Smoke Rings – ONLINE BONUS

My grandmother chose Benson and Hedges in the gold package until she saw an ad campaign for Eve and switched because it made her feel more feminine. She liked to think she was glamorous and had a drawer just for belts, three wigs to cover her thinning hair, and some poor-quality diamonds that her nasty mother had accidentally left her in an un-updated will.

I was always told my grandmother was beautiful, but I never saw it. Perhaps that’s because by the time I spent most of my weekend days with her, she was depressed and living in a housecoat and fake gold slippers. Or perhaps it’s because she was old, and, loving her as I did, I sat too close and could see every pore on her nose.

I sat so close to her and clung onto her thin neck so tightly she used to whisper in her smoker’s voice, “You will love it when you get your first boyfriend.”

“Why Nana?” I’d ask, holding her with both arms and swinging around to see her face.

“So you can love him so.” And she’d draw deep on her Eve cigarette, careful not to burn me.

I was never inspired to actually smoke, though I did convince her to teach me to blow smoke rings when I was seven. It was one of those lazy days as she and I sat on the couch. The suited anchorman named Walter Cronkite was talking, and for all I knew he could be speaking Russian because news was like a foreign language to me. No matter how hard I tried to listen, it always became mish-mash. One thing I did know for a fact: he was able to see me and he was looking. I had to be careful what I did when I was directly in front of the TV. I couldn’t change into my jammies, for example. Nor could I hit my brother, as the anchorman would be a witness. Basically, my only options were coloring in the coloring books Nana kept in the dining room china cabinet, practicing my dancing, about which he seemed oddly disinterested, or sitting with Nana on the couch. All shady business had to be undertaken out of his range.

I was unable to sit still for long, so both Nana and the couch became a de facto jungle gym. Invariably, I ended up sitting on the cushions behind her, giving her a bruising back rub or putting her hair in hair clips—one of man’s greatest inventions. Clip, they’re open, Clip they’re closed. Clip, they’re open, Clip my finger is stuck inside.

She was sitting, right leg crossed tightly over left, left forearm folded across her body (hand hanging down), right elbow anchored on her right knee serving as a hinge that opened and closed to bring the cigarette close in for a puff, dangling foot circling at the ankle. This was her pose. I thought it was handsome, so I copied her. I practiced it. I even practiced shredding the skin around my thumb with my index finger with the hanging down hand, which was her activity of choice when she wasn’t holding a tissue.

“Hey Nana, I want to blow a smoke ring.” I announced, snapping a clip in the pin curl I made in her hair. She pretended not to hear, so I poked her bony back and leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “I won’t tell,” I said.

“Oh Kathy, I can’t do that,” she said. I slid off my perch behind her, hooked my left arm around her neck and kissed her soft, powdery cheek. It was Saturday. My grandfather was at the hardware store where he worked because he couldn’t stand to be retired anymore. Drew, my brother who usually visited with me, was at Indian Guides where girls weren’t allowed. And my parents were at home raising my two baby brothers. Now was the time.

“Children don’t smoke,” she said.

“I won’t smoke,” I said. “I just want to blow a smoke ring.”

I felt her body sigh under my arm again. She was not looking at me.

“I love you,” I whispered, and even then I knew that bordered on the unethical.

Slowly she uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. Sometimes she moved like she was a million years old and sometimes she moved like a hummingbird. She grabbed her cigarettes from off of the gold painted coffee table.

“Hand me that, will ya.” She pointed to her metal flip-top lighter that was just out of reach. I jumped up and grabbed it. I was a veteran at lighting that lighter. I especially liked the smell and I’d sniff it until I was sick.

I flipped the lid open with my thumb, put the thumb on the serrated spinning wheel, snapped a grinding turn, saw a spark, spun it again and up popped the blue flame.

Nana hit her pack slowly against her hand a few times and pulled out a single cigarette. She put it in the corner of her mouth while she tucked the pack in the sleeve of her house dress, then grabbed the cigarette and leaned forward so I could light it.

“This is a terrible idea,” she said, blowing the smoke out of the side of her mouth away from me.

She paused, staring past me for a while, cigarette aloft, and I thought I lost her. I waited, still. Then the light turned on in her the way it did sometimes, and only then I’d realize it had been off. She’d sit up, her eyes would shine and a wickedness would come over her. The kind of wickedness that would prompt her to confide to my seven-year-old self on one of our sleepovers that she would have slept with John F. Kennedy if he asked her.

“Don’t inhale this,” she said, flipping the cigarette around, filter side to me. “Just pull the smoke into your mouth.”

She put the cigarette to my lips, her house dress sleeve sliding down to reveal her thin, veiny forearm. “And promise me you will never smoke.”

“I promise,” I said, maybe intending to keep it.

I pulled the smoke into my mouth. The cigarette’s tip glowed. The smoke burned my eyes, but I forced them open. Nana drew smoke in her mouth and formed a tight O with her lips. We looked at each other like we were under water. Lifting up her hand, she tapped, gently making a popping noise on the hollow of her cheek. Out floated a perfect circle. I put my finger through it, then tapped my cheek. Smoke came out of my mouth, but not in a circle. We blew out our smoke.

“Tap quickly, like this.” She formed my mouth into an O and tapped her finger on my cheek.

This time she handed me the cigarette. I had taken enough tokes on so many unlit cigarettes and pretzel sticks, had watched her and my grandfather and everyone else I knew smoke that I knew exactly how to hold it, how to draw, what I should look like.

I put the Eve cigarette between my middle and index finger and sucked more smoke into my mouth. I leaned forward and tapped the shaft with my finger to knock the ashes into the ashtray. Then I handed the cigarette to her, filter side forward.

We had smoke ring school periodically from that day on. There were certain conditions that had to be met of course. First, we had to be alone. Second, Nana had to be in that mood, so I learned to watch and wait for the light. Third, I had to promise never to light a cigarette when she wasn’t around or practice on one of hers when she wasn’t looking. After a few weeks, I had mastered the cheek tap smoke rings. It took a while longer to get the hang of the jaw pop smoke ring, but those were the holy grail of smoke rings and it was worth the month or two of practice that it took to perfect them.

With both types under my belt, I could begin to work on smoke ring gymnastics. I could blow a large and expanding jaw pop smoke ring, then repeat-fire a string of tight cheek tap rings through its center as it moved away. Nana could blow a jaw popper toward me and I’d send the cheek tappers through the bullseye of its center.

I never did pick up smoking. Both she and my grandfather died young of emphysema and lung cancer, devastating me and turning me against the habit with a vengeance. But every now and then, when I catch a whiff of an Eve cigarette on a city street, or see it’s discarded slim packaging lying in the gutter, I remember the days when Nana and I would have cheek tapper contests and blow rings at each other until we ended up laughing in a cloud of smoke.

Kathy Smith has published both fiction and creative non-fiction in Philadelphia Stories, poetry in Apiary, and twice won Glimmer Train’s Honorable Mention, once for Short Story, and once for Very Short Story. Most recently, she won Gotham’s Josie Rubio Scholarship Award, and was a finalist in Gotham’s Greatest Gift award. She received her B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. She lives in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

The Dilworthtown Oak

The first book assigned by my new book club in Hong Kong, meeting half a world away from the action it described, detailed the life and career of the Marquis de Lafayette: he who, at the age of 19, had left France to join the Continental Army of George Washington.

But I didn’t need the book club’s assignment to teach me about General Lafayette: I had grown up in the shadow of the great man’s influence. Just a few roads away from my childhood home, a fieldstone covered with white stucco, stood the venerable Dilworthtown Oak. My parents had told me this extraordinary tree had already been full-grown at the time of the Battle of the Brandywine in September 1777, when American troops had been routed by British forces under General Howe.

The Marquis de Lafayette, wounded, had sat in the shade of the Dilworthtown Oak to recover, tended to by a local Quaker woman whose name was not recorded.

The redcoats went on to set the city of Philadelphia ablaze. The Continental Army fled to nearby Valley Forge, where they spent a horrific winter of suffering and deprivation—a dark time, when they could not yet see the future, and did not yet know that they would ultimately prevail.

I learned somewhere that the General’s reputation during the American Revolution had been so great that one of the first acts of the US Postal Service after the war was to call a moratorium on towns naming themselves Lafayette. Thus do we find, today, the map of the Eastern United States dotted with place names like Fayetteville, Lafayetteburg, and Fayettetown.

By the time I arrived on the scene as a little girl, almost two centuries later, what I found most interesting about the Dilworthtown Oak was the fact that although it still stood, it was rotted out inside, hollow. Its sides were strong, and every fall it rained down acorns, meaning that a lawn keeper had to ruthlessly root out oak seedlings from the surrounding area each spring. At some point in the previous twenty years, the local historical society had put up a bronze plaque, confirming what we locals already knew of the mighty Dilworthtown Oak’s glorious history. They installed a screen on the hollowed-out front to prevent irreverent and blasphemous teenagers from throwing trash into the dark oaken cavity on Mischief Night.

For years, my older brother told me stories about creepy things that lived behind that screen and would come out at night, mostly to prey upon little girls who messed with their older brother’s baseball cards or comic books.

Whenever someone from the city came out to visit us at our little stone house in the country, we would take a walk to the top of the hill to see the Quaker Meetinghouse, built in the 1600s, and the one-room Octagonal Schoolhouse, unused for decades. Behind the meetinghouse, in the Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery, lies a mass grave of the men and boys who died in the Battle of the Brandywine two hundred years earlier. While the mass grave itself was marked, the names of the individual soldiers—British and Yankee, lying together—were not. As our visitors pondered this sobering fact, we would tell them proudly that not far from here, you could see the Dilworthtown Oak, where Lafayette had sat, wounded—an implausibly young general, a teenager, really, no doubt wondering if he would live to see his native France again. Later, at home, my brother would show the city visitors his collection of musket balls. Even then, a few would turn up every spring when the fields on the other side of the creek from our house were plowed.

For the bicentennial of the Battle of the Brandywine in 1977, a re-enactment was held. Local history buffs converged on the upper hayfield, sweating in the late summer sun, to wear tri-cornered hats and play with fake muskets. A month earlier, my father had mown a path through the hay, using the sickle-bar on his tractor, so that I could visit the little boy about my age who lived on the other side of the field, without getting ticks and burrs on my way. We all laughed when the “Revolutionary Army,” a little unclear on what had actually happened during the battle, marched boldly up the pathway my father had sheared, towards Coley’s house, as the man playing the part of some officer—a local guy who had a horse—tried ineffectively to turn them back toward the actual field of battle.

My mother told me that confusion and muddle like this were probably a more accurate representation of the battle than what we read about in the local hagiographies. (She probably didn’t use the word hagiography, since I was only four at the time, but her point was clear.)

My brother, who loved dressing up in costumes, begged to be allowed to join the “troops.” Drummer boys, he insisted, could certainly have been as young as seven, and anyway, General Lafayette was only 19 himself—and our parents finally relented. My brother was NOT to wear the dusty, half-rotted tricorner hat from the attic that some ancestor of ours had left around, no matter how appropriate it might have been. But he could dress up in a little soldier’s outfit and follow the “army” up to Coley’s house if he wished. While he was scampering through the hay and ragweed, a documentary filmmaker on the scene for the day asked if my brother would like to be in his movie. This, my mother absolutely forbade. It was a source of dinner table conversation for years afterwards: had my brother been saved from a horrible pervert or denied a glorious film career?

I learned the word “Bicentennial” that year. Bi – like the two wheels on the bicycle I had not yet learned to ride; and cent – like the 100 cents in a dollar, and a century, which was 100 years. For the first time, in contemplation of this new word, I saw the vastness of centuries opening before and behind me. One hundred years later, I learned, would be the tri-centennial. The hayfield, the creek, the sunny hill, and the mass grave, shaded by maple and yew trees, might still be there. But out of my whole family, I myself would be the most likely to survive that long. I might arrive at the tri-centennial re-enactment, a 104-year-old woman with white hair, and tell them what I had seen, and be interviewed on the radio.

As for the Dilworthtown Oak, I never doubted it would still be around. For years, whenever I drew a picture of a tree, it was always an oak, with its characteristic hand-shaped leaves, surrounded by acorns, and a mysterious, dark hole, covered up with a screen. Sometimes I drew Lafayette languishing beneath the tree.

Thus, it was an enormous shock to hear from my mother, in a letter she wrote to me when I was at college, that the Dilworthtown Oak had fallen. Not to old age, nor to the pernicious rot that was eating its insides for so many years, but to a cataclysmic bolt of lightning during a violent summer storm. The great natural monument had cracked in two, and although part of it might have been able to hang on for a few months longer, the local historical society had pronounced the Dilworthtown Oak dead on the scene.

Once again, just as I had when I was a tiny child, I saw the immeasurable stretch of years before and behind me. But this time, the sense of permanence and continuity was gone. If the Dilworthtown Oak could fall, what else might happen? Would the plaque be removed? Or changed, to say, “Here once stood …”? Would the screen be tossed into the old scrap metal heap by the creek? Would my parents one day move away from the Brandywine Battlefield? What would Lafayette have thought?

Out of curiosity, in 2019, when I was about to order the book, Lafayette – A Hero of Two Worlds, for my new book club, I looked up the Dilworthtown Oak on Google. I wasn’t expecting much; a local curiosity is nothing in the grand expanse of global history. Still, I thought, there might be a few references to Lafayette.

After filtering through page after page of listings for “charming homes” on quarter-acre lots in Dilworthtown Oak Estates, I finally found two references to the actual Dilworthtown Oak.

The first one said the oak was famous for the legend of three rapists from the British army of General Howe, who had been hanged from its branches in the period of chaos and looting that followed the Battle of the Brandywine, and that the tree had fallen in a windstorm. The page asserted authoritatively that the oak was known to one and all as the Haunted Hangman’s Tree, and that ghosts had been spotted there as late as the 1980s. The information was taken from a self-published book by someone called Phyllis Recca, wholly unknown to me. Confused, I looked at the other reference.

There, the great Dilworthtown Oak was relegated to a single phrase: “a Penn oak” (in other words, an oak that had been alive when William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania in the 1600s) “that had failed to make it to the 21st century.” The main article, a review of famous trees in the area, spent most of its effort glorifying the so-called Lafayette Sycamore, a tree that “towers 100 feet on the west side of Route 1, about 50 yards north of the entrance to the Brandywine Battlefield State Park.” The article enthused, “According to legend, the Marquis de Lafayette rested during the Battle of the Brandywine under this very sycamore,” but “Historians dispute this, pointing out that there is no way of confirming if Lafayette was anywhere near this tree during the battle.”

By this time, my own son was nearly the age Lafayette had been when the great man either was or wasn’t wounded, and either did or didn’t sit under a tree, which, for all I knew by this point, might as well have been a sassafras or a poplar. I knew that my son’s memories of stories I told him when he was very young were not strictly accurate. Were my own memories just as muddled? All the same, I felt as if a final door had been shut on my childhood. My parents had moved to the Allegheny Mountains for their retirement, my brother had made his career in New York City, and I had spent more of my life in a skyscraper in Hong Kong than in a stone house next to a hayfield.

The other stories of famous oaks and sycamores were just legends themselves, I rationalized at last. Why should the story I thought I heard not bear just as much credence as those? Each year, in any case, the story of how my brother was almost a movie star gained more and more details, and the provenance of the tricorner hat became more and more established, at least in my father’s mind.

No, the Dilworthtown Oak was better remembered as a place where a kind but nameless Quaker woman, despite the roar of the surrounding battle, tended to a desperate teenager burdened with enormous responsibility but frightened out of his wits, freeing him to fulfill his destiny as the hero of a great revolution and the namesake of 100 podunk towns.

I took up my phone and typed happily in the WhatsApp group, which was self-mockingly named, “Serious Book Club HK.”

“Lafayette?” I typed. “Cool! You know, I grew up right around a place where he fought. When he was wounded, he sat under this oak tree to recover, and it was still around when I was a child.”

My version of the story would live on, not as dry history, but as a personal treasure. Like a musket ball or a dusty old hat to show to friends and family—both on the old battlefield itself, and halfway around the world.

Genevieve Hilton was born and raised in Chester County, Pennsylvania, on the site of the Brandywine Battlefield. She has lived in Hong Kong since 2000, and writes science fiction novels and stories as well as political and business stories.

Floating (CNF BONUS)

For weeks I sat on the edge of the pool, dangling my feet in the overchlorinated water. I watched as screaming kids executed cannonballs and underwater handstands. My body ached with envy, but I couldn’t bring myself to jump in. At seven years old, I felt it was already too late for me to learn to swim. Seven-year-olds, at least the strong, brave, competent ones, had been swimming for years. My shame kept me firmly cemented on the ledge.

Each day, during those weeks, Dad would spread out a towel on the hot concrete and sit down next to me. He would drape his muscular arm around my bony shoulder and whisper, “Are you ready?” Every day I would shake my head no. But one particularly humid day, for some reason, I reluctantly nodded my head, yes. That is when dad scooped me up and walked us slowly down the wide steps with the long silver banister into the shallow end of the pool at the Dolphin Swim Club. I wrapped my goose-pimpled arms tightly around his neck and tied my skinny legs to his torso.

“We are going to start by learning to float on your back,” he said with a gentle smile. “If you ever get into trouble or you get too tired you can always just flip over and float.”

Flip over and float. He made it sound so easy. Stubborn with fear, I refused to let go.

“It’s okay, today we are just floating,” he whispered in my ear as he carried me through the water.

I clung tighter.

Dad lumbered around the pool with me glued to the trunk of his body for a long while.  He bobbed up and down, back and forth. When I finally relaxed my shoulders and loosened my grip ever so slightly, he cupped the base of my head in one hand and gently lowered it into the cool water. He placed his other hand firmly on the small of my back.

“Now, just lie back,” he said calmly. “That’s all you have to do. That’s it, there you go, you are floating.  That is all you have to do.”

Dad’s voice was faint but soothing through the water. I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my cheeks. My thin wisps of brown hair fanned out around my face.

“Ahhhhh, what a mechaye,” he said, repeating the Yiddish word for joy.

I could feel his smile through his words and instinctively knew their meaning.  He didn’t do that thing that many parents do—let you go unexpectedly and making a big show of how you are doing it all by yourself. Instead, dad kept a feather touch on my lower back with just enough pressure, so I knew he was still with me if I needed him.

Just when I felt like I could float like that forever, a sudden splash of water smacked at my face. I panicked and flailed my arms and legs at the same time. I felt my body slip away from dad’s hand and start to sink. The water splashed over my mouth and nose. Dad scooped me back up in an instant. But those seconds left me sobbing and gasping for air.

“Shhh, shhh, shhh,” Dad said caressing my head. “You are okay, you are okay, Peanut. That little boy over there just jumped into the water and splashed you.”

He pointed to a boy with white-blond curls and a mischievous grin. I glared at the boy still sniffling.

“Don’t worry about him,” Dad said, “all you have to do is keep floating and you will be safe.”

I buried my face in the crook of dad’s neck for a long while. He didn’t take me out of the pool. He didn’t suggest we try again. He just kept bobbing along with me until I calmed down. Then I said, “Okay, let’s try again.”

Dad smiled. He looked proud. “Okay. Remember, no matter what happens just keep floating—don’t worry about what is behind you or in front of you. Just float. I will be here the whole time.”

Within weeks I was swimming freestyle, cannonballing, and even working on my underwater handstand, while Dad watched from the edge of the pool—there if I needed him.

Most importantly, that summer I learned to float.


Thirty summers after dad taught me to float, I was living a life I convinced myself was perfect. I was married to a man with whom I was deeply in love. I had a beautiful baby boy and a job as a lawyer in a successful Philadelphia law firm. And then within three months, I had stepped on a trifecta of landmines that left me flailing and gasping for air. My marriage began to unravel. I suffered a health crisis that I could have never seen coming. And I experienced a professional failure that left me wondering whether I chose the right career path. In short, my life imploded.

During those sticky months, I somehow managed to get through my workdays and complete the maternal checklist of dinner, bath, book, and bedtime. Then I would collapse into grief—lying on my couch, scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, crying, and eating the most comforting food Grubhub had to offer. I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone about what was happening to me. My old friend, Shame, was silencing me and holding my pain firmly in place. I went on like that for weeks.

Then, one night in late August, after I put my son to bed, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. I poked at the puffy red circles under my eyes. I was so sick of crying. I closed my eyes, hoping to open them to a different reality. But when I did, there I was, stuck with myself. “How did I get here?” I said out loud to my image in the mirror. The identity I had spent so much of my life erecting had crumbled in such a short amount of time. I didn’t know who I would be without the perfect marriage, the perfect job, and a healthy, functioning body. I splashed some cool water on my face, walked into my bedroom, and threw on the grey sweatpants and white t-shirt that had become my night-time uniform. The pants slipped from my hip bones. Despite the Grubhub, I was somehow losing weight.

I had always learned that Jews don’t kneel but for some reason, that night, I found myself on my knees at the edge of my bed with my hands cupped in front of me, the way I had seen little kids pray on television.

“Please,” I whispered to a God I had never spoken to before. “Please take this all from me. Please help me, God.”

I stayed there on my knees for a long while. I was waiting for an answer, a sign, some instructions about how to move forward. There was no answer, no sign, no instructions.  God said nothing. Still, I felt calmer for having spoken the words, lighter somehow. I got back into bed and just kept whispering to myself, “You are okay, you are okay, you are okay.”

After that night, kneeling before my bed and asking for God’s help became my ritual. It wasn’t that I believed God was going to put the pieces of my life back together. I just felt less alone getting on my knees and asking for help. I began to use the words, “You are okay,” as my refrain. I repeated them to myself each time my thoughts pulled me into regret, shame, or overwhelm. I repeated them when I felt rage rise in my chest and when I felt terrified of what was to come.

By September, I was sleeping better, crying less, and reading more. I was singing to my baby boy again. One Saturday morning, at the end of that month, I was pushing my son around the perimeter of Rittenhouse Square Park when he suddenly began to cry. I lifted him from his stroller. His body was stiff. He let out a scream—a gas pain maybe. Clumsily, I held his rigid body in one arm and navigated his empty stroller into the park. I held him on a bench near his favorite statue—The Billy Goat. His body softened in my arms. He stopped crying as suddenly as he had started. He stared up at me with his big brown eyes. It was a cool, sunny day and the light breeze blew thin wisps of golden-brown hair off his forehead. Sunlight streamed through the trees and landed on my bare arms and his soft cheeks. I massaged his protruding belly with the palm of my hand. He looked up at me and giggled.

It was a mechaye. We were floating.

Tammi Markowitz Inscho is a Philadelphia native who recently left the practice of law to pursue her love of creative writing. Tammi is a creative writing instructor who leads writing workshops for youth in the Philadelphia area. She is currently working on her first novel. Her personal essays have been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in the online magazine, Manifest-Station. Tammi lives in Center City Philadelphia with her husband and eleven-year-old son.

Migratory Patterns

In Florida, birds are a constant. They are a morning chirp, a subtle squawk, an elegant V formation cutting the pink sky at dusk. It is a given that the birds will be there year-round, thanks to their seasonal movement. Migration is instinctual, a longing in their little bird hearts for the warm climate and lush trees. They find their way down to Florida through celestial cues, watching sunsets, creating mental maps. The birds never quite settle permanently, always waiting to explore better branches, thicker air. They know something about trusting their gut, trusting when it might be the right time to leave.

I did not realize I’d miss seeing all the birds until I flew away myself, in the opposite direction, up to colder climates and much less year-round chirping, in this new habitat I’ve created in Philadelphia. I moved six months ago for the man I found through a podcast, after spending a year flying quickly to each other on the weekends, I agreed to trade Florida’s humidity for the steel and bustle of Philadelphia.

My gut trusted this counter-intuitive migration pattern, which the birds abandon in winter: winter in Philadelphia is harsh cold winds, all gray skies and brittle trees, cracked sidewalks and brick buildings, and honking horns and subway grates. I need to discover if any birds stick around in winter.

On a chilly February morning, I find a park to explore, to see who else is sticking out the season. Matthias Baldwin Park, just north of Center City Philadelphia, is described online as a green urban oasis with perennial gardens. I know, I know, it will not be a green oasis in February, but I want to go anyway. It’s less than a mile away, and I’ve found that to be my limit of walking distance since moving to Philadelphia. The more famous and expansive Fairmount Park borders the city on the left, with over 2,000 acres and a walking trail along the Schuylkill river, but it is 3 miles away, tripling my walking threshold for winter.

February is too cold for a walk, but I’ve missed the chirping; I’ve missed walking for walking’s sake. Plus, I notice there’s a coffee shop around the corner from the park, so that’ll be my reward because there is no more walking for walking’s sake in February; it requires a purpose for leaving a cozy apartment and slumbering boyfriend on a chilly Sunday morning.

I start the journey out of my neighborhood of brick condos, factories now defunct, and public schools. As I walk, I remember the pit stops I used to take in Florida, driving home from work. I’d park my car at Econlockhatchee River trail just after five PM and enjoy another hour or two of sunlight. The river trail was convenient, easy, just off the main road, a 3-mile loop. It was part of a larger 5,000-acre ecosystem of the Econ State Forest, home to 150 bird species. I’d walk the loop and keep my eyes always on the sparkling blue water, the lush green trees, the herons dipping their beaks into the riverbed, and the occasional alligator’s long snout visible breaking through the surface. My trail was only a slice of the entire acreage of the park, a peek into an expansive ecosystem that freely and wildly took up space.

After a frigid ten minutes, I see the much smaller two-acre park hidden behind a high-rise, one that I imagine glimmers in the summer’s sun. As it comes into view, I can see the terraces of once-filled flowerbeds that are now dreadfully empty. I have to remember they are perennial; they will return. Surrounding the terraces are reedy grass and low-maintenance shrubs. A loop path lined with benches weaves through the flowerbed terraces.

I enter the looped path and take in the gravel path crunching under my feet, rock piles masquerading as art, empty trees on patchy knolls that the dog walkers make use of, a homeless man on a bench telling me I’m beautiful. I remember that a block transformed into a park is still a block that’s part of a larger Philly ecosystem.

As I loop around the forgotten flower beds, I think of the best-case scenario in which they might bloom. Maybe two months? Sixty days until I can delight in the full potential of the park. Maybe Spring is just patience plus time, an endurance. Perennial.

After a few loops, I can see how the park has succumbed to winter, and so have I. A warm coffee shop, and an attempt at writing, are better uses of my time. But it’s not enough; I want more. I wonder if the migratory birds know something that I don’t. Are nature and my gut and the celestial patterns telling me something else?  Did I fly all this way for the right reasons?

Then, I see them on the trees, small little things. I walk closer, and I hear the short, sharp chirps. The chickadees are perched on the bare limbs, and I watch them hop lightly on the small branches to keep warm. They’re only visible because of the naked branches, their leafy mask removed. They’re doing what they can to survive, too: in the winter, chickadees grow extra feathers. They hop constantly and stay close together to share heat.

As I watch the dozens of chickadees dance around and sing, I think about how I am more chickadee than seagull now. I have grown my extra feathers; I have found my other chickadee for warmth. That was the reason I migrated here, wasn’t it? Didn’t I trust my gut for the chance to build a nest with someone else, intertwining our lives and enduring this winter together?

I take in the chirping, hopping birds for a few more minutes, and I remind myself that all of this is perennial, and it will return. My bias often blinds me; not all the birds have left. They are enduring too, hidden in their urban pockets, begging to be found. Their chirps offer me a comfort and a hope – hope for tomorrow to be just a bit warmer, for flowers to peek through soon, for the words that I will write at that coffee shop just around the corner. I have to trust the flight pattern that led me here, in all its unwavering endurance.

Rachel Kolman is a writer, editor, and instructor. Her nonfiction has been published in Bustle, Good Housekeeping, AutoFocus, Her Story, The Bookends Review, and others. She has an MFA in nonfiction from Rosemont College. She was the Summer 2022 Writer-in-Residence at theJack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL. She is writing a collection of essays that explore the corners of the world we often escape to, including her own years of working, writing, and living in Philadelphia.

Three Dead Mice

The twilight gloom buries me, its weight landing heavier on me than on my husband or our three young children. We climb from the car and plod up the asphalt path, wielding a shovel and two garden spades. Now I hold the shovel and the hand of our toddler daughter while my husband gently empties a plastic bag of carcasses into the hole he has just dug in a lightly wooded hill. We stand next to him, silent witnesses on the blacktop outside my third-grade classroom. Our older two, seven and not quite four years old, are on guard, ready to scoop the displaced dirt into the hole with the spades when sufficient time or maybe a few reverent words have passed. If anybody can think of some.


It felt like a lucky day, this first April Sunday of daylight savings time. The gift of time, an extra hour, was suddenly squandered in panic and hasty planning as we jumped up from the dinner table, grabbed tools and a flashlight, and headed to school. On the ride, my oldest soothed me with words of hope, reminding me I might be worried for nothing. All would be well. Maybe I remembered just in time.

Not so, we discovered, upon unlocking the classroom door and being flooded with the scent of decomposition in the air. Not so.


Until dinner, I had enjoyed day ten of an eleven-day spring hiatus, almost refreshed. Tumbling into the break, I was exhausted—tires flattened, no steam left in my engine, out of gas, and no longer finding fumes to run on. So for the first time in my career, I pledged to take the word “break” literally. I hit pause on planning, on preparatory reading, on school-related emails, and even on laying out the year’s final, ambitious projects. For eleven days my focus would be my own three children, my own family, and my own home. With any luck, I might spare a thought for myself.


Even that final weekend felt celebratory. The Sunday stone-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach feeling that perhaps every teacher knows, even those who love our work and cherish the children for whom we labor, was missing. We chattered around the dinner table, discussing what games or movies we might relax into that night.


Privately, though, with only one day left in my self-imposed “clean break,” I was slipping away. As we talked I began a mental inventory of my classroom. I would arrive on Tuesday an hour earlier than usual, set up the book display for a new project, review the notes from our most recent math work, replace the art hanging in the room with more recent examples, and of course, feed the…




Dinner screeched to a halt. Eyes on me. My eyes were wide and brimming with tears and I stumbled through an explanation. “I locked the door…I thought…I have eleven days, I’m taking eleven days…I even left my bag. My bag with all my stuff…so I wouldn’t do work…but I forgot…I forgot the mice!”


They know the saga of the mice—the mother in my class who donated rodents to the group, the class trip to the abundantly kind small animal vet when one of the mice experienced seizures, and the arrival of additional mice when nature had taken its course and they grew from three mice to…a lot more.


Three dead mice. Three dead mice. Or thirty. Or thirteen. I can’t bring myself to remember the number. What is certain is that a young mother mouse, captive to a class of eight and nine-year-olds, was desperate enough to devour every one of her litter before succumbing herself. Her cannibalism was not a capricious act driven by natural impulse, but the direct result of my forgetfulness and negligence.


It is the result of the insurmountable exhaustion to which I succumbed. It is the natural consequence of unmet basic needs.


We complete the burial, our still presence the only ritual we can bring to the moment. We do our duty in somber silence. Quiet compassion replaces assurances.


I have never felt so guilty. Or so loved.


As planned, I arrive at my classroom an hour early. I wander through routine tasks and brace myself for the morning check-in circle. Yesterday I wrote a letter for the children to take home, the same explanation of the demise of the mice I offer them this morning—the unvarnished truth, minus any description of the wholly missing and partially consumed remains that we saw when we entered the room that Sunday.


My children—my classroom children—and I hold a ritual for our furry friends. They prepare a short reading, some final words, planned and impromptu, and a moment of silence. With that, we added a sticks-and-stones marker to the burial spot.


When a small group of children asks with heartfelt curiosity whether they might dig up the remains to have a look at the decomposing mice for themselves, I decline. I am not squeamish about such things, but this time I side with those who can’t bear the thought over the natural interest of those other few.


The demise of the mice leads to difficult conversations with a few class families and I spend the rest of the year working to heal relationships, to restore trust with the children. The demise of the mice starts conversations with my own family as well. It takes another year and twice daily use of a nebulizer in response to worsening stress-induced asthma, but I finally act.


I devise a plan to meet my basic needs, to escape the consequences of ignoring them for so long. I resign my position to build a teaching life that I can survive. For the next fourteen years, that means homeschooling with my own three and teaching other people’s children only on a part-time, occasional basis. Unlike that poor mother mouse, I realize I was called to this work. I am not held captive by it. Tormented by my choice to leave the classroom—until about 20 minutes into my new life—I begin to breathe freely again. After two months, the nebulizer gathers dust on a shelf in the closet.

Diane Webber loves to learn. From the suburbs of Philadelphia, she has learned alongside young children, young adults, and every age between for decades. Diane continues to teach, coach teachers and families, and learn for a living, but now pours more of her energy into writing essays as well as nonfiction and historical fiction for young readers. She is a current student in Spalding University’s cross-genre MFA program.

Her Body Lines

You should have stayed friends with her. You shouldn’t have learned about her death through social media when your yoga teacher posted a picture of her smiling on the yoga mat, looking pale and dreamy as the sun hit her face. Rest in peace.

You made a beeline to the bathroom at work and hyperventilated in the corner stall. You didn’t have permission to feel the way you did; you were the one who cut her out of your life. All of those friendships after her, you strived to find someone like her to get that close again. You had yet to match it.

Grief has a way of making things feel like yesterday. Memories that were inaccessible in the subconscious become unlocked and flood your mind. Suddenly, you were eighteen again when she took you to your first yoga class. She drove you to class in her tan Chevy Malibu that resembled a grandmother’s car and trembled when the ignition turned on. She liked to drive with the sun visor down, not to protect her eyes from the glare, but she slid the mirror open to look at herself as she drove, finding her own vanity hilarious. You bent and flexed your bodies together and trembled in the poses.

She got better at yoga. Her body could withstand the demands of the poses and the heat. Her moves were untouchable, and she made everyone stare. You watched the yoga teacher give her more adjustments in class, and you craved the touch she received, or maybe you wanted her all to yourself.

You would give her a ride to the train station for her Vinyasa training. She’d wear leotards with high-waisted leggings and leg warmers into the city.

“On the train, I feel like Nina in Black Swan,” she said as she refreshed her makeup in your rearview mirror. “Remember that movie?”

You remembered. You’d watched Black Swan together. She envied the ribs that protruded out of the ballerina’s leotard, and you remember the throb radiating between your legs when Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis had sex. You didn’t know you could get so turned on from watching women together. You wouldn’t know that you were bisexual until much later.

Once, after a few drinks, she kissed you outside of a bar. Her long and devilish tongue hooked into the roof of your mouth. You grabbed her thick hair in your hands and pulled her close.

“Do you remember last night?” You whispered the next morning with your bodies interlocked on the single mattress in your parents’ house. You could hear your blood pulse.

“Nothing,” she had said as she rolled off the bed, out of your reach.


A psychic had warned you, after all. He had told you someone you loved would die in an accident. You were angry at the news. This psychic had broken a code. You were a trained clairvoyant, and you would never reveal such detrimental information during a reading. You only read the good things or harmless things like past lives and forcefully tuned out the bad. What good was it to tell someone that death was coming? Death was coming for all of us.


You ran into her mother at the grocery store.

“Do you still keep in touch?” she asked with an arm full of produce.

“No, unfortunately.” We had a falling out. Her Chevy Malibu broke down, and she would come over to your house but then ask for a ride to her boyfriend’s house. The habit kept reoccurring: each time she arrived, only for you to drop her off with disappointment. You eventually told her you couldn’t do it anymore. You couldn’t keep watching her leave. You wanted her to stay, and that’s what ended things. But you never told her you loved her. You never knew if that would have changed anything or everything.

“She moved to Philly to teach yoga. She followed her dreams,” her mother said with a proud smile.

Eventually, you moved into the city, too. You meant to go to her yoga class to reconnect, but you never did.

Now, you can’t stop thinking about her body lines as she hung onto the man’s back on his motorcycle. He didn’t have an extra helmet for her, so her long black hair danced in the wet summer night. You wondered what the stars looked like that night when the storm rolled in after a dry summer day and made the streets wet and slippery. When the biker made a turn, she ejected into the sky. The lines her body made in the road when she landed, forever marking her end in asphalt unworthy of her perfection.

Leah Mele-Bazaz is a proud Philadelphian and the author of Laila: Held for a Moment. Excerpts from her memoir were shortlisted for the Eunice Williams Nonfiction Prize (2021) and a finalist for The Southampton Review Nonfiction Prize (2020). Her writing has appeared in Schuylkill Valley Journal Online, Barren Magazine, and elsewhere. In 2021, she won Barren Magazine’s December Instagram Poetry Contest. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Drexel University, where she also teaches Rhetoric and Composition. You can often find her at one of her two favorite places in Philly: the Schuylkill River Trail or her local library.


Concealing Home – ONLINE BONUS

It will happen slowly.

You will go to college only one hour away, and on the first day, people will point out your tongue when you speak. They will make you say



There’s a mowse in my howse

A baeh-throom tal

Wut claehsses are yous taking?

just for their own laughter, and you will comply. You will laugh, too, and feel a pang below your sternum. This, you will learn, is how betrayal feels.

You will learn from your suitemate, who is an acting major, that one of the first rules of the stage involves stripping your tongue so that the audience can view you as being from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. It makes you more relatable and likable, she says.

You will become an actor, blanding your speech in claehsses classes and social circles and campus job interviews. You realize you sound more educated, more respectable, even more wealthy without the nasally “A”s and hard-ass attitude. Like you were born in an unidentifiable elsewhere.

But when you talk to your Mom over the phone or come home to Mayfair, you are back to saying things like


Shuddup, no he din’t



I hafta go

because you miss sounding and feeling like yourself.

But this longing is fleeting. You will go back and forth between roles all four years. You are on campus much more than you are home, and the line thins and thins until it vanishes.

You vanish.

You go to grad school and stand in front of your own classroom and don’t need to switch tongues for the first time. You do not even recognize yourself speaking. Maybe this is your “teacher voice.” But your practiced sounds permanent to the point that when your students and your colleagues and your professors find out where you’re from, they don’t believe you. “Northeast Philly!” / “Really? You don’t even sound like it.”

You will revel in this. In the ability to be both insider and outsider, local and visitor. To say and behave and act like I was born there, but I made it… always followed by the unspoken ‘out of there.’

You will fasten on this mask and take it off for no one. You relish in the taste.

It is why you will deeply hate moving back into your childhood home with your parents after getting a job in South Jersey. Your Dad wants you to stop wasting money on rent. You know he is right, but you will feel a tinge of resentment for those days, that house, even them. For three weeks, you will drive down to Center City after work and look at apartments behind their backs. You will sign a lease for a 450-square-foot studio and tell your parents that night that you’re moving out of the howse house.

You will forget what the pang below your sternum feels like.

In the city, you will give off an air of champagne, even though you wear cubic zirconia. You will take pleasure in knowing that you made it [out of there], that you are living outside of the bubble of broken-down rowhomes, shitty dive bars along Frankford Ave, and your grade school clique. You will pursue as many men as you can solely because they will take you to whatever restaurant you want, burn holes in their wallets for you, all because your tongue is charming, crassless.

It is how you will end up wearing an oversized diamond from a rich suburban boy from an even richer suburban family. How you will say ‘class’ with a long, sophisticated “A” as if you are taking a drag, as if there has never been any other way. How you and your parents will speak on different registers, and you will feel—with the faintest of pangs—estranged from them.

With every open mouth, you will sound like a traitor.

With every softened vowel, you know you are.

Laura Brzyski serves as the health and wellness editor for Philadelphia magazine. She lives in Philly (not a suburb of) with her husband and their dog, Bogey, and always has at least one Stock’s poundcake on hand in the freezer.

Life Edge

Four maple shelves sit on black metal brackets along a wall in the kitchen of my family’s Fairmount home, nestled between two windows that let light into the rear portion of the house. My brother built them from a tree that was cut down on his property in West Virginia. They were installed recently, not long after we moved in, but they look like they have been there for a long, long time.

Before relocating to Philadelphia in the middle of the pandemic, my husband Patrick and I lived in Seattle. East coast transplants to the Pacific Northwest, it was where we lived for almost three decades. We met and were married there. It’s where we adopted our two kids, and where they grew up. It’s a place we called home.

When Patrick and I first considered buying our Seattle house, the kitchen was the biggest drawback. It was small and boxed in. For two people who love to cook and enjoy entertaining, we worried it just wouldn’t work. However, that was the only real issue with the house. The location was convenient, it was newer construction and in decent shape, and our kids each had their own room plus there was a spare room for grandparents and other visitors. Our real estate agent helped us imagine remodel opportunities, so we looked past the one glaring deficiency and bought it.

After a few years, the renovations began. Walls came down. A main floor powder room was removed. A local carpenter crafted custom cabinets and fashioned a twelve-foot island, topped with a single piece live-edge counter cut from a monkeypod tree. A local furniture design studio built a solid, oversized dining room table made of metal that sat on repurposed legs from an old lathe.

For two years we were able to spread out, welcoming friends and family to join us at the island while preparing meals and drinking wine. We crammed as many as we could around the table, tucked into a built-in bench or on extra stools and chairs we pulled from all over the house.

Thanksgiving dinners. Christmas Eve celebrations. Wedding and baby showers. Game nights. Fundraising events. Happy hours near the fire. Annual farm-to-table dinners. Birthday parties.  Date nights. Weeknight family dinners. Our Seattle home saw it all.

Around our table we welcomed friends we’ve known for years, sharing stories we told and retold countless times, and still, our laughter increased with each retelling. There were intent conversations with other parents who were meeting the challenges of parenting while trying to remain sane, and we listened, commiserated, and supported one another as best we could. New friends became good friends over a Sunday brunch. Good friends reconnected over drinks and games late into the night. Anyone who wanted was welcome to stay in the guest room or on the couch in the basement. Coffee was plentiful the following morning.

And then the pandemic struck. Patrick tested positive for Covid-19 just as the lockdowns started, and days later so did I. That same week, Patrick was offered a job at the University of Pennsylvania. Within two months, we sold our house and were ready to move.

In a flash, boxes were packed, travel plans made, and we closed the door on that remodel, completed with such diligence and care, our dream kitchen, perfect in so many ways. Now someone else would celebrate there. Thanksgivings and Christmas Eves and date nights that we had initially imagined for ourselves were now destined for someone else. We drove away from the home we loved, a home I was convinced we would never sell.

We arrived in Philly in July of 2020. Bought a house. Settled in. The kitchen here is fine. Not cramped but nothing we would have dreamed up for ourselves. It does open to the dining room and also onto a back courtyard, where we tentatively hosted family and visiting friends when the Covid-19 rates and vaccines allowed. We toss out ideas to one another about how we might remodel to make things better. But for now, it is good enough.

The kitchen shelves remind me of the island from our Seattle home, but they are something all their own. They’re stacked with plates and glasses and cookbooks, convenient for unloading from the dishwasher and setting the table. The plates and glasses and books came with us from Seattle.  It’s strange to see them here, and also comforting. Patrick thinks we need to buy some new glasses, but I am reluctant to let these go. It helps to see these, reminders that although some things change, not everything does. Or has to.

We’ve cooked two Thanksgiving dinners in our new kitchen. Last June we hosted family to celebrate our daughter’s graduation from high school. New neighborhood friends have come over for happy hour, and Zoom happy hours continue our connection with friends in Seattle. During the shut-in months of last winter, we held weekly video meetings with my parents and brother in an attempt to shore up one another’s spirits. Eating around our own tables in our own homes, we laughed, talked about politics or books, and dreamed up travel plans for when we could see one another again.

My sister-in-law Krista says our house feels warm and comfortable. That makes us happy. It is nice that she and her family can easily drive from Long Island for a day or a weekend. Another sister-in-law Patrina and her family are just a quick drive out the Main Line. We have had more grandparent visits in the past year and a half than the previous five years. It is a gift for our kids to connect more easily with their cousins. It’s also a gift for us to build closer connections with our parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and East coast friends.


And yet–I miss Seattle with an ache so deep I sometimes question the wisdom of our move. The feeling reminds me of the sadness that settled in when I returned to Seattle after a visit to Buffalo, where I grew up. For days, I would think to myself, “You are so far from home.” But after many years, it was Seattle that became more familiar. We learned neighborhoods like the back of our hands. We had favorite stores, cafes, restaurants. Our friends became family and our family members became their friends as well. Our bonds with colleagues deepened over the years as did our kids’ connection with their biological families, most of whom live in the Pacific Northwest.

The sun shines here, not always, but certainly more than it did in Seattle. When it did shine there, the view from our living room window was west toward the Olympic mountains, snow-capped, imposing, and eternal. Nothing compares with riding along Lake Washington on one of those days, sailboats gleaming white out on the water, Mt. Rainier towering in the distance. My bike rides here–along the Schuylkill River, up to Wissahickon Park, and back along MLK Boulevard–remind me of those rides to Seward Park and back. On the way home, the sun sets here just the same, off to the west in shades of orange and rosy pink.

Our lives were there and here, and now they are here and there. We have always been a bicoastal family and that will continue. We will travel back and forth and back again. We won’t be surprised if one or both of our kids returns to Seattle to again call it home. We wouldn’t rule out returning ourselves at some point.

There’s been much discussion of home throughout the pandemic. As the places we eat and play and sleep became where we also work and go to school, many of us felt trapped in our homes. Others found new comfort there, the safety and security of a place that kept the disease at bay, a slowing down from an often-hectic place, a sense of peace. For too many, the financial struggles that went along with the pandemic have made finding or keeping a home especially difficult.

Poet and author Maya Angelou once wrote, “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” It’s the longing that I both identify with and hope to more fully understand. How can I be more entirely present in this city where I need to make new friends, learn new roads, understand new customs and norms? When will I feel rooted? How long will it take? What does it mean to be at home?

Last weekend I made a cake, a new recipe, and as it baked, a cinnamony warmth filled our home. Our neighbors came over later in the day, and we went up to the roof deck, watching as the sun sank behind the city. Blue sky turned orange and pink and gold along the horizon and a few stars twinkled on. Everything seemed to glow. We laughed and got to know one another a bit better.  We toasted one another. When we were done, we all made promises to do it again soon.

Christopher Drajem is an educator, writer, and LGBTQ+ advocate. He has taught high school English, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, since 2000. His 2019 collaborative memoir, written with his mother Linda Drajem, is titled Wandering Close to Home: A Gay Son and His Feminist Mother’s Journey to Transform Themselves and Their Family. Christopher currently lives in Philadelphia with his husband Patrick and their two children.

Bewley Road

The tears started welling up as I watched another man drive off with my dog, Bewley. Bud, an elderly man, had come about an hour earlier to meet my dog. For three weeks, I had been meeting people, searching for a new home for Bewley. And while almost everyone seemed interested, I always hesitated. “The only way I’m giving him away is if I know for certain he would be in a better situation,” I’d say to each person. A part of me hoped no good candidate would appear. Then I got a call from Bud. He told me that he was a veteran, long retired, and looking for a new dog because his beloved dog died unexpectedly about a few weeks before. He sounded heartbroken, and as he described his life, I felt a growing discomfort in my heart. I knew that Bud was the one.


When Heather, my wife at the time, and I first found Bewley, he was at a local shelter. I spotted him first. He was the only dog that didn’t bark as I walked up and down the row. He had a beautiful coat mixed with dark chocolate, caramel, and white. He appeared about 50lbs, a mix of Chocolate Labrador and Doberman or Rottweiler. There was something regal about the way he stood—as if he were trained as a show dog. But he was not the dog Heather wanted; she wanted “Bubba,” the Shi Tzu in the tiny dog section. Because we’d been looking for our first dog together for months, with several close adoptions, I’d relented and agreed on the tiny dog. The next day, Heather drove alone to the shelter with a new collar for Bubba. By the time she arrived, he was already gone. That’s when she decided it was time to adopt Bewley.


Bewley was named after the road of our first residence together. The apartment was one of the few major decisions during our marriage that we instantly agreed on. We walked into the Bewley residence with the landlord, took one look at the built-in glass cabinets, turned to each other, and simultaneously said, “We’ll take it!”


I was anxious and nervous the day I picked up Bewley from the shelter. While Heather had grown up with a dog at home, I had not. She grew up in rural, upstate New York in a white middle-class family. I grew up poor in Trenton, the son of Cambodian refugees and once had a stray kitten. So, when my workday was over, I scrambled to get ready for the big moment. I placed garbage bags over the seats of my new car and made an appointment to get Bewley professionally bathed.


When I arrived at the shelter, I filled out paperwork and paid the adoption fee. I looked at his biography and was reminded that his temporary name was “Malta,” an awful name for a dog. There wasn’t much known about his history; he was found abandoned in Chester, PA. I was worried he might have experienced some abuse, but he showed no signs of aggression during the times I’d visited him.


Getting him home, in retrospect, was easy. As we walked through the pet store, he seemed to love people, and they all adored him. And after his grooming, he smelled and strutted like a winner. I bought him a fancy bed. When Heather got home, she instantly fell in love.


We were only in our second year of marriage when we adopted Bewley and still figuring out how to mesh with each other. Our relationship had always had major challenges. During pre-marital counseling, the therapist suggested we reconsider our engagement. We had regular clashes. But we plowed forward, hoping that love would be enough. We were both twenty-seven. Maybe it was that I was graduating and starting my career and felt the pressure to lay down a foundation. Maybe she was tired of living with her older sister and wanted to chart her own path. For many years after we separated, I turned the questions of our marriage over and over like a rosary that I’d hoped would give me a divine answer.


The first few weeks with Bewley were extremely difficult for us, particularly me. The expensive bed I bought him lasted only two nights before he chewed out the stuffing. He would try to hump everything in sight, which I found odd. Heather worked long nursing shifts at the hospital three days a week, and, on those days, I would drive home in the middle of my workday to walk him and then head back to campus. It grew increasingly stressful.


We decided to crate Bewley. As he adjusted, he’d bark at night. In our tiny rowhouse, that meant he ended up in the basement. He had been so quiet in the kennel—it was one of the main reasons why I liked him. I felt betrayed. I tried to comfort him, even singing to quiet him. One night in the bedroom, while Heather read a magazine on the bed, I brushed Bewley on the floor. I was so frustrated, I blurted, “I don’t know if I can keep doing this.”


She came down on the floor and started petting Bewley. “I know,” she said. “I can see you’re trying.”  Her voice cracked. “But if it’s too hard for you, we can take him back.”


This felt like one of my first great challenges as a husband. I had made a commitment to Bewley and the thought of quitting on him after one month made me feel like a failure. I’d understood that getting a dog was one of Heather’s non-negotiables when we discussed marriage. There was no guarantee that another dog would be an immediate improvement, and I held out hope that Bewley could be better. “No,” I said softly, “We can’t do that. I’ll find a way to make it work.”


The scariest thing about him was his aggression. Typically, he was playful but nondestructive (aside from his beds). But he had this other side. Two things riled him up: certain dogs and men. A veterinarian estimated Bewley was only about two-and-a-half. It was a mystery what kind of treatment he received in his early stages. He could have experienced abuse by other dogs or people and any reminders would retrigger rage and fear. I felt the power of it once when I was walking with Bewley at my side. A man strolled by and Bewley lunged at this man with such ferocity and anger that I thought he would tear the man to shreds. The only things that spared the man were his own reflexes and the length of the leash, which choked the dog as he fell to the ground. I repeatedly apologized as the man walked away with a horrified face.


After this and regular dramatic confrontations with other dogs during our daily strolls, I grew committed to changing this behavior. I researched various training programs. The trainer that fascinated me the most was Cesar Millan. I read his work and watched episodes of “The Dog Whisperer” in which he starred and featured dogs far worse than Bewley. I admired Millan’s ability to rehabilitate the fiercest dogs. His simple philosophy of “exercise, discipline, and affection” became my mantra.


I started walking Bewley “the Cesar way,” which required strict obedience and a short distance between owner and dog. By controlling Bewley’s head, I’d control his attention and keep it on me. I’d practice starting and stopping, restricting bathroom stops, and having him wait or even submit when another dog walked by. In essence, I was trying to focus on his discipline. And this worked, mostly.


Then Heather got pregnant. Two years later, we had a second child.


With two kids, a full-time job, and a working wife, being Bewley’s main trainer lost priority for me. I always wanted to be a father—that was my non-negotiable. I delighted in watching Sovi and Asher crack their first smiles, take their first steps, and go through each phase of early life. I had very little time for Bewley. And so did Heather.


When we agreed to get a dog, there was this understanding that Heather would be the primary caregiver. She was the dog-lover, after all. However, since Bewley had this aggression I was hell-bent on fixing, I became more involved than planned. Heather enjoyed Bewley, and they had a very different kind of relationship. She was the good-cop; I was the bad-cop. But she didn’t do things I’d assumed she’d do, like groom him regularly. It seemed she loved loving a dog but not caring for a dog, and I started to resent her for it.


One breaking point for me occurred when we moved to the suburbs and obtained a real backyard. Early on, I started noticing dog droppings under our holly tree near the fence at the property line of our neighbor. They had two dogs and a concrete yard with a tile pool. They had a habit of letting their dogs do their business until they couldn’t safely walk around it. Only then would they clean up. So, I’d see the dog poop under our tree, look at their yard and conclude: the neighbors were throwing the poop into our yard.


“How could the neighbors do that!” I said to Heather.


“I know,” she said, “it’s so gross.”


It kept happening. Bewildered, I finally decided to confront the neighbors. That got Heather’s attention, and she confessed. Since we now had a yard, she started letting Bewley use it as a bathroom instead of walking him around the neighborhood as we had agreed. I felt betrayed.


The new house was outdated, so we went through renovations of the kitchens, ceilings, walls, and floors. I spent many hours pulling out every single nail and staple left over from the carpets I had removed. And when I refinished the floors, I wanted to keep them that way. The great antagonist to my newly surfaced floors, however, were Bewley’s nails.


Sovi and Asher were three and one-and-a-half when we moved into the new house. We’d increasingly become worried about Bewley accidentally hurting the kids, so we’d often gate him in another room. He’d spend much of his time away from the rest of the family. The weight of married life with children increasingly sucked much of the joy of owning a dog. And it was increasingly making for a sad and frustrated dog.


We kept on plodding along for several months until the day Heather broke. “You need to find him a new home,” she said to me on the phone. “He growled at one of the children. I don’t feel safe with him around them.”  I had recently contemplated that idea myself but was stuck on that commitment I made four years earlier. I never imagined that Heather would be the one to ask for Bewley’s removal. I was sad, but I reconciled that if I could find Bewley a better situation I would do it for everyone’s sake.


Bud and I spent about a good hour talking about life, our families, and his experiences with dogs. He looked to be in his late-sixties or early-seventies, tufts of silver hair sticking under his military baseball cap. He had a leather bomber jacket on, and in his hands his own dog leash. It was much longer than the ones I used. “I have a huge property,” he said. “I love taking dogs on long walks and giving them enough slack to let them explore.”  He and Bewley hit it off right away. Bud loved Bewley with the intensity of a man who had recently mourned the death of his own. I felt a peaceful sadness as I handed Bewley over.


With my phone, I took a picture of them that is frozen in my mind, of Bud in his black pickup truck with Bewley in shotgun, without any awareness that he was leaving our family forever. Heather was at work that morning; the kids were in daycare. I didn’t even have the heart to tell the kids beforehand. As Bud backed down my driveway, Bewley’s face tilted, as if he was realizing something amiss. When I watched them turn off onto the street, I imagined Bewley jumping out the window and running back toward me.


I ran back into the house and wept. I started putting away items in the basement that Bud had declined. I felt Bewley’s presence more than ever before, seeing his head appear in the basement window, and imagining him sleeping in the kids’ beds, which I would have never allowed in real life.


It wasn’t until years later that I realized that day was the beginning of the end of my marriage. It became easier to let the seams fray. Surprisingly, Heather was less distraught than I was about Bewley’s departure. Probably I’d made the environment so miserable for her that she simply lost the joy of having a dog. I don’t remember seeing her cry once about him. Likely her goodbye was a slow one that had taken place long before mine. The sad truth is that in the weeks following his departure, we knew we had made the right decision—a great weight had been lifted—and we took comfort in knowing that he was in a better situation.


Bud twice brought Bewley over to visit over the following two years. By the second time, Heather and I were living apart. Bewley was almost ten and no longer had his youthful energy. He had silver patches in his coat. Yet he remembered the tricks I taught him, such as standing on two legs and begging for treats. I had memories of taking him for long walks with Heather, when we sometimes would let him off the leash in the middle of the woods and he’d bolt around. Watching him run carefree brought a smile to my face. It was one of those rare moments where I’d let my real affection for him show. I was only good at two of the three pillars of Cesar’s Way: exercise and discipline. I was never so good at affection—with Bewley or Heather. In that way, I failed them both.


The last time I saw Bud and Bewley, Bud struggled to walk up my stairs. This was partly why I stopped reaching out to him. I wanted him to stop feeling obligated to me. But over the years, I have thought about both of their advancing ages, and if perhaps Bewley may need my rescue again. I’ve imagined him living with me. And from time to time, I think about reaching out to Bud to see how they are both doing, but I always stop short of sending off a message.

Pol-Paul Pat is currently working on a novel about Cambodian Americans set in the Philadelphia area. He earned his MFA from Penn State University and teaches English composition and creative writing at Delaware County Community College in Media, PA.

Reflections on Hedwig and the Truths We Learn

What is that?”

It’s what I’ve got to work with.”

It is 2004.

I am a junior in college.

“What is this called, again?” I ask.

I am in the dormitory of a boy who is absolutely no good for me, but for whom I just switched my major in the event he might be impressed with me, and in the event he might start to think of me as more than–anything more than–just a friend with benefits.

We have been doing a weekly movie night for most of the semester, a result of his vocal belief that my knowledge of film is far inferior to his own. It is not the only thing, he occasionally reminds me, he finds inferior. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” he responds, and wonder what itching could possibly have to do with the plot of this film.

“I can’t believe you’ve never heard of this,” he continues.

So far, he has shown me a lot of films–some independent, some canonical, some just weird–I’ve never heard of, which just serves to further convince me this tumultuous relationship is to my benefit.

“What’s it about?” I inquire.

“An East German rock star with a botched sex change operation,” he answers.

“Oh!” I say. This arc surprises me more than anything involving itching.

“And it’s a musical!”

“Of course it’s a musical,”

It turns out…there isn’t.


It is 2013.

I am not doing well.

Undiagnosed mental illness, unresolved trauma, and anorexia have all combined in a perfect storm of dysfunction. I am emaciated; self-harming; self-medicating; and so, so sad. My marriage is on the rocks; my body is falling apart; everything is shrouded in a hazy darkness through which I trudge from day to day, feeling as if each of my limbs weighs hundreds of pounds.

I do not know that agony is not normal.

“Guess what I heard?” my husband says.

We are driving home together from our respective jobs in the city. I am lost in ideation.  “What?” I ask dully.

“They’re reviving Hedwig and the Angry Inch with Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig.

This sentence slices through the fog of my depression like a sunbeam.

I think back to 2004, and my first viewing of Hedwig next to the boy who never did fall in love with me. I think of the tens of dozens of times I have watched the movie since then, after it immediately escalated to the top of my list of favorite films. I think of Neil Patrick Harris, of whose existence I was reminded thanks to his role in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, also one of my favorite films. I think of Doogie Houser and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog and Assassins; I think of the fortitude it takes to be a leading Queer actor in Hollywood in the early 2000s.

My mouth drops.“You’re kidding.”

“Nope, I just saw the article today.” He looks at me.  “I thought you would like to hear that.”

He is suffering too, watching my decline. I know he feels impotent as I lose more weight and cut my skin; I know he does not know what to do. I appreciate his endless attempts to cheer me up over the past year, but I am usually too lost in emotional turmoil for any of it to work.

I still do not know the people I love feel my pain by proxy.

However, I am experiencing something with this news, a stirring of excitement and anticipation I have not noticed for months. It is a departure from the overwhelming negativity which has tainted my consciousness as of late, and I seize upon the rare chance to feel anything positive at all.

“When?” I demand. “Can we go?” I beg. “Do you think Neil Patrick Harris  will sign my Hedwig tattoo?”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch has so touched me over the years, a still from the film is etched into my skin. I have memorized all of the dialogue; I have been listening to the soundtrack for a solid decade. I’ve even followed the career of John Cameron Mitchell, one of the show’s originators and its first titular character.

My husband smiles ruefully.

“I doubt we’ll be able to afford Broadway tickets,” he admits, and I know he is correct.

“We’ll figure it out anyway!” I say, somewhat manically. “We’ll bring friends and get a group rate, or we’ll stop buying weed and we’ll save up, or…”

I chatter more on the drive home than I have in ages.


It is 2014.

“Are you excited?”

“I’m so fucking excited,” I answer.

My husband and I are at a Holiday Inn in Manhattan. It is the first time we’ve stayed in a hotel in five years; it is our first vacation since our honeymoon in 2009. It is only 36 hours in New York – a mere ninety minutes from our home in Philadelphia – but I am as excited as if we were taking several weeks at an all-inclusive paradise with umbrellas in the drinks .

“We should go soon,” my husband warns as I reapply lip gloss and brush my hair again, unable to keep my mildly-frenetic feet in one spot for more than a few seconds. “The curtain goes up at eight–which means 8:15, but whatever.”

We are going to see Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway.

This entire affair is eighteen months’ worth of latte deprivation, online shopping abstinence, and all the Christmas presents I kindly requested of family be gifted as straight cash. Getting here was a Herculean task, involving uncomfortable favors and friends of friends of friends and waking up before dawn to join a phone queue. It is beyond surreal to finally be on our way to the Belasco Theatre; I have literally had a countdown in my phone for the ten months since we acquired these tickets.

For a few of those months, I was also in residential treatment for my eating disorder.

Residential treatment is fully-immersive, extraordinarily intense, and overwhelmingly uncomfortable. Given that most eating disorders develop as a way to avoid feelings, and that a starving brain is designed to numb feelings out of self-preservation, the process of feeling feelings again is viscerally painful. It was weeks upon weeks upon weeks of weight restoration and trauma processing and missing my husband; it was relearning how to care for my body and manage my mind.

Recovery from an eating disorder takes years, and things do not improve immediately upon leaving treatment; it is not a magic pill. The short time I have been home has been difficult and emotionally taxing, though I must admit I prefer it to when everything was bleak and I loathed my very self.

My husband and I leave the hotel and walk through late-afternoon sunlight filtering through the Manhattan skyscrapers. I stop and request he take a photograph of my outfit. We arrive at the Belasco, where a growing crowd stands below a gigantic image of Neil Patrick Harris. I stop and take a photograph of the marquee. We enter, ascend the stairs, display our tickets, descend the stairs, and find our seats. I stop and take a photograph of the stage; an usher admonishes me for taking the photograph.

We are slightly early, and I look around at the interior of the theater. The set is illumined with an ethereal blue glow, staged to look like the vestige of a bomb site, littered with burnt-out relics. There is, inexplicably, a Playbill for Hurt Locker: The Musical on the ground below my feet.

I think about the long months since we first decided to purchase these tickets, the long months in treatment, and the long months of suffering before that. This show has remained a shimmering beacon in my temporal lobe, the lighthouse at the end of a journey across rough seas. It has been a reason to continue slogging through the relentless pain of healing. I think about Hansel and Hedwig . I think about all the women next to whom I slept at the residential treatment center. I think about everyone I’ve known who comprehends the ache of mental illness; I think about the pain of being an “other.” Then the bell chimes, and the theater quiets, and the lights dim, and the show starts.


It is 2021.

I am learning about self-love or radical acceptance. I reflect often on the experience, seven years ago, which I classify – now and probably forever – as “The Best Theatrical-Going Experience of My Life.” The reason for this, sheer theatrical merit notwithstanding, has very much to do with the state of my mind today. It has to do with the seventeen years that have passed since I was first introduced to Hedwig, and the seven years that have passed since the show; it has to do with my work in therapy, my progress, and my struggles.

But first, maybe, some background.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is essentially a rock opera, told in the style of a live rock show, the setlist composing the narrative and the stage banter between songs supplying the details. It is the story of a Queer rock star from East Berlin who immigrates to the United States after a botched sex change operation and fronts a rock band known as the Angry Inch. It is a story of loss, and mourning, and overcoming; it is a story of love and trauma and creation.

Hedwig, born as Hansel, is abused as a child in East Germany. She meets an American sergeant with whom she falls in love, who promises to marry her and take her out of communist Germany. Hansel assumes her mother’s name and passport and undergoes a genital reassignment surgery – which is botched – in order to leave East Berlin. Her husband then deserts her in Junction City, Kansas, immediately upon their move to America. Hedwig forms a band and falls in love with a young musician, who later abandons her upon discovering her “angry inch” and rockets to solo stardom utilizing their co-written material. Again and again, Hedwig is knocked down; she continues to get up, searching for love, searching for home, searching for self. At its foundation, Hedwig is very much a tale about the growth which can emerge from grief; it is about the journey to identity.

The 2014 revival of the show with Neil Patrick Harris opened at the Belasco Theatre on April 22nd. It was staged as a live-music concert in real-time, the venue fictitiously presented as the abandoned set of Hurt Locker: The Musical.  Later runs would feature Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, Taye Diggs, and John Cameron Mitchell, the last of whom also played Hedwig in both the original and the film versions of the show. Hedwig ran until September of 2015 and won four Tony awards.

There is a line of dialogue from Hedwig that regularly flits through my head, words I think about when I am struggling. It is a line I remember when I am lamenting my still-ongoing recovery; the nuisance of mental illness; the injustice of having a disability. It is spoken after Hedwig and her partner begin to make love for the first time, and he has discovered Hedwig’s failed gender reassignment. He asks, in a quavering voice, what is that?

There is a pause.

And Hedwig says, it’s what I’ve got to work with.

“It’s what I’ve go to work with.”

That’s it. That’s the line.

And it’s everything.

Through the darkest years of my twenties and thirties, when I could not find hope and everything hurt, I resented my illness, and my history, and all the other factors which combined to make my existence seem harder than everyone else’s. I was so filled with resentment, there was no room to enjoy anything else.  But after treatment, and time, and about seven more years of therapy on top of that, there is finally space for light to trickle in. I appreciate the strengths I have developed in the face of my illnesses; I feel gratitude for my children and chocolate and the beauty of a sunrise. I have worked my ass off learning skills to mitigate my disabilities.

I now know there is joy between all the struggling, and that has to mean something too. Because I have finally accepted what I have to work with. And, just like Hedwig, I feel whole.

Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and persnickety cats. She is the author of “These Are a Few of My Least Favorite Things” (Poetry, Really Serious Literature, 2022), “Correspondence to Nowhere” (Nonfiction, Bone & Ink Press, 2022), and “Pray for Us Sinners” (Fiction, Alien Buddha Press, 2020). Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. Follow her at or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre.