Molly Peacock Interview

Interview Introduction:

Molly Peacock Low RezThe astonishing literary life of multi-genre writer Molly Peacock proves that creativity can do better than survive the meager soil of its birth:  It can go on to flourish, restless and varied, finding and, when necessary, generating its own nourishment, even amid the noise and violence of contemporary life. Peacock’s new poetry collection, The Analyst, her seventh, just published by W.W. Norton, explores her 40-year long relationship with her psychoanalyst, one that began when Peacock, in her early 20s, fearful and floundering, arrived in New York City to begin her career as a writer and teacher.  Her analyst’s stroke at 77, and the analyst’s subsequent loss of memory and language, but her pivot toward painting as a means of self-expression, triggered Peacock’s collection.  With exquisite lyricism, stunning imagery, and sly wit – the hallmarks of Peacock’s oeuvre – The Analyst offers a luminous meditation on their rare and ever-evolving relationship.


Among other accolades, Oprah Magazine has just chosen The Analyst as a ‘must read’ book for 2017, noting its ‘bittersweet pleasures’ and the way that Peacock, in its 100 pages, brings readers “into the consulting room with her— first supine on the couch, then free to sit up and face the analyst, not as a patient but as one person to another.”


Peacock Norton Analyst coverThe Analyst is Peacock’s 11th book, but demanding attention too are the deep resonant pleasures of her memoir, Paradise Piece by Piece, first published in 1998, and perhaps more relevant today.  (Available now as an eBook.)  Peacock describes it as a memoir of her decision to remain childless, but I (having read it many times and taught it in graduate classes on the memoir) see it as a gutsy portrait of the artist as a young woman, in the crazy swirl of ‘60s and ‘70s, finding her way out of a dysfunctional (and at time violent) working class family and into international recognition as a woman of letters. It is also, by the way, a delicious recounting of her love story with her husband Michael Groden, a James Joyce scholar and author, (Ulysses in Focus; Ulysses in Progress) now a distinguished professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ontario.  They’d first connected in junior high, but did not see each other for decades, not until after Peacock’s own first successes and Groden’s emigration to Canada.


Peacock, who has edited The Best Canadian Poets in English Series since 2008, recently published two other books of prose, notable not just for the originality of their contents, but also for the beauty of the books themselves:


The Paper Garden:  An Artist Begins her Life’s Work at 72 (Bloomsbury 2012) recounts how Mary Delany, back in 1772, hurled herself out of grief over her second husband’s death, by creating a new art form: mixed-media collage. Over the next decade, Mrs. Delany produced 985 botanically correct, breathtaking cut-paper flowers that are now housed in the British Museum. The book contains thirty-five full-color illustrations of them. A New York Times book review said Delany’s story ‘abounds with energy as Peacock brings her alive. Like her glorious multilayered collages, Delany is so vivid a character she almost jumps from the page.’


The other is Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions (McClelland and Stewart, 2014) in which Peacock writes flash fictions for the letters of the alphabet, creating personas, provocative and droll, for each.  These magical stories are accompanied by stunningly vivid collages by the artist Kara Kosaka, with whom she collaborated on the book, so that words and images have a lovely, fairy-tale like synergy.  Upon publication, Amazon called it ‘the most gorgeous gift book of the season.’



Recently, after a launch for The Analyst at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Peacock, who will serve as Poet Laureate at the West Chester Poetry Conference in West Chester, June 8-10, generously agreed to an in-depth electronic interview.


Your career has been long and varied as poet, memoirist, performance artist, editor, teacher and advocate for the importance of literature in daily life. What has surprised you most about your own career?


What has surprised me most is the variety itself. In my twenties, I only wanted to write poetry.  But as I went on in life—could you say, as I grew up?—and lived both in Canada and in the United States, I discovered that I had a much more restless imagination.


Having created a particular and lovely niche for yourself in American letters,  I’m wondering if you started out with a goal or a grand scheme of how you wanted your writing life to turn out.  Are you surprised by where you’ve ended up?  


There’s that word “surprise” again!  Yes, I had a grand scheme at age 30: five or six  books of poetry, and maybe a book or two of short stories.  That seemed like a lifetime of writing to me, a working class girl with a full time job. But the creation of a life is very much like the creation of a poem.  You turn within your limits, and you discover connections you never thought were there.


How about a botanical explanation?  Plants have dormant nodes  on their stems, and that allows them to respond to changes in environment.  Change or damage to one part?  Then another part starts to grow.  And I think that’s what happened to me.


Each time my creativity began to shift, I panicked.  Each shift threw me back into psychotherapy. Was I destroying myself as a poet when I began to write prose?  Wrecking my career when I moved to Canada?  Abandoning my writing when I performed in The Shimmering Verge, a one-woman show?  Bewildering my audience when I started writing about late-life creativity in The Paper Garden.  Now, at my age, almost 70, I see how they are all part of the same tapestry. The examined life helps create the artist’s life.


Can you pinpoint a couple of pivotal moments that moved you in your writing from one place to another?  (i.e. maybe the move to Canada?  Your marriage?) And tell us why you think it happened?


My binational life definitely inspired my memoir.  To marry, at 45, my very first serious boyfriend from high school, then to move to another country, Canada, where he had emigrated, suddenly gave me a kind of quiet time.  In my husband’s house in London, Ontario, I began to teach myself how to write prose.  My marriage forced the issue of children.  But I had chosen not to have children, even to the point of having a tubal ligation.  With the time to write, and the reason to write (since my then-new husband agreed with my choice) led me to the memoir.


In Canada, many authors write both poetry and prose.  We have lots of models for viewing ourselves in a more protean way.


After years of being married to Michael, and observing him as he tracked down scholarly clues—something of no interest to that 30 year-old young woman who only wanted to write poetry—I decided that facts and metaphor could comfortably live side by side. This led me to dare to write biography.  Having a world-class researcher available for 24/7 queries (and soothing my daily nervous breakdowns in frustration at the world of information) also helped!


Your memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece, tells the story of a young woman transcending her highly dysfunctional family to become, at an early age, its sole survivor.  How did the writing of this book impact the other parts of your writing life?  


What amazes me is that Paradise, Piece by Piece is still so meaningful to readers.  My memoir made me realize that my so-called chosen life was the result of social forces.  As a younger writer, I wrote about my own life.  Understanding that my life had a shape led me to a deep interest in the shapes of the lives of others.  This propelled me toward biography.  I have to mention my Fellowship from the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.  That year to write and learn was a life-changer for me, and, posthumously, for Mrs. Delany, the amazing woman who invented collage at the age of 72 in 1772.


The Analyst seems to me to be a return to your work as a more traditional poet after the successes of Alphabetique and The Paper Garden.  How long were you working on it?  When did you conceptualize it?


My long-time therapist had a stroke in 2012 and closed her practice.  Though I had finished our time of analysis, we had check-in appointments for decades and were very close.  When I thought she would die, and that I would never see her again, I was catapulted into a strange grief-with-gratitude state.  Poems poured out of me.  But she survived!  Her memory was blasted, though, and she reached out to a me that had existed years before, in the recesses of her long-term memory.  We began a new post-therapy relationship.  I then had the privilege of watching the person who helped me claim my life as a writer reclaim her own life—through painting.  She cannot read.  She had to relearn what a key was, to relearn how to lock a door!  But those nodes of growth I was talking about worked for her.  Her girlhood talent for painting has rescued her.  The minute she got out of the hospital she began to draw.  And draw away from her previous life.  And draw herself into her coda.  I wrote the poems obsessively from 2012 to 2015.  And then, as it became clear that I had to return to my life, and that she had made a small, peculiar, but vital life for herself with a lot of professional and family help, I stopped, and realized I had a book.


In general, how does a poem, or any other new work, begin for you? Can you describe, briefly, your writing process?


I am writing all the time, either in my head, or on paper.  New ideas burgeon, and they are kind of in the back of my mind.  I am relaxed about this.  I know new ideas will come.  It’s one of the pleasures of a long life of writing.


What success has been most meaningful to you?  


My greatest successes are my relationships.  I have a remarkable forty-two-year friendship with the poet Phillis Levin (Mr. Memory and Other Poems; May Day).  We have seen every poem the other has written over all this time.  My relationship with my husband began when we were thirteen years old.  We are able to keep great solitudes in our marriage, solitudes that hold our creativity apart, yet hold our personalities together. My relationship with my former analyst began when I was 26 and continues, despite her stroke and move across the country, to this day.  I can barely define it, even though I wrote a whole book of poems about it. These relationships feel like art to me.  In each one we are, together, writing the book of two strangers becoming more and more familiar.  Yes, I am thrilled by each writing success as it happens.  And probably the New York Times Book Review of my second book of poetry, Raw Heaven, is the most significant success.  That landed me on the map of contemporary American letters, and from then I have had a place.  But my ever-changing relationships, with growth rings for their years of development, are like great trees in my life.


How do you juggle (balance) your dual citizenship?  Has Canada given you something that the United States did not?


I speak here as a dual citizen: Canada supports me in a way unknown to American writers.  There are many different sorts of grants, for one thing, but, vaster, Canada is a deeply literate country.  School teachers are paid as well as professors.  It does not cost a fortune for a great university education.  The CBC, where people still speak in paragraphs, is a national government-run enterprise, lifting the level of discourse daily.  Every day in The Globe and Mail there is a personal essay by a Canadian citizen.  On the subway you might see poor people, but you do not see people in need of health care.  It is a nation that, whatever its problems, subscribes to the notion that we must take care of one another.  My husband, a nine-time cancer survivor, is alive because of the Canadian health care system.  I am in awe of my good fortune in Canada.


And yet…


I am equally an American.  It is the place I was born, and New York City, the place where I came of age as a writer, still draws and excites me.  There is a self-starter mentality that I love—it helped propel me through my life.  I always get new ideas the minute the plane lands.  My mother the small businesswoman, my grandfather the general store owner—their bootstrap stories are a deep part of my history, as well as the working class alcoholism and drug addiction that plagued my father and sister.  Each year my husband and I teach at the 92St Y Unterberg Poetry Center in February and March, and we are always thrilled to be back among our friends in New York.  It’s an almost cellular response.


I vote in both countries and I work hard to support my candidates.  I exist both in a flexible parliamentary system, and with the strange inflexibility of the electoral college.  I would say that the United States is the country of my youth.  But Canada is the country of my age—and, perhaps, my wisdom.


Advice for young writers?


Yes, you have the time to write.  Yes, you can write with a full time job, sick parents, a puking dog and children with head lice.  I dare you to write fourteen lines of poetry or prose in 45 minutes.  Just about everyone has 45 minutes in a day:  15 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at lunch.  Women!  Keep your writing in your purse.  Don’t reach for that brochure in your dentist’s office waiting room:  read your favorite writer—you.  Get out those drafts  from your bag and revel in your own ideas.  That will get you to the next line, the next sentence.


What can we expect next from Molly Peacock?


I’m working on The Flower Diary, a biography of an amazing floral still life painter, Mary Hiester Reid, born in Reading, PA.  She attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, met and married a Canadian painter, ran away to Europe with him, then returned to his home in Toronto to make a career.   A married artist!  And binational…. Do I hear an echo?


From The Analyst by Molly Peacock, published by W.W. Norton and Company




Two days after your stroke, they hold out the crayon
you vigorously reject.  Four days on

without language,
you do what you loved before language:

pick up a pencil and draw.
“Do you know how much raw

rejection you take?” you asked me
one of the times we thought we’d ended therapy,

then said your Radcliffe professor taught
your studio class: all drawing is thought.

But to you, abstraction was lying.
All you did was draw your father failing,

then dying. So when that man stalked to your easel
to deliver his raking critique,  you walked

away from the studio—not to touch
a brush for 30 years.  Brushes

you exchanged for words,
drawing from what you heard,

the lines of your patients’ inner lives, teasing
out patterns for the easing

of the raking, no, aching you saw.
So draw,

as I was drawn to you
as you drew me to you,

till I could walk away
as you now draw away.


Hello Story Lovers!

I’m excited to announce that I’m the new Creative Nonfiction Editor at Philadelphia Stories, a role that my predecessor, Julia MacDonnell Chang, graciously recommended. Julia has been my teacher, my mentor, and my confidant for the past few years. Under her tutelage, I’ve been engrained with rigorous creative standards, compassion for other artists, and above all, a profound love for making art.

Julia’s goal has been to publish essay, memoir, and narrative nonfiction that offers new approaches to familiar and unfamiliar subjects. My goal is the same. I hope to continue Julia’s vision for Philadelphia Stories while remaining committed to propelling our community into a new era of literary, personal, and cultural enlightenment.

Here’s how you can help…

Please review the submission guidelines on our website and ensure your story adheres to our standards. In each submission, I’m looking for a story that is unique to your experience, free of clichéd subjects and content, but also has a larger cultural implication that will resonate with readers regardless of ethnicity, religion, geography, and the like. For example, the joy of baseball isn’t a unique story unless the narrative helps readers, who all may not enjoy the sport, understand something new about themselves.

Also, the narration should follow a though-line that somehow connects the last sentence back to the first. I want to trust the literary journey the writer is taking me on, and I need to be confident that every craft decision was made with the clear intent of illuminating each footstep on that journey.

There you have it: The path toward a successful submission. I look forward to taking the journey with you and the rest of the Philadelphia Stories staff. I hope you enjoy.

Happy Reading and Writing!

Warmest Regards,

Susette N. Brooks, M.A.

Creative Nonfiction Editor


Susette is a graduate from William Paterson University, and Rowan University’s Master of Writing Arts Program where she received the 2016 Denise Gess Award for her Creative Nonfiction. She is now an MFA candidate at Goucher College and is working on a collection of essays that examine how race, class, and sociopolitical subcultures have affected how she has processed grief. Susette is also the new Creative Nonfiction Editor at Philadelphia Stories, a platform she uses to help the community better understand the complexities of the human condition.


Let’s face it

Dogwood by Paulette Bensignor
Dogwood by Paulette Bensignor

Pretend that you find yourself in a scary situation. Not temporary fear, like the jolt you get when you imagine you hear someone creeping up your staircase at night. I’m talking about a low-level, constant fear, the kind you that comes when you have a serious health scare or maybe it’s how you felt all through junior high gym class (or really, the entirety of adolescence if you were anything like me) or perhaps it’s the back-of-the-neck, encroaching fear you would experience if you had a political leader who appeared to exhibit impulse control combined with a need to be adored and a trigger-hair temper. And then let’s imagine that your fears keeps getting reinforced and possibly even escalated? What then? If you’re a writer, you write about it.  You write about the disbelief you experience as something new and unexpected develops, or you write about listening to a transcript wherein your leader appears to believe that Frederick Douglass is still alive and maybe living somewhere in a blighted urban community.

That doesn’t mean you have to keep a journal, though you should probably do that to.

If you’re a fiction writer, write about a tense family dinner or a dissolving relationship (see Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk about When we Talk about Anne Frank”), or a dystopian society (see Brave New World) or create a war between farm animals to mirror a political movement.  If you write poetry, careful assemble your words to create an arsenal of images that encapsulate your concerns, your experiences (the Poetry Foundation offers a list of poems for inspiration at For nonfiction writers, describe the worn face of the woman standing next to you in Shop Rite, wearing whatever button she’s wearing and the assumptions you make about her (good or bad) based on this minor detail. Write about your grandmother’s immigration experience fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and how she had to walk over exploded bodies to avoid land mines.

Like it or not, we are living through a time in America that is unprecedented. Your observations and your stories are need to capture these moments. Write it all down, or at least allow yourself to channel whatever you’re feeling into your work; use your artistic expression to fight this nebulous sense of fear and dread that seems to want to grip us by the throat.  Let this sentence from Chapter 1 of Orwell’s 1984 be your guide:

“The Ministry of Truth — Minitrue, in Newspeak — was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

So much more potency in describing the vivid and particular than you could ever achieve by ranting on Facebook.

Speaking of this:  don’t squander your creative energy on social media to combat the views of the high school friend of your sister-in-law. We want so desperately to be right and to set straight those we don’t agree with. But social media can quickly devolve into ad hominem attacks and you can find yourself shouting at your laptop (this has never happened to me, of course) or spending enormous mental space searching for the perfect, searing retort.

Click that box shut. Open a new file, and write the first scene to your new novel instead. Put your energy forward, use all of your heart, and begin filling the page. That is how you fight the darkness.

The Fix

Guardian Angels by Lois Schlachter
Guardian Angels by Lois Schlachter

Nestled in the back corner of my classroom, perfectly adjacent to my much nicer, high-back teacher chair, is a tattered, blue office chair. Before the chair’s sad and shabby state, it lived in my extra bedroom, the room I temporarily deemed an “office,” while patiently awaiting a whitewashed cradle, changing table, and pastel rocker that were never needed. The chair comforted me and took a beating as I immersed myself in the life of an English teacher and was transported from new house to new house before permanently residing here, in its cinderblock, academic abode, for the past fifteen years.

It’s a comfortable swivel chair—cushioned and adjustable, with just the right give for teenagers rocking themselves into a state of peaceful, if somewhat resistant, contentment. That chair has held students struggling with college essays, and students fighting with parents. It’s heard stories of learning disabilities, failing grades, unexpected A’s, and unplanned pregnancies. The dingy armrests and faded upholstery have supported the most confident and most vulnerable—those reveling in their teenage years and those contending with them.

Somehow, I became a mother to many of the chair’s inhabitants. Give me a kid whose problems I could solve with the skills acquired through my English degrees, and I’ll give you my new project. Family struggling financially? Have a seat and let’s open a Google Doc. We’re going to have fun writing scholarship essays. Math teacher giving you a hard time? Let me take a trip downstairs and schmooze him a bit. First love break your heart? I have tissues, chocolate, and a free afternoon of grading procrastination. I hold their hands, wipe tears from their eyes and snot from their faces, and love them as my own. This is the side of teaching they don’t tell you about—the side that makes the headaches, heartaches, and the dual caffeine-wine addiction worth it.

My own son, Evan, a grown man now, spent many childhood years watching me compose research papers, literary analyses, and later, lesson plans in that very home office and from the tattered, blue chair. He recently graduated from college with a degree in vocal performance, and he’s trying to adjust to the life of a young, struggling artist. My husband, Ryan, and I, having had him at the oh-so-grown up age of nineteen, sometimes wonder where this child came from. He was a funny little kid of intellect and creativity, but also possessed an introverted nature that embraced the adult world, dismissing childhood frivolities.

As he got older, Evan became increasingly contemplative. He’s a skeptic—a thinker and a worrier. He holds his cards close and most days you need a chisel and a pickaxe to reach his softer side.  But, it’s there. In moments of either sheer happiness or extreme disillusionment, when only a mom can suffice, he lets me in. And I love it. These moments are rare though, so when I come across students who I connect with, students who need me, students whose doubts and fears spill out from the safety of that chair, I can’t help but make them my own.

I never believed I was supposed to be a mother. How I got pregnant in the first place, the odds were ridiculous! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I hear of all the fertility treatments my friends have had to endure, while Ryan, in his dashing potency, barely sneezed on me and low and behold, it’s a boy! As we juggled the new and peculiar responsibilities of young parenting in a sea of our own college antics and anxieties, we treated Evan as more of a sibling than our child. He attended concerts and parties with us, watched Friends and Seinfeld on Thursday nights, insisted on calling us Jen and Ryan during his entire second year of life, and learned to tap a keg at the age of three. Even in our youthful naiveté, he was loved, intellectually stimulated, and a tad spoiled. But I was also the mom who forgot about show and tell, felt frozen chicken nuggets qualified as a suitable dinner, and spent more time on my career than playing in the yard.

Despite our unconventional parenting style, Evan was still a sweet boy. I read everything to him, from Mother Goose to Shakespeare. He’d climb onto my lap as I worked, sucking his pacifier, curling my hair around his fingers, and ask me to read what I was writing. “Well, you see Evan, once upon a time there was an old king, King Lear, who really wanted people to tell him how great he was. Two of his daughters lied about how much they loved him so that they could get his land, but the third kind and lovely daughter remained loyal and true.” His brown eyes would glance up to my face to gauge my seriousness. I’d wink, and he’d go back to weaving his chubby fingers through my hair.

My career progressed and years seemed to merge, along with many student faces. I devoted the majority of my time to them, whether it was helping with assignments, attending their games, or listening to their problems. Time passed. At the age of thirty-four, my window was closing. I knew if I wanted another baby, I couldn’t wait. I read books, I talked to other mothers, and I went off the pill. But instead of a baby, doctors found a ten-pound tumor in my uterus—a mass slowly taking over my body, and destroying a decision I had put off for years.

It hasn’t been until recently, after turning forty, when I started pondering that closed window once again, paying attention to this older body, hearing the whispers I’ve tried to block out—aged eggs that I still possess haunting me from the very ovaries I decided to keep when the surgeon took my uterus. I can hear them, small baby voices, ticking off every hour, every day, every year, trying so hard to team up with errant sperm. Those baby-ghosts love to whisper, hypnotizing me every time I smell a newborn’s head or look at Facebook posts of toddlers splashing in bathtubs and playing in pumpkin patches. But the truth is, those whispers are small echoes of a life that wasn’t supposed to be, a life I unknowingly abandoned when I stepped foot in a classroom and used my time to start caring for other people’s children.

Those whispers taunt from some innate, ancestral, maybe even mystical place of wonder that, surely, I’ll never understand. What I do understand is the transformative value—how to use those voices to repair others and bring meaning to my life. For every Chloe, Anna, Brian, Andrew, and Alex rocking in that blue chair, I have purpose. I am able to fix the naïve transgressions of young motherhood with a kind of cosmic redo. I take in their doubts, their pain, their love, and relish their comfort and happiness when I console and dole out advice. They hug me, and thank me, and tell me that I’m the one who got them through.

I laugh. If only they knew.

If only they knew that at night, when I contemplate all of my inevitable graduation goodbyes, all of my children who will leave me, I wind up curled in Ryan’s arms. He strokes my hair and reminds me that I’m loved, that there will be other kids who need me, that this isn’t the end. If only they knew that in the dark hours of sleepless mornings, I sometimes find myself sitting in my home office, the room I had hoped would be a nursery, and I stare out the window thinking that while I do love my students, all 2,323 of them, I’m no hero. I’m just a mom looking for a way to quiet the echoes.


Jennifer Rieger is the English Department Chair at Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and teaches 12th grade Advanced Placement and creative writing courses. An advocate for her students, she dedicates her time to empowering young people through reading, writing, and acts of love. Jen holds a BA in English, an MA in Literature, and is currently finishing her MFA with a hybrid concentration in poetry and creative nonfiction. She has been published in BUST Magazine, The Sigh Press, Role Reboot Magazine, and The Manifest-Station. Jen lives in Chestnut Hill with her husband and two tiny dogs.


for sari by cathleen cohen philadelphia stories
For Sari by Cathleen Cohen

Her daughter was in trouble. That’s all they’d tell her. Milena hadn’t received a call from the school since the time Kasey was in second grade when she’d accidentally mushed the class tadpole trying to “watch” metamorphosis. Now, as Milena and her husband Doug approached the high school office grumbling about hysterical teachers, uninformative phone calls, and dramatic power displays, she thought surely the news would be the tenth grade equivalent of the tadpole.

Kasey slouched just outside the office on a worn oak bench, incongruous within the school’s gleaming hallway. A sepia-tinged photograph of the school’s founder hung above her head, the founder’s expression slightly displeased, hard eyes glaring above a Hitler-esque mustache. Wells of wet mascara folded under Kasey’s blue eyes and she studied the wall beyond her, her expression resigned.

The bell buzzed. Classroom doors scraped open and students shuffled into the hallway. They traveled in packs, globs of spilling cleavage and exposed skin, shrieking as they poked and slapped at each other, clouds of hormones floating over their heads.

“What happened?” Milena asked Kasey.

Her daughter retreated into her sheath of shoulder-length blonde hair, her fingers pressed to her forehead and her jaw rigid. The tadpole theory wasn’t holding up well.

When the Principal’s door opened, Milena kissed Kasey’s forehead, reluctant to leave her there, but she clasped Doug’s hand nonetheless and entered the office. The decor screamed: Welcome to the inner sanctum of one of the most elite private schools in the country. Bathed in natural light. Rounded wood furniture. Stained a warm honey color. Dotted with brushed nickel hardware.

Mr. Frazier greeted them with a practiced smile, his breath tinged with coffee and the courtesy mint he used to conceal it. He leaned back in his ergonomic chair. “Would you like a drink? Juice, tea, water?”

Doug squeezed Milena’s hand. “We can just get to it,” he said, youthful despite the grey flecking his temples. His eyes swelled with purpose, like he still thought he could fix anything.

“We had an incident this morning,” Mr. Frazier said. “Kasey was discovered being intimate on school property with two seniors.”

And there it was, Milena’s worst fear. She picked at a hangnail, wishing she could grip it with her teeth and yank. Mr. Frazier had peered into Milena’s soul and extracted its ugliest secret, that Milena had been a sex addict since high school, and that this fact, which had pulverized her own existence, had spread to Kasey, even though she knew nothing of Milena’s past.

Doug rocked forward in his chair. “Excuse me?”

Milena kicked over her purse, spewing sunglasses and packages of sanitizing wipes onto the floor. She scooped the mess back into her bag, apologizing for no reason. She hated when she apologized for no reason.

“Define intimate,” Doug said.

“I’m afraid she was having sex on school property,” Mr. Frazier said.

Milena hadn’t even known Kasey was sexually active, so non-standard sex in a public place seemed impossible. But she couldn’t bring herself to protest, to offer explanations to this man about her daughter’s body.

Doug laughed. “How does that even happen? Wasn’t someone…watching her?”

Mr. Frazier cocked his head as if he hadn’t heard correctly. “We don’t run our school like a detention center. She was absent from Biology class and discovered under a stairwell shortly thereafter.”

“What happened?” Doug asked

Mr. Frazier tapped a pen against his desk. “According to your daughter and the two other parties, it was consensual. In fact, Kasey insists it was her idea.”

Doug eased back into his chair, as though lowering himself into a boiling hot bathtub. “Using viruses to cure cancer is an idea. A threesome on school property is an administrative fuck-up.”

“Is she okay?” Milena asked. “Is she in trouble?”

Doug pinched between his eyebrows. “Which seniors?”

“I’m afraid it’s illegal for me to disclose names.” Mr. Frazier delivered the statement fluidly, as if practiced before a mirror. Or a lawyer.

“It isn’t illegal for older boys to take advantage of a young girl?” Doug asked.

Mr. Frazier folded his hands. “Certainly, you can speak to an attorney, but there’s a Romeo and Juliet exemption to the age of consent in New York. Typically, if the defendants can prove the victim’s age is at least 14 and the age difference is less than five years, it’s considered legal.”

Milena touched Doug’s arm. “We don’t intend to sue.”

Doug snorted. “The fuck we don’t.”

“What’s her punishment?” Milena asked.

“In public schools, the police are usually summoned and the parties are charged for indecent exposure. Being a private school, we have some leeway and I chose not to take that path. They’re all good kids. I’d prefer to do what’s best for them, not worsen a bad situation. I’d recommend a two week suspension.” He straightened his tie and held Doug’s gaze. He never uttered the word scandal, although it seemed clear to Milena that he didn’t intend to suffer one.

“I’m sure Kasey has an explanation,” Doug said.

Mr. Frazier rocked in his chair. “Nevertheless. It’s behavior we can’t encourage.”

Milena’s heart thrummed in her chest hard enough to pulse her shirt.

Mr. Frazier suggested guidance counselor sessions as well as outside therapy. He shook their hands and smiled encouragingly. “I’m sure with the right support at home, Kasey will rebound from this in no time.”


Outside, Doug trudged along beside them, his hair blown back from the late autumn breeze. “Wow, Kase. I wasn’t expecting that.” He spoke without inflection, though his voice caught on the last word.

Over the past half hour, Doug’s understanding of their daughter seemed to have broken off and drifted far enough away that he couldn’t retrieve it. Kasey sniffled.

He leaned in and hugged her, his arms stiff and his hands floating just above her skin, as if touching her had become problematic. “Come on, now. No need to cry. Just tell me you’re okay.”

Kasey wiped her eyes and nodded.

“Great. Now tell me their names.”

“Enough!” Milena shot him a dirty look and hooked her arm around Kasey, steering her toward their loft in Riverdale, just a few blocks away.

“What? Am I the only one who thinks this is pertinent information?”

“It was consensual,” Kasey said.

Doug sunk his hands into his pockets. “So I’ve been told.”

They turned down a tree-lined street and Milena squeezed Kasey’s shoulder. “It’s going to take your father time to process.”

On this block of the Bronx, the old maples formed a tunnel overrun with birds. The caws, cheeps and trills rivaled any “Relaxing Sounds of the Rainforest” compilation. Milena always imagined herself somewhere tropical as she passed through.

Kasey pounded her head with her fists. “Fuck!”

A jogger veered to the other side of the street. Milena eyed the throngs of passersby, as though the women pushing strollers cared about anything beyond Kasey’s profanity in front of their newborns.

She yanked Kasey’s arms down to her sides. “What’s done is done.”

“I’m so stupid.”

Milena shook her head. “You’re 16, you’re supposed to be stupid. Within reason.”

“No, Milena,” Doug said. “She’s not supposed to be stupid. She goes to the best school in the country. Let’s not forget who we’re talking to, here.”

Milena’s face flushed. It was the first time Doug had referenced her problem since they’d married. They met shortly after she’d finished her degree in music production, and was enmeshed in the kind of recovery that entailed consistent and predictable fuck-ups. She’d convinced him her rehabilitation had transpired, even though she still didn’t even own a computer for fear of what she’d do with it. Still, she was honest about her past. “I attend SLAA meetings,” she’d said. “I have a sponsor.” She told him she no longer drank or did drugs or even shopped because an addict’s addictions could change. He dismissed it all as harmless promiscuity. He never even asked how many men she’d slept with. He saw her the way she wanted to be seen. The “new and improved” Milena with the yoga mat slung over one shoulder, armed with a cold-pressed juice and a purse filled with organic protein bars.

Kasey sighed and looked out over the filtered skyline. “I guess I never thought I’d be able to do it. I didn’t think they’d want to.”

Milena remembered thinking certain guys were out of her league. It didn’t take her long to learn that impossible unions happened all the time when it came to sex. Such achievements were unremarkable.

“Did you use protection?” Milena asked.

Kasey rolled her eyes. “Of course.”

“Maybe we should go to the hospital to get you checked out,” Doug said.

“Dad. Stop.”


Life of the Party by Constance Culpepper
Life of the Party by Constance Culpepper

At home, Milena changed into a belly shirt and harem pants while Doug finished some work and Kasey called friends. “Damage control,” she’d said. Milena perched atop a pillow to meditate. She visualized herself as a tree in an ancient forest, roots stretching down into the damp earth, leaves unfurling toward the sky and pushing through the open door of her cranium. The wind rippled her leaves and the sun melted her body into the tree’s trunk. She tasted the brown of her bark. Then, a vision of Kasey leaving for her Spring Formal last year; skintight strapless blue dress, the rounds of her boobs squeezed and protruding, small braids interspersed through her hair, a confusing mix of innocence and brazen sexuality, a lovechild of Marcia Brady and Paris Hilton. When Kasey came home at three a.m., Milena hadn’t questioned her daughter. She’d told herself she didn’t want to be a hysterical parent. That she was proud to be “on the level.” That it was a conscious choice, not a survival tactic. Either way, she’d blinded herself to the possibility of their current predicament.

What if her daughter had inherited her promiscuity like it was encoded in her DNA? Milena pictured two strands coiled together, a twisting staircase stretching to infinity, repeating the same mistakes and unfortunate tendencies ad infinitum. Milena had been adopted and never knew her birth parents, or whether her addiction was inherited. And now she wanted to know whether the addiction gene was real and if she’d passed it on, or if Kasey was just experimenting the way, say, an All-American Girl with an edge might.

For Milena, it had started as a healthy appetite, then moved to her best friend’s dad when she was 16. Later, in her NYU dorm room, AIDS hysteria in full swing, unable to study, sneaking out to Washington Square Park, finding a stringy-haired boy in the dark, his jeans smeared with dirt, and wondering as she blew him if he was just skinny or a drug addict or actually infected, and whether it even mattered because she’d do it again anyway, countless times, whether she’d live long enough to expect anything different from herself, for her life. And then there was Ben Lumas, whom she’d loved, and whom she managed to live with for four whole months before she got caught. The consequences were never high enough.

Yet, she never parsed her motivations, other than sometimes she used sex as a weapon and sometimes as a shield and sometimes as a confidence boost and often as a knife to her jugular. She was more certain of all that came after: the meetings, her sponsor, the program, a shrink. The nagging suspicion that her addiction had simply morphed to meditation, yoga, smoothies, a healthier existence.

The doorbell rang. She’d forgotten that Sean, the film director for whom she was compiling a soundtrack, had promised to deliver the dailies so she could study the scenes she was to set to music. It was the standard indie fare – part drama, part comedy, limited release, film festival bound, probably direct-to-video.

Sean wore a silk scarf tied in knots around his neck. He loved vintage suits and accessories, each piece chosen for its ironic reference to someone or something else. But he could never pull off these wardrobe choices with the ease of a John Huston or a Fritz Lang. He smiled at Milena, his receding hair inexplicably parted in the middle.

He handed her the DVD, holding onto it a moment too long. “Come to the set. I can’t stand you watching this bullshit.”

The tapes were boring; the same scenes shot again and again, sometimes over 20 times. Milena bit back an apology. “Things are hectic. I’ll get there.”

Sean peered into the emptiness beyond Milena and raised his eyebrows, unconvinced. He took her in, his eyes drooping with sensuality. He twisted a lock of her hair around his finger and inhaled. She pulled back from him, but he seemed unfazed, smiling as the hair dropped from his fingers, misinterpreting her disinterest as reluctance. A family member rustled, footsteps and a creaking door, and Sean retreated, leaving just the ghost of his smirk.

Later, in her home office, she ran her hands over papers, speakers, wires, a lifetime in music and she felt the old restlessness. The fidgeting, uncomfortable twisting of her body. Without thinking, she palmed her phone and dialed her sponsor. Straight to voicemail and appropriately so; it had been at least five years since she’d called. Almost as long since she attended a meeting. She’d made the mistake every addict makes, the mistake of thinking her problem had shrunk to a manageable size.


Later that night, Doug relayed his conversation with their lawyer, who didn’t agree with Mr. Frazier’s conclusions, but believed the boys could get some jail time, or at least fines and a lifetime listed on the sex offender’s registry. He grinned when he told her.

Milena’s heart beat in her throat. “You act like you never had underage sex.”

“You of all people should understand. How would your life have changed if that pedophile that preyed on you had been locked up?”

“This doesn’t say what you think it says. It’s something else. Low self-esteem, Daddy issues, I can’t be sure, but whatever it was, I promise you it had nothing to do with those boys.”

“So it’s my fault.”

Doug slid his veined feet into slippers and stalked out of the room. She wondered if he’d changed his opinion about her past, if she were now to blame.

When Milena retrieved Kasey for dinner, the girl’s eyes were swollen to slits. Blotches of pink surrounding her lips stretched her mouth into a thing with no borders. Kasey’s room felt foreign to Milena, like she hadn’t seen it in months. A bookshelf scattered with fiction mostly assigned by school. Animal Farm, The Things They Carried, Native Son. Heavily doodled notebooks. A pair of Converse (also doodled, resembling a yearbook page more than a shoe), a pair of platform heels, thigh-high boots. Lace underwear she didn’t recognize wadded into a ball. A Justin Bieber poster with a penis drawn in. She should’ve seen this coming.

“What did your friends say?” Milena asked.

Kasey sighed and pushed past her.

They’d ordered Thai and, seated at the dinner table, Kasey reconfigured her food, tucking her chicken into her rice and disemboweling her spring roll. Doug took Kasey’s hand and she climbed into his lap the way she had when she was little. Then she lost it.

He lifted her chin to meet her eyes. “I wanna help, but I don’t know how.”

Beautifully chosen words, and as Milena smiled, Doug reached for her, and a murmur of hope swished inside her.

Kasey swiped the back of her hand along her nose and sniffed. She looked away, probably wondering how a father might help with such a thing.

Milena scooted closer to them and ran her fingers through Kasey’s matted hair. She wanted to confess her past, to apologize for her role in this, but when Kasey turned those big, watery eyes on her, she froze. What if their shared transgressions didn’t console Kasey, but sent her over the edge? What if she didn’t want to hear about it or, worse, what if she did?

Milena struggled to keep her voice even, the discourse flowing. “Let’s focus on why this happened. How well did you know those boys?”

“Not well.” Kasey slid off her father’s lap and dropped back into her seat. She trained her eyes on the wall.

Doug made a triangle with his hands and rested his forehead against it. “Did they talk you into it?” His voice sounded high and stretched, like a man reaching for things outside his grasp.

Kasey’s eyes darted to her mother and she stilled, an animal sensing danger.

Milena steered the conversation. “Think about what you were trying to gain. Did you want to feel prettier? More accepted? Were you feeling rebellious?”

“Sometimes boys can hurt a girl,” Doug said. “And at first it may not seem like it.”

“They didn’t fucking force me, Dad.”

Doug pressed his fingertips into the table. “It can be hard to understand when you’ve been hurt.”

Kasey sprung up from the table, nearly toppling her chair. “It was all me, okay? ALL. ME.” She seemed to reconsider a dramatic exit and instead leaned on the table and hung her head.

“And how do you feel now?” Milena asked.

Kasey bit her lip and closed her eyes. “Gross.”


In their bedroom, Doug leafed through his closet, laying out a suit for the next morning. “What reason does she have to act out?”

“I don’t know.”

“What if there’s a baby or an STD?”

“Then we’ll deal with it. But she used protection.”

“I just hope this doesn’t screw up her life.”

“It’s a short-term screwing. She’ll graduate and never hear about it again.”

“But there’s social media. And the Internet. Those things don’t go away.”

Milena considered this. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy.”

Doug clicked on the TV and settled in to watch his favorite show.

Milena turned her back to the TV. “I’m thinking about telling Kasey. Maybe it would help her confide in me.”

Doug squinted at her. He left the TV on. “I don’t think you want to do that.”


He stole a quick glance at the screen, then patted the bed beside him. She crawled next to him.

“Don’t you think it would upset her?”

Milena swallowed raggedly, her mouth dry. “Our mistakes don’t define us forever,” she said softly.

He turned off the TV and tossed the remote onto his bedside table. Gathering the soft folds of her into his hands, he kissed her. “Of course not.”


Milena and Doug ate breakfast at the kitchen table. Milena, cross-legged in her chair, sipped a green smoothie and looked at the sunlight glinting from the forehead of a small jade Buddha in the middle in of the table. Like it was having an epiphany that might someday rub off on her.

Dressed in his suit for a day of futures trading, Doug shoveled cereal into his mouth and scrolled through his laptop. “You’re still not on Facebook?”

Milena shuddered at the thought. “Nope.”

“Kasey’s profile is private.”

“I don’t even think they use Facebook anymore. It’s something else now.”

“Do you remember what?”

“You’re not back to the names again, are you?”

Doug drank the milk from his bowl and placed it in the sink. “I’d feel better knowing who these kids are. I bet their parents know. I bet everybody knows.”

“You can’t cyber-stalk her.”

“She’s not telling us shit.”

“You could be making her a therapist appointment. You could be reading books or articles. You could be talking to her right now. And instead, it’s this.” Milena slammed her glass down with more force than she meant to use.

“I’m gathering information.”

“The wrong information.”

“Now you’re schooling me on appropriate behavior?”

Instead of hurling her glass against the wall or, say, Doug’s face, Milena rinsed it, attempting to steady her hands as she watched a whirl of residue gag the drain. “Turning on each other isn’t going to solve this.”

“But you let her do whatever she wants,” he said. “I don’t even think you see a problem with any of this.”

“Why don’t you just say it’s my fault.” She strode back to her chair but was too angry to sit. Doug continued to scroll and tap and before she could stop herself, she snapped his laptop screen shut. “Don’t fucking ignore me.”

He stood. “Grow up.” A moment later the front door slammed.

She was still staring at the door when Kasey shuffled in wearing a t-shirt that read, “Feed me and tell me I’m pretty.”

Milena didn’t greet her. “I’d like to know when you lost your virginity.”

Kasey groaned, plopping herself into a chair. “You don’t need to try to be my friend, you know. I have friends.”

“I can help.”

“What? Psychoanalyze me?”

Milena plucked an apple from the fruit bowl and sliced it thinly. “Sex isn’t love. It’s not respect, either. It won’t give you what you need.”

“Stop lecturing me. Can’t you just be my mom?”

Sixteen years of supposedly filling the role of mom, and she’d never even read the job description. Her throat tightened.

“Maybe it’s time for a curfew, then.”

“I’ve never had a curfew my whole life.”

“Things change when you get caught having sex with strangers.”

Kasey poured herself a bowl of cereal. Milena couldn’t see her face, but could tell she’d started crying.

Kasey slammed the refrigerator door. “Fine. I won’t have anyone to go out with anyway.”

Milena’s phone buzzed. A text from Sean: “Come to the set or you’re fired,” punctuated by a winking emoticon.

“A mistake is a mistake. But was it just a one-time thing?”

Kasey nodded and stirred her cereal.

“You don’t want to ruin your life,” Milena said.

“Does anyone ever want to ruin their life?”


Milena opened Doug’s computer to check the weather, but his browser showed a list of articles about a senior from Kasey’s school, Gallagher Astor. This is one of them, she thought. She squinted at the face beneath the caged Lacrosse helmet and tried to interpret it. Dark eyes, nice skin, Roman nose. Athletic and popular. Probably the kind of guy who partied hard, who hosted people at his penthouse every time his parents stole a long weekend in the Hamptons or Nantucket. The kind of guy who ignored a girl until the bottles were drained and the rooms began to empty. The kind Milena would’ve slept with once, searching for something in the encounter she knew she wouldn’t get. She snapped the cover shut, cursing Doug.

An hour later she exited a cab in Coney Island where Sean greeted her wearing a ridiculous plaid bowtie. The place was like something trapped in another era when carny kitsch was an attraction, when seaside resort areas were marked by Ferris wheels and vaudeville theaters rather than McMansions.

Sean squeezed Milena’s shoulder and winked. “I thought I’d never get you here.” A nearby cooler contained several airplane-sized bottles of champagne. Sean handed her one.

“I don’t drink.”

He crimped his face at her like she was insane. “You’re going to have an aneurism if you don’t lighten up. It’s just life, Lena. Enjoy it, would you?”

She tried to hand it back, but Sean refused. One by one, the crewmembers turned to watch. She was making a scene, when she only wanted to feel invisible for a few hours. To leave her house, transcend her brain, and hone in on something she was good at.

Sean sighed and shifted his stance. He was impatient, annoyed, possibly embarrassed. The idea that she’d systematically eliminated all pleasure from her life bloomed within her like an ancient truth. She hesitated, then popped the cork.

She hadn’t had a drink since she met Doug and became tipsy immediately. She tripped over a microphone and giggled like an idiot afterwards. Her shoulders loosened. Her nerves and muscles seemed to unfurl, a delicious sensation that almost tickled.

Sean introduced her to the leads. The actress chewed gum with her mouth open, hair pulled back in a ponytail, barely older than Kasey, and chattered on about music and how in high school she listened to Pop but was into EDM now. Last year she’d met David Guetta when she was “tripping balls” at Coachella and “hung with him” at a “fucking off the hook” after party. The actor tried to interrupt, but only managed a word or two. He smoked a cigarette, his mouth wetting the filter and tongue curling against the smoke. Milena laughed, pausing each time she glanced at the actor, whose face she’d transposed to Gallagher’s obscured visage beneath his Lacrosse helmet.

hollyhocks from the seed packet series by robert stickloon
Hollyhocks From The Seed Packet Series By Robert Stickloon

When filming resumed, Milena watched from a plastic chair close by. Each time the clapperboard snapped, the man and the woman changed everything about themselves; their posture, mannerisms, expressions. As if they’d received an electrical jolt, the man became more assertive, and the actress morphed from a gum-chewing child to a woman, seductive, her movements languid, her lips parted. She practically shimmered. If only real change was that easy.

The performance unsettled Milena, as if some delicate membrane separating fantasy from reality had been compromised and she no longer understood her own struggle. She got herself another bottle of champagne, knowing she shouldn’t, but no longer convinced it mattered.

Afterwards, Sean offered to drive her home.

“It’ll take you half the night this time of day,” she said.

“I insist.” He nodded toward a white trailer. “Let’s grab my keys.”

Milena knew why he wanted her inside the trailer. His keys were probably in his pocket. Still, she followed him.

He motioned for her to enter first. Her fingers danced above the door handle, toying with the feeling, the old sensations, being swept up in something larger than her, a gust of irresponsibility. She was conscious of the remorse then, conscious it would grow, conscious of its crippling power, and yet, she opened the door anyway. She did it all anyway.

During, he kept his eyes open, scanning her face, searching for hers, which were trained on the fluorescent lights overhead. The sofa, rough like burlap, chafed her back. The sound of water sloshing back and forth in a dispenser with each thrust, gave it the whiff of comedy, though Milena no longer laughed. Afterwards, he kissed her wrist and told her she was beautiful.


Milena walked Kasey to school for her guidance counselor appointment. It was the last day of her suspension.

“Maybe we should talk about next week,” Milena said.

Kasey pulled a leaf off of a tree and shredded it. “I just go back and take the abuse and try not to kill myself. I mean, I already know what people have been saying. They’ll just say the same shit to my face.”

“It’s all over social media.”

Kasey snorted. “Are you kidding me?”

“Can I see?”

Kasey crossed her arms. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

Her pace quickened. She was walling herself off, the iron latches of her defenses locked tight. It opened Milena’s heart in a way she hadn’t expected. With the imprint of Sean affixed to her, a film on her skin she couldn’t wash away, she felt the same impulse. Hide. Deflect. Run.

Milena blinked back tears. “People are called sluts all the time. They’re called sluts because they have big boobs or because they flirt or while they’re being raped. It’s not who you are.”

“Maybe it is. I got passed back and forth between two guys.”

“We are more than our mistakes.”

The school came into sight and Kasey took a deep breath, facing the entrance.

She yanked her off-the-shoulder shirtsleeves farther off-the-shoulder. “Let’s just do this. Okay?”

Milena waited on the worn oak bench beneath the founder’s picture. She didn’t want to stifle Kasey, or align herself with the mothers who were too much of a good thing. Who wouldn’t let up. Who weaseled their way into the places they were least wanted. And yet. She had to be there for her. There had to be a way her experiences could help.

Doug, who’d agreed to meet them, slid onto the bench next to her. They’d been avoiding one another since the fight.

He touched her knee lightly. “Sorry about how things have been.”

“Don’t be.”

He hitched her closer, his leg touching her leg, his eyes searching hers. “I shouldn’t have made you feel like it was your fault.”

“Please. Don’t.”

“I’m her parent, too.”

“Doug.” It was a prelude to so much more, yet saying what followed felt like too great a distance to traverse. And then Kasey emerged from the counselor’s office and Doug had jumped up, peppering her with questions. How was it? What did she say? Are there things we should be doing? Does she want to speak with us? How can I help? They’d gone from lovers to parents, from people to ideas. Or maybe they’d always been ideas to each other.

Kasey took a deep breath. “Can I just get a hamburger?”

They entered a burger joint around the corner and ordered milkshakes. Kasey talked about summer break. About how they’d go to their house in Maine again this summer, where she had different friends, a different identity.

Milena bit her cheek as she listened. She rung her hands, cracked her knuckles and cleared her throat. She had to tell them everything and refuse to let them dismiss the problem that didn’t go away no matter how she dressed or colored her hair or carried her yoga mat.

“I have to speak and I need you to listen.”

Kasey and Doug stopped talking mid-sentence and stared at her as though she was a stranger, as if they had no idea what she’d say next.

Kasey reached out to her, resting a hand on her shoulder and squinting with concern. “Mom, what is it?”

And Milena thought she saw a spark of recognition in her daughter’s eyes.




Michele Lombardo is a Pennsylvania-based writer of fiction and screenplays, as well as Co-Founder of Write Now Lancaster. Her work has appeared in Permafrost Magazine, Youth Imagination Magazine, The Journal of Crime, Law and Social Change, and others. She is a graduate of UCR Palm Desert’s MFA Program and is married with one daughter.
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The parameters of the assignment were not at all clear. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was to live alone in a house outside of Buffalo. The unspecified length of my stay worried me. I thought perhaps after awhile without human contact I would begin to unravel. I’m a social creature. During the first few days I drafted a checklist, which, if adhered to, would help stave off any peculiarities of the mind. Some were obvious. Others seemed silly.

#1: Avoid pacing to and fro. Madness is always accompanied by pacing to and fro.

#2: Refrain from talking to myself. At times it might be comforting but it is a risky business.

#3: Don’t cut corners. For example: continue to pee standing up.

#4: Engage in mental exercises. For example: think of ten green things before breakfast.

#5: Steer clear of OCD-like behavior, touching knobs and faucets only when necessary et cetera.

Courtroom Window by Arvid Bloom
Courtroom Window by Arvid Bloom

The list went on. I was happy with the first twenty-four rules and I would add to them when necessary.

The two bedroom, two bath house, replete with hardwood floors and white walls, boasted a single mattress, no box spring, in the master bedroom, and a single collapsible chair in the living room.

On the wall in the kitchen hung a clock, a calendar and an old phone with a coiled cord. Those were the essentials. A yellow tennis ball and a children’s coloring book had been thoughtfully provided for diversion. Unfortunately no crayons were included. The rumor had it the Agency was experiencing cutbacks.

I was not to leave the house. They were clear on this point. They said the full extent of my mission would be made known to me when it became necessary for me to know. I dreamt up different scenarios but none of them seemed plausible. The closest I got to anything at all realistic was imagining there could be a sleeper cell of local housewives who were all set to be activated in the near future. It wasn’t much of a hypothesis as far as they go.

I bounced the tennis ball against the wall for hours thinking about the Agency and what my mission might be. The Agency liked to be mysterious. No one knew exactly what they did. I guessed this was what gave them the peculiar amount of clout they seemed to command. The mystery was what drew me to them right out of college. The sense of adventure had tantalized me. Now I was starting to wish I had gone in another direction.  I wouldn’t quit mid-mission though. I was afraid to. They might make me pay for it.

Having an unknown job to do at an unknown time provoked anxiety. I couldn’t help but feel on edge. I felt the Agency was toying with me unnecessarily. I didn’t understand it. I started to curse them under my breath but I always caught myself before breaking my ‘no talking to myself’ rule.

On day eighteen I emptied out some cereal on the kitchen counter in the hopes it would attract mice. I thought if I could get one to hang around it would give me an excuse to hear my own voice. I’d name it Jerry and chew the fat. “How are you? What’s it like living in the walls?” That sort of thing. A mouse infestation would greatly increase my quality of life, I thought.

Before this I had always wanted more time to sit and think, but now I longed for something to do. Even the most monotonous, mindless chores would have been welcome. I would have gladly scraped the barnacles off a ship’s hull with a spatula, or counted the cars in a train station’s parking lot. Even cleaning the kennels of an inner city animal shelter wasn’t out of the question. I would have done all this for free. Instead I was getting paid to throw a tennis ball against a wall.

Once, I bounced the tennis ball against the wall five hundred and thirty-four times without dropping it. This record stood for weeks. Afterwards whenever I reached four hundred I got nervous. Once I got really close to breaking the record. I got to five hundred and twenty-nine and I bobbled it. As the ball rolled away from me I put my face in my hands and cried.

At precisely 2:22 pm on the thirty-fifth day the phone rang. I dropped the tennis ball mid-throw and ran to the kitchen. I yanked the phone from the receiver before the end of the second ring.

On the other end of the line I heard a man’s voice. “There will be a job for you at 19:42 on the eighty-fourth day,” it said. The man’s voice was chilled like a glass of ice water. “In the meantime,” he said, “you are to learn Spanish.” I felt I had missed a beat.

“How do you expect I do that?” I queried. But just then, true to the cliché, the doorbell rang. I asked the man on the phone to hold on and answered the door. I was wringing my hands. I opened the door wide, glad to see another living soul, and said hello.


The woman wore a frown with a pouty lip. She was either in a bad mood or didn’t like the look of me because she didn’t offer me a single word. Still, being snubbed by her was far better than not having had anyone to be snubbed by. She gave me a yellow box with big black letters on the top that read “Rosetta Stone” and piled an old, used laptop on top—a real clunker.

I went back to the phone to question the man further, but the line was dead. I wasn’t at all surprised and I was too excited to be very disappointed.

Like a kid opening up a new, much-desired toy, I tore open the box and started on the Rosetta Stone immediately. I sat in the corner of the small room off the living room, which I had decided was the study, and plugged right into it. In a few hours I had mastered Level 1.

Rosetta Stone said, The woman is pretty, and I said, La mujer es bonita.

Rosetta Stone said, Asparagus is a vegetable, and I said, Esparragos es un vegetal.

Rosetta Stone said, The bus arrives at seven, and I said, El autobus llega a las siete.

Rosetta Stone had several things going for it. One was that it proved to be considerably more rewarding than bouncing a tennis ball against a wall. Two, it had a pleasant female voice which spoke to my loneliness. And three, it allowed me to use my voice without technically talking to myself. I was immediately hooked. I just hoped my tennis ball wouldn’t feel too neglected.

During study breaks I fantasized about moving to South America and living a simple life near a beach someplace. I’d marry a forty-something woman with thick black hair and a thick rear-end. I’d have a grown stepson and we’d become friends. It would be a simple life but it would be a full one. I’d think about this for several minutes each day and it conjured up a very pretty picture.

On the fifty-sixth day I leafed through the children’s coloring book like I had dozens of times before. This time I imagined using mostly a blue crayon to color it as if I were a big shot like Picasso. It started off with a blue car and a blue house, which was plausible enough, but ended with a blue bear and a blue lobster. I told myself that I was an artist and that this was artistic license. I imagined smiling happily at the scathing critiques of my debut gallery.

The food in the cupboard was plentiful but there was little variety. Whoever had made the selections had little imagination. After awhile you stop looking forward to meals. Clam chowder ceases to make the mouth water. The thought of baked beans makes the stomach feel queasy. Dried banana chips trigger a gag reflex. When I was studying food items on the Rosetta Stone I experienced hunger pangs. Yo quero hanburguesa con queso y papas fritas. Por favor, por favor, por favor… I hugged my legs and rocked back and forth.

I took to spying on my neighbors. I didn’t want to think of myself as a Peeping Tom but I was too desperately bored to worry about whether I fit the label or not.

In the house on my left lived a young woman who I decided was a widow. The middle aged man in the house on my right tooled around in a sports car. And directly across the street a young couple and their two young children made their home.

I spent a good chunk of my day spying on them. I took the mirror from above the bathroom sink to ensure I wasn’t caught. I would lie on the floor and hold up the mirror at a good angle sometimes for an hour or more just to catch a glimpse of the man backing out of his driveway or the two children playing games in their front yard.

Sometimes I felt like a creep. The first few opportunities I had to see the young widow undress before getting into bed I looked away. I commended myself for my fortitude. Eventually I started looking of course. It wasn’t hard to justify—I convinced myself I was watching with an artistic eye.

The eighty-fourth day came and my eyes were glued to the clock. I couldn’t wait for it to read 7:42 when the Agency was supposed to call with the job. At one point I took the clock down off the wall for inspection. I held my ear up to the back where the battery was. I heard ticking but only faintly. I would have hoped for a stronger sign of life. As it was I continued to eye the cheap clock with a certain amount of skepticism.

I played the Desert Island game to kill time. If I had to limit myself to one movie I would choose Castaway. If I could listen to only one song I’d choose Message in a Bottle. If I were stuck with one book I decided on Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. I went down the line pretty far. Eventually I chose a kind of car, a brand of sneaker and a type of scented candle. I went as far as I could then started over and chose the next best whatever. This killed thirty-eight minutes, which wasn’t as much as I had hoped.

The phone rang at 7:41, and I was alarmed. The Agency was a minute early. This type of sloppiness was unheard of. I let it ring several times and contemplated the development. After several harrowing seconds I decided not to answer until the clock read 7:42. That way it would be like the mistake had never been made. I let the phone ring and ring.

When I finally took the phone off the receiver the same man’s voice as before said he had a job for me. A warm sensation washed over me. It felt as thought I had just been plunged feet first into a heated pool. I thanked him and asked him how his day was going. I was starved for human interaction. I would have been grateful for any small personal remark, but none came.

“Assemble the crib,” he said flatly.

I would have asked ‘what crib?’ but instead I just waited for the doorbell to ring, which it did momentarily. I padded barefoot to the door. As before when I picked the phone back up the line was dead.

I put the large rectangular box in the corner and regarded it from the corner of my eye. Learning Spanish I didn’t mind, I had always wanted to learn a second language, but where there was a crib there was likely to be a baby and that troubled me. It seemed a messy business. I had no desire to be a single dad. For the moment I left the disassembled crib where it was.

A few days went by with the box sitting there. I continued on with my normal routine. I studied my Spanish, I bounced my ball, I spied on my neighbors and I colored the coloring book with my imagination. For exercise I decided to take up yoga. I knew nothing about yoga however so the poses I did were all completely original. I invented a pretty serious routine with a series of twists and stretches and named all of the poses after my favorite comedians. I always ended the routine with a pose I named The Bill Murray. It was essentially a crab walk but with twisted arms and legs. You knew you were doing it correctly if your shoulders felt on the verge of dislocating.

From day one I had taken it as a matter of course that a camera had been installed in the fire alarm. For a long time I just ignored it but sometimes I found myself standing there in the hall gazing up at it. Often I lost track of time in that position.

As time went on my relationship with the fire alarm progressed. I began standing in front of it gesturing with a series of intricate hand movements that I imagined could be interpreted. If there really had been a camera there, and if there was someone watching, the only thing he or she would have gleaned by my hand contortions was that I was losing it, which I myself already suspected.

Eventually I made up a new rule concerning the fire alarm. I was to start ignoring it again. If I gave it no power it wouldn’t matter if there were a camera or not. Still, if I had had a ladder I would have torn the thing apart in an instant. I tried the chair, but it was too short. I could just graze the circular box with my fingertips but I couldn’t get ahold of it. It still troubled me. Either I was clever or I was paranoid—I had a vested interest in knowing the truth.

Another day started with me rolling off the mattress onto the floor and beginning to count green things in my mind automatically. Mostly I used the same ones over and over. Trees, grass, leaves, celery, Granny Smith apples, marijuana, my Puma’s, Irish Spring soap, the Incredible Hulk… Often I didn’t make it all the way through. I kept getting lazier. I gave up easier and easier. I thought maybe I should change the color but that would mean changing the rules and if I changed one rule there was nothing to stop me from changing another and another and I would wind up with total anarchy on my hands. The rules were all I had to hang on to.

Finally I couldn’t ignore the contents of the cardboard box any longer. The idea of a baby still hung in the air like a bad omen, but the prospect of having a project to immerse myself in trumped all forebodings. I cracked my knuckles and danced around the room like a boxer warming up for a bout. I felt relatively well physically.

I took out all of the pieces and spread them out on the floor. The instructions outlined fifteen steps with pictures included. It looked misleadingly complicated. Everything “male” about me cried out to crumple the paper up in a ball and toss it into the corner. I fought off this urge and instead folded the instructions into an airplane and sent them sailing into the kitchen. It was the mature thing to do.

I put all of the pieces into categories, sorted by size. I saw a picture of how to proceed and put pegs into holes and bolts into smaller holes to hold the pegs in place. I progressed quickly through the steps. I had to backtrack once, but it seemed to come together okay afterward. When I finished there were two pieces left over, but in my experience that often happened and it didn’t worry me. I threw them into the kitchen to where the instructions had landed and put the crib in the guest room. I felt satisfied to have put it together, but looking at it there gave me the willies. I turned away and shut the door behind me. I decided to keep it closed.

My one hundred and seventeenth day in the house came without any more missions. I was up to Level 4 on the Rosetta Stone. I became more and more attached to the woman’s voice. If I was being honest with myself I was completely in love. I feared it would be an unrequited love.

Dish Soap #10 by Peter Seidel
Dish Soap #10 by Peter Seidel

The woman’s voice said, Mi hermana esta ordeñando la vaca, and I said, My sister is milking the cow. The woman’s voice said, Hace mucho tiempo yo solia jugar al futbol, and I said, A long time ago I used to play soccer. Eventually I built up the courage and asked the woman her name. I waited several moments for a reply but none came. In spite of the ridiculousness I found it to be heartbreaking.

On sunny days butterflies flew around, and on rainy days my neighbors left their houses in raincoats and carrying umbrellas. The weather didn’t concern me much. I bounced my ball against a spot on the wall to the right of the clock and scratched my long, scraggily beard rain or shine. If I could have traded five cans of clam chowder for a razor and some shaving cream I would have gladly done so. Having a shave would have greatly helped my morale.

In my former life I would normally drink coffee and eat toast and jam in the morning. Now I drank questionable tap water and ate dried banana chips. I paged through the coloring book as I popped the chips in my mouth. If I could have had only one color crayon I would have chosen purple. On page seven, a unicorn’s mane was just dying to be made purple. I would have gladly offered up a month’s salary for a purple crayon. I would have taken half a crayon, or even taken a nub. Anything to put a mark down on paper. Anything to prove I wasn’t a ghost.

I felt cross with the calendar. It wasn’t being completely honest with me about the way time was passing. Sometimes it careened too fast. Eventually I took it off the wall and put it in the kitchen with the crib instructions and left over crib pieces. We would be spending some time apart.

Somewhere around the one hundred and forty-third day my doorbell came alive and spoke to me. I almost tripped on my dash toward the door. I pulled the curtains aside a crack and saw a pretty, strikingly-pregnant young woman standing on the porch. I took a deep breath and opened the door. I was surprised by her presence but I was not surprised when she greeted me in Spanish. She handed me a note and smiled. I smiled back and opened the note. It said, Look after the pregnant woman. She speaks Spanish.

I was glad for the company, of course, but I wished I had had a little notice. I had been experimenting with degrees of filth, and she found me at an all-time high. I hadn’t showered for more than six weeks. My odor was stiff. I saw that it had hit the woman as soon as I opened the door but out of politeness she had fought the urge to pinch her nose.

I gestured the woman into the house and ushered her into the chair. I hadn’t learned much Spanish vocab about babies and pregnancy, but managed to work out that she was nine months pregnant and that the baby was due any day. We shared a chuckle about her size, but I wasn’t sure about much of what she said. She didn’t yet realize how little Spanish I actually knew and threw out too many words at a time.

“Mi nombre es Inez,” she said with big wide eyes. I had never met anyone with that name before. It matched her face well, and the combination struck me as painfully beautiful.

I told her my name was Joe, but it sounded like a lie. I felt changed from the Joe who had existed before starting on this mission. Maybe I’d go by Joseph once I finished here. Maybe I’d take myself more seriously.

In a lull in the conversation I said, Hace mucho tiempo yo solia jugar al futbol. Inez nodded and smiled. I offered her some banana chips and she said they were one of her favorites.

“Chips de platano son mi favorito,” she said and blinked twice. She was indeed very young.

When the phone rang I ran to it hoping for some kind of instructions. What was I supposed to do with this pregnant girl? Instead all the man said was, “open the front door,” and hung up. I did as I was instructed, and in an instant two men were carrying a queen size mattress up the stairs into the guestroom. I was jealous of the size and I wondered if it had lumps like mine. It was clearly used but looked close to new.

I didn’t want Inez to know I had been spying on the neighbors so while she had a lie down testing the mattress, I put the bathroom mirror back on its hinges to avoid suspicion. I would miss the spying. Though we had never spoken I felt as though my neighbors and I were close friends. Giving them up would leave a big gap in my life. My eyes moistened. I hand tightened the bolts of the mirror as best I could.

The day after Inez’s arrival I got another call from the Agency, and they told me to take notes. I had no writing implement, as they well knew, and did my best to listen carefully as I could. They communicated four items to me.

(1) I was not to speak English to the woman or the infant. (2) I was to ration food for the sake of the new residents. (3) I was not to, under any circumstances, have intercourse with the woman. (4) I was not to use the crayons as they were for the infant.

Three things happened in the next few moments. First the line went dead, then Inez started moaning and, lastly, the doorbell rang. I went to Inez first but found her to be screaming strings of unintelligible Spanish words so I went to the door. I swung the door wide and found a short bespectacled man standing there. I could tell he was a doctor because he was dressed in blue scrubs, he wore a surgical mask and said, Soy médico. Given the situation I decided to let him in without interrogation.

He crossed the threshold and slapped a pack of crayons into my chest. I took a glance at the box then clutched it to my heart. Not sleeping with the woman would be difficult to be sure, assuming she was into it, but not using the crayons would be nothing short of torture. Things were looking up though. And I was beginning to get an idea of what the Agency had in mind for me. My guess was the mission would be another eighteen years. Others should be so lucky, I thought.


Pete Able’s work has been published in Forge Journal, Lost Coast Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Prime Number Magazine, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, among others. He is 34 and lives in Philadelphia.

subjunctivity – Editor’s Choice


here. i will be honest with you:

i am afraid of loving someone the same way my mother loved my father—

so much it ceased to be beautiful. so much it began to hurt.

she passed this on to me, you know.

i don’t think i’ll ever get over it.



what are these things that held my pulsing heart tender as they could?

nopal. maguey. a crown of thorns held like surrender.

my father’s love like needles.

my father’s love like a curse.



we met as children.

played footsie; touched delicately.

when i said so you denied it.

you denied it. you denied it.



god forgive me but i miss your tongue.

(i miss your hands i miss your walk i

miss the way you would just look at me

the way you made me feel—)



i am hoping that writing this out

will be akin to exorcism.



you say you saw me walk the church courtyard.

you say you see me everywhere.

was what you saw mirrored on your face?

how long did it take you to realize

yours was not a universal truth?



¿me recuerdas en tu cama? ¿me recuerdas sonriendo?

¿me recuerdas contigo queriendo estar queriendo?

¿me recuerdas con tu familia? ¿en tu casa? ¿en la sala?

¿qué te acuerdas de mí? ¿qué fue esto para ti?




to think i let you inside me this way.

this insidious way. this ungrateful way.

(why don’t you want me. why don’t

you want me. why don’t you want—)



i’d have stayed in your bed if you’d let me.



bodies never really forget.



i still think of the grind of our hips.

molcajete. tejolote. carve yourself into me like basalt.

did you see me?

you touched this skin, you kissed this mouth.

¿qué querías? what couldn’t i give you?



the next time he tries to raise a hand to you,

how will you react?

were the bruises a gift given to him first?

it seems almost a miracle, how one can play at survival.

it makes so much sense, how much you love your father.



you kept asking me to stay.



dios pero si tenía las palabras para decirte como te hubiera querido

si me habrías dejado. si tuviera las palabras para contarte esta historia.

pero no me quieres. no me quieres.



i don’t understand why i’m still thinking about this.


Murambi (Rwanda, 2008) – Editor’s Choice

There is no smell of death here. Even the lime

has faded from what it was meant to preserve.

Atop this hill, everything feels small and

possible. I convince myself that school is out,

each classroom merely waiting. A holiday perhaps.

The grass is a twisted maze that yields sound

but no music. The battered doors, some still

stained a faint copper, were once tinged with

a dark burgundy. When the breeze troubles

their rusty hinges, a pinched song overtakes

the concrete skeleton that remains, rises up

like a warning siren to anyone within earshot.

Midday rests an unrelenting blade against

our faces. A child on the abandoned soccer field

is full-out sprinting as though a stadium

full of souls is cheering him on.

Nothing there will ever again grow. His mother

is somewhere, getting water or gone. The man

I am with will not give me his name or ask for mine,

leads me to what every foreigner thinks

they came this far to see. They still use machetes

to cut the grass, among other things; he reminds me:

it is a most useful instrument.


Carlos Andrés Gómez is a Pushcart Prize nominated poet who is pursuing his MFA at Warren Wilson College. Winner of the 2015 Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in the North American Review, Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City.

You’re Having A Nice Day Because I Told You To Have A Nice Day – Editor’s Choice

When you tilted your head back a bit

to squeeze drops into your eye

I caught a glimpse of what was in it,

of how you made a pancake of your lid

and stuffed it with the best

that you could see:

the freshest strawberries,

mainsails of lilies in July

blousing upon the twin ponds

of the Botanic Garden conservatory.


Not quite sure how lilies would fit

in the nice day recipe, I had to give you

credit for innovation. If Charlie Chaplin

could pot a prospector’s boot

in The Gold Rush,

why not daylilies in your mashup

amidst the rods and cones, more digestible than leather.


If you could take a selfie

of what I see in you

you’d know that I am right

and that you’re having a really nice day,

a cornucopia more full of good things

than even IHOP’s Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity,

because I told you to.


Harvey Preston Soss lives in Brooklyn, New York, and first began writing seriously some three years ago, having recently all but abandoned his law practice, devoted primarily to the criminal defense of indigents, to write full-time. He won Writers’ Digest Writing Competition poetry awards in 2015 and 2016. Two of his poems were published in conjunction with the 2016 University of Canberra’s Vice-chancellor’s International Poetry Prize; others are presently awaiting publication both here and abroad.


“coming to America” – Editor’s Choice

my grandmother is arrested 5 times

before she is allowed to step her heel onto cigarette concrete

lady liberty is not a copper-rained statue, iconic image of freedom


lady liberty is 17, and is my mother

her first time in America, with her first job

counting american dollars at an american store

called Batman


my grandmother’s first taste of america

is her hand feeling for the kick in my mother’s belly

when ma visited back from that 40 hour work week

I was not made in america

but i was an idea that sprouted

on a plane that bridged

across the atlantic


i am performing immigration

and when she has me, on a hospital bed

after hours of my body trying to run out of hers

i am performing citizenship

as the daughter of an immigrant


my first grade class only spoke spanish

i told my teacher it was a mistake, because i spoke english

she asked me, “are you sure?”

i told her, in english, i knew more than this

i had never seen so many confused faces

they changed my classes

but not without

sneaking me a slot of ESL


i guess it is courtesy of america to do this

grab all of the kids whose names end in “ez” “ta” “ia” “ra”

give them an american friend who doesn’t know why they spend

american lunch in a hispanic classroom instead of american cafeteria

and let her ask them

“why did you have to be so stupid?”


when i told my mother

in her american broken english she told me

“she is just sad

her mother doesn’t love her

saca buena nota que ella no te puede decir na’”


i listened to her

i took my american education

and america

ate me up.


this is what happens when you try to own a language

america says you are too stupid to learn

teacher tells your mother, you deserve a future

where textbooks aren’t thrown like stones

teacher tells your mother, she has never met a student

who has turned in loch ness monsters

instead of goldfish


you write america an american universe

and the bits of you bridged from

Dominican Republic and New York,

drop into the atlantic

you cannot stop it

when america burns a bridge, the bridge keeps on fire

america says you can only choose

one side


lady liberty is 44, and is my mother

she prays over me at night, in Dominican spanish

first she gives me her blessing

and then she passes the torch


there isn’t anybody

that can say anything

about me.


Scarlet Gomez is a graduate from The City College of New York with a BA in Creative Writing. She has previously been published in literary journals such as Persephone’s Daughters, Breadcrumbs Magazine, Promethean, and Crabs Fat Magazine. She spends a lot of time re-watching The Office, working, or eating with her boyfriend.