Poetry Spring 2021

I Remember, I Remember

After Mary Ruefle, After Joe Brainard

I remember hearing that poetry was supposed to bust you open so you could take a good hard look at what’s inside you. I remember not knowing if I had ever felt that.

I remember sitting by a silent lake under a summer moon and hearing my cousin Willa read the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver and feeling busted open, but in a good way, like my heart was touching Willa’s and the lake’s and the sky’s, too.

I remember (later) reading “Wild Geese” to Willa while they got a goose tattooed on their hip in a basement in Copenhagen. I almost got one, too, but then I recalled that they had said that that poem saved them, so I didn’t get a tattoo at all.

I remember (much later) that Willa got a dog and named it Goose and I realized that poetry keeps on saving us.

I remember saving everything. Receipts, train tickets, lottery stubs, dried leaves and flowers, photo booth records, sticky note reminders from my freshman year roommate.

I remember never having the things I saved when I needed them. They were always in my drawer at home or in a storage closet twenty miles away.

I remember writing everything down. I remember writing everything down and thinking that it was silly and that barely any of it would matter when I dug out my old journals in ten years and reread them. I remember rereading them (later) and wishing I’d written more.

I remember reading the poem “Scheherazade” by Richard Siken because my friend gave it to me and then thinking about it for three days in a row. I remember writing lines from it in my notebook, on Post-Its to stick on my wall, in a letter I wrote to that friend on her birthday. I remember for my birthday she gave me a whole Siken collection, but I have still only ever read that one poem.

I remember feeling this great pressure to create. That whatever I made had to be really good — that it had to be genius, magic, inspired, every time. I remember this crippled me into a state of being afraid to create anything.

I remember getting over that. At least momentarily.

I remember paying attention. Lots and lots of attention. To the smell of snow, the curl of my sister’s hair in the late summer heat, and the way my mind moved faster than my eyes when I read something I loved.

I remember the first time I heard a bird’s wings flapping. I’d heard bird songs every morning from the patio of my parents’ house, but I’d never heard their wings flap. It’s peculiar. When it’s a really big bird, it almost sounds like it never learned how to fly.

I remember the moon. So much of the moon.

I remember that my sister asks me at least once a year what my earliest memory is. I do not know, I have never known, but because she continues to ask me, I have formulated a false earliest memory. In it, I am crawling toward the wood-burning fireplace in my parent’s first home across the shag carpet that never existed.

I remember swimming in the ocean with my grandfather during a rainstorm. It was our first time in the ocean together since he had had cancer. His throat was red raw from radiation but he told me to go underwater and listen to the rain fall onto the ocean’s surface. I did, and it was so eerily beautiful that it made me cry, and then there was so much saltwater everywhere.

I remember knowing home by the scent on the air, like how a river smells when the snow first melts.

I remember when our house was the only one on our street. Slowly, houses were built on the street, our kingdom shrinking every year. I remember I was sad because I couldn’t see the sunset from my bedroom window anymore. My dad was sad because they built one on our sledding hill.

I remember breaking my tailbone on that sledding hill. My dad carried me to the car and held my hand as we drove to the hospital, the whole time cursing that godforsaken sledding hill.

I remember being so young that I thought all writers were smart, sane, kind, and the most exceptional and upstanding human beings. And then I read On Writing by Stephen King, and realized that was not the case. I remember being mostly bummed, but also a little relieved.

I remember that before they built all the houses in my neighborhood, we used to have to herd cows back up into the hills. The cows would wake my dad in the middle of the night, heavy hooves padding into the soft grass of our backyard, and he’d wake my sister and me and tell us to put on our mud-boots. All of our neighbors and their dogs would gather on our back porch, headlamps illuminating sleepy eyes. We’d spread out and shake handbells at the cows, slowly pushing them up the streets, trying our best to avoid cow patties underfoot.

I remember that my dad would bring our golden retriever, Eli, and make sure each cow got back through the gate. Now Eli is blind and senile and barks at everything. When he barks at a parked car or a restless pile of leaves, my dad sometimes sighs, “That dog was a damn good cow herder.”

I remember that when I was very small, I was confused about the streetlights. I remember thinking that the moon did not need any help.

I remember wanting to write all of the memories of my family into one place to keep them safe.

I remember (later) realizing that my family remembers out loud, in noisy living rooms, on dance floors, in the morning mist across a still lake. It is not safe, but it is alive.

I remember that my old boyfriend taught me to fly fish and he was more patient with me than I had ever been with anyone in my life. I remember searching for the magic that Maclean wrote about. I remember finding it when the wind stopped, and the water cleared, and you could see the glint of the trout dancing.

I remember one time we were hiking to a fishing hole and we passed a sign that read No Hunting. The boyfriend asked if I thought fishing counted as hunting. I said that I didn’t think so, but I didn’t know why. I know why now. It’s the dancing.

I remember (later) being frustrated because I could see all the fish, but I couldn’t catch any of them. Try to cast more softly, he said. Try further upstream of the fish. Let’s try a different fly, a different hole. Maybe pretend that you’re not trying to catch them.

I remember that life is sometimes catching, but life is also a hell of a lot of casting.

I remember having an existential crisis that I wasn’t a writer because all I could write about was myself and isn’t that just glorified journaling?

I remember getting over that, too.

I remember reading a piece by the poet Mary Ruefle called “I Remember, I Remember.” In it she wrote: “‘remember’ means to put the arms and legs back on, and sometimes the head.”

I remember playing pond hockey on our town rink in the winter with the boys under the moonlight and loving it, but mostly because I kept thinking, “this is the stuff stories are made of.”

I remember writing a story about the pond hockey during my freshman year of college. It was good. It was the stuff stories were made of.

I remember going to a reading with my best friend with two women who wrote about the West. I remember thinking that I was the West, at least a little bit. There were no seats open when we arrived, so we sat on the carpet in the front with our legs crossed, balancing our notebooks on our knees. After the reading was over, my friend leaned over and whispered, “What if when we grow up, we grow into writers?”

I remember learning that Joe Brainard wrote a book called I Remember. I remember wondering, incredulously, how someone could write an entire book about their memories.

I remember (later) wondering how we could stop ourselves from writing an entire library about them.

I remember going to my first funeral and watching the relatives of the deceased speak and thinking that I could probably do a better job.

I remember telling my family on the car ride home that when our grandfather dies, I call speaking at his funeral because I am both the favorite and the most literate. I am constantly writing and revising his eulogy in my head.

I remember learning about rebirth. In swimming pools, in oceans, while skinny dipping.

I remember reading once that love is the thing that pulls us forward into life and backwards into death at the same time.

I remember learning that paying attention is the same thing as love.

I remember catching my first ever fish on the fly rod — a stunning, glossy rainbow trout, and promptly crying and declaring it to be the most magical fish in the world. And then my boyfriend reminded me that I had actually caught a tiny ugly stupid bait fish last summer. And I remembered that we remember what we want to remember.

Spring 2021 Visual Art


Featured Poetry Spring 2021

The Negro Paints a Sunset

After Schuyler, After Hughes

All my sunsets black:
All my sunsets black as the trees and the birds and the flowers
          and all the other things my black eyes see.

I paint a bird onto the canvas, and it is the blackest
          bird there is, black because I say it’s black,
          black because it’s free, black as blues & jazz
          & liquor stores & spirituals & sunsets.

My sunsets black as the people who praise them.

Sunsets that ushered the day-long cookouts into the laughter-saturated dark.
Sunsets that told me to get inside before my mother snatched my black behind.
Sunsets that warn me it is better that mother snatch me than some danger of the night.
Sunsets that my grandmother assures will be greeted by a better day,
          the black of her hands turning all golden in its dying light.

All my sunsets black:
Black as taxes and redlining and incarceration and the knowledge that still, still,
          the light will return for us.

My sunsets black as the people who praise them.
Prose Spring 2021


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There he was.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

He replied not even a second later:


I beat his time:

Be there or be ■.

My phone pinged once more.

Most definitely. 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring 2021 Visual Art


Prose Spring 2021


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

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

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

“Got it.”

Matthew seemed to expect more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay back there?”

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

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

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

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

“You go to a lot of parties?”

“Not really.”

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

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

“You have a boyfriend or what?”

Three minutes left on the ride.

“I said, do you have a boyfriend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” said the first.

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

“Who are you?” asked the second.

“I’m an artist.”

“Oh, where are you showing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you enjoying the show?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t—”

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

“I don’t want to be them, but—”

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

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

Spring 2021 Visual Art


Prose Spring 2021

Between Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can blame my mother.”

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

“Two, actually.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sukanya had hated him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“December 10th.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Can I get a shot?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Featured Prose Spring 2021

Coffee Breaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring 2021 Visual Art