The Body is a Battlefield

Pic Credits: linspiration01 https://goo.gl/XeJVbR

Hordes of angry women wrote to me after the publication of Woman of Substances: A Journey into Drugs, Alcohol and Treatment. It wasn’t me they were mad at. The book is the accumulation of eight years’ research into the trauma, misogyny (often that “internalised” bad boy) and mental-health issues that can lie behind women’s problematic substance use. My social-media inboxes became a kind of safe harbour for readers to dock their most rageful thoughts.

I’ll be honest, I found it exhausting to read these messages during a press period where I was asked, relentlessly, about the four pages of my book that spoke of my own childhood trauma. “Maintain the rage!” one woman wrote. I aged ten years wondering if I possibly could. The common denominator in all these messages was that the owners had felt catastrophically disempowered, often around ownership of their bodies. These were women literate in mental health, so they probably knew well that anger is the emotion that shelters shame, fear and rejection. It feels empowering, but it’s transference all the same.

All this ties into a thesis that arose out of Woman of Substances: that the body becomes our battlefield. Some men will find this a familiar concept too, but women, from a young age, are conditioned to be the diplomats, the carers, the ones who absorb the blame. And so a woman who is distressed might stage a silent rebellion through her body. At one end of the scale, she chops off her hair after a breakup. At the other end, she puts her foot to the accelerator and drives her body into the ground, startling bystanders. Parents, newspapers and police press conferences may warn her of the dangers of getting paralytic, but at least when she raises that bottle to her lips or inhales on a pipe, it’s her executive decision.

I argue that there’s a key triumvirate of self-destructive behaviours; or maladaptive coping strategies, as they’re more diplomatically known. As well as problematic substance use, there’s eating disorders and self-harm. The three can often rotate – one popping up like Whac-A-Mole the moment another is smacked down – or they can coexist. Through their physicality they offer relief from intrusive, circular thoughts. But they’re imbued with violence. Drinking feels like drowning oneself. Taking drugs feels like obliteration. Self-harm takes the focus of pain from the emotions to a precise point on the body. Throwing up is the literal purging of shame.

These behaviours are often in part down to the exploration of self-loathing, but I also posit that any act of aggression against the body is an act of regaining ownership of it, just as when a person inflicts violence upon another, they now wield the power. To decide to harm oneself can be particularly appealing to an adolescent with no autonomy, or to a person who has experienced childhood sexual abuse, or to someone who has been shamed for their sexuality, or to one who endured endless medical procedures when young, or to anyone who feels that their body has been co-opted by everyone else.

*

When I started drinking at thirteen, I retreated inside my body. I stopped using it – for sport, for games, for affection – and I only did things to it.

My teens were a distilled version of the War on Drugs: all prohibition and punitive measures. My mother made me sign a four-page contract without my lawyer present, packed with clauses that prohibited my favourite activities. A curfew was established that only allowed me to walk home from school at a brisk pace. Allowances were made for small privileges in exchange for lengthy chores. The lock on my door was removed, as was the red light bulb in my room; apparently it didn’t look groovy and psychedelic – it made the house look like a brothel.

From this point on, alcohol became a form of psychic emancipation. I was blind drunk every day after school. How was I managing it? Nobody knew. I was the Criss Angel of drinking. Every time the key to the drinks cabinet was hidden, I’d pride myself on finding it. In Dad’s desk drawer? Laughable. Behind the salt cellar? Come on. After a while I got my own key cut at the cobbler’s on Slough High Street so that I didn’t need to bother playing the game. When I was finally rumbled and forced to hand that over, I resorted to Dad’s terrible home-brew in the shed, which yeastily expanded the gut and sent one into quite the stupor. Tiring of that, I just broke into the cabinet with an icing spatula.

“It’s like you WANT to get caught,” Mum would snap, amending the contract at the kitchen table.

As the jaws clamped tighter around me, autonomy was achieved through more imaginative methods. Every time I felt enraged I got another hole punched in my ear. When I started getting frisked at the front door as I left, I’d buzz-cut another few inches of hair off my scalp when I got home. At school, I noticed that my friend was whittling away into her arm with her set of compasses during maths class. I pulled up my sleeve and showed her my own homework.

Mutilating the body may be a silent act, but it literally scores a story into the skin. Over the decades there have been varying explanations for self-harm, from hysteria in the late nineteenth century, to suicide ideation in the ‘50s, to rote diagnoses of borderline personality disorder (known by many in the medical profession as the “dustbin diagnosis”, into which difficult women are chucked) from around the 1980s onwards.

In her 2017 book Psyche on the Skin: A History of Self-Harm, Sarah Chaney was critical that psychiatry “has largely suggested narratives framed in clinical, biomedical or individual terms.” Often, she points out, “this ignores the things that happen to people or the environments they live in. Poverty, homelessness, abuse, racism, oppression.” Certainly, the DSM – the standard classification of mental disorders used by many mental health professionals – tends to pathologise as mental disorders women’s responses to the specific challenges they face in patriarchal society. (Perhaps that’s because there are only four women among the twenty-four-strong taskforce behind the latest edition.)

In the 1964 autobiographical novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanna Greenberg (writing as Hannah Green), teenager Deborah is admitted to a mental-health facility for three years. There, she is constantly monitored because of her propensity to express her anger through self-mutilation. She seizes back control by creating a secret world – with even its own calendar and measure of time – where they cannot interfere with her. This desire for agency is echoed in much of Sylvia Plath’s work, including the poem Stings. Plath – who had expressed suicide ideation since childhood – wrote, “It is almost over. I am in control”.

There will always be those who view self-harm less as the individual asserting control over themselves than an unforgivable stab at eliciting attention – which is then all the more stubbornly withheld. For Woman of Substances, I interviewed Dr Ben Sessa, a Bristol-based child psychiatrist who also conducts clinical trials in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy with alcohol-dependent adult clients. They’re twin interests, in his view. He told me, “We have all these sentimental feelings for little children who are being abused and hurt, but then we don’t accept what happens to them when they grow up, when they display antisocial behaviours. It’s a sloppy understanding of developmental psychology.”

Sessa gives the example of visiting a fifteen-year-old girl in casualty after she’s self-harmed with an overdose. “The nurses will say: ‘Don’t let her get one over you; she’s a manipulator, an attention seeker.’ I hate that term, ‘attention seeker’. I go up to this kid and say, ‘Good for you for seeking attention. You deserve attention. You have my attention.’ It’s a recognition that they’re not bad people; they’re the most vulnerable people. These are natural adaptive responses to pain.”

*

It’s eating disorders that can have the most complex relationship with substance use. Research from Columbia University has found that three per cent of the general population have eating disorders, but when we narrow that population down to people with problematic substance use, the figure rises to thirty-five per cent.

The shared risk factors include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety or impulsivity; unhealthy parental behaviours; peer and social pressures; and a history of sexual or physical abuse. As journalist Kelsey Osgood writes in her memoir How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, “It never occurred to me to try to lose weight in any healthy way, or to strive for a body that ‘looked good’. I wanted to be repulsively thin.”

When substance use and an eating disorder occur together, the individual’s inner struggle can quickly escalate to a crisis. Most eating-disorder wards and drug-and-alcohol facilities are separate services and each is generally unequipped to treat a dual diagnosis, let alone an additional mental illness and history of trauma. So someone presenting with both will fall between the cracks. Both issues can be life-threatening and require intensive therapy, despite which there will be high relapse rates.

It was a combination of bulimia and alcohol poisoning that Amy Winehouse’s brother Alex attributes her death to. Winehouse had a terrific self-awareness, analysing her behaviour and motives in depth in her lyrics, but she also had no control left over her life. She was hopelessly entwined with the needs of another person with problematic use – her husband – and was bundled off planes and onto stages by her management. She was hemmed in at home by the paparazzi. There was no period factored in for recovery. By the time she refused to sing at the ill-fated Belgrade concert and instead took a seat on the stage, she was practically a prisoner of her schedule. Her body, which made newspaper headlines, became a very public act of defiance.

In many ways, her situation isn’t unusual. Girls are hounded by their own self-inflicted paparazzi: Instagram, Snapchat, other social media. They’re compelled, pressured and shamed into capturing themselves as a commodity in every waking hour. In this sense, an eating disorder can be reframed by the individual as a magnificent feat of endurance, as can slicing the skin or drinking like a lemming off a cliff. Look what I can do, it says.

As well as the more obvious desire not to grow outwards, an eating disorder can signify a desire not to grow up. Just as losing oneself in substances guarantees arrested development, so becoming smaller freezes the advent of adulthood. That can be appealing to one who feels that childhood didn’t go the way it ought to have. In the case of those who have received unwanted attention as children, getting thinner suggests a desire to disappear from view altogether: If I starve myself, nobody will notice me. If I overeat, no one will want to touch me and I’ll become invisible.

There’s a further complication with women’s bodies, this time accidental, not deliberate, and that’s the hormonal mayhem inflicted by taking substances or dramatically losing weight. Alcohol raises oestrogen levels, which can contribute to panic attacks, poor memory, anxiety and depression. In one study, blood and urine oestrogen levels increased up to thirty-two per cent in women who drank just two drinks a day.

The flipside is that women suffering low progesterone might be attracted to alcohol and benzodiazepines such as Xanax, because these substances can quell anxiety. But there’s no literature for the laywoman on this matter; only scientific papers that take some unearthing and decoding.

That’s the effect of substances on hormones, but the reverse is also significant – hormones affect a woman’s response to substances. In week one of her cycle, the menstrual phase, fatigue is likely to hasten the effects of drugs and alcohol. In week two, the follicular phase, oestrogen levels rise along with impulsivity, making women more prone to benders and relapses. Oestrogen is also thought to sensitise the brain to THC – the psychoactive component of cannabis – and in general slows down the elimination of substances from the body. In week three, the ovulatory phase, there’s an influx of progesterone, which tempers the individual’s interest in substances. In week four, the luteal phase, oestrogen and testosterone plunge. There may be a craving for alcohol, as there is for carbohydrates in general.

*

Having reached the proverbial rock bottom, I quit drinking for eight years before cautiously reintroducing alcohol. Now, drinking doesn’t feel like self-harm; the emphasis is on enjoyment. Having more than three in a row, in fact, fills me with horror as my edges start to blur. It’s hard to imagine that getting shitfaced had like being in control, but then, harming myself had felt like action in place of the passivity I felt as a depressed adolescent.

Now I had to rethink my relationship with my body. Sport put me in control in an entirely different way (with endorphins replacing the ding-ding-ding dopamine-kick of drugs) and getting stronger and stronger feels like the greatest way of achieving agency. Naturally, it’s all become very addictive.

Remembering to use the body instead of do things to it is a pretty common awakening when people tackle their substance use. I’ve got a friend who stopped shooting speed and now has her own yoga centre. Another is a competing body builder who gets the same gory enjoyment out of her four a.m. starts and rations of food as she did with her four a.m. crashes and lines of coke. It all taps into the same grizzly capacity for endurance. Similarly, many quitters turn to running. They’ve got a head start with their all-or-nothing mindset.

For some women, particularly those who have been in abusive relationships, empowerment begins with being put in touch with services that allow them to control their own finances and with agencies that help them restore order in their lives and visualise a new self. For those seeking treatment, a program that encourages self-reliance could be a better fit than one that relies on surrender to a higher power.

One alternative to AA/NA is Women for Sobriety (WFS). There are thirteen acceptance statements in its “New Life” programme, and instead of introducing herself as an alcohol or addict, a woman states her name and something positive about herself. Similarly, SMART Recovery offers meetings that focus on the individual’s own resources to tackle upcoming challenges or meet goals (full disclosure, I’m on the board of the Australian outpost of SMART).

Even with the best-laid plans, if a person has the kind of triggering incident that makes them feel out of control, they’re likely to whip out one of their old, comforting behaviours – scoring the skin, purging, or getting obliterated. It’s as though they’re falling back into a lover’s arms. That’s why it’s important that treatment programs and professionals reframe “relapse” so that it’s not a source of further anguish. Lessons could be learned from the world of business, where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities – and as inevitable. Self-flagellation is the last thing that’s needed.

 *

Woman of Substances is published by Head of Zeus and is in shops and online stores such as Amazon. The reference list for this research is viewable at www.womanofsubstances.com/bibliography.




I Screamed “Every White Man Should be Considered a Rapist Until Proven Innocent” at a Halloween Party and Got Kicked Out

Photo by Narcisa Aciko

I did. I was drunk and I’d do it again, sober. I was dressed in all black, a thought bubble taped to my shirt. I was half of the costume duo “Thoughts and Prayers,” a last-minute creation for a last-minute party. My friend and I showed up to a house, the porch covered in white Christmas lights and pumpkins carved into quirky pop-culture references, the Saturday before Halloween. We were sort-of invited by old high-school friends who love catching up. The house was decorated with fake bloody sheets, spooky dolls hanging from doors, and a keg. Nothing was over the top, no one was trying too hard.

After midnight, my friend and I stood in the backyard watching people smoke. Even though the cold midwestern fall was in full force, none of us had coats on because we were drunk enough to stay warm. Samantha (the AI system from Her) stood next to Theodore in a red button-down and a fake mustache, Linda and Bob Belcher, that guy at every costume party dressed in the tan short-shorts from Reno 911!, my friend and I made a circle on the concrete. Multiple people were telling stories at the same time and no one listened to any of them. I noticed a man dressed as Jack Sparrow and I said “gross” loudly. I turned to my other half and continued with my loud criticism that no one asked for, “Why would you dress as someone who literally abuses women?”

Bob Belcher turned to me and told me to “Calm down, it’s Halloween.”

I screamed back part joke, part angry feminist, “Every white man should be considered a rapist until proven innocent.”

The circle’s reaction wasn’t a slow burn. I could hear people clearing their throats to respond, but then they must have remembered it was Saturday night and that was reserved for only positive, fun talk. In a matter of two minutes, the area was empty except for my friend, Bob Belcher, and me. Everyone had scattered. To be fair I had told them I considered them rapists. Bob pointed at me, “How could you say that? Why would you use my race against me. I am trying my best.” Which was a bad rebuttal. He could have attacked my timing, no one wanted to talk about rape culture and privilege at a party with a dance floor in the basement. He could have said I was causing a scene, invalidate me by claiming that I said something outlandish for attention. He could have also left. Walked away, brushed me off as a drunk bitch. I could have come up with a dumb response to all of those,

“Oh now isn’t a good time? Then when is BOB? WHEN IS? LET ME KNOW WHEN I AM ALLOWED TO TALK ABOUT SEXUAL ASSAULT PLEASE.”

“Maybe I do want attention … FOR RAPE SURVIVORS.”

“Fine, walk away! I love being alone!”

This image from an outside perspective: Bob Belcher, spatula and all, essentially yelling “not all men” at me, is funny. I do not doubt that Bob is trying, but I still have to worry about being the one out of five women that will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. To be constantly reminded that I am not safe anywhere; bars, dorm rooms, concerts, parties, big cities, traveling, in politics, in movies, nighttime, daytime, in a tight dress, in a bulky sweatshirt, in this black button-down shirt with a thinking bubble taped to it, with my hair up, with my hair down, in my own skin, is hard and I am mad most of the time.

Bob looked like he was about to cry. Prayers laughed. Not at Bob, but at the whole situation. Bob asked again, “How can you say that?” I said, “Because it’s true.” Bob stormed off, dismissing my friend and me from the party. I didn’t have the articulation at the time, but I wanted to tell Bob that he shouldn’t be so shocked. Most of us already think everyone is going to assault us, we just don’t tell you because you’d yell at us in a backyard of a Halloween party. Those of us who do not benefit from your privilege of not worrying are groomed our whole lives to assume everyone is out to get us. My mom enrolled me in karate when I was in second grade before she even warned me what men were capable of. I didn’t hear the word “rape” until I read it in an old issue of Seventeen magazine with my best friend, sandwiched between one of the first “How To Do a Smokey Eye” and an interview with Jesse McCartney. For most of my life I could tell that more bad things happened to women, but I didn’t know how to talk about it yet. Finding words to describe the things men have said and done to me has taken a while. I have searched op-eds, textbooks, and the blogs of women much smarter than me to collect all the correct terms to create a language to provide evidence for how I am feeling.

My friend and I walked to the front of the house and waited by the street for our ride. A group of guys from the party were smoking near us on the porch. I half-heartedly apologized for ruining their party, but one guy whose face I knew, said “Don’t be sorry, you’re right.” I felt validated for three seconds until I saw the other men looking away as they finished their cigarettes. Our ride showed up and my friend and I left as the inside of the house continued to dance. Bob probably stayed at the party for a while longer, drinking with his other hip friends dressed as other hip characters. Bob probably told these friends, over the emptying keg, that my comment had made him uncomfortable, unaware that that was the point.




Breakfast with a Douchebag

Okay. The bed is probably not as high as it seems, Ortica. Don’t panic. You also have the carpet as a precious ally, so if you just let yourself fall down he won’t hear anything and you’ll be able to crawl away. You can do it.

I try to glance at him without moving. He’s sleeping. His pitch-black hair is spread on the pillow and he’s perfectly still, as peaceful as an exuberant teenager stuffed with tranquillisers. The colour of his hair is the only thing I can tell for sure about him, since I don’t remember jack about last night, he’s turned to the wall and I can’t see his face. Last but not least, my head is thumping like hell and I feel I could puke on these expensive-looking, silky sheets at any moment.

To be honest, I think I’m having the sort of awakening you see in bad movies, when the director needs to introduce a very self-centred, assholey womanizer who wakes up next to some random chick and runs away without a word. Only that self-centred asshole is me, and running away is approximately what I would like to do, but the girls in those movies must sleep very heavily, because I have the feeling that if I just flip the blankets he’ll wake up and I’ll have to bear the sort of awkward conversation no one really wants to have. So, I think the best way to avoid all that is just to lean on the edge of the bed and let myself fall down on the floor. I mean, the carpet should muffle the noise, right? It’s going to be fine, Ortica. Just go.

I look at the floor that’s waiting for me and feel a pang of disgust at the top of my throat. The wine taste is coming back when I cock my head. I blink twice and try to concentrate on the carpet. It’s green with little golden lilies, which is remarkable, since the average guy I sleep with has pizza slices scattered on the floor – at best. But this is quite an elegant pattern, so I guess I made a qualitative leap in terms of my choice in men.

The floor, anyway, makes me think of the dark, low-quality carpet of my own room in Stratford. I must be quite far from my house, but that’s again the only thing I can tell. There is a huge armchair probably made of ebony and a mirror carved out of what seems to be spirals of precious wood. Right next to the bed there is a small desk with a chair that looks very expensive, with the armrests made out of … ivory? … Really? I shiver in disgust and realise that, despite getting some hints on the bad taste of the man lying next to me, I know nothing about the place where I am. This is just a random elegant-looking room. Alright man, you have money, I got that, but I still don’t know where the fuck I am.

Trying to move as few muscles as possible, I straighten up a little bit, just to let myself glance out of the window on the right wall. Dark green curtains, exactly the same sober tint of the carpet. Everything is perfectly in style. You’re starting to annoy me, man.

As far as I can see, there is a branch of what could be a lemon tree that partly covers my view. Then, the clear sky of an early morning of March.

I’ve been told that some people can tell you where you are in London just from hearing the description of a bedroom, but I am still not used to London’s unwritten rules. This could be anywhere, and if I really had to guess, I would go for something around Chelsea or Primrose Hill, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Truth is, I am not a Londoner and I am not even British. I’m part of that copious, very-much-discussed crowd of EU migrants that English people are not sure to be happy with or not. But they are going to state it in the next referendum, so I guess I’ll find out soon. I come from Italy and I’ve been here in London for almost five months. So I guess I don’t have to feel that bad if I can’t tell where the fuck I am by looking at an ebony carved armchair that smells like naphthalene and a lemon-tree branch waving smugly at me from the window.

I glance again at the alarm clock by the bed. It’s getting late and I need to go. The thing is that I really don’t want to wake him up and ask him where the fuck should I get the tube or the bus or whatever. As far as I know, I could be anywhere and it could take me three hours to get home. And my head thumping like crazy isn’t helping me to steady myself and concentrate on my aim. Roll over the bed and go.

It’s a pity I don’t have One-Night Stands for Dummies at my fingertips. If I had, I’d go straight to the section Sleeping with strangers you don’t remember shit about and I could learn a great deal, instead of daydreaming about crawling on the floor like a soldier in a foxhole during WWI. But, well, I guess I need to implement an alternative plan and take time to research nonfiction about one-night stands later. I mean, this is not the first time for me, but still. Alright, Ortica, stop overthinking. Just go. He won’t hear jack. I swallow, slowly. I put my right foot on the floor, leaning over. As I go, I don’t even have the time to pray not to break my nose, because I land on the carpet in less than a second.

Fuck. That was higher than I thought. I feel like my shoulder could be dislocated, but the worst is over. Now I have to get past the chair with ivory armrests – why has he got a fucking desk right next to his bed?! – so I just need to contort myself, crawl towards the door, and I’m out. Just a little effort, Ortica, and you’re free.

Well, not totally free, since I’m naked and my bag (with the phone inside) must be somewhere around the house, but I’m going to work it out later. I’m pretty sure I’ll find one or two huge coats on the coat hanger in the hall in case I can’t find my clothes. I mean, leaving my favourite vintage black dress here would be painful, but definitely less painful than talking to him.

Okay. You’re not far, Ortica. I crawl towards the door, trying to breathe quietly. Just a couple of metres and…

“What the fuck are you doing?”

Oh, shit.

I slowly turn to face him. I can finally see his features. He looks like an asshole. Like one of those well-dressed thirty-year-old guys, flashing their iPhones as they get out of banks and offices to grab the usual pint at the usual pub in central London. Fair eyes, well-cut black hair and perfectly shaven beard. He wears a white t-shirt, showing a bit of the bulky arms he probably works out for because he thinks he needs them to pick up girls like me. His whole body screams that he’s doing his best to do the minimum standard to impress women and look like a buon partito you would happily sleep with, even if what really made the difference in my decision to do it was that I was drunk. And probably that I didn’t know where the bus stop to get back home was.

Anyway, he’s sitting on the bed, looking at me as if I’m a psycho who has just run away from an institute and had sneaked into his room by mistake, threatening him with a fork and screaming that I’m his real mother.

“I’m just … well … Good morning.”

He stares at me, looking just as puzzled as I probably look. I have tried not to have this awkward conversation, but well, here we are now.

He keeps on looking at me, then, before I can answer, he shrugs. “Well, if you need to slither away, please remember to say sorry for your noises to Constance. And would you mind bringing me my clean suit? It’s in the hallway.”

What? Did I really go to bed with such a dickhead? What did I say about my leap in men quality just some moments ago? And who the fuck is Constance by the way?

Alright, something is coming to mind. I am pretty sure Constance is his maid. And last night in bed I screamed like a dying eagle for at least thirty minutes before he took the trouble to inform me that Constance was probably trying to sleep just two rooms away from the one in which we were having a ball.

“Get the suit yourself, jackass.”

He raises an eyebrow in answer, definitely untouched by my insult. I know I was a little bit rude, but the feminist in me cannot be defeated so easily, even if I was trying to crawl away from his room just a minute ago. You can’t wake up and tell me what to do, even if you say it with that tremendously posh accent, pretending to be polite.

I’m not even sure that “jackass” is a British word rather than an American one, but I am still making a bit of a mess with slang terms and the too many bad American romantic comedies I watch. Also, even if it’s probably not very feminist, I’d like to get up and at the same time I don’t want him to see me naked now. I mean, yesterday I was drunk and all, but some capillaries seem to have exploded between my thighs and I’m not sure I want him to see them now. I see a sheet hanging from the edge of the bed. In a quick twitch, I grab it and put it on me as I stand up. He looks up at me, unimpressed.

“What’s the meaning of this?”

I open my mouth, trying to say something that doesn’t seem like it’s coming from a neurotic, especially because I’m still pressing the sheet on my breasts and buttocks, but he precedes me. He raises his eyebrows.

“Come on, I know you have burst capillaries. Yesterday you broke out crying about them.”

What?! I don’t remember that. When did it happen?

Here’s the answer: I got old. I cannot believe I don’t remember shit about last night. This is getting embarrassing.

Also because I don’t know what to say. I’m flabbergasted, looking at this random guy who lives in a damn palace and treats me like I’m a teenager who ended up in bed with her favourite member of the boyband of her dreams.

I mean, of course I wasn’t being nice when I came up with the whole plan to crawl away, but he could be a little kinder, right? Instead of asking me to go get his suit.

I open my mouth to say something, but he shrugs again. His jaw is perfectly wide and sharp. I mean, he is attractive. I get why I decided to go home with him. I can definitely see why, but now that I am sober, he does not really seem that different from any other guy on Tinder.

“Why don’t you go have a shower? Constance should start preparing the coffee in like…” He looks at the alarm clock on the night table. “Two minutes and thirty seconds. It’s worth the wait, right?”

I look at him. He looks good, alright, but I’m not sure I want to stay for breakfast. My first impulse would be to run out of this fucked-up-ivory-armrests-chaired room as soon as possible, but I’m pretty sure his fridge is full of delicious stuff I couldn’t normally afford and, most of all, he knows where we are and how I can go home. As I try to smile at him, I feel my features twitching and aching in the effort, and the wine coming up again. I really need to go.

But as the scent of coffee and something that could easily be wild berries and croissants comes to my nostrils, I decide to stay. A girl must have her priorities.

*

Constance is probably being too kind to me but I feel like she smirks at my back as soon as I can’t see her. She’s a lovely old lady, with her hair knotted tightly with a yellow bow, the same colour of her gown. She pours the coffee in silence, then goes to tidy up the bedroom.

I have to admit that the kitchen is a lot less kitsch than his room, but this doesn’t help with the whole picture I’m getting of the house. I mean, it’s a minimalist kitchen. Completely different from anything I’ve previously seen in the bedroom. Everything is smooth and made out of steel and the only colours I can see are white, grey and black. Weird.

As I plunge my spoon in a bowl of wild berries and yoghurt, I try to figure out who the hell he is and, most of all, his name. He’s leaning on the counter, with his dark green nightgown tied loosely on his abdomen. He’s drinking the coffee that Constance has just made for us, and he’s flipping through an old copy of The Independent. I study his face and his body.

He’s fit, but none of his features reminds me of anything we could have done last night or even before, when he must have picked me and convinced me that sleeping with him was the best choice I could take in that moment.

“So what do you think about this EU referendum?” he asks.

It’s when he raises his blue eyes on me that I have a glimpse of what happened last night.

Me and Elliot, sitting on the pavement at a bus stop in Oxford Circus, after our night at the Blues’ Kitchen in Camden. We were waiting for the 25 to Ilford and were eating chips. I had a bottle of beer in my bag, closed with a cork, and we were taking turns sipping from it.

Elliot was raving about her boss telling her not to come to work with chipped nail polish and about what she wanted to do to him – killing him, mostly.

Why the fuck do I remember this anyway? Oh, yeah. That was when the guy I’m sitting in front of and his mate approached us.

“Last night you were more talkative than this,” he says, without looking up from his magazine.

Oh, shit. I guess he’s waiting for an answer about the Brexit.

“Oh, sorry, yes. It’s just … mornings, you know?”

I can’t believe the banality I’ve just said. I’m sure I could find this in the chapter Shit everyone says after sleeping with strangers in the One-Night Stands for Dummies imaginary copy that I’d like to have in my bag.

He raises his eyebrows, still not looking at me. Do I really have to explain to a random bloke, at seven in the morning, my views on the Brexit? Sleeping with strangers is too, too strenuous. Dealing with people you don’t give a shit about and who don’t give a shit about you is definitely overrated. And now I need to implement another alternative plan to avoid starting a debate with someone that has probably been a Conservative since his mother put him his first playsuit.

Alright, I can deal with this. I know how to elegantly not-answer a question. Also, the Brexit actually interests me, as it is pretty much the only subject people seem to read about at the moment. As an aspiring columnist, I decided to start a project and give my own contribution to this new obsession, which is what I may talk to him about. I know what I am doing. Come on, Ortica, don’t be shy.

“Your question is quite interesting, because I am currently working on an investigation about female migrants in London.”

He looks up at me again, and another glimpse of the night comes up. He was wearing a suit and his friend was blond. They were sharing a bottle of wine, but the blond friend had some plastic cups in his right hand. There was almost no one on the street, only three or four people waiting for the 25 like us. It was very late at night and Elliot and me just wanted to get home when the guys approached us.

“And what’s this investigation about?” he asks, taking a sip of his coffee.

I plunge my spoon in the bowl again. Alright, he is interested. Damn.

I don’t think I’m being mean. It’s just that I don’t like talking to men in the morning, especially the next morning. I guess this is the reason why my love life is, well, dead.

“I’m interviewing EU migrant women that have established successful careers in London.” I take a spoonful of yoghurt, thinking about what to say next. The fact that I am actually going to have the first of those interviews later today and that now I am just sitting with some random bloke, eating wild berries in some kitchen somewhere around London, crosses my mind for a second. Anyway, I go on. “I ask them about their life, how their lifestyle would change if the UK were to leave the EU and so on. I want to hear the voices of people. What they think could actually happen to them. That’s what really interests me.”

Okay, he’s giving me that look. The look that I perfectly understand and that I’m learning to give as well: it’s the look that Londoners give you when you’ve shared too much of yourself. They wanted a plain, short answer, with a very extended maximum of ten seconds, but you definitely went over it and overshared. You’re not in Italy, Ortica. This is London.

I grab my cup of coffee and take a long sip. Why the hell did he insist on having breakfast together if he wasn’t that interested in having a real conversation? I mean, he wants me to answer his questions and that’s it? I swear yuppies from London are fucked up. I think it’s one of the problems of living in cities like this. First of all, the main interactions with people they could date start on Tinder – which is something I really need to get used to. Elliot wants me to download it and give it a try, but my Italian pride is not going to be defeated so easily. We’re behind on too many things, girls are used to being whistled at and harassed on the streets, but we’re also used to normal, face-to-face interactions, and this is one of the few things I like to be old-school about.

So I think that the fact that he and his friend came up to hit on us just before we would take the bus to get home excited Elliot and me. She was already a bit drunk and she started freaking out about it, as she’s used to texting guys for ages before something actually happens.

They were brilliant. Surely more brilliant than what he seems now, reading his magazine and taking sips of coffee as he’s kindly letting me admire his presence instead of trying to involve me in a conversation. Come on, man, we both know we’re not going to see each other again after this breakfast, but you’re not even trying to make it a good story to tell my friends. You’re boring.

His silence is helpful, from a certain point of view. I can focus on what I have to do today. First of all, I need to think immediately about how to get back home. I don’t think that asking where we are exactly in London would make a good impression. I look around to see if I can spot any hint.

“You know how to get back home, right?”

I freeze. Did he read my mind? Is this a trap? Does he really think that I know? Is he trying to be kind or is this a way of letting me know that he wants me out of his house in the next twenty seconds?

Alright, Ortica. Elegant way to answer an unwanted question.

“Yeah, I think I got a picture yesterday, but you’d be very kind if you gave me some advice.”

He closes his magazine and leans on the counter, looking me in the eyes. “Alright,” he starts. “You said you were taking the 25 to Stratford, right?”

I nod. I remember his eyes now. He was looking straight at me last night, when he leant to offer us some wine. Elliot nudged me. She didn’t want me to take it. I knew that accepting alcohol from strangers in London wasn’t exactly a wise move – but I was a bit too drunk and I said yes anyway. Elliot, of course, did the same after she saw the brand on the bottle. Brunello di Montalcino. Tuscan wine. My land.

“We are in Primrose Hill now,” he says. He’s smiling slightly, like he perfectly knows that I have no idea where we are. “You knew that, right?”

I try unsuccessfully to conceal my smile. My lips twitch. “Well, now that you told me, yes.”

I am expecting him to start laughing and hope that we both finally burst as any normal people who slept together and don’t know the other person would do, but he doesn’t.

“Chalk Farm tube stop is just two blocks away from here. That’s an easy connection to Camden and from there the Overground from Camden Road to Stratford. Whenever you want, feel free to go.”

Oh, man. This was rude. You spoilt everything. You probably have a nice looking Tinder profile, all flashing abs and pectorals, of course with a sensitive, polite-guy-working-in-finance description, but it’s clear that you can’t really deal with girls. You’re just a boring asshole with ivory-armrested chairs.

I nod and take the last sip of my coffee. Then I plunge my spoon back in the yoghurt bowl again, but I don’t bring it to my mouth. I get up.

“Oh, that’s sweet, I-don’t-know-your-name guy. In the name of all the women in the world, I want to thank you for your kind concession.”

I grab my bag on the chair next to me, get up and smile at him. He’s watching me with his stupid gob open as I turn on my heels.

“Can you bring me my Sunday papers, love?” I hear him saying.

“Go fuck yourself.”

I go out of the kitchen, hearing nothing behind me, and go through the bloody hallway with the dark green and golden lilies carpet. I didn’t notice it the night before, but it’s just really kitsch as hell.

I open the door and go out. I can smell the scent of the lemon tree. The building is amazing, I didn’t remember it was so beautiful from the outside. The garden is small, but extremely well kept. I have no memories of walking through this. Some herbs are planted on the right side of the grass patch. A marble lion is looking towards the small gate, waiting for people to come in.

But the tremendous decorations of the garden aren’t what really strikes me. As soon as I look up, I see London’s clear sky. I hear the endless sounds of the city, the engines, people talking, laughing and screaming, trains in the distance.

Running the fingers through my hair, I plunge into the chaos of my city.




The New Messiah’s Son

Picture Credits: Thomas Leuthard

Agogokristi, Christ’s Bell or The Bell of Christ, said he heard God’s voice one night in his sleep. “It sounded as if it was from a speaker, like a thunderclap. Boom, boom. But it was soft also, there was a softness to God’s voice,” he told his wife that morning. What God said to him then was not clear but in the next few days he could swear he knew the voice of the Almighty. “Now, God visits every night. He no longer speaks to me in my sleep. Our relationship has gone far beyond that. He comes in every night now, sits on my bed, and gives me messages for the world.”

This was how Baba Samueli – once a lout, once a carpenter, once a cheat – became a man of God, Agogokristi, The Jingling Bell of Christ.

*

It was not really expected but people came to love and believe him. He had only started with his family – his wife, whom he named Olorikristi, Christ’s Queen, his first son and child, Ohunkristi, The Voice of Christ, and his other four children. They had started small, using their compound, his wife opening the service with a prayer, his son, whose voice drew people for its sweetness, singing the praises and worship, and then Agogokristi himself mounted the pulpit, then made of a very low stool, to share the word of the Lord.

He always held a small bell, which he jingled at intervals between the words of his sermon, as if it was a kind of punctuation.

But quick enough the church of seven grew. All it took was some prophecy, some prosperity message, some prayer for the sick, and some trick for people to accept the God of Agogokristi who never fails.

In a matter of months there were already things like tambourine, shèkèrè, and two small hand-beaten drums. And the offering and tithe income weekly was good, at least. From this he was going to buy a wireless microphone and speakers, loud speakers that would send his voice ringing in the ears of all in Agbiri street and even beyond.

But Agogokristi couldn’t save a dime of the money, for different reasons for which you can’t really blame him. For instance, it was his ritual to drink beer every night, a bottle of Star costs three hundred naira, and the least he drank every night was two bottles; and his wife and children also ate every day. So he called out to his flock one Sunday morning.

Dressed in his neat white soutane, a yellow gird around his waist, no shoes but very neat feet, he mounted the pulpit. In his way, a practised style totally his, he placed his hands on the finely polished wooden pulpit he had made himself, and began. “People of God, the Lord needs our sacrifice; the Lord needs you to build his church. And you know when the Lord requests something of us it becomes an obligation.” He saw the faces of his congregants turn supple as he told them the Lord in His recent visits has been pertinent about the Build My House offering, which he said would be used for building His house. “I tell you not to worry,” Agogokristi said. “I tell you the Lord who has called you will not let you down. He will never let you down,” he assured.

*

“Ohunkristi!” Agogokristi called his son.

“Sir,” the young man soon came running. He knelt down before his father. That is how he must be when he is before a man of God, especially a very great one like his father, his father told him.

“I am thirsty, very thirsty, and I need some wine,” Agogokristi said. Wine is equal to Big or Small Stout, or Gulder, or Star, or any other beer. “Or did the Apostle Paul not admonish young Timothy to take a little alcohol for his health?” he asked his son who was still on his knees.

“Yes, Sir, he did.”

With that he handed the young man a thousand naira to go and buy two bottles of Star for him. “I send you only to Iya Mongere, deep down Odunsi. Nowhere else,” he warned. “Also buy me Suya two hundred from Bakre, the one who sells at the junction of Awofodu,” he added.

On nights like this, when his father sent him to buy Star, or Stout, Ohunkristi went to visit his girlfriend, Flora. She worked at Iya Mongere’s Joint.

Flora was a body-seller, since that was the only profitable alternative to being a cleaner in a hotel or a road-sweeper. Her mother had taken care of her from body-selling, too, and now that she too was ripe, she took it up from where her mother left off after she contracted one disease like that. There were different customers: Abokis, whose bodies always smell of sweat, from not washing for days, soldiers who came to have a pour-out of bitterness, and Alhajis, for whom the bodies of their many wives were no longer enough, to pastors who wanted a different anointing from the one they got in between the thighs of their wife. And now to politicians who came under the cover of night to taste heaven.

Ohunkristi knew the work his lady did, but he loved her all the same. Is it not just for sometime? Is this not going to end? he always told her. And she would tell him: “My love, I know one day soon we will hit something big, a goldmine, and I will not have to do this again. Then we can go and start new lives, to write ourselves into a new story.”

On this particular night, she told him she found that goldmine already. “My love, with a little help from heaven I swear we shall never know poverty again,” she said.

A certain senator, Senator Korama, had been coming in unto her for sometime now, and this man would be their open door, the gateway to a life of sweet things. All that there was need for was wisdom.

“This man must not go just like that,” Ohunkristi said. “At least not until we have gotten ours from him. This is an opportunity, but I do not know how we shall go about it. I see a river of money flowing but I do not know how we shall take ours from it.” After giving it thought for sometime, Ohunkristi said, “Go to my father tomorrow, tell him there is a river of money you do not want to dry off, tell him you will be grateful if the Lord will use him to keep this river flowing. My father, I know, will have something from his head for us.”

Flora looked at him. “Are you sure?” Ohunkristi smiled. “I have never been surer – but do not mention me to him,” he added.

He kissed her the way he did every other night he came, running his hands over her skin, squeezing where there was need to, and hurried to get what his father sent him.

“When do you come again?” Flora shouted after him.

*

Flora sat down on a chair, directly in front of Prophet Agogokristi – the finely polished table of his small office separating them.

“So, young woman, what has brought you before the Lord?” Agogokristi asked, his hands on the table.

Flora told the man of God of the Big. “He has been coming in unto me for sometime now, and I want him to stay. To stay until the Lord has raised me up from the mire of poverty through him, at least.”

He shook his bald head. “That, of all things, is the littlest the Lord can do. Does his word not say, The hearts of kings, senators included, is in the hands of the Lord, and that he turns it wherever he wants?” He stood. “I am confident, said Paul the Apostle, that he who began this good work will complete it.”

He told her the Lord will plant Senator Korama forever in her bosom and the devils, referring to all other prostitutes in Iya Mongere’s care, will never be able to uproot him. And he asked her to come in the next seven days, he would fast and ask God for guidance. But before she left he tasted her too, they did a quick one on the finely polished table of his small office, and he testified that there in between her thighs was heaven – paradise.

*

For seven nights and days Agogokristi sought the Lord with fasting – which began after an early breakfast at six a.m. and was broken late in the night with beer, which his son, Ohunkristi, always helped him to get from Iya Mongere, as usual – and heavy prayers which he mumbled every now and then under his breath. And one night while on his woman it came to him, like a flash of light, a revelation. God had finally answered his prayers. He then ejaculated, had a quick shower, wore his almost lucent white garment, and knelt down to bless the name of the Lord who reveals the deep and secret things to his anointed.

On the seventh day when Flora came he said, “The Lord has spoken. He who has light has enlightened my mind in this matter.” Then he began: “Make sure he comes in unto you again, lay your bed with a fine sheet and perfume it. Wash your body and your hair, plait the latter in fine braids, and wear the clothes the Lord has blessed you with. Then call him in – if there is food, feed him. Give him your all, like the river gives it all to the ocean. Like Jael, then be a confident woman, says the Lord. Like Jael, pick the hammer and the long nail, daughter, the nail with the cap and run it through his temple.” He paused. “It is what the Lord says to do; do it and you shall be a tree planted by the rivers of money.” He then handed her the camera he bought. He says no more.

Flora left with the camera, after they had a nice round in the prophet’s office, on the finely polished table.

*

Indeed, Flora did as the man of God commanded her, and now she was sure that Senator Korama would be all hers. She would ask him for very big amounts soon. Soon. But then the tape. The tape was to be returned to Agogokristi, he had instructed her to bring it back to him. When Ohunkristi came that night she told him what was going on.

“I have done according to all that your father commanded,” she said. “I have recorded the scene, in fact it makes me laugh. How the Big Man was shouting, ‘Baby, you kill me,’ as I turned him on. It’s quite a sight. And I was smart enough to keep my face away from the camera,” she added.

All the while Ohunkristi said nothing. When he finally spoke his voice was coarse, and she could barely make out his words.

“I hope it is not that you have been crying,” Flora said, touching his face.

“We need to print a copy of that thing before you hand it over to him,” Ohunkristi said. “I know my father: all he cares about is himself.” He drew her close. “I am also not ignorant of the fact that you have been fucking him. I have the clips, too.”

Surprised, her mouth fell open. When she was finally able to regroup, she forced it open to ask: “You planted a camera in his office.”

He did not answer. Why should he? There was no need to. All the church members his father did it with, he knew. He could count his fingers for the numbers.

*

On a certain Sunday morning a big car, one that hardly passed roads like those of Agbiri Street with all the potholes that scattered over the road like hollow boils, rolled, on those big wheels, into Canaan, Land of The Lord’s People. The car was flashy, white, the kind that only politicians ride. And a big man descended from it and ran into the church to ask for the Lord’s Anointed. Members of the church who thought what they were seeing was a dream managed to lead him to the prophet’s office.

Sister Leah, a highly devoted convert of Agogokristi, was the one who came in to tell the man of God he had a big visitor. She was the only one who had the mouth to talk to the man of God, unlike other converts who almost, if not already, turned him to an idol. And now, with this Big Man with the big fine car coming to see the prophet, it was certain that those who saw him as a prophet before would now see him as Messiah – a kind of Messiah. No one would hesitate to run to the God of Agogokristi that touches the heart of the mighty and changes the thoughts of the lowly.

He asked her to let him in.

The Big Man with the big and flashy car was Senator Korama, the same one that went in unto Flora, the same Flora that Agogokristi had taught to play it the way of the Lord. The man was sweating, restless, Agogokristi could almost feel the beat of the man’s heart from where he sat. The election was close.

“The Lord’s Anointed help me.” Senator Korama went down on his knees.

“Ah. No. Stand up,” Agogokristi said as he stood to help the man up.

“Just let me be this way until I receive a solution to this problem. Let me be this way,” he said as tears rolled down his eyes.

Agogokristi had never read Shakespeare, but his father had, and he still remembered one of his father’s favorite lines: How the high and mighty have fallen! As he watched the senator – a man that had grown a big belly from the mass’s stolen money – that line took on meaning.

He was just too wise. Or smart. Agogokristi prided in the wisdom in his thought. He knew this would happen. He already went ahead to prophesy.

One morning, he had gone all the way to a big hotel, where he heard the senator would be, to deliver a perfect prophecy. He stopped the senator on his way to a very urgent meeting that day, not minding the guards, and said, “Mighty one, there is an enemy, a very serious enemy that seeks to take from your body this cloth of worth and give you one of shame. Eli,” he shook his body in a practised style, “do not fear, for the Lord has given you victory over this lady, this lady that seeks to feed on you to grow fat. Find the Lord’s Anointed when this fire begins, find him and you shall be victorious over your enemy.” That day the guards had carried him out, but he knew well that the same guards would later follow the Big Man to Canaan. He did not believe it; he knew it.

And now here was the mighty on his knees before the Lord’s anointed. The law of victory, the law of defeat.

“Rise,” Agogokristi instructed.

And that was how Agogokristi began to ride a big and flashy car like the Big Man, and also began to live in a big house. To show appreciation, Senator Korama also built him another church, enough to accommodate the growing converts who had now stuck their faith in the God of Agogokristi permanently. They began to call him The New Messiah.

*

On a certain day, Sister Leah brought news. “Have you heard that your son now sits in your place when death has not found you, my lord? He holds a crusade down Alapade Street. Come see your own flock clapping and dancing to a doctrine they say is straighter than yours. Come see them singing the praises of a prophet who they say has the eyes of an eagle touched by God. The one who has the ears of men of old times and speaks fluently in the language of the Lord. Ah!”

There was a certain way to Agogokristi, a certain calm that never eluded him, even when the storm seemed thick. Probably this was why so many saw him as the New Messiah, probably it was this calm. He asked Sister Leah to leave, after he told her, “Daughter, that should be no cause for fear, or trouble. Keep your mind at rest. Remember the words of the Lord: If they are not against us, they are surely with us. And what more will give the Lord so much joy than seeing the child from the loins of His own prophet doing His work?”

It was a Thursday when Sister Leah brought Agogokristi this news, and for some weeks before then Ohunkristi had not shown up at home at all. His father had not noticed this until Olorikristi had called his attention to it. He would have noticed if he still needed a person to help him buy beer, but things had changed: now he could drive into whatever hotel he felt like, stay the night there and drink as much as he wanted.

The absence of the boy from home did not bother him, not at all. Left to him, the boy could brace whatever borders he wanted. The absence, however, started to become a boulder when it was Saturday night and the boy ceased to show up. But since it was a boulder, and he would never be stopped by any stony enemy on earth, not even his son, he would have to make a way.

That night he had a dream. Flora was showing his flock a video of a man of God shouting Jesus while sleeping with a woman who had come to that man of God for help.

He did not bother to pray when he woke up from that stupid dream; he only rushed into his soutane, stained on the chest with the beer he’d drank the night before, and without wearing any pants he grabbed his car key and rushed out. He would go to see the turn-up in Canaan. May it not be as I think.

Unfortunately, when he got to Canaan it was just as he thought it would be. No members, only Sister Leah and her sick daughter and a few members. All the Big People, those in the flock whom the Lord uses to raise the hand of his servant, like he did in the days of Moses, all were gone. To where? The look in Sister Leah’s eyes could not be discerned easily, but Agogokristi thought he saw mockery in them.

He held his soutane and ran out of the church on barefoot, like the brother they once brought to his church he said was being chased by the dead spirits of his ancestors. He would never agree he looked just like that brother as he ran out of his empty church.

*

The signboard had a photo of his son and his new name underneath it – Prophet Evangelist Pastor Rt. Revd P. J. Ohunkristi (a.k.a. The-Voice-of-Christ). On his side was a woman Agogokristi chose to not care about. And at the top was the name of the church: The God of Now-Now Intl. Ministries (GONNIM).

Finally, he was here. He saw the large canopy and the congregation under it clapping their hands to welcome the choir, led by someone he knew quite well but simply chose not to believe was there on the altar.

He stood out there in the burning sun for a few minutes, trying to find the Messiah in me. The Messiah that brought him all these people the devil, alive with fire in his own son, was now trying to steal.

Boastfully, or say confidently, Agogokristi entered the church. Now it was Ohunkristi that held the mic. Unlike his father, he was in a clean blue suit, a white checkered shirt underneath, and a plain blue tie, well-knotted. His shoes were dark and shiny, pointing upward at the nose. Agogokristi was now beginning to feel uncomfortable somehow but he proceeded; he was going to climb that altar and beat his son off the pulpit.

Ohunkristi knew the members of the church had seen the old man and that some of them were starting to feel uneasy already. They began to shift in their chairs and a soft murmuring started rising. But if there was one thing Ohunkristi had learned from his father, it was learning to manage people. So he continued, “Brothers and sisters,” that was how he referred to his converts, “the Lord calls us to a noble work, he calls us to do good in this world. And what more good can we do than to support his work here on earth? Do you not hear him? He says, Do not lay up riches for yourself on this earth, where moth doth corrupt and thieves break in and steal, but lay up treasures for yourself in heaven where neither moth doth corrupt nor thieves can steal. And how can you do this, Beloved? How do we lay up treasures in heaven? It is not a hard thing, the called; it is not. It is simply by hearkening to the voice of a prophet, for it is only he that keeps to the word of the prophet that gets the prophet’s reward.” He went on, quoting from Malachi, the last chapter, and reminding them of the widow who gave her last to the prophet Elijah.

His father was close now. Agogokristi had not noticed the bouncers dressed in black suits, standing like Iroko trees in front of the altar. As soon as he was close enough, two of them moved closer to him and bundled him up. “Treat him gently, he is my father,” Ohunkristi said into the mic, and the congregation began to clap and wo and praise the Lord and the Living Jesus, as if both were different.

Prophet Ohunkristi brought his thought to a close by saying, “Brothers and sisters, without any falsity, without any lie, I tell you you are where you should be. You are where the Lord wants you.” Then he points to a man sitting in the middle of the church on the first pew. “Brothers and sisters, this man is a testimony. A big man, you all know him, that has come to hear the Lord speak in me. He has tasted God’s power in my life and that is why he is here.”

He asked Senator Korama to come and bear his testimony of how the Lord has blessed him by the hand of Prophet Evangelist Pastor Rt. Reverend Peter Ohuntodunkristi, a.k.a The-Sweet-Voice-of-Christ.

After giving the mic to the politician, Ohunkristi quickly went to settle the man’s case.

*

His father was tied to a chair in his office, his mouth plastered with a paper tape, guarded by two bouncers – the same ones who had bundled him up like some log of wood.

“You shall have no problem Father,” Ohunkristi explained, “if you shall abide by my terms. And in fact you shall – you must.”

Ohunkristi asked the bouncers to excuse them.

From one of the drawers of his finely polished table he drew out a folded banner, opened it and showed it to Agogokristi. And then he untapped his father’s mouth.

For some time neither spoke; it was Ohunkristi who broke the silence. “I’m sorry but I’ll have no other choice than to show it to the whole world, and I must remind you I have the video, or rather the videos, too, that is, if you fail to cooperate with me. And Iya Mongere is here too, she will tell the world how many bottles of Star and Big Stout you sent me to buy every day; and here, see, on your garment is a beer stain.”

Ohunkristi’s terms were quite simple: Agogokristi must never come anywhere near this Canaan the Lord has called him, Ohunkristi, to lead this people into; two, now the man of God must go and bear witness to the fact that the Lord has called his son in his stead and that the hands of his son will do more wonders than his have done; and lastly, that they should help him ask the Lord for forgiveness, for he had almost touched the Lord’s anointed.

Simple. That was all. Nothing more. Nothing less.

“I will do as you say,” Agogokristi said to his son, “or is it not the law of victory, the law of defeat? That we dance to the drums of our masters even when the sounds do not please our ears. You have become my master, Son, because you have learned to play the game well.” And he remembered the words of Shakespeare again, now from the standpoint of the fallen.




Am Wife, Will Write

Picture Credits: Dreamcatcher.ltd

A WORD TO HUSBANDS
“When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.” (Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write.)

Whether you’re piecing together a collection of short stories, polishing the prose of your debut novel, or pondering life’s complexities in your private journal, there are numerous rules to follow if you wish to thrive as a writer and wife.

DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND
The most important foundation of a writing life is a marriage that’s as solid as a rock. This means finding a man strong enough to shoulder your burdens, one who will support and inspire your creative endeavours and know instinctively when it’s time to step out of the spotlight and allow you to shine. It may be fun when you’re young to date people from all walks of life. However, to ensure a long-lasting union between husband and wife, ascertain early on whether your ambitions are truly compatible.

He arrives late with vodka in one hand, strawberry puree in the other. It doesn’t feel like a party until he’s in the room. He talks with his whole body, spilling sugary cocktail on his trousers that are beige with thin brown vertical stripes. When the other guests have gone to bed, you lie down in the garden and share a cigarette. The smoke is the only thing clouding the sky full of stars.

“What are your dreams?” you ask. The vodka has made you bold.

He smiles, replies, “I want to be a musician, full time. You?”

“I’d like to write.”

This is the start.

Move in together five months later. Marvel at how beautiful he looks in his sleep. Be responsible to your dreams but not your wallet and quit your job. Start writing full-time while he dedicates his life to becoming a professional trumpet player.

Discuss the location of your wedding. You want the town hall, he wants the church. Throw caution to the wind and do both.

Ask for a baby but come home with Napoleon, a black-and-white spaniel on special offer because one of his balls hasn’t dropped.

Console your husband when he fails his music exam. Tell him he has to keep going.

The day after Napoleon turns two, give birth to your daughter, Grace. Watch transfixed as she pecks at your breast, divining your milk with her mouth.

Cradle your husband’s head in your hands when he fails his exam. Again.

Forget the meaning of sleep. Create a cocoon only big enough for two. Watch as your husband moves further away from you and gets into bed with his music.

Listen to him cry when he phones to say he’s passed this time. Cry too but feel uncertain why.

You want to fly home to England. He wants to stay in France.

This is the beginning.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Be careful when selecting your city of residence. Unless you wish to emulate the likes of Ernest Hemingway, smuggling bottles of Bordeaux under your raincoat and dining on roast pigeon that you scraped off the Place des Vosges, Paris might not be the place for you.

Apply for a creative writing MA in the literary heart of East Anglia. Cross your fingers when you’re invited for interview. Visit the local library and get Grace her first card. She loves it because it features a picture of a panda’s face. Your daughter’s already sold on the idea of moving here. Now you have to persuade your husband. Ply him with cheap pints from Wetherspoon’s then realise he’d prefer Smirnoff Ice, that this man is still full of surprises: “If I will get a job, then O.K., I take a sabbatical.” Don’t correct his use of the first conditional. Lick the tiny scar below his left eye that’s shaped like a teardrop. Taste salt on the edges of your tongue. Wonder if it’s him or that second packet of Walkers crisps.

Back home, show him a music teacher job you find advertised online. Look up “peripatetic” in your pocket dictionary. Adopt the French definition – adhering to Aristotle’s school of thought is more appealing than the forty-mile commute to King’s Lynn. Help him fill out the application form.

Press “send”.

Refresh the submission status ad infinitum.

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN
A writer’s desk is as personal as the contents of a lady’s purse. Be sure to find a space that encapsulates you, combines all aspects of your personality: the modern woman, the writer, the wife.

Relocate your family from Paris to Norwich. Sub-let a one-bedroom flat from a retired RAF pilot whose cupboards are still full of his stuff. Waste a ridiculous amount of time shuffling boxes around, trying to eke out an extra squared metre of space.

In the evenings, when Grace is asleep, clean the kitchen table and set up your computer. Attempt to write while your husband watches re-runs of ’90s sitcoms that weren’t funny the first time. Try not to let the tin-can laughs of the pre-recorded audience rattle your nerves. Lose your cool when he starts tapping out text messages to his newfound friends. You are halfway through a sentence.

“I just want to come home and relax,” he says, after a day busking in the streets of the city. “Is that really too much to ask?”

Don’t answer. Hear him slam the bedroom door shut.

Get so tired you don’t bother cleaning your teeth, then fall asleep fully clothed on the sofa.

Wake up at three a.m. when Grace shouts: “Mummy, is it morning time?” Lie awake as you stroke her back to sleep, singing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.

DYB, DYB, DYB – DO YOUR BEST
Skilful preparation should not be reserved to the realm of brownies and cub scouts. If you decide to venture outside the comfort of your own home in order to write, equip yourself with the right tools for the task at hand.

THINGS TO LEAVE BEHIND
1. A typewriter. Unless you want to end up with a hernia, leave these cumbersome machines to the Hemingway devotees.
2. Perfectionism. “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” Salvador Dali was right. By all means strive for excellence but remember that perfection is unattainable.
3. Your internal editor. Of course an editor has his place in the creative process. But like a drunken uncle at a funeral, don’t let him in the door too early.
4. High-calorie snacks. Writing is no excuse for breaking out the chocolate biscuits.

AT THE LOCAL LIBRARY
Public libraries are the ideal place to go for quiet contemplation. What could be more heartening than surrounding oneself with books and bibliophiles?

Once you’ve dropped Grace off at nursery, rush to the library and nab a desk on the first floor. Make a good start. Two paragraphs into your story, sigh as a children’s choir assembles on the staircase. Don’t believe your ears when they start rehearsing for tonight’s live broadcast of BBC Children In Need. Wince when their rendition of I’ll Stand by You hurts your teeth. Think, “The dead Pretenders must be turning in their graves.”

“Ooohhhh,” they sing, “why you look so sad?”

Resist shouting, “Because I can’t fucking concentrate.”

“Don’t hold it all inside. Come on and talk to me, now.”

Feel bad about wanting to scream at small children, spoiling their five minutes of kind-hearted fame. Remember it’s for charity and you too have a child.

Indeed.

IN CAFES
Coffee houses are famous the world over for providing respite to weary literati. Select your café carefully, taking into account the quality of light and the speed of service. Support local traders and where possible buy organic, fair-trade coffee that has been ground in the past five days.

Take Napoleon to the one place in town that accepts dogs: Caffé Nero. Waste time at the counter as they fawn over his silly face. Trip up on his leash as you climb the stairs, spilling hot cappuccino on your top.

“You O.K. darling?” says the barista in his thick Italian accent.

Nod and smile, but once you’ve claimed your usual table by the window, cry into your scarf. Pat Napoleon and tell him it’s all alright, it’s not his fault. Avoid the couple in the corner who always hog the sofas, talk too loudly and stroke your dog like an old lover.

ON TRAINS
The tickety-clack of train journeys has always transported me to another world, one of mystery, romance, and Christie’s Poirot. If you are planning on working, book your tickets in advance and ask the travel agent for a forward facing seat with a fold-down table. First class is always preferable.

Attempt to read Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground for inspiration on the train to London. Stop when Grace needs help making play-dough shapes with cookie cutters you found in the depths of your bag. They are supposed to look like exotic animals.

“It’s not a penguin, silly,” says the little boy opposite you. “It’s a toucan.”

Feel ashamed that a six-year-old can identify the correct species more easily than you. When he makes Grace a play-dough poo, suppress the urge to throw it in his face.

Spot your husband ploughing through his recently bought paperback two rows down.

ON SHIPS
Ships remind me of sailing past the Statue of Liberty and into Manhattan, of all the people who passed through Ellis Island and into a new life plump with possibility.

Cruise-liner voyages are ideal for the vacationing writer. They allow ample time to combine true relaxation, good-quality cocktails and the soothing sounds of the sea.

At Christmas, take the ferry to France because you left it too late to book the Eurostar. Head to deck seven and thank God for the inflatable playpen. Watch Grace as she throws herself against the bright blue cushions, safe in the knowledge that she can’t come to any harm. Open your laptop and start working on a children’s book about an octopus with only six tentacles.

Feel your heart sink when the sea gets rough and the kids turn an unhealthy shade of green. Guess correctly that your husband’s wandered off to play trumpet on the top deck. Save your Word document before Grace comes over clutching her stomach saying, “Mummy, make it stop.” Spend the rest of the journey mopping up sick.

Forget about the octopus and his futile quest to recover his two missing limbs.

TIME WAITS FOR NO (WO)MAN
Bernard Malamud is right on the button: “If you can’t get organised, then you can kiss your talent goodbye.” If you are balancing a career with family life, learn to grab moments when they arrive – it is amazing what you can achieve in a short space of time. I’m often delighted to discover that when I set aside time for a paragraph, I come away with a chapter.

Blame yourself. It was your idea that he busk to Let It Go in the centre of town and now he’s raking it in every Saturday outside the Disney Store. Admit this is what he always wanted, to be earning money from his music. In many ways you are proud of him.

Get up with Grace. When you’re still half-asleep, pour milk into her cornflakes hoping not to spill it on the shag-pile; you cannot face another visit from Steve, the philosophical carpet cleaner who combines stain removal with soliloquies on Jungian dream theory.

Take the bus to ballet class. Ensure you have everything you need: the hairpins, the leotard, the ballet shoes with ribbons, the tutu, the tap shoes, the tights.

Queue up for coffee and make small talk with the other mothers. In the half-an-hour gap before Grace comes back, take out your notebook. Curse under your breath because you’ve forgotten your pen. Grab a wax crayon from the colouring box.

Stop thinking in paragraphs; start thinking in words.

KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING
Not only should you be the master of your craft, but the mistress of your home life too. By all means keep up your creative pursuits but remember to prioritise. Upholding your role as wife and mother is of paramount importance and requires elegance, dignity and decorum.

Turn your laptop off. Tell your husband to put his ukulele down – it’s Grace’s turn to play an instrument. Accept that your daughter has unusual taste for a toddler. Instead of Wheels on the Bus, she wants you to accompany her on the recorder as she taps her tambourine in time to Roar, Katy Perry’s age-inappropriate, jungle-themed pop song of female empowerment.

Open the box of wooden instruments you gave her for Christmas still wrapped in plastic. Don’t think about the neighbours. Turn the volume up and dance round the room. Stay as close to the original tune as possible with your limited range of six notes. Jump around and start to laugh – not high in the throat but deep in the gut.

When the song ends your husband looks at you surprised, “Mummy’s very silly, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” says Grace, “let’s do it again!”

EAT, PRAY, SLEEP
Rising to the challenges of contemporary life without stopping to recharge your batteries is akin to running an automobile on apple-scented bubble bath – useless and potentially dangerous to you and your entourage. The opposite of success is not failure but neglect.

Go to your daughter’s Christmas show alone. Smile and hide your disappointment that her father’s not there. Watch as she laughs and claps and sings a silly song about Brussel sprouts. Feel disproportionately proud when she pinches a mince pie off the tray destined for adults.

Rush to university in time to discuss the short story The Sex Lives of African Girls and Othello, the struggles women face all over the world – the jealousy, the anger, the rage. Articulate what moves you and makes your heart break.

Get to the crèche in time to collect Grace. When she asks “Where’s Daddy?” be truthful but not bitter. “Daddy’s at work darling, but he really wanted to be here.”

Hesitate before opening the front door one morning when you hear Grace’s screams coming from the other side. Dread seeing what you know instinctively has already taken place. Realise you never saw her leave, that she must have followed her father. Extract her tiny hand from the hinge. Squint at the sight of her nail squashed round to the wrong side of her finger. Panic when the screams don’t stop. Yell, “What the hell happened?”

“She wanted to say goodbye,” says your husband, retreating to his car. “I have to go. I’m going to be late for work.”

Hold Grace in your arms. Order a taxi to take you to Accident & Emergency.

FINAL THOUGHTS
To sum up, demonstrate the same level of commitment to your marriage as you do to your craft and you cannot put a foot wrong.

After dinner one night, entrust your latest story to your husband.

“Why do you always write about yourself?” he says. “Can’t you use your imagination? Like that man who wrote Lord of the Rings?”

“J. R. R. Tolkien?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

“It’s supposed to be in the same vein as a 1950s guidebook, you know, for women.” Hand him the cloth-bound edition of The Art of Being A Well-Dressed Wife. As always, it falls open on page 87.

“Oh, right.”

“But that’s the thing,” you try and explain, “I don’t think being a good wife is about the clothes you wear. It’s more complex, more—”

“Don’t worry ma chérie, you look fine,” he replies, turning on the television.

When you return to the flat after a week away at kids’ camp, the fridge is empty. Without milk you can’t give Grace her bottle and the shops are now shut because it’s late and you’ve spent most of the day stuck in the car, listening to Katy Perry on repeat so Grace won’t scream and distract your attention from the millions of cars racing to some other destination.

“You could have got some food in,” you say.

“I’m tired,” he replies.

You haven’t had a night of uninterrupted sleep for four years. You drink six cups of coffee to get you through the day and he’s tired.

“I’m the most tired.”

“I’ve got the most work to do.”

“I took the dog out, so now it’s your turn.”

“If Grace wakes in the middle of the night, you go.”

*

Lie down next to your daughter and breathe in the sweet smell of her skin.

You cannot find the time to write. You have nothing left to give.

This is the end.

Remember the day you met. Remember the touch of his fingers on the inside of your thigh as you talked into the night, the crunch of gravel under your feet as you strolled down the driveway and looked up at the stars.

Close your eyes.

Listen as you voice your dreams in the dark.




Pop Goes the Weasel

“Daddy’s having an affair,” Gertrude Kirschenbaum shouted into her cellphone as soon as she got home from the Jewish Federation, where she worked as a fundraiser. “Get over here.”

“What?” her brother Ansel said, but Gertrude had already hung up.

She stormed through the townhouse in search of her father’s admission paperwork to the Compassionate Hebrew Home. Passing through the kitchen, she cursed Jimenez the gardener, who had once again forgotten to trim the bougainvillea that had burgeoned riotously over the summer and was now blocking the sunlight from the greenhouse window, yelled at her teenage son Trevor, who she suspected was jerking off in the locked hallway bathroom, and snapped at Seymour the Newfoundland, whose slumbering immensity was obstructing the entrance to the den that served as an office.

Why me? she asked whatever God or ghost was lurking behind the pale blue walls or listening through the optic white ceiling, why is this my problem? Why the hell had the Administrator of the Hebrew Home called her about her father instead of calling her brother, the lawyer, or her father’s brother Harry, who still had most of his marbles, or her mother, who was his wife, for God’s sake?

Neither God nor ghost replied.

*

The next afternoon, Gertrude and Ansel sat in front of the Hebrew Home Administrator, Elaine Markowitz, and the Home’s visiting psychologist, Dr. Edie Bloom. Gertrude’s left arm became stuck in her blazer as she struggled to remove it before she had a hot flash. Her brother looked at her helplessly, as if a tyrannosaurus had her halfway swallowed and there was no way to rescue her from its jaws.

“Grab the sleeve,” she hissed, already incensed at what she anticipated would be another burden for her to shoulder. Ansel reached over apprehensively, fearing his sister might smite him if he failed to disengage her arm.

“Thank you both for coming,” Elaine Markowitz began.

“Did we have a choice?” Gertrude mumbled, folding her blazer carefully before placing it in her carryall.

Elaine Markowitz smiled stiffly, having dealt with many menopausal adult children of aging parents in her eleven-year reign as Administrator.

“We have a challenge,” she began, the word problem permanently excised from the Hebrew Home’s lexicon. “Jacob has formed a romantic alliance with another resident.”

“Are you sure?” Ansel said, still struggling to comprehend that his decrepit, senile father was having an affair.

“I told you, pop’s in love with another woman,” Gertrude said, loud enough for anyone passing in the hallway to hear.

“Well, not exactly,” Dr. Edie Bloom interjected. “The object of Jacob’s affection is a gentleman named Herbert.”

“Dad’s not gay,” Ansel said, glancing quickly at his sister for validation.

“Oh my Gawd,” Gertrude wailed, as if she’d just been given a cancer diagnosis.

“Their public displays have been upsetting the families of other residents,” Elaine Markowitz said. “I’m afraid we may have to ask you to place your father somewhere else if he doesn’t stop.”

“What about the other guy?” Gertrude demanded.

“Herbert was here first,” Dr. Edie Bloom said.

“But what if he started it?” Gertrude persisted.

“It doesn’t matter,” Elaine Markowitz said.

As soon as the meeting ended, Gertrude went to the doorway of the Hebrew Home’s lounge, looking around at the residents, who had already finished their dinner by 4:30. The whole place had a smell she couldn’t identify – not bleachy like cleaning solution, or yummy like banana bread, or pungent like boiled cabbage or fried fish. It must have been old-people-smell, she thought, that sickly sweet odor of lost muscle mass and sagging, spotted flesh.

“Which one is Herbert?” she asked a woman playing canasta.

“Who?”

“Herbert.”

“Who?” another woman asked the first one.

“Herbert,” the first woman said.

“Who?” the third canasta player asked, looking up from her cards.

Was everyone here hard of hearing, Gertrude wondered. The place sounded like an owl sanctuary.

All three canasta players twisted around in their seats to look for Herbert.

“Over there,” one of the women said, pointing to a dapper little man sitting by himself at a small round table, working on a crossword puzzle.

Gertrude went over to him and sat down in an empty chair.

“I hear you and my father are friends.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Gertrude repeated herself, louder.

“I’m not hard of hearing,” Herbert said with a pleasant smile. “I just don’t know who you’re referring to.”

“Jacob Steinmetz.”

“Ah, yes, Jacob. A lovely man, despite the—” He stopped short of the word dementia. “You look a little like him.”

“My father’s married, you know.”

“That so?”

“To my mother.”

“Uh-huh,” Herbert said, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

“He’s not gay,” Gertrude said.

“I see,” Herbert said, fidgeting with his pencil point as if it needed sharpening.

“He’s not a fairy,” she said, in case he did not know the current terminology.

“All right,” he said, nodding, and opened his palms in anticipation of her point. “So?”

“So you should leave him alone.”

The old gentleman looked dismayed. “Have I done something to—?”

“Mrs. Markowitz said you two are playing hide-the-salami.”

“The what?”

“Having sex. And since my father isn’t homosexual, I’m assuming you’re the—” She wondered if there was a less inflammatory word than perpetrator.

“I think the person you’re looking for is Herbert Schlosser. I’m Herbert Marcus.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” Gertrude said, turning bright scarlet and scrambling to her feet. “I’m so sorry. Those women said—”

“That’s alright,” he said without rancor and returned to where he’d left off – 18 across, seven letters, another word for folly.

Gertrude headed for the front door and burst into the moonlight as if she’d been launched. By the time she reached her Lexus, she was fighting back tears.

*

The following Saturday, Gertrude belted her father and Herbert Schlosser into the back seat of her car like two boys she was chauffeuring to Little League.

“Where do you want to go?” she asked.

“Pink,” her father said.

“Pinks? You want hot dogs?”

“Yes,” her father said, giggling at Herbert like a little girl.

“Hot dogs,” Herbert agreed, his lips leaking a little saliva in anticipation. Then he made a grab for Jacob’s cell phone, and a scuffle ensued.

“Behave yourselves,” Gertrude shouted, glaring at them in the rearview mirror. What had become of her masterful father, the former owner of the largest Toyota dealership in Santa Monica, that shrewd, virile hero of her childhood? A terrifying specter of her own geriatric future vaulted across Gertrude’s mind.

She had wanted to see how her father and Herbert interacted with each other outside the Home, still hoping that their relationship was innocent. Okay, so they crawled into bed with each other like boy scouts camping out. Did that mean they were gay? It suddenly occurred to her that maybe boy scouts did fool around with each other sexually when they camped out, maybe that’s what Trevor had done.

“Ugh,” she said out loud, squirming in her seat. Who needed to think such thoughts?

*

That night, in bed with her husband Maury, Gertrude worried aloud about her father’s attachment to Herbert.

“They’re like a couple of six-year-olds,” she said. “They squirted ketchup and mustard at each other at Pinks until I threatened to spank them. And on the way back to the Home, they wouldn’t stop kissing each other.”

“You took them to Pinks?” Maury asked at the tail end of a yawn.

“They wanted hot dogs,” Gertrude said. “Do you think they’re really messing around with each other?”

“You mean sex?”

“I guess.”

“Isn’t your dad kind of old for that?”

“I don’t know. How old is too old?”

“Fifty-eight,” Maury said, reaching out and embracing Gertrude, whose back was turned to him.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Messing around. All that sex talk—”

Gertrude turned over to face him. It was the first time he’d initiated anything in months.

“So the idea of two old men screwing each other is turning you on?” she asked.

“Keep that up and it’ll go away.”

Gertrude’s hands moved toward her husband beneath the covers, reaching for the familiar warmth of his skin. “I don’t want it to go away,” she said, kissing him happily on the mouth.

*

A few days later, Gertrude invited her mother to lunch at Joan’s on Third, one of Essie’s favorite restaurants. Gertrude ordered the three-salad combo. Essie opted for the Chinese chicken salad. They found a small table at the back of the restaurant, where it was less crowded and noisy.

“So, Mom,” Gertrude began. “How are you holding up?”

“You probably think I’m upset about daddy, but I’m not.”

“Who told you?”

“Your brother.”

“That little shit. He promised he wouldn’t.”

“Your father was insatiable, Gerty,” Essie said, something Gertrude would gladly have spent the rest of her life not knowing. “And don’t think this is the first time he’s been unfaithful. I say, let some other woman deal with him. Good riddance.”

“It’s not a woman.”

“Oh, really?” Essie looked surprised but then she began to laugh.

“Mom! It’s not funny.”

“Of course it is.”

“You won’t think so if they kick Dad out and he has to come home and live with you again.”

“Like hell he will,” Essie said. She had been an adverting executive in a large agency before she retired and didn’t tolerate anyone pushing her around. “Gerty,” she’d lectured her daughter as a teenager, “somebody punches you, you punch them right back. That’s how you make them see who’s who and what’s what.”

*

“There are eleven couples having affairs in the Hebrew Home,” Gertrude announced to Elaine Markowitz, who looked especially tired that Friday after two health emergencies in the morning and Shabbat looming. “Ten of them are men and women,” Gertrude went on, “so obviously your problem is with homosexuality, and that’s discrimination.” She had spent Sunday gathering gossip about the residents, and Monday checking out the law.

“Look, Mrs. Kirschenbaum, we know there are romantic liaisons between some of the residents, including a few gay ones. They’re usually fleeting, and we don’t object unless their behavior gets out of hand. But sometimes the husbands and wives of the residents feel rejected and betrayed by their spouses and they want us to intervene.”

“My mother doesn’t give a damn about it,” Gertrude said.

“Unfortunately, Herbert’s wife does.”

*

The next weekend, Herbert’s wife brought their grandson to visit and the little boy kept playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” on his jack-in-the-box.

“All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey fell down and oh, what a sound, pop goes the weasel.”

After the twelfth repetition, Jacob popped along with the weasel, jumping onto the four-year-old and throttling him violently.

“He doesn’t know how big he is,” Gertrude argued later in her father’s defense. “He thinks he’s a little kid.”

*

The next night, Gertrude and her brother moved their father out of the Hebrew Home and settled him temporarily in the Kirschenbaum’s guest room. Herbert’s wife had taken her husband out for dinner that evening so the two men wouldn’t make a scene. Jacob didn’t seem to understand what was happening.

In bed with Maury later, Gertrude began to cry.

“I feel so bad for him,” she said. “First he lost his mind and now he’s lost his friend. It’s like the whole world has played a dirty trick on him.”

Maury pulled her close and rocked her.

“Sometimes, honey, forgetting is a gift,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow he won’t remember today.”

*

“My grandpa’s a fag,” Gertrude overheard her son say on his cellphone as he munched on a gargantuan chocolate chip cookie.

“He is not!” she shouted from the kitchen. “Who are you talking to?”

“Hang on a minute,” Trevor whispered and quickly retreated to his room.

Gertrude finished putting the dinner dishes into the dishwasher and came into the living room, dropping down on the couch next to her father with an exhausted sigh. Jacob was watching, or at least staring at, the movie Mamma Mia! At least he was sitting quietly, she thought, and not crying anymore.

On the weekdays, a nursing student was keeping an eye on Jacob while Gertrude and Maury were at work. Saturdays, Gertrude’s mother took over the vigil although Jacob no longer recognized his wife of forty-seven years. On Sundays, Gertrude’s brother and sister-in-law babysat Jacob while Gertrude and Maury played golf. But in the evenings, Gertrude was on duty, keeping her father company and helping him get ready for bed.

“Daddy,” she said, smiling at him and gently patting his hand. He looked at her with hazy familiarity, as if he’d met her long ago but couldn’t quite place her. Gertrude began to notice that the dead flower odor of the Hebrew Home was permeating the living room like a creeping fog.

*

It’s temporary, Gertrude reassured everybody while they searched for another placement for Jacob, but it had already been a month of polite and not-so-polite refusals from most of the better venues and the family was running out of steam.

Jacob kept asking for Herbert, though he could no longer remember Herbert’s name. “Where is he?” he repeated, gazing tearfully at anyone within earshot. “Herbert is fine,” they all answered, except for Trevor, who said, “Face it, Grandpa. You fucked up.”

Trevor got a kick out of humming “Pop Goes the Weasel,” hoping to get a rise out of his grandfather. “By the way,” he explained to the old man after googling the nursery rhyme, “it’s not about an animal at all. The weasel’s part of a spinning wheel that goes pop. Isn’t that weird?” When Jacob didn’t respond, Trevor shouted, “Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop!” until his grandfather clapped his hands over his ears and shrieked.

*

“Why are boys so cruel?” Gertrude asked her husband as they were out walking Seymour that evening.

Maury shrugged. “Girls can be cruel, too. You know, ‘mean girls.’”

“It’s not the same,” Gertrude said.

She loved her son, of course, but at times she wished he’d been a daughter, someone who ran on estrogen rather than testosterone so they could commiserate.

“Wait ’til you get old,” she chided her son after putting his grandfather to bed. Trevor, who’d been stretched out on his bed playing Candy Crush, looked up at his mother as if she had just offered him a lap dance.

“Are you crazy?” he said, his dark eyes wide with disbelief. Before Gertrude could tell him that nobody thought they were going to get old, especially when they were young, Trevor rolled over, emitted a dismissive little fart and returned his attention to the game.




Welcome New Lesbians

Picture Credits: Jesse757

When Grace and Patti Ann came in, dressed up for their first lesbian New Year’s Eve party and carrying homemade fudge in a Santa Claus tin, Maurine – the party host – said, “Quick, look up at the ceiling, look up, look up,” before she even said Welcome New Lesbians or Happy New Year. So Grace and Patti Ann looked up. What the hell did they know? They had never been to a lesbian party of any kind or to Maurine’s house before, so they were feeling excited and compliant. They wanted to be excellent lesbian party guests.

There was nothing on the ceiling. It was a regular white ceiling in a 1940s Philadelphia row house, with all the plaster cracks nicely spackled and painted over, faint lines like raised old veins showing through skin. Still Grace and Patti Ann craned their necks, training their eyes on the ceiling.

“Keep looking up, please,” Maurine said, as she hustled them out of their coats.

Grace and Patti Ann smiled, keeping their eyes on the ceiling so they didn’t see the bared teeth of Maurine’s dog Lucifer, which made it a huge shock to the couple when Lucifer lunged and sunk its teeth into Grace’s calf and then Patti Ann’s arm as she pulled the dog off Grace.

“Down, Lucifer,” Maurine said, dumping their coats on the sofa. “Want a treat in the kitchen?”

Lucifer growled and snapped at Grace and Patti Ann. The dog was a mahogany Rottweiler, with fanged teeth and a huge black-spotted tongue on full display. The couple huddled together, still in the doorway, afraid to move.

“Now, Lucifer, that’s enough,” Maurine said. She tugged hard on Lucifer’s collar and dragged the dog into the kitchen.

Grace and Patti Ann heard a cabinet opening, then Maurine saying, “Here you go, beautiful one. Here’s a treat for my big girl.” Then they heard a door close.

When Maurine came back in the room, Lucifer was not with her.

“Usually if people look up at the ceiling the minute they come in, Lucifer calms right down. She can’t stand eye contact with strangers. So that was a bit odd. I guess she really didn’t like you. But now she knows you and she’ll be fine next time,” Maurine said.

“We have to go to the emergency room,” Grace said.

“We got bit,” Patti Ann said. “I’m bleeding. She’s bleeding. We’re bleeding.”

“You just got here. The party’s just getting started,” Maurine said. “Let me see. Maybe a little Band-Aid would do the trick.”

Maurine pulled up Grace’s pantleg to inspect her calf. “Hardly broke the skin,” she said. “Good thing you wore wool.” She unbuttoned the wrist button on Patti Ann’s shirt sleeve and expertly rolled the sleeve up like she was dressing a mannequin in a store window. “This one’s a little deeper because you only wore a thin shirt. But you’re fine. It’s nothing. Wash it up well and you’ll be just fine.”

Grace and Patti Ann looked at each other. Even though they were a brand new couple, they could already send thoughts to each other. Her freaking dog bit us both, let’s get the hell out of here, Grace sent to Patti Ann. She’s acting like it’s no big deal. Maybe we’re making a big deal. Are we making a big deal? Patti Ann sent back.

The doorbell rang and Grace and Patti Ann stepped away so that Maurine could let in more party guests. The doorbell rang again and again and again. A crowd of lesbians poured into Maurine’s house, hugging and kissing each other, waving bottles of wine, and carrying platters of cheese and cookies. One woman brought a whole fondue set. Like a chef on a TV cooking show playing to the crowd, she set it up on the dining room table, melted dark chocolate in the fondue pot, and spread out chunks of pineapple and pound cake, sliced bananas, strawberries, and raspberries. Soon women were dipping and moaning all over the dining room.

Grace and Patti Ann clutched paper towels to their bleeding parts. Every so often, they’d lift up the towel to check their wounds. An hour into the party, they were both still bleeding but only a little bit. They hadn’t really talked to anyone or eaten anything because they needed to keep pressure on their wounds. No one asked them why they had paper towels pressed on their limbs. Everyone smiled quickly at them, then moved toward the bar or table as if Grace and Patti Ann were street people who had snuck into the party uninvited.

Do you want to stay? Grace sent her question to Patti Ann with a raised eyebrow. Patti Ann shrugged, sending her answer Sure, I’ll stay if you’ll stay. They went into the second-floor bathroom together, rinsed off their injured parts, threw away the bloodstained towels, and kissed each other on the mouth before they headed back to the party. They were such a new couple that each kiss was still a sweet surprise. This is how we kiss to say good morning. This is how we kiss to get sex started. This is how we kiss after a dog bites us.

If there was anything Grace and Patti Ann both despised, it was high-maintenance women. This whole shaking-off-two-dog-bites incident was proof that they were NOT high-maintenance women and was an extremely promising sign for their budding romance. They might be old new lesbians – both of them in their fifties when they fell in love with each other at book club and left their husbands – but they were still go-with-the-flow women. They had jobs that demanded flexibility and quick thinking under pressure, Grace as an IT security specialist and Patti Ann as a public defender.

They never saw Lucifer again that night. Their bites healed without stitches or the need for antibiotics, but each was scarred in places on their bodies that were visible to others. During their first year together, Grace and Patti Ann enjoyed pointing out Lucifer’s mark on them when scar stories started up among friends.

“Our first big lesbian party and a dog named Lucifer attacks us at the door,” Grace said.

It always brought a big laugh. Their scar story was better than the playground injuries, bike crash wounds, lacrosse and flag football scars, and the multitudinous surgical scars of their friends and ex-husbands.

“Maybe it was a sign,” Flip, Patti Ann’s ex-husband, said when he heard the story. “Like on a highway ramp. TURN BACK, YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY.”

Flip loved book club. He refused to resign just because Grace had stolen Patti Ann from him. Patti Ann and he had been best friends and lovers since they were freshpeople in college. He guessed you couldn’t say freshman any more.

Flip was also a public defender, in the same office as Patti Ann. He had lots of great stories from work. His favorite was the guy who said, “I don’t want you. I want a real lawyer.” Flip told him, “Hey, I want a real client. Not only did they catch you in the act, then you confess to the crime that you committed on camera. So they have witnesses, your confession, and a clear videotape of you doing the crime. What exactly do you expect me to do with that?” And the guy had the colossal nerve to say, “I want you to get them to drop the charges.” Flip always told people he worked at Mission Impossible headquarters.

So now they were all in the book club together, Grace and Patti Ann, six other women, with Flip the only male. Grace’s ex-husband, Andre, didn’t read books, so she had never invited him to join. The other women were all single. All of them were child-free by choice, except for one woman who had seven children, making up for the rest of them.

The book club operated on feminist consensus, which meant that every decision had to be discussed and agreed on by every book club member. If anyone objected to reading a certain book, they wouldn’t read it. If anyone objected to admitting a certain person to the group, the person was not invited. So if Grace or Patti Ann had raised an objection to Flip remaining a member, the group would have asked him to leave. But Grace and Patti Ann didn’t. Grace thought it was Patti Ann’s business and her decision to make. Flip didn’t bother her. He felt like someone’s brother to her, a sidelines kind of guy who was not important in the scheme of things.

Patti Ann thought Flip would get bored or annoyed with book club and leave on his own. But so far, he hung in there. He brought homemade hummus dip and excellent red wine to meetings. He emailed the book club new reading lists from BUST Magazine and Bitch Media. He finished every book they chose and brought up witty and salient points in the discussions.

Tawnee, a friend of one of the long-term members, asked to join their book club and they agreed to try her out. At Tawnee’s first book club meeting, the book they were discussing was Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. They were meeting that month at Grace and Patti Ann’s condo near Center City Philadelphia, a shining new space on the Delaware River with all glass windows and minimalist furniture, nothing on the walls to distract from the river view with its international cargo ships, sailboats, ferry boats, and tourist amphibious bus/boats going by.

Tawnee walked in accompanied by her therapy dog, a Pit Bull named Sonny. “He just passed his Canine Good Citizen Test this morning, so he’s a real Thera-Pit now,” she said. “Certifiable.”

No one had mentioned that Tawnee had a therapy dog that she’d be bringing to book club.

“I have social anxiety and panic attacks,” Tawnee said, “Sonny is my rock.”

Grace and Patti Ann stood side by side, excited to host the book club for the first time at their new condo.

“Welcome to both of you,” Grace said.

“We’re so happy to have you,” Patti Ann said.

Grace held out her hand to shake Tawnee’s hand. With one smooth fast motion, Sonny leapt up and grabbed Grace’s wrist in his mouth. Patti Ann screamed and shoved the dog to get him off Grace, until he let go of her and latched onto Patti Ann’s wrist instead. Tawnee pulled Sonny away.

“Geez, I’m sorry. He’s never done anything like that before. You shouldn’t have tried to shake my hand, I guess. Who does that?” said Tawnee. She put the book down on the floor and backed out the door.

A minute later, she popped back in. “I forgot to say I didn’t understand the book at all,” Tawnee said. “Thank you anyway.” She left again.

A minute later, while Grace and Patti Ann were still examining their wrists, Tawnee stuck her head back in. “And if there are any medical bills, I’ll be happy to pay for them, of course,” Tawnee said. “That’s it, leaving for real this time.” She closed the door and left.

“My God,” Flip said. “Are you all right?”

Grace and Patti Ann sat down, clutching their wrists. The other book club members gathered around them.

“This is getting to be a regular thing with you two. Animals attack you wherever you go,” Flip said.

Sonny’s teeth marks circled the women’s wrists like macabre bloody bracelets.

“Therapy dog my ass,” Grace said.

“Now, Patti Ann, correct me if I’m wrong, but in all the years you and I were together, did a dog attack us even once?” Flip asked.

“We’re getting married, Flip,” said Patti Ann. “You may as well accept that. And if you can’t behave like a civilized human being, I’ll have to ask you to leave book club.”

“It’s a simple question. Did a dog ever attack us once, let alone twice, when we were married?” Flip said.

“I’m not in a courtroom and I don’t have to answer that,” said Patti Ann.

“If you keep this up with Grace and it happens again, you might get mauled to death,” Flip said. “I’m pointing this out because I love you very much.”

“That’s it. You’re out,” said Patti Ann.

The book club was enthralled. They hadn’t seen this much drama since one of them threw guacamole in another member’s face over an extremely heated discussion of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The worst most self-indulgent long-winded excuse for a book I ever saw vs. He’s a genius and his book is an epic masterpiece.

Flip dropped to his knees. “Please, I beg you. Let me stay. I’m so lonely.”

“Take your hummus and go,” said Patti Ann.

A month later, Grace and Patti Ann were married in a small ceremony at Philadelphia City Hall, with their best friends by their side. The judge asked if they had written special vows. They shook their heads quickly no. They both trembled while they repeated the standard vows and slid wedding rings onto each other’s fingers. There was no party. Instead they changed from their pantsuits into jeans and went out with their friends to their favorite neighborhood pub. Like nothing had changed, but everything had changed. They couldn’t stop smiling at each other. My wife, they practiced saying out loud. This is my wife. Every time they said it, they teared up. Their friends cried a little too, even though they had given up on dating and were resigned to a single life. This is so beautiful, their friends thought. These two made it over the obstacle course of middle-aged dating. They pole-vaulted to the other side.

“Thank God I felt the urge to join a book club,” Grace said. “Or I’d never have met you.”

“The best thing I ever did in my whole life was to start that book club,” Patti Ann said. “It scares me to think what if I didn’t? What if I decided book clubs are too much trouble? Someone’s always getting divorced or they fall down on the street after going to a wine tasting and break their leg into twenty tiny pieces. And then they throw off the whole dynamic talking about that, instead of the book.”

Since they had fallen in love, Patti Ann felt like Grace had become an actual physical part of her, with a flow between their hearts and bodies that felt like an intensely pleasurable current. When they were apart for a few days, Patti Ann felt like one of her arms went missing. It was the strangest feeling, one she had never felt when she was married to Flip.

Now when dogs came bouncing her way on city sidewalks, even if their snouts were sealed shut by straps and muzzles, when Patti Ann was alone she crossed to the opposite side of the street. She couldn’t stop thinking of what she would do if a dog charged at her, pictured herself running into the street and being hit by a bus while trying to save herself from the dog attack.

When she was with Grace, though, Patti Ann lifted her eyes skyward and kept walking past the dogs, holding Grace’s hand. She didn’t want Grace to know that she felt a big slap of fear now, every time she saw a dog. She didn’t want to be the kind of woman who was afraid of dogs. Dogs were like people’s babies. They beamed out love into the universe. Their licks were kisses and adoration. They wanted to please people so much that they would sit down on their rumps even in wet snow when you asked them to. And was there anything more adorable than a puppy?

One Sunday morning, on a sunny spring day after they had been married for a month, Grace and Patti Ann stepped out of their condo, headed for a walk by the river when Flip came by, walking a large black dog. They hadn’t seen him since he was thrown out of book club and Patti Ann had quit her public defender job, going to work at a firm that served non-profit organizations instead.

“What a lovely surprise. Meet Brutus. He’s a Rottweiler Pit Bull mix. I just picked him up from the shelter this morning so I have no idea what will freak him out,” Flip said.

“That’s a sweet old black Lab if I ever saw one,” Grace said.

“You’re not funny, Flip,” Patti Ann said.

“It’s a no-kill shelter. But they were going to kill him anyway because he’s so vicious,” Flip said.

“He’s adorable,” Grace said.

Grace leaned over to pet Brutus or whatever the dog’s name was. He looked more like a Rufus or a Gizmo.

“Don’t do that,” Patti Ann said.

“Why not?” Grace asked.

“You really don’t know what he’s capable of,” said Patti Ann.

“This sweet old black Lab? He looks like a grandpa dog,” said Grace.

“Back away,” said Flip. “I’m warning you.”

“Oh, come on,” said Grace.

“Please,” said Patti Ann. “Don’t tempt fate.”

“Three strikes, you’re out,” said Flip. “That’s how the game is played, right?”

“Lick me,” Grace said to the dog. “Give me a kiss, you old sweetie.” She leaned down, offered her right cheek to the dog. The dog opened its mouth widely.

Patti Ann threw her whole body between Grace and the dog, closing her eyes. She clutched Grace’s shoulders, holding her close, and waited for the pain.

“Can I at least come back to book club?” Flip asked.

Patti Ann opened her eyes and looked down. The dog looked up at her, yawning.

“Start your own damn book club,” Patti Ann said. She let go of Grace.

“I don’t have anyone to talk to,” Flip said. “Please.”

Grace stepped around Patti Ann to pet the dog. “Man’s best friend,” she said. “I bet you can talk to this old boy. I bet you can talk his ear off.”

“Just you wait,” Flip said to Grace. “Patti Ann could turn on you the way she turned on me. With no warning.”

Grace and Patti Ann faced each other. They beamed quick worried thoughts to each other. What should we do?

“Why don’t you love me anymore?” Flip said to Patti Ann. “Just tell me why.”

Grace linked arms with Patti Ann.

“I feel like I’m going to die,” Flip said. “Please help me.”

The dog slowly got up on all fours. His tail began to swish side to side, like a hairy metronome. He bumped his head hard against Flip’s leg. He whined. He stood on his back legs and pawed against Flip’s stomach until Flip looked down into his eyes.

“You’re a good boy,” said Flip. He patted the dog’s head and scratched under his chin. The dog sat down with a plop.

Grace and Patti Ann tiptoed around the corner while Flip’s attention was on the dog. They heard Flip say, “Oh buddy, what are we going to do? My wife has a wife.” The dog barked one deep sympathetic ruff and then the women couldn’t hear them anymore.

At home, Grace and Patti Ann went out on their balcony over the river and held each other.

“I adore you,” Grace said.

“I risked my life for you,” Patti Ann said.

And that was the story they told from that day forward, how when they were a new couple, dogs kept biting them and they didn’t know why. Until one day, Patti Ann’s ex-husband broke the evil spell on them and they all lived happily ever after. None of it made sense but it was a real good story. Especially when accompanied by a show of scars.




Whereupon the World Rears Its Ugly Head

The People vs. Sara-Mae Yang.
The Kitchen, Thirty-Three Chipwood Avenue.
(Court Reporter: Sara-Mae Yang)

Sara-Mae Yang hereby terminates all verbal communication with her mother-in-law Hyacinth Grey.

Since Mrs. Grey did assess Ms. Yang’s stenography skills as “redundant and useless in the modern age”, Ms. Yang has resolved henceforth to use these skills as her only means of communication in the household.

Ms. Yang will persist in this mode of communication until Mrs. Grey a) apologizes or b) dies.

The household at Thirty-Three Chipwood Avenue consists of Ms. Yang, her cowardly husband Richard Grey, and their two children Pearl and Marlon (both of whom are yet to be conceived but hope remains eternal).

Said household does not include, but rather has been invaded by, Mrs. Grey.

Mrs. Grey, who did fail to ever water the wilted petals of her son Richard’s heart, now profits from trampling upon them.

Mrs. Grey claims to be afflicted by some unspecified terminal illness. Based on this claim and the extra attention sought because of it, Mrs. Grey resides in the children’s bedroom at Thirty-Three Chipwood Avenue instead of in her own apartment at Headwater Hills Retirement Residence.

Despite firm expectations of her impending demise, Mrs. Grey has failed to show any progression toward death for these past eight months.

Ms. Yang, being the only child of a librarian and a second-generation stenographer, prefers to avoid all verbal confrontation. Thus, Ms. Yang has been the silent keeper of many unsaid truths about Mrs. Grey.

Mrs. Grey’s verbal assault on Ms. Yang’s profession and character did set the latter’s heart ablaze and the truths will now come out.

What follows is an accurate transcript of the proceedings in the kitchen at Thirty-Three Chipwood Avenue.

*

BEGIN TRANSCRIPT

Prosecution (H. Grey): Sara-Mae, that racket will drive me to drink.

Whereupon Court Reporter continues to transcribe the proceedings on the antique stenotype machine willed to her by her Grandmother Hua Zhu, former head stenographer for Brown and Bailey Condensed Milk Company, Brooklyn, NY.

Whereupon every word is recorded verbatim as is the protocol.

P: Why don’t you answer me?

Court Reporter: (inaudible) What would be the point?

P: Richard, are you just going to sit there while she ignores me?

Defense (R. Grey): (No comment).

P: Stop fiddling with your fingernails, boy. What have I done to deserve the lot of you in my house?

(The Court acknowledges that the house is deeded to Richard Grey and Sara-Mae Yang.)

P: You are crazy. You hear me, Sara-Mae? Crazy as a snake.

Whereupon Prosecution crosses to Court Reporter and attempts to decipher the completed stenograph scroll.

P: What is she typing there, Richard? It’s Goddamn Chinese, isn’t it?

(The Court acknowledges that, in addition to a sharp mind, it takes several years of training and practice to become proficient in stenographic shorthand.)

D: It’s not Chinese, mother. It’s shorthand.

Whereupon Prosecution approaches Defense with her index finger outstretched.

P: You should make her tell me what it says. Just because she’s mad at me doesn’t mean she can sit there insulting me in Chinese.

(The Court acknowledges that the transcript is being typed in English.)

D: Sara-Mae, what are you writing? Mother wants to know.

Whereupon the power goes out and the kitchen is left in semi-darkness.

Whereupon the transcript continues as the stenograph machine is self-powered.

Whereupon Court Reporter smiles and considers Prosecution’s well established fear of the dark.

P: The power’s gone, Richard. Do something!

D: (No comment).

Whereupon Prosecution pretends to be blind and swats at nothing.

P: Richard! Where are you? Everything’s dark!

(The Court acknowledges that it is not yet dusk.)

P: Sara-Mae! Stop your banging! Get up off your skinny rump and do something.

D: (No comment).

P: I’ve always said I’d strangle you some day, Sara-Mae.

(The Court acknowledges that Prosecution is free to try it and see where that gets her.)

Whereupon Prosecution crosses the room unsteadily with hands outstretched.

P: Sitting there every minute since they sacked you from the courthouse, doing nothing! You never talk. You never cook. All you do is sulk. Richard could make something of himself if he’d only stop sucking around you and whispering till midnight.

D: (No comment).

(The Court acknowledges that the only time Richard Grey and Sara-Mae Yang can converse together is after Mrs. Grey retires for the evening. Since she inhabits the bedroom adjoining theirs, they must, even then, whisper.)

P: How do you ever expect to fall pregnant if all you do is mope?

(The Court acknowledges that, despite their desperate wish to have children, Richard Grey and Sara-Mae Yang have not engaged in sexual intercourse since the arrival of Mrs. Grey for fear that they will be overheard.)

Whereupon Defense rises anemically from the table.

D: I will call the power company. Come on and have a seat now, Mother.

Whereupon Prosecution purposefully knocks the side of the court reporter’s desk with her wooden cane.

Whereupon Prosecution returns to the kitchen table.

Whereupon Defense exits the kitchen.

P: You are a curse on me, Sara-Mae. Every day I wake up and wish that you were gone.

(The Court acknowledges that the feeling is more than mutual.)

Whereupon a squirrel chatters at the window.

Whereupon the oak tree in the back yard emits a faint groan.

Whereupon Defense re-enters the kitchen and sits at the table.

Whereupon Defense stares fixedly at the knot in his shoelaces.

P: Well, what did they say?

D: They said they will look in to it.

P: Goddamn, Richard. Can you do anything really? I am calling your brother.

(The Court acknowledges that Prosecution is referring to Jefferson Grey who resides next door with his slag of a wife and their countless children.)

Whereupon Prosecution creaks her way out of the room, staring death at Court Reporter as she passes.

Whereupon Defense rises from the table and approaches Court Reporter.

Whereupon Court Reporter smells the appealing scent of Defense’s soapy skin.

Whereupon Defense pinches a stray piece of smooth black hair between his fingers and tucks it behind Court Reporter’s reddening ear.

Whereupon Defense stands behind Court Reporter and gently touches her neck.

(The Court acknowledges that Court Reporter will continue the transcript despite Defense’s obvious attempts to seduce her.)

D: (whispers) What are you writing? Tell me quick.

Whereupon Defense examines the most recent line of the transcript.

(The Court acknowledges that Defense is well able to read stenograph shorthand due to his long association with Court Reporter.)

D: (laughs) (whispers) Ok, firecracker, can I read the rest then?

Whereupon Court Reporter nods and shifts her gaze sideways.

Whereupon Defense reads the transcript from beginning to end.

Whereupon a shadow passes over Defense’s face.

Whereupon Defense removes his hand from Court Reporter’s neck.

D: (whispers) You are right, Sara-Mae. I am a coward and I am sorry for it.

Whereupon Court Reporter attempts to catch the sleeve of Defense’s shirt as he passes back to the table, but misses her mark.

Whereupon there is a knock at the door.

Whereupon Jefferson Grey enters with his wife Dhalia Grey and some wailing child.

Jefferson Grey: Richard, can’t you see the lights are out?

Defense: (No comment).

JG: What the hell is that sound?

Dhalia Grey: It’s Sara-Mae on her granny’s machine again.

JG: Jesus, Sara-Mae can’t you stop that?

(The Court acknowledges that Court Reporter is not permitted to stop the transcript for any reason.)

Whereupon Prosecution re-enters the kitchen.

P: Jefferson! You took your time, didn’t you? Sara-Mae is mad at me again and she’s done nothing but write insults on her little Chinese typewriter all morning. Richard is useless as always…

DG: Sara-Mae, you’ve gone off your rocker since they fired you.

D: (No comment).

Whereupon twin stains of wetness appear on the front of Dhalia Grey’s ill-fitting shirt.

Whereupon Dhalia Grey schleps out one of her veiny breasts and feeds the wailing child.

CR: (inaudible) Disgusting cow.

DG: Did you say something, Sara-Mae?

D: She’s not saying anything to any of us. She’s writing a transcript.

JG: Of what?

D: Of what we are saying.

DG: You think I can’t read lips, Sara-Mae? You know I can, and that’s why you said it.

(The Court acknowledges Dhalia Grey has never, before this moment, been known to lip read.)

DG: A cow, am I? You try having six children and see how your perfect waistline fares!

(The Court acknowledges that if a person did call Dhalia Grey a cow it would have been an allusion to lactation and possibly her obtuse nature.)

JG: Did you call Dhalia a cow, Sara-Mae?

Whereupon Dhalia Grey ceases breastfeeding.

Whereupon Dhalia Grey crosses the room.

Whereupon Dhalia Grey examines the transcript.

DG: She’s not even writing anything. It’s all mad symbols. You are screwed in the head, Sara-Mae.

D: (No comment).

Whereupon Jefferson Grey crosses to stand beside Dhalia Grey.

JG: If it’s a transcript, Sara-Mae, then read it off. If you didn’t call her a cow, then prove it.

Whereupon Court Reporter continues the transcript.

JG: Read it, Sara-Mae! I’ve got a right to know what you have been saying about my wife!

DG: You are nuttier than squirrel’s shit. It’s no wonder you lost your job.

P: They fired her because she kept writing trash about everyone in the courtroom.

(The Court acknowledges that Alice Jennings, Head Stenographer at Mayfield County Courthouse did accuse Sara-Mae Yang of adding inappropriate comments to official court documents. Said comments were merely descriptive and added context to the proceedings.)

DG: Maybe it’s a blessing that you are barren, Sara-Mae. If you ever did have children they would turn out to be just as crazy as you are.

Whereupon Court Reporter breathes in slowly.

Whereupon the air hangs heavy in the kitchen as all present consider the line that has been crossed.

Whereupon Court Reporter’s eyes rest on the closed lips of Defense.

Whereupon Court Reporter’s fingers crouch above the stenograph keys, ready to transcribe any comment (audible or otherwise).

Whereupon Defense rests.

(The Court acknowledges that Court Reporter had hoped, in the end of things, Defense would have some objection.)

D: (No comment).

D: (No comment).

D: (No comment).

(The Court acknowledges that Defense NEVER HAS ANY GODDAMN COMMENT.)

Whereupon the oak creeks and the squirrel fusses.

Whereupon a moment stretches into infinity.

Whereupon a chair timidly creeks.

Whereupon Defense rises.

D: Do all you bunch of jerks want to know what she’s writing? Since you asked so bloody politely, I’ll read it out.

Whereupon Defense crosses to the stenotype machine.

Whereupon Defense unrolls the transcript scroll.

Whereupon Defense clears his throat.

Whereupon Court Reporter touches the back of her neck.

Whereupon Defense reads the transcript aloud from the beginning.

Whereupon the complete proceedings, accurately and truly recorded by Court Reporter, are revealed.

Whereupon gasps emit from all in attendance except Defense (who reads relentlessly), and Court Reporter (who unceasingly documents the proceedings as they unfold).

Whereupon all sit in the stunned silence of a life suddenly gone off-course.

Whereupon Defense stands behind Court Reporter.

Whereupon Defense places his moist palms on Court Reporter’s shoulders.

Whereupon Prosecution approaches Defense.

P: So you want me gone that sorely, do you Richard? Your own dying mother?

D: You heard the transcript.

P: I will never forgive you for marrying her.

Whereupon Defense grips tightly on to Court Reporter’s shoulders.

P: I am going to live with your brother, Richard. You can consider yourself an orphan.

JG: Ma, we’ve got no room for you at our place what with the baby…

P: You have six children, Jefferson. That’s plenty.

Whereupon Prosecution exits the kitchen with the vigor of a woman who will yet live to a great age.

JG: Goddamn you to hell, Dicky. You too, Sara-Mae.

Whereupon Dhalia Grey emits a high whine.

Whereupon the child wails.

Whereupon Dhalia Grey and Jefferson Grey exit.

Whereupon the squirrel buzzes and the leaves rustle.

Whereupon the stenotype machine purrs.

D: (whispers) Sara-Mae, I think she’s gone.

Whereupon Court Reporter acutely feels the nearness of Defense.

Whereupon the last twilight disappears and the kitchen becomes all darkness.

D: (whispers) I think she’s actually not coming back.

CR: (whispers) Stop whispering.

Whereupon Defense slides both hands down Court Reporter’s arms.

Whereupon Defense leans forward and kisses Court Reporter’s neck.

Whereupon Court Reporter closes her eyes and inhales her favorite soapy scent in the silent darkness.

D: How are your ovaries feeling, love?

Sara-Mae Yang: They are buzzing, Rich. Practically on fire.

END OF TRANSCRIPTION




Idea For A Poetry Show

An open mic. The Poets read work written by the other open-mic performers.

One Sentence. Audience members write down one sentence on a piece of paper and place it in a box. The Poet compiles them and then reads them in an order of their choosing. Poetry emerges; authorial identity becomes confused, drifts.

A film Poem. A sound collage composed from the errs, umms, and accidental pauses in other people’s film Poems.

Lose a Letter. The Poet reads a Poem. Afterwards, the audience pick a letter. Any word with that letter in it is removed. The Poem is read again, altered. A second vote is taken, a second letter is removed. The Poem is read again, altered. The process repeats until the Poem, and the show, no longer exists.

Gridlines. A warehouse floor is painted to look like the map of A City. As the Poet walks the room they stop at Significant Places and recite Poems about what they can remember.

An open mic. Famous Poems are read backwards.

Idea For A Poetry Show: a Silent Poetry Disco.

The Same Poem. One Poem and ten Poets are selected. Each Poet reads the selected Poem. Each reading produces differences: the ways the words are expressed; the unique places each Poet puts pauses and emphasis; the way the Poet stands; the way they breathe; the tone of their voice; the way they build their performance towards the conclusion; the way it ends; the way it begins again in the mouth of the next Poet.

A film Poem. A camera is elevated to the edge of the atmosphere. Prior to reaching the highest altitude it plans to reach, it begins to film. At the highest point, the camera is allowed to freefall back to Earth. In a Poetry Venue in A City, Poets compete to create the best improvised Poem to accompany the footage.

Idea For A Poetry Show: The Book of Revelation. The Poet parses the entire text of the Book of Revelation from The Bible until each clause contains an isolated identity. The Poet enters this into an Excel spreadsheet and crafts code which allows the clauses to be randomised. The Performance sees the Poet produce a randomised extract of this, a length of text that fits with the designated booking, which is then printed. The Poet begins to read. In the last five minutes smoke begins to fill the room. By the end of the performance the Poet has been consumed and all that remains is their voice, rising through it, louder and louder, until they are screaming, screaming, screaming.

A night of film Poems. Poets write Poems confessing to their deepest, darkest fears. Their words are anonymously given to a different Poet. These new confessions are filmed. The films are shown to an audience who do not know that the words of one Poet have been put in the mouth of another.

An open mic. The Poets are required to read Poems by writers they hate.

Steamed Hams. A Night of YouTube Poetry.

Regret. The Poet enters the room with a steely look on their face. The Poet speaks one word, “Regret”, over and over and over. They move from the stage to the floor, through the audience, and eventually back to the stage. As the Poet passes members of the audience, they selectively hand out folded pieces of paper which detail the Poet’s regrets.

An open mic. Each Poet performs 4’33” by John Cage.

The Metaphor Gym. A Poetry show, a world perhaps, crafted from the Kanye West tweet which read: “Truth is my goal. Controversy is my gym. I’ll do a hundred reps of controversy for a 6 pack of truth.”

A cabaret. Ghosts are summoned.

Dragon’s Pen. Poets stand before a panel of Poetry Publishers / Poetry Magazine Editors and pitch a Poem in the format of a Business Presentation. The Poem is not performed, and the Poet is only allowed to share a sample, two lines maximum, of the work in question. Using the language of business, the Poet must explain the merits of their work, the context in which it has been written, and its financial and literary value. The Poet must also barter away a portion of their future earnings / reputation / energy, and must do so in a manner that is acceptable to the Poetry Dragons.

The Haunted Poem. A Ghost Poem. Poetry is dead and it wants revenge.

An open mic. The Poets share their favourite vegetarian recipes.

Attention. The Poet will list, for an hour, the things they enjoy more than attention. They stand, in silence, for the entire hour.

Partner’s Complaint. A night of Spoken Word and Poetry written and performed by the long-suffering partners of Poets. Their work deals with the spectacular amount of bullshit that comes from dating someone who is a Poet.

Goth Dentist. Goth Dentist! Goth Dentist! Goth Dentist!

An open mic. Ghosts are summoned.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t Seen It. Poets create work based on a film or television series that they have not seen. From cultural osmosis, they do their best to explain the plot of the film or series in a Poetic mode of their choice. From these pieces, new worlds emerge, errors. Places that were hidden from view by the works being guessed at.

Poetry About Paintings About Historical Events That Have Had Poems Written About Them.

Tony Hawk Poe Skater: A Poetry Show hosted by a Poet on a skateboard.

Concrete Poetry. The Poet writes ghoulish realist Poems then throws the pages into the foundations of a newly built house.

The Poet gets everyone in A City to say one word at the same time.

A feature performance at a literary festival. Ghosts are summoned.

Wedding. The Poet goes to a wedding and avoids mentioning that they are a Poet as best they can. When People They Are With tell Relative Strangers that they are in fact A Poet, they must say something different each time. When they inevitably ask What Sort Of Thing Do They Write? Instead of answering honestly, they must tell everyone they meet something different, a new genre that they disingenuously inhabit: Magic Surrealism, Scottish Hyperbole, Experimental Gordian Knots, Sailing Limerick, Negligent Emotional Leftism, Goliath’s Chalice, The Retro-Futurist Enlightenment, Comma Maximalism, Verb Enhancement, Nu-LiPo, Concrete Brutalist Poetry, That’s So RaVillanelles, The Squandering, Post-Post-Post-Ironic, Graduate of the Poem University School of Cadence Dynamics, Non-Newtonian Poetics, Austenian Post-Referendum Neo-Classicism, etc. The Show gets glowing reviews but only The Poet is entertained.

Message in a Bottle. The Poet writes a Poem, rolls it up, and stuffs it in a glass bottle. The bottle is thrown into the ocean. On a beach in A Town far away, an audience gathers. When the bottle washes ashore, a member of the audience announces that they are A Poet. They pluck the bottle from the sand, pull out the Poem, and begin to read.

Idea For A Poetry Show: “Idea For A Poetry Show”. The Poet stands before an audience and reads out a list of “Ideas For A Poetry Show”. The Poet keeps reading until the audience is gone, the venue is closed, or until they become bored by the sound of their own voice.




Locker-Room Talk

While bird-watching from a blanket at the beach and later relaxing at a boardwalk table, I found myself in an all-male locker room. How was this possible? I’d never spent time inside one. My exposure was to the female-only kind, and even there, I kept my time to a minimum if I possibly could.

As a thirteen-year-old freshwoman at The Mary Louis Academy, I was assigned a locker in which I left my coat, regulation hat, notebooks, and sundries. We were expected to live by a long list of regulations and prohibitions spelled out in our TMLA Handbook. Among the many acts forbidden were talking in the locker room, talking in the halls between classes, and talking in the cafeteria until a nun shook a hand bell, a Pavlovian signal to rip into our bagged lunches.

The school locker room was located on the lower level of the 1930s Gothic building and smelled faintly of the sea – maybe from the dried sweat of past students who, like us, were required to change there from maroon uniforms into ludicrous turquoise gym bloomers. (I suppose they were all the rage in 1938, the year of the school’s founding.) The lockers’ metal doors clanged and rattled and marched in seemingly endless rows below a low ceiling, barely lit by low-watt incandescent bulbs.

Once on a rainy morning, a locker neighbor struck up a conversation with me as we struggled to remove our rubber boots. From out of the darkness, the perennially red-faced, six-foot-tall Prefect of Discipline swooped down on us, her black habit swelling like an angry bird. “NO TALKING!” she shrieked. The attack was so sudden and unexpected, I felt like Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s avian horror film. Summoning my courage, I offered in a small, apologetic voice, “Sorry, we didn’t know talking wasn’t allowed.”

“THAT IS A CULPABLE ACT OF IGNORANCE!” she responded with even greater fury, and condemned us to detention that day.

And so for me, talk itself can bear the weight of the forbidden, and talk in locker rooms is especially fraught. As for male locker rooms, they may as well be astronauts’ capsules – another world or the anteroom of another world that I prefer to keep sealed. A certain presidential candidate’s crude boasts about grabbing women’s genitals, dismissed as “just locker room talk,” reinforced my instinct to stay clear of them.

Back to the beach: blue skies, 78 perfect degrees. I’m mesmerized by a flock of hyper-energetic piping plovers running along the shoreline. Their tiny pumping legs are a blur of motion as they keep pace with the advancing and receding waves, which leave a bounty of morsels in their wake. But the tide is rising and moving closer to my isolated blanket, requiring me to drag it onto higher ground where most of the beach-goers have camped.

Immediately from behind me, I hear three voices bantering in easy, curse-filled male comradery.

“I was walking on the street in Amsterdam at night, smoking a joint and drinking beer, when a cop comes up to me,” one says.

“No fuckin’ way,” another answers.

“Right – turns out you can’t do that stuff on the street. Who knew?”

Their disembodied voices feel like discordant notes rising from an orchestra pit to distract me just as I’m trying to enjoy the Dance of the Plovers. The talk shifts to an update on Jim, someone they obviously all knew, but had lost touch with. The Amsterdam raconteur continues: “So his girlfriend dumps him for some other guy after he lived with her and her daughter for ten years. He practically raised that kid.”

“No fuckin’ way!”

“Yeah, and after she left him, he still paid her tuition out of his own pocket.”

“Are you serious? The bitch leaves him and he does that?” chimes in a third voice.

“Yeah, unbelievable, I know,” I hear the storyteller respond. “A really nice guy.”

“Jesus,” I hear, and think I detect an undertone of disdain mixed with incomprehension over the sainted Jim’s actions. No further discussion on the subject ensues, no questioning of his motives for staying and supporting the girl, or her motives for leaving him. I may be guilty of gender stereotyping, but I suspect that a female discussion would have dissected every aspect of the couple’s relationship.

The plovers take to the sky as if signaling that I, too, should be on my way. When I rise, I steal a glimpse behind me: two middle-aged guys on a blanket with a cooler and a tough-looking, burly man with a white beard sitting on a beach chair.

At a boardwalk table overlooking the beach where I sit to organize my belongings, I hear the surf, children at play, and a radio tuned to a baseball game – the classic, carefree sounds of summer. But above them all is the voice of a man on a cellphone sitting at the next table. He’s wearing the seasonal uniform: dark sunglasses, baseball hat turned backwards, baggy shorts, and T-shirt.

“Then I got this bill from Bloomingdale’s where she went shopping for the wedding,” I hear him say, his tone clearly aggrieved. “Three hundred dollars for the dress. And she told me she couldn’t decide on the shoes, so she just went ahead and bought both pairs. Meanwhile, nothing! Six months and no ass. Nothing. I told her ‘Put your hand on my cock. It works.’ Nothing.”

Pause.

“What do you mean, I shouldn’t talk like that?” He snorts and half-laughs, indignant. “How should I talk?”

“You shouldn’t talk at all,” I want to yell, then pounce, yanking the phone out of his hand and flinging it into the sand. “No talking is allowed in the locker room!” I want to give him detention. No, I want to empty the contents of his brain or scour it like waves pounding the rocks.

As I pass him, he’s still in agitated conversation, shaking his head and cursing bitterly over the woman who used him.




A Broke Girl’s Guide to Atlantic City

First, get a roommate who works for an airline company. Book a free, last-minute flight to Atlantic City. Your roommate could be a counter girl; the type who weighs checked bags, prints boarding passes. Bonus points if your roommate is equally excited to go somewhere for spring break, even if she isn’t in college herself. Your roommate will walk into your apartment. She will see you binge-watching Netflix on the couch, spooning your dog. She will tell you that you’re leaving for Atlantic City at nine that night. Groan as you get off the couch, semi-disappointed that your weekend’s plan of not leaving the couch will now be disrupted. Head to the bathroom to shower, curl your hair and coat on the makeup that you imagine accompanies a place like New Jersey. Apologize endlessly to your dog that the snuggle-fest is over for the moment.

Head to the airport with just your wallet, phone, and Starburst-flavored ChapStick. Your roommate’s friend will be at the ticket counter. He’ll hand her the boarding tickets. When your roommate sees the seat assignment, she’ll shriek. She’ll try to jump to the other side of the counter. She’ll decide to stay in the middle on the scale that’s meant to weigh bags. You’ll be in row 7, seats A and B. “Seven is my lucky number!” your roommate will say. “Oh, girl. You know what this means.” She’ll start to sing the part of Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk On A Plane” where he’s apparently also in seat 7A. You’ll barely hear her sing and shriek. You’ll be fixated on the low number the scale gives for your roommate’s weight.

Board your nine p.m. flight to Atlantic City. Tired golfers and retirees will stare at you and your roommate as you board. Fill the plane with your jittery energy from chugging two Red Bulls. Dressed for a night out while the rest of the plane will lean their heads back onto neck pillows, the crew will turn the cabin lights off. Your roommate will flash her Spirit Airlines nametag hoping for free drinks and snacks. Order two mini bottles of vodka, a can of orange juice. The older flight attendant will smile as she hears your story about how you’re heading to gamble for a few hours. She’ll give you some free peanuts. Chug your plastic cup full of the ice every article online tells you to stay away from, two mini bottles worth of vodka and a splash of OJ. Feel the heat rush to your face at 30,000 feet up from just one sip of alcohol. Realize that this is going to be a long night. Talk to your roommate about how you’ve both never done something this spontaneous before.

Land in Atlantic City. Try to find the cheapest way to get to the casinos. A man in a du-rag and fake leather Louis Vuitton jacket will try to lure you to his taxi stand. He’ll say that he’ll give you a cheap rate since he hasn’t had a customer to drive all day. Find a shuttle service where the woman seems to not really care if you take the shuttle or not. Choose to ride with her. Your roommate will need to go to the ATM first. Ask the police officer standing at the exit where one is. He’ll be the nicest person you’ll meet during your few hours in the state. At the ATM, the flight attendant who gave you free peanuts will pass by wheeling her small suitcase. She’ll stop; tell you girls to enjoy yourselves, but be careful. Your roommate will laugh while touching the woman’s wrist. She’ll tell the flight attendant that you know how to be safe. Force a smile at the flight attendant. Rub your palm onto your fake leather purse. Wait for the conversation to end, angry that your buzz wore off on the plane’s descent.

Board the shuttle with no idea which casinos to go to. A dreadlocked son will accompany a golfer father. They’ll be the only other passengers on the shuttle. They’ll tell the driver they’re going to the Borgata. Decide that that sounds like the place to go. You won’t know the location to any of the casinos in Atlantic City. Hear from the shuttle driver that most of the casinos on the strip are closed down; the three casinos separated from the strip are the only places worth going to. The shuttle driver will turn on the pop radio station. See dreadlocks begin to bob along to Taylor Swift. Throw your hands up and down in the air. Dance and sing along to the songs. Attempt to keep your energy up despite the down-pouring rain that will hit the shuttle.

Enter the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Your roommate will fist-pump and ask where Snooki is. You both will run around the fountain at the entrance; kids in a candy store. It’ll be your roommate’s first time in a casino. You love casinos. Addicted to them. Runs in your family. The sound of slot machines going off. People winning. People losing. The thick cloud of cigarette smoke that floats above. An adrenaline rush. When you register for your player’s card, the worker will tell you that this is the only casino in Atlantic City that is a Vegas-style casino. This will make you even more anxious to begin gambling. Your dream is to gamble in Vegas. That moment will be the closest to the real thing. You’ll look through the casino, trying to find a blackjack table. Lean forward onto your tiptoes. Try to peer over the first set of slot machines. See what’s beyond.

Play at the slot machines in front of the bar. Those will be the slots where they offer free alcohol while playing. Put ten dollars in the machine. Pull the lever extremely slow. Look around the section instead of at the spinning wheels in front of you. Search for a bartender to bring you a free drink. Two machines over, your roommate will try to put her player’s card into the machine. She’ll put the card over and over into each machine in the row. No success. Keep pulling the lever, waiting for your drink.

Notice a guy standing a few feet behind. He’ll be swirling red wine in his glass. Wearing a black button-down, dark wash jeans. Smoking a Cuban. He’ll have been watching your roommate struggle with her player’s card. He’ll decide to make his move. He’ll sit in the chair between you and your roommate. He’ll tell you that his name is Robert. That he’s in the city celebrating his friend Winston’s fortieth birthday. Your ten dollars will be gone in the slot machine. Robert will buy you and your roommate a drink. He’ll offer you a Cuban. Gladly take it. You’ll smoke three that night. Some Cheyenne cigarette-type cigars, too. Ones that a nice older woman at the roulette table will give you. She’ll also give you a full explanation about how the cigarettes are made, how they’re different from regular cigarettes, how difficult they are to find. Drunk you won’t care even slightly about how a cigarette is made. Sober you will be interested in how invested someone can be with their smoking. Robert will talk about how much money Winston makes, how much he’ll spend gambling without even blinking an eye. He’ll brag about his friend’s money as if it is his own. He’ll finally decide that you just have to meet Winston. Wonder how this split will go. Obviously it will be your roommate with one of them and you with the other. Wonder if you’ll get the one with the money or the one who brags about his friend’s money. You’ll not really want anything to do with either of them. Your roommate will seem interested and you won’t want to leave her alone. Flashback to an hour earlier when your roommate was talking to the stewardess. About how you know how to be safe.

Robert will ask what you do. Tell him you’re a writer. Not exactly a writer that’s worth any sort of damn, but one that’s trying to be. He’ll ask what kind of writer. Tell him nonfiction. You want to leave tonight with something to write about. He’ll tell you that you’ve picked the right person to be around if you want a story. He’ll make it his goal for the night to give you something to write about. Assume that now this’ll mean you’re with Robert for the night. Your roommate will get Winston. Robert will ask you if your roommate’s boobs are real. Say yes. He’ll tell you that he would ask you, but he already assumes that your boobs are real. Your roommate is skinny with large boobs, so she usually gets that assumption. You’re semi-chubby with semi-large boobs, so it’s natural to assume that they’re real, you’ll guess. Realize that even though Robert is hanging out with you, he’d rather be with your roommate. This is usually the situation that you find yourself in. Later Robert will get drunk. He’ll keep asking you about your boobs. Assume that in his eyes your boobs grow a cup size with every shot. Your roommate will drunkenly tell everyone in earshot that you had a breast reduction. This will make Robert more interested in you. He’ll fantasize about being able to see your scars, thinks that they’ll be hot. Stare at his wedding ring. He’ll practically beg you to just show him one. Later, he’ll add you on Snapchat in hopes that you’ll send him some nudes one day. His wife won’t know he has the app. He’ll say it’s okay. He’ll ask, “Isn’t that what Snapchat is for?”

Head to different slot machines walking side-by-side with Robert. Your roommate will skip hand-in-hand with Winston. She’ll ignore all of her texts from her boyfriend. They’ll take you to the dollar slot machines. You’ve never played before these before. Your Grammie taught you how to play slots, told you to never play anything higher than the penny slots. It’s just not worth it. Robert will tell you to sit down in front of the slot machine. Watch as he’ll put three hundred dollar bills into the machine. He’ll tell you to bet five dollars at a time. Watch as the money on the screen in front of you dwindles away. Sit there and pull the lever over and over again mindlessly. Press different row and dollar combinations, trying every option available. Gamble away all of the money. Robert will ask what game you want to play next.

Head to the roulette table. Robert and Winston will each throw down a few hundred dollars. Stand there. Smoke Cubans. Shout out numbers for them to bet on. Say four. Your favorite number, it’s the day your birthday falls on. Winston will think four sounds like a strong number. He’ll slide two hundred dollars in chips onto the number. The ball won’t land on four. Winston won’t care less. He’ll ask you for another number to bet on. Decide to shout out random numbers, not caring whether or not he wins. You and your roommate won’t put effort into the bets you’ll convince the men to make. They’ll be able to tell. Robert will make a deal with you. Any money that you’ll win from gambling at blackjack will be yours to keep.

Head to the blackjack table. Watch in amazement, once again, as Robert will throw down five hundred dollar bills. He’ll tell you to sit. He’ll say he’s your coach when you don’t know what move to make next in the game. Throw a twenty-five dollar chip onto the bet circle. You’ll get blackjack on your very first hand. Robert will rub your back and tell you to just “keep it up.” He’ll slip the winnings into your purse. Feel guilty taking any money. Try to put the chips from your purse back onto the table. He’ll tell you not to try that again. Keep betting, increasing the bet amount with each hand. Eventually you’ll be winning one-hundred-and-fifty-dollar hands. The men at the table will buy you drinks; you’ll be strong competition. The casino will have to change the dealer three different times because you’ll be winning so much. They’ll be down about three thousand dollars at one point because of how much the table will be winning. Go to the bathroom with your roommate. Tell Robert not to take your place, not to jinx the winning streak that you’ll have created. Your roommate will dump out your purse. Count the chips in the sink. See how much you’ll have won so far. Seven hundred and fifty dollars. Cup your hands around the green chips, barely able to hold them all.

Walk back to the blackjack table. You’ll see that Robert lost all of the money that was left on the table while you were gone. Scold him for losing his own money, not listening to you when you said for him not to gamble. He’ll tell you that he has a new idea, a way for you to make some money. He’ll want you to leave with a good story, at least one thousand dollars in your purse. Walk to the bar with Robert, your roommate and Winston. Order a Jack & Coke and a shot of Fireball. Robert will hand you the drinks. The Jack & Coke will look normal. The Fireball will fill a rocks glass halfway and look unusually milky. Rise up your rocks glass to meet the other three shots waiting. Your roommate will yell, “Happy birthday to Winston!” Before anyone can take the shots, decide this is the perfect time to call out your regular toast. Stare into the cloudy Fireball. Wish it were its regular color. Holler out, “Here’s to honor: get on her, stay on her, if you can’t cum in her, cum on her!” Throw your head back. Down the shot in three large gulps. Keep drinking every shot and whiskey drink that Robert will hand your way. You won’t feel drunk enough for the amount of alcohol that you’ll consume in a few short hours. Your roommate will be trashed. She can’t really handle alcohol since she usually just smokes weed. She’ll ramble on and on to Winston about how much she wants a boob job. He’ll reply that if she keeps hanging around him, he’ll pay for it.

Robert will ask you what your ethnicity is. Tell him you’re Portuguese and French. He’ll ask what your roommate is. Tell him she’s mixed. He’ll reply that that’s very “in” right now. Laugh. Hear Winston, as he’ll try to take your roommate to his hotel room to smoke some weed. Hope that she says no. Robert will think that you’ll be equally as drunk as your roommate. He’ll finally bring up how you can make more money.

“You know, I really have a thing for feet. Does that turn you on?”

Tell him no, not really. You’ve never experienced someone with a foot fetish.

“I bet you have some nice feet. Can I … just … touch them?”

You’ll be curious about this whole foot fetish thing, so you’ll agree. He’ll begin to rub your feet through your black tights. He’ll rub in circles around your anklebones and feel the length of every toe.

“Oh. These are nice. What would you say if I offered you … five thousand dollars … to have sex with your feet and cum on your toes? It’s kinda my thing. I’d rather do that than regular sex.”

Drunk you will pause and think about how you haven’t gotten a pedicure in months.

“Okay. What if I go down on you? Then have sex with your feet? Is that worth five thousand dollars?”

You’ve never had someone willing to pay you to go down on you (really though, has anyone?). Sober you will wish that you took the money and let him fuck your toes for five minutes. Drunk you will look at your roommate, so open and willing to believe everyone is a good person. You’ll notice that Winston is also married as he talks about his wife. Apparently she’s Russian, so he’ll say, “that pussy’s right.”

Smoke another Cuban as you walk back to gamble away the rest of Robert’s money. You’ll rather bet two-hundred-dollar hands than walk out with extra money. Decide to play craps. Know this’ll be an immediate mistake. You’ve never played craps before. You won’t even know how the game works. Start throwing chips onto the table. Trust that wherever they land is the right place. The dealer will ask you where you want the bets to be placed. Point to different places on the green. Gamble away close to five hundred dollars. Get the phone call that the shuttle you scheduled is outside waiting.

Say bye to Robert and Winston. Your roommate will exchange numbers with Winston. Don’t give Robert your number. Say your phone is dead. He’ll realize you won’t see each other again. Your roommate will hug Winston goodbye. Slightly wave bye to Robert. Leave no room for hints of nonexistent desire.

Head to the cashier’s counter. Cash in the chips that remain in your purse. You’ll feel guilty. Better free money than toe-sex money.




Litro #172: Addiction

Cover Art: by Elias Simes

Contents:

Letter from the Editor Eric Akoto

The Earth at Her Feet by Ishita Marwah

I Shall Not Want by Wendy Cobourne

d Fec by Luke Melia

Dust and Needles by Tabatha Stirling

Back to White by Rob True

The Body is a Battlefield by Jenny Valentish

The 12 Steps by Kelly Lyles

Interview with Janelle Hanchett

Welcome to The Addiction issue Litro#172.

Litro’s mission is to find the best and most exciting new voices in fiction and non-fiction and give them a platform for their work. To read work from other writers to watch, get our All-Access membership for subscription to our print magazine and unlimited online access.




Back to White

Pic Credits: Tink Tracy https://goo.gl/f3DbmA

Locked in the bog shooting coke, one hit after another. Anyone who’s banged up pure cocaine in the vein knows the madness. I ain’t touched this shit for one whole year, since I got put in the nuthouse. Quieting my mind with heroin and valium. Beats the anti-psychosis drugs they put me on. Chlorpromazine, chemical lobotomy. Shuffling feet and dribble. That’s about it on Chlorpromazine. Anyway, that was then.

I thought I could shift this coke and make some money to buy more heroin. So, I get hold of some proper gear like I used to get before I fucked up.

I met this kid from somewhere, fancied himself as a bit of a hippy. Thought I was cool for some reason and latched onto me.

This happened a few times with these sorts. It was like they admired me for being strange, as if they thought I had the key to a different path, but they didn’t realise that I was a cunt. The only path I ever lead anyone down was the path to Hell and the only door I had a key to no one should open.

This particular one wanted to sing the blues, played guitar. But he came from a comfortable background. Had money given to him he hadn’t earned, didn’t deserve and he had no life experience, no hard luck. Nothing bad had ever happened to him and he had never done anything bad either, so there was nothing for him to sing about. All this he complained to me about on quite a few occasions, so I helped him out.

I talked him into giving me money to buy coke to sell and split the profit. He agreed, so I got the gear and knocked him. I think that sorted out most of his complaints, but he didn’t see it that way.

So, I had this gear and I knew it was good, but I had to go and try it. And that was it. One little sniff and I can’t stop. That stuff drives me fucking crazy.

Out came the works and I started injecting the whole fucking lot. I hadn’t sold any! What a clown.

Of course, the hallucinations return and I’m round the fuckin’ bend. And here I am in the toilet with some bitch banging on the door shouting.

—What are you doing in there? Hurry up! Get out!

—Fuck off, I’m having a shit!

I’m trying to get in one last fix. I don’t know how long I’ve been in there. I know I should stop, shoot some smack and calm down, but I’m out of my mind and this cunt is screaming on the other side of the door. So, I come out, strip naked, pick up a claw hammer and walk out the house down the road to the tube station. I get to the main road.

What the fuck am I doing?

I start walking back up my road, but of course now all the neighbours have come out and everybody’s looking at me with my shrivelled-up cock, like I’m the naked madman, and I am. Someone’s called the police and I go back to the house. One of the girls I live with is surprised and lets me in. She looks embarrassed. I smile her a maniac’s grin and go to get dressed, then leave again. The old bill are there.

Somebody points at me and the copper asks,

—Excuse me sir, were you just walking about without any clothes on?

—No. I just come from down there, I say, pointing down the road, glazed eyes, fixed grin. Obviously lying, but what could they do? I walk off and get the bus.

Later on, mad-moon in the sky. Lunatic on the floor. Spoon, syringe, bag open, shot after shot after shot. Madness, I can’t control. Monsters back to haunt me.

Who am I? Fuck knows!

Vision blurred, shadows watching, spiders in my skin. I shoot too much and go over. I know it’s too much looking at it, but I do it anyway for some reason I don’t know. It goes in and my head feels like it’s going to take off without my body. My heart going crazy, stopping and starting, mad beat again.

I look around the room and all these people with monkey heads and lizard heads, sitting around on chairs looking down on me. They’re blowing party horns at me, the paper unrolling, making that irritating tooting noise and there’s a strange tinkling music, and all I can think is,

Where did all these people come from?

I must have blacked out.

Next thing I know I’m lying face down and still alive.

Why am I still alive? I can’t fucking die! God knows I’ve tried to die.

*

Rob True is a contributor to A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology, edited by Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert, to be published by Unbound next year and crowdfunding now. You can pledge to buy a book or support someone in recovery here: https://unbound.com/books/recovery/; fifty per cent of editors’ profits will go to St Mungo’s and Hackney Recovery Service. 




Interview with Janelle Hanchett

Janelle Hanchett created the website Renegade Mothering in 2011 because she needed to know if the rest of the mothering world was crazy or she was. Writing after her kids went to bed and while she was supposed to be working, Janelle attracted an audience of hundreds of thousands of readers. She holds a BA in English from University of California at Davis and an MA in Eng­lish literature from Sacramento State. She lives in northern California with her four children and husband, Mac, who thinks “getting dressed up” means shaving his forearm tattoo. Her memoir of addiction and recovery, I’m Just Happy To Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering, was published by Hachette Books this year.

Litro: So … what’s your poison? (Or what were your poisons, I guess.)

I suppose it shifted over time. Beer and psychedelics in high school. Wine, whiskey, and cocaine in adult life. Eventually, I was more of a garbage disposal, an indiscriminate sub­stance user. But alcohol was always my stronghold, my best friend, until it turned on me.

Litro: You have a blog, “Renegade Mothering”, as well as a book – what’s the re­lationship between them and the difference in writing the two?

I began writing after being reunited with my family after a two-year separation. I was almost two years sober when I started writing the blog, 31 years old with two young chil­dren and a baby. I sort of woke up dropped into motherhood, or that’s how it felt. I had tech­nically been a mother for nine years, but I wasn’t engaged and awake. I was drunk. Sober, I looked around the mothering world for somebody writing or talking about my experience – which was a deep gratitude alongside a deep and relentless boredom and sense of erasure – and I couldn’t find it. So I started writing what I wanted to read, which Toni Morrison talks about. The blog made sense in the context of my life: I could write when the kids went to bed, whenever I wanted, for no stakes. It was informal and easy. At the time, I was working thirty hours a week and attending graduate school while my husband worked as an ironworker two hours away. I didn’t have time for fancy essays and formality. We knock blogs in the literary world, but in many ways the medium has served as a sort of “room of one’s own” for mothers.

In November 2015, an agent found my blog and offered me representation. In April 2016, I had a book deal. The book is the sort of backstory of my irreverent mothering blog. More than anything, I hear readers ask, “How do you say the things we’re all thinking but don’t have the courage to say?” Well, this book is how. But it’s quite a deviation from “mom­my blogging.” I never delved into the story of my addiction and recovery. There wasn’t space in the blog. And the blog is written in a colloquial, fast, in-your-face tone and voice. A blog captures readers for five minutes. If I wrote an entire book in that voice, people would want to punch me in the teeth by page twenty. Asking somebody to hang out with you for 300 pag­es is a different beast, requiring a more measured tone.

Litro: Supposedly addicts have to hit rock bottom before they can pick them­selves up. What’s the view like from down there; how do you find hope?

It’s interesting how we interpret this “rock bottom” concept in relation to addiction. We tend to understand it in terms of externalities: lost home, job, family, etc., but it’s more an internal bottom, an ontological bottom, where everything you thought you knew about yourself turns out to be wrong (that’s a paraphrase of Baldwin). The external results of drug addiction have more to do with race and class than they do with individuals or even depth of addiction. Here in America, if I were a black woman, or in poverty, my consequences would have looked very different. This isn’t because I managed my disease better, or am a more mor­ally sound person, or less sick. I was pulled over twice for drunk driving and they let me off both times. I was once driving in a poor, urban, predominately black neighborhood after pur­chasing cocaine, and a cop started tailing me. I thought, “Well, here we go. I’m going to jail.” But his lights never went on. Turns out he was escorting me to the freeway. As I got on the on-ramp, he stuck his arm out his window and waved to me. He wanted to make sure the little white girl was safe. I didn’t earn that. But that’s how I avoided jail, or losing my kids to the state. I had a family with some means who could send me to rehab, and take my children when I couldn’t care for them.

I think this bottom has to occur for a person in late-stage alcoholism or other ad­diction, because we’re always posturing. We’re blaming others and scheming to avoid real re­flection on our own powerlessness over the substance. Eventually, for some of us, the lucky ones, we reach a point when there’s nothing and nobody left to blame, and we give up fight­ing. It’s funny, as I mentioned in the book, I was always “fighting” my addiction. It was in the surrender, when I knew I was licked, that I found some peace, and long-term sobriety. It wasn’t that I couldn’t drink. It was that I couldn’t not drink. It’s weird and counterintuitive, because here I am, nine years later, not drinking. But it required for me a sort of turning over of control, a reliance on something other than my brain that constantly suggested a shot of whiskey was a good idea.

Litro: Would you say you are a spiritual or religious person? Is faith or spiritu­ality or whatever on some level a necessary tool for a recovering addict, even if they’re a hard-nosed atheist or rationalist?

At the risk of sounding like a woo-woo in yoga pants, I suppose I will say I am “spirit­ual.” Definitely not religious. I’m a seeker of truth, and I don’t care where it comes from. Art­ists, writers, singers, saints, the nutcase on the street corner. I read texts from every religion, but have no interest in the dogma, ritual, or political bastardization of spiritual messages. America is demonstrating this with white evangelicals and their support of Trump at a level that feels hyperbolic. Absolutely inane. They call themselves followers of Jesus yet their entire belief system is rooted in hate and fear. It’s spectacular to watch them idolize Trump, a man who appeals to our basest selves, as if he is God, or sent from God. What a pathetic, small God that must be, if Trump’s his guy. But none of that matters if you’re coming from a place of fear and hate and nonsense “patriotism.” One doesn’t have to look past one’s ego, which I think is the job of spirituality, of any belief in God. To make us kinder people, to connect us more fully with one another. If it’s not doing that, it’s useless.

I would never attempt to say how other addicts need to recover. I only know how I did. I was raised Mormon, but sort of Mormon-light, with a non-Mormon father and ex­tended family, but I left the church at fifteen and never returned. I thought I was an atheist, very intellectual, but mostly I just made “no God” my new God. I made myself my God. My intellect. My thoughts. That failed me rather miserably. It was a lonely place, and I was ter­rible at running the show. I suppose you could say I “found God” in the darkest moment of my life, a sort of death of self, but I don’t know how I’d define that “God.” Something out­side myself that means something, I guess. The ocean. Redwoods. Gravity. The unknown. I don’t care if there’s a god or not. I just know my life got better when I surrendered to the uni­verse, to that which is.

Litro: You write about some pretty low moments in your life … is it difficult to be honest in writing stuff like this?

Some of the sections were absolutely brutal to write, and they’re still brutal to read. I still can’t read them without crying. Occasionally while writing, I’d think, “You can’t say that out loud.” But I’d answer myself back by saying, “Well, Janelle, you’re either going to tell the truth or you’re not.” There was no point in writing this book if I wasn’t going to tell the truth. Part of what I’m responding to is the glossing over and softening of mother addicts, of our in­sistence upon the children “healing” us. If I engaged in the same sort of softening, what was the point of writing it? I either told the story truthfully or I left it out. I was adamant about that. But I was trying to be of service to others, not soothe myself.

Litro: It’s as much a book about being a mother as an addict… So would you of­fer our readers some Helpful Parenting Advice?

The tagline of my blog is “Join me in the fight against helpful parenting advice,” so I’m probably not a great person to ask, but obviously that’s tongue-in-cheek. I think I would say, “You have everything you need to parent the children you’ve been given.” Sometimes it all feels so massive and I feel so wildly unprepared, inadequate, or just not cut out for it. My midwife told me that once. It’s helped a lot.

Litro: What’s your thoughts on addiction more generally, socially and politically? Like how sick is society right now?

Well, I’m in America, where a barely literate, racist, pussy-grabbing former reality-TV star was elected President, so I’d say we’re pretty fucking sick. He has activated and brought to the forefront the most miserable among us. Everything he does activates our basest selves: ego, fear, nationalism, hate. The rich love him for the tax cuts. The poor whites love him for the racism and empty promise of “jobs.” But they don’t look at data, at facts, at how they’re getting seriously played. They think he’s the speaker of ultimate Truth, and they don’t look past that. They exist in the most profound state of solipsism, to the point of virtually no log­ic or reason. It’s all to serve their pathetic “patriotism,” which as Trump creates it, is about as anti-democratic as you can get.

Anyway, part of capitalism’s job is to create a gaping hole in us that it then offers to fill with the next toy. We work endlessly at inane jobs for ridiculous pay, hustle for basic health­care, and convince ourselves that the next boat or car or a bigger TV will make it all mean something. I suppose addiction is a byproduct of that seeking, that desire for wholeness and meaning.

Litro: You mentioned the question you get asked the most – what’s one people never think to ask, because they’ve not been through what you have?

People deep down insist upon the role of willpower in recovery from late-stage addic­tion. I find myself constantly trying to explain that my power was found in surrender. But that’s something nobody will understand unless they’ve lived it, and nobody wants to be­lieve it, because no power is wildly unpleasant. We all want to believe our loved ones can set their minds to it and fix their addictions. In my experience it was more about abandoning the mind and recognizing that I will never “fix” it.

Litro: Who are your favourite writers, and what have you stolen from them?

I know as a good feminist I’m supposed to hate him, but early on, it was decidedly Hemingway. I read The Sun Also Rises and saw myself in Brett Ashley. I had no idea writing could be like that. The sparse prose. The poetics in so few words and the repetition of syntax and diction. I read everything he wrote one book after another. Later, Jane Austen, Toni Mor­rison, Emily Dickinson. The past few years, James Baldwin. He was a prophet and a mystic as much as writer. I read words by him and cannot believe they’re real, they’re so spectacularly true. He saw and spoke right from the core of humanity. He almost makes other writers im­possible to read. That’s probably just me. Maybe I have a little obsession.

Litro: What are you working on right now?

I am working on a pilot. I’m signed with 3 Arts Entertainment, which produces fabu­lous TV shows, so that’s what I’m focusing on now. It’s quite a switch from a memoir, but re­freshing to write fiction. I believe this book was the book I had to write before I could write anything else, so I look forward to what’s to come.

I’m Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering is out now.




From Dust and Needles – A Memoir

Pic credits: Josh Tremper https://goo.gl/SC1aJA

Breaths and Breaths and Breaths

The squat is full of people, hyenas circling all of us. They come with their needs and their wants. They come to collect and deliver. I’m feeling shaky. I’m feeling very shaky.

Last night I went back to the Camden flat for a quick bath and a change of clothes and Ian pinned me against the wall and yanked my sleeves up. He was checking for tracks.

It felt violent. He felt violent, as if I had personally let him down.

I remember pulling my top up and flashing my tits and saying Do you want to check these out too?

Why did I do that?

He’s only trying to redeem me.

But I am past redemption.

I am past my sell-by date.

You really disgust me, he said, and walked away, and I laughed.

FuckyouFuckyouFuckyou.

I walk up to my bedroom. The hellhole I still pay rent for, or to be more specific, that my Father still pays rent for. I slouch on the floor and look around for something of interest. Aled must have returned from his field trip from Russia. Clothes and books are scattered everywhere. I examine his underwear for hairs. I find some long silky blonde strands. Ha! He’s fucked some Russian bitch. I felt not one millisecond of sympathy for the other bitch, the one he left me for. I only have sympathy for myself now. Or is it pity? I search through his travel case and eventually find something useful. A full bottle of over-proof Russian Vodka. I smile. Vodka is not even my poison. I am a Jack and Coke girl. Uncle Jack makes me crazy and I love it. I mean normally if you get pissed and make a fool out of yourself people say She got pissed and behaved badly. But when you get hammered on Uncle Jack everything is forgivable. I got fucked up on Jack. Cooooool. Like you’re some kind of hero. But it’s alcohol and it’s Aled’s prize and so I want it. I snap the cap and take an almighty great swig. Wowthatburnslikeamuthafuka, I say aloud to the empty room and hit the floor twice with my foot in a parody of a Texan Rodeo Star.

I hold the bottle by its neck the way they do in the movies and slouch around looking for more mischief. I see an essay all ready for marking. The legal implications of something or other. My hand becomes automatic. I have no control over it at all. It picks up the coffee cup filled with cold old arabica bean juice and tips it slowly at an angle.

I remember this cup had a bright blue glaze and I watch fascinated as it swirls over the papers raping and looting and pillaging all the sooty ink. It is a completely ruinous gesture and so is the essay. Guilt starts to tap at the door. I take another few swigs of voddy.

Must be days since I last ate but I like feeling hungry. I get this incredible kick out of the gnawing hole that appears in my stomach. I like the controlled act of refusing myself nourishment. I like the dizziness and sense of achievement. I just fucking love being thin.

It’s probably time to leave. I’ve still got the vodka bottle by its neck and begin to sass out of the door pretending I am a movie extra in Sunset Boulevard and decide to walk back to the squat. It’s only a mile or so and the exercise will do me good.

Ha! I start walking and swigging at the same time. It occurs to me that I am feeling pretty fucking drunk. I feel I could conquer the world. I’m invincible. I have a supervillain complex. I’m looking into the shadows and trying to read them like tarot cards. I wiggle my fingers at them and they nip at the flesh. Pull my mittens on. They are red just like Little Red Riding Hood. Her and me have a lot in common. We both have wolves at our door.

Then I see this police van coming towards me. I can’t resist and do something very, very stupid. I give them the finger. But because I’m wearing mittens I think they can’t see what I am trying to do and I watch them drive past and laugh so much I am almost sick. Fucking idiots. Then I hear a screech of brakes and spin round. The bastards are doing a three-point turn and the Met are coming to fuck me up. I hold my breath for a second and then leg it.

I run quickly up the street and take a chance on a small grubby housing estate. In the middle of a barely lit parking area dominated by the skeletons of Ford Fiestas I notice a grubby white van. I crawl very carefully, very quickly underneath, making sure that the vodka is safe by stashing it behind one of the wheels. I pull myself up underneath the van and turn my head, so I can catch the whole show. There’s a lot of raucous, furious noise and then four meaty fuckers pile into the parking lot brandishing extended night sticks.

The meanest looking one, with his shirtsleeves pulled up is shouting, Let’s get that little bitch, when I’ve finished with her she’ll be fucking toast. Yes, he’s really that clichéd and I have to stifle a giggle. The ugliest one replies with I’m going to shove my dick so far up her arse she’ll be giving me a blowjob at the same time.

Now I’m frightened. I mean, I’ve talked the talk about the police, slagging them off with the best of them. Chortled about fried bacon and oinking and every porcine simile I could think of. But up until that point my conditioning has always let me respect them secretly. I now realise that they mean business and that every horror story I have ever heard about the Met is true.

I try to become part of the undercarriage. I try to merge into metal and become oblong and tubular. And I hardly breathe. I try to meditate but end up crying. I think about how young I am and poor me poor me poor me. And the irony of being unable to accept responsibility for all my shit is totally lost on me.

Time passes, and the swearing has stopped, so I think the cops have left, which is a good thing because then my arms give up and I fall with a thud into an oil patch and something else like that smells like rot and jizz, but my vodka is still in one piece so there’s that.

I crawl on hands and knees through the slippery black oil, mucous, dog shit, and I really don’t care. I am alive. I am not toast. I have not been fucked in the ass. Grateful for small mercies I gulp and gulp from the bottle. Need to get back to the squat because I can feel the “jonesing” beating my serotonin back, pulling and pushing and stretching my nerve ends.

Feeling edgy and odd I pretend to be a secret agent trying to reach the safe house. I’m exhausted, but feel this thick terror that tells me if I stop moving even for a second I’ll lose my grip on the single thread of the hemp cord that keeps me from falling into the pit.

I’d started thinking about heaven and God. I’d always pictured God as this sweet old man who smiles benignly at you from over a golden staff. It’s an image to make feminists eat themselves like an Ouroboros but it’s an image that’s always given me comfort. But I’m anxious that I’d not be let in, that I’m just not good enough for eternal peace. That I’ll forget the password or behave inappropriately in front of St Peter.

But I know I was good on the inside once and that if you dug deep enough through the rot and decay I was essentially a good girl.

*

Last Orders

I enter the squat by the basement door hoping to slip in anonymously. Feeling wretched and itchy for a spliff I don’t see the solitary figure who sits at the broken table drinking out of a cracked cup. Oh! It’s lovely Johnny who I fucked in a bath at a party once. It was good, and I was Oh! So sexy drunk.

And I remember coming down the stairs soaked through and giving some half-arsed account to Aled about the torrential rain outside. Johnny smiles at me and I feel a glow of warmth before I notice the pity in his eyes and the glow is frozen out by humiliation.

I don’t have the energy to explain that I’m okay really. That I just look like shit but really, I’m still pretty inside. I try a half-smile and move on up the filth-encrusted stairs until I find myself outside Face’s door. Nobody ever enters his room. But that’s an indication of how needy I have become.

His floor is a collage of cockroach-brown filters and spoons. He acknowledges my presence with just a blink of his eyes and I feel wanted again. This is how worthless I have become. That an involuntary eye spasm from another junkie makes me feel worthwhile. His room is so quiet – somber, crypt-like. Face has some works stuck in his arm. He’s withdrawing blood and syringing it onto the walls like a freaky cave painting. There is nothing else to do but leave.

I watch dawn break over the high rises of London. I feel the agony and ecstasy of a girl who wants to be a girl again. The addict in me only tolerates this for a few minutes but for a short while I pretend that I can start again. I could be fresh. I could be the girl I started as. But my body betrays me and sends the twitches and I am too weak, too sad, too fucking everything to say no.

I could walk away and go cold turkey in Tara’s back bedroom. Puke and shit the toxins out over days. Claw my way back to health. I smile at the image and shake my head as if I have just heard something particularly wry and unobtainable.

I pick up the dirty works beside me and search for a vein, feeling comforted by the ritual. The snap of the rubber cord – the bulge of vein – the hitch of my breath when the needle finds the sweet spot.

And then it’s gone. The fear, the anxiety, the self-hatred, the panic, the rapes, the beatings, the spit and swallow and the demons that catcall in my head – all swept away in a current of molten syrup.

And then there’s nothing.

*

Tabatha Stirling is a contributor to A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology, edited by Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert, to be published by Unbound next year and crowdfunding now. You can pledge to buy a book or support someone in recovery here: https://unbound.com/books/recovery/; fifty per cent of editors’ profits will go to St Mungo’s and Hackney Recovery Service. 




The 12 Steps

This series of twelve narrative paintings of drunks and junkies attempts to bring a more personal face to addiction, illustrating some all-too-familiar scenarios of alcohol and drug abuse. I am a recovering alcoholic/addict with over thirty-two years “clean and sober”, thus aware that the issue affects huge segments of the population, either personally or in relationships. Therefore these are both universal and personal statements, combining humour/pathos in themes common to the disease. I’d like to both shock and amuse the viewer, familiarizing them and in this way desensitizing the issue, and ideally removing some of the stigma. Most alcoholics can say “been there, done that” on far too many of these scenarios, so in recovery there’s as much laughter as tears at our common stories…

In terms of content “The 12 Steps” hearken to Edgar Degas’ “The Absinthe Drinker” and Edouard Manet’s “Un Bar Aux Folies-Bergeres”, among others. The titles in sparkling letters are reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics and early Christian reflective surfaces. “Glitter as it were with rays of light”, a visual allusion to the illusory beauty, drama and flashiness promised – but rarely delivered – by drugs and alcohol.

*

ZZZZZZZZ

*

Where’s The Car?

*

You Have The Right To Remain Silent

*

Life of The Party

*

I’ll Be a Little Late

*

Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty

*

Public Indecency

*

Ladies Night

*

Uhh, Will You Take A Check?

*

How Do You Spell Relief?

*

Who Are You?

*

Seclusion




I Shall Not Want

Pic credits: Roberto García Ruiz

My life is rolling along at high speed without me, always just out of reach, like a tumbleweed somersaulting through the Painted Desert. Time is in a hurry to lose me, and I can’t keep up anymore. Tonight I stop running for good.

I can hear my mother in the hallway as I sit in my room of one’s own, planning to come to terms with my wayward self. Instead I find myself counting how many times the cursor on my laptop flashes in one minute, and then I start pondering the language of numbers. I conclude that math is trustworthy, dependable, stable. It lacks frailty, the passion of subjectivity. It lacks any flaws. Like my mother, math is always right.

Mom opens my bedroom door without knocking and chirps a goodnight-honey.

“Where were you all day?” she asks.

I did go cash my unemployment check, but there are hours I don’t account for. I don’t tell her where all my money went, and now my mother is jonesing. She needs a facts-fix so she can worry accordingly. I refuse to oblige her, though, because for God’s sake I’m a middle-aged woman. I don’t say a word because she hoards tidbits of information about my life and then uses them to concoct desperate stories about my doomed future. Sometimes it takes a week to deprogram her imagination.

Silently, I turn my attention to the muted TV, to CNN’s footage of the latest natural disaster.

“That’s another sign of Armageddon, you know,” she says. “Can’t you see that all these earthquakes and tsunamis and floods are the handiwork of Satan? Read your Bible!”

“Mom, I’m busy.”

“Yeah, doing what?”

“Praying.”

“You better be praying that you don’t end up homeless after I’m gone.”

“Oh my god, please.” I sigh. I roll my eyes. I drop my shoulders in defeat. I hold my breath until she’s done staring me down, until she leaves the room, and I can shut the damn door. She’s got a point, but that’s another story.

Though it’s not, really.

I get back to what I was doing before she barged in, before I went off on a mental tangent. I turn my chair around so I’m facing my desk, and I look into a tiny video camera that I imagine is mounted on my laptop to document my imminent self-intervention. I don’t know how to begin, and my wired mind starts wandering again. I look around the room.

“Everything in here is blue,” I lament to the camera. “Blue carpet. Blue walls, blue bedspread, blue curtains. When I had to move back in here last year, I thought that the room needed more blue in order to finish me off once and for all. So I brought in the blue door.”

I get up and get a piece of 3-D artwork off the wall and carefully hold it in front of the camera. It’s one foot wide and two feet tall, and it’s heavy. The blue-painted plank is adorned with an antique doorknob and a rusty but functional hinge. The moon and stars glitter in the night sky over several smaller doors made of wood, metal, glass, and paper, each with a tiny window, welcome mat, and porch light. The main entrance of the piece is a front door flanked on one side by a miniature mailbox painted in Van Gogh colors and on the other by a tree of fishes. A tiny bejeweled key is waiting on the doorstep.

“It’s an interactive piece, see? Each little door opens to reveal whatever secret is inside.” I demonstrate by opening the main door. “It says, ‘Look for the way out before venturing in.’ Aesop.” I pause. “Should have paid attention to that one.” Then I pull a yellow scroll from the little mailbox and read the message from Picasso: “‘Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.’”

I made the Doors of Divine Options back when I stopped going to work. Before my husband abandoned me, before I was evicted and had to move into my mother’s spare bedroom. Now I spend my days hiding the illicit nature of my everyday life.

But tonight I’m going to stop all that. I am going to take the last step out of denial. I’m ready to say this is the last time for the last time. I am determined to talk myself into doing the right thing. By admitting my secret out loud I will make a gigantic cathartic leap and finally catch up with my fugitive former self without having to pay the dignity tax that a public confession entails. Otherwise I will never get to the point of redemption.

I can get straight on my own. In twenty-five words or less.

Right after I do my last hit.

“Okay. This is really The Last Time,” I say to the imaginary camera. I snort the rest of my coke, lick the baggie, and I’m immediately consumed by the overwhelming need to do more.

“No, no more! That was really the last time!”

An awful dread grips me. My head is noisy with ugly words competing for exposure, but I cannot bring myself to utter them, cannot bear to hear them.

Liar!

Fuck-up!

Loser!

I clamp my hands over my ears, holding in the words screaming in my head.

Coke-head!

Addict!

I try to swallow the hard lump of grief that’s growing in my throat so I can get the words out. But I just stare mutely at the camera, paralyzed, so great is the mounting pressure of what’s become a lonely, excruciating moment of shame. I’m losing it, like a director who is running out of light before filming the final, crucial scene.

My last bit of hope vanishes in a pathetic whimper.

“OhGodhelpmeplease! God!”

But I know He’s not coming for me, not tonight.




The Earth at Her Feet

Pic Credits: Vinoth Chandar https://goo.gl/3eP7Yx

I no longer remember why, and I no longer remember exactly when, but at some point when Shoni and I were still in school, me in the early years of lower secondary, Shoni still in the primary section, maybe because Mummy was in the big hospital being operated for appendicitis, or perhaps because Dada was being slowly killed by a cancer far up in the crooked North, I really can’t remember why, but for some reason or the other (and I only know it must have been a solid reason because Mummy would never have left us alone with her otherwise), Shoni and I spent a night, just one night, at Baby Mausi’s flat. She was Mausi to Mummy, not to us, but we called her that anyway, Aunt, Aunty, Mausi, Baby, youngest sister of my mother’s mother, my Nani, who was the eldest daughter of the family, the Brahmin girl who ran away with a meat-eating refugee from the Punjab, but that is another story for another time. After Nani came Majhli Mausi, placid and pot-squat, then Aruna Mausi, thick-throated and full-limbed like a God, and finally Baby, Baby, who was not a mother, never a mother, but would very much have liked to be one, only ten years older than Mummy, her skin creamy-creamy white, hair as dark as coals, eyes ringed with kajal so thick they were like moon-suns that shot out black rays of smudge, small-time Bollywood actress, full-time radio show host, Baby, beautiful, so beautiful, pickled in alcohol every day, especially every night.

Amitabh Bacchan, she announced matter-of-factly that evening, he was madly in love with me, he was. Whoever had dropped Shoni and me off, Mummy or Papa or both, whoever it was, they were gone, her husband was away on one of his mysterious foreign tours, and we were alone with Baby Mausi in her shadowy living room, fairy lights blinking on bookshelves, low tables and sofas arranged erratically around us as if some giant had rolled them in like dice. We had a bird’s-eye view of the neighbouring building, a rich-peoples’ apartment block with a green pool and butter-yellow walls and cucumber-cool palm fronds. A purple evening was setting on the city, the homecoming traffic eleven storeys below crawled at a constant hum, and beyond it, there was the splashy sound of the sea that prays at the foot of the rich-peoples’ hill. Shoni and I were silent – I didn’t know what to say, we never discussed things like love and whatnot in our home, also I was remembering when Papa had done an imitation of Baby Mausi saying exactly those same words, Amitabh Bacchan was in love with me you know, and Mummy had laughed loudly but then pulled her mouth straight and said, don’t make fun of my relatives, she did work with him on the sets of so-and-so-Bollywood-movie you know. Shoni I think was silent because she was petrified; Baby Mausi was always declaring how much she wanted to adopt her, Guddu, she would say to Mummy, Guddu, let me have this little one, you already have Ritika, and the little one is such a doll, let me have her, I’ll make her a princess you’ll see, and Shoni would run crying from the room and the rest of us would laugh, but Baby Mausi would look after the little running-away legs the way you’d look at ice cream gone hot.

You don’t believe me, Baby Mausi said with cunning eyes, sipping her dim-looking drink while we clutched our Coca-Colas, but he was in love with me, and so was Vinod Khanna, that one, my girls, was completely lattoo, believe it or not he was, wanted to cut up his wrists for me he did, and he lives not far from here now, sometimes he sees me on the road and looks away, I suppose it is embarrassing for him to remember the things he said, silly man, and she laughed like glasses clinking and took another sip, her sips were so large she seemed to eat her drink. Have you girls had any boys in love with you yet, no? I suppose you are too little for it. She patted Shoni’s head absently, making her back into the wall, then turned to me, but you, at your age I had boys jumping out windows sick with their love for me, and she looked me up and down critically over the rim of her glass, you can’t have much luck with the way your mother dresses you though, and that awful, awful haircut, like someone placed a bowl on your head and chopped off whatever was left outside of it, and those glasses my God, do you really need glasses as thick as that?

Only for reading, I mumbled, self-consciously pulling my loose checked shirt down to my knees, but Mummy said I must always keep them on, just in case I lose them otherwise.

Baby Mausi made a rude sound that involved drink flowing rapidly down her throat, Mummy said this, Mummy said that, your Mummy my girl, she is a dear darling niece and I love her to bits, but she is an awful prude and a first-class bore to boot, pshaw!

We gazed at her, wide-eyed and silent, and the cars hummed and the sea splashed and the ceiling lamp buzzed, zzz-zzz.

She looked down her glass at us silently for a while, seemed to come to some sort of decision, let me dress you like real little women, come with me girls, and proceeded to sway, wind-like, towards her bedroom. We followed timidly, she stopped at the kitchen door on the way and looked at us, top ups? Well, I need one anyway. She pulled a tall, dark glass bottle out from between large tins and square packets of dals and things and poured herself a drink in a very sloshy manner, then gave us more Coca-Cola, also very sloshily, making sticky spots on our arms and our faces.

We continued to the bedroom, where there was a trunk made of tin and painted with brushes of gold. Baby got a key off a high shelf and unlocked the trunk, it took a while because she held on to her drink with one hand and had trouble matching the key to the lock with the other, but it worked finally, she said, ahah bitch, under her breath and then she was off, digging and digging with one hand deep inside the trunk, throwing out all sorts of clothes and shoes, a book or two, jewellery, they flew out of the trunk and around us, like rain made of cloth and jewels and falling the wrong way round. I got slapped in the face by some sort of silky thing that wrapped itself resolutely around me, and a fat coffee-table book got Shoni in the middle, woosh, so she had to sit down very suddenly with a balloon-popping sound. That made Baby Mausi place her glass on the window ledge and turn around, did I hurt you little one, poor little Shoni, but then she got distracted by the book, which had fallen open to a page showing Princess Diana in a bikini, wow, that woman, just look at her Ritika, look Shoni, look how she carries herself, so graceful, and we all looked at Diana gleam glossily and nakedly in the yellow light of the night, and my God she was so beautiful it took my breath straight away, it was a bit like seeing God. Then we went back to the trunk and excavated more, taking sips of our drinks from the ledge, and sometimes Shoni or I mistakenly got Baby Mausi’s drink and had to spit it out it was so bitter and disgusting, and sometimes she got one of ours and had to spit it out too, chee-chee so sweet, the things you young people drink, and after a while it all began to taste the same to us but not to her, judging from her offended squeaks, and when we’d finally dug to the bottom of the trunk we stopped, panting, clutching our favoured finds. I’d chosen a pair of very small khaki shorts, a choice Baby Mausi applauded heartily, wait, I have the perfect top for that, wait, wait, she said and emerged from the trunk a few curses and sips later with a light lacy thing in turquoise that was so beautiful my eyes went half blind. Poor Shoni was too little to find anything her size, but Baby Mausi raised her finger to the ceiling and said, don’t despair my little one, I know just the thing for you, and pulled out a t-shirt in bold black and yellow stripes and a dear white belt as thick as my pinky finger. As we looked at her, mystified, she gently pulled Shoni’s frock off the top of her head. Shoni didn’t flinch and she didn’t run, just stood there in her tiny white vest and navy blue underwear and let Baby Mausi slide the stripy t-shirt on to her, raising her arms obediently for the belt to be fastened around her bony little waist by the gentlest of shaky hands, hands like slight white birds on their first flight, and then Baby Mausi turned her around so she could face the mirror on the wall. We gasped. The girl in the mirror looked like she was out of a children’s fashion magazine, only we knew it was just little Shoni in an improvised t-shirt dress.

I felt shy to change in the room with the others there, but Baby Mausi said, come on, it’s your turn now Ritika, so I turned to the wall and climbed out of my baggy jeans and quickly pulled on the shorts, they really were short and very tight, oof, I had to wiggle my body all ways to get them to climb up my waist and then I had to breathe all the air in my lungs out so I could lock the button in place. Next I threw off my shirt and put on the lacy top so that I wasn’t naked for more than a second at all, and when I turned around I saw Shoni’s eyes big like Gollum’s and Baby Mausi naked in the middle of the room, glowing like milk, my God she was so stunning Princess Diana could kiss the earth at her feet. In one seamless movement, she turned around, and her breasts they turned with her, and her beautiful round bottom too, and the hair that had come undone from the bun atop her head, it stroked the pale skin on her back with dark, black fingers. She climbed into a blue-green silky kimono and began to look like a different sort of dream, then floated to the window ledge in her kimono and downed the rest of her drink.

My bare arms and legs appeared long and unsure in the mirror, poking out of me like deer limbs. Baby Mausi took off my glasses (in three attempts), messed up my hair and pulled bits of it gently across my forehead, and then the three of us looked in the mirror again, Shoni right at the front, me a little behind her and to the left, and Baby Mausi behind us both, her hands on her drink. Beautiful, Baby Mausi whispered, looking at us.

But we were looking at her.

She filled another drink into a Coca-Cola bottle and took us out into the night – she’d remembered we were growing girls who needed dinner to grow. Now her voice was getting slower and sounded like it was made of syrup, the way she would sound a few years later on the phone when Papa would have to go pick her up from the airport where she’d been thrown off a flight for being drunk-and-disorderly, the way she would sound another few years after that, when the drink had finally squeezed her liver with cancer and filled her stomach with liquid like clouds, but that night she only sounded a bit syrupy and then we went out. My shorts were very short, I felt like a woman wherever the night air touched me, it was incredibly exciting, on the way we passed some boys, boys from there, the south of the city, rich boys, cool boys, they actually looked at me twice, I made eyes at them and looked away as I thought pretty girls should do, but I was secretly so pleased it made my heart smile. On the way to the dinner shops, Baby Mausi suddenly had the thought that it would also be nice for us to get some jalebis and kulfi because she’d loved them as a little girl, so by inference we must as well, we walked almost a mile back the way we had come and waited by the halwai’s shop while the jalebis were squeezed out in tizzy little circles and fried. We ate kulfi-on-a-stick meanwhile, I ate pista kulfi, it was green as a pea, and Shoni ate kesar pista, which was more the colour of winter sun. Some rowdies passed by and whistled at us, Baby Mausi yelled at them to go fuck their sisters and mothers, I covered Shoni’s ears because she was still a little girl. When we’d received our hot sticky jalebis, we went again in the direction of dinner, the rowdies reappeared and began to follow us, but Baby Mausi knew the streets like the back of her hand, so we ran off down an alley and came out by the beach. The picnickers were gone, the sands were empty and shone in the light of the moon, and the little waves of the Arabian Sea came all the way from Arabia and lapped at our feet. Baby Mausi kicked off her high heels and laughed into the ocean, one foot at a time, we followed hesitantly, digging our bare feet into the wet shelly sand, and there we stood ankle-deep in seawater and ate hot-hot jalebis and gazed at the stars and the moon that gleamed rich and round, like a pie in the sky.




Reading Words, Hearing Music

Recently I was browsing through Paul McCartney’s book of poetry and lyrics, Blackbird Singing, which I’d bought a few years before but hadn’t fully read. This time I paid closer attention to the verse, and I began to notice that I was reading the poems very differently from the lyrics. And for an obvious reason: the lyrics register in a way that seems less cerebral and more visceral than the lines written as “poetry,” meant to communicate solely as words on a page. I cannot separate the words of, say, “Eleanor Rigby” from the doleful melody and slashing strings that vivify and embellish them on the recording I’ve listened to hundreds of times since childhood. The words are already inside me, attached to musical notes, and refuse my attempts to give them a purely verbal life through the eyes’ silent, inner-voice perusal. The emotions the song brings out are in fact older than my comprehension of the lyrics. As kids we learn songs by repeatedly hearing them and singing them, even if the lyrics are far beyond our understanding. This odd disparity between cognitive and emotional response is sharpest, I think, in songs. I can enjoy poetry whose meaning evades me (some of Stevens or Hart Crane, for instance), but that enjoyment is largely an aesthetic effect of the words, not an emotion created by music that infuses, as it were, the words at some preverbal level.

Songs become part of us by reiteration, working deep into our minds and residing there, dormant, until we hear them again or they are revived by a random association or a deliberate summons. And it is the melodies, the notes, the wordless instruments that create this lasting power. The song that provides McCartney’s book title begins “Blackbird singing in the dead of night/ Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” Perfectly nice phrasing, but here as I write them and when I read them in a printed book, the words don’t, as it were, take flight. Only when I liberate them by allowing the buoyant, folk-like tune and McCartney’s voice to assume their natural place beneath and within the words (by no longer trying to suppress the remembered music) do they assert their full force, aesthetically and emotionally. The words have some of the music of poetry, but mostly they rely on – have their fulfilment in – the music of music.

Another way to look at this might be to compare the use of language in “Blackbird” with a similar use by a non-songwriting poet, not of course to disparage “Blackbird” as a poem (it isn’t one) but to suggest some differences in the way poetry and songs work. Repetition provides a good example: in “Blackbird” the line “You were only waiting for this moment to arise” is immediately repeated. When read on the page, it is merely a repetition, meaning pretty much the same thing the second time. But when sung (at least in McCartney’s own interpretation), the lines are different because the notes are different, as are the singer’s inflections. We aren’t so much attentive to the echoing as to the variation in melody and emphasis, reinforcing the line’s meaning but also changing it. The waiting and the moment are given poignant urgency, and “arise” lifts hopefully.

Words’ own music, however, can also transform a seemingly simple repetition. Putting aside the myriad birds in poetry (including “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”), we might turn to one of the most famous repetitions in verse, “And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep” at the end of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” These simple yet elusive lines, of course, have inspired countless commentaries and discussions, in scholarly journals as well as in high school English classes. They’ve become almost part of the vernacular. And it is the repetition itself, the echoing of the phrases, that creates much of the oft-noted ambiguity. The words have many possible connotations, and the repetition forces the reader to consider those multiple alternatives. But the deeper resonance of the repeated line comes from its silent presence on the page, so that we create difference in our minds, a difference of sound and sense. No musical notes or singer provide the variation, which comes from the interplay of words compelling our close attention by their insistent sameness. Spoken aloud, the words would acquire whatever emphases or implications the speaker chose to give them, as in a play. Yet the focus would still be on the words. Poetry, written or spoken, relies on the depths of words as well as on their surfaces.

*

Another thought as I browsed Blackbird Singing: why did McCartney not make songs out of some of these poems? Why not give them a larger life in music? After all, songs reach far more people than poetry does. This question too hinges on the differences between lyrics and poetry. The McCartney poems feel conversational or ruminative, centred on the sound and significance of the words themselves, sometimes mysterious, inviting contemplation. One example, from “Full Moon’s Eve”: “Old loves return/ To kiss the lips/ In case the empty gallery/ Should fill with whispering strangers/ Like a flood.” Music would not necessarily add to the verbal play here, and might subtract by distracting. Also by specifying: notes pull us toward particular emotions and specific meanings, whereas words alone (carefully selected) allow for a variety of thoughts and feelings, affecting us intellectually as well as sensually. As Stephen Sondheim succinctly puts it, “poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.” Sondheim has cited the example of Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’/ Oh, what a beautiful day,” words that rely on Richard Rodgers’ ebullient melody for their full emotional effect.

All of which led me to consider, not for the first time, why I usually dislike poetry set to music, especially poetry I know well. So when even a great composer like Britten or Copland joins the words of T.S. Eliot, say, or Emily Dickinson with notes that carry those words along, I often feel that the words – and my response to them – have been hijacked. They’ve been elicited to take on a role, forced into a new identity, like a familiar friend compelled to wear a perhaps attractive but distorting costume. The more intricate the music, the more extreme the poem’s alienating transformation.

In an essay on “Music and Opera,” W.H. Auden asserts that “a verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate, it goes on to become.” Later in the essay, he elaborates:

Poetry is in its essence an act of reflection, of refusing to be content with the interjections of immediate emotion in order to understand the nature of what is felt. Since music is in essence immediate, it follows that the words of a song cannot be poetry.

As Auden suggests here, the music of poetry involves sense in two senses: the direct pleasure and emotion in words and the less immediate implications (intellectually, spiritually) of those words. The greater the poem, possibly, the more self-sufficient it is, the more its inherent music renders any musical setting superfluous.

But what about great poems that have become great songs? Often, as in William Blake’s “The Lamb” and “Jerusalem” for instance, such works were songs or song-like to begin with – “The Lamb” is one of the Songs of Innocence, and “Jerusalem” has a fluidity, rhythm and rhyme that adapted naturally into a hymn melody. Some of Auden’s own poems, such as the “Anthem for St Cecilia’s Day,” are similarly musical and became fine songs. In such poems, the words seem enriched, even completed, by their settings (even as they are defined in a particular way by those settings).

And of course there are contemporary poets who write songs. Leonard Cohen was prominent among these. In his songs, the sound and sense of words predominate. We can enjoy a song like “Suzanne” even without its melody. Yet that melody, especially in Cohen’s deep sombre voice, half-speaking the lyrics while tracing the tune, enhances the meaning, emotion, and sensual power of the words. In rap and hip-hop also, the primary force is in spoken or chanted words, and the music without them would have much less impact. But that music and the human voice impart an urgency and immediacy that the words would not have on their own.

*

This contrast between song-words and poetry-words might be further illuminated by considering Paul McCartney’s songwriting alongside that of his fellow-Beatle John Lennon. The Lennon-McCartney collaboration has long been understood to exist in name(s) only; aficionados and critics readily identify songs as Paul’s or John’s. And it is commonly asserted that Paul’s songs are stronger musically while John’s have superior lyrics. But is that true? I think the differences are more complex. Lennon’s lyrics are closer to poetry, especially the surreal or nonsense poetry of Lear or Carroll or of Lennon’s books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. Two fine examples are “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus,” which have seductive music but rely as much on the sounds of words (and their startling juxtapositions) as the sounds of the notes that accompany them. Compare “Strawberry Fields” with its flipside on the original single, “Penny Lane” (a McCartney tune). Both were inspired by places in the Beatles’ native Liverpool, but Lennon’s song unfolds in a dreamlike locale of the mind while McCartney’s sketches an eccentric, idealized but recognizably actual townscape, a remembered place nostalgically reimagined. The difference is created in large part by the interrelation of lyrics and tune in each song. “Let me take you down/ Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields/ Nothing is real” begins Lennon’s song, which becomes more and more abstract and introspective in lines like “No one I think is in my tree/ I mean it must be high or low.” The melody circles, as it were, in a sort of timeless repetition, almost a droning chant, that intensifies the words’ tug away from the everyday world. Lennon riffs verbally on the title place-name and, presumably, the feelings and associations it evokes – each word creating an effect, sometimes detached from the words around it and therefore making little cumulative sense. This adds to the atemporal, dreamworld feeling (enhanced by George Martin’s innovative production, which slowed down and sped up the original tracks).

“Penny Lane” describes the title street, where “there is a barber showing photographs/ of every head he’s had the pleasure to know.” The words move along like a genial pedestrian strolling. Whimsy and cosy reassurance abound even as the words turn ambiguous, and the music has a clear melodic line. The pleasure in “pleasure,” for instance, comes from the sung notes smoothly conveying the word as it follows from the previous word and leads into the next. In “Strawberry Fields,” the music serves the words; in “Penny Lane” they are mutually reinforcing. But in neither are the lyrics truly poetry.

Sometimes in popular songs this balance tips strongly in the direction of the music, almost as in opera. The words exchange their deeper connotations for a secondary role as verbal vehicles for mellifluous melodic expression. We hear this in a “minimalist” song like McCartney’s “Hello, Goodbye,” which exhilarates musically while repeating the same few binary words with an emphasis on the “positive” ones, so that verbal monotony is lifted by music into joyful affirmation. The Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds album epitomizes this immersion, as it were, of words in waves of music; the lyrics frequently give way to pure melody vocalized in non-signifying phrases. And in Stevie Wonder’s superb Songs in the Key of Life, even words that might seem greeting-card banal take on thrilling eloquence through Wonder’s wondrous musicality.

*

The subliminally powerful effects of music have long been noted by scientific studies. People with cognitive difficulties, for instance, are able to remember songs with much greater clarity than purely verbal information. This would seem to lend empirical support to our sense that words partnering music create a more direct and physical effect than words alone, that words have an essentially cognitive nature even in the most emotive poetry. We process the music of words differently from the music of music, and that difference underlies the particular power of songs. Possibly one reason why McCartney titled his book not Blackbird (like the recorded song) but Blackbird Singing was to emphasize that printed lyrics, those black signifiers on the page, find full life only through a voice. In reading, we naturally sing them.

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Paul McCartney quotations are from Blackbird Singing (Norton).

W.H. Auden quotation from The Dyer’s Hand (Vintage).

Robert Frost quotation from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Holt, Rinehart, Winston).

Stephen Sondheim quotation from Finishing the Hat (Knopf).




The Crossing

We’ve left everything behind, but we mustn’t look back, my mother whispered to us.

She pulled us into an embrace and kissed our cheeks. Her lips were soft petals that brushed my skin, and the scent of her perfume was in my breath. My brother Efra lay his head down upon her shoulder as his little body trembled. I looked past them to the window of our small room, where the sun’s glare hid what lay outside – like a future that was not ours to see.

It had been four years since the war began, three years since the shelling started and our country had come to a standstill; two years since planes flew overhead and dropped bombs over the cities, leaving black scars upon our streets, our souls; six weeks since we had fled our home and crossed the border, leaving everything behind. Now, we waited for what came next: a chance to start life anew, to live in hope and not in fear, to dream once more.

*

My father was a soldier in the Army and after the war began, he was sent away to the front to join the fighting. Before he left, he kissed us goodbye and promised that he would return to us. We prayed to Allah to protect him and keep him safe. Days passed before we heard news of him. After we went to bed, my mother turned on the television, and I listened to it through the walls, to catch any news of the war. Sometimes, when I woke up at night, the TV was still on: my mother had fallen asleep on the sofa and I tiptoed across the living room and turned the television off. My father called us from the front: he spoke to us in his light-hearted way, as if he was not at war but somewhere else. Once while on the telephone with him I heard gunfire in the background and I was afraid, as if the war had suddenly become close. We asked him when he would come home. Soon, he promised. Then one evening he came home, on leave from the front, and he pressed his bear body against our soft skins and held us tight.

When he had slept and rested, he was like our father of old again, though his hearing was less sure and he spoke louder than he did before. One evening, Efra sat down next to him and said: tell us a story, a story about the war. But he did not tell us about the real war; instead, his stories were fantastical tales, full of adventure where the enemy – the rebels – were like mythical creatures. He told us how he would outwit and defeat them before he killed them off. Efra listened to him with his hand on his chin, his little body shivering with excitement till he grew tired and fell asleep on his lap. My father picked him up and carried him to bed. He returned and took me to bed, kissed me goodnight. I closed my eyes and listened to his heavy footsteps fade beyond the door and I knew he would be going away again.

*

His leave ended and he returned to the front. The war intensified and spread to the north of the country. The rebels captured the first cities and then reached the outskirts of our city. On television, they spoke only of great victories, how the rebels would soon be defeated and the war would end. I lost track of the days, the months as they passed, and then the years. My father’s calls from the front grew less frequent, and when he did telephone, his voice was tired, as if it carried a great weight. Then his calls stopped and we did not hear from him again. Instead we heard the sounds of mortars and shells being fired from the east towards us. It was no longer safe to walk the streets in the day, and we stopped going to school and spent our days inside. They were days of longing: to be outside, to be free. Rockets fell on our street and broke the glass on our windows. I sat up by the open window and waited – waited for my father’s footsteps outside, for his voice to call out to us, to tell us he had returned. But he did not come home. We grew afraid. At night, I could not sleep: even my dreams were filled with the sound of rockets crashing on our street.

The rebels made inroads into our city and it was divided into two. Planes flew over us and bombed the rebel-held parts of the city. We watched from the roof as the smoke rose like an angry hiss from the ground and the bombs left craters on the streets. The front moved closer to our street. One day, the bombs fell over us. We took shelter in the basement of a hospital. The walls shook around us as we huddled in the dark. We were shaking too. When we went outside again, the air was thick with dust, with death. We couldn’t breathe. We saw faces smeared in blood, in dust, like ghosts. We retreated into silence. Into the shells of our homes. The city turned into a living hell, bombed to ruin. We lived in darkness, in the shadow of death. One night, as I sat up in bed, I heard my mother crying through the walls. I rose from my bed and slipped into her room, slid into her bed. We slept in each other’s arms, like sisters, her face wet against mine. I knew then that my father would not return to us. In the morning when I awakened, my mother sat down next to me and said that it was time for us to leave, to escape the country. We were not safe here anymore.

In the next two weeks, my mother collected her savings and her jewellery. We said goodbye to neighbours, to friends. We locked our home and left a message for our father at the door. In the taxi, I looked through the window and fought back tears till everything was a blur. Goodbye, Home. Goodbye Syria.

The taxi drove us north to the border. At the border, we waited days for our chance. We dressed in black to be like shadows, to be invisible in the night. We crossed the border by crawling through a trench dug under the border fence. That was our first crossing. As we rose and walked on the other side, we felt weightless.

We passed through the border camps and moved up along the coast till we stopped at Bodrum. We stayed in a hotel in a room with pink walls and a window that looked out onto the street. I slept in a bed with Efra and my mother slept in the other bed across the room. In the day, we went for walks and even visited the beaches, but the others looked at us like we were strangers from far away. We felt strange too. We were refugees. At night, Efra had dreams about the war and his body shook and trembled till I pulled him close and rocked him back to sleep.

My mother’s sister had already made it to Europe the year before. She sent three thousand euros to pay for the next part of our journey. My mother made arrangements with those who ferried people across the sea to the islands of Greece. I checked the weather reports on my phone and sent messages to friends on WhatsApp. We bought lifejackets in the market and bottles of water and snack bars. We bided our time. Finally, we got the word: we would cross on a moonless night at the end of August, the end of the summer.

On that day, we slept all afternoon so that we would be rested for the crossing. We knelt on the floor and said our evening prayers. Afterwards, we ate snack bars for dinner and watched some television. Then it was time to go. A taxi came to pick us up and we drove in the dark. I did not look back the way I had when we left our home. Efra started to cry and I held his hand.

The taxi dropped us off at the chosen point. We waited by a grove of trees. It was already past midnight. Soon others joined us, families with children, refugees like us. A cool breeze blew across the bay. I looked up at the night sky: it was moonless, as if the night had veiled her face. Efra lay down at my feet and curled up to sleep. Soon, my legs were tired, and I lay down next to him. Later, my mother shook us awake. It’s time, she said. We rose to our feet and put on our life jackets. I helped Mama put on hers. We waited for the signal. The last of the Turkish patrol vessels had come and gone for the night. There would be no more patrols tonight.

Someone clapped his hands by the water. They were calling out to us. We walked towards the beach in silence, over pebbles and sand. A rubber raft lay at the edge of the water. Two men stood on either side of the raft. They lifted the women and children first. A man took my hand and lifted me over the side of the raft. The men got on afterwards. There were twenty people in all on the raft. The men sat along the edges, while the women and children sat in the middle. The two men on the beach knelt on the sand to pray; afterwards, they pushed the raft into the water and jumped on. One of them tugged on the line for the outboard motor, and it coughed to life. Two men with paddles on each side of the raft pushed us on. Soon, the raft moved into open water. We were on our way, across the Aegean Sea, towards the island of Kos, in Greece.

The sea was inky black, like the night. Across the bay, the lights of Europe were the stars in our eyes.

The coast was an ink stain that faded behind us. We rode in silence, just the coughing of the motor and the slosh of water against the raft. The wind picked up and turned fierce, like a slap against our faces. My mother spread her blanket like wings and wrapped us in its folds. The waves rocked the raft and sent a spray of water over the side. The rocking motion made Efra sick and he threw up over my shoes. I ran my fingers through his hair and soothed him, told him it was alright, my shoes would be clean again. He poked his head out of the blanket and breathed the salty air and looked up at the stars. We were Allah’s forgotten children.

We were halfway across the bay and moving towards the lights. Three quarters of the way across, the men turned the motor off, fearing that the Greek coast guard might be close. The two men with the paddles rowed us on. We drifted onwards. When the coast was clear, the men tugged on the line for the motor again, but it would not come back to life. They cursed aloud. The sea turned angrier, as if the mythical creatures lying beneath had stirred. A wave broke over the side and poured water into the centre of the raft. Our feet were soaked. The men cursed aloud again. We cupped our hands and bailed the water out. The waves swelled and lashed us like tentacles, splashed more water over the side. The raft grew heavier and the men with the paddles rested their arms. When the next wave broke over us, the raft filled with water again. We were sinking.

*

The water rose to my knees and then to my hips. The raft sank beneath us. When the next wave broke, we were floating in open water. There was saltwater in my mouth, in my lungs. I spat the water out. The men threw plastic tubes from the raft into the water. Efra and Mama gripped a tube: I was the only one who knew to swim and they were afraid. But the next wave was strong and tore us apart and they floated away and disappeared into the inky blackness.

Efra, Mama, I cried out. The sea swallowed my cry.

My body was in shock, shivering in the water, up, down, up, down in the waves. A tangle of arms and legs thrashed and kicked around me. The waves pushed them further away, till they were twenty, then thirty feet from me, their heads sticking out of the water, adrift like castaways. I could not see Efra or Mama anywhere. I took a gulp of air and dove beneath the water. It was murky, dark. Up for air again. I rubbed the saltwater out of my eyes, dove under again. The sea was an abyss.

The lights were a blur about a mile away, so close that I could almost grasp them. I began to swim towards the lights. My arms stroked the water, my feet kicked behind me, my body streamlined, slicing through the water. When my arms got tired, I turned on my back and floated, riding the waves. Then I switched to the breast stroke, my knees kicking wide behind me. Nothing else on my mind but reaching land. My limbs numb with ache. My throat raw with salt. The lights closer, brighter. I heard the surf break and sensed land beneath me. I crawled the last twenty feet on my hands and knees till I was ashore. Europe, at last.

*

My body was overcome with exhaustion and I fell into a black sleep.

In my sleep, I dreamed that I saw my father again. I told him the story of our crossing, a story like the fantastical tales that he had told us. When I had finished, he wrapped his arms around me and held me close. His heat warmed me and gave me life again.

When I woke up, there was a knife edge of blue in the sky. I raised my head and looked at all the things we had left behind. Life jackets floated in the water like buoys. Further on, I saw the lights of a coast guard vessel searching the water. I thought of Efra and Mama and prayed that the coast guard had found them and picked them up, that they were warm and safe.

I lay my head back in the sand, the hush of the sea a lullaby.

I fell asleep again.

The tide washed over my feet as I slept, like the past holding on and pulling me back, unwilling to let go.