the mail,” I said. No response. I turned the corner, took the shallow steps to the back door under the fading scalloped awning, slipped in the key, and turned the lock.

I took a breath and considered if I should hold it while I tried to find the card, just in case of rotten food or, I don’t know, whatever mom was worried about. But I’d only taken one step and looked down before I saw it on a table, next to a fake hydrangea bouquet and an ashtray. On top of a plain envelope was a pink Hallmark card with owls who had rhinestones for eyes. “To my beautiful granddaughter,” the front read. I opened it immediately. “DEAR DEVIN,” was in the top left corner, printed small as if for a long message, but there was nothing below.

Prose Winter 2021


The silence in the 4×4 was tangible.

“Holy shit,” I muttered, forgetting the presence of my Mamaw two seats over — the kind who “doesn’t do spice,” capturing the life of the savannah with her first generation iPad as if she were Paul Nicklen, eyes squinting behind thick black frames to protect them from the slightest breeze — but no one seemed to be listening to me, except for a small chuckle escaping our guide’s lips, each word delivered with a thick Afrikaans accent: “Isn’t nature beautiful?” The rest of them just sat there, as did the birds, onlookers from a safe distance.

We watched the cheetah cubs toy with their live food. As if in a game of Marco Polo, each of the cubs’ movements was received by a bleat, weakening with every response, from the poor baby impala that must have strayed too far from its creche. At first it ran, or at least it attempted to, but its long sinewy legs, awkward and wobbly and fueled by what I could tell was only its mother’s milk, were the perfect chewing toys, and within an instant, a loud crack sealed the young one’s fate.

The wide brim of our guide’s hat cast a shadow over his pale skin, causing his white teeth to glisten and his eyes to sparkle with fascination and wonderment. All was quiet. He had turned down his radio, an action that seemed habitual, his fingers moving by muscle memory, but the meaning of which I couldn’t discern: was it a nod of respect to the gruesome death of the impala, or the elimination of background noise, causing each helpless cry and the destruction of flesh to echo throughout the bright open plains?

At that moment I was engulfed by the silence. Sometimes, the emotion that fills empty spaces rings louder in one’s ears than does any decibel of sound, and sometimes this deafening silence can transport you through time. I thought of Grandmommy. She was given two funerals. She was loved enough to fill two separate rooms full of stiff wooden pews on the first, and on the second, loved enough that the bitter December cold attracted a crowd, ignorant of their frozen tear ducts as their chattering teeth sobbed through the heatless church. As for Mamaw, she is also the kind that would receive two funerals. The matriarch that stands in the middle of each awkward family photo, with dozens of children pullulating from her lineage.

We watched as the cubs clumsily sank their juvenile teeth into the backside of the impala, and only with their mother’s help could they dislocate the rear quarter from the cordage connecting it to the young one’s frail bones. The impala no longer cried, only producing deep lumbering breaths; its head rested in the tall grass, with eyes wide. Its body was mutilated, not preserved, its funeral procession waiting to drive away without it and its time on Earth traded for currency and our viewing pleasure. I remember hearing my sister’s camera shutter click.

We sobbed as we watched the light go out.

We mourned on the ride back to the villas.

We were quiet over dinner.

We had other worries by morning.

We complained about the long flight ahead.

Upon returning home, we raved about the trip, and our new souvenirs: a beautiful zebra pelt, a spring buck throw, and two impala pelt pillow cases. The SD card containing the photos was lost in transit.

Prose Winter 2021

I Think of You Often and I Wonder if it Is Mutual.

One girl. Your hair is yellow like white wine. You are religious, but I don’t yet know this.

A college dorm is a normal place for 20 teenagers to gather in a dark room to watch a horror film. These movies are doltish. They are playthings for the mind. But this is ok.

The movie is about a mirror. It’s horrendous. You grab my shoulder during a jump scare. Jump scares are a cheap movie tactic. Grabbing onto people during them is even cheaper. But your hand gets the blood rushing through my body. I can feel you throughout me, my gut in my legs. The three Vicodin I took an hour ago are making their presence felt.

The movie drones on. You can really hear the static buzz beneath it all. I can’t decipher the language. My brain is in my belt.

You hold my hand. I take it as if I’ve been waiting for it. My hands are cold and shaking, unprepared for visitors. But yours are warm like good news.

Your hands and wrists are muscular. You impress me. I am nervously standing in the doorway of your body, but your hands invite me in.

You are in my arms, but I am not in control.

The movie ends, people disperse. They have things to do.

We find a couch in a common space. Your breath is cold, which I welcome. You tell me about your father. You tell me he is a nice man. You talk as though you mean it.

My father is not a nice man. I don’t tell you this. I tell you about the nice things in my life. I tell you about my grandmother’s cooking. You laugh. I try to be both sincere and tantalizing. I do an unremarkable job, but you do not demand more of me.

You talk more about yourself. About your god. About the things people don’t understand. About the obnoxious boys at your church.

Your brother was in rehab. To this, I can relate. I tell you this, but I pretend I am also talking about a sibling. We are silent. Addiction is an odd zone of emotions. It has no good vocabulary. This is silently acknowledged. We share this moment.

We talk into the night. You begin to look like somebody I know well. I allow myself the guilty pleasure of imagining our future together. Perhaps we will live in the way that I have, and each night we can tend to each other before we rush to sleep. Perhaps we continue in the way that you have, where we find god and live amongst good Americans who think about their pensions.

I wonder if I deserve this. Someone who believes in paradise will surely not believe in me. You tell me goodnight. The substances inside me begin to echo, expecting answers.

I find myself alone in my bed. I have a roommate, so I should not masturbate. But he is sleeping, so I do anyway. I think about your blonde hair in tight knots in my fists. I think about your body rocking against mine in the darkness. I think about your pale skin. I think about you smiling as you come free.

The next day you tell me we should watch another movie together. I am not naïve. I understand social contexts.

I agree. Of course I do. You are beautiful. You have a heroic color in your cheeks. You remind me of a rainstorm.

You arrive at my room. I’ve been preparing for hours, excited like a child boarding a rollercoaster. I cannot imagine anything else but the sight of your Neptune eyes.

You look around my room, inspecting my belongings, picking up mugs and putting them down. You do this silently. I stand in the corner, awaiting your approval. I want you to be proud of the life that I am living here.

You look at the fan in my room. Bad for the environment, you tell me. You motion me to unplug it. I quickly oblige. Of course I oblige. I want you to want me in the way that I want you.

Soon we are in my bed. This bed is too small for two persons. We giggle as we adjust, learning to cooperate our bodies. We are close to each other. We are interlocked like halves of a pretzel. Each motion from one of us begets motion from the other. We are intertwined, truly. I can feel each one of your coughs and twitches. I am studying the patterns of your skin. My thumbs are depressing into your curves and your valleys. We do not speak during this. This requires focus, this thing we are doing.

The movie is playing. I do not know the plot. I do not know the characters. The movie is not what is happening. Something else is unfolding here.

I try to kiss you. I would love to kiss you. I want nothing more than to kiss you, and I hope that you want the same. But you stop me. You place a hand gently on my chest. I understand. I tell you I don’t mean to presume. I am not trying to intrude, I explain.

No no no, you say, It’s not you. I want you, you tell me. You remind me you are religious. There are rules. You cannot kiss me. You would like to kiss me. But you cannot.

I do not understand, but this makes sense to you. I do not understand, but of course, I oblige. You are standing for something, you are capable of denying yourself pleasure, which only makes me more anxious to provide you with it. Perhaps I will wait for you, and you will come to me eventually. Perhaps I will spend the rest of my life imagining you. Either way, I am content.

I ask if you would like to leave. You squeeze my hand. You are happy here. This puts me at ease. I am adrift, longing for your shores, lost and confused, but I can relax because I know that you are happy.

We continue in this way. You come to my bed each night. I feel the waves of your body. You move with me in rhythm. We do not kiss. We never kiss.

We come close, once, while your head is on my shoulder. I have just smoked a cigarette. You hate these, but you understand. You are very understanding of my life as a sinner. Maybe that is because you think that the cigarettes are the extent of it. I don’t dare tell you about everything else I need to feel deserving of you. Maybe one day, once we have traversed the universes that exist between us, we can speak honestly about these things.

Your head is leaned towards mine. My face buoys against yours like a ship onshore. Our lips brush faintly. If you weren’t paying attention you might think they did not touch at all. But I am paying attention. I am tracking the points where our skin intersects. This is the movie I am watching. And this, this faint brush, this is enough for me.

I can feel the conflict inside of you. I do not mean to push you, but I would like you to be pushed.

We talk more about your father, who works in a bank or a firm or something of that sort. You have cliché stories of camping trips and I listen as if I’d never before heard of the concept. One night you ask me about where I come from. I tell you I grew up in the woods of Minnesota and that my parents died in a car accident, neither of which are true.

A week or so passes, under the clouds, I am walking to a class I haven’t been to in months. I get lost on the way to the building, but I still arrive early. You are in the room next door, looking as though you’ve gotten taller. Sitting, taking notes, checking your phone, living as if nothing is wrong. You are following the lecture, aware of what is happening around you. I can barely feel myself, for a moment it’s clear that I am not anywhere. But you are someone of constitution, and I know that I made the correct decision in loving you.

You walk out with a friend I have never met. You don’t introduce. You say hello to me and leave. Your hand grazes mine though I cannot tell if it was purposeful. Instead of going to class I swallow two more Vicodin and speak to nobody for the rest of the day.

I see you that night. No clothes come off, but our shoes do.

We speak like friends when you arrive. You tell me about your day. I am eager to hear about it. You speak of friendships and ambitions and the tedium of your degree requirements. A girl who bullied you in middle school texted you today to apologize.

When we talk, we sit apart from each other; you occupy one chair, I occupy the other. While this happens, we act as though the talking is all we are doing. Some nights you read to me, picking up random books from around the room. You read about math formulas and turn to random pages in a James Joyce novel my grandfather bought me. You tell me you like the way the Irish names roll off the tongue.

One day I rent a book of love poems from the library. The librarian is very helpful in this effort. I tell her I am celebrating my girlfriend’s birthday. Though nothing in that sentence is true, it feels nice to say. That night I read them to you, hoping to suggest something. You tell me they are beautiful. I tell you that you are. You say thank you but nothing more. I realize that you have a strength that I could never dream of.

You reveal yourself to me in important ways, in the way that lovers would.

I am depressed, you tell me one day. I understand this. I tell you I feel the same. This is the truth.

You tell me it came on gradually, that you were depressed long before you had a name for it. You were sleeping too often, your parents noticed, they were supportive. The guilt and the self-loathing followed. You wondered how it was possible for you to be so sad in a world so beautiful.

I tell you that mine came on suddenly, on a Thursday, that I was surprised that it took as long as it did. I don’t tell you that the depression became a good excuse for the descent that I was already planning.

If you could just have one good day, you tell me, then that would turn into two good days, and then you’d be back to normal. That is a word you use often — normal. What is happening to you is not normal, but soon you will recalibrate.

I ask if what we are doing is helping. You tell me that you don’t know yet.

We exist across from one another. There is nothing to be done. We are up against walls, in a way. But we are with each other.

I tell you that I have a hard time relating to other people. That they take for granted the things that haunt me — out of bed, on time, three meals. You touch my hair to calm me and this is when I know I love you. I love you as you tell me about seeing your brother collapse on the floor in front of you. I love you before the pills kick in and I love you even more afterwards.

I ask more about your god. You tell me that you love him, that he feels the same about you. You tell me about the meaning your life has been endowed with. How you know that something wonderful is waiting for you. How you are becoming a better person. I don’t know how to ask about what I want to know. About the rules. About why you can only love one of us.

You ask me if you can borrow a jacket. I motion to the closet. You slide the glass and peer inside. You take a brown one that I know has two Dilaudid in the pocket. I stiffen in resignation, fearing that I’ve reached the end of the road. That you will slip your warm hands in and wonder aloud about what you’ve found.

That I will have to explain it all. That it didn’t start because they made it feel better but because they made the pain make sense. That they made it feel like something important was going when I would sit in my bed for hours without moving. That I could tell myself that I was experimenting with the beauty of melancholy. That they gave me a reason for why it was all so awful. That one day I wondered if taking an Oxycontin through the nose would make it work faster and it did. That that was when the mixing started. That a week later I really did try to kick the stuff but that I gave myself back after 72 hours awake and a seizure in the dining hall.

But you say nothing. We do a crossword puzzle. The Roman counterpart of Eros is Cupid. Neither of us know the lead actress from Sixteen Candles.

I ask if you would like to watch a movie. You know what this means.

Sex moves in stages. There are checkpoints. There are benchmarks. This is not sex, but it acts like it.

At first, we are above the blankets. There is a laptop in front of us. It acts as a moderator in a debate. It prompts us, tells us our next lines.

This is the first stage. We are moviegoers. Our appearance is very important to you. Somebody is watching. That somebody, to you, is god. I do not understand this, but I no longer try to. I am content with your ridges and edges. I wish to know you, but I understand if I cannot.

The second stage is where we touch. This is deliberate. It is slow. It is purposeful. We advance in small bursts. Our hands will graze. This is a moment. We are aware of this moment. We pretend that we are not. That is the fun of it.

But they will graze. And soon they will touch. And soon our fingers will greet each other. And they will become acquainted. And they will reveal themselves to each other, under cover of blankets and darkness. And soon our hands are doing what we cannot. They are solidified as one, as close as two things can be.

We do not dare to let go of what we have formed in subtle nativity. This is a long time coming. Our hands are the product of our thankless labor.

We are under the blankets now. That was the third stage. We may rest.

I am with you. I am in love with you. I inquire further towards your body. Some nights you are hesitant to answer me, and I retreat to your hands, where I know I am safe.

But some nights I am welcomed to the small of your back, and other nights I am welcomed to your stomach. And so often I can interlock my legs with yours like shoelaces.

On special nights I am allowed to put my head into your neck like we are puzzle pieces. I always savor this moment. This means something that everything else did not.

This will be the moment I remember. I will remember my cheek against your collar bone. I will remember the small pimple under the left side of your chin. I will dream of kissing your neck and feeling your warm legs shudder. Later, after you have left, I will hold myself with this moment in my mind, the drugs will take over, and I will sleep the sleep of the dead.

My friends tell me I am wasting my time. Of course they say that. That is the masculine thing to say. They do not understand the nuances that I do.

But they are right. They know that I am not what I would like to be. They know that I can admire the power in your resolve but that I cannot replicate it.

I cannot help but imagine going missing inside of you. When I hold your waist in my hands, I am forced to think of your thighs caressing my head, of you telling me my own name in pants and laborious breaths. These thoughts invade the love I have for you.

I would be at peace if I didn’t think this way. I would be comfortable if I could accept you as you are. But of course I will demand more.

And I will try to kiss you again, soon enough.

And again, you will say no. This is important to you, you will tell me. I will reassure you that I know this. That I am sorry. That I am trying. You will tell me that you forgive me.

But soon you will be elsewhere, and I will not know where.

And soon I will be doing with them what I could not do with you.

But I think of you often, and I wonder if it is mutual.

Prose Winter 2021


I pushed uphill after the dark shape of the neighborhood kids. I remember trying to scooter uphill; it’s like running, but with one leg. I stamped furiously at the road with a sharp flick of the sole behind me, and fighting gravity, my purple Razor scooter crawled up.

I was the only kid who didn’t have a bike, so I was perpetually at the end of the pack, sometimes minutes behind. But I didn’t mind, the stilted bursts of movement which pushed me over asphalt weathered a divot in my sneakers and a blister on my toe that hurt like a friend socking you in the arm. Sometimes I’d detour, taking the long way to jump over curbs and picnic table seats. Best of all was going downhill. Already out of sight of my whooping and noisy friends, with worn wheels and shit brakes, I’d fall to the earth cutting the wind. Steering then was useless, so I often just closed my eyes until I felt the ground beneath me even out and I had to push again.

Every afternoon, we rolled up the hill to the CVS pharmacy at the top. Our mecca squatted on the outskirts of The Hills’ dingy apartments and we loitered religiously, sometimes muscling a football through the air or just sitting on the curb in sweaty silence. Now and then someone would have money. Kids our age didn’t have jobs, and parents in The Hills were the type to think two meals a day and a roof to worry under were allowance enough. But we had good eyes and fast hands. Though pilfered change only bought so much.

My dad was never home, so on rainy days we sat on the floor around the television pretending it made the day go by faster. We saw this one movie, Dead Presidents, where a bunch of people tried robbing an armored truck. They hid in the shadows of a dark street wearing face paint and dark clothes, then ambushed the police. Everyone died or went to jail at the end of the film, but immediately after the screen went black and credits tumbled past, we planned our heist.

They call it aiding and abetting, I think, when someone doesn’t commit a crime, but helps. I wanted to do that. I hid behind the statement, “I don’t want anything.” An obvious lie; everyone in The Hills wanted something. They laughed, rightfully calling me scared, and continued like I hadn’t said a thing.


I crested the hill out of the apartment last, like usual, and neatly folded my scooter while they threw down kickstands with scuffed sneakers and filed in. They were the fast hands of the operation, and I was the good eyes: the lookout. My job was to be a paying customer, using money I’d saved up for weeks to buy candy upfront to distract the cashier while the others, one per aisle, filled backpacks and black hoodie pockets with whatever they could grab. In the end, everyone would join me on the way out. Innocent kids accompanying a friend. There was no reason the plan shouldn’t work. Our Plan B was quick feet and our Plan C was a box cutter nestled in my sock. But, again, there was no reason the plan shouldn’t work.

I remember a smiling man who was my parents’ age. Wrinkles spilled out of the corners of his eyes and he had a thick accent that seemed out of place. He asked how my summer was going, and I mumbled a stressed “Pretty good.” I wondered which kind of chocolate thieves bought the least. I considered one of the pricier chocolates, some sort of penance for my friends skulking behind me, but ended up picking a Crunch bar. They came in cheap Lunchables so were practically free. People didn’t steal free. The man made and returned my change and I turned to leave while the other kids grouped around me, signaled by the chirping static of a receipt fighting its way out of the machine and the rip of it being torn away. We left in a pack. Everyone assembled their respective vehicles, cutting glances and smirks around the parking lot at each other before howling and speeding back to The Hills. Anyone who recognized our crime would have to catch us first, and they never would; we were going downhill. Pedals beat gravity, so as they distanced themselves with butts raised above the seat, my scratched scooter glided smoothly down.

We crouched in yellowing, itchy grass to divide up the plunder in the patch behind the apartments. We ogled in a circle like worshippers around soda cans, small toys, chips, a lighter, and a box of condoms; they were fuel and mysterious artifacts to middle schoolers, and day dreams of lighting things ablaze, cloud watching with snacks, and giggling conversations made them sacred. Yet, I didn’t get anything because they did all the work. I had my Crunch bar. We neatly arranged the items in a pile off to a corner and played football for the rest of the day. When the streetlights whined on, casting periodic pools of light into the street, we untangled ourselves and rolled home.

I remember tossing my scooter over the railing of our second-floor apartment that night. I wrapped my hands around the railing and hoisted myself up, one leg after the other, then swung my weight into the indigo space. If you hung with your arms full length, you could drop and not hurt yourself too much. I hung there for a moment, watching my sneakers lazily sway above the grass, before letting go and crumpling in a heap on the ground. My blistered toe sang out, but I was otherwise unharmed. I walked to the street and rode in the direction of the hill, cutting through pools of streetlight, connecting the dots on my route. In my periphery, well past the golden reaches of streetlight, tense figures smoked on picnic tables or kissed necks of bottles in paper bags. On one street corner, older kids huddled in a circle chatting in low voices while the ember of a cigarette orbited their lips flashing red. Once at the base of the hill, the night became silent, save for the sound of me pawing my way up and the scooter’s gravelly motion. I rode to the locked door of the CVS, peeking in at dark shelves and sitting on the curb looking at the stars. I left soon after, daring to close my eyes as I hurtled through the dark, placing more and more distance between my scratched scooter and the Crunch bar I left in front of the door.

Prose Winter 2021


Part I: Miro

Miro stared at the clock in agony, cursing at himself for signing up for an intermediate-level drawing class without any experience in art. He shifted uncomfortably in his stool as the teacher — who had demanded that everyone call her by her first name, Bethany — sighed a gush of peppermint that made his eyes sting. He did his best not to stare straight down her shirt, but the angle at which she had positioned herself, leaning loose-waisted over the opposite edge of his desk so that her opal pendant stared at him like the eye of a cyclops, made it almost impossible.

“You know what I love about your work, Miro?” her voice shifted down an octave in pitch and a few notches in volume. “I love the texture of your drawings.” She elongated the ex. The words dripped from her mouth. She laid a palm on the edge of his drawing sheet and pushed it straight down the center. The charcoal smudged in a linty streak following the trail of her hand.

“It has such a lovely feel to it.” She held up his sketchbook for everyone to see. “Can’t you feel it just from looking?” The class stared back blankly. A couple students indulged her with a slight nod. Bethany returned the sketchbook to Miro. “Excellent work, Miro. Keep it up.” She winked.
He looked around. Everyone’s papers were the same, and had to have the same texture. She probably couldn’t think of anything else to say about his drawing.

The sole reason he had enrolled in Drawing II sat three stools away from him, looking an earthy sort of beautiful in her baggy grey sweater. Miro glanced over at Darcy, trying to read the flat line of her mouth. When she caught sight of him staring, she smirked and rolled her eyes at Bethany.

Looking at Darcy always made Miro’s gut feel like it was levitating in his torso, like if he stared too long, he might burst with affection. He calmed himself and went back to sketching.

The art teacher was tall and slender, and wore tight black skinny jeans. Everything about her seemed to climb upward toward the sky. Her eyelashes reached so far up her face that they seemed to prop up her perfectly penciled eyebrows like the legs of a table. The cuffs of her leather boots clung to her knees, a short distance away from where her hips swung like a pendulum whenever she walked. Even the way she spoke seemed to be reaching for something; her voice lilted upward at the end of each word, as if everything that came out of her mouth were a question.

“Everything exists in relation to its surroundings,” she whispered, “The pencil’s length is only a small fraction of the desk’s, just as we are smaller parts of the universe.”

Bethany had set a cardboard box atop a table at the center of the room. Above the box was an arrangement of random objects: a selection of knobby orange squash, soda cans, crinkled paper bags. The desks wreathed the centerpiece, facing inward.

“Let’s start with some gesture drawings,” she announced, clapping her hands softly. Her dozens of thick metal rings clicked against one another.
She circled the room like a vulture, explaining the importance of acting on instinct. An artist needed to trust intuition and let his eyes guide his hands. She glanced at Miro as she said this, and Darcy stifled a snort.

Fifteen minutes into class, the door opened and a bearded man entered. He was large, hirsute, with porous, splotchy skin that resembled an old, discarded lemon peel.

Bethany stared at him with pursed lips and spread her nimble fingers over the center of her chest. “Can we help you?”

“I’m the model. You must be Bethany.”

There was a pause. A look that resembled panic crept into Bethany’s face, starting with her twitching brow and crawling down into the curves of her frown. Eventually, it melted into a tired recognition. She let a puff of air out of her nose while stretching and snapping an elastic smile. “The model. Yes, of course. Let me get you set up.”

Bethany led the man to the storage closet at the back of the classroom. The class remained silent, and some kids exchanged confused looks and shrugs.

Darcy texted Miro wtf.

He responded idk.

Bethany returned a few moments later with her usual silky calm demeanor.
“Jerry will be set up here for those of you who’d like to… Incorporate his form… Into the still-life.”

She pushed the cardboard box setup over to the side and wheeled a wooden stage into the center of the room. Jerry emerged from the storage closet sporting a bright orange kimono. There were swirls of gaudy cherry blossoms detailed on its hem. The man’s red beard had been sectioned off into tiny braids with neon beads woven in here and there. He mounted the stage, swinging his leg up and revealing his lack of underpants. He shed the robe and positioned himself.

Darcy stared at Miro, her eyes wide with horror. Miro shook his head in disbelief.

Though the students tried their hardest to focus on the assortment of inanimate objects that were originally meant to be the subjects of their drawings, Jerry seemed to be doing the most he possibly could to retain the full attention of his audience. He struck poses with such violence that his muscles shook, his flabs of skin quivering like the ears of a hound facing the breeze of an open car window.

Bethany would interrupt now and then to give students individual advice.
“Mind if I…” she would say, already reaching for a stub of charcoal and leaning over the student to get a better angle at their drawing.

When she leaned over Miro, the tips of her wavy blond hair grazed his forearm, her breath warmed his shoulder, and the smell of lavender essential oil and patchouli wafted into his nostrils. Her opal pendant bumped his earlobe twice.

“There, see? Like this.” Miro nodded uncertainly. He saw Darcy raise her eyebrows.


“The art teacher wants you,” Darcy snickered as the two of them made their way down the steps after class ended.

Miro shook his head. “She wants everyone. She exudes sex.”

“More often than not, it’s channeled at you.”

“What, are you jealous?”

Darcy punched him lightly with an arm that jangled a dozen thin gold hoops. “Of you, not her. I want someone to look at me like that.”

Miro’s skin tingled. He’d been in love with Darcy for three years now. They had slept together once, when she stayed the night in his dorm room after a party a few months before. A week later, he had asked Darcy on a date — a date date, as he shyly explained to her — and she laughed and shook her head.

“You kill me, Miro,” was all she had responded with. Then he let her walk away, her black ponytail swishing like a wagging finger.

After class, they sat on a patch of grass at the corner of the campus’ main plaza with cups of iced coffee that Miro had insisted on buying. Other students biked by trying to make it on time for their next classes. A tour group was being herded by the corner of the lawn where Darcy and Miro were spread out peacefully.

“What was your SAT score?” a parent was in the middle of asking. She was a mother with a platinum bob, her arms folded across her chest with a brochure clenched in one of her well-manicured claws. The tour guide tried to avoid the question unsuccessfully.

“Seems like a miserable job,” Darcy mumbled. “Being a tour guide, I mean.”

Miro nodded slowly, “You know what seems like a miserable job? Nude modeling for college art classes.”

Darcy laughed, sucking up the last bit of coffee at the bottom of her cup and rattling the leftover ice. “That Jerry guy must be pretty sure of himself to be able to flash his junk at a group of twenty-somethings.”

Miro hummed his agreement. “Good for him, I guess.”


During their first-year orientation, Miro saw Darcy for the first time sitting at a picnic table with a sack of mandarin oranges. Clusters of eager freshmen darted around like dragonflies, trying to make as many friends as possible within the first hours of college. They wore lanyards with flimsy name tags screaming their names and hometowns in bubble letters, and chased after anyone else they saw doing the same.

Amid the chaos, Darcy sat alone. Her lanyard was tossed aside. Having things around her neck, she later explained, made her throat itchy.

Darcy was tan with long dark hair and lots of piercings. Two silver hoops hugged her left nostril in parallel, and her ears were stickered with glinting earrings shaped like stars and moons. She wore eyeliner that framed her coppery pupils in thick black. Her navy blue nail polish was chipping so that the leftover paint on each nail looked like the shape of a country.
At the table, she wrestled a mandarin from its netty sack and stuck her thumb into its navel. The scent erupted in the air, pooling out with the light breeze.

Miro tried to think of charming ways to start a conversation. He wanted to come up with a joke about the mandarins. All that came to mind, however, was that somewhere fifteen or so miles away in suburban California, the placenta that he had been birthed with was buried under a mandarin tree for good luck, because his mother was a strong believer in harbingers and superstitions. He couldn’t start off with that.

“Want one?” Darcy asked as she popped a section of her orange into her mouth. Miro hadn’t realized she’d noticed him.

“I took them from one of the activity tables.” she explained, swinging one of the mandarins in front of her twice, mimicking the toss that she was offering.

He caught it in one hand. “Thanks.”

Sitting across from her, he quietly peeled his fruit. He asked if she was a freshman, too.

She nodded at the lanyard that sat next to her. He read the nametag aloud, “Darcy. Like in—”

Pride and Prejudice. No, not like that one.”

“Like what then?”

She shrugged, peeling another orange.

“Where are you from?” he tried.

“I grew up in Florida.”

“I guess that explains why you like oranges so much.”

“I like mandarins,” she corrected him. “Oranges are too aggressive.”

Miro sat in awkward silence. He thought about leaving her be, but was exhausted from having the same three conversations over and over that day and had nowhere else to go. Plus, Darcy was pretty.

“My placenta is buried under a mandarin tree,” he blurted. He looked up at Darcy hesitantly, and his gaze met with the white flash of her teeth. Her smile dimpled her cheeks and tucked her makeup into the thin creases by her eyes.

“So is this some twisted form of cannibalism?” she laughed.

“Yeah, I mean… Circle of life,” he said, loosening up.

“Are you quoting a Disney movie?”

“It was actually Jane Austen,” Miro joked. He relaxed, and let it show. Resting his elbows on the table, he leaned in and looked up at her from under his hair in a way that he thought was flirty. She grinned, offering him another mandarin. He made a silent wish on it, hoping he could make her smile like that at least once a day.


During the next two years, Miro and Darcy remained close. They ate meals together in the dining halls regularly, crammed essays and projects in the library late at night, and ran errands at the local shopping mall in the janky, rusting car that Miro bought too enthusiastically off Craigslist.

For Miro’s birthday, Darcy gave him a necklace that she had wrapped with a scrap of newspaper. The pendant was a small metal disk with spirals engraved on its face. Miro never took it off. Over the course of many months, the cheap metal began to turn bronze and stain his skin gray in a blurry line around the back of his neck. He developed a habit of reaching for the little disk, flipping and pressing it with his fingers absentmindedly throughout the day. Sometimes he’d put it between his lips and let it sit there until he moved enough to make it fall out.

Halfway through their junior year, Miro declared his major in biochemistry, and Darcy chose graphic design. She spent her afternoons outside, sketching in her notebook in the sun, carrying around her tablet so she could work on her digital compositions at every moment of stillness. Sometimes she’d draw comics of Miro as a lizard navigating life with one missing leg.

“Why a lizard? And what happened to my leg?” he demanded.

“Would you rather a snake?” Darcy doodled his scaly avatar sunbathing on a beach. “Snakes don’t have legs to begin with.”

Miro pouted. “What am I doing now?”

Darcy had started a new panel that featured the lizard digging through what looked to be a pile of dirt.

“I think you’re confusing lizards with dogs,” Miro sighed, knitting his fingers together and stretching his arms above his head.

“You’re looking for your buried placenta.”

Miro smiled childishly, pleased that she remembered. “It’s supposed to be under a tree.”

“Draw it yourself, then.”

“I can’t draw.”

“Then learn. Take a class with me.”

The closest Miro had ever gotten to sketching was penciling in the squares of his graph paper while struggling with math problems, but the thought of being in a class with Darcy, sitting at a bench sketching their homework, was enough for him to sign up for Drawing II that very night.


The next art assignment was an abstract piece representing desire.

“This piece is completely open to interpretation. Feel the heat and let it guide you, let your creative juices flow,” Bethany sang.

Two minutes in, Darcy had already produced a masterpiece, a beautiful composition of warm swirling colors and geometric shapes.

Miro couldn’t draw a straight line, even with a ruler. He scrapped the first draft of his drawing and tried again on a new sheet of paper. He had finally produced a single squiggle that he was somewhat satisfied with when the classroom door swung open.

A bespectacled young man stood in the threshold, the sunlight from outside flexing around him and bleaching the floor.

“Bethany? Is there a Bethany here? So sorry I’m late.”

The whole class gaped at the lanky man in his wool turtleneck. Bethany paused the smooth jazz that she had started playing from a bluetooth speaker.

“I am she. And you are… The model, I presume.”

“That’s me. Where should I set up?”

Bethany gestured at the wooden stage, and the model helped her wheel it over to the center.

She giggled, but her voice was woven with a thread of uncertainty. “I forgot that there was a model coming today! Silly, silly,” she chirped. “Class, do your best to incorporate, um—” She beckoned at the model.
“Adam!” The man in the sweater chimed in and bowed.

“Adam. Great. Do your best to work Adam’s figure into your interpretive pieces.”

“Do we have to?” Darcy groaned quietly. She was nearly finished already.

“Do what you can,” Bethany smiled.

Miro looked back at the single graphite mark that sliced the center of his page in half. He started drawing what he thought resembled Adam’s head just underneath it.


Miro was struggling. When he signed up for this art class, he hadn’t cared in the slightest if his drawings looked like shit — it was an elective course that he wasn’t even taking for a letter grade, and he had no interest in becoming an artist. He hadn’t expected to develop deep embarrassment over his lack of skill and a looming sense of dread every time he had to present his work.

When it was his turn for a class-wide critique, students gawked at the misshapen lumps scribbled onto his paper, not knowing where to begin with their feedback. One person mistook his still life of flowers for an abstract interpretation of explosive anger.

“I guess I thought the petals were supposed to be like fireworks,” the girl had said after he had explained it to her.

Worst of all was the look on Darcy’s face. It wasn’t disapproval or contempt, more like a quiet but obvious exasperation. He felt guilty for making her take a lower-level class with him.

Miro attended Bethany’s office hours one day, wanting to improve without Darcy’s help. Bethany finished talking to the last student from her previous class before directing her attention to him.

“Hello, hello, handsome fellow!” She perched herself atop one of the nearest tables and swung her legs expectantly. “How can I help you?”

“I wanted to get some extra practice in.”

“Wonderful! Why don’t you take out your sketchbook.”

Bethany set up miniature statues on a nearby desk, shuffling them around and switching the angles of the light source from time to time. She went over tips for finding forms, recognizing negative space, and estimating proportions, all from less than a foot away.

“Is art something you want to pursue in the future, Miro?” Bethany asked him.

He let out a snort. “No, I just wanted to—” he started to say, but stopped himself.

“You just wanted to…?”

Miro exhaled. “I wanted to impress a girl. Or something.”

Bethany breathed a laugh that tinkled like a wind chime. She smiled knowingly. “Of course you do, honey. Is it working?”

He shook his head defeatedly and stared at his paper, “Not with drawings like this. At this rate, I’d be better off as one of the models.”

Bethany’s eyes narrowed. “You could try that, you know.”

“I’m sorry?”

“You could model for a class I’m teaching in thirty minutes.”

Miro stared blankly. “You mean nude?”

“Well, as nude as you’re comfortable with.”

“No way.”

She furrowed her brows as though offended. “Why not? I used to model all the time in college! It’s an excellent way to gain confidence!”

“I really don’t think—”

“Come with me, it’s just a building over. You can decide when we get there.” It was more of a command than a suggestion. Miro packed up his stuff and followed her out nervously.


In the neighboring building, Bethany led Miro down the hallway, tossing a bright “Come on!” over her shoulder every now and then to keep him moving. When they arrived at the classroom, Bethany opened the door to reveal twelve senior citizens stationed at various easels around the room. There were walkers and canes strewn about them.

“I teach the elderly every Tuesday at five. Isn’t that wonderful?” she twittered.

Miro nodded.

“See? There’s nothing to be intimidated by here.” She leaned in and added, “Some of them can barely even see!” Then, turning her attention to the class, she shouted, “Good afternoon, everyone!” Some appeared to have heard her. “Instead of doing our usual still life exercise today, we’ll be drawing Miro, here.”

A combination of adrenaline and sheer pressure made Miro gravitate toward the small stage at the center of the room. A few students turned to look at him. Bethany motioned for him to mount the stage. He did so uncertainly, removing his jacket, and after an encouraging nod from Bethany, his shirt. He shot her a look of panic and waited for her to explain what to do.

“Miro will be holding a pose for one minute at a time, starting now.”

Miro was mortified, his cheeks flushing, his underarms sweating. He stuck an arm above his head awkwardly and did his best to hold still, gazing at a crack he found at the corner of the back wall to distract himself. His arm started to tingle, then to burn, then to hurt. He shook it out a few times before returning it to its position over his head. He wondered if people could see his sweat.

“One minute is up! Next pose.”

Miro scrambled to rearrange himself in a sitting position, leaning back on one arm and resting the other over a bent knee as naturally as he thought possible. This time, he hesitantly looked out at his audience.

He expected that everyone’s gaze trained on his body would plunge him further into humiliation, but he noticed as the students’ cloudy eyes traced his face and limbs, they weren’t really looking at him. Like the miniature statues or the knobby looking squash that Bethany used as models, they were simply internalizing his form, with no judgment or contemplation other than how to connect one line to the next, how much space to leave between one mark and the other. He relaxed a little.

By his fifth minute, he was settling into a rhythm. He reorganized his limbs in ways that he thought were interesting, without being too uncomfortable, crossing one leg over the other, turning his head one way and then the next. He no longer thought about the people drawing him, but rather what position he should assume next.

When the exercise was over, he felt good. A few of the elderly had completed beautiful sketches. Some could hardly see the paper, and ended up with a few unintelligible marks, but even those impressed and touched him.

He thanked Bethany, who called him “a natural” and told him to come back soon, winking. Then he left the classroom feeling light.


“You did what?” Darcy gasped, already bursting into laughter.

“I’m not kidding!” Miro told her about the class while eating lunch in a dining hall the following day.

“What possessed you to become a nude model? Did Bethany seduce you? Oh my god, don’t tell me she blackmailed you.”

“I told you I wasn’t nude. And it was a one time thing.”

“Okay, but why’d you do it?”

Miro paused, he felt oddly defensive. “I don’t know, she seemed to really want me to. It was honestly kind of fun. The old people were nice and some of them made cool drawings. Plus, it’s like a… Confidence thing.” He shifted uncomfortably.

“You posed for old people to boost your confidence?”

He felt his frustration growing, his cheeks flushing. “Yeah, I did.”

“Oh, come on. You don’t need to work on confidence.”

“How would you know that?” He couldn’t stop himself from blurting.

“Miro, please. You’re fine as you—”

“I mean, I’m obviously not good enough for you.”

“Whoa, what?”

“Tell me I’m wrong.”

“What are you—”

“I’m not good enough for you.” He had stopped bringing up the fact that they had slept together, since Darcy never responded to it. The confusion and agitation and affection and longing puffed and deflated in his chest like a balloon depending on what day of the week it was. Some days he could hardly contain it, and wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. Other days, he was content just knowing she existed at all.

He hated loving her. His life and their friendship would be easier if he didn’t. But whether it was her pretty face that seemed to get prettier each day, her dry sense of humor, or the way she started talking three times more quickly when he brought up things that she was passionate about, his feelings for her weren’t fading. He felt the balloon of frustration grow and grow, until it reached its limit and slowly deflated in defeat. There was no sense in scaring her away. He exhaled.

“Never mind. Sorry. I’m in a weird mood.” He ran his fingers through his hair.

Darcy gazed at him and said, “Okay.” She didn’t bring it up again.

Part II: Darcy

Darcy wasn’t clueless. She knew Miro was in love with her. A big part of her desperately wanted to fall in love with him, too, but the other half knew that it was more out of convenience than real desire. He was handsome and tall, with a humble but keen sense of style that made him look like a kid who might play bass in some starry-eyed indie pop band. His curly hair and kind brown eyes were soft accents to his boyish friendliness, and he tended to her with a quiet focus and care that no one ever had before.

But no matter how hard she fixated on Miro’s wonderful qualities or how compatible they were, when he was around, she didn’t feel the swells of nervous energy that she associated with attraction. She felt comfortable in the way one would with a best friend or close family member. After weeks of uncertainty over her own feelings, sleeping with him only cemented that reality, and from then on she avoided acknowledging that it had ever happened.

The memory of that night after the party crossed her mind as the two of them walked back from a dining hall one afternoon. Darcy felt languid and contemplative.

She looked at Miro, thinking to herself that he was good-looking — cute, even — but the thought sat weightlessly in her head, and when he smiled at her goofily all she could think of was that he once laughed so hard in the dining hall that milk shot out of his nose and he spent the rest of the afternoon smelling like sour cream. She grinned back.

On the other side of the walkway, she noticed a man in a bright orange vest stoop over the edge of a fountain. He had a bucket in one gloved hand, and his other wielded a massive blue net.

“What’s that guy up to?” she wondered aloud.

They watched the worker as he dipped his net into the shallow water and stirred it around. When he lifted it over the surface, it chinked with dozens of wet pennies. He shook them off before emptying the net into the bucket, and after a few minutes of collecting, he lifted the bucket and carried it away.

“Where do you think he’s taking the money?” Darcy asked. She passed the fountain multiple times a day on her way from one class to another, and had frequently seen people tossing coins in it as part of a campus tradition. She had never thought about anyone cleaning the coins out.

“Maybe it gets sprinkled into the university’s endowment,” Miro offered.

“Or maybe he takes it for himself.”

“People make wishes on those coins.”

Miro stuck out his lower lip to blow a strand of hair away from his forehead. “You know what they say. One man’s wish is another man’s burden.”

Darcy smirked, “Who said that?”

“Plato. Or was it Pacino?”

She rolled her eyes and went back to staring at the man. “Have you ever made a wish at that fountain?”

Miro nodded. “Have you?”

“Nope. What’d you wish for?”

“If I tell you, it won’t come true.”


“Okay,” Miro huffed. “What would you wish for?”

“For world peace. Or more money.”

“You’re a real hero.”

“I prefer ‘saint.’”

“Those are cop-out answers. You have to wish for something real.”

“Like what?”

“The first thing that comes to mind the second you toss the coin. It’s a psychological thing. ”

“According to whom?”

“Freud. Or maybe it was Fallon.”

“Stop doing that.”

Miro’s eyes widened, and he ducked behind Darcy’s right shoulder. Bethany was making her way up the path to the bookstore on the opposite side of the plaza. She wore a black hat with an enormous brim and sunglasses that covered nearly half of her face. Her wispy blonde hair flew around in tendrils, glowing eerily in the sun. She moved more hastily than her usual bendy strut allowed.

“Should we say hi?” Darcy smirked.

“Please don’t,” Miro sighed, “The last time I saw her I was shirtless for the elderly.” He let his face drop onto Darcy’s shoulder and shook his head into it. She felt his curls tickle her neck. She patted the top of his head before playfully shoving it off.


Another nude model interrupted their drawing class.

Bethany gave the same fluttery speech about forgetting the modeling schedule, but there was something off about the way she carried herself. She spoke flatly and briskly, not bothering to help the woman get situated. When the model asked about setting up the stage, Bethany tensed, telling her to just do whatever she pleased in a tone that was almost cold, and went back to helping the student she had been working with before the class was interrupted.

The model was a beautiful young woman with reddish hair, pale, freckled limbs, and voluptuous curves. She showed up just as Darcy had finished laying out the groundwork for her midterm piece. Darcy did her best to squeeze the model’s body into a corner of the composition, but no matter how she adjusted the figure’s pose or dimensions, it sat on the page with an unnatural, layered disjointedness that made her want to rip her own hair out. She was relieved when the class ended.

That evening, Darcy and Miro worked on art homework in Miro’s room.

Darcy finished her sketches long before he did.

“Draw me while you wait, then,” he suggested.

“I’m fresh out of inspiration for lizard doodles.”

“No, like a real portrait. Draw me.”

She shook her head, grumbling that she had other homework.

“Why not? You see my face every day, it’ll be easy.”

She groaned and flipped open her sketchbook. As Miro continued to draw, she sketched the general masses of his head and hair. Her eyes traced his outline and her hands translated them to paper. She captured the tip of his nose, the folds in his ears, the swoop of his eyelashes that cast subtle streaks of shadow down his cheeks under the icy light of his dorm. Every now and then, he’d tilt the plate of his face toward the ceiling to stretch his neck, and Darcy imagined him watching the moon somewhere above the roof.

A few minutes in, he quietly slid out of his T-shirt. All that rested on his chest was the small silver pendant she had bought for him for his birthday. Darcy had found it at a local antique store while looking for a cheap couch for her dorm room.

“So that you can finally reach your full indie-boy potential,” she had joked when she gave it to him. Seeing it now against his bare skin made her chest tighten.

“What are you doing?” she snapped. “Those old people must have really gotten to you—”

“Just draw me, Darcy.” His tone was impatient, almost harsh.
She quieted and gave in reluctantly, outlining the mounds of his shoulders, the ropy muscles in his biceps, the timid puffs of hair on his chest, the glimmer of the pendant against his skin. When she looked up again, he was staring at her, and her face grew hot.

“Let me see.” He leaned over the top edge of her sketchbook, their foreheads inches apart. Darcy tried to comprehend the unfamiliar speed of her own heart rate. She remembered the night after the party, how Miro had held her so close and kissed her so passionately.

Then she submitted to herself. The balmy night became one in which she could no longer distinguish the neutral comfort of another human being from the sort of affection that meant more. All she understood was that sitting in front of her was a person who clearly cared deeply and fixedly, a person opening himself without restraint, and for the moment, that felt like enough. She craved the physical contact that breathed security and validation deep into her lungs. So she leaned in.

While they kissed, she imagined loving him, walking around between classes with her hand in his, sleeping in the same twin bed every night as the other couples she knew at school did. She pictured it, and felt a tingling sensation growing within herself, something that spun and teetered with what must have been her heart as the fulcrum. She was terrified.

As Darcy took off her own shirt, she heard a voice in her head telling her you do love him, you do, you do, you do. But it was a voice, not a feeling, and the voice eventually relinquished itself to silence. Then she was left with herself, and her body, and his body — and with nowhere left to go she felt herself leaving her body behind, floating over it and watching herself, naked and rolling around an ugly carpet while kissing her best friend. Suddenly her stomach was filled with something that felt like shame, or guilt, or some awful combination of the two.

Returning to herself, she looked up into Miro’s closed eyelids and discomfort washed over her in nauseating waves. She laid a palm over Miro’s chest, catching the pendant and pressing it against him. She pressed until she was pushing, and then she pushed him off.

“Whoa, are you okay?” A look of panic set into Miro’s eyes. “Darcy, what’s going on?”

She stared. There was a red circular indentation where she had pressed the pendant into his chest. For half a second, she remembered reading on some tacky CVS greeting card that only the misfortunate and the blessed know how to laugh at themselves. Then she started laughing. And she laughed and she laughed until tears formed in her eyes, and then before either of them could tell what was happening, she was crying.

“Oh my god, did I hurt you? I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

And after a moment, he told her he loved her.

And she told him not to.

And he insisted he’d wait for her, even if it meant she’d never love him back.

And she told him that was ridiculous because they were only twenty years old, and they had only known each other a few years, and that he’d meet someone better.

She cried even harder, and part of her wished that she could be outside, somewhere cold and wet where her tears could be masked as weather, instead of under a gross fluorescent dorm light with a boy that she loved deeply, but not in that way, where he could see her sitting stupidly on his ugly grey carpet, confused and crying for no reason.

“I just wish… ” Miro started to say, but his voice trailed off.

Darcy put on her clothes and walked back to her dorm, leaving her drawing with him.


The next day, Bethany held office hours for the midterm project. Darcy was nearly finished. When she entered the art studio, she was the only student there.

Bethany’s eyes were red and puffy. She looked older and weaker than her usual self, and was gazing blankly at an easel set up in front of her as though she could see right through it. When Darcy let the door shut behind her, Bethany straightened herself and shook out her hair, rubbing her hands against the sides of her jeans.

“Darcy! What can I do for you?” Her voice was shrill.

“Just looking for some advice on my midterm.”

Bethany pursed her lips into a delicate smile. “Let’s see it.” She smacked her hand onto a table next to her own easel where she expected Darcy to lay out her work, and let her fingers slide off the surface one by one.
Darcy’s drawing was a muted forest stretching somberly toward a purple horizon. One of the models’ naked forms sprawled out awkwardly under one of the trees, staring up at its branches. Darcy frowned. The crisp, pale body stood out intrusively against the peaceful blend of color.

“Oh, how lovely,” Bethany cooed, smoothing out the paper. She pointed out a few areas that could be sharpened, places that needed a little more shadow. Darcy nodded along.

Bethany eventually raised an eyebrow, “Why didn’t you sign up for the advanced class? You obviously know what you’re doing.”

“My friend’s a beginner and wanted to try an art class. Thought we’d meet each other halfway.”

“Miro, right?”

Darcy nodded, her stomach turning. She hadn’t seen or spoken to him since the night before.

“Funny, I thought you two were dating. Cute boy.” Bethany’s tired eyes glinted.

“No. Just friends.”

“Oh, come on. I was in college once too, you know!”

Darcy cleared her throat, laughing uncomfortably. “There’s really nothing going on, I swear.”

Leaning over her own drawing, Darcy noticed the easel Bethany had been staring at when she first walked in. On the sketchpad’s surface was a drawing of the most recent model with the red hair. Her face had been scribbled out.

“Beautiful sketch,” Darcy commented.

“Ah! Thank you. Just a little exploration of negative space. Thought I’d make use of the model while she was here.”

Darcy smiled awkwardly, eyeing the violent strikes of charcoal where the
woman’s head was supposed to be. “Speaking of the models, what I actually came here to ask about is whether I need to include the human body in my midterm drawing. The model feels out of place, so I was hoping I could just leave it out entirely.”

Bethany nodded slowly, “Right, I’m sorry about that. I really should keep better track of when the models are scheduled to come in so you have more time to prepare. Silly me!” She tossed a strand of hair over her shoulder and flashed her teeth.

Darcy straightened up and gazed at her quizzically, “They come in almost every single class.” There was a pause, and she prodded further. “If you don’t mind me asking, is there a reason for that?”

Bethany’s face darkened and relit like a flickering candle. For an instant, the redness in her eyes made it look as though she might cry, but her expression rearranged itself to its usual calm. “Drawing the human body is a great way to recognize basic forms in a subject.”

Darcy hadn’t eaten and was feeling lightheaded and queasy. She was in a foul mood, and in spite of Bethany’s peculiar distraughtness, she felt her own confusion border on impatience. “But they show up even for the classes where we don’t need them. Like for the abstract section, or the landscape pieces. No one even really draws them.”

Bethany heaved a deep sigh, her thin eyebrows furrowing into zigzags. “To be completely honest with you, Darcy, I don’t really know when they’re coming.”

“What do you mean?”

Bethany tapped her nails on the table and smoothed her hair, tucking loose strands behind her ears and biting her lip. “I’ve made some mistakes like any other woman has. You know what I mean.” She started fidgeting with things around her, organizing pencils on the desk, and then rearranging them. She pulled her skinny jeans higher up her waist.

“I’m not sure I do,” Darcy responded hesitantly.

Bethany sighed again, deeper. “I was married to a man I didn’t love.”


“And one day, the stars aligned and I crossed paths with someone whose soul matched mine — perfect reflections!” She stared off into the ceiling dramatically. “You should have seen it. The sparks, the energies. Everything about us fit perfectly.”

“That’s great.”

“I fell for him almost instantly. The temptation… It was a spiritual connection, too special to go to waste.”

“What happened?”

“I followed my heart.”

“So you had an affair?” Darcy’s hand flew to her own mouth. She hadn’t intended to be so blunt. Bethany waved it off.

“Well, yes, but to be fair, you couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to be married to that man. Our parents set us up. They told me it was the only way I could pursue art seriously.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“All his complaining, all the time. He never credited me for my work or appreciated my art.” Bethany’s voice began to rise. “He’d — God, he’d wear street clothes in bed, his pants were always unzipped, his gut just grew and grew, and he wore these awful chartreuse button-ups… Can you imagine? Chartreuse button-ups?”

“No, I can’t say I—”

“And don’t get me started on his complete lack of sensuality.”

“I really don’t—”

“As if he could ever fully satisfy me emotionally. Or sexually! Ha! The man was about as lively as an ironing board. And I, the hot, steamy iron, ready to—” She stopped herself. “I’m sure you’re old enough to understand.” Bethany traced the edge of Darcy’s drawing absentmindedly and shifted her weight to her other leg so that her hip jutted out. Her face morphed from hysterical to brooding in the span of a few seconds. “I’m not much older than you, you know. Not even thirty-five yet.”

“Right. Of course… I’m not really sure I see how this connects with the models.”

“Well, you see,” Bethany exhaled, pinching at the bridge of her nose, “my ex-husband runs the biggest nude modeling agency in the state.”

Darcy blinked. It hadn’t ever occurred to her that there were agencies specifically for nude models.

“So you get them to come to your classes for free?”

“Mmm, that’s one way of putting it…” Bethany now rubbed her temples in slow circles. “Listen, I hope you won’t speak a word of this to any of the other students.”

Darcy nodded warily.

“I have a restraining order against Bill — my ex-husband. I left him, but he just couldn’t keep away. The police were involved, it was a whole mess. It was actually the inspiration behind my Red Period. Did you ever get a chance to see that exhibit? No? Shame. Some of my best work.”

“So he just sends you nude models now?”

“It’s his way of communicating, I suppose. Some weird form of a ‘fuck you and your appreciation for the human body!’ Or something.”

“Can’t you just report him?”

Bethany stared at her own sketch of the model, at its scribbly mess of a head. “Oddly enough, I feel as though I deserve it.”


“It’s the price I pay for… The affair, as you said. And maybe it’s not even punishment at all!” Bethany pulled her shoulders back so that her chest puffed. “The human body is beautiful. I’m lucky I get to admire it in so many forms.”


There was a brief pause while Bethany collected herself. “So the answer is yes.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Yes, you must keep the human form in the midterm drawing. I just decided.”

“Can I ask why?”

“It’s your punishment. And maybe your blessing!”

“Punishment for what?”

“Trust the process, honey. The human body will surprise you.”

Darcy had no idea what she meant, and almost wished she had never come to office hours. She packed up her things and had her hand on the door handle when Bethany called out her name once more.

“I’m sorry if I overshared,” she breathed. “It’s been a mess.”

Darcy gazed at Bethany, who looked small next to her easel, then released a weak smile. She nodded and told her it was no burden. She stepped out the door.


On her way back to her dorm, Darcy strode along slowly. The fresh air eased her headache and nausea marginally.

When she passed the campus cafe, she recognized the gentle tuft of Miro’s hair through the window. He was seated in a corner where he often did his homework, this time with three other people, and no laptops or books spread on the table. They were talking animatedly, waving their hands around and erupting in laughter. One of them was a girl Darcy recognized from one of her classes. She hadn’t realized they were friends.

Darcy watched them, relieved to see Miro laughing. The part of her that imagined him sulking alone in his room after her rejection and departure untethered itself from her chest, where it had clung tightly all day.

For an instant, her uneasiness melted into something warm and reassuring. When Miro had told her that he loved her the day before, he had said it with a subdued kind of desperation that almost made her feel like he’d be okay without her — a longing that was more about him than her.

She exhaled. Miro loved her because she was sitting right there, she told herself. He loved her because she had been right there from the start, ever since she called him over with that stupid bag of mandarins. If anyone else had been in her place for those years, he’d have loved them just the same.

For a few minutes, Darcy watched the four of them take sips from their paper cups of what must have been the cafe’s specialty lukewarm coffee. Miro often chewed the lip of his cup until it was ragged and unusable — something Darcy often chastised him for. She wondered if he was doing this now, but the thought of his mouth made her queasy all over again.

The girl from Darcy’s class tossed her head back in a glamorous laugh. She briefly laid a hand on Miro’s arm, and retracted it to take another sip of her coffee. Darcy turned away, feeling like she’d witnessed something she wasn’t supposed to see. She shook it off and kept walking.

She stopped at the fountain, and marveled at the way the floor of it glistened copper like the scales of a fish. So many pennies. She had never tossed any in before, and suddenly she had the urge to. She fished a coin from the loose change that lived at the bottom of her backpack and tossed it high in the air. The second it left her fingertips, she waited for a wish to come to her. The coin glimmered, turning once, twice, three times.

Wishing for money felt silly in the act of tossing a coin away. Instead, she thought about the man who would come to clean the fountain. The man who would collect the little pieces of copper and the wishes that weighed them down to the shallow depths of the water. She wondered again where these pennies would go.

When she got back to her room she unrolled her drawing once more. She pictured herself sprawled along the edge of her own forest, where the nude models’ faceless figure sat, gazing up at the leaves against the purple sky. With a marker from her desk, Darcy drew a copper-colored dot on one of the trees, so small that she could barely see it. She imagined it was a mandarin. Somewhere beneath the dirt, a part of someone was starting to grow.

Prose Winter 2021


A symphony of plpleaseplease putputput on put on on yyour put on your youyou yourmask mmask youyourmask greets me while transferring from subway line 3 to line 9. Dubbed “hellway” by longtime Seoul residents, line 9 is the most crowded in the entire subway system. A mix of all-stop and express trains disorient riders, and a sea of Koreans flood the escalators whenever they get off a train. Until I first started working full-time in Seoul in 2019, I had never witnessed such homogeneous waves of people before. A stream of black-haired Asians morphed across paths and into stairways: everywhere you turned, your eyes would rest on the same characters.

During COVID-19, the resemblance between people grew stronger: dark hair, black parkas, white masks, and obscured faces. Silent and efficient, shuffling towards the next destination. The next short-term goal. In this chaotic city ritual, I could disappear into the cogs of the well-oiled machine — society — that we all promised to uphold. Most times, I reveled in the fast pace and carelessness of strangers around me. I felt efficient as I ran down the left lane of escalators, which everyone silently agreed to designate as the side for people in a hurry; the right side was reserved for people who wanted to stand still on the escalator. Running down the escalators signaled busyness, the drive behind someone with a packed schedule who couldn’t waste time idling on the right lane. No one stood still on the left lane; we all made way for each other, clearing out the path as quickly as possible for others.

In the summer of 2020, I always switched to subway line 9 in the “Express Bus Terminal” station. I was used to the procedure: jog up the stairs after getting out from line 3, pull out my subway card as I walk in order to save time, tap the card and walk through the turnstile without pause, race down the escalator, and try to catch the express train. After rushing down the incredibly long escalator, I found myself in a gigantic open space with clean white tiles and impossibly high ceilings, with the sci-fi grandiosity of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I took in the strange dystopian beauty of this platform during a few seconds of walking, then headed down the second flight of escalators to finally arrive at the subway.

Chaos makes this station simultaneously hell and a highway to hell. I always discreetly smirk at how we all look the same: a stark contrast from the vibrant diversity of American cities I’m used to. Then, I smile a little less widely as I observe people in their 20s who are numb from the repetitiveness of 9-6 jobs they don’t want to be stuck in. When I settle into the tightly-bunched-together rows of seats, I look around for a few seconds at everyone escaping into digital worlds on their phones. A few minutes of distraction, texting, and catching up on TV shows before boring office jobs. At the same time, their predictable motions of taking out phones from their pockets and putting on AirPods feel painfully banal to me. However, those passengers would probably describe both as activities ridden with anxiety. You can’t exactly enjoy a reality TV show when the screeching of subway wheels seep into your ears, and you have to listen to overhead announcements to see if they call out the name of your stop, or you have to feel the familiar duration of the trip with every cell in your body to “automatically” know when to get off. It requires attention, focus. Even during escape.

Autumn 2020 Prose

Crossed Paths

There is a boy with blood orange hair who skips to school. There is a girl with a heart-shaped face who rides the bus.

The boy moves like a deer, his feet lightly tapping the pavement. I imagine he is a dancer, flying across the stage in great bounds. He takes a bow and red roses are thrown, surrounding him in a floral perfume. When the curtains are drawn, he pulls petals out of his hair.

He is obsessed with the names of nail polish. They fill the margins of his notebooks: Calypso Blue, Moon Yellow, Apple Blossom Pink. He buys bottles with his favorite names, mixes them together, and coats his nails with it.

He doesn’t get his license on his sixteenth birthday because he drives too fast. He stars his favorite sections in books with a purple pen. He has a dying succulent on the shelf in his bedroom. He sets reminders to water it every Tuesday. He never does.

He works at a macaron bakery on the weekends. His boss tells him he can’t sell the macarons with cracked shells, he can take them home if he wants. He handles his little brother’s favorite flavor, pistachio, a bit rougher than the rest. Sometimes he’ll bring home a random mixture of macarons, and they’ll play a flavor guessing game. The boy always lets his little brother win.

He likes to move freely; he doesn’t like tight spaces. When he’s younger, he gets stuck in a bathroom. The door isn’t opening, no matter how hard he pushes it, and he can feel the room getting smaller and smaller, the fluorescent lights getting brighter and brighter. He closes his eyes and thinks about open spaces, spaces without limits and boundaries and walls. He places his palms on the walls of the stall and pushes, imagining that he can push them over, imagining they are made of cardboard, frail and weak. He’s hot and sweaty and noxious fumes are filling his nose, and he’s desperately, desperately trying to get out. Then he turns the doorknob and he’s free.

The girl steps off the bus, and the boy brushes past her. She catches a faint scent of rose petals. The girl’s backpack is decorated with pins that say, “Jesus Loves Me” and “Got Faith?” I imagine her picking out a bright, summery dress, combing her hair and twisting it into a tight bun. She washes her face with vanilla soap until her skin is raw, her image unfamiliar. That seems to please her mom.

The girl falls in love with someone who doesn’t love her back, who can’t and never will. She drinks too much coffee, until her hands are shaking and her stomach turns. She doesn’t understand astrology, and she hates the taste of cumin.

The girl buys fifty-cent makeup at the drugstore. She rubs gold glitter on her eyelids and red ink on her lips and feels more like herself than she ever has. She comes home one day to find the glitter in the toilet, the lipstick in the trash. Her mother doesn’t talk at dinner that night.

She sits in a pew at the church, and tries to focus on the sermon, but gets distracted by the light coming through the stained glass windows. She loves the way the light bends and softens as it shines through the Virgin Mary, how it casts colorful light on the tile floor. She traces the shapes of the stained glass with her fingertip on the wooden seat of the pew. Her mother places a stiff hand on top of hers.

While heads are bent in prayer, the girl’s head is still turned upwards. She believes there’s too much beauty in the living world to worry about the afterlife.

After church, her mother places crackers with cheese, fresh berries, and mini cakes on the kitchen table. Her mother lights long candles and plays a soft song on the radio. Her father puts on a clean button down and sits in the leather chair while her mother yells at him for not helping. He tries to help. He can’t do anything right. He sits back down. The girl brings coffee or wine to the guests once they arrive. Then she sits, and she watches.

The boy and the girl pass, the vividness of their lives trailing behind them, intertwined for a moment. The memory of their passing fades like diluted watercolor.

Autumn 2020 Prose

What’s Left Unsaid

I imagine you dead – more so out of curiosity than morbidity. Emotion escapes me. The mental wall I constructed to block you out, sturdily built over the years, prevents any sadness from seeping through, brick refusing to crack or crumble under the weight of your death. I wonder if, with you gone, I’d feel the same freedom that I do now, sitting in silence in an empty house.

Maybe the absence of your physical presence would relieve my self-inflicted pressure to fabricate an emotional connection between us. Maybe I replace my days of tiptoeing around your encumbered sighs with guilt-free conversations. I get a job to help support the family. Mom and I move out of the house. We grieve, we move on. I walk down the aisle alone but healed, craving the closeness only a father can give from a man who will promise to love me, but who’s love I’m incapable of accepting.

A fork scraping the bottom of an empty burrito bowl cuts my telenovela short. I clean up my dinner and turn to Jane the Virgin’s portrayals of worried loved ones for guidance on what to do next. I’m not the screamer or journaler type, nor am I the stone-faced sufferer or anguished weeper. I don’t really know what I am. So, I take a page out of your book and head to the kitchen.

Crouching next to the dishwasher, I rotate the lazy Susan fifteen degrees clockwise, just past the bucket of rice. Next to it stands your confidant, your stress-reliever. Golden liquor peeks over the label. There’s enough liquid left that I can swipe some of the stash without arousing suspicion. I reach into the cabinet above the counter, searching for the appropriate vessel to carry out my first taste of rebellion. A glass cup seems fitting. I grab the bottle from the bottom shelf, twist off the cap, and pour myself a glass of whiskey.


I stood in the living room entryway when two strangers carried you up the front steps. You’re hunched, back contorting into a C, face pale with the effort to be on your feet. Mom rushes out to help your coworkers bear your weight. I stay an observer. When you make it inside and collapse on the carpet, panting and weak, I run to the kitchen to get a glass of water. It’s not a practical act – you can’t even sit up, much less swallow anything – but it keeps my hands busy. I kneel next to Mom who’s begging you to go to the hospital. Reason can’t persuade you. The threat of astronomical health care charges overrides your artery’s protests, so you lie on the floor for the next two hours, trying to catch your breath.


Mom told me she had to fight hard to have me. She didn’t want Sarah to be an only child. You pushed back. Dance classes, tennis privates, orchestra tours, music lessons, China trips – they add up. And that doesn’t include the cost of living, my price of existence. Mom won the argument like she always does.

Your side-comments and rare, explicit verbalizations over the years taught me that when money is on the line, the path of limiting expenses is always the best route. Don’t call an ambulance, drive yourself. Don’t order take-out, make your own food. Don’t buy new clothes, wear what you have. Although you don’t always express your disapproval of unnecessary spending, a nonjudgmental eyebrow raise after Mom forces me to parade my Marshall’s loot in front of you is enough to send me back to my room, embarrassed and self-conscious.

I pegged your saving strategies as thrifty, a consequence of learning the value of money at an age where the biggest worry I had was how to look cute for a fresh pool of boys on the first day of high school. You tell me how you slaughtered chickens for Pappi’s business and paid your way through college, how you saved and invested to fund your daughters’ aspirations. To provide for your family. Why else would you still be working now, if not to support me through college at a job that makes you reach for whisky after dinner?

Your sacrifice doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated.

Yet what monkey sees, monkey does. Scanning menus for the cheapest dish and insisting on low-cost backyard birthday parties was my new norm. I became an extension of your ideologies, adopting them as my own, different only in their heightened extremity.

As my obsession with money grew, my distinction between what you believed and who you were blurred.

The night I got into Stanford, I phoned home with the news. Afraid of receiving a rejection at home with no privacy to cry, I had opened my acceptance letter alone and on the toilet in the Proctor’s first-floor bathroom.

Mom picked me up shortly after; I wanted to celebrate with my family. I walked into the living room to see your reaction, slightly underwhelmed by Mom’s stunned silence on the drive home. You closed your book and stood up to give me your signature bear hug that makes me feel safe, secure. But the joyous cheers and tears that I craved never came. I wracked my brain, trying to figure out what I did wrong. What made me so different from the countless kids in college acceptance videos I’d binged on YouTube, jumping and screaming with their parents in triumph?

In a fluster, I said, “You’re probably thinking about how much this is going to cost you.”

You chuckled to hide the wince on your face.

Just as I turned to head upstairs, Mom told me to check the freezer. Inside sat two tubs of chocolate ice cream – my favorite. She said that after I called, you bought it to congratulate me. I ate it alone in my room, with only Netflix as my company.


I lay in bed when Mom set off the house in creaks of protest. The rub of wooden floorboards protesting under pressure isn’t normally loud enough to wake me, but along with your labored breathing and Mom’s attempt at a hushed voice, I’m robbed of my morning doze. I just want you to shut up. I fiddle with my sheets, hoping to ride out the abnormal commotion. You and Mom think I’m asleep, which is nice. I don’t want to help, and I don’t have to. Guilt gets the best of me, though, and I roll out of bed. I couldn’t find a comfortable position anyways.

You sit on the edge of the bathtub, naked. You ask me to grab a shirt, a productive task, at least more so than fetching a glass of water like I did yesterday afternoon. I offer to help you stand, and even in your current state, stubbornness gets the best of you. Mom and I watch as you scooch down the stairs one-by-one like a starved inchworm, centimeters from a hunger-satiating leaf, determined and nearly resigned, accepting your fate of paper gowns and billable lab tests.

I go back to my room and curl into fetal position, waiting until the drone of the car engine subsides. I have the house to myself. Finally, some peace and quiet.

A pink three and a half by two-inch card sticky-tacked to my closet door catches my eye and pulls me out of bed. Mom gave it to me in fifth grade with new tennis clothes for my birthday. I thought its message was a little silly, but I’d rather read it than be left alone with my thoughts. The silence I desperately craved was more suffocating than freeing.

An inspirational sentence is sickeningly smushed between white and pink daisies, and given the circumstances, I figure there’s no better time than now to heed its message. Kneeling by my bed, I clasp my hands, close my eyes, and pray to a God I’m not sure I believe in.

I tell him that I can’t lose you, that I need you, that I love you. With each admission of weakness, a different muscle in my body tenses until I break out of prayer. My confessions feel insincere, so I head downstairs to eat leftovers for breakfast.


I tell you I love you on special occasions. The words fumble in my mouth and come out in unsure cadences, betraying my hesitance, but it’s sufficient in expressing my fondness for you. It is only in these rare instances when I make myself vulnerable that you return the favor. Tit for tat.

I tell Mom I love her at least twice a day. Once in the morning and once before bed. The mandarin translation of the three little words pop stars can’t stop belting about comes more naturally to my tongue, its meaning left untainted by overuse. Pure intentions radiate from each shift in intonation, a cohesive sandwich of a fourth tone nestled between two thirds — wŏ ài nĭ.

I wish I love you wasn’t a delicate phrase of deceit, a transactional statement littering Instagram comment sections alongside “omg STUNNING” and “you’re perfect I can’t.” I wish it wasn’t tossed haphazardly between teenagers as affirmation of a budding friendship, devoid of the great meaning it’s supposed to hold, serving as a replacement for sweeping paragraphs of passion and adoration — a trisyllabic phrase that somehow lacks the simple, elegant tone of wŏ ài nĭ. I wish it were considered as sacred instead.

If you spoke Chinese, then maybe saying I love you would calm my anxiety rather than induce it. Perhaps sharing a language besides English would fill up the lulls in small talk that permeate our conversations, though we don’t have many conversations to begin with. Maybe that would change too.

While you avoid conversation with stacks of books, I avoid the thick silences that hang between us, ballooning in volume after small talk, with a screen shoved in my face.

Occasionally, you cut these silences, doing so when you’re most out of your natural habitat. It’s as if leaving the safety of the living room’s familiar yellow glow and the rocking chair’s reliable click strips away the mask you put on at home. It’s during these times when you break character most.

On New Year’s Day, I sat around the Schweig’s dining room table playing Apples to Apples with the kids while you and the other parents were talking about big, important adult things. That evening, I witnessed an enthusiastic intellectual discussing the latest physics discovery, only breaking topic to segue into a detailed account of the most recent home-improvement project – a complete re-laying of basement tile to prevent flooding done entirely by you, carefully executed so that it not only granted the satisfaction of a job well-done, but also saved tons of money(!). This man laughed with a hearty Santa Claus chuckle and smiled without a pained twist. He carried conversation with ease, eager to engage. This man disappeared when we left.

Silence settled back in on the car ride home, interrupted only by the clank of the key missing the backdoor lock and the trudge upstairs to prep for bed. It being nearly 10pm, your bedtime routine had been pushed back over an hour, driving away any energy for post-party gossip. The mask was back.

I caught you in the hallway after you brushed your teeth and gave you a hug goodnight per Mom’s reminder.

You said, “Goodnight, Buppr.”

I said, “Sweet dreams. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

An I love you stuck in my throat. For a split-second, I thought I’d say it. Habit kicked in, saving me from a near lapse in judgement, and I swallowed the words without second thought.


I sat in the visitor’s chair when Mom unpacked your Panera. The room’s not what I expected. Bland and cramped, it’s nothing like the Grey’s Anatomy set with too good lighting and spacious ceilings.

You’re lying two feet away from me with your back propped on a diagonal by two flimsy pillows. At some point during your stay, you donned a paper gown which now crinkles under your thighs. I never thought I’d see the day when you weren’t in the practical navy or gray or white tee you wear religiously. Who knew it’d be severe oxygen deprivation that’d get you to break routine?

Mom hands you a broccoli cheddar soup and you turn your attention to me.

You say, “How are you?”

It’s been just two days since my seductive dance with whiskey, just three since your affair with the living room carpet, just one since my dabble with panic attacks.

I say, “I’m good!”

You crack a smile, the kind that I see you use at block parties and the Schweig’s — genuine, full of life, happy…? I check my enthusiasm when it disappears as fast as it came. We small talk for a bit, and when we run out of things to say, Mom swoops in.

I’m ready to go home after fifteen minutes, but I want to stay for at least an hour. To pass time, I picture myself fading into the background as an imaginary camera zooms in on you and Mom chatting about Panera’s ridiculously priced Pick-Two deal. Here on the periphery, I can observe without disturbance.

You look sad. Of all the things you are right now – ill, weak, tired – that’s all I can see. I prefer it to the bursts of harbored frustration and on-brand Dad jokes that break your otherwise emotionless complexion at home. I pause on this moment, hoping to capture its novelty with a mental picture. I label the image: “A Peek of Vulnerability,” then stow it away in my growing album titled “First Times.”


The first time I saw Mom cry was in first grade. She gripped my hand in shock, her face wet and blotchy. Nai nai had lost her fight against lung cancer. Even then, in the eyes of a child expecting perfection from her parents, Mom’s tears only made her more superhuman.

I’ve never seen you cry, though. I think the threat of vulnerability triggers a suppression of your feelings, creating more resistance to emotional intimacy. When this becomes too draining, you use annoyance and anger as a defense mechanism. On the rare occurrence that it surfaces, your anger fuels alienation.

I sat smooshed between friends in the Proctor’s basement, celebrating Galentine’s Day nearly a year before your brush with death. In the middle of our rom com, a notification popped up on my lock screen. Sarah dm’ed me on Instagram. Distraught, she messaged me that you picked a fight, yelling at her for taking advantage of your car and claiming that you “ruled” the house, only digressing from rampant accusations of her slipping grades to call her relationship with Siri “abnormal,” mandating them to break up on Valentine’s Day. You reminded her that once she turned 18, she was no longer your legal responsibility.

Her response? She’d be the perfect child until she could financially support herself and then cut you off. The next time she’d see you would be at your funeral.

The following morning, I acted as if nothing happened. You didn’t know that my respect for you plummeted, fueling my own silences during family dinners and occasional car rides, nor did you realize that removing your mask of “stoic father figure hardened by the world,” once or twice even, could’ve redeemed you from last night’s confrontation. Refusing to be let anyone in or let anything out didn’t make you superhuman, it made you unrelatable.


I sat in the living room after my visit to the hospital and proceeded to picture your death a second time. I’m sad. To my surprise, the emotion I deemed inaccessible broke through a wall I thought to be impenetrable. I no longer feel relieved, either, but guilty. Guilty because I didn’t try harder to get to know you when I had the chance, blaming you for our distance when in reality, relationships take two to tango. Guilty because I held your faults against you, ignoring everything else to create a dimensionless character that’s easy to judge. Guilty because I didn’t try to see you.

I think that’s the one thing you’re afraid of most — that someone will really see you. It’s why you wear a mask. But I don’t want to let your fears of intimacy determine my future regrets. I refuse to sit idly while we inch closer to being strangers, at least more so than we already are. Something has to change.