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…

 

Oh…oh…no!

 

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.

Website: www.leahmelebazaz.com   

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

Wooder

Baegel

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

Mahm

Shuddup, no he din’t

Cumpnee

Wensdee

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 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.