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

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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.

McPherson Square

Sharon Christner final headshot

A tiny girl cupped her eyes against a tree and yelled numbers as fast as she could remember them. “Fifteen… sixteen… seventeen…”

Seven kids screamed and scattered in seven directions. Seeing nowhere else to go, they huddled together behind the large white trailer marked “Police Mobile Command.” “Ready or not, here I come!”

The park was theirs again. That summer McPherson Square had been cleared of squatters and, largely, of heroin use. ‘Needle Park’ was still littered with weeds and trash, but no longer with bodies or needles. Users had been forced elsewhere.

The McPherson Square Library crowned the center of the square. Its Ionic columns and vaulted central rotunda distinguished it from the cramped rowhomes facing into the park. The path to the library steps was lined with slanted benches where people once blacked out. Now three homeless men sat and shared a benign cigar. A prostitute waited at the Kensington Avenue edge of the park and accepted a sandwich from a church outreach volunteer. Across the street, another prostitute stared her down. Every six minutes the El screeched by.

Father Murphy and Father Devlin, dressed in lay clothes, set up a folding table for an altar between the police van and playground. Sister Anne brought over a box holding the elements of communion, holding it aloft to keep fifty curious fingers from appropriating the chalice and hosts inside. Two men in the brown robes of Franciscan friars sauntered up the lawn, unstrapped guitars from their backs and began to play softly while a volunteer fiddled with microphones.

The ever-growing throng of kids swarmed a volunteer named Judy as she set out water bottles and a Philly Pretzel Factory box in the back of the lawn. When Judy mentioned summer bible camp, 9-year-old Imani became serious. “I saw Jesus before,” she said, mouth full of pretzel. “He was walking downtown. He had one of them cane things.”

No one had the heart to tell her about the renowned street performer, Philly Jesus.

The kids plopped down on the clover-filled lawn. The younger ones, still leery of the grass at Needle Park, sat on towels and bags and shoes.

A man decked out in Phillies garb came by on his bike. “What’s going on?”

“Mass,” said the kid on the Trader Joes bag.

“What they givin’ out, pretzels or something?”

The kids nodded in unison.“Imma be here,” he said, taking off again. He stopped and looked back at the little congregation. “Not for pretzels, but for the Lord.”

Small groups of abuelas came up the lawn armed with beach chairs and besos for everyone. They shuffled over to the table and made sure everyone had a pretzel in hand. A couple of grandmothers from the suburbs came too, a little older and a little quieter. This wasn’t their neighborhood, but their sons or grandsons had come to Kensington to get high and never came home. They waved away gnats and nestled into their lawn chairs under a large maple. Addiction specialists, volunteer musicians, and recovering folks chatted like old friends. Imani carefully wrote “JEASUS LOVE YOU” on sticky notes and handed them to strangers.

Father Murphy, Father Devlin, and a deacon reappeared in their green and white vestments. It was a gracious September afternoon, and rustling oaks and sycamores forgave some of the park’s less appealing features. A single couch cushion rested on the path at the edge of the green, not far from an unexplained pile of meatballs and spaghetti sauce. The grass still held thousands of orange needle caps, each one a reminder of syringes past. But everyone talked and laughed freely; everyone was at ease. It had more the atmosphere of an outdoor wedding than of a mass for those affected by addiction.

Father Devlin staked the wooden crucifix into the ground behind the altar. “Okay we’re getting close guys,” Judy whisper-shouted to the squirming kids. “We’re getting ready for the quiet time.”

Mass began. The microphone popped on and off as Father Devlin led the opening prayer, but the little congregation still knew when to respond with “Christ have mercy.” As Father Devlin read from Ezekiel and Romans, an irreverent ice cream truck bleeped out a shrill melody from a block away. This was countered with an upbeat ‘Alleluia,’ and the bassist friar rocked out with a subtle head-bang.

Cackling erupted from behind a fence across Clearfield Street. A group of young men were coming in and out of a rowhome and adjacent lot, openly exchanging cash and small packages on the sidewalk. Two slick black cars with tinted windows were parked outside. An old man in worn clothes shuffled past them, blasting “Ahora Dice” from a portable stereo.

When the rap faded, Father Devlin read from the Gospel of Matthew.

“… if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Father Murphy began the homily by referencing an Inquirer article by Mike Newall, who had covered opioids in Kensington all summer. There was a murmur of approval at the mention of St. Mike, who had become more involved in the community than any other reporter. Mike’s brother John died of a heroin overdose in 1999. Father Murphy relayed the “detox, rehab, soft love, hard love” that Mike’s parents had tried to pour into their oldest son. As he described the familiar, draining life of an addict’s family, the grandmothers and the abuelas seemed to age a few years. A middle-aged couple in matching tan polos stood, his hands on her shoulders, staring vacantly into the trees behind Father Murphy’s head.

“Mike saw his brother not as an addict but as a person, a brother. That, and the love his parents showed– that sums up completely the readings for today.”

Neighborhood kids were shrieking on the playground now, climbing the chain link fence that surrounded the rear of the library. Behind them, the rowhomes on E street had their doors wide open, and matronly figures leaned on doorposts to watch their wards on the jungle gym while the mass in front of them reached the height of its homily.

“If we’re going to love like Jesus, sometimes love is going to have to be really practical and concrete and tough. But it’s always with love, and it’s always with a purpose of bringing a brother or sister back to the fullness of love.” The ice cream truck returned and accompanied Father Murphy with the Mister Softee Jingle. “This is Recovery Awareness Month,” he concluded. “We’re here because we have hope.”

The musicians sang a peaceful communion song in English and Spanish. Father Murphy prayed over the bread and the wine, lifting them up toward the police trailer as if invoking a saint inside. Meanwhile, ten teenagers from the park descended on the unmanned pretzel table behind the congregation. At some point during the homily, a photographer from the Inquirer had arrived and was now aggressively snapping close-ups of congregants receiving the holy sacrament.

The kids sitting with Judy had gotten bored and squirmed away. Five of them were chucking extra water bottles at the front of the library building, trying to balance them on top of the doorframe. The priests’ words were punctuated by the sound of bottles exploding on the brick terrace. “The body of Christ.” Ksshh.

Father Murphy invited a man forward to speak. His navy suit jacket and pristine silver wristwatch made him stand out among the hoodies and cargo pants of McPherson Square. He was Bernie Parent, a Flyers retiree, NHL Hall of Famer, and longtime recovering alcoholic. The audience instinctively clapped and whooped at the mention of a Philly sports team despite the heavy topic at hand.

Bernie called alcohol “the little bastard on my shoulder” with a glance at Father Murphy. It had driven him from the NHL Championships to rock bottom. He impressed on his listeners that “it takes a team to recover” and thanked them for being that team for the addict they love. Then, what everyone was waiting for: “It’s been 37 years.” The crowd erupted with applause.

As the priests came forward to conclude the mass, a shirtless man appeared at the park edge. He had a joint tucked behind each ear, and dozens of needle-welts in each arm. He stumbled past without accepting a pretzel or a prayer.

“The Lord be with you, go in peace.”

Ksshh.

Look Away

Brooks_CNF photo

Look Away

While talking to the colonel about how to administratively process Nicole’s death, I volunteered to walk through the house where she was murdered. We started the conversation sitting on opposite sides of the executive desk in his office. A bookcase stood against the wall facing us. Plaques from his previous commands and a rack filled with dozens of commander’s coins that he’d been awarded over his multi-decade career sat on the shelves. He had a large, hovering presence even while seated, but the power dynamic between us was the least of my concerns. Nicole was all I could think about.

“Contact HRO,” the colonel said, “to find out who Nicole’s next of kin is.”

“I’m sure it’s her sister,” I said.

“I think you’re right. When we know for sure, we can reach out and walk her through the benefits she’s eligible for.”

“Ok—”

“And someone will have to go to the house to see if we can get any of her equipment back.”
When Nicole joined the Army National Guard, she borrowed a laptop, a load-bearing vest, a rucksack, and other tactical gear, which must have been somewhere in her rental home. I didn’t understand why the supply sergeants responsible for maintaining accountability of our equipment couldn’t file Nicole’s gear as a loss. The U.S. government wouldn’t miss a couple thousand dollars of stuff. But it seemed the colonel wanted someone to go anyway.

“I want to do it,” I blurted.

“You’re too close to the situation to have to see something like that,” he said, “especially if you’ve never seen anything like that before.”

As a second lieutenant, I should’ve said, “Roger that, Sir.” I knew walking through a murder scene wasn’t the type of experience I could prepare for, but I was certain I was strong enough to see whatever was on the other side of Nicole’s front door. I had to defy the indirect order. “Sir, I can handle it,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”

“Alright then,” he said pensively. “Take a battle buddy with you so you’re not alone.”

When I walked out, I thought about the gravity of what I had asked, maybe a little unsure after all. I wondered how anyone would see something like that for the first time. I suddenly realized that on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, where some of my coworkers had been more than once, death is forced into a soldier’s line of sight, and then it’s forced into their nightmares. I had never gone to war. I had never seen the kind of battle that spilled a friend’s blood.
I didn’t want to look away from Nicole’s murder because I wanted to test the depths of what I was capable of feeling. When I was four, my brother’s sudden death knocked my world off its axis. Weeks before his high school graduation, he died from a form of heart disease, of which death was the only symptom. I spent my entire life living in the shadow of a dead boy. Death was an ordinary part of my life. I thought about it often and anticipated its arrival. As a kid, the joy of getting a new toy quickly evaporated the moment when I realized that I could die at any moment too. The deaths of my grandmother, cousins, and uncle equate to more dying than most people will ever experience, but for me, those experiences were as ordinary as seeing shadows cast from moonlight.

Two decades later, one of my closest friends was dead. Nicole’s death, unlike the others, was hard to believe. I could still see the blonde strands falling from her bun as she zipped around our office building from one errand to another. I could still see her bunny teeth as she chattered in laughter about a new guy she was dating. I felt pain now in ways that I’ve never felt before, but I thought it might be a fluke. Experiencing the death of my brother so early in life taught me how to die before I learned how to live. I was afraid my reflex would kick in, and I would get over the loss as quickly as the people who had only known of her. A part of me hoped seeing the crime scene would make my pain last.
Within a few days, the Burlington County police released the crime scene, so a coworker and I hopped into a government-owned vehicle and drove 30 minutes west from Fort Dix to Mount Holly. The South Jersey towns we drove through moved from sweeping farmland to suburban expanse. The houses we saw along the way looked like Monopoly pieces spread across green islands.

When we pulled up to Nicole’s street in Mount Holly, I looked out the passenger window, realizing I still had a chance to look away. The houses on the block looked different from the others I’d seen on the way. Here, the houses lay nearly on top of each other, divided only by mismatched fencing. They had the same vinyl siding and over-flowing gutters. The sidewalks were broken and ripped up in places where weeds sprouted. Although it was February, it didn’t seem like greenery lived on that block in any season.
I thought about being at the house a few weeks prior. That night had been one of the few times when Nicole and I made plans that we actually kept. Before heading to a local bar, I stepped inside to meet her boyfriend and her father. Both men were polite and soft spoken. We exchanged a few pleasant words, and then Nicole and I left, not knowing that in a few weeks two people would be dead, and the other would be the murderer.

At the bar, Nicole and I shared drinks, laughed, and took a few photos. One image is tattooed in my memory. We sat cheek to cheek, smiling ear to ear. The background was a cacophony of vibrant reds, blues, and greens. I could still hear the clattering glasses and drunken conversations. We were both safe from jealous boyfriends, troubled parents, and the grind of everyday life because, in the moment, none of that mattered. Nicole didn’t have to complain about her boyfriend’s rage and I didn’t have to wag a finger at her insisting she leave him. We both felt free.

Staring at Nicole’s house now spoiled the sweet memory. A feeling of dread hung onto my shoulders and weighed me down. I walked up to the threshold knowing that on the either side of the door Nicole’s boyfriend had bludgeoned her and her father with some object the police wouldn’t name, while her teenage sister lay asleep in the attic. She woke up the next day, walked downstairs, and found her family laying in pools of blood. Nicole’s boyfriend was still in the house. When her sister saw him, she ran outside with her cell phone and called the police.

At the door, Nicole’s family-friends greeted us. They had been at the house for hours, getting rid of trash and recovering personal items the family wanted to keep. There was no turning back now. The front door opened into the living room. The couch where Nicole’s body was found sat in the middle of the room. Blood was splattered on some of the cushions and soaked into others. Heaps of clothes were strewn across the floor. This is when I realized the police don’t clean up crime scenes; they just take what they need and leave the rest for someone else to figure out.

I followed the narrow hall that connected the living room to a stairway on the left followed by a small bedroom and then the kitchen. A headboard leaned against the wall on my right. It came from the room where Nicole’s father slept. The headboard was pale green and had splatters of painted flowers and blood.

I walked up the misshapen steps to the second floor. I was careful not to graze the walls. In Nicole’s bedroom, there was blood splatter on the walls and on light fixtures and soaked into the carpet and into blankets. I didn’t know the details at the time, but after the murders were complete, Nicole’s boyfriend walked up to the bedroom with a knife and tried to kill himself too.

I stood in silent horror. My coworker walked in from behind me. He cursed under his breath, disgusted by the damage done to an entire family. I wished he would keep quiet. The moment we were standing in was already horrible. No one needed to speak the obvious truths. I don’t believe in god, but I needed silence—to pray, or, to just send as many loving thoughts to Nicole as I could. I had no room in my heart for anger toward the murderer. Instead, I wanted to fill that space with love for Nicole.

After sifting through a dresser to see what we could find, we walked to the closet. The door was ajar, so my coworker opened it. Nicole’s military gear spilled out. We realized we would have to trash it all. The equipment was blood-stained. I couldn’t believe the splatter reached inside the closet. There was nothing about Nicole’s murder that made sense.

That night, as I lay in bed, my thoughts rattled in my head. I wanted to know the particulars about Nicole’s murder. I told myself that knowing the why and the how would somehow help me find peace. I believed knowing would be better than wondering. I realized that, after learning the truth of my brother’s death, I had nightmares. I saw my brother’s heart, like armed guards, blocking his blood flow. The blood had nowhere to go, so in a desperate rage, it strangled his lungs, forcing out his last breath. I still can’t look away from that painful knowledge. I suddenly understood I didn’t need war to prepare me for anything that doesn’t already haunt me.


Susette Brooks is writer, editor, and educator. She is a graduate from the MFA in Nonfiction program at Goucher College and is the former Creative Nonfiction Editor at Philadelphia Stories. Susette is working on a memoir in essays about the lies she’s told as defense against childhood traumas. Visit her website: www.susettebrooks.com.

My Cousin’s Love Affair with Slime Mold

 OnaLauren_CNF photo

It started innocently enough. A hike in the Oakland woods after a heavy rain. The ground still wet, the dense foliage sated and glistening. She hiked for exercise, to meditate, to escape the demands of a job in graphic design. It was a routine, an enjoyable way to recharge.

But then, fungi! That was the beginning, the gateway. Suddenly, she noticed them–there, and there, and there–as any of us might do in our own yards: mushrooms. The kind we, and even our pets, sense would kill us with one bite. Yes, my cousin, Lauren, noticed the fungi before anything else. Sprouting up overnight, matted in the dirt, tangled in the weeds, clinging to bark. Varying in placement, infinite in color, size and shape. The more she looked, the more she saw, a modern day Thoreau peering into a seemingly bottomless pond. Fungi. Orange and red, spotted and striped, top heavy and skinny, clustered and solitary, all of them called to her, and she responded with awe—and her camera. Obsessed, evangelical, her images were stunning, her enthusiasm contagious.

And yet, this was only a prelude to something deeper, something both smaller and far more vast. Like The Incredible Shrinking Man, whose profundity grew as he shrank and ultimately merged with the universe. For despite their beauty, their endless photographic potential, fungi were discrete, had limits, the hunt for them a beloved, but self-contained, hobby. Slime mold,  well, that was something else. That was a passion. That was love. That was the meaning of life.

My cousin and I are like sisters. I’m three years older, perfect for corrupting her early, which I did. I taught her about cutting class, forging signatures, and especially about boys, leading her astray before our parents knew we were gone. But she taught me a few things, too: about driving ninety miles an hour in the Hollywood Hills, about smoking low tar cigarettes, about the possible side effects of immersion in another culture. After a few months in Paris, she returned unable (or unwilling) to speak English, requiring me to rely on my high school French to communicate with her.

More than anything, however, Lauren taught me about nature, the appreciation of which began in her childhood home. Both of our dads were physicians, but hers was also a naturalist, her house a kind of urban zoo. In the backyard was a giant tortoise so big you could ride him, although I never did. The den was a dedicated aquarium, with built-in viewing spots for my uncle’s rare collection—vipers, lion fish, poison dart frogs from the Amazon among the most exotic.  Sadly, some of them didn’t make it. But none went to waste. In the guest bathroom medicine cabinet were jars filled with the pickled unlucky, a surprise if you happened to be looking for an aspirin.

I’m sure there were other unusual pets lurking around. No animal living at my cousin’s was mundane–even the dog. Duchess was her name, and she looked and acted the part: lithe and regal, a descendant of royalty. So when she went into heat, my aunt celebrated the bitch with a wedding and a canine gown that would put “Say Yes to the Dress” to shame.

When her daughter was young, Lauren followed in her father’s footsteps, harboring a menagerie of rats, mice, preying mantises and enough crickets to feed an army. Today, however, she only has a cat, to which I’m deathly allergic. She likes dogs, although, maybe because of Duchess, not enough to own one. Moreover, because of her aversion to interspecies mingling, she nearly pukes seeing me swap spit with my collie and two rescues—something to do with what occurs on the molecular level.  But slime. Slime is another matter.

“First,” my cousin says, “slime molds aren’t mold at all. They may seem more closely related to animals than fungi if you see them in their creeping phase. Because they’re so unlike anything else, science has found slime mold difficult to classify. They transform dramatically during their life cycle going from an on-the-move feeding phase to a fixed reproductive phase. Some of the fruiting bodies I witnessed through my close-up lens were stunningly alien and beautiful; pink elongated jelly beans on stalks, fuzzy netted puffballs, geometrically spaced iridescent orbs, tiny blueberries hanging from delicate threads.”

Also, although they are only one-celled, like amoeba, slime mold change form and possess striking intelligence. Indeed, they can solve mazes, optimizing information so efficiently, that scientists are studying them in connection with research on transport systems. All that from the tiniest of entities, something that one can confuse with “dust, dog barf or insect eggs.”

And they can be mercenary, too. Take the Badhamia utricularis, for example, a slime mold predator that “feeds on the poor fungi unable to make a run for it.” It may in fact be the slime mold’s superiority to the fungi (at least in this case) that is partly behind Lauren’s fascination with the creature. Not that she’s abandoned her first love—fungi, in all their wondrous glory, will always hold a place in her heart. But slime mold may lead us to more answers about our own existence. And that, for someone like my cousin, is head turning.

See, Lauren is an atheist, who believes that while there’s currently a limit to scientific explanation, it’s ultimately science, not a god, that’s more likely to tell us who we are. So slime mold, being part animal as well as plant, is a closer model. According to nature writer Adele Conover, even though in some ways slime molds are “like aliens from another planet,” they can help us understand our bodies as “great aggregations of once separate and independent organisms,” metaphorically as “communes.” (Smithsonian Magazine, March 2001, Hunting Slime Molds.) In other words, we might have more in common with slime mold than with fungi, and thus the knowledge acquired from them is  more relevant.

But what can slime mold do for me? I’m non-committal, indecisive, one of those pesky agnostics. Science is science. The earth is round, climate change is real, vaccinations work. Yet somewhere in me is a space all that data can’t fill, a space I cherish. Call it the fancy, the supernatural, the shadows. It’s where mystery lives, a space that lets me believe that my deceased grandmother helps find my constantly missing eyeglasses. It’s where I go to hope the things I hope for are true, to create worlds of my own making, to counter despair.

“What do you do to escape the madness?” Lauren recently asked me. She meant politics, madness being the code word for the person whose name we refuse to utter. What do I do? I’m a writer so I tell her I wait for rejection notices. “What do you do?” I said, already knowing the (slimy) answer by her adoring tone.

But maybe I’ve been too hasty. Maybe slime mold is more than its name, more than the sum of its parts. Maybe in its ability to thrive in chaos, to transcend temporal concerns, it exceeds its classification, becoming part of the mystery I hold as sacred.

Maybe. But it could be that I’m just jealous. Like back in the day when my cousin got the cute guy. It could be that I’ll never be into slime mold because it’s just not that into me. At the very least, I wonder if she’s thought this relationship through . I warn her that she might get hurt, that the slime might overtake  her, like the Blob. But she waves me off, heading straight for the woods, certain that the romance will last.


Ona Russell is the author of three award-winning historical mysteries and has been published in a variety of other venues, including previously in Philadelphia Stories. Ona holds a PhD in literature from UC San Diego, where she also taught for many years. She considers herself a Philadelphian once removed—her mother was born there, her brother lives in Narberth, and her great uncle, architect Louis I. Kahn, had a little something to do with the city. For more info, please visit onarussell.com.

 

 

 

Seaming

Seaming

by Kara Petrovic

Kara_Petrovic_Profile

My mother holds me down, her hands locked around my wrists as I am screaming, writhing in pain. It is midnight, or sometime after. The fluorescent lights of my room feel too bright, they burn against my skin, cursed with hypersensitivity. I can hear my mother cooing at me, gently whispering it is time to stop. Covered in cold sweat, my skin is slick, and my hair sticks to my forehead. This is a snapshot of my life at its lowest, which happens more often than I care to admit. It is a panic attack, or something similar, some days I cannot tell the difference. Yet, with unyielding patience, my mother hears my screams and we go into our usual song and dance: where my hands are scratching at my skin as if I were digging for gold, and her hands are petting my head, snaking their way around my body to make me still.

My mother never really understood mental illness, not when it first crept into my bed and made itself a home. She thought I was attention-seeking, the youngest child tired of raising their voice just to be heard, that this was the newest of my attempts to gain her affection. My mother thought she could shake it out of me, that if she grabbed me by my shoulders enough times or slapped me across the face hard enough I would snap out of it and be the child she had envisioned.

I am 22 years old now, and I have a cornucopia of diagnoses, all of which seem to be trying to outdo the other. In my youth, I was a lost soul — to put it kindly. A fire raged in my chest while a demon followed my every footstep: I was enamored with death.
If death was a man, with sickly grey skin and bones for fingers, he followed me throughout my adolescence, before I even knew how to correctly spell suicide. At 12 years old, I would write notes to my mother and leave them on the threshold of her bedroom, apologizing for being the way that I was, stating I knew she would be better off if I were dead.

I would watch her read these notes, hidden behind the pillars in the house. With the scoff of a laugh accompanied by a quick roll of her eyes, her staple response to my behavior, she would crumple the paper up. To her, this was a cry for attention, and I suppose in some way it was. It was also a cry for help, one she would make me wait several years to receive.
Meanwhile, I played surgeon with myself. I seemed to believe that if I cut deep enough I could find the source of my sickness and remove it from my skin. Since I had to eradicate this on my own, I had to navigate without a sense of direction. I would lock myself in my room and map out the corners of my brain, go hunting in the depths of my subconscious to try and locate the cause of my misery. At the dollar store, I would buy razors, take them home and break apart the safety barriers. I would mark up my arms, my legs, my stomach. I experimented at first, marking Xs all over my skin, but it quickly became methodical lines and, each new session, I challenged myself to dig even deeper.

A therapist once told me that the pain I carry is liquid gold, and it fills up the cracks inside of me and creates a new work of art each time— I stare at my pain and try to see the beauty in it, in its curves and twists, the knots in my forearms and the scars on my body. All I see are cracks. White lines that look nothing like gold. I trace my fingertips along the hypertrophic scars and, suddenly, I am engulfed in loneliness and vulnerability. Though I want nothing more than to hold on with an iron fist, I let go of the abyss and tell myself the wounds have healed. Yet they burn each time I see someone trying not to stare.

My mother believes pain can be expunged, as if my pain and I should separate. My mother says happiness is a choice. I promise I am trying to choose happiness every day, but maybe the words stick in my throat, maybe I’m so used to excelling as her disappointment that I can no longer tell the difference.

I am fifteen years old and I have been living with an unnamed illness for three years. It’s November, 2011, and my sister and I are setting up the Christmas tree. My parents are still together, out for the evening at a concert, desperately hoping this date night will save their marriage. At some point in the evening, my lungs and heart plummet in my chest and my mind repeats one track. I sneak into my parents’ bedroom and find my father’s sleeping pills I had stumbled upon several weeks prior. I read the label with care, noting all the warnings. “Do not operate machinery. Take with food. Do not consume with alcohol.”

Do not consume with alcohol.

Before I know it, I’m standing in front of the liquor cabinet, 26 pills in hand. I look through my options, and settle on the one with the highest alcohol content: tequila. I down the pills, chase them with the tequila, in seconds. The alcohol burns my throat, my body contorts in protest and I shiver as it enters my stomach. For a moment, nothing happens.

I walk upstairs into my bedroom. I pick out the outfit I would like to be found in: I change my shirt. I put one leg into my favorite pair of jeans.
When I wake up, I’m in the hospital. My mouth is black, covered in charcoal, and there are light burn marks on my chest. My mother sits across the room from me. Her thumbnail is in her mouth. She has been crying but when she realizes I am awake, her face hardens. I can hardly hear anything; the world is muted. She draws near and kneels by my bed. Her brown eyes I inherited are cold. “Listen,” she says, “there will be a psychiatrist who comes to see you. You must listen to me. You must lie. You must not tell the truth. If you do, you will be hospitalized and this will ruin your life.”

Ruin my life.

She coaches me, over and over, on the things I have to say. I stand up groggily and stumble towards the bathroom. She follows me, stands behind me, watching as I wash my face. She follows me back into the room, saying, “This was a mistake, an accident, you didn’t know what you were doing.”

“This wasn’t an accident,” I say, wincing as the words make their way from my throat.

“Don’t be stupid. You must tell the psychiatrist, ‘no, I don’t have a history of this type of behavior.’”

When the psychiatrist visits me the following day, I say,  “I made a mistake. It was an accident. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

I answer, “No, I don’t have a history of this type of behavior.”

When my 24 hours are up, I am released, and the next day I go to school as if I hadn’t just died two days prior.
This becomes a standard play for us. The following year I make the same attempt. I steal painkillers, head to the liquor cabinet, swallow tequila. Again, I wake up in the hospital and follow the same script. When it happens again, and again, and again, we eventually manage to avoid going to the hospital, and it is my mother’s turn to play doctor. As she wraps gauze around my wrists when I am 17 years old, her lips in a hard line though the rest of her face has softened over the years, I note her expertise: it had always been second-nature to her, healing my physical wounds in ways she could not mend the disorders in my mind.
Somewhere along the way, without much notice or declaration, everything changes. I have moved out and am living an hour’s drive away. We see each other on weekends. Some weekends I skip. I ignore my mother’s messages, her phone calls, and the more I do, the more they increase in frequency. No longer does she look at me with disdain. On this visit, I am 19 years old, sitting on the porch and smoking a cigarette with my mother. Even when we are the same, both smokers, we are different. She smokes thin sticks, I smoke 100s.

She asks, “How are you doing?”

I say, “Better than I have in years.”

I look toward the setting sun as she flinches. I flick my cigarette away. The conversation is strained, painful, and I’m checking my phone at five-minute intervals; waiting for when I can take my train to a home that is no longer with her. She sends me care packages, tells me not to worry so much, kisses my forehead, and I realize this is the most attention I have gotten from her in years. Except now, I think, I no longer need it. I am independent, grown, away from her. I am eating healthy, sleeping well, saving money. For all intents and purposes, I am well and stable.
But I am not cured.
The illness returns.

I find myself coming home more and more. My mother welcomes this. We have a family dinner every Sunday, just the two of us, and I can see the happiness etched into her face. I feel her warmth for the first time in years, and I suddenly begin to loathe when it is time for me to return to my house.

At the end of the year, I move back home and nestle myself into her. She calls me baby, and reminds me that the world is not my enemy, and neither is my mind. I realize, then, that finally: neither is she.

My mother never understood mental illness, no, but she grew to accept me. We had lived in parallel, traveling in the same direction, never once touching. In the years that followed my first splitting of skin, I learned to come to terms with my mind. My darker inclinations left shadowy traces on me that I have filled with gold. My body is a work of art I cherish, each mark a reminder not of my lowest, but of what I have survived. I fell out of love with my own melancholy. In ways unclear to me, my mother did the same.


My mother holds me down. After a few minutes, my breathing evens out and my tears dry themselves on my face.

That night, we sleep together, cocooned around each other and still.


Kara Petrovic is 23 years old and is currently living in Toronto, Ontario. They are a survivor of trauma three times over and are living with a variety of mental health disorders. They have been writing poetry since they were 8 years old. In 2017, they self-published a collection titled beyond rock bottom. Their poetry has been previously published by CONKER magazine. In 2018, they were selected to read for Toronto’s Emerging Writers Series. They are also currently writing a book of fiction with a co-author who lives in Belleville, New Jersey. Philadelphia holds a special place in their heart, as their father and youngest sister live there. They identify as genderfluid and pansexual.

Lost Novella

Lost Novella

by Stephen St. Francis Decky

Stephen_St_Francis_Decky_Lost Novella

In 2004 I stopped reading books. I had just stopped smoking. I’d stopped smoking because I’d nearly completed writing a novella when my laptop sputtered and died. The data, despite some effort, was unrecoverable. I grieved like someone dear had died.

I’d been smoking since I was a Junior in high school. At that time, I was homeless; In a rare fit of mercy, my dad had kicked me out of his house that summer. Which left me free. But homeless. I spent the first night in a blur in the woods with a fire and some people I didn’t know. I was free, and lost, and after a week, going through some sort of withdrawal from the anti-depression meds I’d left home without. That home had become a pressure-cooker of threats and hostility. There was no going back.

Instead, I stopped at a convenience store in Woodbury, New Jersey and for the first time in my life bought a pack of cigarettes. I lit one up outside. The jitters and withdrawal pangs softened in seconds; the relief was immediate and palpable. As the fog of anxiety faded, I sat down on the curb, opened a notebook, and began to write.

I smoked for 19 years. I’d been writing stories and painting and drawing since I was a child. But the smoking was to my fiction like canned spinach to Popeye: instant confidence and focus. I wrote obsessively, I made it a habit. I smoked upwards of 2 packs a day.

Later I published a couple short stories. They went nowhere but it didn’t matter because I hadn’t written my best piece yet. That one was still coming, and when it came, at the height of its formation – mid-delivery – it vanished.

Smoking did little to numb the despair. I’d begun seeing its effects in the mirror as well: I looked very mid-30’s, smoker. This visual prompted me to take a day off from smoking. In the 19 years I’d been smoking I’d never gone an entire day without a cigarette. But I was going to take a day off. 24 hours. Instead of smoking I would eat cookies and ice cream and drink martinis and pretty much devour anything I craved except cigarettes.

That night I drank 4 and a half martinis. I woke up the next morning on the floor beside my bed. I felt bludgeoned but ecstatic: I’d just gone an entire day without a cigarette. I figured I’d wait a few hours and then have a smoke and a cup of coffee and resume my life. But mid-afternoon passed and evening arrived and I wondered what would happen if I somehow found the audacity to try the martini trick again.

It worked: I woke up the next day in my underwear on the porch, 48 hours smoke-free. It felt like the fabric of my life had been ripped. That’s how I quit smoking.

Eight months later, the pack I’d been working on when I quit was still in my backpack – a subconscious Emergency Kit – with 11 unsmoked cigarettes inside. I remembered this as I was leaving a convenience store on King Street in Northampton, Massachusetts. Embarrassed, I pulled the pack – Marlboro Reds, the ultimate sellout – out of my bag and tossed it into a trash can.

During the aforementioned 8-month contingency period, I climbed Mt. Washington in less than 2 hours, did upwards of 300 push-ups daily, and started painting with renewed energy. I’d never painted with a purpose or audience but I could feel the possibility of one forming. Images began replacing text in my creative workflow. My written output dwindled until I was left with little more than Beckett-like, self-subsuming paragraphs of anti-fiction. The great novella was lost, and in its wake, my writing had become the literary equivalent of autolyzed yeast.

A side-effect of not writing was a burgeoning inability to read long-form works, i.e. books. The two processes had somehow been intertwined, and I was finding it impossible to focus on either.  It was deeply worrisome, as I’d been a voracious reader for many years, and a battle at the intersection of inspiration and creativity seemed to be waging inside me.

At a bookstore in Philadelphia, I found and purchased a copy of Albert Camus’ L’Etranger in the original French. I’d studied French in high school and retained some knowledge with occasional tutors, but reading literature en français was a new and suddenly necessary challenge: It forced me to concentrate at a level that had become second-nature in English, and the constant need to check my stack of French-English dictionaries satisfied – albeit faintly – the now-missing physical and gestural aspect of smoking.

I finished l’Etranger, some grossly pretentious Sartre plays, then le Deuxieme Sexe, all with a slowly increasing sense of ease. Later that year I travelled to France and found a copy of Le Tour de la France par Deux Enfants in Lyon, a Marivaux compendium in Chamonix, something by Nathalie Sarraute in Nice. I could understand Molière and Colette but couldn’t keep up with anything modern: My comprehensive abilities were antiquated, and I developed a ready-made excuse in my perpetually-lagging conversational French:

– Je parle comme un enfant parce’que je pense comme un enfant en français

(I speak like a kid ‘cuz I think like a kid in French)

Over the next 12 years, the only books I read in English were Houellebecq translations and systematically timed re-readings of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I read Marguerite Duras, Radiguet, La Fontaine and others in the original French, but with the sense I’d been trapped in a Robbe-Grillet loop of limited literary mobility.

 

Early in 2017, while recovering from surgery – and as if loosed from a longstanding fog – I began writing again: Mostly short and spastic stories and eruptions, but enough to open the door to reading in English again. It started with Marc Augé’s Everyone Dies Young, then Ariel Goldberg’s The Estrangement Principle. I re-discovered Nawel El-Sawaadi’s Woman at Point Zero, then the suddenly/weirdly inspirational Cicero, then old favorites like Angela Carter, Mohammed Mrabet, Zora Neale Thurston, etc.

I started listening to audiobooks as well. While they were clunky and rare in 2004, they’ve become both accessibile and abundant in the interim, often reaching true eloquence. Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates reading his own Between the World and Me after the chorus of voices reciting George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo was deeply revelatory.

Still, there’s nothing like the presence of a book, and that physicality lingers in perpetuity: I can almost feel the de Beauvoir text I bought in Geneva early last summer and lost on the Broad Street Line in Philly; that copy of Le Tour de la France from Lyon still rests on my desk, ever-visible from the corner of my eye.

 

It’s been nearly 15 years since I quit smoking. I stopped taking prescription anti-anxiety and depression medications soon after. At that time, I felt – fleetingly – freed from the narcosis of short, long-term, and acceptable addictions. A slow-building ecstasy of heightened mental clarity whisked away many of the fears and worries that had been stifling my confidence since my earliest years. It was obvious, though, even as it was coursing through me, that the ecstasy wouldn’t last; The feeling itself was strained by an array of side-effects, but like the addictions – and later, the literary anomalies – these eventually subsided, shifting from the harrowing insistence of the present to the fading but temporal archive of memory.

The novella is now but a blip in a long line of lost plans and ideas, but its influence on my story has been manifold. The future may have changed many times over, but I’ve learned that the potential for new creative prospects – even if temporarily obscured – is always there in some way, shape or form.


Stephen St. Francis Decky is a multi-media artist and writer whose paintings and films have appeared in festivals, collections, and museums both nationally and internationally, including The New Britain Museum of American Art and The Museum of Fine Arts, Nagoya, Japan. He has taught Animation and Digital Media classes at several schools, including Tufts University, Moore College of Art and Design, and Lycoming College. As a technical consultant and collaborator, he has worked on multi-channel video installations in Boston, New York City and Montana. Stephen received his MFA from Tufts University and The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and currently lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.