My first writing teacher, Tom Spanbauer, spoke a truth I’ve always remembered: When we write, he said, we are burning a life. This is the story of ten years that changed me forever. It starts with a lit cigarette, and the story burns from there.

Fall 1974: First Drag

In 1974 I am fourteen, the beginning of ninth grade, a girl with small breasts, brown hair curled under at the neck, and solemn eyes. Thin. Maybe too thin.

I am…a marvel. That is what Mrs. Axelrod, my teacher, wrote about me in the “comments” section of my report card. Most of the adults in my life agree. I write poems and plays. I get only As, and blow the other kids out of the water because I always know the right answer, the correct spelling of a word.

We live—mother, father, daughter, son—in a town called Shrub Oak: deli, stone Methodist church, library. A canopy of trees arch over Main Street. In the supermarket, neighbors know each other by name. It’s 1974—on TV there are long-haired young people marching against the Vietnam War and footage of the drone of helicopters overhead, speeches about equality.

But not in our town. In Shrub Oak, there are tag sales and fire drills out on the endless green lawns of the schools and fourth graders sing songs about pollution:

Let’s clean up our water, clean up our air Let’s all get together and let’s all do our share

I know the town so well, it is an extension of my body. The pizza place, the green house with the wooden porch littered with holly berries. When I walk through it, it is like we are looking at each other—me and the green house with the sloping floorboards. Here we are. It has always been this way, and we are not sure why.

Other families in Shrub Oak live in raised ranches, watch The Brady Bunch after dinner. We don’t watch television; we read books instead. My father is a writer, an unlikely thing to be in Shrub Oak. Tall and commanding, he listens to Bach, eyes closed, with a glass of sherry in his hand. Because of him, our house is filled with odd objects: statues made by artist friends, poems typed on index cards and tacked on the walls.

My mother, a visiting nurse, is the one who fits in. At the dinner table, she likes to talk about her coworkers—gals, she calls them. One gal is having trouble with her daughter. Another gal has high blood pressure. This kind of talk bores my father.

I am like my father. I read everything he gives me: Dickens, Lewis Carroll,  Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens. That is how I became a marvel.

But at fourteen, something has changed; I have stopped reading Emily Dickinson and started reading Teen Magazine instead. I get it every month as soon as it comes out and study it, lying on my stomach on the four-poster bed that I have slept in since I was six years old. I look at the faces, take in their smooth, glowing skin, well-chosen outfits, flawless faces. I know what I want to be: perfect, like them.

It starts on a Saturday. Me, my parents, and Sally B. in the house. From the open door of my bedroom, their voices drift up the stairs to me, along with the smoke from Sally’s cigarette. I can hear my father’s low rumble, Sally’s amused voice darting in and out, my mother’s uncertain ha. Easy to picture them: my father slouching in his red armchair, his black hair swept back from his handsome face; Sally Bittner with her dirty blonde shag haircut, sky-blue pantsuit. At the other end of the couch, my mother in Bermuda shorts with her brown wavy hair, a lipsticked smile eager to be part of it all— but her voice is the one I hear the least.

Downstairs, that hushed tone adults get when they worry about something. I know what it is: Sally’s son Richie got in trouble last week.

Sally has trouble with all her children. They are all teenagers and she is raising them alone. Years ago, Sally divorced her husband.

I’ve heard my parents talk about Richie when Sally isn’t here. I’ve heard the word “troubled.” Last week when I was helping my mother do the dishes, I asked her why Richie was arrested, and she didn’t answer right away. The kitchen sink was in front of a window that looked out to our backyard. <y mother stood gazing out at the yard for a few minutes before she finally said, “drugs.” With a big intake of breath, as if she wished she never had to say the word.


Weed, grass, reefer—I know about these from the films they show in health class. Uppers, downers, smack, acid. I listened while the man in the film explained it all in an ominous voice. How it started with peer pressure. Someone offers you a cigarette and you try it. After a while, smoking cigarettes leads to trying marijuana, then you are on to harder drugs. Hashish. Acid.

I am not the kind of girl who will ever get mixed up with things like that. I am a


Today, I lay my head down, close my eyes. I inhale. That is when the smell of Sally Bittner’s cigarette drifts up the stairs to me.

Sally smokes Winstons. Chain-smokes, actually; she lights one up, lays it in the corner of our cut-glass ashtray, and the smoke curled upward while she talks. My parents have never had a friend who smoked before, and when she comes, they set the ashtray in front of her and sit back in wonder while she inhales, her hanging cheeks like a bellows, the smoke hovering in her open mouth for a minute then disappearing down the back of her throat. She blows it out in a funnel shape and the smoke fills the living room, obscuring the Morris Louis over the mantlepiece, drifting through the house.

Today, Sally’s smoke drifts up the stairs to my room. I inhale, eyes closed, and I see things. Parties, the kind adults have. Voices, lights, brightly colored short dresses and bangles on wrists. Laughter.

The world.

And I remember. It was an evening last month—I was coming back from the library and I passed Frankie’s, the town bar. It was busy—a lot of pickup trucks parked outside. The door swung open once and sound poured out. That same smell—the sharp perfume of cigarette smoke—drifted out the door.

Someone spoke—I hadn’t noticed him standing there, a guy with curly hair in a flannel shirt who smiled at me.

“Hey, beautiful,” he said.

I knew he couldn’t mean me. Me with the loose-leaf notebook and the small breasts.

“Wanna come in? Join the party?”

I blushed. I walked fast, hoping he wouldn’t see it. That would be impossible.

Not me, the quiet, smart girl with the books on her arm.

The smell of Sally’s cigarette makes me think about the sound of that music. I think of him standing there—close enough that I could touch the sleeve of his flannel shirt. How would it have been if I followed him through that open door?

Sally’s smoke curls around me. It enters a nostril, snakes through my brain, and I hear the laughter through the open door of that bar, the music. Hey, beautiful.

A week goes by before I work up the courage. One Tuesday after school, I stand in front of the counter of the Shrub Oak Deli and ask casually for a pack of Winstons. I have always come to this deli with my father—the workers all know him. This time, I have my story—I am buying cigarettes for Sally B.

But no one asks. I am still just that girl who lives around the corner. Gus hands over the box wrapped in its shiny cellophane along with a pack of matches.

I know where to go: the playground behind the church, where I have swung on the swings, pushed myself down the dented slide. I sit with my back to the row of lilac bushes that grow behind the swing set, unpeel the cellophane, open the lid, pull one out.

I have to strike a couple of matches before I get it lighted. The first inhale has me rolling on the ground, choking, tears streaming out of my eyes. I clutch myself. My chest has never hurt this much before. I need oxygen. I grab at the air.

But I try again and by the third time, I’ve got it. I have to open my throat up, let it in. When I do, something amazing happens: my skin tingles. Everything is soft.

When I look out at the playground now, everything is the same—the Methodist church, the rolling green of the cemetery lawn—but it is also different. I am alive now; my whole body throbs. The world tilts—the green of the lawn blurs into the things around it.

I kneel on the grass, holding the lit cigarette between my first two fingers, laughing.

I’ve done it.

I have changed my life.

Spring 1975: Marlboro Country

My parents hate it. My father the most—at the dinner table, he won’t even meet my eyes.

At school, I change my image. No more getting up early to use a curling iron so that my hair makes a feathery wave away from my face. I let my hair grow, cut class, and hang out in the smoking area instead.

I meet Sue and Julie a month after I start smoking. I am stubbing out my cigarette when I look up and there is Sue, with her white-blonde hair falling down from her face, cuffed jeans, a wide-brimmed leather hat that shows the stitching. With her walking stick, she looks like a blonde hobbit. Next to her is Julie, taller, her hair almost white.

“It looks to me, Julie,” Sue drawls, “that there is a person here in need of a buzz.”

Julie giggles, her round, white face lifting in a grin. “We’re going up into the woods to get stoned,” she says. “Wanna come?”

I’d never been up there before: pieces of broken glass from green soda bottles, litter, beer can tabs. We sit on a row of gray rocks while Sue rolls the joint and licks it.

When I inhale, hot smoke fills my throat, chokes me. I cough my chest up while Sue and Julie giggle.

Then the world transforms. The air is fragrant. My body sings. Light falls through the trees, lights the leaves from beneath, dances off the beer can tabs littered on the ground.

After that we go up regularly during eigth period. Sue is the funny one. She takes two beer cans and makes them act out the conversations she has with her mother at home.

“Get that OFF THE COUCH” screams the-beer-can-that-is-Sue’s-mother. “I just vacuumed. Do you ever think about what you’re doing? Do you ever pick up after yourself?”

“You need a lobotomy, you uptight bitch,” says the-beer-can-that-is-Sue. “Go fuck yourself. Go take a bath in lemon-fresh Pledge.”

“You will not talk to me like that young lady,” screams the beer-can-that-is- Sue’s-mother.

“You will not talk to me at ALL,” yells the beer-can-that-is-Sue. Then her beer can dives into the other. They fight.

“Take that.” “Take that.”

Julie can’t contain herself when Sue does this. She laughs helplessly, holding her belly. “Lemon fresh Pledge,” she gasps. I laugh, too. But really I am just breathing, drawing the velvet air in.

Sue and Julie introduced me to Jeff. One day, Sue took me with her to buy a nickel bag and there he was, glorious with a mane of hair, torn T-shirt that revealed his chest muscles, his jeans sliding down and revealing a sculpted back.

“Sue-chi,” he called her.

“My favorite dealer,” said Sue. “Meet my new friend, Kate.”

“One hot chick,” Jeff looked me over approvingly. “You old enough for this?” “Yes,” I said defiantly, blushing.

“M-a-a-a-a-an, have we corrupted this one,” drawled Sue.

A day in June:

I am in the back seat of Etta’s car, a red Volkswagen bug. Outside the sun blasts; it’s only June but it’s ninety-five degrees. The music pumps into us—Jimi Hendrix—thump, thump, thump, thump Foxy Lady! Somehow we’ve managed to fit three of us together in the backseat—me, Sue, and Julie, our shoulders jammed together, the sweat like glue between our bare arms. The music is so loud it takes over our heartbeats. There’s no talking through it, and wedged together like this, all we can do is turn our heads from side to side like ventriloquist dummies, grinning idiotically, as Etta takes a left out of the school parking lot.

It’s eighth period. I have French with Mr. Witte, and there’s a test today on passé composé. I think about this as we pull out onto the road. Part of my body leans back to the school, but a stronger part of me leans forward. I’m used to this now: There are different worlds in my life—the smoking area, the classroom, the house. I have learned to pass through them, keep my head down, slide on by.

Up front, fast-talking Etta with her short blonde hair, eyes blinking behind John Lennon glasses, drives barefoot in a loose flowered dress, hitting the steering wheel with each drumbeat. Next to her, Jeff, with his tawny mane of hair and raucous laugh. Jeff is the one kid in school that everyone knows—the geeks, the jocks, the greasers. In the smoking area he is always on the move—conferring over bags of pot, hanging in the car doors of souped-up Dodges. He is in the center of things and now I—me, the invisible girl—now I am in the same car with him, speakers blasting, town streaming past the windows as we sidle along East Main Street.

We pass the house with the sloping porch and the holly berries, Frankie’s, the pizza place. On the tape deck, the next Jimi Hendrix song. Sue swivels her head first to me, then to Julie. “Mars,” she mouths comically. Julie throws her head back, cackles without any sound.

Now in the car I look up at Jeff in the front seat, “Hey Joe” playing, and my body


We come to the end of Route 132, where there is a white Presbyterian church and a cemetery. Etta takes a right and we climb a hill on to a rocky dirt road, and the car dips from side to side. Sue and Julie and I turn our heads, make faces, the tops of our heads banging against the roof. It’s so hot the heat is radiating from my temples.

We stop. Etta and Jeff get out and Sue, Julie, and I push the seats forward, wedge ourselves out the doors, breathe. The cooler air chills the sweat on our bodies. Etta is already ahead of us. She’s put on flip-flops for the walk through the woods, but walking behind her, we can still see the dirty soles of her feet with each step.

Crazy Etta, with that short, white-blonde hair, the flowered dresses, the fast talking. She doesn’t even go to our school anymore (she graduated), but she comes around in that red Volkswagen when there are parties. She’s taken everything—uppers, downers, smack, acid. When she and Jeff are together there’s this energy. It’s like they both come from the same world; a world where the only thing that matters is the next party, the next good time. I want to be like that; a person who can leave home and not think about it . . . free . . . But I’m not. Even now, there’s something in my head whispering to me, reminding me I’m cutting French now; later, I’ll have to go home.

Halfway up the path, we stop, huddle behind a boulder, and Etta takes out a pipe. We can smell the difference in the pot right away—at school it’s usually homegrown, but this smoke is pithier. I haven’t smoked out of a pipe before—the smoke is hotter and sears my lungs.

“What is this stuff?” says Sue, startled. “Sense,” says Etta in a tight, getting-high voice. “Sensimilian!” Julie crows.

“Oh maaaannn can you taste it,” says Sue.

Two tokes is all it takes for my insides to turn to velvet and purr. My lungs sparkle. Shafts of sunlight fall through the trees, illuminate big, fanlike leaves.

Etta turns and keeps on climbing, and we follow, through the trees and up into the sunlight. The heat now is a blast furnace; I can feel it at the roots of my hair, an aurora around my head that encloses me.

But there’s the water.

Each of us steps out of the darkness onto a rock and it’s there below us, a thousand reflecting pinpoints spread out to the horizon with a fringe of trees all around. We blink, narrow our eyes.

Etta’s first, pulling the flowered dress over her head in one motion, stepping down to the edge of the rock, jumping. Small breasts, narrow back, red-blonde pubic hair.

There’s a loud splash and silence and we wait until her voice sings up, “Far OUT.”

I struggle with my jeans—they stick to me and I have to wedge them off. When I’m naked I don’t look down at myself—too embarrassed. I wonder if Jeff is looking at me, what he thinks. I step carefully down the rock, leap.

Freezing. The water closes over my head and for a minute I’m frantic, trying to push the cold out. I kick up, swim hard until my blood comes back. Swimming is something I’m good at and I swim fast, way out to the center of the water, before I roll on my back, feel the sun on my face, look into the plane of the sky.

And smile: Here I am. A miracle. I was an invisible girl who got up at six every morning to curl her hair with a curling iron and walk slowly to school. I was that, and now I am here.

Sue and Julie are two white bodies under the green surface of the water; wet.  Sue’s skin looks like a dolphin’s. She’s still got her glasses on; she’s blind without them. “Now that’s damn refreshing,” she says.

“Alright there, Junior?” says Jeff.

“Yeah,” I say, smiling shyly. Jeff’s thick forearms move under the water. When he comes up from his dive, he tosses his head and his wet hair falls down his neck in a sculpted wave.

Later we sit on the rocks in the sun, looking carefully at each other’s faces and not each other’s naked bodies. Sue talks about “the old man.” Usually it’s her mother she makes fun of, but today it’s her father. “The old man wants me to get a job,” she says. “He had a talk with me last week. Took me outside for a cigarette, y’know, talk to me father to daughter. The old man thinks he’s a cowboy,” she says. “He thinks he comes from Marlboro Country.”

To imitate him, she stands on the rock, naked, with a belt around her waist as a pretend holster, her tuft of blonde pubic hair sticking out under the belt. “Susie,” she drawls, “this here is Marlboro Country. Man’s got to be stronnnggg here. Got to take care of himself, stand on his own two feet. We don’t bellyache here. We don’t cry. Fall off your horse—” Sue shakes her head comically, “well you just have to get back on and ride.”

Julie can’t even talk, she’s laughing so hard. “Horse,” she squeezes out. Jeff raises his eyebrows. “Can you dress that way every day?” he says. “Shut up, Jeff,” says Etta carelessly.

“Now, Mr. Jeff, that was an inappropriate comment,” Sue drawls. “This here is Marlboro Country, and I ’spect you to treat the ladies with respect.”

I wish I was like them. Julie’s mother is a born-again Christian, always telling Julie that she’s a sinner, but she laughs and does what she wants anyway. Jeff and Etta are always on to the next party, the next funny story, the next bong hit.

Not me. I sit here on the rock with them and laugh but I can’t forget. The way my father won’t look at me anymore, the curling in my stomach when I walk into the house and even the air feels hostile. Everything reproaches me. I have made a choice: drugs. Now, this is all I have.

My parents have made it clear—whatever I do, I have to be back at six. Behind me, Jeff and Etta talk in low voices about The Oak Room, a bar up on Mill Street where minors usually get served.

“Let’s,” says Etta to Jeff lightly.

They rise. “We’re gonna go to this bar on Mill Street,” says Etta. I hear my own voice, loud, pinched.

“Um, no I can’t do that,” I say. “I have a curfew.”

“A curfew.” Etta looks at me in disbelief for a minute, blinks. “How old are you?” she says, frowning.

“Fourteen.” She gives Jeff an annoyed look for bringing me, turns away. “You’ll call them,” she says.

“That won’t work,” I say. “I have to get back.”

But she’s already walking back down the path. “You’ll call them from the bar,” she calls over her shoulder. “Tell them the car broke down.” There’s a hole in my stomach—this is what I hate, when my two worlds touch. It won’t work; I know that. But they all want to go.

The phone call doesn’t go well. The Oak Room is hopping and I keep thinking my parents can hear the bar noise through the phone.

“Where are you?” says my father suspiciously. “Who are you with?” “Sue. Julie,” I say. “We went hiking.”

“After school, I hope,” says my mother. 

 “Of course,” I chirp.

“If you were hiking, why is there a car involved?” says my father.

“Well this guy came along and gave us a ride because we were lost, and then it broke down.” I say.

“Tell us where you are,” says my father. “We’ll come get you.” My stomach


“Um,” I say. “I’m not sure.”

“Ask,” says my father acidly. I put my palm over the receiver. Jeff is standing near me with a Molson in his hand.

“Where are we?” I hiss. He shrugs.

I don’t get home until eleven. On the way back, Etta plays the Stones, my favorite.

“Angie. Yyaaannnngiieee.” 

I close my eyes, try to walk into the music, but I can’t pretend, even to myself.

When I get home, there they are at the kitchen table, faces grim. “Hi,” I say weakly.

“Where,” says my father heavily, “have you been.”

“I told you. I called you.” I hate my own voice—high, frightened. The voice of

a liar.

“Do you think we’re stupid,my father says fiercely.

“It didn’t sound like you were on the street,” says my mother, looking at me steadily. “We heard voices. A lot of them. And music.”

“It was a bar. That’s where I went to call.” “That’s not what you told us,” says my mother. “It isn’t?”

“Do you think we’re stupid?” My father’s voice is full of renewed fury. “Do you think we don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What I’m doing is just being myself,” I say. “That’s all I’m doing.”

“Are you on something?” says my mother gently. “Are you taking something?” I feel the heat on my face.

“No,” I say. My voice is high. “I’m not taking anything.”

My father holds up a card. “Your report card came today.” He leans forward, eyes burning. “A ‘D’ in French. What are you doing at that school? Are you even going to class?”

“Of course I’m going to class.” I take a big breath. I think of those afternoons in the woods behind the school, the way the broken glass on the path glinted and the light fell through the trees.

“I guess I just didn’t study enough,” I say lamely.

“You expect us to buy that?” my father scoffs. “You could pass French in your


I hate the way he does this to me—I come home happy, there’s a world out there—and he takes it all away.

“Do I really even need French?” I say. I smile at him, trying to catch his eye, look ironic.

“Yeah, who needs French?” my father says sarcastically. “Who needs English, for that matter? Why even go to school?”

“It’s not everything,” I say sullenly. “You think school is everything.”

My father leans forward, eyes blazing. “You’re fourteen,” he hisses. “What do you know?”

Something rises in me, pushes away. “I’m not stupid,” I say, “just because I don’t agree with you. I’m not like you. I don’t think school is everything. It’s all you think about. You care about my marks. You care about me being smart. You don’t care about me.”

My father’s face convulses. He rises in one motion from his seat at the kitchen table and then I feel it—the stinging on my cheek, my neck stiff from the blow.

We look at each other. I know my body has never felt like this before—I don’t even know where the air stops and I begin.

Then I turn away and start walking up to my room. I pass the chest of drawers against the wall in the entrance to the living room. I move through the living room, past the orange couch, the red armchair.

I almost go back. I almost go back and say that I’m sorry and that I will be who they want me to be. Whatever I have to do. I want to be loved again. This is my house. This is what I know—what belongs to me, what is mine.

But I don’t. I keep on going. I pass the flowered curtains. The shelves with my father’s rows and rows of books—Areopagitica, Pnin.

There are some things I can’t give up; some things that I have to have, now that I’ve found them. Jeff’s forearms. Sue’s skin, smooth as a dolphin’s in the reservoir. The sun on the surface of the water. The world.

“You’re going to need a different environment,” my father calls out from the kitchen. “Away from these friends of yours. Next stop, boarding school.”

Boarding school.

My legs are rubber. I approach the French doors between the living room and the foyer that leads to the stairs, grasp the cut-glass doorknob.

Sending you away.

But this is where I have always been—this house, this town.

I climb the steps. They creak. As I climb, I build a wall inside.

My legs ache by the time I come to the top stair. I pass the rickety table with the black phone on top. The pale green wallpaper with white flowers on it; the framed print of my mother on top of a mountain in a red sweater with the wind in her curly, dark hair.

I open the door to my bedroom. There is the four-poster bed. There are the bookshelves with my books: Alice in Wonderland, Great Expectations. There is the full- length mirror. I close the door, lean against it, close my eyes.

And when the tears start to come, I stop them.

After all, this is Marlboro Country. If you want to live here, you can’t let them see you cry.

Fall 1975: Bum a Smoke?

For about two minutes, I am alone in the Dairy Barn common room. Gray stone floors; white cinder block walls, low blue couches. Beside the couches, waist-high orange ashtrays as round as car tires, filled with sand and dotted with forests of upturned butts. Outside the window, the acres of woods described in the school brochure. Darrow School: an independent college preparatory high school nestled in the heart of the Berkshires.

After dinner, this is where we all go. We need to light up, feel the familiar bite at the back of the throat, the aahhhh that hits the blood.

I lean against the wall, a pack of Marlboros tucked into a pocket inside my jacket.

Post-dinner is prime cigarette bumming time, and once news gets out that there’s a full pack somewhere, you’re finished. That’s why I snuck out early: to extract one cigarette from the pack without anyone looking, slide it back inside my coat. I inhale, drop my head back, send a plume of smoke upward.

The wooden doors between the dining hall and the common room thwack open and out comes Jamie Ehrlich, golden curls flying. He steps heavily in his Dunham boots and torn jeans; that pouty mouth makes him look like Little Lord Fauntleroy in a blue down vest. Behind him, Junks with his blond afro, hawk nose, and beady, watchful eyes. Tim Malloy, his face a mass of acne. Nevin, with his wire-framed glasses and helmet of wavy brown hair. They amass together near a window, bending over, getting lights. The Hinkley Boys, Valerie calls them—they all live on the top floor of Hinkley, the dorm right in the center of campus.

It’s a small school—one hundred students. A small school, and the Hinkley Boys are the stars.

It’s not like my old high school. There aren’t the greasers in the parking lots in souped-up cars wearing T-shirts with the sleeves cut off, the jocks in their jerseys, the geeks, the heads. We’re all country hippies. We wear jeans and Dunham boots because of the mud on the roads. Down vests, denim overalls, flannel shirts. There’s a golden retriever named Fred we throw a Frisbee for.

My parents decided to send me here at the end of June. I didn’t think it was possible. That they could send me out of my house, an extension of my own body. My town that knew me—the green house with the sloping wooden porch; the playground in   back of our yard.

Across the common room, Valerie, with her elegant shoulder blades, crown of blonde hair all different shades of yellow, from white to brown. Banana-shaped breasts in a rainbow-colored shirt; jeans she patched herself with a red bandana; multiple necklaces draped across her chest on fine gold chains, a different pendant at the end of each: a single pearl, a silver spoon, a wire twist.

The first day, I broke into sobs when my parents left. Valerie was the one who adopted me. It’s because of Valerie I’m accepted here. That I’m in with the Hinkley Boys. It was Valerie, also, who explained it: We were all here because we weren’t wanted at home. The way she put it, that meant we were free.

She stands next to Nevin, getting a light. Nevin leans into her—she must have said something funny because he turns his head to the side, laughing. I smile too, happy I’ve found her.

“10cc, the band.” says Valerie. “I’m telling you. It’s true.” “Aw come on, no, that’s disgusting,” groans Nevin.

“I’m serious.” Valerie gets vehement about these things. She doesn’t like to be disbelieved.

“Do you know where their name comes from?”

“No.” I don’t even know this band. I’ve never heard of them. Who am I, a girl who only read the classics up until a year ago, to know band names?

“10cc—the amount of sperm it takes to get a girl pregnant.” “Noooo,” says Nevin.

“Hey, you’re messin’ with Nevin’s head here, Valerie,” says Jamie. “You know how clean and pure he is.” He grins, wide face creasing.

After dinner, there’s always the same desperation. Study hall is coming: two hours of forced study, the hot, silent room and the book swimming in front of your eyes under the fluorescent lights. The antidote to this desperation always rests in a single name: Feds.

Last of the Hinkley Boys. Short, with a swinging walk. Long hair to his shoulders. Just a middle-class kid from New Jersey, but he’s got money and he’s addicted to pot, so he always has some. When Feds comes walking up the road that runs through campus, the call goes out, an endless drone, “Feeeeeddddsssss.” Here he comes,

Feder the school dealer. He walks along, a swinging walk, putting up with it. “Shut up guys,” he says, when he’s close enough for us to hear.

Tonight he is pressed, doggedly. “Nothing,” says Feds. “I’m out.”

“Oh come on, Feds, you expect us to believe that?” “I expect you to believe that,” he says.

“But we don’t.” Nevin throws his cigarette out in front of him, crushes it with a toe. “We really don’t.” He puts an arm around Feds’ shoulder.

“I need it,” he says.

“I don’t have anything, Nevin,” says Feds.

“Yes you do. You always have. You’re a have, Feds.” “Feeedddssss,” they all take the call up.

“Shut up guys,” says Feds comfortably.

“Don’t make me get violent, Feder,” says Nevin.

 “Jesus!” says Feds.

“Feeddddsssss,” the rest of us plead.

“Alright, alright,” says Feds finally. “Come on.”

We don’t all leave together—that would be too obvious, and other people would invite themselves. Valerie, Feds, and Nevin go first. I look down from the Dairy Barn window and watch them come out the front door and walk along the road, Valerie’s blonde crown pushing through the semi-darkness outside. A few minutes later I follow with Tim Malloy.

Hinkley is yellow, built on top of a small hill. We all climb, then fan out in the patch of worn dirt at the smoking area and wait while Feds goes inside to get a pipe and reefer, and Junks goes in to put some music on and turn his Bose speakers out the window.

We peel off one by one—Jamie, Junks, Tim, me. Huddle behind a sumac bush. Feds arrives, lights up, inhales, passes to Nevin who passes to Jamie. Jamie takes it up, pulls the smoke in, hands it to Junks.

“What is this stuff?” says Nevin.

Feds shrugs. “I don’t know. New Jersey homegrown.” “Tastes like you mowed the lawn and dried it,” says Nevin. “Take it or leave it, Nevin,” Feds wearily. “Whatddya want?” “Just sayin’,” Nevin shrugs.

“Stop fighting you guys,” Valerie growls. She has pulled her hair up into a bun behind her head—she looks even more beautiful that way. She leans down, pulls the smoke into her mouth without touching the end of the joint. She has tried to teach me how to do that, but I’m no good. A bracelet jangles around her lower wrist. Music flows up the hill toward us, threads through the trees.

So get down

Get down children Get loud

Well you can be loud and be proud

Be proud you’re a rebel cause the South’s gonna do it again And again.

“What is this?” says Feds.

“Charlie Daniels Band. My man. Charlie.”

“South’s gonna do it again—What are we, in the Confederacy now? Back to the old plantation?”

“Southern rock, Feds.” “What are you a bigot, now?”

“Shut up, Feder. It’s about rebellion.”

“Oh yeah, who’re you rebelling against?”

“Junks is rebelling against his jeans,” jokes Jamie. “They won’t let his hard-on


“Seriously, Junks. You’re a rebel?”

“You’re a douchebag,” says Tim and laughs, but no one else does. “What are you rebelling against?” says Feds. “I mean really.”

“The powers that be, Feds,” says Junks, inhales, his voice all nasal and wise- sounding. “The powers that be.”

Valerie cuts in. “Don’t be a douchebag, Feds. You know what it is. It’s freedom.” she says. She does that—uses their language, hose, douchebag. I don’t even know what a douchebag is. “Freedom,” she says. “Don’t let people tell you what to do.”

For me, the only true freedom comes on Saturday nights, when I get as much as I can of whatever we’re drinking that night—rum, gin, tequila—and wait for the blackness to come. Then there’s no voice in my head, no “I” talking and no “you” listening. There’s just blackness, and finally I can rest.

That’s how it is every weekend. I am famous for it now. Nevin calls me “Wasted Kate.” Every Saturday night, we go down to Sam’s cabin in the woods, almost a mile away from the main campus, and I am always the first to get falling-down drunk. I can’t help it—I want the blackness. Drink enough and then you are nothing. The darkness opens up. You can dive into those folds and forget.

Nevin looks at his watch. “Christ—6:50, babes. Gotta go.” Feds flicks the ashes away between thumb and forefinger. I look down the hill: At twilight, the sky is regions of pink interrupted by bruised blue clouds.

It might be homegrown, but it’s done the trick—my lungs glow. The music reaches up through the trees, takes us.

You can’t be late to study hall—they make you stay over and that’s brutal. We start walking through the trees, Dunham boots crunching the dead leaves. Ahead of us, the yellow squares of light in Wickersham, where the study hall with its glass doors and sizzling fluorescent lights waits.

We walk toward them, unworried. On the outside we follow the rules, on the inside we have our own world, our own place to go. Put a piece of blotter paper on your tongue and an icicle can turn to a crystal palace. The sky can glow green.

Jamie walks beside me. His down vest flies open and one blond curl moves across his face. Everything takes its own time. We have our music.

And we’re free: the troubled teens of Darrow, the free citizens of Reefer Nation.

A new song, just before Junks goes up to turn the stereo off: Allman Brothers; “Midnight Rider.” The sound cascades over the smoking area behind our backs, fills the  air.

And I’ve got one more 

Silver dollar

And I’m not gonna let them get me, no— Not gonna let ‘em get the midnight rider.

We keep walking. We don’t care, so nothing can hurt us.

We are midnight riders, piercing the night, burning the atmosphere. Pot, acid, speed, Quaaludes. Tequila. Cigarettes.

No one to catch us or stop us. No one to call us their own.

Summer 1978: Burning a Life

Some scenes from the Divorce Diary:

Scene One: My mother sits at the kitchen table in shorts and a peach-colored T-shirt in the Shrub Oak house. My father left two days ago. Strands of brown hair have escaped the rubber band that holds her ponytail. There’s a bottle of wine in front of her— one of those big gallon jugs of cheap wine—and one arm rests on top of the table.

Someone is taking a picture with an instamatic camera, and my mother stares into it, unsmiling. Yes, her look says. Yes, it is the middle of the afternoon and I am drinking a bottle of wine.

Scene Two: I have just arrived home from getting stoned in a parking lot with some guy who picked me up hitchhiking. I walk into the living room: olive rug, low orange couch, flowered curtains. On the mantlepiece, there is an index card with a stick

figure drawn on it, and underneath it the words: Ariel the Whore. Ariel is the name of my father’s new girlfriend. I look around the room: there are about ten more of these. My mother is shouting.

Scene Three: My mother has sold the house. We are leaving this town: Gino’s, Frankie’s, the green house with the wooden porch that slopes down, the arc of trees over Main Street. At the end of the driveway for the garbage men to take away, my mother has placed the orange living room couch, the red armchair my father used to sit in; the Morris Louis that hung over the mantel. My mother is throwing my life away. I go out to the end of the driveway and pick things out: cushions from the couch, the antique lamp. My mother watches me from the front door. I make four trips, carrying things that she has left out as garbage back to my room, while my mother watches. On the final trip, I am holding the antique filigree lamp.

“There’s no room for that where we’re going y’know,” she says. I ignore her, climb the steps. The cord from the lamp bumps against each step as I ascend.

After the divorce, there was a lot of fighting. “I hate living here with you,” I said to my mother with regularity. “Leave any time you want,” was her inevitable answer.

I did.

At eighteen, I hitchhiked all over the place:

To Providence, Rhode Island, to see a Grateful Dead concert. To Massachusetts, to see Valerie.

To a store three towns over that sold feather earrings.

To the reservoir to go skinny-dipping, but I couldn’t find a break in the fence.

In people’s cars, I’ve talked about the weather and how screwed up society is and what a mess the government is, even though I never even think about these things.

Sometimes, I give hints about my home life: My parents don’t care about me, I’ll say. They don’t know what I’m doing. They don’t know where I am. Cheap appeals for sympathy.

The truth is, when I leave the house to go wandering, I don’t even know what I’m searching for. The old certainties about “freedom” and “being myself” are starting to leave me. I still do the same things—smoke, search for pot, spike my orange juice with vodka—but I’m no longer sure why.

A memory: I leave the house in the morning, amble out to the main road, stick my thumb out.

The man driving the car I get into has thin, greying hair, wears a golf jacket and polyester pants. When he asks where I’m going, I make something up. I tell him I’m going to the mall.

“The mall, eh?” he says. “What are you going to do at the mall?” “Look for a job.”

“What do you need a job for?”

I raise my eyebrows. “I need money,” I say. “Badly.” I wonder what he does, this man in a golf jacket. When I ask him, he says he’s a salesman.

“What do you need money for so bad?” he asks me.

I sigh, give him a conspiratorial look. “Get out of the house,” I say. “Away from my mother.”

The art of hitchhiking involves keeping track of your whereabouts while making small talk. Out the window I see that we are passing through the next town over, Thornwood. There’s the Honda dealer. There’s the red brick building with the Firestone sign.

“I could probably help you out with that,” he says, looking ahead. “The money


“Oh yeah?”

“I’ll give you $50 if I can put my hand down your shirt.” Out the window, Wendy’s is passing. I watch it, smiling.

“I don’t know,” I say. The Firestone station goes by; the Terrace Restaurant.

Then I say OK.

“Move over closer to me,” he says. He puts his arm around my shoulders, then slips his hand down under the neck of my T-shirt, brushing my nipples. He moves his hand from one breast to the other, very slowly. With his other arm, he drives, but under the steering wheel his legs start to twitch. “I hope I don’t come in my pants,” he says. I look straight ahead.

That’s when the town of Thornwood really makes its mark on my mind. The Thornwood Diner with its chrome sign. The parking lot for the Grand Union. As we pass Arby’s, I realize that we are close to my mother’s office. I picture my mother’s face when she just happens to be passing by, even though she is supposed to be at work right now, and how she will look at me. I start to sink down in the seat so my face can’t be seen through the windshield.

“I can’t reach you,” he says.

“Stop,” I say. “I’m getting out here.” “I was almost there,” he says.

“I’ll give you twenty-five,” he says, when I open the door. “It wasn’t very long.”

Here is what happens after my parents’ divorce, in the years between 1978 and 1980: My mother puts a lien on my father’s bank account for not paying child support. My brother fights with my mother about which college he could go to.

My father convinces my brother to break with my mother and live with him. He arranges a meeting with lawyers, calls my brother in, and asks him to choose which parent he wants to live with—on the spot.

My mother sobs the way she did when my father left.

I write to my father about what he did and receive a letter back from him: I don’t want to hear from you or see you for a long time to come.

Then silence. We were a family that lived in a town of tag sales and fire drills.

I am twenty-four when I give up smoking. That is also when the depression hits.  I stop sleeping. I lie down at eleven or twelve after slogging through another exhausting day at work, close my eyes, and start talking in my head to every person I feel has ever wronged me. How could you do that to me, who do you think you are, that’s not what love is.

Awake at one. Awake at two. Awake at three. At first I try aspirin, then Benadryl, then tequila. Then all three.

I have been taking a writing class, but one night at 3 a.m, after hours of rumination, I decide to burn everything I have ever written. The kitchen in my New York apartment has a hulking white stove, burners encrusted with black grime.

In the middle of the night, I sit in a straight-backed chair and turn the stove on.

Get up, take the stack of papers I have been working on, feed them to the flames.

Sit there, looking at the four blue crowns of flame on my stove, and listen to the sound of my own breathing.

Then I understand.

Everything burns. The girl who sits behind me at work. The man begging at the subway stop at 103rd Street. Family life.

And it would have happened anyway, sooner or later. Even if I hadn’t smelled Sally’s cigarette. Even if I hadn’t crouched in the playground in back of my house, my face laughing up to the sky, the end would still have come.

This is All that Matters by Amy Kiger-Williams

My father is having seizures in his hospital bed. The white sheet is drawn up to his mid-chest, his tongue is hanging out the side of his mouth, and his hands and arms are twitching violently atop the sheet. He looks like he might be connected to an electrical current, but the electrical current is coming from inside his body.

I’m not expecting to see him like this. The last time I saw him, Saturday, five days before, he was heavily sedated and his body had been placed into a state of hypothermia. When I touched him then, he felt as cold as the last dead person I touched, his own mother who died eleven years earlier. But he wasn’t dead. The doctors had artificially lowered his body temperature in an effort to reduce the brain damage he suffered when he collapsed at the dinner table. When they brought him out of hypothermia, though, there was no brain function, only the violent twitching and writhing that was the byproduct of his current state.

I scream.

My husband and children trail behind me into the hospital room. I realize that I’ve just bulldozed my way into the ICU to see my dad. I realize this is not a good thing for kids to witness. This is not a good thing for anyone to witness. I am starting to do my own sort of convulsing: my breath becomes hyperventilation and my shoulders shudder. A male nurse leads my family out of the hospital room, then comes back for me. When we are safely in the hallway, he explains what’s going on. I watch another nurse draw the curtain around my father’s bed.

My father’s brain stem, the most primitive part of the brain, is the only part that’s functional, the nurse explains. Ironically, I’ve been taking a graduate course on brain-based learning, so I understand what he’s saying in a way that I might not have a month earlier. I start thinking of parts of the brain and how his frontal cortex will never again help him solve problems, or how his amygdala will never process emotion anymore (not that it did a great job of it while he was conscious). Not surprisingly, I will have trouble getting through the class, and only through a Herculean test of will do I actually finish the stupid papers required over the next couple of weeks. I spend most of my time thinking about how these brain functions relate to my father’s cold, dead brain, and it makes it very difficult to get any work done. My professor will be incredibly sympathetic, and I will feel guilty even asking for extensions, because that’s the way my father raised me.

My father’s brain stem is the part of him that’s responsible for the twitching, the uncontrollable spasms, the nurse explains. He tells me that they’ll be sedating him soon, so that by the time my brother and his family arrive with my mother, we can feel comfortable that he won’t be in any pain when it’s time to take him off the ventilator.

Because it’s come to that. It’s come to the time when there’s no hope, no way my father can function at all without life support. He’ll be a vegetable, twitching and flopping around in a bed, if we can’t do the humane thing and let him go. I think about the cat I put to sleep months after my own grandmother died. Roscoe was my baby before I ever had babies, and when he died, I felt the breath escape from him as I held him and the vet gave the injection. I never thought I’d get over his death. I spent the next day at work in a stupor. Nobody understood how I could get so worked up over a cat. The people at work weren’t cat people. But everyone’s a dad person. People would understand how I’d get worked up over losing my dad.

I think about how sad it is that I’m putting my dad down like a cat.

My dad really died on June 3, though the death certificate says June 9. June 3 was the day my dad collapsed at the dinner table. He was eating a baked potato, and we don’t know whether he choked, had a heart attack, or whatever. We didn’t order an autopsy. My mom felt like he’d been through enough.

My mom told me that when the EMS workers left, she tried putting the baked potato back together again. She said the two halves fit together perfectly, as if he hadn’t even taken a bite.

June 3 was also the day I got a new job. I interviewed with the principal and the superintendent, and they offered me a job teaching English to ninth graders. I posted something on Facebook about it. My dad apparently saw it and was proud of me, even though I didn’t get to talk to him about it at all.

Not surprisingly, later I am ambivalent about this job. I try not to think about the fact that I got it on the day my dad left us. I am also ambivalent about the job because a lot of the kids are just out of control. One of the freshmen told an aide that there was a rumor about him having sex in the bathroom with a senior, and he claimed it’s just not true. The aide later found out that he really did have sex in the bathroom with a senior. This is the same student who got an out-of-school suspension when he left school during a pep rally to smoke pot in the woods. I try to be fair to this kid. His house flooded in August, and two of his friends died along the train tracks in October. This kid has problems, too. But when he tells a girl in my class that she has a huge bush, it’s the last straw. I write him up and he serves a detention. He whines about Ms. K. giving him detention for nothing.

I think about how much I’d like to tell my dad about these kids.

My dad got kicked off Facebook for chatting with one too many strangers, so he used my mother’s account to talk to me.

HI AMY. The chat box popped up at the most inopportune times. While I was writing a paper, working on a deadline, helping kids with homework. I’d have to drop everything for Dad.

Hi Dad.

He’d ask me crazy questions, things that made me wonder if he was losing his grip on reality. My mother told me that he’d watch Teletubbies on TV as if it was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen, as if the rest of the world didn’t exist, and it made her wonder the same thing. EVERYTHING HE WROTE WAS IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

Eventually, I had to go offline every time he went online.

Then I got a message.


My dad did several things online. He pop chatted me. He talked to people he knew from the small town in Indiana where he grew up. He did genealogy research. He looked at pornography.

The day after my dad died, my mother asked me to clear the porn from my dad’s computer. I should have waited until my husband came back for the funeral, but I held my nose and wiped out every JPG file from his computer. I couldn’t look at it; too upsetting. Nobody wants to know that about their dad. After I was done, I needed a glass of wine like I’d never needed one before, but my parents don’t drink, so there was no booze in their house. Instead, I took my kids and my mom out to the movies. We watched Kung Fu Panda 2 and I cleared my head, Teletubbies-style.

Every day I go to work is a day that my dad is not a part of this world anymore. 

Oh, the irony of the potato. My dad sure loved to eat. He was a big man, over 300 pounds, even though he was only five foot ten in his stocking feet.

After he died, I found out that he had a Twitter account. I was afraid to look at it, because of the pornography and all. But when I was finally brave enough to peek, I discovered it was a diary of a man who was just waiting for his meals to arrive.

waiting for my wife to come home so we can eat supper

I’m supposed to be in bed but I’m making breakfast coffee

breakfast turned out pretty good especially the coffee tee hee

just killing time till lunch

I’ve Had Lunch Now I’m Waiting For Supper

two hours till supper, yeah

I seem to be a little one-sided all i do is wait for meals.

I have to wear a gown in the hospital room when I watch my father die because they are afraid of us contracting MRSA, which my mother will contract anyway, despite the gown. They won’t let us stay in the room when they take all the tubes out, but by the time we finally see him, he’s breathing heavily and I think my dad is going to be dead in a few minutes. My mother is holding my father’s hand. It’s bruised and mottled from all the needle jabs, and it’s swollen and disfigured. She’s crying, and I feel guilty for feeling so sad for myself. My mother has been married to the same man for forty-four years and now he’s dying. I think about how my grandparents, his parents, were married for forty-four years when my grandfather died.

My mother lost her own father when she was nineteen years old. I’ve had my dad for forty-three years. I’m being such a baby about this whole thing.

My dad was forty-three when his dad died, too. My grandpa died quietly, just pulled over in his car at the side of the road after a chemo treatment, had a heart attack, and died. I never saw my dad cry over him.

My brother is with us in the hospital room, too. His name is John, my father’s middle name, the name my father uses instead of his actual first name. My brother is forty and when he was younger, his high forehead reminded me a little of Leonardo DiCaprio, but now he’s gained weight too, and he looks like a younger version of Dad. He smokes like a chimney but tries to deny it to my mother. I worry about my brother constantly. I think about his two little girls, and hope that he can stop chain smoking before he keels over.

My husband, my brother’s wife, and my dad’s five grandchildren are all in the waiting room. I am in my dad’s room for a long time with the hospital chaplain, a cloyingly sweet woman who keeps prattling on about how great it will be when my dad meets God. How great it will be for my grandmother, because she’s missed him so much in Heaven, all these years without her only child. I don’t believe in God, but I say nothing because it’s not the time. The chaplain offers my mother one of the prayer blankets crocheted by the Mennonite ladies who volunteer at the hospital. Mom has her choice of colors, so she picks the combination she thinks Dad would like the best, a brown and blue number that reminds me of our den circa 1981.

Mom puts the prayer blanket on Dad to keep him warm. She keeps fussing with it. It’s the four of us: Dad, Mom, me, and John, just like when I was a kid. I think of all the trips we took together to Disney World and bowling conventions and a cabin in Wisconsin, and I’m in disbelief that this visit to a crappy hospital room in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, is the last trip we’ll ever take together. It’s the worst trip of my life.

We’ve been watching my father die for over two hours. His breathing is becoming slower, but he is still breathing. Mom, John, and I are frozen in our places around the hospital bed. My husband comes into the room.

“The kids are hungry, and I have to go soon,” he says. “Maybe we should go get dinner.”

I look at him like he’s grown another head. “What if he dies while we’re eating?”

I imagine him saying the words, “Then he dies while we’re eating,” but what he really says is, “Everyone is hungry. It’d be good for you to take a break, too.”

I look at my mother. She looks exhausted. “Maybe we should,” she agrees.

We go to a diner down the street from the hospital. The entire time we’re there, I’m convinced he’s going to die before we get back. I’m a fucking wreck. It takes every bit of strength that I can summon to keep from running back to the hospital. I order a sandwich that I can barely eat. 

When we return to the room, he’s breathing more slowly still, but he’s still breathing. I feel as though I’ve dodged a bullet.

The night nurse is a woman named May. She looks a lot like a friend of mine, and I immediately feel comforted by her. She even sounds like my friend, and as she talks to me, it’s familiar and soothing. It’s clear that my father is not going easily. Although his breathing is still slowing, somehow it feels like he’ll never stop breathing. I think he’s being stubborn. The nurses on the afternoon shift said it could happen quickly. It’s been hours, though. My husband already left with my oldest to go home so he could get back to work on a deadline, and my other two kids are in the waiting room with their cousins and aunt. My brother is taking us to my mom’s house, and he has to go soon. I have kids to think of. They can’t hang out in the hospital all night.

I’m realizing my dad’s going to die alone.

I think about asking to stay, but that’s selfish. I can’t stay and send my mom home with my kids. She says she wants to go home, anyway. She’s never looked older in her life.

I can’t bear this. I want to stay. I look at my dad, his big chest slowly rising and falling underneath the prayer blanket. I want to hide in the broom closet and have everyone leave, then sit here all night with my daddy.

May comes into the room. “You should go home,” she says.

“What if he dies?”

“I’ll call you. Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of him. He won’t be alone.”

I take a deep breath. Without me is alone, but nonetheless, I have to go. Everyone is waiting for me in the lobby. I give May my cell phone number and ask her to call me if he passes away. I think that maybe he won’t leave that night, maybe he’ll wait for me to come back, but another part of me thinks that maybe this is one thing he has to do on his own. He’s waiting for me to leave before he can die, so I have no choice but to let him go.

I sleep in the room that I slept in as a teenager, my cell phone under my pillow. I have my son and daughter in bed with me, and it’s a tight squeeze. I wake up every now and then, and I’m not sure I was ever asleep. I feel a vibration under my pillow and my heart stops. I look at the phone number on the display. It’s the hospital. It’s 2 a.m.

“It’s May. Your father passed about a half an hour ago.”

This is the spot where I get hung up writing. I have trouble getting through. I can jump past it, though, to the kids I taught, to de-porning my dad’s computer, to the life I have now, so similar yet so different, almost nine years on. I return over and over to this piece of writing, yet I can’t write about this moment. It’s as if there are literally no words for the moment when I find out that I am fatherless.

Without my father, there is a man-sized hole. I see something silly on TV, and I think about how much he’d like that. I hear 10cc or George Harrison songs and I think about the mixtapes he made for me when I was a little girl. I look at my husband and my own children, and I think I will never let any of you die.

But of course, that’s unreasonable. We will all die. We will have heart attacks and strokes and freak accidents. We will twitch uncontrollably in our own hospital beds. We will pass silently in the night. We will all struggle with our lives in our own particular ways, and when we die, there will be another struggle, or not.

This is the bitch about getting older, of course. The funerals, the way you miss people, the longing and regret. I’ll take every gray hair and wrinkle I can get, but spare my people, please.

But of course, no one will be spared. The sun will blaze and the earth will continue to move on its axis, and we will all have our endings, noticed and unnoticed. If I think about it too much, it makes me want to curl into a fetal position and stay in bed all day, but I wake up every morning, put on my clothes, brew a cup of coffee, and do all the things we do while we are still here to do them. I wash clothes, I buy groceries, I write. I talk to my mom on the phone. I take pictures of things and people and cats that I love and post them on Instagram. I bemoan my addiction to social media by posting about it on social media. I read a book to feel better, or worse. I hug my children when they cry. I split a bottle of wine with my husband and continue to be amazed that we’ve been on this ride so long together. I crawl into bed and appreciate the small things, the smooth feeling of sheets on my body, the way I fit into the crook of my husband’s arm, the small noises that he makes when he is dreaming.

This is all there is: the little moments, the sadness, the happiness, the unbearable feeling of pain when a loved one dies, the hole that remains.

This is all that matters.

Apple Pie by Lizzie Lawson

The church kitchen. I’m at the rolling table surrounded by Catholic women my grandmother’s age. They peel and mix and roll and crimp. I flatten greasy dough into circles and throw them over open pies heaped with spiced apples and thick pats of butter. “Sometimes it feels good just to sit,” a tall woman says, slumping her shoulders forward. “To do nothing but just sit.” Clip-on earrings poke out of hairnets. I try to keep up with their hands. My mother rushes after beeping timers, opening ovens, flooding the kitchen with heat. “Can you believe the deacon asked me to be in charge of all this?” my mother asks as she passes by. She ticks through all the details—the supplies, the cleaning, the volunteers called in advance. “I felt bad saying no, but at least I run the nut sale.” A pink-sweatered lady whisks away my topped pies, and empty pans appear in their place. Every year, people complain the pies sell out too fast. The chatty woman next to me asks what grade I’m in. “Oh no,” I say. “I’m a working woman now.” I’m twenty-three, and I just started a corporate job that, I think, sounds impressive. I inhale the smell of buttery dough and resist the urge to eat some. “She’s also newly married,” my mother cuts in, and everyone turns to look at me, mouths open in excitement, as I shrink back. I answer their questions about the ceremony and the priest and my husband’s graduate studies in as few words as possible, staring down at my rolling pin until finally I’m left alone. I’m twenty-three, and I don’t know what it means for me to be married. I saw a Catholic blog post about how boring life could be as a wife and mother with nothing but domestic chores to look forward to. “But it’s good,” the blogger wrote. “Boring makes us holy.” I brush floury crumbs into a clump at the edge of my area. I feel fragile in this church. I spent every Sunday of my childhood in the front row, hands folded, faced forward, listening to the priest who sighed when I said my confessions and always found something to criticize when I did the readings. I struggle and sweat over my next piece of dough, and a white-haired lady touches my elbow. She shows me a better way to hold the rolling pin. That’s much easier. “It’s hot in here,” says a woman with strawberry earrings. “Better stay away from me then!” the white-haired lady responds, a finger to her chin. They laugh, and I feel myself smile. The women talk about casserole recipes and their mothers and how anti-Catholic the world is becoming. I think about how easily this could be my life. I could raise children, organize fundraisers, grow old with family and faith, and be satisfied in the knowledge that I am doing everything exactly as I am supposed to. Or I could do something else, build a life that’s unknowable and selfish and full of secret plans and leave my hometown and not care about the important things until I’ve disgraced my family and it’s too late. I take my time rolling, really try to get it right. “You know, they use real lard in this dough,” the tall woman says to no one in particular. “No vegetable shortening, this is real pig’s fat.” My mother grabs a rolling pin, saying she’s got three minutes to spare. She forces a too-small, too-thick piece of dough into a tin and asks me about my husband. “What do you do while he is busy studying?” she asks. “Whatever I want,” I snap. I sneak a bite of raw dough, and the grains of sugar crunch and melt on my tongue.

I Love You by Yen Ha

It bothers her when her daughter jokes about how she never says the words I love you, first because she doesn’t speak English with her daughter, but also because she’s told her daughter many times over that her own parents never said I love you, not once in the forty years of being a daughter in America, and it wasn’t until her twenties that she even realized it was a thing, it’s definitely a thing she learned after three boyfriends in a row break up with her because they didn’t believe she loved them enough, and maybe she didn’t, I love you or not, and though she tried to reassure her boyfriends that she did love them with homemade cream puffs and pour-over coffee, they still broke up with her, they left, one after the other, until she started writing Post-it note reminders that she hid in her purse, her planner, anywhere she might come across them once in a random while, reminding her to say the words out loud, preferably when a boyfriend was around to hear them; despite the practice the words don’t fall naturally from her mouth, no matter how many reminders she writes to herself; she doesn’t even know what the words sound like in Vietnamese, theoretically she knows the actual words, but she has never heard them spoken, not like thank you, which her mom doesn’t bother saying in Vietnamese, if her mom wants to thank her she says thank you, in English, like the Americans do in every other breath, thank you and I love you and sorry like they say bye or hi or pass the peas please, she had to learn that too, how to pass peas, at home they don’t pass anything, dishes wait in the center of the table for her dad to start, a different arrangement than when her college boyfriend invited her to his rural New Hampshire home, and handed her a plate that his dad’s large hands had filled up from the sideboard, a piece of furniture she’d never encountered before, with portions a tall, confident white boy would eat, not a small, dark-haired immigrant, she can’t remember if she was able to clear her plate, how embarrassing that must have been, no less embarrassing than not knowing how to pass platters, the plates piled up in front of where she sat until the boyfriend rescued her by leaning over with his long arms to move them on down the table; at home the food stays in one place and the chopsticks move, she doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t do that, family style they call it, she thinks they should call it everyone gets what they want with a minimum expenditure of energy—efficient and egalitarian—isn’t that what America is about anyway, total individualism? she doesn’t want to be told what to eat or how much, what if she doesn’t like eggplant, which she doesn’t, it’s a bit slimy, though in polite company she eats whatever is in front of her, unless it’s an American-size plate loaded with broccoli, pork chops, and two heaping servings of potatoes gratin and then there is only so much she can eat before her bowels explode, which happens more often than you would think, making for inconvenient bathroom runs in the middle of walking home with her friends, they never say anything because she doesn’t let on how much the cramping pains her to walk, just like she doesn’t say anything when her genetic inheritance, never fully acclimatized to Western milk and alcohol, rejects mozzarella-laden pizza or when someone exclaims her English is so good after she’s told them she was born in Saigon, she was born there and left because the South was collapsing and no amount of American soldiers could prevent the Communists from winning, which is what they did, and why her dad two times in his lifetime has had to leave everything behind, once fleeing his home village, crossing from north to south and then later across oceans and continents, unsure of when he would see his home country again, twenty-one years if you were wondering, twenty-one years of learning to call co-workers by only their first name and the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork, and that’s why her own daughter never hears her say the words I love you because she herself never did, or maybe it’s because she grew up in a Vietnamese microcosm bound by the walls of a two-story house in the suburbs of Virginia where sideboards and English didn’t exist, her parents were very strict about that, so strict that her Connecticut-raised brother-in-law mildly resents family gatherings, knowing her parents speak perfectly correct, if heavily accented, English, but choose instead, as if it were a choice made consciously, to speak their mother tongue in the comfort of their home, away from the gaze of others, a safe place where she never thought the lack of I love you was a deficit until her husband’s family looked at her in horror over dinner one night, she had been trying to make a joke of it, but it fell and fell to the bottom of the shoes they wore in the house, trekking dirt and germs and dog shit in from the street, does no one care about dog shit in the house? she never understands that, though she does understand the consternation of her in-laws’ faces bothers her, as if she were a monster to have been raised without the constant refrain and reassurance of I love you, but she only notices when she sees her brown skin reflected in their pale faces, it never bothered her growing up because she knows her parents love her even if they sometimes forgot her birthday or never came to visit her in college, because they couldn’t afford the flights with three more children to put through school, that they love her is crystal clear in the frown they make when she brings home less than an A or in the frozen homemade meals her mom sent her every month while she was in college, by overnight mail, which, though expensive, was still cheaper than a plane ticket and tasted of clicking chopsticks clustered around the dining table, consuming the foods she misses by being more than several states away in the one school to offer a full ride, which is also the only reason her parents agreed to let her go be surrounded by a trove of literary experiences written in a language they have no hope of fully understanding, a place that at first leaves her breathless, astonished to hear dead white men describe the inner longings of a seventeen-year-old girl who wasn’t even born on the same continent, their intuition for the human experience transcended the spaces she inhabits, but eventually she yearns for words that don’t need to be said, words that don’t lie strewn like pebbles on the shore, each unique but nearly indistinguishable from one another, piled up in a landscape of literary canon determined by figures she has no resemblance to; she wants to read about feelings conveyed in kimchi clay pots buried beneath the earth, left to ferment for months, she wants the wet mud of rice paddies to ooze up between her toes, she wants to hear about a wife who writes Post-it note reminders and prepares plates of freshly cut fruit every night after dinner so that when her American husband eats each piece of peeled and sliced apple, he swallows her love, and in exchange she hardly ever says I love you out loud, but that doesn’t help her daughter who lives in the English-speaking world, she doesn’t want her daughter’s friends to feel sorry for her daughter, feel like her daughter has an uncaring and uninvolved mother, when she knows they already think that since she sometimes forgets about birthday parties and sleepovers, even as they fight over the homemade cookies she sends to school with her daughter’s lunch, so sometimes she’ll say, as she leaves her daughter with her friends at a playdate, love you too, in English, all casual-like, as if she said it all the time.

Marie Antionette Awaits the Guillotine by Aleyna Rentz

We are going to get better. Our yoga mats and workbooks and whispered mantras are going to fit like plaster into our broken places. There are nine of us, all girls, all survivors of our own secret traumas, sitting in a semicircle at the front of the university chapel, a long room outfitted with pews and a nondescript altar capable of being repurposed for any god. Jesus, Yahweh, whoever. I think the point is we’re supposed to be goddesses, that we’re supposed to cultivate faith in ourselves, establish a sacred connection with the part of us we lost. Some kind of hokey shit like that. I don’t know. Dr. Ling is going around the circle, asking for introductions: names, majors, something about ourselves that we love. 

“I’m Taylor, a freshman biology major, and I love, um—” Taylor looks down at her mat, blushing—“that I’m a good student.”

I study her from across the circle. Frizzy topknot, high school Beta Club T-shirt. She’s still got braces, pink and purple Xs dotting her teeth like a tic-tac-toe board. I look at her and wonder why she’s here. Illicit affair with her AP chemistry teacher, probably. One look at her baking soda volcano and he was done for. I don’t know. Maybe her dad’s dead, maybe her brother. She looks like the kind of girl who brought all her favorite childhood stuffed animals to college.

Most of the girls here are pretty, and I assume the worst. Frat parties with spiked punch. Boyfriends with tempers. Lecherous uncles who just couldn’t help themselves. This is the wrong impulse, I know, but I’m cynical. I know how bad men operate, what they look for. Getting dressed this morning, I put on an oversized T-shirt, didn’t bother with makeup. I don’t want anyone here assuming anything about me. 

In spite of everything, the girls love themselves. Grace loves her bubbly personality. Katya loves her ability to empathize. Maria loves her smile. Izzie loves her legs. She says it with such conviction and earnestness that I am certain she still feels ownership over her body, that no man has taken that away from her. Someone in her family must have just died. 

Dr. Ling’s expectant gaze falls on me. Her hair’s pulled back in a sleek, black ponytail that accentuates her angular features, her square jawline and tiny nose. She is beautiful, and her beauty strikes me like a fun house mirror, a surface in which I see myself distorted and disfigured. 

“Hi,” I say, snapping the hair elastic on my wrist. “I’m Christine, a freshman who’s undeclared, and, uh, well…hmm.”

In this body, I don’t feel at home. I’m a motel guest tossing and turning on a cardboard mattress. Sometimes, I get stuck in front of reflective surfaces. Darkened storefronts, bus windows. I stare and stare, wondering if the figure in the glass truly belongs to me. Who is the landlord, I sometimes wonder? Who is the manager? Get me another room, I want to shout. This is the kind of woman I want to be: someone unafraid to make demands.

“I don’t know,” I say finally. “I can’t think of anything.” 

I expect Dr. Ling to move on to the next girl, but she’s looking at me, determined. “Yes, you can. I believe in you.”

She believes in me. As if I’m a god. What I feel like is a reluctant martyr, someone being burned at the stake. I look at the stained glass windows and the pretty, violated girls around me and wonder why I agreed to this, why I told my therapist, sure, whatever, I guess I’ll give yoga for trauma survivors a chance. I wonder what they’ve assumed about my past, what my reticence has led them to believe. 

“Just one thing. It can be anything,” Dr. Ling says. There’s not one flyaway hair on her head. 

“I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.”

“You can do it!” Taylor cheers, and I shoot her a murderous look.

“I’m going to need another yoga for trauma survivors just to cope with attending this one,” I say with a pointed laugh, but nobody else joins in. “Look, I can’t think of anything.”

Dr. Ling, polished as silver, gives me a sad smile, and there I am, warped and tarnished. “How about we come back to you?” she asks. “At the end of class, at the end of the semester. Whenever you’re ready. Give it as much time as you need, but know that I’ll be checking in from time to time, all right?”

“All right,” I say. 

But the weeks pass, and she doesn’t ask. I fold myself like origami while soft acoustic music plays and Dr. Ling firmly insists that we are enough. She teaches us to become cats, cows, dogs, frogs, pigeons. We are supple as paper, calm as corpses. Instead of warriors and eagles, I mold myself into the class clown, a role with which I am familiar. 

In tree pose, I wobble and collapse. “Tally ho!” I cry, a line that gets a giggle or two out of the traumatized girls. Dr. Ling only smirks, then opens her mouth. Here comes the question—what do I love about myself? Why not my wit, my ability to entertain? 

“Let’s try to be a little more serious,” she says instead.

Before yoga, we sit on our mats and talk. Group therapy. The girls’ stories are operatic and Oscar-worthy, building in intensity and detail each week like a prestige miniseries. Izzie’s parents used to lock her out of the house at night whenever she made them angry. She slept in the grass, woke up with ant bites. Katya’s ex-boyfriend had flown all the way from Ukraine to knock on her window at two in the morning, insisting she drop out of grad school or he’d kill himself. Grace, lecherous uncle. Maria, spiked punch. Taylor keeps her mouth shut, and I entertain the idea that I’ve maybe scared her into silence.

But I don’t divulge much, either, choosing instead to deal in maudlin abstractions. 

“I feel like a renter,” I say, “like my body doesn’t belong to me.”

Everyone nods in agreement, praises my profoundness. Dr. Ling is beaming, thrilled with this observation. She has the look of a woman in love. “Do you want to elaborate on that?” she asks, skipping the obvious question. 

“Let me take a rain check,” I say.

If we’re tired or just aren’t feeling the flow, we’re allowed to dip into child’s pose and stay there as long as we want. In child’s pose, you look like a doomed subject bowing to her king. It’s a form of surrender to that which we can’t control, Dr. Ling tells us. The implications of the move—that subservience brings peace, that we should prostrate ourselves before some higher power—annoy me, and one evening, I decide to say so.

Nondescript guitar music plays. The lights are dimmed. Dr. Ling asks us to lower ourselves into child’s pose, and from the floor I say, “They should rename this one something else. ‘Guilty Catholic Pose.’ ‘Marie Antoinette Awaits the Guillotine.’ You know?” 

After yoga is over and the girls have left, Dr. Ling pulls me aside. From the uncomfortable look on her face, I can tell she’s not going to ask me if I love my boldness, my willingness to speak my mind. She is kind but firm in her admonitions: Yes, sometimes yoga may seem silly, but I should keep my thoughts to myself or present them during group therapy in a constructive way.

“If you don’t feel like you’re getting anything out of these sessions, you don’t have to come,” she says after a moment of hesitation.  

I don’t get anything out of these sessions, but I keep coming back because I don’t have an HBO subscription. The drama sustains me, gives me something to look forward to each week, a reason to leave my dorm. I need to find out what happened to Katya’s maniac boyfriend, what Izzie is going to do after her dad called last week and asked to meet for lunch, if Taylor will ever fess up.  

“I was so nervous, I couldn’t eat,” Izzie tells us. “And he made fun of me for it. He noticed I was picking at my food and said maybe that was a good thing, since I’d gained some weight since he saw me last.” 

I lean in closer, ready for the next delicious development. I want her to turn the table over, throw water in his face. No, hot coffee. Melt his skin, pluck out his eyes. The drama I’m looking for has classical dimensions, a triumphant plot that sees the villain vanquished and the heroine redeemed. 

Izzie closes her eyes, allows a tear to escape. “He said he was sorry for the way he treated me as a kid, but that I had to understand I forced him to do it, because I was so bad.” She’s holding herself rigid, trying to be strong. “I just don’t understand what I did wrong.”

A disappointing turn. Izzie lets go of herself, lets the sobs ebb and flow. 

These girls are milquetoast, flimsy and sodden. Katya says she’s considering visiting her ex-boyfriend when she’s back in Ukraine for the summer. Grace says she’s angry with her uncle, but understands that he grew up in an abusive household and couldn’t break the cycle. Maria says at least she was drugged and can’t remember anything. Taylor says she prays for each of us before bed. This is not the content I signed up for. 

The semester crawls by. Taylor gets pink and red braces for Valentine’s Day, green and white for St. Patrick’s. In a rare burst of extroversion, she asks what colors she should get for Easter.

“Yellow and blue? Blue and purple?” 

“Red and brown. For the blood of Jesus Christ.” 

I say that. This is the first thing I’ve said in two weeks. If I am a motel dweller, then let me act the part: crazed and obscene, someone who pushes their belongings in a grocery cart and shouts obscenities at passersby. Over the last three months, I’ve cultivated an air of mystery. Nobody knows why I’m here or what I love about myself. In a room where I can cycle from cat to cow to cat again, I use my silent meditation time to invent stories more compelling than my own. Maybe I’m the child of doomsday cultists, or someone who escaped from some billionaire’s covert but widespread sex trafficking ring. In this room, you get to choose what you believe in. If Dr. Ling asks, I’ll tell her I love my peeling wallpaper and faded curtains, the dead roach in the corner.

As finals week draws near, I realize my first year of college is almost over. Year nineteen is coming up, one last round of the teenage blues. My parents call sometimes, asking if I’ve made friends, if I’ve decided what I want to study, if I’m happy here. They don’t know about the yoga or the reason I’m doing it. They tell me they love me, but they don’t give specifics.

Taylor arrives at our penultimate session with braces the colors of Easter chicks and Peeps marshmallows. 

“Jesus would not be pleased,” I say. She answers with an awkward giggle, a kind of desperate squawk. I’m secretly proud that, after all these weeks, I still intimidate her.  

Taylor smiles broadly to show her teeth to the room, but she does it quickly, careful not to expose too much of herself. Tonight’s therapy is focused on boundaries. We’re going to learn the power of the word “no.” Dr. Ling says it’s the most powerful word in our arsenal. 

“What are our experiences with setting boundaries? Are we good at it? Is it something we need to work on?”

“I’m an expert,” I say, miming being trapped behind a wall. “Nobody’s getting past this thing.”

There’s scattered laughter. Dr. Ling looks ready to lecture me, but Taylor, of all people, raises her hand. Sheepishly, the elbow bent. First the braces, now this. We look at her in amazement.

In a small voice, she says, “But what if you say no, and they don’t listen?”

Dr. Ling nods. “That’s an extremely valid question, and a tough one to answer. Who do you want to set boundaries with, Taylor?”



My ears perk up. Finally, a twist in the plot. I crane my neck to get a better look. “I’m a pushover, and I know it’s all because of James and Caleb. My neighbors as a kid,” she clarifies, taking a deep breath. 

“It’s okay, Taylor, take your time,” Dr. Ling says.

“At first ‘no’ was enough, but then they started saying they’d cut my hair if I didn’t do what they asked, or push me off the trampoline, or tell my mom I was the one making them do—” 

She puts a hand over her mouth. She has said too much. Dr. Ling reaches across the circle to hand her a box of tissues, but Taylor refuses them. 

Grace scoots close to her, rubs circles on her back. “It’s okay, sweetie.”

Taylor pushes her away. “I’m going to go,” she blubbers, and she puts on her shoes. They’re some kind of off-brand Converse. Bubblegum pink. She doesn’t even tie them, and on her way out, she nearly trips over the laces. 

I snort. It just comes out, discreet and unwelcome, like a mouse darting across a kitchen, or a man’s unexpected hand. Behind me, I hear the heavy oak door bang shut. 

Dr. Ling asks the girls to excuse us, and she beckons me to follow her to the back of the sanctuary. I watch her perky ponytail bounce, wonder what kind of conditioner she uses. When she turns to face me, I expect her impeccably waxed eyebrows to be furrowed in anger, but she only looks disappointed.    

In a pained voice, she lectures me about the sanctity of this group and the trust I’ve violated. “You can’t do that,” she says, cupping her face in her hands. Her nails are manicured. French tips. “You just can’t do that. Do you understand me?”

Not the question I was hoping for, but I nod anyway.

And just like that, Taylor’s gone. No goodbyes, no resolution, a television show cancelled in its prime. When she doesn’t show up to our next yoga class, Dr. Ling asks if anyone knows where Taylor is. We shake our heads. Of course nobody has heard from her. We signed a contract at the beginning of the semester agreeing we wouldn’t contact each other outside of class until it ended. We’re a clique-free zone here in the university chapel. The only parts of each other we’ve seen are the bruises. When I first heard about the class, I didn’t know I’d have to sign a no-friend clause. The dim hope that I might make a friend or two was what initially spurred my interest. I thought a few of us would gather for dinner afterward, that we’d bond over rape and incest and the vicissitudes of girlhood. Everyone else on this campus is so unblemished, unmolested and whole. How do you talk to people like that?

Our last yoga class, Dr. Ling brings cupcakes and sparkling apple cider and tells us how proud she is of our growth. She dabs her perfect eyes with a tissue. Her mascara must be waterproof. I fidget through her speech, snapping the hair tie on my wrist until my skin is pink. Ask me, Dr. Ling, what’s to love about this dirty motel room. The soiled sheets, the moldy shower. Ask me why this place fell into such squalor.

But she doesn’t. “Namaste,” she says one last time, even though we haven’t done any yoga tonight. We echo her before rolling up our mats. The girls leave in a huddle, freed from the no-friend contract at last, and I walk a few steps behind them.

It’s a little after seven, purple sky, people going places. It’s getting warmer out, and girls are pulling sundresses from their closets, wearing them on first dates. Couples walk by. It’s still cool enough out to hold hands without them getting sweaty. I had a boyfriend, once. Summer after senior year of high school. A community college student, a cool older boy with a beard and a beat-up Firebird. He was my first yoga instructor, the person who taught me how to lie still and empty my mind, to become something else entirely. Sometimes, he was sweet. Gentle, the big teddy bear type. In his car late at night, parked in my parents’ quiet driveway, he’d hold my suppliant body against his shoulder and whisper his mantra: I love you I love you I love you.

Small Rodents and Other Unwanted Things by Heather Debel

At night, we hear mice scratching in the walls, soft like they are sharing a secret. We feel the mice moving around us, hear their nails scuff across the rafters. The house is alive—little vibrations, fingers on a waxed car, door hinges. Liz thinks they are playing with her, some game of hide-and-seek. 

“We should get a cage for them,” she says, “so we can take care of them.” 

I like the idea. I’ve never had a pet before. One peeks its nose out from a hole around the outlet. 

“That one we’ll call Nosey,” she says.  

She reaches her finger toward the hole in the outlet and says, “Here Nosey, Nosey, Nosey.” 

I reach out too and touch the tip of its nose. It feels like a tiny bead. 

Our Aunt Maggie has tried to get rid of them with mouse traps. They litter the cabin. Liz and I have to watch our step so we don’t lose a toe. Aunt Maggie doesn’t have the energy to notice her traps are not working. Most days she sits in her chair on the porch and drinks Majorska. We hear her rocking all morning, banging her bottle against the side of her chair. 

We live in a cabin in the Adirondacks. The floor of the cabin is jagged. The cabin is infested with mice, among other things. But, we have a roof over our heads and food in our bellies and as Aunt Maggie likes to remind us, that’s more than enough for us ungrateful little rodents. 

Aunt Maggie is a religious woman. She wears high-necked dresses, long enough to sweep the floor. When she’s not too hungover, she goes to church on Sunday. She says, “God only helps those who help themselves,” and “Some people need to take the plank out of their own goddamn eye.” Aunt Maggie used to work at a greenhouse taking care of flowers when a shelf fell over and broke her back. She collects unemployment and walks with a slight limp.

We should be with our mother right now in an apartment above A&A Deli in New Jersey, but a few months ago she robbed three Starbucks. The State of New Jersey picked us up from school, while I was sitting in science class and Liz was busy telling off her teacher who had tried to tell Liz the proper way to hold scissors. 

As we got into her SUV, the lady dressed in black told us our mother was going to the big house. I told her I wanted to go to the big house with my mother and she said that maybe one day I will, but not now. She told us that it wasn’t our fault, our mother was bipolar, possibly schizophrenic. Liz gripped her fists and said, “You’re lying!” Our mother only ever suffered from one thing: a lack of funds. She used to tell us poverty stuck to her like white on rice. The DYFS lady in the passenger’s seat said we’d be living in Upstate New York with our Aunt Maggie. She turned around and looked at us with big pitying eyes and promised us our aunt was sober now.  

My sister kicked the back of the seat, pounded the window. She didn’t quit, not on any of the trips we had to make before we got there. I watched the DYFS lady’s head bobble from my sister’s kicks all the way up and into the forest.

In my dreams, I tell my mother what it is like up here. I tell her about the crickets when it gets dark, how loud they are through the walls. I tell her about the lake always changing colors depending on the time of day. I tell her the trees are not like the ones at home. They are bigger, greener, thicker. Even the dirt, the dirt is a deep red and it is always getting in my hair, under my nails. 

And the mice; I always tell her how Liz and I love the mice. 

In my dreams, she holds me like she used to when I was sick. “Don’t you go rotten on me too,” she says. “The world is so rotten, don’t you go rotten on me, too.”

I have made one friend here, Ronnie. He has a birthmark that spreads like a web across his face. Everywhere else his skin is pasty like dry glue, but the web on his face is so dark, in the light it looks purple. Ronnie doesn’t look at me the way most people do. Kids upstate always look at me like there is a joke hidden somewhere in my face, within my clothes, or my hair, or whatever else might become a punch line. Adults look at me like I might give them an infection. 

Ronnie likes to talk to me because I don’t make fun of his birthmark. 

He comes over after school and we sit by the lake. It is spring and the Adirondacks are warm and breezy. He shows me how to skip rocks and though I am no good at it, I like watching him. The rocks leave his hand like rockets and dance across the water. I think he likes making me smile because he can skip rocks all day. Liz tries it too and gives up quickly. Instead, she throws the biggest stones she can find into the water and laughs when the splash drenches our clothes. 

When we’re tired we sit in the shade. Ronnie puts his arm around me while we watch the speedboats. I ask him where he learned to do that. He says his dad does it with his mom when they aren’t fighting. I ask if he has any pets. He says his father brings home dead deer and hangs them up in the garage. His mom says their house is haunted; she can hear their hooves clicking around the house. I smile. My mother saw ghosts on her bad nights, too. 

Aunt Maggie comes out with her dress twisted to the side and her hair out of the braid. She is swinging an empty bottle around her head. I can tell she’s angry. She comes next to us and puts her face by my cheek. “Did you do anything to my car?”

 “No, Aunt Maggie. What’s wrong with your car?”

“You know what’s wrong.” 

I look at Ronnie and Liz. Both of them are frozen.

“Were you playing with it? Crawling under it? Did you touch it?”

I swear to her I didn’t. She stands up and stomps over to the car. She kicks the wheels. She gets into the car and tries to turn it on, but it makes a click, click, click sound. “Damn it!” she screams from the car. “Son of a bitch!” She holds the key in the ignition, click, click, click. 

 She calls my name to get over here and so I do, embarrassed that Ronnie is watching. She says she needs me and my friend to ride down to the liquor store to pick up more Majorska. I can see hints of my mother in her, the pointed nose, the eye wrinkles. Like a shell of my mother without the love. 

We get on our bikes and ride to the liquor store. 

I like the speed and the sound of my bike. I can’t hear myself think about sad things. 

The liquor store is a small, white house. It is covered by overgrown bushes and sits tightly between two trees. 

The man who owns the store has to lean over the counter to look at us. 

“It’s for my aunt,” I tell him. 

“Let me guess. Good ole Mags?” he asks, and we nod. He shakes his head like he disapproves, but he has eyes that say he understands. 

When we return, we barely walk into the house before Old Mags is pulling us close to her and kissing our heads. My head is squished into one dirty yellow flower in her dress design. I try to pull away, but the hug feels nicer than I would like to admit. 

“You guys are the best, have I told you that lately?” she says. 

At night, Old Mags passes out early. Ronnie sleeps over. We curl under the quilts and turn off the lights except for the flashlight. We wait for mice to come looking for food. We name the mice we see—Tippy, Shadow, Rex, Pinky, Curly, Baby, Lady—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. We make up stories for them. Our favorite stories are about Nosey, the mouse who is most adventurous. He was the first to say hi to us, the first one we’ve touched, so he is our favorite. Liz especially. I can hear her whispering into the night.

“Don’t be afraid,” she says to him, “There is nothing to be afraid of. I will protect you always.” 

We talk about buying cages. We reason it would keep them safe from the mouse traps. We talk until our eyes get heavy. We listen to the mice squeak until we sleep. 

“I will protect you always,” I hear Liz say over and over again. 

We wake up to Old Mags puking in the bathroom. Liz and I stare at the ceiling from our bed and pretend like we don’t hear anything. I focus on the crickets outside. They sound like waves, loud and soft and loud again. 

We go downstairs to make breakfast. There is a note on the table and a twenty—get some more on your way back from school.

We walk down the dirt road to the main road where the bus lady picks us up. The bus lady has red hair and is missing her left eye—from a fall when she was young, she tells us. We make up other stories: stab wound, a gunshot wound, perhaps she was a warrior in a past life. She smokes with the windows up in the heat. We hate her for it. There is a stop sign about halfway to school and the bus lady stops there for five minutes and tells us a story, something about New York City on a windy night, a movie theater, someone famous. I suppose she is lonely.

At the stop sign, Liz and I see an old antique shop. It is small and brown and has big windows. I notice a birdcage hanging in the front window. It is gold and the top of it is shaped like a palace. I point it out to Liz and she smiles. The mice would love it. How wonderful it would be to live someplace like that. 

After school, the three of us have to run to the liquor store. I find the red bottle cap, the red and gold curtains. We drop the twenty in a hurry and bolt out of there to make it to the bus in time. I shove the bottle in my backpack and hear it swish next to my homework. The bus lady with her sunglasses glares at us as we walk on. Ronnie and Liz giggle behind me. 

Old Mags is waiting at home for us with four glasses of orange juice. When I give her the vodka, she pours it in her cup and asks me where the change is. My heart drops to my stomach. Her face turns angry. 

“Are you trying to steal from me?”

“I’ll get it tomorrow, I promise.”

The three of us chug our orange juice and run out to the lake. 

“Don’t you ever try stealing from me! You’re just like your mother!” she screams after me as I run as far as I am allowed to go. 

By the end of summer, Old Mags is drinking every day and the heat will not quit. The humidity sticks in our hair. Ronnie leads us to a trail that takes us around the lake and into the woods. I think Ronnie is someone who will stick around. I imagine what life we might live in a place like this. We would eat food together, wash the floors, have real pets. 

We reach Ronnie’s secret lake, which isn’t really secret, just a lake smaller and more hidden than Great Sacandaga Lake. We take our shoes off and dig our feet into the sand. Ronnie turns to us and says, “This is a nude beach.” He takes off all his clothes and a part of me is a bit surprised that his birthmark is only on his face. The rest of his body is smooth, dull. He runs off of the dock, does a cannonball into the water. Liz and I look at each other. When I start undressing, she does too. Liz cannonballs into the lake. I follow. 

We tread water for a bit, not knowing what to do. Ronnie suggests we play Marco Polo. We giggle a whole lot every time our hand reaches out and touches a bare body. We are acting wild and shouting too much. Liz and I have never known a place this beautiful existed. This is the world we create for ourselves without adults. 

It is my turn to be Marco. I hear Liz breathing next to me. I keep reaching for her. Marco! Polo! Marco! I keep reaching and reaching until I run into the dock and hit my head. Liz is laughing at me and I laugh too. I rub the sore spot. 

I feel a hand around my wrist. In one motion, I am yanked out of the water. 

I see Liz too, hanging next to me. Old Mags is holding us, her face and eyes glowing red and sweating. 

“Hannah and Elizabeth! What do you think you’re doing? Swimming naked with a boy? What is wrong with you? I’ve been calling your names! Where have you been?” 

I smell stale liquor. I look at Liz, who is flailing in the air, her feet kicking nothing.

“I was calling your name! Why didn’t you answer me?”

I yank my wrist from Old Mags, but she clamps down like a pit bull. I pull my arm back and she pulls me forward, my feet dragging on the ground. I look back at Ronnie who is still in the water, horrified. Immediately, I am aware of my nakedness. My eyes burn with tears. I pull my arm as hard as I can, but Old Mags’ grip tightens. I try covering myself with my free arm, my feet keep tripping. As we pass our clothes, I lean down and pick up my shirt and hold it over me. She drags us all the way back to the cabin. 

When we are in the house, she still does not let go of us. I hear Liz’s screams bouncing off the walls. They are loud and angry. She kicks every wall that is in reach, banging into door frames with her feet, kicking the floor if nothing else. 

As Old Mags walks, a mouse skitters across her path. With one motion, Old Mags’ shoe crashes down on it. There is a crunch, like she stepped on a bag of chips. I hear the long, demon-like scream from my sister. “Nosey!”

To Liz, there is no way it could be any other mouse. 

Old Mags throws us into our room and closes the door. Liz bangs on the door with her fists, her feet, like she wants to knock down the walls.

At night, my face burns with embarrassment. I cry still, thinking about Ronnie’s horrified face, the crushed mouse. The mice shuffling inside the walls keep us awake. 

“We have to protect them from her,” Liz whispers. “I’ll be damned if she ever hurts another one of them again.” 

Liz turns to me in the middle of the night and whispers, “I hate her. I fucking hate her.” 

The sound of the word fuck rolling out of my sister’s mouth shocks me and feels right. 

“I fucking hate her, too,” I whisper back. 

Winter comes fast. It snows once and never melts. Aunt Maggie’s drinking is getting worse. Her hands are always shaking. She gives us more and more money. My legs beneath my knees freeze on the walk to the bus, on the walk to the liquor store, on the walk back home. Thawing my legs is the best part of the day. 

Ronnie sleeps over most nights. We make forts in our room and sleep in them. It is warm there. We hear the mice. They are warm, too. 

A snowstorm blows in sometime in December. The snow is so high it reaches our windows. The three of us eat whatever we find in the house. We play whatever we want. We get tired and bored, lay around, sleep, fight, laugh. 

After three days, the snow melts enough for us to open the front door. 

Old Mags bangs on my door early in the morning. She tells me I have to make a trip to the store. She holds out a fifty. She looks in bad shape, sweaty, her eyes bulging. I am tired.

“Later, Aunt Maggie.”

“No,” she says. “Now.” 

School is still not open. The buses are not running. The store is miles away. Aunt Maggie’s eyes are red-rimmed and desperate. 

Ronnie, Liz, and I dress, putting our clothes on slowly. We soak up the warmth as long as we can. Then, we begin walking. 

The sun is rising. The snow is hard and dirty. It slushes around our feet. 

“Hey Ronnie, if you could live anywhere, where would you live?”

“Under the Eiffel Tower.”

Liz says, “That’s silly. I would live in the ocean.”

“It’s cold there. I never want to live anywhere that’s cold ever again.”

“I’d be a fish, stupid. Fish don’t get cold.”

I only think of my mother. I say nothing.  

After too many steps, my stomach growls. My head aches for food and rest. I think of a warm grilled cheese, a hot barbeque on a summer day. 

We reach the antique shop by the stop sign. It is a square cabin with a pointed roof. The sign painted out front is wood and reads: “Tree-Eater Antiques.” We go in. There is no way we are making it to the liquor store like this. 

Inside the shop is better than I imagined. It is all clutter—strange paintings, newspapers, taxidermies, old lamps and lanterns, old furniture and radios. We can’t move, don’t know where to go. Dust swirls around in the hot air being blown out of the space heater. 

An older woman shouts from another room that she is closed. We don’t leave. The warmth has just started to seep into our clothes. 

She emerges from the doorway. She wears a skirt with bright flowers and a dirty brown shirt. She has massive earrings and a bandana tied in her hair. Her glasses magnify her eyes. She reminds me of Ms. Frizzle. None of us know what to say. When she sees it’s just a bunch of kids, Frizzle lightens up.

“Are y’all hungry?” she asks. Our faces must give away our hunger because she laughs and says, “Come in! Come in!” 

She disappears and hobbles around. “Did you know ‘Adirondack’ means tree-eater?!” she shouts from behind the wall. “It was meant as an insult between two groups of Native Americans! Tree-eaters they called each other! What a riot!”

I like her voice. Unlike most adults, her happy voice is sincere.

Each of us shuffle around the store as Frizzle continues to shout stories at us from behind the wall. Ronnie and Liz reach out to touch old radios, swiping the dust from dials. 

I sneak around one of the shelves. I see the cage, long and thin, painted a dull gold. Ivy vines are engraved along the bottom and up some of the bars. It is small with a hook on top. Inside, I can see little swings. There is a small lock on the front of the door.

“…Meaning ‘porcupine’ which in fact is just an animal that eats bark, but the Mohawks had no written language so we can’t be sure.” Frizzle holds microwaved pizza. We can hardly wait until she puts it down. I eat quickly, trying to get more than Liz or Ronnie. I can feel the pit in my stomach filling, the hunger headache subsiding.

“You were looking at that birdcage?” she says, as she points to it with a heavily ringed finger. I look up and still keep eating. I nod. 

“That one is as old as they come. Made in the 1880s and owned by a man who used to live up here before it was even a town. Paint is probably not safe for a bird, but it still is pretty to look at. Rumor has it, the owner held onto it until he died. Literally, he died holding it.”

I look at the birdcage. I want it. The want goes deep. It’s as heavy as the bread and cheese sitting in my stomach. I have never really owned anything. 

 “It’s about $100,” she says, eyeing me closely.

I look down at my pizza, trying to figure out how I can make the fifty in my pocket turn into a hundred. I reach into my pocket and pull it out.

“What do you have?” she asks, and I tell her. 

“You can have it,” she says. “I like you.”

I feel Liz and Ronnie looking at me. I don’t care. I want the birdcage. 

It still doesn’t hit me, what I have done, when we leave the antique shop. We walk in silence, Ronnie and Liz on either side of me. I hold my birdcage to my chest.

Liz whispers, “Old Mags is going to kill you.”

We stop walking and I turn to look at them. “She can’t kill us if we don’t go home.” 

We walk to Ronnie’s house, where his father sits on the couch and watches TV. 

“Hey,” he mumbles to us as we slip in. We have peanut butter sandwiches and we spend the night there, talking about how we might lure the mice into the cage. No one says anything more about the money or Old Mags.

When we finally go to school, I bring the cage with me and I carry it around all day to my classes. I am still scared to go home. 

What I’ve done begins to weigh on me and I can’t sit still in my chair. The clock ticks, and every moment I forget about Old Mags is a blessing. But then, I remember again and my heart sinks. 

I sleep at Ronnie’s with Liz and carry around the birdcage for three days before Mrs. Silbernagel asks me to talk to her after school. I go to her office when the bell rings. My heart throbs in my ears. 

Mrs. Silbernagel is there with the school counselor and the vice principal. All three of them look more concerned than the next. They look at the cage. They look at me. The school counselor says she wants to ask me a few questions. 

“It is all going to be okay,” she says. 

Whatever these adults are planning, I want none of it. 

“I just want to go home now,” I say. But, I don’t have a home. 

I turn and I walk toward the door of the classroom. Slowly, at first. I shuffle my feet. I keep walking. When I get to the door, I run. I hear my name—Hannah? Hannah!—but I just keep running until I am out the door, the birdcage clonking like a ball and chain behind me. 

I run to the nearest bus. I don’t care what bus it is. 

I get off as soon as I recognize where I am. I have to walk another two miles to get to the house. I hug the birdcage. 

When I get to Old Mags’ house, Ronnie and Liz are sitting in the snow, asking what had happened to me. Nothing, I tell them. The door is locked, they say, and they can’t get in. I knock. No one answers. I break the side window. I’m already in trouble for the cage and for not bringing Aunt Maggie the liquor. 

When I walk in, Aunt Maggie is laying on the couch under blankets. There is a putrid smell. I walk over to her. She is white. She does not look like Aunt Maggie. Her teeth are bared in a stiff snicker. I touch her arm and know. 

It is terribly quiet in the room when I turn and look at Ronnie. I see him take a step forward, like he might reach out and touch my arm. 

“She’s dead,” I tell them. 

Liz takes a step forward and looks herself. She tilts her head like she is trying to figure something out. 

“Why?” she asks. 

All I know is that it has something to do with the fifty dollars and a birdcage. 

Ronnie takes another step and I wait for the weight of his hand on my shoulder. 

“Good,” Liz says, “I’m glad she’s dead.”

Ronnie begins to back away. I see in his face he is scared of me. He is scared of all my trouble. 

When he runs out the front door, something in me breaks. I am tired of people leaving me.  

I am angry at Old Mags. I am angry at my mother. I am angry at Ronnie. I throw the cage after him. It hits the door frame. I hear it crack. When it hits the ground, it breaks again. Pieces of the broken cage lie on the floor. I can’t look at it. 

Liz and I aren’t upset that Aunt Maggie is all empty-eyed on the couch. We have a different worry. We will lose the mice. Liz and I run into our room and bang on the walls with our fists. The walls are so fragile, they crumble in our hands. We keep at it, tearing the walls down. We can see the movement between the rafters. We pick up a whole handful of baby mice and load up our pillow cases. Some mice bite at us and we don’t care. The mice are screeching. We are screaming like mad and chasing the mice and putting what we can into pillowcases. 

The police show up on our doorstep with the school counselor. 

They look a bit horrified when they see Liz and me standing there with pillow cases full of mice, our faces covered in wall dust. We grip the bags in a way that says, Don’t you dare take them away from us. 

It takes many officers to hold us and to pry the pillowcases from our fingers. We’re screaming and kicking at them. The school counselor tries to say nice things to me, but I scream so that I can’t hear her. The police put us into the back of their car while other policemen throw the bags into dumpsters. We sit in the car and push our crying faces against the glass. 

The cops are too busy with Aunt Maggie to notice the first mouse crawl out of the dumpster. One after another they tuck and dive into the snow, their furry backs flowing like gray ripples over the white ground, squeaking something that sounds to me and Liz like freedom

Homesick Island by Bea Chang

Beacon Street Prize Winner, Nonfiction, 2021

The last passenger towed his suitcase out of the airport, the wheels scraping the island’s midnight quiet. As the door sighed shut behind him, I caught a taste of the air, thick with humidity, from the acres of volcanic mountains and merciless jungles just beyond the city. The arrival hall, drab and lemon-colored, sat uncannily silent, deserted. My backpack lay on the rubber belt, alone, the machine long turned off.

I was stuck two, maybe three, feet behind a line I couldn’t see, on Indonesian land but not officially in Indonesia yet. Before me, a barrel-chested immigration officer was perched high in a wooden box, flipping through my passport. I had run out of pages for a visa. I rubbed my palms against my pants. I was sure he would let me in because I was American. But, I thought, maybe not—because I was Asian too.


By the fifteenth cenutry, Chinese merchants and sailors had settled in Borneo, Cambodia, Java, and Champa (southern and central coast of modern Vietnam). Because of friendly diplomatic relations, the Chinese—if we were to think of Chinese as a monolithic ethnic group, of course, which it is not—also immigrated to the Malacca Sultanate, as well as the Ryuku Kingdom (present-day Japan). Two hundred years before the Europeans took to the seas, the Ming Dynasty’s maritime expeditions reached as far as Africa. DNA tests confirmed in 2002 that a woman on Lamu Island, off the coast of Kenya, was of Chinese descent. Some tribes north of Cape Town claimed to be progenies of Chinese sailors as well; their physical appearance is similar to Chinese, with pale skin and a Mandarin-sounding tonal language. These people call themselves Awatwa, or “abandoned people.”


I knew nothing about Singapore when I arrived at twenty-two, just two weeks out of college; I knew even less about who I was. Along with fifteen young Americans—all of them white, or passable for white—I was contracted as an international fellow to teach in Singapore’s neighborhood schools. Young and new to a fast-paced, dazzling city, the fellows and I spent our nights in open-air hawker centers, a raucous affair of knives chopping the bones of Hainanese chickens, lips suckling the juicy meat of roasted ducks, and char kway teow sizzling in ancient woks. Once, centuries ago, Singapore had been a swamp-filled jungle with a few hundred tribesmen in the backwaters of the Malacca Sultanate, then the Johor Sultanate. But when Sir Stamford Raffles established the isle as a free trading port for the British Empire, the Bugis, Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Arab traders came to settle. Even today, among Singapore’s credit- card-thin skyscrapers and world-class malls, the city-state, situated at the tail of the Malaysian peninsula, tasted of distant homes.

At dinner, we traded stories of our adventures in the classroom. My Maryland friend said that a student had asked him whether he had to shoot his way out of his apartment each morning in the United States. My New Jersey friend laughed at how a boy had asked to trade his brown eyes for her blue ones. “An eye for an eye!” She slapped her thigh, cracking up.

That was, at any rate, the story I brought home at the end of the year, the one I knew how to talk about. For a long time, I did not admit that, at first, I could not understand my students’ fitful accents, nor did I know what to do when the boys broke out in a fight. I did not mention the Malay-Chinese race riots I learned about, nor the dead-eyed Indonesian, Filipino, and Burmese women I saw sitting on display in maid agencies. Or that, on my first day in the classroom, a Malay boy with a wild overbite ran up to me, his spit spraying: “Cher! If you’re American, why your eye not blue?”

I tried to explain that I was born in Taiwan and raised in the United States. But the forty-some-odd children in gray uniforms persisted: Why your hair not gold? They wanted to know. Why your skin not white? Miss! They were screaming. You American or not lah

For years, I hardly understood what to make of it. But the deep cut of disappointment in the children’s eyes stuck to me long after I left: The American teacher they had been promised did not turn out to be quite American enough.


It is said that the Chinese coolie emigration began after slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies. Facing a shortage of manpower, European merchants replaced African slaves with indentured laborers from China and India. The British Empire was responsible for much of the diaspora, sending them to Fiji, Australia, Malaysia, Burma, and Singapore. 

In the New World, Asian coolies worked in the plantations, under similar substandard conditions. Under their contracts, the coolies were to become free men after six to eight years of labor, but often their servitude was extended for years. It should be noted that the Asian human cargo was brought to American shores in the exact same slave ships that had once chained and shipped Africans across the Atlantic Passage.


I came, at one time, from a small place in the mountains on the Pacific island Portuguese explorers had called Ilha Formosa. My father’s father could trace our lineage on the island to his great-grandparents, but he could not be sure when we migrated, exactly, from mainland China. My mother’s father, on the other hand, had arrived at the tail end of the Chinese Civil War in the 1950s along with two million Nationalist soldiers feeling Mao Zedong’s bloody Communist revolution. As a child in Taiwan, I didn’t care; I ran up beside the trickling waterfall across the street from our house and scooped up cups full of tadpoles from the pond. “Make sure you let them go back,” my mother always said.

The first time I was made to think about the color of my skin was within two months of our moving to the United States for my father’s job. I was ten. We lived, back then, in a cul-de-sac in the dry desert of southern California. I had dialed onto the Internet and was talking to a stranger in an AOL chat room when he asked, “What color are you?”

I ran downstairs, my bare feet on the carpet, and asked my mother. “Uh,” she hesitated. She was stirring hot-and-sour soup in a pot. “Yellow,” she said. I remember looking at my skin. It didn’t look yellow.

The stranger in the chat room replied, “What’s that? Are you Black or white?”


During the first modern contact in Asia, Western explorers and missionaries almost always regarded East Asians as white. On a number of occasions, they even recorded that East Asians were “as white as we were.” However, as the Chinese and the Japanese, in particular, resisted participation in European systems, their skin color began to “darken” in published texts. In the tenth edition of Carl Linnaeus’ taxonomy, published in 1758, the Swedish botanist and physician, in separating homo sapiens into four continental classifications, described East Asians as luridus, meaning “lurid,” “sallow,” or “pale yellow.” By the nineteenth century, the term “yellow” had taken hold of Western imagination and all the peoples of the East had been lumped together into an explicit racial category. Later that century, this classification would give rise to the term, “Yellow Peril,” a racist ideology that people of East Asian descent were an existential threat to the Western world.


My father’s new job moved us out of the relative diversity of Los Angeles County to a quaint New Jersey suburb with pastoral roads curving through rolling hills and wooded parks. On the first day of high school, my mother and I stood at the bus stop, on a bed of brown and red fallen leaves, with a hazel-eyed, pimpled boy. He was thoroughly ironed for the first day of school, dressed in khaki pants and a checkered button-down. Beside his nearly six-foot frame and broad, ice-hockey shoulders, my mother was petite. She greeted him, tilting her head up. “How are you doing this morning?”

I thought I saw him wince at each of her faintly mispronounced words. His eyes moved slowly toward me, like summer clouds against the marble sky, and came to a stop at my mother. Politely, he tried to grin. But, just then, two girls—one with blonde hair and another with brunette curls—started toward us, laughing. All of a sudden, the boy drew back and fixed his glance elsewhere. As the girls hopped right past me and my mother, giggling and wrapping their arms around the boy, something in their whiteness and self-assurance made me feel as if everything about me was terribly wrong, undeniably out of place: my mother, my black hair, my flip-flops. 

I couldn’t have told you back then where my paranoia had come from, and I am not certain that I know for sure now either. As a child, I must have picked up on the patronizing tone with which Americans said, Taiwan? You mean Thailand? Many times, friends and strangers alike had, with laughter, asked: Do you eat pigeon meat? What about monkey brains? Do you bind your feet? Most of the time, it had seemed mundane, a shared wisecrack, perhaps. Yet, over time, the small slights and the mocking tone must have accumulated without my knowing, taught me shame—racism, even—against my own people. By the time I parachuted into a white high school in New Jersey, it fed a constant panic that I would always be exotic and strange and backward, and that I would never truly belong.

Back then, before social media, all I knew about the wider world came from my textbooks, the evening news, and Hollywood films. At the same time that I was detecting societal cues that I was different, I was being taught that racism did not exist in the United States, not anymore, and certainly not against Asians. Instead, along with my white classmates, I learned about the immigrants that came in through Ellis Island, about the beauty of the American melting pot, and the eventual triumph of our civil rights battle. So I drew my own conclusions: If what I was experiencing was not racial bias, then there must be something inherently flawed, second-class, with who I was. 

My decision to turn my back on my heritage, therefore, was a calculated choice. In the school cafeteria, I started to sit far from the handful of Asians in our town. I stopped telling people my birth name. I made excuses for not visiting Taiwan, and I spent six of my formative years between high school and college cut off from contact with my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. I became a shrewd observer of what was acceptable to bring to school for lunch (sandwiches and chips) and how to bring it (brown paper bags). I taped and rewatched hours of Friends episodes to imitate the drawl of Chandler’s sarcastic jokes. I learned to speak up, loudly, even if I had nothing to say, and I found myself gaining traction in the white world. I was the starting point guard on our state-ranked basketball team by my sophomore season, and I had a wonderful group of honor student friends cheering me on from the bleachers. I had erased myself and built it again, stick by stick, from scratch.


The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by the Congress in 1882, prohibited any further immigration from China and forbade the Chinese already residing in the United States from becoming citizens. It was the first American federal legislation that targeted a group of people based on race, banning them from entering the home of the free. “If we continue to permit the introduction of this strange people,” Senator John Franklin Miller, a Republican from California, said, “with their peculiar civilization. . . , what is to be the effect upon the American people and the Anglo-Saxon civilization?” It was government-mandated racism, and it was the foundation for the racialization of Asian immigrants as inassimilable “aliens.” The act was not repealed until 1943.


“It’s funny, isn’t it?” My Singaporean friend said, her voice braided with a British cadence from her time in England, as gentle as the warm, lapping waves before us. We were on a resort isle off the main island, one degree north of the equator. I was lying on my towel in the sun, while she, my advisor from the Ministry of Education, sat under the shade of her umbrella. “Westerners want to be dark. Asians want to be white.”

I asked, “What am I?”

“Right now,” she said, eyeing my bikini in the blazing light, “you’re a Westerner.”

My body felt like it was broiling in an oven, my skin minutes away from being blackened and crispy like my mother’s pork belly. I was eyeing my friend’s umbrella like a salvation, but something tied to my identity as an American woman, a Jersey girl, didn’t let me move. Instead, I said, “I think it’s hilarious that they sell whitening cream here.”

My friend retorted, “Ha, they sell tanning oil in the United States, don’t they?” She turned to look at me and, smiling, said, “People always want what they don’t have.”

I think I came to Singapore at a time when I really needed to be here. I didn’t expect it, but right away, Singapore embraced me with its orderly and multi-cultured heart. Here was an immaculate city with an urban core of sleek, elegant skyscrapers and designer hotels and a durian-shaped opera house, headed unabashedly for the future; yet, it remained an island of migrants and émigrés, built to be a little piece of everyone’s home. Here was my Taiwanese childhood of bubble teas and pork chop rice, and here was my young adulthood of Beatle cover bands and fast cash and Western bars. In Singapore, I heard traces of my grandmother’s Hokkien dialect. I found the Creole language of my father’s speech, that verbal salad of Mandarin and English tossed into something wholly different, strange and beautiful. Here was a city where the majority of the population looked like me, where everyone came from somewhere else, and my race was no longer noticed. In Singapore, I recognized that everyday actions like going to the grocery store and waiting for the bus were easier, more comfortable than they had ever been in the United States. Here, I was relieved from the decade-long effort of trying to blend in with white America. At last, I felt like I could be me, whoever that was. 

In addition to my newfound freedom, that whole year, I enjoyed a blind, giddy happiness in large part because I found a community to which I belonged in an integral and essential way. I spent long, exhausting hours at school alongside ardent and hilarious teachers, and we went out for dinner in Kampong Glam, Little India, or Chinatown. Afterward, I met up with my advisor and her friends—all of us of Han Chinese descent—for drinks under the filtered lights at Clarke Quay. We would always hover, at least for a little while, on Elgin Bridge, staring at the river where Malaya’s tin and rubber were once processed and shipped out by the British East India Company. I leaned my head on my advisor’s shoulder as constellations of city lights sparkled on the water, rolling with the tides, dragon-dancing, it seemed, with old-world wealth and the newly rich, a spectacular proof that Asia could be dignified and deserving of respect from the West.

“Where have you been?” The West Virginia fellow with narrow eyes and wire frame glasses asked in the hawker center as I sat down. In those days, my American friends rarely saw me. “You know, they say you’ve found a group of friends here because you’re Asian.”

“Well, I hope it’s more than that,” I muttered, offended. I nodded at his sweat-stained shirt and basketball shorts, asking, “Did you guys play squash today?”

“Yep. And worked out a bit. You ever run on the track?”

Lightly, I scoffed. I had just gotten off the bus after a twelve-hour day at school. Returning to his original comment, I said, “But you guys have it much easier at school. I swear the teachers forget I’m American.” 

He held his chopsticks in midair, his index finger and thumb crisscrossed awkwardly. The sweet aroma of coconut milk curled from his nasi lemak. He asked, “You think you having more work has anything to do with race?”

“Don’t you?”

The West Virginia fellow hesitated. He had a reticence about him; a quiet, modest man who, back home, would have been considered average. But in Singapore, he held himself with a princely disposition. He shrugged, saying he didn’t know. But I suspected that, in some ways, he did. In the decade or so since our time in Singapore, he never made it home for good. He dated Asian women and picked up the kind of odd jobs expatriates could find with ease in Southeast Asia: writer, teacher, journalist, and translator. It wasn’t that he liked Asia per se, I thought, it was because he liked who he was in Asia.

“It’s complicated,” he replied.

One night, our New York fellow with ice blue eyes exclaimed, “Everyone knew I was still drunk, you know, the students, the teachers, even the principal. But no one said anything.” We were sitting by the window in our three-bedroom apartment. Far below, vehicles swished by on the Anak Bukit Flyover, their amber taillights receding into the horizon. He continued, with a big belly laugh, “I felt like how the white men must have felt when we first came to Asia and the natives thought they were Gods.” 


In the mid-1800s, white gold diggers seized Chinese miners’ stakes by beating, burning, and shooting the Chinese. The Shasta Republic reported, “The murder of Chinamen is almost of daily occurrence.” 

Expelled from the prospect of gold, Chinese miners found work with the Central Pacific Railroad, contracted to build the difficult half of the railway from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. In the 1860s, Chinese coolies made up about 90 percent of the company’s workforce, for backbreaking work and harsh mountain winters. However, the Chinese were paid sixty cents for every dollar paid to white workers, and when the workers went on strike, the superintendent cut off their food supply. After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Chinese workers were barred from the celebrations. The speeches congratulated European immigrant workers for their labor and never mentioned the Chinese. Instead, the Chinese men were summarily fired and forced to walk the long distance back to San Francisco—forbidden to ride on the railroad they’d built.


Across the bridge, over Johor Strait, the shift from Singapore to Malaysia was sudden and intense. Hawkers milled around us on the broken pavement, offering platters of gum, cigarettes, and toothbrushes. “Money change?” A man asked, a wad of US dollars in one hand and Malaysian ringgits in the other. Across the road, a lone man carried a plastic bag, his head down, walking along the barren shoulders of the highway. 

Two white fellows and I rode the four-hour bus from the border city of Johor Bahru to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. As we shuffled into a yellow cab to head to our hostel, pedestrians in business suits and headscarves dashed through the squeak and sigh of traffic. Smoke rose from roadside grills, climbing the walls of half-finished high-rises. The city pulsed with grit and ambition; it knew it was at the cusp of a huge commercial change. In the distance, the Petronas Towers stood, their glass-and-steel exterior sparkling, their spires piercing the polluted, papery sky. 

Our driver was a middle-aged Indian-Malaysian man with a mustache and a kind grin. Beside him, a beaded necklace hung from the rearview mirror, swinging. He asked, “Where are you from?”

“America,” my New York friend answered.

My New Jersey friend added, “But we’re working in Singapore.”

“Ah, yes, Obama, isn’t it?” Someone honked; he blared his horn in response. “Incredible, isn’t it? A Black president in the United States. You know our government here is running by Malays, no? All Malays, everyone Malay. But now I think maybe, one day, we will be having an Indian prime minister too.” In a honeyed voice, he breathed out: “Ah, America.”

Before we could respond, he slammed on the brakes at a red light. I pushed against the back of the passenger seat. That was when he lifted his eyes in the rearview mirror, right at me.

“And you?” He asked. “Where are you from?”

“America,” I said.

I watched his eyes widen, the light in his walnut irises slip. He hesitated, staring with the smug, banal look of a man who held forth an authority over me. “No, really,” he said. “Where are you really from?”

The taxi spit and took off again. On either side of me, my friends inched away, sliding toward the windows. I had almost forgotten, as I did from time to time, that I didn’t look quite like them. As both of them fixed their stares outside, I was trying to remember if I knew whether their ancestors had come from Ireland or Germany or Poland, or if it mattered at all. “United States,” I said again.

“China? Korea?” 

“United States.”

“Japan? Hong Kong?” He glanced up again, “Vietnam?”

I knew, of course, what he wanted to hear, but to say that I came from Taiwan felt like a lie. “No,” I replied. I could hear the resentment rising in my throat, desperate to be heard. These days, I see my refusal to dignify this line of questioning as a small crusade, however ill-informed, to break down stereotypes of what an Asian woman can be and what an American can look like. But back then, I think it was a much simpler thing: It was an instinct. My defiance felt like the only thing that kept me intact, wholly myself, from others telling me who I was allowed to be. “I’m American,” I said again—mostly because it was true, but also because I felt entitled to the same adulation and underserved respect as my white friends. Because it gave me privilege and power.

All of a sudden, pulled to a stop in front of our hostel, he whipped himself around and brought his face two inches from mine. “So, Japan, right?” He smiled, and satisfied, he bowed, grinning, “Konichiwa.


On November 3, 1885, on a cold Northwest morning, several hundred men congregated in Tacoma, Washington, and marched along the waterfront to Chinese houses and storefronts, smashing doors and breaking windows. The mobs forced the Chinese residents to pack up their goods and head to the train station. Those who refused were threatened to be killed. The Sheriff’s deputies observed the proceedings but did not intervene. After the Chinese were expelled from the city, the men set the neighborhood aflame. 

Weeks earlier, a rally in town had declared the Chinese as a menace to the community and a danger to the United States. Its keynote speaker was the mayor, Jacob Weisbach, himself an immigrant from Germany.


After my fellowship in Singapore ended, I wound up traveling all over Asia for the better part of a year. By then, I was moving around enough to realize that I could not outrun my race. Out in the Continent’s backwaters, I began to learn who I was; or, at the very least, who the world thought I was. In that gap between one and the other, I learned to negotiate my existence.

 In South Korea, I fended off the hard glares of Korean women who remembered Americans soldiers during the war when I drank with my white male friend. At a bus stop, a Dutch traveler asked whether I was on the peninsula looking for my birth parents. In Ulaabaantar, Mongolia, I endured the scowl of Mongol men who, I heard, beat up ethnic Han Chinese in the darkness of night, each punch echoing with ancient tribal brutality. At a night market in Laos, I haggled over twenty-five cents with a woman not much older than I was, her baby wrapped in a sarong at her chest; I could see my own reflection in her brown eyes, her face almost the same as mine, brimming with a stricken curiosity: Why you? Why not me? In hostels all over, I started to recognize that white backpackers could not tell whether or not I spoke English, and so I became practiced in icebreakers and formulated a courage to sit down with men and women I didn’t know. 

By the time I made it to China, I knew how to use my race to my own benefit. I skated past the park entrance and avoided ferry fees by claiming that I was a tour guide taking two Belgian backpackers on a hike along the storied Li River. I started to value my limited Mandarin as I was invited into a Naxi woman’s home, and, in exchange for translating signs for a hostel, I was allowed to stay in a private room for free. Among the white travelers I met, it was hilarious, and I was saving handfuls of cash each day. You’re so lucky, they claimed, and I laughed, remembering what my advisor had said: We all want what we cannot have. 

When I came back to Singapore for a few months, most of my new friends were expatriates from the United States, Germany, and Australia. They introduced me to a Singapore I had not known before, one of overprized Singapore Slings and outdoor concerts and American clubs. From them, I learned that I could negotiate higher salaries on account of my citizenship. For a number of odd jobs, I was paid nearly double what my Singaporean colleagues made. Most of the time, I felt ill at ease, unsettled with my unearned American status. But I knew now that the Chinese, too, have imprisoned a million ethnic Uighurs and Turkish minorities into concentration camps. The Japanese have ravaged and raped and massacred. Han Chinese have emigrated to the island of Taiwan and built factories and cities on aboriginal land, from which my family and I have reaped our privilege. 

I was walking along Orchard Road one afternoon when a joyful Malay, who had started a tutor agency, called me. I could hear the singsong in her voice as she offered me a gig to tutor two Thai girls. “They have a lot of money,” she said, giggling. “I think they’re related to the King of Thailand.”

“Why don’t you want it?” I asked. 

“You can make more money than me. You’re American!” She continued, “What a shame lah, you could charge even more if you were white. What a shame.”

I laughed. For a moment, both of us held our phones to our ears and we didn’t speak. I listened to her breath, this gentle woman in a hijab who had told me on multiple occasions that she was too scared to visit the United States. I knew she was right. But I wondered: Who, exactly, was supposed to feel that shame?


In 1982, Detroit was a city in crisis, with long lines snaking around unemployment offices, union halls, welfare offices, and soup kitchens. Twenty-seven-year-old Vincent Chin was having his all-American bachelor party at Fancy Pants, a raunchy striptease bar in Highland Park, when two white men became aggressive, calling him, “Chink,” “Nip,” “Fucker.” Outside, one man held Vincent down while the other swung a slugger baseball bat into Vincent’s skull. At the height of the Japanese motor innovation, the two men blamed Vincent, a Chinese American, for stealing their jobs, thinking he was Japanese. Two off-duty cops witnessed the attack. Four days later, Vincent died.

The two men pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Each received three years’ probation and $3,780 in fines to be paid over three years. The presiding judge, Judge Charles Kaufman, explained: “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” They never served any time.

Vincent’s four hundred family and friends came for his wedding and went to his funeral.


I was still young when I left Asia for good, but I wasn’t the same. I went out to Seattle to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Throughout my two-year residency, my professors persisted in asking me, “Why are your characters white? Where are all the Asian characters?” I was frustrated that I was singled out by the color of my skin, and that my colleagues did not have to contend with issues of race. But I recognize now that in the heart of those questions rang a truth about myself and my country: I knew how to be white in America, but because we didn’t talk about Asians in this nation, I had never figured out how to be Asian-American.

Not long ago, in line at SeaTac Airport, a white man in a business suit stepped in front of me and slapped his briefcase on the security belt. “Sir,” a Latino TSA agent said, nodding at me. “She was ahead of you.”

The white man turned to look at me and flicked his wrist. “It’s fine,” he said, peeling off his shoes and tossing them into the plastic bin. Since I came back to the United States, I have started to recognize these slights as the hundreds of times that I have been made to feel invisible in my country. I could not know for certain, of course, that his dismissal was an act of bias, but that was part of the problem with being a marginalized citizen: It could be discrimination, conscious or not. Once you learn how white Americans view you, you can’t unlearn it. You can’t stop seeing it, not in the waiters who serve you after white guests, not in the security guard who didn’t think you could be the school’s basketball coach. Growing up in white suburbia, it felt as if the United States wanted me to assimilate, to become white; to a certain extent, I did, but I realize now that America has never stopped treating me as “yellow.”

I didn’t go looking for my roots in Asia; I didn’t know I had to. I went to Singapore, like most American graduates, to put off the real world. By cosmic chance, I ended up on an island at the edge of the Continent that was, like me, a merging place of the East and the West. I discovered in Asia that I enjoyed great privileges in life, and vast opportunities. I found out overseas that my past, who I am, was infinitely more complicated than I had ever considered it to be. I recognized that there was nothing straightforward about the question, “Where are you from?” Each time, I felt the forces of our human histories of migration, imperialism, and power collide. Yet, out of that mayhem, I was allowed to come into my own.

It has taken me nearly two decades to make sense of the dissonance I feel in the United States, and even longer to embrace both of my cultures and to appreciate that I am immeasurably richer for them. I rarely feel the need to hide half of myself anymore. These days, I talk to strangers and friends alike about the vibrant tapestry of Taiwanese foods and the rainbow-colored sea of my childhood. I took unabashed pride when Din Tai Fung and bubble tea shops swept through the nation and the world. Slowly, I am relearning the language of my birthplace, and, as such, have reignited a lasting relationship with my family in Taiwan. My ability to speak Mandarin helped me land a job at the University of Washington; and, after I quit, I stumbled upon a part-time gig to lead Taiwanese tour groups on hikes through America’s natural treasures. My clients became the first people outside of my family to call me—this adult version of me—by my birth name, and I let them. Every time “小悅” breathes through their lips, I feel as if a part of me is being resurrected. I feel a little more whole. 

The world has not changed much in the decade or so since I went to Singapore. Still, in Guatemala, when I stepped off the boat in a remote village, a boy asked if I was looking for a sushi restaurant. Our Ecuadorian guide in the Galapagos pestered me for eight straight days with questions about China, even though I insisted that I lived in California. Under the art nouveau architecture of Old Town Riga, a man spotted me from yards away and marched toward me, his finger pointing, shouting, “India! India!” Just this month, a white man in his twenties in a suburb of our liberal Seattle enclave voiced his astonishment that I spoke English so well. It does not enrage me any less than it did before. It terrifies me still that behind these seemingly innocuous jabs simmer a white superiority, a tribal rage that people who look like me are “inassimilable aliens,” that any day, it can erupt into violence against my body. It is devastating, of course, but at the very least I know now that there is nothing wrong with me, that bias against Asians dates back centuries, and I feel less alone.

I have gone back to Singapore three or four times since I left, and I always spend an evening alone walking the bank of the Singapore River. These days, I still think about catching the last train back to my friend’s flat. It was the month of Ramadan, and she was a Chinese-Singaporean who had married into the Muslim faith, so we sat on her couch, high above her city, and ate into the wee hours of the night. Out of the window, in the blue-lit skies, the city had a stagnant, restful quality. This was the Singapore I had always loved with my imperfect and hesitant lust, my city of midnight conversations and young love affairs, a homesick town full of Arab streets, Malay stalls, and Chinese settlements. Singapore was a sweep of lights miles above the island, a phosphorescent city of silver office towers rising majestically over the dark swallow of the Pacific Ocean. Here, in a city they had built out of a swamp, there was always a feeling of genuine possibility.


In Nadi, Fiji, my taxi driver had a different face, a different skin tone than I’d expected of people of Polynesian descent. I, too, couldn’t restrain myself from asking where he had come from and how. “India,” he said, smiling politely. “With the British Empire, centuries ago.” He glanced at me in the rearview mirror and asked, “You? Where you from?” 

“United States,” I answered. I braced myself for an interrogation. But he nodded and didn’t press on. So I rolled down the windows and squinted into the wind. As we skirted the coast of his island, the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean roaring and churning against its shores, I imagined his ancestors on a British merchant ship drifting away from their subcontinent. I thought about him, about my Singaporean friends, about my parents—all the people in the world who would never be home again. And I thought about a child in those distant mountains, running along a trickling waterfall and catching tadpoles in paper cups and letting them go, their obsidian bodies squirming—plop-plop-plop—splashing back into their pond.

So You May Sleep by Erin Cecelia Thomas

Beacon Street Prize Winner, Fiction, 2021

I had been embroidering dead people on pillowcases for seven years before I ran into any trouble. It was a long, quiet stretch of time, during which I sat in the front room of my house at a small table, colored embroidery floss hanging around me like a web, stitching in the light of the window.

I’d started seven years ago because seven years ago was when Miller died. We’d been married only three years, two months, and eighteen days. That meant there were only three years, two months, and eighteen days where I got to wake up next to him as his wife and see his face on the pillow next to mine. Sometimes serene and still, sometimes slack and twitching, sometimes already awake and looking around the room like he was readying himself to get up and become part of the world again. Sometimes he was already looking back at me, his toes essentially tapping in anticipation. When we first got together, I spent a few nights camped over at his place,  and I would feel his hands reach over in the barely-there blink of morning light and rustle me awake so I would turn to face him. Then he’d want to talk or kiss or just be there, awake, together.

“Let me sleep,” I’d beg. “It’s barely six.”

After a while I’d started to snap at him, some mornings when I was particularly tired.

And he’d apologize, eventually explaining, “You know why I wake you up so early every day? It’s because I can’t wait to see you.” It made me roll my eyes, but it was also the first time I ever considered that maybe I would spend the rest of my life with just one person.

Eventually, Miller learned to sleep in and then we’d take turns waking up first and waiting for the other. After he was gone, especially in the early days—like for instance, three years, two months, and twenty days after we were married, or three years, two months, and thirty-six days after we were married, I’d lay with my back to his side of the bed, begging a phantom limb to reach over and shake me. My fists clenched hard and white with wanting. I longed to be woken before six, or to never be allowed to sleep again.

So Miller’s was the first face I embroidered. My mother taught me to sew when I was young, and after years of doing other things instead, things like drinking and running and working, things I did whether I was lonely or not, I dug her old case of floss, hundreds of bobbins of glossy color, and her needles and hoops from the back of my closet.

You’d be surprised how many colors make up a white man’s face when you really look at it—violet, blues, browns, yellows, pinks, and that’s just the skin. Dark slashes of chocolate brown for eyebrows, flits of black for lashes. One thousand tiny stitches for the hairs of his stubble. Twelve shades of blues and grays for his irises. Two moles, a scar on his chin, a left nostril that was slightly larger than the right. I stitched my dead husband on a pillowcase to be sort of funny, to try to snap myself out of it with dark humor, and I figured that maybe I’d put it on his pillow for a night or two, freak myself out, then pack it away. I thought that sewing it would be my grieving process, concentrating so hard on his face that I would wean myself from ever wanting to look at it again. Once the last stitch went through, I thought I would be able to roll over in bed and sleep again. But that didn’t happen. Actually, the opposite—lying next to that pillow, turned sideways so it would look back at me, I suddenly found myself unable to get out of bed at all. I took a leave of absence and lay with my knees curled to my chest, staring at that pillow all day, sometimes flipping it over and sobbing into its soft, cool underside, smooth as Miller’s back had been. The only time I was able to get myself up was late at night, when I’d crawl into the kitchen and bring boxes of crackers, toaster pastries, and cereal back into bed with me. With us. I let the mess accumulate in an embarrassing way that the real Miller would not have allowed, but it didn’t matter anymore; his lips were sewn shut and I could do what I wanted. This went on for weeks until my sister Margaret finally pried her way into the house and demanded I get up and rinse myself off.

“Honey, I know,” she kept saying, even when I hadn’t said anything. She took one look at the piles of boxes and plastic wrappers hiding in the bedding, and she speed-dialed her own cleaning service to come (“ASAP!”) and sweep away the Froot Loops and rainbow crumbs. She glanced at my Miller but her eyes kept moving, like all she could see was the mess I’d made.

“It’s on me,” she said of the service, by which she meant she would pay for it because she knew I wouldn’t. Margaret left when the cleaning woman got there, as I’m sure she did whenever it was her embarrassing mess being cleaned, but I refused to leave with her. My eyes were used to the dimness of the house.

The cleaning woman was shorter than me and built like a small tank. I envied the look of her strong calves under her cropped cargo pants, and the way she moved through my house so surely. I followed her around and watched her clean like it was something I’d never had the chance to learn. She dug through the blankets and removed package after package, shaking bits of cookies out of the sheets. As she flipped blankets, the pillow came into full view. The woman looked at Miller’s face for a long time, then reached a hand toward it. She stopped and looked back at me.

“Is it okay to touch?” she asked. I nodded.

“Your husband,” she said. I nodded.

We stood there looking at Miller and he looked back at us.

“You made it?” she finally asked. 

I nodded.

“Will you make one for me? I’ll pay anything.”

I felt myself nodding again, without even pausing to consider.

Most of my customers were widows or widowers like myself. Occasionally, I got a wildly  heartbroken youngster who had just been dumped by a boyfriend and had somehow come across  me on the internet, probably by typing in “something to waste money on when you’re desperate,” and in these instances, I made sure to issue an official form, signature required, stating that all orders were final and there were no refunds under any circumstances to protect myself from that inevitable moment when there was a new boyfriend in the mix and he was sufficiently and understandably “weirded out” by his girlfriend’s pillowcase with some other sixteen-year-old’s face on it, perhaps even the face of someone who they rode the school bus with every morning. My hours and hours of work were unable to be refunded due to the fickleness of children.

In seven years, I did hundreds of faces. I used every color of DMC-brand floss available, just for faces. I only accepted a job if the buyer had an adequate picture of the subject, which was most of the time, but sometimes I got someone who thought they could just describe a person to me and I’d be able to nail it. I’d turned people down for the following reasons:

“Here’s the picture. She’s the one in the second row, far right. You can just about make out her face.”

“But can you do him with blond hair instead? And blue eyes? Blue was his favorite


“He looked like Brad Pitt.”

“Here she is. But can you make her look twenty years younger?”

“He actually looked a lot like our dog. I only have a picture of her. As a puppy.”

And I’d only ever done two animals—both dogs, both of whom were the only family members the buyers had. I charged fair prices for the faces, but enough to make a living from. I rarely spoke to or saw anyone, and in that way, it was perfect.

The trouble came along with Thea. Thea herself was not the problem. She came to me with a typical story of a deceased husband of twenty years and a clear, close-up photo. She didn’t have any questions or concerns. Her husband was handsome and a pleasure to stitch. He required mostly earth tones, a spread of pink in his smooth cheeks, and long stem stitches of dark hair with lines of pearl floss woven in near the temples. Thea asked for him exactly as he was in the photo, taken on an ordinary day when he was forty-six years old, the year she said she found him “most beautiful.” In my reply to her email, I found my fingers itching to type back that I knew that feeling; there wasn’t a certain year I found Miller most beautiful, but rather there was a certain time of day. But I stopped. I did not speak of myself to customers.

Thea lived in town, so I made a home delivery once her husband was complete. I delivered directly when I could so that I could spare myself the worry of having a package lost in the mail or stolen off a front porch.

Thea had a slender oval face and dark features, which would require careful shadows stitched around her angular bones, a couple of French knots for beauty marks, and a few lines of age near the eyes, if she were the dead one. But she wasn’t; instead, she was the one who opened the door after I knocked and waited. She asked me inside and I agreed, which I usually never did, but I loved something about the sparse white walls I could see behind her and the sweep of chestnut floors, the wood grain chasing itself in spirals before my feet as she led me down a hall and into a kitchen.

“Sit,” she said, motioning to a table, fingering the box I’d given her at the front door. Thea’s nose was small and pointed. Her skin would have been an alabaster or coconut floss.

She set the box on the table and sat. She offered me water, which I declined.

“My daughter won’t like this,” she said, looking at the box. I opened my mouth, frowned with my eyes, then closed my mouth again. I almost said, “No refunds,” but I knew that wasn’t what Thea meant.

“She’s already put away so many photos of Henry, she’d put all of them away if she could. My daughter. She thinks it inhibits me from moving on, Sascha does. That’s the trouble today, isn’t it? Too easy to just clear things away, too easy to just hit ‘delete.’”

“Mmmm.” I nodded.

“But she doesn’t fool me,” Thea continued, sipping at her own glass of water. “She’s still even more heartbroken than I am. She just hides it. Can’t control her own emotions so she wants to control mine.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Why do you do it?” Thea asked then. “Why pillowcases?”

There were so many places in the room to look besides her face but I couldn’t find any of


“Sleeping is something we argued about,” I said. “So this is my final concession. He was right. We should have spent more time lying awake in bed, looking at each other.”

Thea opened her mouth to respond and I abruptly pushed back my chair and stood. “I’ll leave you to it,” I said, nodding at the small box on the table.

“Oh.” Thea stood and walked me to the door.

“Does your daughter live here?” I asked suddenly, standing in the doorway. “She does. She’s in college, studying psychology. She’s very busy.”


Thea smiled and I watched the ways it changed the colors of her face. “Thank you, Alyse.”

“Enjoy,” I said ridiculously, and walked away.

It took Thea’s daughter three days to find the pillow, if Thea had even bothered to hide it.

I had just finished replying to an email asking if I did family portraits (“No.”) when Sascha’s message appeared in my inbox.

Dear Alyse,

I am writing in regards to an order you recently filled and delivered to my mother, Thea Zugravescu. While well-made and true to detail—almost disturbingly so—I must ask for your

assistance in convincing my mother to abandon the item and return it to you for a refund. I only have her best interests at heart. I’m sure you understand.

Yours respectfully, Sascha Zugravescu Dept. of Psychology Keaton University

I stared at the message for a while before I hit ‘reply.’


I do not understand. Also, no refunds.

Sincerely, Alyse

A few minutes later:

Dear Alyse,

Thank you for your reply. I do understand your policy of no refunds and I am willing to work within it. It is not so much the money that is a concern, but rather my mother’s state of mind. She is still a young woman with so much to offer. How will she be able to overcome the death of my father when she has a—again, disturbingly lifelike—replica of him next to her in bed every night? All I ask is your help in convincing her to return it. She refuses to let me anywhere near it for fear that I will destroy it or throw it in the trash. I assure you I have no wish to do so.

As I say, it is an exquisite piece. Perhaps you could use it as an example photo on your website? Or even enter it in an art show. Either way, you must take it back. I only have both your and my mother’s best interests in mind. Surely you must deal with this all the time.

Yours respectfully, Sascha Zugravescu Dept. of Psychology Keaton University


I do not deal with this all the time. The children of my customers usually mind their own business.



I have tried to appeal to your sensitivities as a daughter and a morally intact person, but I am losing patience. My education and training informs me that it would be best to allow my mother to come to the conclusion that any item in the likeness of her deceased husband kept in her bed will yield only adverse results on her mental and emotional health, and that I should do little more than give her a supportive nudge in the right direction, which I’d hoped you would help me with. However, since you seem to have no one’s best interests at heart except your own, I must make a more drastic attempt to physically separate my mother and your handcrafted

likeness of her deceased husband, my father. I now only ask that you do not allow her to place another order for a replacement item, no matter how much money she offers.

Sascha Zugravescu Dept. of Psychology Keaton University

I closed my laptop roughly. Fine. What was it to me if this girl wanted to rid her mother of all attempts at emotional comfort just because she couldn’t get a handle on her own grief? I wished someone would have taken the Miller pillow away from me so soon and saved me weeks of eating children’s cereal in bed. Maybe Thea was actually fortunate to have someone looking after her so closely.

The next morning, I had another email.

Will you take the pillowcase back? I don’t want any money returned. I just don’t want it to end up destroyed or in a garbage dump, which might happen if Sascha gets her hands on it. It’s too lovely for that.


Goddamn it, I said to the email. I closed the computer again and put it away. I cracked my knuckles and threaded a needle to continue work on my current job. After an hour of stitching in the pale light of my front room, the web of colored floss hanging around me, I put the hoop down and found myself heading to Thea’s house without having thought much about it. So maybe I could take the damn pillow back and maybe I could even give her a small partial refund, because I found that I liked Thea in a vague kind of way. Maybe it was more that I disliked her daughter, Dr. Sascha of the Psychology Department at Whatever University, and how she felt that she had to keep someone else’s emotions on such a short rope. Even my sister Margaret didn’t encourage me to get rid of Miller, she just encouraged me to clean up and get out of bed. And that, I thought as I knocked on Thea’s front door for the second time that week, should be the most that anyone else ever asks of you.

I could hear them arguing through the door before it opened, and when it did, they were standing there in the foyer. Thea had her arms clamped pitifully around the pillow and Sascha, taller than her mother and without the pronounced angles of her face, glared at me.

“Well, here she is,” Sascha said. “I imagine you’re Alyse? I hope you’ve come to take this thing back.”

“If that’s what Thea still wants,” I said, looking past Sascha at her mother.

“It’s more about what’s best for everyone and not necessarily what she wants,” Sascha said, as though speaking about a child who wasn’t standing two feet away.

“I imagine you’re the expert, Doctor.”

“Oh I’m not a doctor quite yet, still in training,” Sascha said, pleased at my comment in a way I did not intend.


“But you must agree with me,” Sascha continued. “Look at her. Still so young and beautiful. How will she ever find another husband with this thing around?”

“I’m not sure that’s her main priority at the moment.” Again I looked to Thea to see if she would say anything, but she only looked back at me, still holding her husband’s face tightly to her chest.

Sascha ignored that and leaned closer to me.

“I heard her talking to the thing, Alyse. This is not the way to grieve.”

She used my name in an effort to make it seem like we were on the same side of the argument. To make it seem like we were pals about this and both had her mother’s best interest at heart. To make it easier for me to help her. Instead, I felt a long-dormant storm rise inside me. I leaned right back toward Sascha.

“Do they teach you how to grieve in school?” I asked, perhaps more cruelly than I wanted. “Is there a chapter or two in your psych textbook on the subject? Do you have notes you can refer to from a lecture on the appropriate response to the death of the one person you believed would be with you for the last fifty years of your life, and how to correctly handle yourself? Is your mother doing it wrong, and is that making you uncomfortable, Sascha?”

She stepped back, her face reddening.

“Enough about this ‘best interests’ line you keep feeding everyone,” I continued. “It’s pretty obvious who—”

“You don’t know anything about it!” Sascha shouted, almost stamping her foot in anger.

Then Thea stepped forward and pushed the pillow toward me. “Please take it,” she said. “She’ll take it if you don’t.”

I took it. Thea looked at me for a moment before turning away and disappearing down the hall. Sascha took the few steps toward the door with me, and I could feel the heat coming off her; she burned with a mad grasp for control and with displeasure about winning in a different way than she’d wanted.

“I think you will agree—,” she began, but the door was open and I was already walking away.

I planned to keep Thea’s pillow in the closet until I decided what to do with it. But that night, after I’d locked the doors and turned off all the lights, I took it back out and set it on top of the dresser, leaning against the wall so we could look at each other. He really was handsome. I imagined him and Thea standing side by side, he a foot taller than her, their hands clasped together, an easy and comfortable silence between them. I imagined them lying in bed, their chests rising smoothly with sleep, the heat of closeness passed between their bodies. I imagined Thea smiling in her sleep as she felt him readjust in the night and move closer. I imagined Thea waking up one day to find that warmth and movement suddenly and irrevocably gone.

I fell into a sleep of my own with my arms around Miller, my body diffusing warmth into the pillow until it felt reciprocated. Thea’s husband and the night shadows watched us.

And so the next day I went back. When I knocked, Sascha answered. Her eyes were red and swollen; if I were to stitch them, I’d need a dozen shades of pink, peach, rouge, and garnet, and stone for the shadows underneath. She scowled when she saw me and what I held.

“I’m here to see Thea,” I said firmly. “I have something for her.”

Sascha looked at me from beneath her own veil of loss. She would be beautiful like her mother someday, probably soon. She would learn to love a man who wasn’t her father. We stared at each other.

“It will be all right,” I finally said.

And after a moment, she nodded and slowly stepped aside for me to pass. “She’s down the hall.”

When I turned the knob and pushed the door open, Thea did not stir from where she lie, tucked into herself on the bed, her body turned toward the opposite wall. She exhaled, shaking slightly, trying to quell her sobs. The shades on the window were drawn, the daylight muffled through them. I saw three glasses on the bedside table with an inch of water in each and a heap of clothes on the floor near the closet.

I looked at this woman lying in bed and then I did what I wished my sister Margaret would have done instead of calling a cleaning service. I set Thea’s pillow on a chair near the door. I got into the bed and lie down next to her, put my hand on her shoulder and, when she reached up and pulled my hand into both of hers, clasped under her chin, I curled around her and held her close, my face in her uncombed hair. We’d begun as wives to other people and this is what we’d become—two women cradling each other for warmth against the chill of graves that weren’t yet our own.

“Will it ever stop?” Thea whispered.

I closed my eyes against the faint light trilling through the strands of her hair. “I don’t know.”


Erin Cecilia Thomas is a writer originally from Upstate New York. She has a BA from Berklee College of Music and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Lesley University. Her work has been published in Anomaly, Oyez Review, Into the Void, Illuminations of the Fantastic, and Archipelago: The Allegory Ridge Fiction Anthology. She currently lives in Nashville, TN, and can be found