ONLINE BONUS: Weed Gallery

The bull thistle, yes, with fierce spines.

Bright blooms on every stem

aren’t sufficient to make it a flower.


But how can a violet be a weed? I know

it’s invasive, but April violets glow

in the grass, shy when spring’s starting.


They’re blue, not violet, as is clear

from the rhyme. Wind stirs

last year’s leaves, and under my feet


five-petaled blossoms gleam

like dark stars. Hawkweed lifts

yellow blooms on its thin stems.


It’s a sign of bad soil. But it shines

at the roadsides, and bindweed climbs

on anything, attaching itself to hedges


and fences. Yes, it’s a weed, and trains

moan at all hours. Broken-down

cars rust on small lawns.


And when I step out under blue-silk

skies, it will be sweet to walk

among flowering bindweeds.

Barbara Daniels’s Talk to the Lioness was published by Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press in 2020. Her poetry has appeared in Lake Effect, Cleaver, Faultline, Small Orange, Meridian, and elsewhere. Barbara Daniels received a 2020 fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

ONLINE BONUS: Looking for Spoonbills

This morning I see robins are back,

the first birds I learned by name. How many

lessons were written on the blackboard,


the worksheets, the little red desk? My mother

thought everything good in my life came

down to Miss Chase, my first grade teacher.


Not the hesitant Sunday School teachers

up the circle stairs to a rickety room

where I pasted noodles onto blue paper.


In school  I never found out what moves

on the soft bed of the Atlantic, what makes

its own light in the dark, its body transparent,


its skin flashing. O, Miss Chase, didn’t you

realize huge plates of earth crash into

each other? All I know has been flipped


upside down and shaken out like a giant

snow globe. This morning Curtis Adams,

teaching on TV, says I can do it, woo-hooing


to show how hard a workout I do

though I’m in a chair fluttering my legs

and lifting 2-pound weights. Sometimes


I’m threadbare, but on the TV, Florida gleams

in the heat. My mother met me in Florida

once, too old to fly though I didn’t know it


till she came through the gate unsteadily.

She was smiling, ready to find roseate spoonbills,

pelicans, limpkins, eager to learn something new.

Barbara Daniels’s Talk to the Lioness was published by Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press in 2020. Her poetry has appeared in Lake Effect, Cleaver, Faultline, Small Orange, Meridian, and elsewhere. Barbara Daniels received a 2020 fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.


ONLINE BONUS: UPs & DOWNs (Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction Finalist)


I move into Metropolitan Towers during the heat and hollow of an empty summer, when all of New York City is racked by disease, and the sidewalks stink of anxiety. Dima and I broke up in June, and I can’t afford our old Harlem apartment by myself. I can afford the Towers, which consist of two 1960s Brutalist brown squares with a few cement balconies that cantilever drunkenly off the sides of the building. Windows have been replaced over the years, and now the glass is mismatched: some panes shine blue in the sunlight, others reflect a cheap shade of turquoise, still others have been buffered by city grit into a scratched ugly beige. The building was originally designed for single men to commute to Wall Street. Every apartment is a studio.

My building has four elevators, one of which has been outfitted with black curtains to accommodate my move-in. My sister and her husband, Dan, stuff the elevator full of IKEA bedposts, my broken desk, a bedside table, and boxes of books.

“Is this everything?” Dan asks, panting.

“All the furniture, at least. I have more clothes and kitchen stuff.”

“You’ll need a couch.”

“Maybe.” I don’t want to give Dan any credit. He’s the reason my sister moved to Philadelphia.

The three of us crowd into the elevator. Dan smells like sweat and self-satisfaction. As the elevator ferries us skywards, I watch the red numbers shapeshift beneath the glowing word UP. My fresh start is at the top of this building. My new beginning.

The mirrored ceiling reflects my upturned face: short mousy hair; eyes like two scared fish. I’ve never lived alone before.



I’ve ridden the elevator a dozen times this week and have determined that there are two attractive men in my building. One has a golden retriever. The other goes for regular morning jogs.



In the weeks following my move-in, before teaching starts up again, loneliness germinates in my apartment. It grows mostly at night, festering in the dark, thriving on dampness. By sunrise it has shot up spores. The spores are small but strangely flesh-colored.



Complaining is the one conversation topic that requires no preamble. Forced together in the elevators of Metropolitan Towers, my fellow residents and I skip the greetings and commence griping. Grievances vary: closet shelves (collapsing), door hinges (over-painted), electrical sockets (broken), light switches (flickering), smells (gross). One person tells me the elevators are shrinking, but no one has confirmed that yet.

I’ve learned to write down my complaints on yellow sticky notes – describing the broken thing in as much detail as possible – otherwise, Jeremy at the front desk tends to get the work order wrong. I think he just makes them up. Twice now I’ve complained about a sparkless burner, only to find a workman banging on my door trying to fix my faucet. Whenever I mention these errors to Jeremy, he blames them on flukes in the “system,” which — as far as I can tell —is an open Word document.

Fixing broken things used to be Dima’s responsibility. He believed home maintenance was a matter of personal integrity. He insisted on repairing everything himself. Consequently, half the pipes in our old apartment were duct taped beyond recognition. Now the dysfunctions of my current studio feel punitive as if Dima left them for me on purpose.


One morning, I wait for the elevator — armed with a yellow sticky, dusting loneliness spores off my shoulders like dandruff — when a shriveled, old white woman rattles towards me with a pushcart full of newspapers, bananas, and pill bottles. She starts complaining immediately: “Did you notice the A/C is out again? I’ve had to sleep every night in my underpants with the fans blasting. And that construction noise — ugh! What city crook gave ‘em a permit to start at 7 am? You sleep much?”


“Because it’s too noisy! You know it didn’t used to be this way. I’ve lived here all my life. Used to be a much quieter town. It’s these developers. They’ll build on every square inch. Don’t give a rat’s ass about the architecture or the people or anything. You new? Never seen you before.”

“I just moved in last month.”

“Welcome. Don’t go to the Sprove market or whatever the hell it’s called across the street, some copyright nonsense. I think it used to say Grove, but they had to change it to Sprove – anyways, don’t go there. Hoof it over to Shoprite by the mall. It’s the same stuff but cheaper.”

The elevator arrives, and we trundle on. The woman is so small that her rolling cart reaches up to her chest. Her collared Hawaiian shirt is tiny enough for a child. The armholes gape around her bony, waggling arms, yet her voice seems to take up more space in the elevator than my whole body.

“What you got there?” she asks, pointing a minuscule finger at my sticky note. I

show her: storm windows (leaking).

“Use a towel to soak it up. Or collect it and water your plants. That’s what I do. Saves resources. What’s your name?”

“Everyone calls me Snaggle.”

“Snaggle? What kinda name is that?”
I tug down my mask and show her my crooked front incisor.

“Aw yeah, I see. You like it when people call you that?”

I shrug. It had never occurred to me to protest the nickname. I let people call me what they want.

“Anyways, I’m Doris,” she says. “I’m bringing the newspapers to my friend Elayne on seven. She don’t get out much.”

The New York Post and Daily News stare up at me, covers soaked in headlines:

Paranormal Rise as Residents Spend More QT at Home

Well Woman Learns Dark Secret

Area Man Manifests Millions: ‘Cash just showed up on my porch in a paper bag’

“Does this elevator seem smaller than normal? Or did I mix up my pills again?” Doris laughs with a smoker’s rattle.

“I think it really is shrinking,” I say.

Then Doris issues a mantra of Big City Zen: “Ehn, screw it. I’ll adapt.”

The doors open, and she waves a skeletal hand. “See ya later, honey.”

Doris is my hero.


The loneliness spores have mutated. They’ve grown eyestalks with stick-brown irises—the color of Dima’s and the stalks glow in the dark. I can’t sleep for all the glowing. Whenever I wake at night, I find the eyebulbs gazing at me lovingly? Accusingly? Blinking their white lids. I wonder if I manifested the stalks, like the man from Doris’s newspaper.

In the morning, I scrape them off the walls and throw them in the garbage.



Mercifully, the semester starts. I’m happier when I’m busy, clacking away at my laptop in the corner. Days and weeks glide by, frictionless. Pieces of my sanity start to slide off the never-ending screens. Zoom workshops and retraining programs keep trying to fix something that isn’t working, like adding more lubricant to what is fundamentally disappointing sex.

Today the sky is blue. I flee the confines of my apartment and walk the neighborhood, seeking texture. The breeze blows autumnal scents of ripening leaves, car exhaust, the smell of uneaten fruit inside children’s lunchboxes. The day is so open and bright that I don’t want to return to my apartment. The elevator doors unfold like the arms of a warden.



My northern neighbor, a middle-aged Indian divorcée, joins me at our floor’s elevator bank with her daughter, who looks to be about eight or nine years old. The girl wears pink leggings on her thin, stork-like legs and a sequined top that matches her facemask. She flutters down the hall, giving her light-up sneakers a peppy hop-skip. It reminds me of when I used to work in elementary schools, back when teaching meant the joy and germ of human contact: kids sneezing on my sweater, grubby hands grabbing after recess, bodies crashing into my legs in eagerness to get to the carpet for storytime.

“Did you hear that the elevators are shrinking?” my neighbor asks as we sidle into the car. “Carlos at the front desk told me. Apparently, they measured: shrunk at least ten inches since July.”

“Is Carlos the nice one?”

“Yeah, he’s a good guy. Usually hands out pencils on the first day of school.” She smiles at her daughter. “Of course, this year is different.”

I ask the girl what she’s learning in her online classes so far. She says multiplication. I throw her a soft ball: “What’s two times 2?” The girl hesitates, twisting her fingers around as if trying to wring the answer from her skin.

“What’s two times two?” her mother repeats, shaking her shoulder. “Don’t you know?”

The girl’s wide eyes dart from her mother to me, and ocular sprint back and forth.

“It’s ok. I was never very good at math either,” I say, hoping to relieve the pressure. The girl squeaks. Maybe the shrinking elevators are a manifestation of my dwindling social awareness.



My lonelinesses crawl out of the primordial ooze. They add appendages. I can no longer scrape away the legless spores. Instead, I have to run around my apartment with a broom, trying to sweep up the many-limbed creatures that cartwheel across my floor, making a game of evading me.

At least their eyes look less like Dima’s. Now the eyestalks develop the slit yellow pupils of a hunter.



Hot Jogging Man gets on at the twelfth floor. He is Korean and tall, with jet-black hair and thick eyebrows. He has forgotten to wear a mask, and when he sees mine, he makes the appropriate gestures of guilt and shame. He covers his mouth with one hand while cueing up a playlist on his phone. I watch him scroll, triceps sliding beneath the skin of his upper arms, wide thumbs teasing the screen.

I wonder if he has the same happy trail as Dima, the same slightly concaved chest. I bet he has abs; I bet he’s hardened and hairless under that hoodie. I imagine licking Jogging Man’s stomach, squeezing his arms. I want to floss my teeth with his sweatband, bury my nose between his butt cheeks, scratch track marks into the wide wings of his back.

Jogging Man shoots me a startled look. I jerk my eyes down and away, heart pounding. Can he hear my thoughts?



Welp, the Hinge date was a huge mistake. In the morning, I walk him to the elevator. “It’s cozy in here, isn’t it?” he says, stepping into the wood-paneled car. I tell him to go down alone. I don’t want him to try to hold my hand.

Back in my apartment, I write a new sticky note for the front desk: elevator shrinking (along with my prospects and expectations).



The many-limbed eyestalks multiply quickly until, at last, I am overrun by lonelinesses. I give up trying to exterminate them. Instead, I simply flick them off my bed in the morning, toe them away from the toilet, tweeze them from the leaves of potted plants, their tiny suckers flailing. I can barely get dressed for all the tentacled creatures hanging off my shirtsleeves.

My one rule is that the lonelinesses cannot leave the apartment. “Please,” I beg, cracking my front door. “Stay back!” Sometimes I throw them a crust of stale bread dipped in saltwater, just to distract the horde long enough for me to flee. The lonelinesses love anything that tastes like tears.

I shouldn’t feed them, yet I feel guilty they even exist. I’m pretty sure it’s my fault.



Metropolitan Towers finally hires a repair company to examine the shrinking elevators. One car remains operational while the repairmen evaluate the problem. Lines form. Everyone looks annoyed. Jeremy goosesteps up and down the lobby with a tape measure, enforcing six feet apart. We wait for twenty minutes.

Eventually, I pile into the elevator with a bald Puerto Rican guy I’ve never seen before. As soon as the doors close, he starts grumbling.

“It’s these Indian families. There are too many of them! They have too many children, and now we wait for everything.”

“Um, I think it’s the elevators that are the problem. Four cars should be enough if they weren’t shrinking.”

But the man doesn’t want to hear my structural explanations. He wants someone to blame, or even better, a monolithic group of someones. He says that this building was meant for single people, and now all of these Indian families have moved in. “I’ve lived here for twenty years, and I’ve never had to wait so long for the elevator. It’s ridiculous.”

I open my mouth to contradict him, but before I can say anything, the man exits on the fourth floor.



There is a lone dog in the elevator today, a Schnauzer, who stares up at me with wet eyes. Someone has lost their dog.



Every morning I wake up panicked, heavy under a blanket of lonelinesses, their suckered tentacles all over my sheets and face. Then as the day wears on, the sheer magnitude of the problem lulls me into ambivalence. I get used to brushing lonelinesses off the couch. It becomes second nature to scan each forkful before eating (I suspect the lonelinesses are poisonous; their skins are slimy like tropical frogs). At night I collapse under the covers, relieved the battle is over.

But I don’t sleep well. The lonelinesses make these annoying little absences of sound, and the collective roar of their silence is deafening.



Today I read Tolstoy in the park, an old copy of War and Peace that was Dima’s from college. The story is operatic: Napoleon marches towards Russia. Disaster looms. Natasha longs for love. The 1812 comet bursts across the night sky. I thought I might get bored, but I don’t. Political events keep redirecting the narrative arc of the characters’ lives, or maybe the characters’ lives keep redirecting the narrative arc of political events. At any rate, I flip a page, and death hangs over the wounded Prince Andrew Bolkonski just as it hangs over all of Russia. Look, Tolstoy whispers, see how divinely permeable we all are? Even a distant tragedy can fracture the fragile talisman of a person’s life.

Dima has written something next to a description of Natasha weeping: so confused. I become enraged. How dare he judge Natasha for going through her process? Pierre is constantly confused, but Dima never makes a note about him. Would I have stayed with this man if there hadn’t been a pandemic? Would Natasha have married Prince Andrew? I leave the park feeling porous and exposed.

It’s the first truly cold day of winter. My nasal passages freeze when I’m outside, but back in the Towers, they thaw and begin to run. I need to wipe my nostrils, but a Chinese couple gets into the elevator with me, and I don’t want to make them uncomfortable by lifting my mask. So, I let the snot run down my chin, feeling brave.



Here are the elevator demographics of Metropolitan Towers:

  1. Indian families have children and bicycles but no pets.
  2. Young white couples have pets but no bicycles.
  3. Old white singles have Slavic or Puerto Rican accents and reek of cigarette smoke.
  4. Chinese couples do not have children or bicycles or pets, and they do not smoke.
  5. Rutgers students smoke pot.



Two thirty-something women wait at the elevator bank on my floor. They hold hands. They look friendly and in love. One woman sports a shade of carmine lipstick that I would normally compliment, but today I am in a dismal mood.

My best friend Inez, who recently broke up with her boyfriend, called me this morning to say that I was not supportive enough when she was with her boyfriend. She said I’d seemed overeager for them to break up. She’d concluded that I was jealous of her, and although she’d already forgiven me for my jealousy, she needed to hear me apologize for it.

I did.

“But don’t worry, I can help you work on your jealousy,” she said. “We can do this together.” I hung up and sobbed. I resented Inez for misunderstanding me. I resented myself for caving so easily.

“Do you mind facing away from us in the elevator?” the carmine lipstick woman asks. “It’s nothing personal. It’s just that we’re really getting worried about the shrinking cars.”

“I can’t believe they haven’t fixed them yet,” the un-lipsticked woman says. “Worst time to have shrinking elevators, during a pandemic. Frickin’ nightmare.”

I think of all the ways I’ve manifested my own worst nightmares: “Maybe they’re shrinking because of the pandemic,” I say.

The two women exchange a puzzled glance.

“How so?” Carmine asks.

“Never mind,” I say.

The elevator arrives, and the three of us ride down in silence. I stand at an angle in the corner, staring at the peeling wood panels. I want to smooth things over with the couple, but I can’t seem to claw my way out of my hoodie. I think the hoodie has become sentient and is slowly digesting me. I’m being pumped deeper and deeper through the bowels of my own sweatshirt. I’ve noticed this about my life lately: the lonelier I get, the more I feel affected by the objects of the world as if they were absorbing my life force.

When we reach the lobby, the two women hurry away.  I try to comfort myself: maybe I’ll get another chance to make a better impression.

But I doubt it.



It’s an unseasonably warm day in early December, and I’ve been laid off from my job at Rutgers. They usually give me a full schedule in the spring, but the financial emergency has forced them to tighten their belts. My position is cut, along with 399 other adjunct professors across all Rutgers campuses.

My sister calls me as I drag myself to the elevator to suck down a few breaths of fresh air. She asks if there’s anything I need. I hesitate as the list of things I actually need sieves through the filter of what I can reasonably ask someone to give me: self-confidence, tenderness, a hug, reassurance that everything —absolutely everything—is going to be ok.

“Are you in the elevator?” Dan chimes from the speakerphone.

“No, Dan. I’m dying. That beeping is my heart monitor in the ICU.”

“Sheez. I was just asking.”

It feels good to hate Dan.



            I go to war with my lonelinesses, or more precisely, my lonelinesses go to war with me. They draw borders around the corners of my studio. They split into a complex network of tribes, the inner politics of which are too complicated for me to understand. I am their only common enemy. As soon as I open my front door, they shoot at me from behind barricades of dirty laundry, their tentacles unleashing an onslaught of crumpled yellow sticky notes, onto which they’ve scrawled work orders:

Friendships (fractured)

Career (missing)

Self-pity (leaking)

I return fire, kicking away their sweatpant trenches with one easy swipe. The lonelinesses retreat to plan their next attack.

But as soon as the troops are scattered, I go about my normal business. The truth is: I don’t really want to hurt the lonelinesses. They’re my only company.



I’ve read too many news articles today. I quickly decide that:

1) I must escape this apartment.

2) I must call Dima.

I dial in the elevator, but Dima’s voicemail answers, and I hang up. Why don’t elevators have windows? Why are these cars so small? Who designed these things to look like hurtling yo-yo coffins? I’m hyperventilating. The elevator walls squeeze tight as a trachea. I swear I can see them move. Pretty soon, I’ll be stuck in here and I’ll never get out.

A bell dings.

Hot Jogging Man hops on. He recognizes me and gestures to his mask, dark eyes smiling. “Oh, hey! I got my mask now. I remember last time that kinda freaked you out.”

The notion hits me that life has been continuing on outside my head, but it seems too good to be true. Suddenly all I want to do is put Hot Jogging Man at ease. I want to be generous to all mankind as I wish that all mankind would be generous with me (and as I secretly fear that they won’t be). This gentle soul has remembered me!

“No, it’s fine!” I say. “I’m sorry if I had a weird reaction.”

We chuckle, mutually reassuring one another until we reach the first floor. Jogging Man gives me an uncomplicated wave goodbye. I stand in the lobby in disbelief, staring at the landscape paintings, the rubber doormats, the chair with its stack of uncollected newspapers. Everything looks well-lit, tired, but orderly. No one knows that I have been panicking. Some people haven’t even picked up the news today.



Days sneak past me like teenagers slinking out past curfew. I feel like a divorcée smoking long cigarettes in the living room while my days tiptoe out the back door. Each day thinks it’s being very clever, giggling as it clicks the latch and runs off, escaping over the shadowy lawn. They think that I don’t notice their passing, but I do. I covet the parties they must be attending, the clandestine meetings with other young axis-spinners. At the same time, I feel apart from them, in an era of no-days, smoke rising from my tattered silk nightgown, the living room darkening around me.

I’m a little drunk. No one has contacted me in some indeterminate length of time. The emptiness seems to stretch on forever. Finally, I call Inez. She says that she wants space from our friendship. She needs some time to herself.

We hang up, and I pour a glass of whiskey and pace my apartment. I didn’t even get to tell Inez about the shrinking elevators. She would have instantly known what they meant. I wonder if my best friend’s rejection portends my own unlikability. I drink more.

Usually, when my phone is silent, I drag myself to the elevators and go somewhere, talk to anyone. When the elevators are empty, I pick up my phone, talk to someone, say anything. Today, I do both. I press the elevator button and dial my sister.

“Hey! How you doing?” she answers, and in an instant, everything comes tumbling out. I monologue about my lonelinesses, about my job, about my sneaky ungrateful days, about the nightgown and the smoke and Inez, who won’t speak to me, and how wretched that feels.

“That sounds really difficult,” my sister sympathizes.

Dan adds: “Well, you’re an extrovert, Snaggle, living alone for the first time, going through a break-up, plus job insecurity. This is a rough time for you.”

“Duh, Dan,” I say. I regret the words as soon as they leave my mouth.

“You’ve got to stop talking to him like that,” my sister whispers angrily. “It hurts his feelings.”



My resolve builds in the elevator. By the time I open my apartment door I am armed in a suit of rage. I snatch a frying pan from above the oven and start swinging. I smash eyebulbs and tentacles and suckers and silences. I smash them all. In the end, I am sweating. My apartment is coated in guts. The counters are smeared with toxic rainbow goop.

Loneliness massacre.



I’ve been rehired at Rutgers, but only for one class. They apologize, but that’s all they have available for the spring. Enrollment is down 30% after the first semester of remote learning. I spend two days calculating groceries, internet bills, credit cards, student loan payments, then decide to sell the couch that Dan guilted me into buying. When the Craigslister knocks, I help him haul the sofa to the elevators, but it barely fits.

“There was plenty of room when I bought this thing six months ago,” I apologize, as we stuff in an armrest.



A woman named Charlotte is in the elevator today. She says that the residents have drafted a petition demanding that the elevators be replaced, or else we will implement a rent strike. I want to drink the conviction pouring out of her eyes. I want to rub her life force into my skin.

“Will you sign?” she asks, handing me the clipboard. We’re so tight in the tiny car that she prods the petition painfully into my chest. From this close I can see that Charlotte wings her eyeliner like Inez, that she has clear plastic glasses like my sister. She offers me her back as a writing surface.

“Thanks,” she says. “I’ll send out email updates to let everyone know how management responds.” When I return the clipboard our fingers touch, I linger on her hand, exert just the slightest bit of pressure, feel the warm blood circulating beneath her skin. Panic flashes across her face, and I pull away.

“Thank you for organizing this,” I say, like the non-threatening non-pervert that I am.

“Mmhmm,” Charlotte murmurs.

I hold my own hand the rest of the way down.



For a few days—with the lonelinesses gone—I finally get some sleep.



I’ve found another hero.

The first time I saw her was at a distance, as she was walking away down the sidewalk. She was wearing just as fabulous an outfit then as she is now, all flashy bright colors and shoulder pads and neon lipstick and a hat as if she has not changed her wardrobe since Sunday morning circa 1985, and she doesn’t give a damn who knows it. This is what amazes me about really old ladies: their I-don’t-give-a-fuck-ness.

In the elevator, I compliment the woman’s outfit, and she pivots to a philosophical musing on color: “Red never fails to delight.”

“Red’s my favorite color too!”

“I always thought the desk clerks should wear some color instead of those drab white and black uniforms.”

“Like maybe a scarf or a beret, an accent piece,” I say.

“An accent piece, exactly!” she smiles. “Maybe a brooch?”

“Or some big earrings. And a feathered headband!”

The woman throws back her head and laughs, placing a hand on my arm as if we were guests at the Met Gala and I was some clever New York hedge funder instead of an unwashed teacher with a grocery cart full of ramen.

“What’s your name, dear?”

“Everyone calls me Snaggle.”

“That’s an odd name.”

“Well,” I hesitate. Yet with the lonelinesses gone, I am filled with a desire to be known, “Actually, my name is Ruth.”

“Ruth! That’s lovely! Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

“I guess I always thought it was an old lady name. No offense.”

“Darling, no offense taken.” The woman leans forward conspiratorially, her black hair peeking out from her hat. “Old ladies are the freest people on earth.” The elevator dings on seven.

“Hope to see you around, Ruthie darling, although I can’t say I get out much.” That’s when I realize: this is Doris’s friend, the one who reads trashy newspapers and eats plenty of potassium. She sashays down the hall, looking regal, trailing Chanel.



The attractive man with the golden retriever enters on floor eighteen, and I frantically glance down to check what I’m wearing. These days the word “outfit” has lost all meaning. Clothing equals skin covering. Most days, I would gladly wear a beige Communist jumpsuit with a unisex crotch flap just to simplify things.

On this particular morning, I have apparently decided to don a pair of psychedelic bike shorts and a t-shirt from the Women’s March that says, “Paws Off My Pussy.” The bike shorts are too small. My thighs make swollen collagen rings around the base of the leg holes. My leg hairs stick out at all angles. Plus, I’m wearing a winter hat with earflaps. The laundry room is always freezing but putting on a coat requires hangers and buttons and zippers, and back in my apartment. I’d convinced myself that heat escapes exclusively through the head, so it seemed reasonable to pull on a cap and leave my house looking like a lazy feminist logger.

At least I curled my hair this morning. I curled it for a Zoom call with my colleagues, but then the meeting was canceled. On second thought, maybe the hair makes it worse. Now I look like the kind of nut job who spends thirty minutes curling her hair but no time putting on proper clothes. I’m like an old widow who carefully applies lipstick and then strolls down Main Street with her dress tucked into her underpants. I’m the Millennial Grey Gardens. I’m Boo Radley with breasts.

The dog sniffs, and Attractive Man gives me a once-over. I want to offer an explanation, maybe make a witty joke, but instead I find myself narrating.

“I’m doing laundry,” I say. “It’s cold down there. So I put on the hat.”

The attractive man takes out his earbud. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”

“I said: don’t you wish we could all just wear beige Communist jumpsuits? Then we’d never have to pick out an outfit.”

The man looks surprised. He gives a loud, genuine laugh that makes his dog bark.



A few of the lonelinesses return. I doubt I’ll ever be completely rid of them. But these lonelinesses seem different, more mature. Apparently, the next phase of evolution— past eyestalks, anger, warfare, and tribalism —is a sense of humor. The lonelinesses tumble about my room pulling pranks. They draw mustaches on my photographs and write expletives in the margins of my textbooks. I sweep them up and stick them in a jar to keep them out of trouble, but the lonelinesses sucker their tentacles against the glass, making suggestive wet faces at me. It’s pretty funny.

At night they glow inside the jar, diffusing warm, pleasant light.

I don’t feed the lonelinesses anymore, but I put some cotton balls in there to make them comfortable.



The elevator cars are now so diminished that Management decrees only two people at a time, and they have to stand facing opposite directions so as not to breathe on each other.

I board the car with a load of laundry just as the Puerto Rican man sidles up with his groceries. We angle away as per instructions. His TV dinners fill the car with the aroma of frozen breading and peas. He’s stockpiled enough HungryMan dinners to last through an apocalypse. Meanwhile, I’m light on food this week.

The elevator beeps upwards, second floor, third. I don’t have much time. Quickly, with muscle memory cultivated from years of stealing lipstick at the mall, I snatch a frozen product off his cart and stuff it on top of my laundry. The fourth floor dawns. The man maneuvers out, and my heart pounds with adrenaline.

Tonight, I shall feast on HungryMan’s Chicken Bacon Ranch: dinner of justice.



               I unscrew the lid of the loneliness lamp and allow what few creatures are left to wander freely about my apartment. By this point they’re pretty tame. Sometimes they hop into my pockets, and we go for a walk together around the neighborhood. The lonelinesses wave their bright tentacles at passersby. Every once in a while, someone recognizes them and waves back.

One night in late March, it rains. My windows leak down the outer walls of my apartment. The lonelinesses turn their nasal slits towards the smell of water. Inspired, I scoop them up and stick them one by one against the crevasse of my windows, forming a seam. To my delight, the trickling stops. The lonelinesses suckle happily. My apartment becomes dry and cozy. Apparently, I can fix things.



The elevator repairmen are back. Once again only one of the miniature cars is working. Residents snake out the double doors and down the sidewalk: the Puerto Rican with his groceries, the Indian divorcée with her daughter, the carmine lipstick couple clutching their decrepit, wet-eyed Schnauzer. Hot Jogging Man runs past us. A pod of Rutgers boys follows. Jeremy barks orders about maintaining distance and gives tips for hand washing. “Get under those fingernails, people!” he yells.

Personally, I’m in heaven. I don’t even have much laundry in this bag – just a couple of washcloths and some underwear. I’m here to bask in the company of my fellow disgruntled human beings.

“What are we supposed to do if the elevators keep shrinking?” someone asks.

“I went to the management office yesterday. They’re so rude.”

Charlotte passes around her clipboard. “Sign our petition!”

“Can I pet your dog?” I ask the carmine couple. They nod. As I scratch behind his ears, the Schnauzer lowers his lids. “Nice lipstick color, by the way.”



 As soon as the elevator doors open on twenty, smoke comes pouring out. Behind the thick white curtain, two figures appear, one tall, dark, and statuesque, the other short, pale, and shriveled like muses of Ancient Greece, or operatic divas rising through a trap door. It’s Doris and Elayne, my heroes, the Really Old Ladies (ROLs) of Metropolitan Towers. They beckon to me, giggling through plumes of weed:

“Snaggle!” Doris cackles.

“Ruthie, darling!” Elayne cries.

Hands reach out and pull me into the car. The doors close.

The two women grin at me, smoke curling around their wrinkled visages. Their eyes are red-rimmed. We squeeze so tight that I can feel the nylon fabric of Elayne’s pantsuit crushing against my cheek.

“You’re wearing red, Ruthie!”

Doris’s papery hand lifts my wrist. “Puff, puff pass honey,” she says, sticking the joint in between my fingers. The weed is surprisingly dank. I exhale above our heads, watching myself in the cloudy ceiling, my bloodshot eyes like two stoned fish.

“This is chronic shit. Where’d you guys get it?”

“Rutgers kids,” Elayne says. “I do love college boys. They’ve got good grass.”

We all laugh. Doris’s chuckle sounds cobwebbed as if she’s been brewing it for years in the cauldron of her chest.

The doors open on the lobby. A Chinese couple stares at us, holding their cart of groceries.

“Hello, Carlos darling!” Elayne waves. “How’s that little daughter of yours?”

“Uh-un, you can’t be hotboxing the elevators, Miss Elayne,” Jeremy says. “I don’t care how long you lived here. People have got to use those elevators. You ladies need to get on out.”

“Time to go, girls,” Doris smashes the Door Close button.

Jeremy barrels forward. “Did you hear me? Doris? Elayne? I’m not playin’”

But Carlos holds him back, shaking his head: “Don’t fuck wit the ol’ ladies, bruh.”

Yeah, I think, don’t fuck with us.

“Back to the top!” Doris cries.

“Ta-ta, Carlos darling,” Elayne calls, and Doris and I smash the elevator button fast fast fast like we are protagonists in a heist movie. The doors clamp shut. We cheer, throwing our wizened fists into the air. We’re free! We’re the freest people on earth!



Finally, the elevators have shrunk so small they can only fit one person. I take a long walk in the spring rain, and by the time I return to the Towers, my clothes are soaked. I call the minuscule elevator and squeeze in, filling the space. Wood panels hug my shoulders. The floor numbers rise beneath the glowing UP arrow. And then – somewhere around the seventh floor – I feel it: the walls move. The shift would be imperceptible if I weren’t so tightly wedged, but yes – it’s there. I might not be able to get out now.

Finally, I think. I am truly trapped. No more ambiguous waiting, no more sneaky days, no more loneliness tentacles hanging on me as I sleep. I’ll just ride the ups and downs of this elevator forever. Doris and Elayne will testify about my entrapment to the local news stations. Charlotte will lobby on my behalf. Hot Jogging man will be attracted to my fame. Inez and Dima will see my New York Post headline:

Part-time Teach Turns Full-Time Trapped!

Lift Lady Learns Lesson

Local Prof Ages into Famed Elevator ROL

Whatever happens, I’ll adapt.


Writing for Social Justice: Core Strength

“She ain’t nothing but a $5 hoe,” our booknerd, stripper friend chides while she two-step shimmies towards the pole in the center of her new home’s private library. We are in her house, Young Money’s Seeing Green playing on repeat in the background. This is her den of delectable book treats. Surrounded by the smell of seductive stunken leather and crumpled paper backs, this is where she reads and entertains. “Like Sula,” our friend reinforces her statement with eyebrows raised as she grips the titanium-gold pole and wraps her legs around it, careful not to stab herself with her spiked four inch heel.

The $5 hoes that she is talking about are activists who partner with corporate brands for trinkets and the long-term effects those relationships have on communities. We are talking about how much modern day branding is like the physical branding done to ancestors of the past. Always some colonialist loser with their hot irons and pitchforks wanting to inflict their names and their labels and their pain on someone else’s chest or ass or thigh. And how branding cannot be misconstrued with reparation.

And she is changing the subject to Toni Morrison’s 1973 book, Sula, knowing damn well we have been drinking. We are sitting at our booknerd stripper friend’s meticulous and neat desk pontificating over an Old Fashioned in our ripped jeans and a bleached-brown-from-black Strategic AF tee shirt. We could use some lotion–and some socks. She is one with her pole.

“A $5 hoe like Sula?” our booknerd stripper friend pokes at Toni Morrison’s free-spirited protagonist and title character. In this deep character study of a novel, Morrison channels two best friends, Sula and Nell. Readers get to experience the two women’s lifetime of decisions on love, friendship, community, loyalty, and philosophy. We get to examine their dubious choices and more importantly examine our own through them–asking ourselves throughout the story, which character we are more like under different life circumstances. Sula or Nell?

Then our booknerd stripper friend effortlessly flips herself upside down, legs spread V to the sky. Talk about core strength.

Morrison has created an ongoing sore spot in our friendship.

We state:

“Sula was spontaneous.”


She states:

“Sula was inscrupulous.”


We state:



She states:

“Bitch, you know what I mean.


She lands in a split that makes our cheeks ache.


We were asking her to imagine a world where Rosa Parks was sponsored by Aunt Jemima-selling syrup as she sauntered away from her seat in southern Alabama, where Fannie Lou Hamer was sponsored by Uncle Ben’s, pushing rice while delivering rants against racism at mass meetings in Mississippi. It is unimaginable.

“Don’t you dare say an unkind word about Ms. Parks,” she glances over her shoulder at us.

“What about Hamer?” Our hand gestures adamant towards the sky. “Morrison is speaking about the whole human,” our fingers like a maestro conducting our words. “We all a lil’ Sula from time to time. Not connecting our decisions to what is best for the community, not caring. We are all a lil’ Nell from time to time. Over sacrificing at our own peril. No need to choose between these two. Instead stand in the middle.” We rest our flailing arms at our sides.

Modern day branding tactics are sneaky and not nearly as visceral as cooking someone’s flesh with a burning hot piece of metal. Because of this, the tactics are a little harder to spot. They may disguise themselves in marketing lingo like partnership, campaign, and collaboration or hide behind financial backing calling themselves grants, fellowships, and awards knowing damn well they have an ulterior motive—let us put our names on your back, shoulder, or face like chattel.

“We had a woman reach out wanting to present a youth poetry award at the bookshop,” we say looking through our friend’s super neat Nicki Minaj cover collection.

“Sweet,” she is on the floor stretching. “You should stretch your hip,” she says tapping the floor where she wants us to sit down next to her.

“Right. No problem. Sure.” We ignore her and get back to our story. “But the closer we got to the event, the youth poetry award woman finally shared that the award was being sponsored by Gucci and that they wanted to pay us for using our venue as long as one of their representatives was able to present the award and speak to the press out front. But Gucci had literally just dropped their Blackface turtleneck line. We were like, ‘Sis, we could never host them after that.’ And the crazy thing is she couldn’t understand why not. They’d just given her a community ambassador fellowship, she said clutching her pearls. Five thousand dollars and that turtleneck thing was a thing of the past. So is slavery,” we rolled our eyes as she and her little check pranced out the door.

“Precisely. In my industry, the best of us live by a standard. We work by a code. We have to have each other’s backs. But there are those who don’t.” Our booknerd stripper friend is laid flat out on her back taking in deep breaths. “We say this is a hoe willing to mess it up for everyone else by accepting $5 to do some shit that the rest of us would never do at all because it doesn’t serve anyone—it doesn’t even serve the hoe. We chop those dumb bitches the fuck up at the end of the night because they make it harder for the rest of us having people think we are all $5 hoes,” she Floyd Mayweather jabs and uppercuts the air.

At this point, some of us may ask ourselves, why would anyone accept less than they deserve? And the answer is because we don’t know what we deserve and haven’t asked ourselves this question enough for actual feedback.

We stay quiet. We know very little about booknerd stripper culture. The closest we’ve come in support of our friend’s self-proclaimed, good hoe goals is cornrowing her braids into a crown that fit snugly beneath her platinum 40 inch.

“What about freedom, though?” we ask after a long minute of silence. “Aren’t people allowed to do whatever they want? Free will?”

“Yup, and those free hoes who do so without a standard among people who they can trust are easy prey. They always get picked off. Those people, like Sula, end up chopped and alone with people like me and Nell who have to come along and give them medicine and pick up their pieces.”

In Morrison’s novel, Nell ends up serving her lifelong friend, Sula, in her dying moments, even after what she perceives is Sula’s severe betrayal.

“What we always felt was missing from Sula and Nell’s relationship was a plan. A decision. A meeting of the minds,” we say looking down into our glass of Old Fashioned.

“Yup and the moral of the story is never be a $5 hoe, my G,” she says dozing off to sleep.

Ase. And so shall it be.

For the last 10 years, Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several news outlets including Vogue Magazine, INC, MSNBC, The Strategist, and the Washington Post. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. She writes about the complex intersections of motherhood, activism, and community. Her pieces are featured in several publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Root Quarterly, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. She is the proud new owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.



you escape

the coil-spring trap

leave the ripped


foot there

pooled in blood

you have been


touched by

the hot instrument

of pardon


see the lawn lit

by benediction

light at the end


of day silver

pond a mirror

towers of clouds

Barbara Daniels’s Talk to the Lioness was published by Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press in 2020. Her poetry has appeared in Lake Effect, Cleaver, Faultline, Small Orange, Meridian, and elsewhere. Barbara Daniels received a 2020 fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Sympathetic Magic

Old brauchers knew the making of good beer from pumpkins,

the preparation of ripe poultices to fix sore eyes and hearts,

the scribbling of mystic letters that, tacked to the lintel in a grid,

would drive the worst of malefactors from the door.


The learning of these arts, they knew, embodied one fixed rule:

A man can teach them only to a woman; a woman only to a man.


And so with us. This of you, that of me, in rites of bed and table,

exchanges older than the spoken word, new incantations purely ours,

and secret spells invoking skies and seasons, wind, soil, water, light.


We may bury a potato under the eaves and repel all wickedness.

I will show you.


*A braucher was a healer in the Pennsylvania German tradition of folk medicine.

A native of eastern Pennsylvania, Jack Romig lives with his wife and son in the Berks County village of Huff’s Church. He was a longtime manuscript editor with Book-of-the-Month Club in New York City. His poems have appeared in The Fourth River and in the former online journal Common Sense 2, where he was poetry editor for three years.


Under Quarantine

I watch her watch her mother wave

goodbye through the window

of her room in assisted living,


each pressing a single hand

against the glass pane,

palm to palm, as if in prayer,


a gesture lasting but a moment

before daughter, a masked

store clerk, departs for work—


their loneliness an orchid

dropping its last leaf.

John Sweeder’s poetry has appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, Shantih, Better Than Starbucks, and Haiku Journal, among other venues. His first book of poetry, Untethered Balloons, was published in March of 2021 by Adelaide Books, New York/Lisbon. Now a retired professor, John was born and raised in Northeast Philly and taught at La Salle University for 30 years.


Reflections on Hedwig and the Truths We Learn

What is that?”

It’s what I’ve got to work with.”

It is 2004.

I am a junior in college.

“What is this called, again?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

“What’s it about?” I inquire.

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

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

“And it’s a musical!”

“Of course it’s a musical,”

It turns out…there isn’t.


It is 2013.

I am not doing well.

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

I do not know that agony is not normal.

“Guess what I heard?” my husband says.

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

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

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

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

My mouth drops.“You’re kidding.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

My husband smiles ruefully.

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

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

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


It is 2014.

“Are you excited?”

“I’m so fucking excited,” I answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It is 2021.

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

But first, maybe, some background.

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

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

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

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

There is a pause.

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

“It’s what I’ve go to work with.”

That’s it. That’s the line.

And it’s everything.

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

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

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


Experimental Trials (Third Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

After the first, which was of course televised, a silence swept over the land. Networks later reported a full four minutes and thirty-nine seconds of dead air during which the camera simply recorded the creeping progress. It was the black-haired man—whose body was slowly rising from the exam table, carried by invisible hands to hover six inches above the linoleum tiles of the vaccine site—who finally broke the silence. “Jesus,” he whispered.

From his ratty armchair my father said, “Those nonbelievers on Possum Drive must be shitting themselves right about now.” Over the course of the four and a half minutes, during which the man’s body had moved steadily, gracefully through the air, my brother Jeb had scooted closer and closer to the television. The blues and golds from the screen illuminated the soft round skin of his cheeks. My mother crossed herself and said, “God is good.”

My father included the black-haired man, Jacob Blackwell, in our evening prayers that night. Fingers twisted into my nightgown, I tried to focus on his wooden voiced recitation, but another moment hung in my mind, twisting and flashing and untwisting on its long string, a suncatcher grabbing all the surrounding light and scattering it, fracturing everything with its sharp angles.

# #

The floating man was on the front page of the Kentucky Gazette the next morning alongside an interview with a scientist who spent a lot of time talking about density and gas in the body and possible chemical reactions in the bloodstream.

“These people wouldn’t know God if He hit them upside the head with a two-by-four,” my father said, letting the thin pages flutter back into place on the table. “Miracle!” he declared over the rim of his coffee cup. “Miracle!”

My mother flipped to the case count for Alabaster. “Two more deaths.”


There was quiet in the kitchen as she rifled through to the obituaries.


My father nodded. No one from the congregation had died of the virus.

As I was pouring cereal, we received a call from the Grace Fellowship phone tree. Ma put the call on speakerphone, so we could all listen to Sister Alice share the pastor’s message about God’s gift. Sister Alice had a stutter, and Jeb was bouncing in place, impatient to return to his Lincoln logs long before she finished. She got it out at last. The plague was over. The earth had been cleansed of wickedness. Sloth, gluttony, covetousness, wrath, pride, and lust had been wiped out. Adulterers, homosexuals, murderers, rapists, criminals, and thieves had received their judgement. God had sent a sign that it was time to begin anew in His holy name, and Jacob Blackwell was that sign.

“Amen,” we said as one into the speakerphone, and then my mother hung up and called the Bradburys to repeat the message. My father cut Blackwell’s picture out of the paper, emptied a gold picture frame of a photo of his mother, and inserted the floating man. He hung it in the kitchen between a print of the Madonna and a brass crucifixion.

At school the Grace fellowshippers were already talking about Blackwell as the Second Coming. After lunch we piled into the gym.

“Six feet apart! Six feet apart!” Mrs. Kanoffel kept yelling as the science teacher fussed with the projector which was showing nothing but blue. In the echo chamber of cement bricks, I heard Millie Zarturo laugh, or I thought I heard her laugh. She would be in the back with the nonbelievers. I didn’t turn my head to look for her. Then the Fox News logo came into focus. It was warm in the gym, and the breath in my mask slipped up to fog the lenses of my glasses until I had to take them off and wipe them every few minutes. Blackwell was still floating. They showed a short clip of him hovering around the hospital room where he was being kept for observation, eating his breakfast in mid-air. They were doing it again, this time with a woman. She had short red hair that curled out on either side of her face. Black wires and electrodes were connected to her temples, her chest, and just about everywhere. The doctor administering the vaccine stepped back as soon as the liquid entered her body.

At first, nothing happened and the fellowshippers sitting together in the front row of the bleachers nodded at one another. “He shall come again in glory to judge—” Shirly Baker began, then there was a tugging on the wires. The camera frame zoomed out. Her legs were lifting. Her shoulders rose. There she was, a solid two inches above the red pleather of the exam table. I think she could have gone higher if she weren’t hooked up to all those machines which just kept chugging along. Nothing beeped rapidly like in those hospital shows. No plunging red lines appeared on the monitors. A few of the nonbelievers on the back rows of the bleachers laughed.

“There seem to be no adverse side effects,” one doctor said later, standing beside the floating woman.

When we got home from school, Dad wasn’t there. We ate without him and didn’t hear his car in the driveway until late. Every afternoon that week after lunch we trekked to the gym to watch the breaking news coverage. Our experiments for the county science fair went forgotten. The trifold was tucked away in the back of my closet, and although I often thought of those five green dots left by her sleeping hand, I did not take the board out to study them. I tried to let the dust settle over my guilt.

On Wednesday, an older man levitated six and a half inches off the ground. On Thursday, a young woman made it nearly a foot. On Friday monozygotic twins hovered at exactly the same height. On Saturday, to quiet Jeb, Ma ushered us into the station wagon, and we drove the two hours to the Louisville Slugger Museum. “Your father needs to rest,” she said when Jeb asked why he wasn’t coming.

On Sunday, in the sun-filled sanctuary, which smelled overpoweringly of disinfectant, the pastor gave a sermon called, “Are You Worthy of God’s Kingdom?” He began with the flood. Our congregation, he said, was a mighty ark which protected us from the waters of destruction because we were found to be righteous in His eyes. The virus had cleansed the earth of the sinful, but only those who were truly pure of heart would enter heaven. Pastor Pierce explained that the vaccine was a test of holiness. The higher we floated, the closer we were to God. My father, clean shaven for the first time this week, seemed finally at peace in the warm glow of the pastor’s words.

The monozygotic twins died of back-to-back heart attacks that night. The doctors said it had nothing to do with the injection, but suddenly nobody besides us wanted anything to do with the clinical trials. Government funding was cut overnight, and the plan for the multi-city pilot delivery program was halted. That’s why the experimental trials were moved to Alabaster. There was such a clamour for it from Grace Fellowship that those white coats packed up their Erlenmeyer flasks and came on out here in two weeks flat. Everyone wanted to know they were worthy of God’s kingdom. It was the school nurse who told me, when I couldn’t stop crying during the annual 7th grade eye exam, that children wouldn’t be included in the experimental trials.

“Not until you’re eighteen,” she said, eyes kind over her powder blue mask.

So I tried to erase the memory of Milly Zarturo. If I couldn’t remember the sin, maybe it wouldn’t count.

# #

The doctors thought the floating would dissipate with time, but Blackwell was still averaging four and three-eighths inches off the ground three months later. Soon the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly were full of floating men and women. Nonbelievers would ask my mother to hand them the last box of Bisquick on the top shelf, and she would extend her arm. Jeb and I had to get the groceries on the bottom shelves. Once you were up there, floating, it didn’t seem you could come down so easily. The bike shop in town had offered to install clips on the brake and gas pedals, so vaccinated adults could drive, and soon all the elders in the congregation were floating around in cycling shoes.

I had thought it would be a sort of graceful gliding, but my father, one of the highest floaters at eleven and a quarter inches, couldn’t carry a cup of coffee to his armchair without spilling it. “At least I don’t have to wear those dang masks anymore,” he would say cheerfully every time the coffee sloshed from his mug. The floaters walked through the air, which seemed to be an invisible bumpy surface beneath their feet. Sometimes they stepped into holes, sinking to nearly an inch above the floor. When this happened, they stumbled, but they didn’t seem capable of falling. Something in the air seemed to catch them before they reached the ground. Mrs. Popejoy with her flowered cane and thick prescription glasses had taken to shuffling everywhere so as to avoid the craters.

Not long after all the adults had been vaccinated, Grace Fellowship began a petition to allow children into the experimental trials. Pretty soon news vans were parked outside the church day and night. Men and women with perfect hair, wearing tailored suits and surgical masks, milled around in the courtyard as Pastor Pierce preached about salvation and waved his clipboard in the air. One of the Sisters had tied a pen on a string to the clipboard, and it shook and trembled and jumped as the pastor gesticulated.

A girl from the high school, a nonbeliever named Sarah-Bell, dressed up in a Grace Fellowship jumper and kerchief and gave an interview to Robert MacNeil. A couple of fellowshippers saw it on the PBS news hour. Apparently Sarah-Bell talked a bunch of BS about wanting to float and how her ma told her she would throw her out of the house if she didn’t make it at least five inches off the ground. Jeremiah showed me the clip in the library while we were working on our social studies homework. “You can tell she’s trying not to laugh,” he said, as Sarah-Bell lifted a hand to cover her face. The shot switched to a closeup of Mr. McNeil looking directly into the camera. He sighed deeply and began talking about societal pressures in religious communities. I pulled off the headphones, looked out the window, chewed on my lip, then looked back at Jeremiah. “Did you hear about Mayweather?” He shook his head.

There had been a rumor going around the school that Tommy Mayweather had sex with a nonbeliever back in September, but when he got the vaccine on his eighteenth birthday, he floated eight and a half inches. I whispered this to Jeremiah over the large, laminated map showing Christopher Columbus’ travels which we were supposed to be copying into our notes. “Maybe God doesn’t care if you have sex. Maybe all this time we’ve been wrong about what He has forbidden.” Jeremiah’s tongue was protruding from his lips, and the tip wiggled slightly as he glanced at the map and then back at his drawing, forehead scrunched in concentration. “Or maybe that whole thing was a rumor and Tommy never had sex with anyone.”

At night in bed, after Jeb had turned out the light, I lay awake wondering how God measured sin. Apparently none of the adults had a sin heavy enough to keep them on the ground, even Mrs. Perzinsky who used to be an underwear model. Pastor Pierce had said the virus cleansed the world of wickedness, and I was still here, so that must mean my sin had been forgiven, at least part-way. I tried to forget about Millie Zarturo and the shimmer of tiny golden hairs on her flushed cheek and the scent of the warm air just above her skin.

# #

In November, a lawyer from Grace Fellowship sued the experimental trials on the grounds of religious freedom, saying children had a right to receive the vaccine. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. It took a long time, and during those months I tried to be good and righteous. I did visualizations like when the gym teacher told us to imagine the ball striking the center of the bat. I imagined washing the stain from my soul the way Ma had taught me to scrub the menstrual blood from my underwear. I closed my eyes hard until I could see the soap froth turn pink and feel my fingers become icy beneath the cold water, until I saw the stain stream over the porcelain basin and spiral down the drain.

We were hanging garland at the church, getting ready for the Christmas pageant later that week, when one of the older boys poked his head into the sanctuary and yelled, “They found one.” He took off down the carpeted hall. We clutched the skirts of our jumpers and followed.

The large room in the church basement was packed. The television showed a grainy recording of a woman I didn’t recognize. She was small with short brown hair and a stern mouth. After nine months of the pandemic, a few nonbelievers had shown up for the experimental trials. All had floated.

A man in a white coat administered the vaccine. There was a long silence. The digital timestamp on the bottom right of the footage flashed away the seconds. Nothing happened. The woman’s feet remained on the floor. The scene cut back to a bright newsroom where Robert MacNeil was interviewing a scientist. The red and white headline along the bottom of the screen read, “Anomalous Woman.” I looked around for the pastor but couldn’t find his face in the crowded room. “What does it mean?” one of the younger kids asked in a whisper. My father, leaning against a beat-up piano in the corner, said simply, “God missed one.”

She was dead by the eleven o’clock news. From my hiding spot, I peeked through the slats in the banister. They showed the crumpled sheet-metal of her white Honda illuminated in the darkness by flashing ambulance lights at the intersection of fifth and Broadway, and then a bunch of photos from her Facebook page. She had been a nurse and a single mom. Two of her coworkers had recently died of the virus. “She was desperate to protect herself and her son,” a crying woman explained to a shaky camera beside the accident site in the gently falling snow. The screen cut to a photo of the woman on a sled, holding a child on her lap. My mother turned off the television and rose from the couch with her tea. It was then that I noticed the empty armchair. My father was still at the deacon’s meeting.

At school the next day, Ronny Buckman said his older brother had seen the woman walking the boulevard plenty of times and that she had been a prostitute. He said all those photos of her in scrubs were just from a Halloween party. By lunchtime there was a rumor that the car accident had been a setup, and that Pastor Pierce had something to do with it. I wasn’t sure if the rumor came from a fellowshipper or a nonbeliever, but suddenly it was everywhere. Older nonbelievers shouted the rumor to one another with a smile in the hallway between classes. In the cafeteria, a group of older fellowship boys began banging on the table and chanting Pastor Pierce’s name until Mrs. Kanoffel approached with a stern look.

It was taco day, and the beans had soaked through the bottom of the hard-shell taco, so it tore in my hands and spilled in my lap when I lifted it to my mouth. I put the taco down and drank two cartons of chocolate milk. I glanced across the cafeteria to where a group of nonbelievers were exchanging gifts. Millie Zarturo was somewhere behind the shiny gift bags and thick red ribbons, but I could not make out her face.

It was the last day of school before Christmas vacation, and we had a test in every class that afternoon. When I asked Jeremiah what he thought about the rumor, he just shrugged over his flashcards and said the woman’s death was inevitable, i-n-e-v-i-t-a-b-l-e. It was one of the words on our English spelling list. “Of course God was going to intervene. I-n-t-e-r-v-e-n-e.” But did he think Pastor Pierce had intervened? “Only He is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.” And he proceeded to spell each word.

# #

In February, they came out with another vaccine that didn’t make you float. Most of the nonbelievers in town got vaccinated with the new one, and things finally started to feel normal again.

That spring every boy in fifth grade signed up for the baseball team. We went to every game, my parents hovering over the last row in the bleachers, behind the nonbelievers and the out-of-towners. Jeb played shortstop like Pee Wee Reese, pounding his left hand into his glove and spitting into the red clay. His raggedy bowl cut was too long, and he was forever shaking the hair from his eyes before crouching into his low stance, glove hovering in the air before him. He refused to let my mother cut his hair all season. He said it was his good luck charm. When my mother repeated the Grace Fellowship adage, “There is no such thing as good luck, only God’s luck,” he only shrugged and went to his room.

One Saturday he jumped nearly three feet to catch a rogue hit, the maw of his red-brown glove roaring into the air. The out-of-towners gave him a standing ovation. My father whooped and clapped and said, “Just think of when he can fly.” Pastor Pierce had started to call it flying, even though you still had to lift your feet to move, and no one seemed to be able to make it higher than fourteen inches. A girl from the school newspaper caught the play with her camera, and the picture was on the front page, “Miraculous Catch.” My father shook his head over the headline. “These people wouldn’t know a miracle if it hit them upside the head with a two-by-four.”

# #

We were in the middle of Kentucky-mandated standardized testing when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Grace Fellowship. None of the teachers told us, but we knew because Grace Fellowship parents started picking their kids up early. I imagined holding the sin in my hand, closing it in my fist, pictured it compacting, draining, shrinking to nothing. How much sin were you allowed to carry into His Kingdom? How much was too much to fly? What if they gave me the shot and I rose a quarter of an inch and nothing more?

From inside the silent rooms with butcher paper hanging over the reference charts on the walls, I could hear my father’s voice in the hallway, arguing with Mrs. Kanoffel. “She can finish the test later.” “State rules require-” He was already walking towards the door. I knew the skid and shuffle of my father’s footsteps, knew them in the aisles at church, knew them coming down the stairs early on Sundays, knew the soft sound as he moved through the uneven air. I could hear my blood rushing through my ears like a river rushing towards an edge. Ma and Dad had taken us to Niagara Falls when I was nine and Jeb was six. For a moment I could feel the clouds of cold mist on my skin, feel the force of the water stampeding against the eroding rocks, and hear the middle-aged woman in the blue raincoat behind us muttering to her friend, “They never talk about how many people died going over those falls by accident.”

On my way to the front of the room, I passed Millie Zarturo’s bent head. The tributaries of her brown curly hair split off one after the other, revealing a sliver of her milk-white scalp as she meticulously filled in perfect circles with her number two pencil. Millie was a nonbeliever. She would finish her test uninterrupted. She would walk home, maybe stopping at the corner store for a pack of gum, then she would watch some after-school sitcom my father would never let us see. During the commercial breaks maybe she would check the local news, but she wouldn’t think of me. I was nothing to her, and she didn’t know; it was the only reason I hadn’t asked her to forgive me. I had thought about apologizing a hundred times, but I couldn’t apologize without telling her what I had done. I thought if I never said it out loud, maybe it would cease to exist.

“Hurry up,” my father kept saying as we walked down the hallways covered in student artwork. “Hurry up. There’ll be a line already.” Jeb was with him, and as we ran to keep up with my father’s long strides, I could hear the hiss and rub of his backpack straps. He was holding his glove. It was a Tuesday, which meant practice. The playoffs were next week.

My hands were trembling, and it took several tries to secure the metal tongue of the seatbelt into place. Pastor Pierce says we all choose our path. Man makes his own fate. Sweat slid down my training bra. I was in seventh grade, and I had already ruined the rest of my life.

The sun was in my eyes as we drove to the vaccine site. I raised a hand against the bright orb, but my face still felt hot in the shade of my palm. We rode across the train tracks, and as the car jolted over each bump, I realized I wasn’t going to heaven. The car lurched once more and puke erupted, orange and stinging from my nose and mouth, coating the yellow and blue atlas in the backseat pocket of the passenger side, the center console, the window. My gray jumper was warm and wet against my skin. I blinked back whatever else threatened to come up. My father pulled over, but there wasn’t much to be done. We drove the rest of the way with the windows down.

The line was the longest I had ever seen in my life, reaching its thin arm down County Route 603. The afternoon sun baked the vomit onto my dress until it formed a crusty continental outline. We waited, and I watched the shifting of our shadows with the sun’s trajectory across the sky. The whole congregation seemed to be here, but the kids were quiet. Ronny Buckman was two places ahead of us in line, but he didn’t seem to have any jokes today. He just chewed on his fingernails until his mother slapped his hand out of his mouth, and then he scrunched his eyes against the sun and stared into the distance. It wouldn’t be long now.

When she got off work at five, Ma brought me a new jumper and we waited in line together. As the vaccination tents drew nearer, the claps and whoops became audible. Then we could see them, the newly risen emerging from the plastic flaps, boys from the school band, girls I had played tag with at the church potluck, floating slowly, unsteadily, to the glistening parking lot. I flexed my fingers incessantly as I waited until the skin, brittle from so much hand sanitizer, cracked and began to bleed.

It had been over four hours, and I decided I couldn’t get the vaccine.

My father was down the line talking to Neil Caringo, hands pushed deep into his pants pockets, leaning back on his heels, so I turned to my mother. She had her eyes closed against the sharp angle of the sunset, and her lips were moving which meant she was praying. In crowded waiting rooms, when nonbelievers pulled out their cell phones, my mother closed her eyes and talked to God.

“Mom.” I spoke quietly so the McCutchins behind us in line wouldn’t hear. Her eyes remained closed. I tried again. “Mom.”

“Yes, baby.” Her eyelids were pearly orange against the setting sun. I knew I had interrupted her conversation.

“I can’t get the vaccine.”

“Of course, you can, baby.”

“No, I can’t.”

“It’s a small needle. Just a little prick and then it’s over.”

“I don’t feel well.”

“This’ll just take a minute. Don’t you have a minute for Him?”

Her eyes were still closed, the familiar wrinkle lines on her forehead smoothed away, her face a placid lake into which I was throwing an infant to drown. She held one hand in the other, cupping them softly over her stomach. She had come straight from work, still in her dental hygienist’s scrubs. On her breast pocket, an orange tabby batted at a ball of yarn. The toes of her brown clogs were scuffed, and her blue orthotics peeked out by her heels. Around her lake-like face, wisps of hair branched out like streams. If I told her, everything would change. I looked down to hide the water welling in my eyes.

“Mom. I—”

“Baby, if you got something you need to get off your chest, tell it to the Lord.” She opened her eyes now and nodded towards the tents, the dwindling line. “We’ll soon know His reply.”

My stomach clenched around my secret.

“I really don’t feel well,” I tried again. “I read you shouldn’t get a vaccine if-”

“Excuse me.” My mother tapped on the shoulder of the woman in front of us. “My daughter’s got a stomach ache. Would it be okay if we moved up the line, so we can get her home as soon as possible?”

My lip split beneath the pressure of my teeth as we moved rapidly up the remainder of the line this way, stepping ahead of quiet nods and muted smiles until we were next. Jeb stood at my mother’s side, buried in the pages of a baseball book from the library. There were claps and cheers from within the tent in front of us, and then a ninth grade boy with an electric pink Band-Aid on his bicep floated through the flaps.

“Next,” a woman in pink rubber gloves waved.

“Jeb can go first.” I shoved my hands into my pockets to hide their shaking.

“I’m not doing it,” Jeb said, nose still in his book.

“What’s that?” My father was at my mother’s side now, ready to go in with us.

“I’m not doing it,” Jeb repeated.

“Is the kingdom of heaven not-” my father began, but Jeb interrupted.

“Coach says we aren’t eligible for the playoffs if we float.”

The woman with the pink gloves put a hand on her hip. From the tent beside her, another woman poked her head out and called, “I can take whoever’s next over here.”

“Come on,” my mother said, stepping forward. My father reached for Jeb’s hand, but Jeb pulled away and took off running. A ripple passed down the line as folks turned their heads to watch the Douglas boy sprinting down Route 603, his too long hair flowing like a ribbon in his wake. Maybe if I had run too, everything would have turned out differently.

Then my mother’s hand was in the small of my back, pushing me forward. The tent flaps drew back. The woman with the pink gloves was scrubbing my upper arm with an alcohol swab. I closed my eyes and told God I would pay any price to atone for my sin and be allowed into His kingdom. I felt the sting of the needle and imagined the plunger in reverse, imagined the woman drawing the sin out of me, those two minutes of my existence exiting my body, filling the syringe with a thin blue substance which would never again enter my life.

It was back in September, the day Jacob Blackwell floated, in the darkness of morning hours long preceding the school day. The science fair was Wednesday, and I had carried our unfinished trifold over to Millie Zarturo’s house. Thin bodies of markers rolled over the slanted bedroom floor and collected in a dip beneath her bed. When I was finished with my third of the trifold, I reeled myself up from the pool of that exhausted compliance and found Millie asleep on the floor. The uncapped green marker in her hand had left several small dashes on the poster where her sleeping body had shifted.

I found the green cap and reached for the marker, but my fingers settled instead on her mask, and then they were unhooking the elastic from the seashell of her ear. I wanted her to be a fellowshipper. I wanted to walk to church with her and gossip after choir practice. I wanted to brush the hem of her jumper with my pinky as we sat on the worn wooden pews. I wanted to see what was under her mask. Milly’s pink lips were parted in sleep. Her cheeks were flushed, and as I leaned closer in the shine of her desk lamp, I could make out the shimmer of tiny golden hairs, a whisper of the down that covered the goslings in spring. I pulled my mask off and leaned closer, bringing my nose to the warmed air above her cheek. The faintest aroma of laundry detergent and peppermint rose to meet me, and another smell I couldn’t pin down, something gentle, the smell of warmth if warmth had a scent. My lips brushed her cheek, gliding over those soft downy hairs, my mouth opened.

I felt a sharp pain as something was removed from my body; then I heard my mother clapping.

# #

It took my father and the other men from the church a long time to find Jeb. When it grew dark, they returned to the house for flashlights. Still unsteady in the air, I crouched by the hutch in the living room, scrounging for more AAA batteries for our camping lantern. I was still awake when the phone rang in the middle of the night, and I knew that meant they had found him.  “They’re taking him now? God bless,” I heard my mother say softly into the hallway phone.

The next morning, my mother woke me at six to get ready for school. It took longer than usual, being up so close to the shower head, having to crouch to reach the bottom drawer of my dresser. I was running late by the time I entered the kitchen. Jeb sat at the table in front of a bowl of Cheerios. Dark circles crouched under his eyes. My mother hadn’t brushed his hair, and it poked out at awkward angles. An electric pink Band-Aid peeked out from beneath the lip of his shirt sleeve. When my mother grabbed her keys wordlessly, Jeb stood, feet still on the floor, and reached for his backpack, and I knew God had heard my prayer and answered with His swift and terrible judgement.

Olivia Fantini grew up in Massachusetts and spent six years teaching middle school. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Minnesota where she was awarded the Gesell Fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in TriQuarterly. She is currently at work on a novel and a memoir.

Ameena Goes to America (Second Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

A young white officer asks her in heavily accented Bengali, “What’s the purpose of your visit?”

“Cancer,” Ameena replies in English, standing in front of a glass window. “My husband cancer.”

The officer at the American embassy, Dhaka, gives her a sharp look, checks her papers, then abruptly disappears through the side door. When he returns, he types on his computer, and says her visa application has been approved.

Ameena thanks Allah that the man hasn’t asked her any complicated questions about her husband. Twenty years ago, when Selim left for America, she was thirty-one, her son was five, and her daughter three.

Selim never returned.

The first few years he called every week and sent enough money that she was contemplating buying a small apartment. Then came the attack on the Twin Towers, and he lost his job at the store in Manhattan. That was when all the trouble began.

Outside the embassy, Ameena catches her son smoking on the street. He drops the cigarette and crushes it underfoot. “Did you get the visa?” he asks.

Ameena nods.

Beside her son in an autorickshaw, her mind wanders back to the early days of her marriage. Selim smoked a pack of Benson & Hedges every day. He loved spending time with friends and talking politics at the neighborhood cafés. He worked buying stock from garment factories and selling them to the local clothing stores.

She thinks of the day Selim took her to a char island. He had heard about this newly deposited expanse of land in the River Meghna. One Friday, they had an early breakfast and took a bus to Narayanganj. From there they had a long but refreshing rickshaw ride on dirt roads through farmlands—mile after mile of mustard fields. The scent of mustard flowers in the spring breeze was intense, intoxicating.

It was a beautiful day. After the boat dropped them off on the island, they wandered about for a few minutes and spotted no sign of human presence anywhere—only a vast, sandy land surrounded by water. Selim pulled her hand and they ran like children. He stopped and gave a Tarzan’s jungle call, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Ameena,” he shouted, “how about we never go back, and just live here? We’ll be the king and queen of this island.”

“Yeah, that’d be fantastic!” she said.

They walked side by side, his arm draped over her shoulder. They dipped their feet into the water of the Meghna. Then without warning he picked her up in his arms. She found herself dangling above the water. He rocked her body, saying, “I’m dropping you.”

“No!” she screamed.

He laughed and kissed her.


After Selim lost his job in Manhattan, Ameena heard from him less and less. Whenever he phoned, he talked about uncertainties. Illegal immigrants were being detained. He didn’t go out much fearing deportation. The other day, he said, a fat white man spat on him in the street, calling him a terrorist, telling him to go back where he came from. That same day, after getting home, Selim shaved off his short black beard.

When he had said this, Ameena had trembled and tears raced down her cheeks. She didn’t mention she was having bad dreams about him. Just the night before, she had screamed for help as Selim was dragged into the street and beaten. She woke up panting, soaked in perspiration. When she came to her senses, she clasped her shaking hands together hard and asked Allah to keep her husband safe. Later, in her dawn prayer, she also prayed for the recovery of the Bangladeshi man she’d heard on the news had been shot in the face at a Dallas gas station.

“Please, come back home,” she implored Selim. “We don’t need American dollars. We will be happy here together.”

Selim said he was moving to another state soon. “You know, Ameena, it’s a great country to live in, but you need the legal status.”

Months after he settled in New Jersey, his friend in New York called to tell her that Selim was living with a Mexican woman.

In April, when Ameena finally received a call from Selim, she exploded. He tried to explain that he just rented a room in her apartment in preparation for entering into a contract marriage. “Ameena, don’t be mad. Some people do it here to get papers. It’s not real.”

She cried and begged him to return home immediately. “You have to choose either me or your America.”

“Ameena, listen—”

She wouldn’t listen. She yelled and cursed him. She asked him not to contact her anymore. “Many wives become widows at a young age,” she said. “I’ll consider my husband dead.”

Ameena moved in with her mother. She loved to sew. She became a seamstress for neighbors, friends, and relatives. They paid her well, but she could meet only half of her expenses. Her twin brother, who had a thriving import business, started giving her a monthly allowance.

When anyone asked Ameena about her husband, she faked a smile and said, “He lives in America.” Selim phoned occasionally to speak with the children and wired money prior to festivals. Then news reached Ameena that her husband had moved out of the home of the Mexican woman; his plan didn’t work out, and now he was sleeping with a white woman. Five years later she heard from someone that his asylum application had been granted. But his new status wouldn’t allow him to travel back to Bangladesh. She didn’t understand.

Not long after, her son made her tea in the evening and said, “Daddy wants me to study in the U.S.”

For half a minute, without a word, Ameena observed her nineteen-year-old son. Her face slowly tightened. “Never,” she said. “You want to be like your father?” She pushed the cup away, spilling tea on the table.


In September 2016, Ameena learned from Selim’s sister that he had lung cancer. At the end of the year his health deteriorated, and he had surgery. Could she fly to America to take care of her husband, his sister had asked. Ameena said no, and again she was asked in December. Then, in January, Selim called. She heard a forgotten yet familiar voice, now scratchy and strained. She pursed her lips but couldn’t form any words. After a moment she managed to speak. Her words and his words were punctuated by long pauses. He told her that he would send the necessary papers. She would need to get a passport.

Her interview at the embassy was scheduled in early April.




Ameena has never felt so distinguished in her life. For the last three months, no matter who she met, she has heard the same question: When are you going to America?

Her flight is at one in the morning. A day’s journey from Dhaka to New York, with a four-hour layover in Dubai. A bus is hired to carry her relatives, who insisted on coming to the airport to give her a send-off. They all hug her, and some cry at the immigration checkpoint.

She starts sweating when boarding begins. It’s her first time flying. She is given a window seat, and a flight attendant helps her fasten the seatbelt. She stiffens and holds her breath as the plane takes off. She says a prayer, and for a moment thinks she will never see her husband or her children again. But before long she realizes that the aircraft is in midair, and she gazes in wonder at the glittering skyline of Dhaka.


In the arrivals lounge at JFK, Ameena catches a stranger waving his hand at her. She does not recognize him until she hears her name. Selim is shockingly thin, his face so red, Adam’s apple sticking out. His head is shaved. Back home on her bedroom wall there is a family picture in which their children are standing on either side of Selim and her. Twenty years later, he matches so little of his earlier self, scarcely resembling that image of him anchored deep in her memory. It must be the cancer, she decides.

“You haven’t changed much,” Selim says in the car. He peppers her with questions. How was the flight? Did she face any problems anywhere? In Dubai? At immigration? He breathes heavily between sentences.

From the driver’s seat his friend, Rafiq Bhai, glances at her in the rearview mirror. He says it was his idea to get her assistance at Dubai Airport, so she wouldn’t have to struggle with her limited English.

“You’ve come at the right time,” he says to her, stopping the car before a condo. “It’s almost summer here.”

When Selim reaches for the luggage, Rafiq Bhai says, “You’re not supposed to lift anything heavy.”

In the elevator, Selim stands close to Ameena, his body brushing against hers. His breathing is labored and rapid.

Selim opens an apartment door numbered 17 and guides her into a sizable living room. His friend leaves, saying to call him whenever they need him.

“You can freshen up,” Selim says, pointing to another room. “I’ll warm up some food.”

Ameena takes one of her suitcases into the bedroom and shuts the door. She hears laughing and loud conversation emanating from outside. Through the window she peers down at the balcony of the apartment opposite. Wine glasses in hand, a couple of men with women in skimpy outfits are sitting in the late afternoon sun. She checks the window, but it has no curtain like back home. She moves into the corner of the room and changes into salwar kameez.

At the kitchen table, there is rice, mashed eggplant, chicken curry and dal.

“Eggplant?” She eyes him. “You don’t eat eggplant.”

“But you like it,” he says, serving her rice.

“You cooked these yourself?”

He nods, asks how the kids are doing.

“Oh, I need to call them!” she says.

“I messaged them already.”

She looks at his plate. He has taken a small portion of rice. He meets her eyes and says, “I can’t eat much.”

A small sigh escapes her lips.

He coughs. “It’s the chemo. It kills the appetite.”

She eats in silence. He eats in small bites.

“You’re a good cook,” she says.

After dinner, while Ameena does the washing-up, Selim makes her milk tea.

“Do you still take two spoons in your tea?” he asks.

She smiles. “No, one spoon now.”

He hands her the tea mug. Her fingers touch his for a second.

An hour later, as she yawns, Selim tells her to get some sleep. Ameena goes to the bedroom. When she wakes up, everything is quiet and dark. She peers out the half-open window; the night sky is clear, with a crescent moon. She slips out of the bedroom to use the bathroom and finds Selim asleep on the living room sofa.


The following day he takes her to an Indian grocery store, just around the corner. On the streets she spots Bangladeshi faces, hears them talking aloud, and makes out a Bengali song blaring from a jewelry shop. “It doesn’t feel like America here,” she tells him on their way home.

“It’s Jackson Heights,” he says, laughing. “A little Bangladesh.”

Ameena looks for spices in the kitchen cupboard and sets to cooking. Selim wants to help, but he starts coughing.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“Yes, just tired.”

“Why don’t you lie down?”

“That’s what I do most of the time. Let me sit at the table and talk to you.”

He grabs a chair and inhales. He tells her that he drove a taxi for years, until last August, when he got the diagnosis. That was when he quit smoking.

That night Ameena settles in the sofa bed and says Selim should use the bedroom.

“You have health issues,” she says. “You need a bigger bed.”

“Why don’t we share the bed instead?” he says.

She holds his gaze. He lowers his eyes and enters the bedroom. Rubbing lotion on her hands, Ameena stretches out on the sofa. The rooms are still; the only sound she hears now is Selim’s wheeze, rhythmic and loud as the ticking of a clock at night. His words echo in her head. Why don’t we share the bed instead?

She slides off the sofa and tiptoes into his room. In the semidarkness, she makes out his eyes, looking at her. He moves over and makes room in the bed. For a long while, lying side by side on their backs, they stay silent. Then he places his hand on hers. She trembles. His hand is cold.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

She doesn’t answer. Eyes closed; she sees Dhaka: The small one-bedroom apartment they rented after their marriage. Their Saturday nights at the movies. Their first vacation in the mountains of Chittagong. The birth of their first child.

In the first few months, after Selim left for America, she hardly slept at night, staring at his empty side of the bed. She missed his touch. His smell. His cigarette breath. His occasional snoring.

“Forgive me, Ameena,” he murmurs and rubs the back of her hand. “I’m happy you came.”

She sighs, staring up at the ceiling. She imagines unknown figures—the women her husband slept with—filling in the two-inch gap between her and him in the bed, pushing them apart. Hispanic, white…were there more? She feels small. Tears spill from the corners of her eyes.


Ameena gets up early, says her morning prayer, makes herself milk tea, and watches the day breaking from the balcony. Then she reads the Quran while sitting at the kitchen table. At eight, she wakes Selim for breakfast.

Every other day she visits the grocery store by herself to buy vegetables. Often Selim asks her to check the mailbox on her way back. She doesn’t understand the washing machines in the building’s basement. She prefers to hand-wash their laundry in the bathtub.

Twice, morning and afternoon, she and Selim sit on the balcony. She sips tea, and he coffee.

“Do you remember the char island in Narayanganj?” she asks him one day.

He squints for a moment and then a slow smile brightens his face. “How can I forget? We spent some beautiful hours there, didn’t we?

Ameena grins.

“I enjoyed the boatman’s song too,” he laughs.

It was already afternoon on the char island, Ameena recalls. She asked him how they would get back to the other side of the river. They’d hired a boat to get here, but no boats were seen anchored at the island. They stood at the shore waving to the passing rowboats in the distance until a man in a canoe noticed them and came to their assistance.

The boatman agreed to ferry them across the river. On board, Selim asked him to sing a song, if he could. The man was in his twenties and chatty. He belted out a Bengali folk song. The world will remain forever as it is. And someday we’ll leave this beautiful world behind…  


One warm Monday, Selim says, “I’m feeling good today. Let’s go out.”

He orders an Uber and ten minutes later they are in front of a Bengali clothing store.

“Don’t waste money,” she tells him. “I’ve brought enough dresses from Dhaka.”

He doesn’t listen. He buys her salwar-kameez, a sari, and a pair of sandals. Afterward, he takes her to Hudson River Park. The park is swarming with people. Ameena feels uncomfortable seeing the women everywhere wearing so little clothing.

“Why are they lying like this under this hot sun?” she asks.

“It’s called sunbathing. As we love winter in Bangladesh, Americans love summer. So when it’s a nice sunny day like this, people come out in the park to enjoy the sun.”

They have ice cream. Ameena wonders if Selim remembers that last week was their wedding anniversary.

Later that month, Selim invites his friend to dinner. Ameena cooks all afternoon, then has a shower, and puts on the new sari.

Rafiq Bhai visits with his wife. After the meal, the two men talk about Bangladeshi politics on the balcony. Rafiq Bhai’s wife is fairly young. Ameena learns from the woman that she is his second wife. The first wife, in Dhaka, divorced him and married his cousin while Rafiq Bhai was in the U.S. The young woman has been in America two years now. No, her parents didn’t force her into this marriage. She herself consented to it because Rafiq Bhai had a green card.


On a drizzly day in August, Ameena passes Selim his morning medicines and a glass of water. “Your hair has grown long,” she says. “You need a cut.”

He returns the empty tumbler. “Do you want to do it? You once gave me a haircut, remember?”

She does remember. It was in the first year of their marriage. On a rainy day in Dhaka, when he was about to set off for a salon with a tattered umbrella, she suggested giving him a trim.

“It turned out not bad,” he says.

She smiles demurely. “Do you have good scissors?”

Selim finds her scissors. In the living room, Ameena spreads outdated newspapers on the floor and places a chair on them. With another sheet of newspaper, she makes a hole in the center and slides it over Selim’s head to catch the falling hair.

An hour later Selim stands before the bathroom mirror. “It’s almost perfect.” He looks at her and adds quickly, “That’s my fault, of course. I couldn’t provide all of the haircutting kit that barbers need.”

“See, I have many skills.” She leans on the bathroom doorway.

“I know. I’m amazed by your dexterous hands. Maybe we should open a salon.”

They both laugh.

Before going for a shower, Selim says, “Ameena, I didn’t tell, I applied for you and our kids to come over. It’s a lengthy process. The problem is, to sponsor and bring you all here permanently, I need to be employed. But in my current condition—” he pauses and sighs.

She touches his shoulder. “Don’t worry about these things now.”


Over the weekend, they attend a small wedding. The groom is Bangladeshi and the bride, Pakistani, Selim informs her. Some women come to chat with Ameena. “So glad that you made it to the US at last,” they say. One short woman about her age sits beside her during dinner. She tells her some of the latest community gossip. A fifteen-year-old girl invited her white boyfriend home when the parents were out, only to get caught by her father who is a devout Muslim and came to the States on DV Lottery. He gave her a good beating. She called the police and had him arrested.

“The child had her father arrested?” Ameena asks. “What kind of daughter is she?”

“Well, this is America.”

She tells Ameena she was a high school teacher in Dhaka. Her early days in New York were full of struggles. She started with a cleaning job. “Think of my situation,” she says. “I was a respected teacher back home. In America, I had to clean shit in toilets. They call it living the American dream.” She laughs and says she now works at a nursing home and earns more than her husband.


In early September, Selim has increasing breathing difficulties and coughs up blood. At night, he sleeps with his head and chest elevated with three pillows. Ameena rubs lukewarm mustard oil on his chest. He stays in bed all day now, wearing a beanie she knitted for him.

In October, after two visits to the hospital, a nurse comes to the apartment to set up an oxygen machine beside the bed. She shows Ameena how to use it and tells her to call 911 in case of emergency.

Some weeks after, on a cold and windy evening, Selim is moved to the hospital. Ameena is allowed to stay overnight with him. Rafiq Bhai chauffeurs her back and forth to the apartment. A few days later, she learns how to take a bus. It’s only five stops to the hospital. She cooks and brings meals for him, but he cannot eat. He drinks very little.

The next Saturday it is bitterly cold. That afternoon is the last time Selim can breathe without the ventilator.

“I wish I never came to America,” he says, his hoarse voice almost a whisper. “Wish I could turn back the time.”

“You really think so?”

“I regret what I’ve done to you, to our children.” He pauses and coughs. “I don’t expect you to forgive me.”

“I’ve forgiven you already. That’s why I agreed to come.”

“You have a great heart, Ameena. I am—I’ve been terrible.”

“Oh, don’t say that. You’ll get better soon.” She interlocks her fingers with his. “After you get well, we can visit Dhaka and I will take you to the char island.”

His face beams, then darkens, and then his eyes get misty.

He goes into a deep sleep. He stops responding. Tubes crisscross his body.


Rafiq Bhai manages everything. Hospital, burial, certificates. She has to sign a lot of papers.

It starts snowing on the day of her flight. She stands motionless by the bedroom window, watching the silent snow whitening the earth. Everything is so gray, so barren. Ameena thinks of Selim’s phone call the first time he saw snow. She asked him what it looks like. “It’s like cotton floating in the air,” he said. Ameena slides the sash open. She extends her hand through the window to feel the falling flakes on her palm.

Rahad Abir is a writer from Bangladesh. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Himal Southasian, Courrier International, The Wire, BRICK LANE TALES anthology, and elsewhere. He has an MFA in fiction from Boston University. He received the 2017-18 Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. Currently he is working on a short story collection, which was a finalist for the 2021 Miami Book Fair Emerging Writer Fellowship.