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 shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre.

 

A Stranger’s Time

I’ve never been less than an hour early for my train. I don’t know if it comes from a sense of heightened preparedness or an ongoing current of anxiety that doesn’t even let me sleep in on weekends. Years of sitting in an airport two hours before another passenger arrived ingrained this practice into me. For so long I hated the limbo of traveling yet sitting still. I ended up counting the seconds as they strolled by to occupy my brain. I don’t mind the time now. It’s a moment to pause. It’s a moment to observe the world around me I take for granted every day.

I walked into 30th street station at 1:15pm. I gazed at arrivals from the entrance way trying to find my train to Connecticut. I took note that it was harder to read this sign now than it was last year. It seemed constantly staring at a computer screen for the last ten odd years had started to wear away at what was once 20/20. I walked towards gate three which housed tracks three and four as my Acela never left from anywhere else. That never stopped me from matching up the numbers on my ticket and the ones on the sign about twice every minute. Look down, 2170. Look up, 2170. Gate three, track four, as usual. It was 1:20 now. I had seventy minutes to kill.

I found a seat on the aged wooden benches that offered lodging to travelers much more homesick than I. I put on my headphones and tuned out the sounds of the mostly empty train station but kept my eyes alert. I watched the people around me lug around their suitcases, make phone calls breaking the news of another delay, while a man filled out some form on a clipboard. A bird had haplessly flown its way into the building. It sat a mere three feet away from me. I took out my camera, but it flew away before the lens could shutter. Almost as if it was telling me the moment was not meant to be captured. Please, I wish only to be a fleeting memory, it seemed to say to me.

The man with the clipboard now stood opposite me. Using the top of his bench as a desk. I noticed his continuous glances and wondered if he wanted me to fill out his survey or sign his petition. Whatever it was, he was furiously working away at it.  He grabbed my attention with a wave of his hand and spoke. I couldn’t hear him. I took my headphones off and he repeated the words.

“Can you pull down your mask for me?”

I was confused but automatically obliged.

“Give me a smile.” He enjoined with one of his own.

I replied with a mix of confusion and amusement “Are- are you drawing me?”

He began walking over to sit next to me and motioned for me to return my mask to my face. He sat next to me and began to tell me about himself. Well, more accurately he told me to look him up on my phone. I obliged. I typed “Irving Fields Philadelphia” into the search bar and waited for the results to load.  There he was. The photos that appeared depicted him in nearly an identical outfit. The flat cap and scarf he wore perfectly fit the role of artist he was playing. His square frame glasses still hung over his nose, only helping him see the page below him and not my face. His dark skin devoid of wrinkles did not reveal his age but the rasp in his flamboyant voice and grey moustache did.

As if he was reading from a script, he began to recount his story to me, detailing the articles that appeared. He spoke in muffled words, and his story didn’t seem to come to him in chronological order. I did my best to listen carefully and closely as my eyes flickered back from him and the clock hanging on the wall. He wanted me to look at him for the drawing, but enough time had passed that fear of missing my train began to creep in.

As far as I could tell the story begins the day he was struck by a car. To put it bluntly he said the accident left him both physically and mentally fucked for a number of years. Almost to add validity to his story he lifted his left pant leg revealing his prosthetic leg.

“Say Ouch!”

“Ouch.”

Whether the medical bills or the unemployment during those dark years, he ended up living on the street. He spent a long time living without a warm place to sleep until he got an idea. He began going to the grocery store and asking women if he could draw their portrait or help them with their groceries for something to eat. No doubt the unusual nature of his request stood out to people, and he found himself with a new source of income and, more importantly, food.

“I would always ask women, and they’d say ‘well, I’m not wearing any make up’. I told them it wasn’t a picture! It made no difference to me. “

Eventually, Irving’s habitual workspace became Pat’s Cheesesteaks. In the same manner that I met him many people found themselves sitting across from a man with pencil and paper in hand sketching away asking them to hold perfectly still mid-meal. One of those subjects just so happened to be a journalist reviewing the restaurant. They began talking, having about the same conversation that I was now engaged in, only eight years earlier. By the end of the exchange Irving became a part of an article. As he told me the story, I could sense the pride and accomplishment in his words. Being written about adds legitimacy to one’s craft. I hope I’m doing the same for him here. When he asked me what I did, I told him I was a writer. I’m currently fulfilling a promise I made to him with these words.

“When I first started out, I only drew women and sometimes their boyfriends. It seemed to pay the best. But now I can draw whatever I want. Now I only draw pretty boys like yourself, but remember, I’ll always be pretty boy number one.” He joked with a level of sincerity.

The words did not really faze me as I had prepared myself for anything at that point, but I did take it as the unusual complement it was.

Being published helped him find a home, he told me. Irving continually reminded me that he used to be homeless. He wasn’t any more. I couldn’t help but feel sad about his constant reassurance, knowing how many people must have treated this incredibly friendly and eccentric man less than human. He no longer had to draw to eat, but it clearly meant a lot to him. I could tell he wanted the first word associated with him to be artist and not formally-homeless.

“I’m drawing to feed the homeless now.”

He was about to ask the question I knew was coming from the moment we began speaking. But I didn’t mind.

“Can you pay for your portrait?”

“Sure.”

“Alright, that’ll be a thousand dollars.” He laughed.

“How about twenty?”  I countered.

“Yeah, alright, man. That’s beautiful, thank you.”

Art and money exchanged hands, and I saw his work for the first time.

“You like it?”

“I love it man, thank you.”

“Give it to somebody you love. And tell them they’re beautiful.”

“I’m going home right now. I will.”

An hour had blown by, and it was time for me to board.

“You know, before he wrote that article about me, I had no idea Philly was known for cheesesteaks, and I’ve lived here my whole life.”

I laughed and thanked him for making my wait infinitely more entertaining. I won’t lie. The likeness isn’t exact. But I really do love the drawing. I’d like to think the portrait was free, and I paid him for the story. I suppose, that’s why I always show up early.


Drew Kolenik is a creative writing student at Temple University. Since a young age, he has always had his hand in one creative endeavor or another. He has taken his passion for story-telling and daily journaling to begin the search for his audience. 

Making Eggplant Disappear

Every day for two weeks, my refrigerator vegetable drawer, stocked full on grocery day, slowly emptied.

The carrots accompanied paper bag lunches. The mushrooms, celery, and zucchini complimented several evening stir-fry meals served over rice or noodles. The seedless oranges and Red Delicious apples vanished as mid-morning and afternoon snacks.

The eggplant remained.

The vegetable rolled back and forth each time someone in search of food opened the bottom drawer, and after finding nothing but the eggplant, quickly closed the drawer again.

Knowing that a return trip to the grocery store to restock our fare would be irresponsible without cooking this sleek dark-purple vegetable, I resolved late on a Saturday evening to complete the task. This vegetable that no one would touch, this vegetable that refused to wilt or wither its way to the trash can, this vegetable that occupied too much space in the refrigerator drawer would become Eggplant Caviar, a dish that tastes better than any fish roe could match. I needed to make this leftover vegetable disappear.

The best pan for this task was the 16-inch frying pan buried in the back of my cabinet behind several more useful-sized pots and pans.

“Loud noise!” I called like a golfer who shouts “Fore!”  Then I squatted and pulled the rimmed pan by its handle from among its counterparts causing a clang and clatter that would have startled my 12-year-old son Nick when he was a toddler.

I set the heavy pan on the stovetop, grabbed a knife and dinner plate from the top cabinet, and set up my dicing station on the counter above the dishwasher.

Nick wandered into the kitchen.

“What are you cooking?” he asked, seeing the green pepper, onion and eggplant lined up for chopping.

“Eggplant Caviar,” I answered and pointed to the recipe. “It’s a dip to eat with crackers. I have whole-wheat sal-tynes, as you call them. And butter crackers.”

“Mom, I don’t call them sal-tynes anymore,” he said. “Can I help?”

Back when my son was a little boy who mispronounced the word saltine, finding a way for him to assist me cooking a vegetable like eggplant was difficult. He stood on a chair to reach the countertop. Few jobs were appropriate. The risk of danger prohibited him from chopping vegetables with sharp utensils or working with heat over a hot stove. He was reduced to measuring and stirring ingredients into a bowl. To assert his authority over the task, he would add extra spices to the mix when I wasn’t looking.

Now he was on the verge of becoming a teenager, and we prepared dinner shoulder-to-shoulder in our sock feet. I still cut the vegetables while he mixed ingredients. But seemingly overnight, he had graduated from a bowl on the counter to a pan over the stove.

“Sure, you can help,” I said, relieved to pass the bulk of the chore on to somebody else. “Get ready for the vegetables.”

The green pepper was a rich forest green. Using a dull knife, because that’s all we own, I cut through the tough skin of the pepper to make thin strips, discarding the seeds and stem on top of a grocery bag on the counter. I then chopped the uneven strips into smaller pieces like confetti. With the same blunt tool, I scraped the chopped vegetable from the dinner plate into the pan where my son waited to begin cooking. I repeated the task with a medium onion, adding its discarded brown skins to the trash pile and the tiny, white, nose-stinging squares into the pan.

My son added olive oil and garlic to the mix and increased the gas flames underneath the pan until the vegetables sizzled, turning pungent and raw into pleasant and sautéed.

Looking over his shoulder, I saw steam rising from the pan. I wanted to nudge Nick aside and take over, turn the heat down, and stir the mix to prevent the onions from burning. I was just about to step in when Nick adjusted the stove himself and added a slight flow of chicken broth to get the simmer under control.

“Do you want me to stir?” I asked.

“I got this, Mom,” he said, giving me no room to intervene.

Nick stirred vegetables with a plastic, ochre spatula at the stove while I tackled the awkward eggplant with my insufficient tool. The blade of my knife was too short for the task, but no other cutlery we owned could get the job done. I adjusted the knife’s position each time the blade slit into the vegetable but stuck, barred by the curb of the knife handle. Good-bye you plain, purple vegetable that’s been in our refrigerator forever.

After creating rings of eggplant stacked like pancakes on the side of the plate, I cut through the edges of each slice and delicately peeled away the black skin, careful to separate the tough peel from the spongy meat I wanted to keep and cook. After all of the skins were discarded, I lay the beige circles one at the time on the open side of the plate and began slicing each in a graph paper pattern, dropping the resulting squares of eggplant into the mixture being stirred by my son.

“What we need is some music,” he said, temporarily leaving his post to find a pop station on his red I-Pad touch that he placed on the counter, closer to the refrigerator than to the stove. We listened to a singer I had never heard before release his emotions and somehow – abracadabra – carry away my worries about the eggplant, too.

My child worked at the stove, and I erased final evidence that the raw eggplant ever existed. I threw away the grocery bag filled with the inedible vegetable scraps and wiped the counter with a paper towel after spraying the surface with cleaner. Lifting the kitchen faucet handle and nudging it few times to adjust the running water temperature from scorching to tolerable, I rinsed the dirty prep utensils and dishes and placed them one by one out of sight in the dishwasher.

“I’m going to add more olive oil,” Nick said as he worked behind me. “Do we have any hot sauce?”

“No, I need to add that to the grocery list,” I said, continuing to move dishes between the sink and dishwasher.

“But let me see what I can find,” I said, scanning the different spices on the shelf and reaching for a familiar choice. “How about red pepper flakes?”

While I rummaged through a utensil drawer to find a measuring spoon, he jumped ahead and started sprinkling the dried herb over the pan. He also freely added oregano and basil.

“Wait, you might add too much,” I said.

“Mom, it’s fine,” he said.

I went around the counter and sat on a stool. Nick continued to transform the eggplant into an incredible dish. He added canned tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce and more rogue spices. When he declared the recipe was ready to try, I opened the crackers. We both chose the butter-flavored and ignored the whole-wheat saltines.

We moved to the living room. Nick put down a yellow placemat on the coffee table and served the caviar in a pottery dish I usually reserved for company. He set the crackers between us and scooped a helping of the appetizer onto a plate for me to try first.

The caviar tasted nothing like eggplant. Its savory flavor and texture had just the right kick.

“Is this good or what?” he asked, putting another spoonful on his plate.

Then we sat at opposite ends of the worn, tan couch, each of us blankly putting dip on our crackers while watching a re-run detective show on TV, enjoying the caviar, and making the eggplant that wouldn’t go away disappear.


A former newspaper journalist, Caroline Kalfas writes in Woolwich Township, NJ. Her work has appeared in various newsletters and the 2018 and 2019 editions of Bay to Ocean: The Year’s Best Writing from the Eastern Shore Writers Association. She is a graduate of N.C. State University in Raleigh.

Sunday Service

Diedre is someone who can handle anything, so Evelyn and I looked up when we heard her edge and saw her throw up her hands. Weaving elegantly past the tables and chairs in the undercroft, her kitten heels clicked on the hard linoleum as she announced, without even looking back at Brother Spaeth: “I don’t deal with dead people.”

Well after that Evelyn and I knew we had to stop what we were doing.

Each Sunday morning is the same. Evelyn, svelte and neat; not a hair of her salt-and-pepper pixie-cut out of place, was (as usual) methodically pouring orange juice, apple juice and cranberry juice into plastic cups.   Each juice-flavor selection on a separate, doily-lined tray, each cup about three-quarters full and lined up in uniform rows.  I stood next to her, a foot or so away, also looking out at the dining room from the church kitchen’s long rectangular serving window. I’m stout, my hair is styled in natural twisted locks  that fly- free especially my grey streak in the front;  I was (as usual) appropriately disheveled for someone working in a church kitchen before 8 in the morning.

Upstairs at St. Matthew AME Church they were praising the Lord and foot-stamping to the music. And I was trying to creatively line- up small boxes of Frosted Flakes, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Rice Krispies and Fruit Loops, next to Danishes in commercial cellophane and apple turnovers Saran-wrapped by hand and rearranging the blond cafeteria trays they sat on.  But now Evelyn and I both stopped and looked out at Diedre and Brother Spaeth and then at each other, silently craning our heads and knowing we were both thinking: “Did I just hear what I thought I heard?”

What’s more, it was Diedre and she can handle anything. Evelyn and I walked out of the kitchen in tandem to help, and there at a table near the center of the dining room sat a man with his head down. He was completely still—his back did not move up and down, he was apparently not breathing.  Evelyn poked him in the shoulder; there was no response.  I fingered his wrist and felt no pulse.

So what now? 100-plus people in church upstairs, most of them coming down to breakfast within the hour; biscuits and sausages in the oven, and a dead guy sprawled across a table in the middle of the room.

I volunteered to go upstairs and tell somebody.

I took a shortcut, ran up a back staircase and emerged at the side of the sanctuary. I can’t remember where they were in the service, but they were in full-church-passion mode and I decided to try to be discreet. Then it hit me: How do you break this news and to who?

I tapped one of the nurses, sitting at the end of a front-side pew near the Stewards, on the shoulder and said, Rena we have a situation – “A gentleman has apparently passed away downstairs.”

She looked at me like she’d never seen me before in her life. She said: “What?”

I whispered: We need you to come downstairs, one of the indigent people who come for breakfast, has apparently died in the undercroft. Rena had slipped out of her shoes – white nurse’s clogs – and she fumbled getting them back on her feet as she rose to rush downstairs behind me.

When we got downstairs the scene was unchanged: Diedre, Brother Spaeth and Evelyn standing over a slumped, disheveled, dirty-looking dead man.

And then he stirred. And then he started to throw-up. And everybody jumped back.

“I don’t deal with throw-up.  You can ask my late husband,” said Evelyn.

As she walked to the kitchen to get a wet dishcloth.  Rena cautioned us not to touch his body-fluids. Since Evelyn and I were the only ones wearing gloves ‘cause we’d been working in the kitchen we realized for these initial moments we were it. I took the dish towel, noting that she’d picked a nice towel and taken the care to use warm water, as Evelyn crossed to the other side of the round table and started gathering up the plastic tablecloth.

I had the wet dish cloth under his chin as he finished spitting up and by the time I had folded it over to gently wipe his face, Diedre and Rena were putting on gloves and gathering up the tablecloth on either side. Brother Spaeth gave us an ETA on the EMTs and announced he would get a trash can.

Rena, who had to go back upstairs to get her pocketbook (and see about her mother) told us he might have hit his head and we should talk to him until the emergency services people came. So, I sat down next to the gentleman—he was middle-aged, balding, medium brown-skinned and not bad-looking with a freshly cleaned face.

So there we sat, in front of the partially bunched up tablecloth with the warm, damp dish towel folded and laid in front of him. (Just in case).

OK, now, what to say to someone you just thought was dead once we were past: “Let me help you… let’s clean up your chin a bit, there now…. Face to face now, I started: “And I’m Maida, what’s your name?”  He just stared at me under low eyelids and said, “usually people just leave me.” (When he passes out?) Usually?

I decided to try not to be condescending and make our required talk as conversational as possible, while cleverly, sneakily (I thought) checking his coherence.  I engaged, “So what did you do yesterday?” I asked as casually and politely as I could.

“What did you do yesterday,” he countered with an edge that surprised me. And I stuttered; at that moment I couldn’t remember yesterday.

Then he started asking me if I’d been to some church on Wednesday, or another church on Friday, or a different church on Saturday and gradually I realized he was telling me which churches gave away free food and which days I could go. And I started to see his sad, sad enterprise—a network, a traveling band of near-abandoned people walking from church-to- church all over West Philadelphia, looking for Christians willing to give strangers something to eat.

The EMTs came and I walked away. Brother Spaeth threw everything on the table away, Diedre wiped up with disinfectant and set out a clean tablecloth. Church ended, and the congregants came down to eat breakfast.

By the time Evelyn and I got back to the kitchen, someone had put the sausage patties in the biscuits and wrapped up the pork and turkey sandwiches, placing the piles next to the pastries and cereal creating the same food display everyone expects every week except first Sundays when we serve sage sausage, scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese grits and home fries.

Evelyn and I were back at our stations, food-prep time long past.  Indeed, we were nearly through serving our church family when a slightly familiar man walked through the line. Evelyn and I looked at each other, finally forming the words: “Was that?”

Diedre walked past, looked over at us and paused. “Yes, I know, “she said, her voice flat. “A resurrection and it wasn’t even Easter.”


Maida Cassandra Odom, a native of Akron, Ohio, is a longtime North Philadelphia resident and a member of St. Matthew AME Church in West Philadelphia. She retired in 2019 after working as a newspaper writer/reporter, a union activist/editor, and a journalism professor. Her church distributes free meals every Saturday.

ONLINE BONUS: How To Grieve A Home

  1. Become so attached that you cannot separate your identity from it

Live and grow there with the people you love. Use each and every part of the house, every square inch. Let your siblings teach you how to use the foyer and living room for floor hockey. Use the tall, angled ceilings in the living room as movie screens and decorate the largest possible Christmas tree every year. Use the unfinished basement for band practice or gymnastics or as the set for a music video. Use the shower to shower, but also to cry. Cry in your room, too. Laugh in every room with every person who matters. Laugh at dad snoring on the couch in the living room. Laugh at mom leaving her retainer on the kitchen counter. Laugh at your brothers wrestling in the living room, the kitchen, the basement, and every bedroom.

Fight there, too. Deliver one word answers when your parents ask you how your day was. Roll your eyes at every tip your dad offers after your games and tell him you don’t need his help. Pretend you don’t hear the catch in your mom’s voice when she asks if you like her. Tell your brother you hate him, and don’t talk to him for days. Argue constantly. Slam doors. Punch walls.

Doing all of this, the place should know you better than you do.

 

  1. Leave temporarily

Leave for school, for a job, or just to leave. Take it for granted. Learn and grow outside its walls. Tell the people you meet about your home and about the people who live there. About the floor hockey and about the laughter and about the cruel things you’ve said and regretted there.

Get hurt. Find someone you love who loves you. Try to make it work until you wonder why you’re trying so hard and what that means for you both. Look around once it’s over and realize how few are the friends you have left. Hold onto those who’ve stayed. Keep learning and growing though it is difficult. Focus on your work.

Miss home.

 

  1. Return

Go back. Inhale the familiar smell of your mom’s Italian wedding soup and tune in to the clacking of siblings playing pool in the basement. Run your fingers against the walls as you walk through the hallway. Count the missing wooden fence posts that you knocked off the treehouse while playing soccer in the backyard. Lie down in the treehouse while you look up at the canopy, trace the leaves and remember what you used to daydream about. Fall asleep in the arms of the couch when your family watches football. Smile when the oak tree in the front yard drops an acorn on your head. Welcome back, it seems to say. Remember how it feels to be somewhere that knows you.

Hug your family for what feels like the first time, and don’t say any more cruel things. Apologize for old arguments. Feel comforted in every sense.

 

  1. Lose it, and blame a loved one

Someone will tell you this house won’t be your home for much longer because your parents will decide to downsize now that all their kids have grown up.

Interrogate them. Question why they would do this before you’ve graduated. Ask them if they don’t feel connected to it in the same way you do. When they explain that, yes, it is sooner than expected, shift the blame to the new homeowners while still holding a grudge with your loved ones. Avoid conversations with them. If they talk to you and you must respond, do so unenthusiastically. Slam more doors. Cry in more showers. Refuse to believe someone else will call this place that is yours, theirs.

Listen when they tell you they weren’t expecting this to happen so soon either. Pay attention to the tone of their voice, and watch their eyes as they tell you this. Hear what they don’t say. See that they are feeling things, too. Stop blaming them if you can.

 

  1. Commit every square foot to memory

Enjoy every inch of the place while you can, while still refusing to accept you will lose it soon. Memorize every creak in the floorboards, every paint chip in the walls, every nook where you used to hide, every heater you and your brother would sit in front of in the winter when you were little, every tree you’ve climbed. Remember the meals you’ve shared there with the people you love, the holidays celebrated, even the family reunion in the backyard you were too young to remember, and the family dog that bit the neighbors that you’ve only heard stories about. Imagine how many more memories your family has made there years before you were born that you don’t even know about.

Don’t forget the time capsule you and your neighbors buried in the backyard years ago, the clicking sound of the dryer as it tossed your icy clothes after a day of sledding, the cracks in the driveway you used to avoid when you were on your rollerblades following closely behind your brothers. Write it all down. Take pictures.

Drink champagne with friends and family in the empty house the last night that it’s still yours. Share fond memories of sleepovers in the living room, camping in the backyard. Notice how bare it looks with all of your family’s things moved out.

Try to enjoy the last night, but know that you won’t. Wish you could have a day by yourself with it. Write an ode to each room in your head or on paper.

 

  1. Settle somewhere new knowing it will not be the same, but that it will be enough

When you want to complain that the kitchen is smaller than your old home, or that the walls are too thin, or that it isn’t big enough for the holidays when everyone comes home, hold your tongue. Instead, listen as your mom rambles about all the changes they’re going to make, all the ways she plans on making it feel like home. Grab a paintbrush, a hammer, a drill.

Find fragments of home all around you. In the smell of the backyard’s freshly cut grass where you still play soccer. In the creaking sound of your grandmother’s old rocking chair as your dad dozes during the holidays. In the basement where at the pool table siblings break, share stories, and scheme together. In the family photo albums you routinely flip through that stand tall on the living room shelves. In your parents’ glistening eyes when they have all the kids home for the holidays.

Then, with these fragments, reconstruct what home means to you.


A recent graduate of Emerson College, Kira Venturini lives in Washington, DC and works in the nonprofit industry. She grew up in Wallingford, Pennsylvania as the youngest in her family of five. Her work has been published in Talking Writing.

ONLINE BONUS: A Quarter of a Life

We leave the bar a little before midnight. The laughter of the drunken crowds outside muffles the car horns and screeching tires in the distance. The air is sticky as the group of us ramble down the sidewalk toward the nearest subway station, bumping into one another on every misstep. We’re all dressed in nineties garb to match the theme of the bar, to celebrate my twenty-fifth birthday, but now, out on the street, we’re conspicuous in our Chuck Taylors and choker necklaces.

As my friends joke and debate which direction to stumble toward, the lights atop the skyscrapers steal my eye. There’s something about Philadelphia at night that always seems so foreign. No matter how many times I’ve stared up at those same buildings in awe, it always feels like the first time. Yet somehow, it also feels like home. I’ve spent the last six months trying to distract myself with beauty like that of the skyline, trying to numb a gnawing pain, or at least dull it.

Ever since losing my cousin Chris, I’ve been stripped of the ability to be completely present in any given situation. He died of a drug overdose earlier in the year, leaving me with the overwhelming sense a piece of me is constantly missing—like I’ve lost an arm in an accident, like my leg has been sawed clean off. They say amputees often experience a condition called “phantom limb syndrome.” The condition can cause them to wake in the middle of the night in a panicked sweat, antagonized by a throbbing pain or confused by a sensation felt on a part of their body that no longer exists. I’ve been learning that the ghosts of the people we have loved and lost can generate a similar effect.

We reach a street corner and everyone agrees we need directions to the Patco. Otherwise, we may never catch a train to carry our tired bodies back over the bridge to Jersey. We pause as one of my friends rummages through her pockets in search of her phone.

With my neck craned and mouth agape, I trace the sharp edges of the high-rises cutting through the foggy night sky and block out the sound of my friends arguing over which way to go. I think of the Patco and it reminds me of the story I told when I gave my cousin’s eulogy. I was riding the train home from the Phillies parade in 2008, after they had just won the World Series. Someone across the aisle mentioned they were from Magnolia.

“Do you happen to know Chris Boone?” I asked, explaining who I was.

The excitement gleamed in their eyes as they shouted to their friends a couple rows back that I was “Boone’s cousin!” and before I knew it, the entire train car had erupted into applause, chanting his name. I think of that moment, of what kind of person you have to be to have people love you so much they cheer for you even when you’re not around. Then I think of all the other times he rode the Patco into Camden alone to score baggies of heroin and suddenly I am snapped back to reality.

“It’s 12:05!” my friend shouts, raising her phone in the air. The time shines bright on the screen. “You’re officially twenty-five!”

Everyone joins in her excitement, dancing and cheering like I’ve just hit the winning home run. Pedestrians are forced to detour around us as we claim the entire sidewalk in celebration. I laugh, and sit down on the yellow painted curb, hiding my face in my hands out of embarrassment as they begin to sing “Happy Birthday.”

When I was younger, it always felt awkward to have people sing to me on my birthday. My whole family would gather around a cake and turn out the lights, shushing each other as the candle flames illuminated my face. I hated being the center of attention or being expected to react some certain way as everyone harmonized and stared at me. But as time has passed, I’ve learned to treasure birthdays and holidays and any days where bliss hints of its pretty face.

For months, I’ve warned everyone about this particular birthday though, urging them to prepare for my “quarter life crisis.” And though it’s mostly a joke, the fear of getting older has been wrapping its calloused hands around my throat to remind me that every moment is fleeting. I can’t seem to stop myself from returning over and over again to the photo album that holds the memories of my very first birthday. My family threw me a party at my grandparents’ house. My cousin had just turned one a couple months earlier. In one picture, the two of us are wearing Sesame Street party hats and dazed looks on our faces as our parents hold us over the cake. Our tiny fingers are covered in icing and drool. The photos sharpen the phantom pain. They serve as faint reminders that my cousin, my partner in crime, my first best friend, will never get a twenty-fifth birthday, or any other birthdays for that matter. I won’t open my messages in the morning to find the same “Happy Birthday, I love you” text he sends each year, no matter how far we’ve grown apart. I’ll never get another chance to say the same to him; it leaves me with a throbbing sense of emptiness.

But here I am, on a corner in Philadelphia surrounded by buildings that continue to stand tall. Their lights reflect off one another’s windows creating a shine that’s impossible to ignore. Here I am surrounded by the people who continue to hold my hand as I navigate the ever-winding path of grief. I look up at them as they stand over me, singing. My wife’s eyes are gleeful and glazed over from one drink too many. A couple of my best friends sing theatrically, holding invisible microphones and clutching at their chests for dramatic effect. A friend who’s more like a brother laughs at the whole scene—a real, genuine laugh. The streetlight shines above them creating an orange glow in the thick city air around their heads. Just as they finish the final “Happy Birthday to you,” it begins to rain. No thunder or lightning, no torrential downpour, just rain—light enough to kiss my warm, June skin and let me know, it’s there.


Jackie Domenus is a queer writer and educator from South Jersey. Her essays have appeared in Watershed Review and Entropy. She recently received her MA in Writing from Rowan University and she serves as Associate Editor for Glassworks Magazine.

ONLINE BONUS: Making Eggplant Disappear

Every day for two weeks, my refrigerator vegetable drawer, stocked full on grocery day, slowly emptied.

The carrots accompanied paper bag lunches. The mushrooms, celery, and zucchini complimented several evening stir-fry meals served over rice or noodles. The seedless oranges and Red Delicious apples vanished as mid-morning and afternoon snacks.

The eggplant remained.

The vegetable rolled back and forth each time someone in search of food opened the bottom drawer, and after finding nothing but the eggplant, quickly closed the drawer again.

Knowing that a return trip to the grocery store to restock our fare would be irresponsible without cooking this sleek dark-purple vegetable, I resolved late on a Saturday evening to complete the task. This vegetable that no one would touch, this vegetable that refused to wilt or wither its way to the trash can, this vegetable that occupied too much space in the refrigerator drawer would become Eggplant Caviar, a dish that tastes better than any fish roe could match. I needed to make this leftover vegetable disappear.

The best pan for this task was the 16-inch frying pan buried in the back of my cabinet behind several more useful-sized pots and pans.

“Loud noise!” I called like a golfer who shouts “Fore!”  Then I squatted and pulled the rimmed pan by its handle from among its counterparts causing a clang and clatter that would have startled my 12-year-old son Nick when he was a toddler.

I set the heavy pan on the stovetop, grabbed a knife and dinner plate from the top cabinet, and set up my dicing station on the counter above the dishwasher.

Nick wandered into the kitchen.

“What are you cooking?” he asked, seeing the green pepper, onion and eggplant lined up for chopping.

“Eggplant Caviar,” I answered and pointed to the recipe. “It’s a dip to eat with crackers. I have whole-wheat sal-tynes, as you call them. And butter crackers.”

“Mom, I don’t call them sal-tynes anymore,” he said. “Can I help?”

Back when my son was a little boy who mispronounced the word saltine, finding a way for him to assist me cooking a vegetable like eggplant was difficult. He stood on a chair to reach the countertop. Few jobs were appropriate. The risk of danger prohibited him from chopping vegetables with sharp utensils or working with heat over a hot stove. He was reduced to measuring and stirring ingredients into a bowl. To assert his authority over the task, he would add extra spices to the mix when I wasn’t looking.

Now he was on the verge of becoming a teen-ager, and we prepared dinner shoulder-to-shoulder in our sock feet. I still cut the vegetables while he mixed ingredients. But seemingly overnight, he had graduated from a bowl on the counter to a pan over the stove.

“Sure, you can help,” I said, relieved to pass the bulk of the chore on to somebody else. “Get ready for the vegetables.”

The green pepper was a rich forest green. Using a dull knife, because that’s all we own, I cut through the tough skin of the pepper to make thin strips, discarding the seeds and stem on top of a grocery bag on the counter. I then chopped the uneven strips into smaller pieces like confetti. With the same blunt tool, I scraped the chopped vegetable from the dinner plate into the pan where my son waited to begin cooking. I repeated the task with a medium onion, adding its discarded brown skins to the trash pile and the tiny-white nose-stinging squares into the pan.

My son added olive oil and garlic to the mix and increased the gas flames underneath the pan until the vegetables sizzled, turning pungent and raw into pleasant and sautéed.

Looking over his shoulder, I saw steam rising from the pan. I wanted to nudge Nick aside and take over, turn the heat down, and stir the mix to prevent the onions from burning. I was just about to step in when Nick adjusted the stove himself and added a slight flow of chicken broth to get the simmer under control.

“Do you want me to stir?” I asked.

“I got this, Mom,” he said, giving me no room to intervene.

Nick stirred vegetables with a plastic, ochre spatula at the stove while I tackled the awkward eggplant with my insufficient tool. The blade of my knife was too short for the task, but no other cutlery we owned could get the job done. I adjusted the knife’s position each time the blade slit into the vegetable but stuck, barred by the curb of the knife handle. Good-bye you plain, purple vegetable that’s been in our refrigerator forever.

After creating rings of eggplant stacked like pancakes on the side of the plate, I cut through the edges of each slice and delicately peeled away the black skin, careful to separate the tough peel from the spongy meat I wanted to keep and cook. After all of the skins were discarded, I lay the beige circles one at the time on the open side of the plate and began slicing each in a graph paper pattern, dropping the resulting squares of eggplant into the mixture being stirred by my son.

“What we need is some music,” he said, temporarily leaving his post to find a pop station on his red I-Pad touch that he placed on the counter, closer to the refrigerator than to the stove. We listened to a singer I had never heard before release his emotions and somehow – abracadabra – carry away my worries about the eggplant, too.

My child worked at the stove, and I erased final evidence that the raw eggplant ever existed. I threw away the grocery bag filled with the inedible vegetable scraps and wiped the counter with a paper towel after spraying the surface with cleaner. Lifting the kitchen faucet handle and nudging it few times to adjust the running water temperature from scorching to tolerable, I rinsed the dirty prep utensils and dishes and placed them one by one out of sight in the dishwasher.

“I’m going to add more olive oil,” Nick said as he worked behind me. “Do we have any hot sauce?”

“No, I need to add that to the grocery list,” I said, continuing to move dishes between the sink and dishwasher.

“But let me see what I can find,” I said, scanning the different spices on the shelf and reaching for a familiar choice. “How about red pepper flakes?”

While I rummaged through a utensil drawer to find a measuring spoon, he jumped ahead and started sprinkling the dried herb over the pan. He also freely added oregano and basil.

“Wait, you might add too much,” I said.

“Mom, it’s fine,” he said.

I went around the counter and sat on a stool. Nick continued to transform the eggplant into an incredible dish. He added canned tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce and more rogue spices. When he declared the recipe was ready to try, I opened the crackers. We both chose the butter-flavored and ignored the whole-wheat saltines.

We moved to the living room. Nick put down a yellow placemat on the coffee table and served the caviar in a pottery dish I usually reserved for company. He set the crackers between us and scooped a helping of the appetizer onto a plate for me to try first.

The caviar tasted nothing like eggplant. Its savory flavor and texture had just the right kick.

“Is this good or what?” he asked, putting another spoonful on his plate.

Then we sat at opposite ends of the worn, tan couch, each of us blankly putting dip on our crackers while watching a re-run detective show on TV, enjoying the caviar, and making the eggplant that wouldn’t go away disappear.


A former newspaper journalist, Caroline Kalfas writes in Woolwich Township, NJ. Her work has appeared in various newsletters and the 2018 and 2019 editions of Bay to Ocean: The Year’s Best Writing from the Eastern Shore Writers Association. She is a graduate of N.C. State University in Raleigh.

Witness

Our family moved to West Philadelphia in the 1960s after my father left the Army. Maybe because it was such a gorgeous afternoon on such a lovely spring day, my mom had walked down to my elementary school as she occasionally did, to get out of the house and stretch her legs.  As we walked back together, we talked as we strolled past neatly trimmed front lawns picture perfect in their tiny plots.

The immaculately preserved row homes in our neighborhood were obsessively maintained as the pride of ownership for Negro Philadelphians who survived the Great Depression. Many had colorful flower boxes filled with crimson and purple flowers, and others had stone facades, piped in white or charcoal. On some, the porches jutted out like crowns from the buildings. People sat on their stoops and smiled as we walked by. Others sat in shadow, just watching as the cars ran up and down the street.

I don’t remember what we talked about that afternoon. Usually, my mom would ask, “How was school? Who did you play with at recess? What did your teacher say about your homework?”

That was all it took, and we would prattle on about anything and everything, including Grant, my pet turtle. “You know he got out again?” my mom might have said. “This time, he pushed the gravel up against the side of his habitat, made a ramp, and then climbed out. I found him in the closet with a family of dust bunnies riding on his back.”

Or, as it was near the end of the term, I’d muse about school next year—”I’ll be in 5th Grade!”—and everything I hoped to learn and do.

We lived on a well-traveled thoroughfare in a white, three-bedroom house on the even side of the street, two blocks up from Market Street. It had a big basement and a stone porch, where many homes on our street had wood or wrought iron railings.

On the other side of the street, a group of girls about my age played double-dutch—the tap-skip-tap a familiar sound as girls all over the neighborhood played it. Next to them, a little girl bounced her ball. She wore a frilly, brightly colored dress and shiny black shoes. Her mother had done her hair in thin braids that young girls liked to wear. A rainbow of colorful barrettes secured her tightly woven strands.

We had reached the top steps leading to our front door when we heard a loud bang. It was a loud thump, really, not a crash or crunch of metal, like two cars coming together. I’d heard that before. This sounded different, and I looked back.

The first thing I saw was a bright red ball with sparkles—the kind you could purchase from Woolworth’s for 49 cents. It rested against the curb, still and grimy.

The ball had bounced away from the little girl, and she had run after it. She hadn’t looked. She hadn’t seen the car moving up the street. The driver hadn’t seen her until it was too late, and he hit her. She lay in the street all done up like it was her birthday, ready for the party she would have. The ball was undoubtedly one of her presents, which was why she ran after it. It was too new to lose.

She was not moving. I couldn’t see any blood. My mom fumbled with her keys as she rushed to get me inside because she didn’t want me to witness the pretty little girl lying in the street. The car that struck her hovered, menacing inches away from her head.

Though I can’t remember the color of the car, I remember the little girl’s frilly lime green dress with white accents blowing in the wind—her black skin in contrast with the bright party dress she wore—her body laid on the ground, broken.

Passersby had assembled across the street near where the little girl lay; I wasn’t paying them much attention.

A woman came marching down the street. She pointed up at my mother and demanded, “Do you have a phone?

“Yes.”

“Then go call the ambulance.”

My mom was standoffish with people she didn’t know and never liked being told what to do. Still, given the situation, mom forgot about me, and instead of shepherding me inside, she vanished into the house to call and ask that an ambulance be sent. Back then, there was no 911 service, so you had to dial direct or ask the operator to connect you. It usually took some time for the operator to come on the line. When she answered—and it was always she then—the operator would ask what service you needed police, fire, or ambulance and would connect you.

 

A single police car came. He drove up slowly; quietly, there were no lights or sirens. As I remembered, it was a blue car because the city had begun replacing the lipstick red cars they had when we first moved here. He stopped behind the vehicle that had struck the little girl.

The cop got out of the car and strolled up the street. I stood on the porch and watched. He swung his arms and adjusted his cap as he walked around to the front. He managed to look around without seeing any of us, much less the little girl who lay in the street ahead. With each nonchalant step, the assembled passersby and neighbors grew tenser. Their eyes narrowed, and they began to mutter. It made me angry, too, instantly, volcanically. I watched his every step, my anger boiling, the disdain that he conveyed pricked my conscience, offended my understanding of why he was here, tarnished the badge of a public servant, soured the title Police Officer.

So, I became someone else, no longer just a marginally concerned party. I became a witness. Witness to what I didn’t know, I was nine years old, and my experience limited the outcomes I could imagine or predict. But it was now my responsibility to remember as much as I could. Record as much as I could in my memory and keep that image in the eye of my mind.

Then something awful happened.

The cop looked down, and his face changed. His self-satisfied smirk faded, and he became grave. Perhaps the little girl had stopped breathing, had a seizure, or someone in the crowd said something.

He scooped her up and ran up the street. Holding his hat in one hand, cradling the little girl in his arms, he sprinted, as I imagined he did in high school, running in his last race as a senior. He ran the 100 yards like his life, and the state championship was in jeopardy. He didn’t stop until he disappeared into the doctor’s office at the corner of our block.

A few minutes later, he emerged. Still carrying his hat, he was breathing hard, walking with a purpose. That arrogant, insensitive gate that I found so offensive had disappeared. He had a spring in his step. Perhaps he realized we bleed too, and he probably had saved the little girl’s life. His head snapped to the right, and he saw me. My gaze didn’t waver.

 

Sometime later, about a month or two, I saw the same little girl back bouncing her red ball in front of her house. When it jumped away from her, she didn’t run into the street after it. She let the ball roll to the other curb, and after looking both ways, she skipped after it.

I write this because this incident had been playing in my mind lately. I believe it may be a reaction to the attitude that claims you are a hero just by putting on pants and showing up. Damn what you do, what you say or how you say it. Or, maybe it’s because the police killed another unarmed person in their custody—once again, again, once again.

I wondered what became of that Philly cop that over 50 years ago transformed from disinterested bystander to a human being, at least long enough to cradle that little girl in his arms and rush her to a place where she could get help. I wondered if he took that feeling back to this patrol car, back to his precinct and home with him, and after everything, did it last—did he change? Did he answer every call from then on as if he could be the difference? Or did he backslide?


Leon Jackson Davenport is a Writer, Fine Art Photographer, and Emmy nominated Video Editor. Leon lives in the Eastern US, with his lovely wife, and a cadre of feral cats who come and go as they please. He has published online in Six Sentences, Foundling Review, The Full of Crow Quarterly, Powder Burn Flash, and in volume two of the print anthology, “FEAR: A Modern Anthology of Horror and Terror” published by Crooked Cat. He is currently a master’s degree candidate in Creative Writing at Wilkes University.

City Rain

by Alyson Giantisco

CNF pic_jpeg

Philadelphia becomes a movie set when it rains. Neon slices through water droplets that crash against the dark street, tiny prisms spinning through the night. I’m watching film roll through my mind, filling my head with stories. I’m overwhelmed with flashing color and flickering movement.

I’m waiting for my life to take flight, everyday feeling as if I’m shooting the same scene over and over. But more immediately, I’m waiting for the number 57 bus, whose route looks like a four-year-old almost made the bus line straight, but whose hand on the ruler was bumped once, twice.

I’ve blended into the scenery on this damp corner, still and solitary against the telephone pole looming above me. There is no bus shelter. Instead I make myself small under an umbrella decorated with images of dancing ladies. They swing their arms wide, carefree and twirling across the gentle arc of the fabric. I spin the umbrella, spin myself, and we are dancing together on the lonely city sidewalk.

It’s easy to lose myself when my surroundings look like a dystopian sci-fi movie. Bright signs are harsh in the deep gray of evening. The mist in the air catches the light, refracts through the night, breaks against the pavement.

The bus crests the hill and approaches. I step off the sidewalk, over the rill of sludge sliding southward in the vee of where the curb meets street. The bus exhales as it stops, the doors folding in on themselves as the driver reaches and presses the button to kneel the front tire. It beeps in five quick chirps, but I’m already on the bus before the second beep. The two tones that verify payment follow me as I sidestep a walker and seek a seat. The aisle is slick, and I expect that the bus leaks. I touch the seat before I sit. You can’t always see the wet spots. Moisture is camouflaged by the patterned fabric that stretches taught on the steel chair frames.

For a moment, I am caught up in wondering about the seat fabric, wondering at the satisfaction of the designer as they chose the pattern, the contentment of those first riders to sit upon the seats. The once royal blue background has small geometric diamonds of color that remind me of confetti. New, it must have celebrated friendship and travel, but now, worn and stained, brown and faded, it embodies SEPTA’s slogan We’re Getting There. The implication that We’re Not There Yet is both an entertaining gaffe and a reminder of SEPTA’s struggles.

Behind me, a man rummages through his belongings. He removes everything from his pack, one item by one item, carefully setting them out in a neat line across the back bench. He is a mess of arms looking for—and I assume by his frustrated continual mutterings, not finding—that for which he is searching. Suddenly he repacks with swift jilted movements. He bundles his bag against himself and hustles off the bus at the next corner. I watch him head down the block, and bet he’ll jump the same bus line in the opposite direction to return for whatever he is missing. I can’t help but feel a kinship for this scattered desperate man. I too am looking for something I’ve misplaced, only I can’t seem to remember what it is. I hope the best for him. I imagine him returning to the restaurant he works at and finding the check slid tucked into the pocket of his apron, or his phone lying on the counter. Or maybe he’s coming from the purple carpeted, golden draped basement of his spiritual guru, and forgotten the slip of paper where he wrote down the meaning of life. Something about a fish? Or maybe it was a wish?

On the bus, a motley group of city secondary is seated around me. We who ride the bus alone on a Saturday night. We are the left-behinds. We are the after-thoughts. No couples get on the bus as we ride. Ten, then twenty minutes. It’s a quiet night. Four, five, six more blocks pass before we add to our crew. The driver is all but invisible behind the partition that shields her from our sight. Her arm emerges to push the lever for the door to open, then pulls the door closed.

We riders are all urbanites who understand silence, and most importantly, how to space ourselves throughout the bus to remain apart together. I imagine the lives of my fellow riders, their comings and goings. I notice their belongings, their tired expressions, and their imagined stories make me melancholy. I turn my face to the window instead.

Through the reflected faces of my fellow passengers, I watch people outside who scurry in the rain, darting across streets from awning to awning. This part of town is busy, and a horde of people hunch inside the small dry domes of their umbrellas. Others stand under overhangs, prioritizing some body parts while sacrificing others to the rain. A group of young hip smokers hug themselves against the damp. They are without umbrellas, and they blink into the night as if willing the downpour to stop, then shift, huddle closer. The light catches on their bright pointed elbows, stark against the black of their clothing. Around them people step wide, jostling one another. On the sidewalk, there is only room for two small umbrellas to pass, and the constant negotiation for space is an urban ballet.
Such a flurry of movement, but I’m parted from all but the visual. My mind fills in the other senses: a note of cigarette smoke just under the city dampness, the shuffling of pedestrians, the crash and splash as traffic flies through puddles, the chill that makes you feel uncomfortable but alive. The umbrellas spring—a quick metal zing and click—as doors open and patrons alight into the night. The traffic light turns green and cars accelerate, pushing the water pooled by clogged drains in small arcs that splash upon the sidewalk and scatter everyone nearby.

Inside the bus, there is an overwhelming silence.

At the next light, the bus turns and I gather my things. I swing my leg out into the aisle, prepping for my departure. My thigh is hit with an icy droplet. I have found the leak that has moistened the seat next to me.

I step off the bus opening my umbrella in one perfectly graceful movement that would make Mary Poppins proud. I dally on the pavement, but in only a moment I reach my house. The movie magic breaks. I shake my umbrella on my stoop as I stand under the jam. Shake myself free of any lingering fantasy. I pass through my door. I am home.


Alyson Giantisco is lucky in cards and enjoys winning. She believes in gratitude, celebration, the Oxford comma, and creativity. Giantisco trained in design, and continues to make and show artwork. She lives, works, and plays in Philadelphia.

A Non-Fairy Tale

Nancy Farell photo_CNF

My daughter fell under the spell of fairy tales early on when, as a toddler, she watched Lady and the Tramp for the first time on a VHS tape that I’d rented at a Delaware County Blockbuster while she fought a stomach bug. She’d enjoyed the movie so much that we gifted her with Lady and Trump stuffed toys for her next birthday. Thereafter, she gradually became enamored of everything else Disney, until we got an inkling that this might be coloring her world view. We’d warned her about stranger danger as a youngster, and yet she’d extend the perkiest of hellos to folks we’d pass on the street, as Goofy might. And, as a teen, when our family visited Disney World, she’d had to be reminded to breathe as we’d embarked on Main Street USA, despite our caution that while that Main Street USA’s souvenir shops were beguiling, they were also pricey. Fortunately, even a souvenir as unexceptional as a bag of Mickey Mouse-shaped pretzels made her smile.

As a college freshman, she met a young man who was honorable and hardworking, and they fell for one another over afternoons at Linvilla Orchards or the Sproul Bowling Lanes and evenings at Friendly’s restaurant or the AMC Theater. In their mid-20s, he proposed marriage. She had officially found her prince, and they said their vows in 2013 on a bright, fall Saturday. Soon after, they found a place to live in Wilmington with copious drafts and missing shingles but a good configuration, and they slowly turned it into a home that included a Cinderella snow globe and a Mickey and Minnie alarm clock.

But these fairy tale associations would come to an end, and the beginning of the end fell on Christmas Day in 2014, when my daughter and her husband, both age 27, excitedly shared with me their desire to start a family. They’d been helping me peel our dinner potatoes in the kitchen, when she’d excitedly let slip, “Mom, we’re trying for a baby.” I saw my son-in-law blush and hugged them both. “How wonderful!” I cried out.

They spread the news to the rest of the family as we gathered in the dining room. Then, my daughter leaned toward me and whispered, “Who knows, mom? I could be pregnant already.” I nodded and put my hand in hers. We had no idea what was coming.

My daughter was not pregnant on that Christmas Day in 2014, nor was she pregnant on Christmas Day in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, or 2019. Instead, they were diagnosed as the one couple in eight who suffer from infertility.

In 2015, after one year without success, my daughter’s gynecologist had various recommendations, such as ovulation predictor kits and fertility monitor bracelets among others. However, no amount of calendar marking, temperature taking, or urine dip sticking resulted in pregnancy.

In 2016, they visited an infertility specialist. The hope was that medical breakthroughs would step in and solve the mystery. Coinciding with this time was a career opportunity for my son-in-law, but it required that he live out of state for a couple of months. My son-in-law didn’t want to live away even temporarily, but the Intra-Uterine Insemination (IUI) procedures they were about to begin at the Reproductive Associates of Delaware would be costly, and my daughter reassured him that a better job was for the best. It was determined that, with meticulous planning, the procedures could take place while my son-in-law was away, and that I would accompany my daughter to the infertility appointments.

Ahead of the first IUI, an exploratory surgery was performed to check for cysts or blockages. I sat in the waiting room wishing that something would be found because then something might be remedied, but the surgical results were inconclusive. The diagnosis was unexplained infertility, which doesn’t sound like a diagnosis at all, but is one, we discovered. Our drive home from the surgery center involved my getting hopelessly lost, while my daughter endured post-anesthesia vomiting in the passenger seat. Eventually, I got her settled at home with a blanket on the sofa, unearthed old coloring books and crayons, ordered a pizza, and then slipped Mulan into the DVD player, and there we sat for hours.

In July of 2017, I held my daughter’s hand as she underwent IUI #1. Post-procedure, the doctor left the room while my daughter and I remained for a recommended 20-minute period of lying supine. In the sterile environment, I rubbed her stomach to soothe her and decided to sing Hap Palmer’s My Mommy Comes Back, her favorite childhood song. She laughed and shushed me, but I saw tears slip from her eyes, so I continued. I sang dreadfully but hoped it would generate good luck. Then, two weeks later, when we returned to the doctor’s office, her pregnancy test was negative.

In September of 2017, we were back at the Reproductive Associates of Delaware, ever hopeful, as my daughter underwent IUI #2. “The odds are better the second time around,” the doctor opined. This didn’t seem logical, but my daughter lit up, so I nodded and said, “Well, here we go then!” As she laid on the table afterward this time, I didn’t sing, but I dug deep for words of comfort as she closed her eyes. We’d brought along what we hoped were good luck charms – a photo of her as a baby in my pocket and a prayer bead bracelet on her wrist. Two weeks later, we returned for her pregnancy test, and once again, there was no pregnancy. We traversed the parking lot as she sobbed.

Then my son-in-law returned home from training. He was assigned employment in New York, and we all did our best to focus on that instead of on the IUI failures. We threw them a going away party with decorations and gifts for their new place in Queens. No one mentioned babies. Instead, we spoke of the excitement of the Big Apple. It was a fresh start.

They signed on with The New York Fertility Center in Flushing. Other than adoption, their last-ditch effort was looming, namely In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Their leadup to IVF was chockfull of doctor appointments, injections, and medications. They needed to create a poster board to keep track of everything. There were injections of Gonal, Menopur, Ganirelix, Progesterone in Oil, and Ovridrel. The drugs included Letrazole, Medrol, Estrace, Zithromax, DHEA, CoQ10, and Prenate. After weeks of prep, the doctor inserted a needle into my daughter’s ovarian follicle and retrieved six eggs. Those eggs were placed in a culture dish, where sperm was waiting.

My husband and I visited them the following weekend. We explored Queens for hours, but mostly listened for a call from the doctor to learn how many of the six eggs had been fertilized. When the call finally came, the doctor reported that two eggs had been fertilized excellently, two acceptably, and that two were not viable. The four useable embryos would be allowed to remain in the culture dish until they became blastocysts, about five days post-fertilization. It was decided that the two excellent blastocysts would be transferred to my daughter’s uterus, while the two acceptable ones would be frozen for future use.

IVF #1 took place in April 2018. The injections and medications continued, and they were scheduled to return to the doctor’s office in two weeks for a pregnancy test. That day, my daughter phoned me from the doctor’s parking lot in a downpour, “I’m spotting, mom, there’s a discharge, so I guess I’m not pregnant,” she despaired, her fast-moving windshield wipers delivering a background whoosh. However, the news they received was just the opposite. They were pregnant! The doctor said that a discharge can be normal, and implantation is often the cause. I wanted to hoot and holler with joy but found that I was paralyzed with fear. There was so much at stake.

In the weeks that followed, our family and my son-in-law’s family hoped, prayed, and begged for a viable pregnancy. My husband visited his father’s grave to ask for this one favor, this one blessing, if possible. The waiting was terrible, but something that we would bear gamely, if it resulted in a healthy pregnancy.

Yet, on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, 2018, they suffered a miscarriage. The discharge had increased. It had not been from implantation, but had been a slow breakdown of the implanted blastocyst. Afterward, they drove from NY to the NJ shore to spend the rest of the holiday weekend with family in Brigantine, where my mother owns an always-crowded, but much-loved, 1950’s era bungalow. We sat on the weathered porch and waited for my daughter and son-in-law to arrive, and when they did, everyone went inside to console them.

IVF #2 took place in July 2018. The two frozen blastocysts were thawed and then transferred. For this go-round, my daughter took a leave of absence from work in the hope that being inactive would boost their chances. After two weeks, they returned for a pregnancy test, and once again, it was positive. I tried my best to slay negative thoughts. There was no discharge. How could there be back to back miscarriages? It was finally their turn, wasn’t it?

At four weeks of pregnancy, my daughter and son-in-law had their first ultrasound. There wasn’t much visible on the screen, but the technician called this normal, so we sighed in relief. My husband and I visited them again in Queens, bringing grocery bags filled with healthy food and drink. The desire to do something helpful was palpable.

At five weeks, an ultrasound showed a yolk sac — great news — but a fetal pole was to be expected and was not there.  The technician said, “No worries, the fetal pole will probably be found next time.”

The next ultrasound was scheduled for the following week. We wanted to jettison the days that stood in between.

At six weeks, we learned the fetal pole was visible. Once again there was a caveat. My daughter told us, “They did expect to see the heartbeat today too, but they didn’t, and so they hope to detect it next week.”

At seven weeks, a miniscule heartbeat was seen on ultrasound. It was termed a”flicker.” Then, another caveat, “We should also hear the heartbeat, however,” the technician said, but added, “let’s see what we’ve got next week.”

But what they heard the next week was not the sound of a heartbeat. Rather, it was the sound of the technician’s voice letting them know that the “flicker” had vanished.

It was the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, as fate would have it, and another miscarriage was diagnosed. This time, an examination of the uterine contents revealed a female embryo with an extra chromosome that would have led to serious birth defects. After resting for a day, my daughter and son-in-law joined family once again at the bungalow in Brigantine. Like before, we waited for them on the porch. That evening over dinner, we talked about how their miscarriages had bookended the summer of 2018—Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. It was a summer we were eager to put to rest.

As I write this, 2020 has just begun, and my daughter and son-in-law remain childless. Following the IVF procedures and failures, they decided to try for adoption. They met in early 2019 with a NY adoption lawyer, who gave them loads of advice, but no distinct path to finding a child to adopt. The lawyer explained that couples today advertise in order to locate potential birth mothers. We found this unusual until some Internet investigating proved it to be true. The lawyer also explained that my daughter and son-in-law would first need to become NY-certified adoptive parents. The process took six months to complete. The contents of a packet that was placed before a NY judge and scrutinized included employment and financial records, background checks, fingerprinting reports, and a home study report by a licensed social worker. Their marital relationship and mental health were studied, and queries responded to about extended family. Today, my daughter and son-in-law have created a website, as well as social media accounts, all of which endeavor to encapsulate who they are and the unconditional love that they long to share with a child. They’ve designed and printed postcards that communicate their desire to adopt, and they’ve placed ads in church bulletins. Thus far, their luck hasn’t changed, but they tell us they remain more devoted to one another than ever, a silver lining. They now have two nephews and can often be found building Lego towns with them or treating them to Disney on Ice and Paw Patrol Live.

While the physical and emotional hardships are unmistakable, there is another hardship that bears mentioning, and that is the financial toll of infertility. Treatments are not covered by the majority of insurance plans. IUI procedures can run from $2,000 to $4,000 each, inclusive of pre-testing, medications and follow up. My daughter and son-in-law were able to use savings for their two IUI procedures, but for IVF, they were forced to use credit cards. The cost of the two IVF cycles they underwent was $17,500. They opted for the “special rate,” which meant they signed on for two IVF cycles from the get-go. Credit card bills of that heft are not paid off quickly or easily. Moreover, the monthly credit card statements are a reminder of what might have been.

My daughter and son-in-law tell us that everything they’ve gone through will be worth it when they finally bring home a child, no matter how it happens. As for me, I imagine that day, picturing my husband and me showering our future grandchild with kisses. I can almost see it: my daughter leaning toward me to whisper, the same way she did on Christmas in 2014 when everything started. Only this time, she will say, “Mom, can you believe we have a baby?”


Nancy Farrell is a lifelong writer with a focus on autobiographical works. She works as a legal assistant in Media, PA. If you would like to connect with the couple featured in “A Non-Fairy Tale” about your own infertility struggle or if you are considering giving up a child for adoption, feel free to visit http://www.mandmadopt.com.