The Road to Hell By August Jones (2017)

When I was seven, we made poetry books in school. I wrote two poems about my childhood dog, one about my grandpa, and one about 9/11. The rest were gibberish. On the cover, I drew broken hearts, storm clouds, a syringe, and my mom crying in the den. My dog and grandpa had just died.

My mother says that Grandpa came back for her. When she arrived at the hospital he was dead. Then she held his hand, kissed his cheek, and prayed that she could say goodbye. He woke up and squeezed her hand before leaving again. She told us grandpa was in Heaven playing with our dog. She told us she could feel them in the den.

That Sunday, the pastor mentioned us in her prayers. For a while, my family went to church every week. My dad was the Church treasurer, my mom played piano for the choir, and my sister was a junior deacon. I went to Jesus camp and youth meetings and cried when I wasn’t old enough to join my sister on her first mission trip. That Christmas, she played Mary in the pageant. I was a donkey.

This may seem unexceptional to you, but my parents are probably not like yours. In retrospect, it’s a miracle they ever even wanted to be tamed.

My mom was the preacher’s daughter in a Baptist church with thousands of members. She wasn’t allowed to dance or watch movies and was always being stared at. When her high school boyfriend broke her nose, my Grandmother yelled at her for disgracing the family. Still, my grandparents liked my mom better than her brother. She was a piano protégée, which was convenient. They put a piano in the front of the church and made her play whenever someone was born or died. My grandmother offered to pay my mom’s way through college, but wanted a wedding in return. When my mom did get married at 18, my grandmother denied that she’d ever offered my mom a future. My mom swears if my grandfather weren’t so high on painkillers, he would have fought for her education.

My mother left her husband, her family, and her religion two years later. She moved to San Francisco and played music for the ballet. For a while, she lived uncontrollably. She drank 100-dollar glasses of wine and fucked men in the back of the trolley. She blasted rock n’ roll and got high to clean her house. She pulsed with everything that had ever been denied to her. Half a decade later, she was bankrupt. She lived in her best friend’s living room, until he died of AIDs.

That’s when my father stepped in, a rich man from Vegas with an exciting past. He paid off her debts and told her stories. My dad’s life started off pathetic and unremarkable. His mother left him, and his father was addicted to gambling and alcohol. I never met my grandfather, but I hear his favorite phrase was “You’re cruisin for a bruisin.” He hit my father with all sorts of things—belts, books, plates; whatever was around.

They say Vegas turns men into animals so they can survive the desert. My dad was a stray dog. His ribs were showing. He had scars on his back and nothing to stop him from wandering. He liked to camp in the Sierra Nevada. He once killed a rattlesnake and ate it. He let tarantulas crawl up his arms, and drank whisky under the moon.

When he was 20, my dad became a mentor to a 13-year-old boy named Mike. My father bought Mike his first drink after a motorcycle trip to Tijuana. The same day, my dad was arrested for punching a Mexican cop in a bar fight.

For a long time my Dad’s relationship with Mike was this was the closest thing he had to love. But he knew desire. His city fed off of it. It’s not so surprising, if you think about it, that a boy from Vegas would eventually want more. After Nam, my dad went to college where he learned that he was a genius. There’d been rumblings of this in his childhood—counting cards at 11, running a gambling ring by 15—but nobody was there to tell him he had potential. Soon he was giving talks at universities and had more than a million dollars to his name. Cue my mother: a pianist in red lipstick playing in a Yosemite hotel.

Together, they agreed they’d finally be normal. They had two kids, moved to Connecticut and went to church on Sundays. This is the world I was brought into; unaware it was an act that would erode or that I had wild blood in me.

Once, during the stretch of dial up days and MySpace popularity, my sister took a “What religion are you really?” quiz. The results told her she valued social justice, community work, and love above all else. All true, but why was the label Unitarian and not Congregationalist, she wondered. She biked to the church barn, where our pastor spent Saturday mornings making bread, and asked.

For all the time spent in church, we’d never realized Jesus was such a big part of our religion. This is a story I’ve heard a thousand times, that I have to remind myself isn’t my own memory. My mom tells it every Easter, though we don’t celebrate anymore. I think she does it to remind herself that she used to have a family, that she used to dress her kids up for church and prepare dinner at seven o’clock sharp, that for just a bit of her life she could have been considered normal.

Maybe if things had been different— if my Dad hadn’t taken that job in Texas, if mom hadn’t given into the loneliness, if she hadn’t traded in the piano for vodka, if my parents hadn’t bought that house, if my Dad hadn’t invested all his money into Madoff to pay off that mortgage, if he hadn’t lost everything he had spent his whole life working for, if my parents hadn’t started fighting about money at first and then everything else, if they hadn’t slept in different bedrooms, if they hadn’t both fallen into their own what ifs—maybe she could have kept that life.

But things happened the way they did and by the time my second dog died, my Dad was already depressed and missing and my mom was a teenager again. She was dating a man named Stan who told her to dance more and drink more and “here try this pill.” By then, we hadn’t gone to church in years.

Yet, as we sat around the dead dog crying, my mom said, “I see her spirit. She’s right here next to me.” My mother was loud in her grief, interrupting mine. I realized I didn’t believe in spirits. Life is tangible. I was stroking my dog when she died, and I felt it leave her. Ironically, it was Christmas.

That summer, I went to Costa Rica. I volunteered for what I had thought was going to be an animal shelter. In reality, I ended up working for a hoarder, named Vicki, with no veterinary skills. She plucked hurt animals from their homes and held onto them with no intention of releasing them into the wild. Though, I’m unsure if she knew this about herself. I watched a baby bird and a goat die under her care. The horses didn’t get enough to eat and kept running into the barbed wire.

A woman recently asked me for a testimony about the place. She’s trying to shut it down. I agreed, but felt surprisingly reluctant. Vicki doesn’t think she’s trying to tame the animals, she just wants to hold them and I was guilty of that too. I bottle fed monkeys and let them play in my hair.

I don’t really talk to people I met at the “shelter” anymore, but their memories stick to me. We didn’t have Wi-Fi or electricity, so when night sank in, we lit fires and drank and shared pieces of ourselves.

Cailin is obsessed with aliens and is in the air force. She was engaged with a wedding date and a venue, but the wedding was called off when her boyfriend said he could never marry a girl who wouldn’t have a threesome. Corey was the closest thing I’d ever seen to evil. His mother was addicted to meth and committed suicide when he was 12. It wasn’t long till he started using too. He got girls hooked and had his way with them, said that was the worst thing he ever did. He went to jail for rape at 19, “but just for a few months.“ Somehow, we didn’t hate him. Frejya grew up in a small Icelandic town where “everyone was the same.” She had a child at 17 and now she makes art for movies. She’s always been fascinated by death. She wants to interview a woman whose son just died. Rachel looks like a jersey cow, with big, innocent eyes. Her mom died three years ago. Nora is serious drug dealer. She started at age 11 and has worked with the Mexican mafia. She’s only thirty, but her hair is greying from the stress of it all. Marissa was raised in Bible belt Georgia, but isn’t religious anymore. She wears Chacos and has a tree tattoo on her calf. Her happiness is light and contagious.

Once a week missionaries visited the animal shelter. They called it community service. When they came, we had to make lunch in our rusting, outdoor kitchen for all twenty something of them. The head preacher, Jack, insulted the beans I had made—“How do you mess up beans?”—but raved about the meat. “What is this? Its delicious!” We told him it was beef, but had no way of knowing. We took our food from the garbage bins in grocery store parking lots.

I got a parasite in Costa Rica and brought it home, where I spent about a month keeled over toilets thinking of Jack. In a quiet way, I hoped he was sick too.

The missionaries were from West Virginia, the place my church goes to on its mission trips. My sister helped build houses there and met a woman whose teeth had rotted away from too much Mountain Dew. Like my sister was, the missionary kids were eager. I don’t usually like to be around children, but I like most every child. Before seventeen, your flaws aren’t your own. You can tell when an eight year old is going to grow up to be an absolute dick, but for now, he’s just reacting to his father. These kids just wanted to please God.

On Thursdays the missionaries gave outdoor sermons to the homeless. Most were addicts or mentally ill. Jack told them to “accept Jesus and all will be well.” Men talked about how God helped them turn their lives around. Then, they all spoke in tongues. The poor sobbed and knelt at Jack’s feet when he gave them hot dogs.

Every week I watched this and every week some boozy man would try to stroke my hair. Jack said I was God’s vessel… that more men were coming because of me. This made me nauseous. He ended a sermon once by saying, “If you don’t follow Jesus, you’ll be running and screaming like a little girl.”

That night, we had a goodbye party for Marissa, Frejya, and Cailin. Neither the missionaries nor Vicki were invited. However, Marissa’s friend Emily would be joining us. Emily had applied to work at the animal shelter, but was denied after admitting she occasionally smoked weed, which went against the no drug policy. Eventually, Emily found work at a hostel two towns over.

Emily had wavy, dirty blonde hair and speckled green eyes. Her charred pink lips looked spectacular against her golden skin. She didn’t wear makeup, but had a sunburn that made her cheeks rosy. She was tall—5’7” maybe, with long legs and a short torso. She was thin, but her body was soft and feminine. Her boobs were at least three times the size of mine. She looked like the Instagram girls you don’t tell people you follow, the ones from California who skateboard and surf and drink beer.

We started out at a bar with $2 drink specials. It was one of those bars that definitely looses money; where the bar tenders get wasted and put too much alcohol in the free drinks they offer pretty girls.

For the first time in my life, a woman bought me a drink. I felt pleased she could tell I was bi. I’d spent years wondering where the lesbians hide, hoping for this moment. But she wasn’t my type. She kind of looked like me with her square glasses, gymnast’s body, and sharp nose. She followed me to the bathroom twice. On my way out, she asked for a kiss. She bit my lip hard, like she wanted to rip it off and eat it, and then licked the grime off my tonsils.

I said goodbye and walked with my group to a consignment shop. We bought three bottles of Guaro, Costa Rican hard liquor, but didn’t have enough money for chasers. My boyfriend texted and I told him what happened. He doesn’t mind my dalliances with girls. “Just don’t leave me,” he replied.

Two women with matching tramp stamps drove passed us on a gulf cart. They told us to hop in and brought us to the beach, where a middle-aged man waited, setting palm tree leaves on fire. He licked his lips when he caught sight of me. Corey told him to check it.

My stomach was warm from the Guaro. The embers from the fire floated to the sky and became stars. Even the trees were dancing. “Lets go skinnn-n-n-y dipping,” Marissa said. I tried not to watch Emily peel off her shirt. I felt sticky from the heat.

Emily said my white butt was glowing. The rest of me was dark enough for people to ask “are you sure you’re not Tico?” Tico is a word for Costa Rican. “I don’t know. My mother was adopted, but she has blue eyes and red hair, so…”

Emily spanked me and giggled, “Let’s go!” She grabbed my hand and we ran into the ocean. There was a special type of phytoplankton that turned bright blue when agitated by exterior movement, so lines of light followed us. When the waves broke, a frenzy of blue dots clung to the shore. “We’re standing in the sky,” Emily said.

She ran her hand down my arm. I felt like the bioluminescent water, where she touched I burned, lit up. She kissed me carefully at first, stole my breath. Then wrapped herself around me. My whole body was throbbing for her.

Laughter trickled in from the beach. Emily didn’t want to miss out and took me back to the shore. We slipped into our clothes and dried by the fire. The middle-aged man was passing a blunt around. “Don’t smoke this unless you smoke at home. It’s the good stuff,” he said. Emily took a hit, and titled her head back to blow out the smoke. I wanted to kiss her neck.

Cailin, Marissa and Freyja talked about going home. They were scared. They’d devoured stories here. We all had. We wrote our own and listened to others’. What would it feel like to go home with all these news things inside of us? Would anybody notice?

Emily didn’t care to discuss things she had no control over. She pulled me back in. I got to kiss her neck. Then she looked at me with that look—too dunk, too high, dazed eyes. I rolled over. She held me. Our bodies fit together like puzzle pieces.

Corey had to kick and shake us awake. Everyone else had left. I walked with my head on Emily’s shoulder. She walked with her arm around my waste. A man trailed us, dragging his machete down the street. We were too tired and tingly to give him malicious intent. When we got back to the animal shelter, it was 5 am.

We were greeted with a warning, “watch out for Peanut.” Peanut was a monkey Vicki had hoarded. Apparently, he had gotten out of his night cage and ripped at Rachel’s face. Later that day, Vicki told Rachel not to get a Rabies shot. “I could be shut down!” she barked. Rachel knew that without treatment, Rabies is nearly 100% fatal. Still, we had to convince her to go.

A few days later, Nora told me Vicki was thinking about kicking me out. She had heard about the goodbye party and so had the missionaries. Jack told her I had taken advantage of her hospitality and that I had looked God in the eyes and betrayed him. They wondered if I were possessed. Surely, I had the devil in me.

Neither of them ended up confronting me. They didn’t have grounds to kick me out. I hadn’t smoked, and there was nothing in the rules against homosexuality. I still attended the outdoor services with a feeling of, well, power. He had made me feel so anxious, and now it was my turn. I talked to his children more. I gave his oldest daughter a copy of Bitch magazine that I’d brought to read on the plane and had been holding onto for no particular reason.

Before the missionaries went home, Jack baptized 7 people. The baptized fell at Jack’s feet and kissed his toes. Then, they went on being homeless. Eventually, they stopped waving and smiling to me on the street. They got drunk with a new kind of sadness. Hope is a nasty tease and we she leaves you, you’re ruined.

***

A year and a half later, I’m on a bus in Ecuador, talking to a girl named Hope. She has five siblings with names like Grace and Divinity. One of her sisters is lesbian. Another is suicidal. She says she loves them and that she cries when she thinks about their damnation.

I asked if the men who wrote the Bible could have misunderstood some things. She said it’s possible, but it’s not her place to pick and choose what’s real. She said religion isn’t about morality, it’s about following God’s rules. She told me that even though God is cruel, converting people is easy—“we all need something to believe in, to hold onto.”

It’s true. My mom is 62 and still thinks she can touch the world with her music. It’s what keeps her alive. I have a similar delusion—I want to be a best selling author—only my delusion is less sad because I’m still young. My sister is on the frontlines of America’s ideological war, advocating for civil rights through 90-hour workweeks. My dad just wants to shield his children from the mistakes he made, to give us everything he never had.

We all have our delusions, and some of us are lucky enough to realize them. But it really doesn’t matter if we do. We’d just strive for something else anyway. We hold onto the meanings we make. We live a life of choices and circumstance, and in the end, no matter what we’ve been through, we can create a story out of all the random things that have happened.

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents an unedited, full edition of this piece.

Splitting By Alyssa Palazzo (2017)

Left

I. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. A slender Italian with olive skin and a swollen stomach sits across from me. We are on a train rushing to Manhattan, and her feet are propped on the red duffel that sits at my knees. Her long waves of hair frizz in the summer heat. Sweat coats her face and her chest. I want to be like this woman: beautiful and far from home.

I have never ridden on a train before, and if I look out the window I have to shut my eyes. I have a summer job on Fifth Avenue at a publishing house. I will live in an apartment with two walls of glass and lesbian roommates with tastes for good wine. My mother did not want me to leave.

“I never did things like this when I was your age,” she said. Her face was puckered around the eyes, her crow’s feet extending like roads from pools of blue. “Text me when you switch trains,” she said. “Do you have cash? Go get my wallet. You should always have cash when you travel.”

My mother has been looking old lately. Her father is dying in Henrietta, the little town he raised her in. He is a man who loves hummingbirds, and camping, and has been wheelchair-bound for the last four years. My mother asked me if I wanted to make the six-hour car ride north to say goodbye. Instead, I make the three-hour train ride south.

“Don’t leave,” my mother said. I left.

II. I have always wanted to be close to my mother, but my mother has taught me not to value relationships. She is the second of five sisters: Amy, Beth, Holly, Lisa, Carol. It reminds me of Little Women, only they never speak to one another. I do not know why my aunts don’t speak. They had as normal an upbringing as any other girls. My grandfather was a social worker for the state of New York, and the money didn’t stretch far over a family of seven. The girls got new shoes once a year, and my grandmother handmade all of their clothes – except for Carol, my mother likes to point out. Carol got the store-bought dresses.

Travel was limited to camping trips in the Adirondacks or Virginia Beach, memories my mother swears she’s been trying to repress for as long as she can remember. One year, at sunrise, my grandfather set off for the washhouse in his pickup truck and failed to realize that the tent was still tied to the car, all five girls inside. When passing hikers waved frantically, he smiled and waved back.

“Did you ever see any bears?” I asked my mother once.

“Only at the dump,” she told me. “We used to drive over in the car to sit and watch.”

I had always assumed that my mother and her sisters would share a common bond, that these crazy camping experiences would have pulled them all together. Yet whenever they meet there is rigidness about them. Their faces are taut as if they are all grinding their teeth. They do not speak.

“Why is this?” I ask my grandmother. I lie on a mattress I bought secondhand and listen to the static of the phone line. Traffic hums outside my window.

“Your mother’s sisters didn’t include her in anything,” she says. “Your mother was always reading or studying. She was the brilliant one of the bunch.”

“But what about the others?”

My grandmother considers.

“They’ve always fought,” she says. “Clothes, chores… Holly and Carol haven’t spoken to each other in four years.”

Even though my mother didn’t have a close relationship with her sisters, I had always assumed she’d want one with me. As a kid I’d wait for her to come home from the night shift and run outside when her car pulled up the drive. I wanted her to spend time with me before I went to school, and butter bread for my lunch, and tell me stories about her patients in the hospital. I wanted her to read my book reports, and tell me I’d done a good job on my poster of the atom, and watch my soccer games. I wanted her to advise me on where I should go to college, and support my choice to be a writer, and help me plan my future.

She didn’t do any of these things, but when she said, “Don’t leave,” I’d held out hope for so long that I almost considered.

III. Every morning the subway lulls me into a fog, during which I miss whatever stop I am supposed to disembark. When I stumble into W.W. Norton I am still in a half-dream, usually replaying a scene from whatever book I have most recently read.

When I was in high school I performed in Our Town and this summer, for no particular reason, the show sticks in my mind like old rice. I remember the scene in which Emily is dead and she decides she wants to relive her 16th birthday. As she stands in the kitchen she screams at her mother, “Look at me.” Her mother turns, and for a fraction of a second, you almost think she has looked.

Blood Ties

I. My earliest memory of my sister is of her drowning. I was six and she was two. She wandered away from my father and me while we visited a farm and tumbled into a pond. My sneakers were coated in muddy hay, and I tried to rub it off as I watched her. I remember her flailing arms; her baby bird mouth opening and closing; her fine hair plastered to her skull. Crows cawed in alarm. A Labrador ran down the slope, caught her by the shirt and pulled. When that didn’t work he positioned himself in front of her and used his nose to roll her up the bank. She was like a little Cinderella: all of the animals flocking to help her, while I stood by and watched.

I cannot remember anything else about my sister before that moment.

II. After spending the summer in New York, I return to Connecticut for my last year of college. I am a writer, and I take workshop after workshop. One professor who’s taught me four times in three years flips through my portfolio. “You always write about families,” she says. “Sisters, siblings, mothers, daughters… it’s the same themes over and over and over.”

I pull at a stray thread on my chair.

“I usually don’t see this kind of consistency in an undergraduate,” she tells me. “I don’t think you’ve ever written anything else.”

III. Sometimes it seems that all my memories of my sister are of her drowning. When she was three-years-old, she stumbled into the brook that ran alongside our house and fell face down into the water. Little leaves and petals rushed over her, the red hood of her jacket billowed up like a balloon. It took minutes for my father to realize she was missing, to stop the lawn mower and run to save her.

As a teenager, my sister developed a habit of running away, donned black clothes, and taught herself how to die. She was, and is, ethereal-pale, with big dark eyes and long hair, always piling on sets of crystal necklaces and rows of beaded bracelets.

My freshman year of college I came home for spring break with backpack full of gifts. My sister and I share a March birthday, but her room was empty.

“Where is she?” I asked my mother.

“In the hospital.” She stood at the stove mixing cake batter, a white smudge of flour on her forearm. “She was admitted a few months ago.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

My mother shrugged. “You never asked.”

I thought then, how easy it would have been to extend my hand, to pull my sister up from the water.

IV. When I am not writing, I sit in class and study fairy tales. I enjoy them because there is no reasoning behind any of the action. A boy butchers his brother, a chef cooks a young woman, a father cuts off his daughter’s hands. No one asks the storyteller, ‘Why did this happen?’ The reader simply accepts it and moves on.

My mother has never asked me to cut off my heel and shove my foot into a silver slipper, but I feel as though I have been living a fairy tale my whole life, that I have been listening to a story and not questioning it.

V. In the six years my sister is in and out of mental wards I do not visit her once.

I believe if I hold out long enough, my real family will turn up and whisk me off to a cottage in a faraway village, and I will live happily ever after. I learn there is a Freudian term for that. It’s called “splitting.”

Mr. Kurtz

I. While my grandfather is dying I develop a keen interest in my mother’s childhood. I want to know why exactly none of the sisters speak to each other, but when I ask my mother for any stories or early memories, she brushes me off. “I must have blocked it out,” she jokes. “Go ask your Aunt Holly. She’ll make up something for you.”

“You mean she’ll lie?” I ask.

My mother rolls her eyes. “Holly’s such an exaggerator. She can make a story out of anything.”

I do ask my Aunt Holly. I send her a long note full of questions and bounce on my heels until I receive her reply.

“Your mother was my favorite sister,” my aunt says. “I needed a big sister that I could look up to and your mother was perfect. She was the prettiest and the kindest and the smartest. When I needed a bridesmaid at my wedding I chose her.”

When I repeat this to my mother she snorts.

“Holly forgot to mention that I was the best cook.”

II. My aunts have my grandfather cremated. He surpasses everyone’s expectations and makes it through the summer and into the second week of December. I call and tell my mother I have moved my final exams to the beginning of the week. I can accompany her to Rochester for the memorial service.

“I thought you would like to stay home instead,” she says. “Someone needs to watch the dog.”

Outside my picture window the earth is frozen and dark. I do not want to go to the funeral; I was not close to my grandfather. I pushed the exams so I could be with my mother.

“Is that what you want?” I ask. “Do you want me to stay here instead?”

“Whatever you want.”

“No,” I say. “He’s your father. Do you want me to come?”

“You weren’t eager to see him before he died,” she says, and I rest my head against the glass. I shut my eyes.

III. Churches make me nervous, and I utter a silent thanks to Yahweh, Buddha, or whoever, that there are no crucifixes for me to inadvertently focus my gaze on. My sister is heaving dry ugly sobs and I think I should put my arm around her. Instead, I slide to my left and put a few more inches between us. My mother glances at her, pulls a tissue from her purse, and hands it to her with two fingers.

Sometimes, when I think of my sister, I think of the story of Bluebeard who butchers the girls he courts and stashes the body parts behind a locked door. All I have to do is open the door, put the parts of my sister in order and she’ll come alive again. Then I remember that I would have to court a serial killer and wander his house. It sounds like too large an undertaking.

My Aunt Holly is speaking at the lectern and I know I should pay attention, but listening to her makes my heart race.

“I was with him when he died,” she says. “I held his hand. It was hard toward the end. His mouth was very dry and he was very short of breath. He would start a sentence and only get three words out before he had to stop. But he said to me, ‘It was wonderful.’

“I kept asking, ‘What was wonderful, Dad?’” she continues. “But he just kept repeating it. I don’t know if he was referring to those last days at home, or raising his five daughters, or his life, but he thought it was wonderful.”

We stand for the Lord’s Prayer, but I don’t know the words, so I watch Holly walk back to her seat. Those last moments seem too unreal for me. I was expecting something from a Conrad book. The horror. The horror.

I remember then what my mother said about Holly, and I decide she is lying.

Rewrite

I. After finishing college and moving to New York, I never stop studying fairy tales. Marina Warner and Maria Tatar live in the stack of books by my bed along with old French translations and the Brothers Grimm. I like the singing bones and dark forests. I like the reassurance that there doesn’t have to be a happy ending, even as I try to find my own.

If I were to write my childhood over it would sound like this: Once upon a time, two girls lived with their mother. She encouraged them to play, and learn, and love one another. Whenever one of the girls had troubles, she would go to her mother, and her mother would fix them.

It seems so simple. Why did it not happen?

Whenever I see my mother’s family I dig for information in the most casual ways I can conceive of. My grandmother indulges me the most, because she knows I’m curious, and she tells my Aunt Carol and me the stories of each girl’s birthday.

“Your mother was the easiest birth,” she tells me. “And did you know that she was born on her exact due date and on Mother’s Day?”

Carol rolls her eyes. “Well, isn’t it just like Beth to show us all up.”

And at that moment I realize there is nothing. There’s no reason, no big bang moment when they all fell apart. I think of the Italian woman on the train with longing: I would give anything to run away and make a new family, in a new place, all on my own.

Instead, I go home. I call my sister.

“Hi,” she says. “They just let me out of the hospital!”

Over the last few years her voice has taken on a bright, dreamy quality. She no longer sounds the same at twenty as she did at fifteen. Everything is empty where it used to be filled with sharpness, and snark, and the bitter sing-song of our childhood.

“What happened?” I ask.

“I went crazy again.”

“Yeah,” I say. I trace the knots on my desk with my fingers. “That happens sometimes.”

I open my mouth to say, “Come stay with me in New York. You can live here for the summer,” but then I shut it. I don’t want to have my baby sister filling my apartment with her strange voices and scarred limbs, where she may try to hang herself in my closet, or absent-mindedly walk in front of a taxicab. Then I remember that she’s all I have.

“Come stay with me,” I say. “I mean it.” I’m trying to avoid thinking of anything that will make me take back my words, and she does not respond.

“Emma?” I ask, but there’s nothing. Her name just hovers there as an open-ended question, like Fitcher’s bird reborn from the tree.

This piece originally appeared as an excerpt in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents an unedited, full version of this piece.

i think i dreamed you by Aryanah Haydu (2017)

day 1
We met and though I was elsewhere involved, I knew that he would be the sweetest thing my eyes would ever reach. He had a long term girlfriend but still I couldn’t take my eyes from his toiled blonde hair those anesthetic blue eyes. He looked full to the brim with secrets and his full lips were set in a line, slipping up into a smile every so often. He had a jawline chiseled by the finest ancient Grecian sculptor and his deviated septum humbled his bone-shaking appearance.

bone-shaking: when I saw him I went cold to my core with a deep insatiable craving

And I knew then I wouldn’t stop until I had him. I knew even before hearing him speak that at some anonymous point, for some duration of time, I’d have him.

soft eyes melancholy eyes lingering–
sex sadness exposed under a lagoon pale blue
lips slightly parted, asymmetry imperfection
I’m going to skinny dip in those water eyes,
I’m going to know him I want to know all of him
to understand him inside
this mysterybeing this sultrysoul

day 67
The next scene takes place one stereotypically perfect summer day in August. The boy – a man really, 23, with broad tanned shoulders and disheveled bleachy hair – leads me up the winding staircase of a dilapidated building that stands tucked between a beachside city in Rhode Island and the sea surrounding. As we reach the top, I understand why those who’ve been here have maintained the spot’s secrecy. The rooftop appears untouched for what seems like decades, a private hideout for curious lovers. I look out and revel in the work of art before me, unparalleled by any photograph or any painting. This art is tangible; I want to hold the landscape in my hands, shake it like a snowglobe and watch the shades of green blend together like impressionist brush strokes, the waves crashing delicately as if set in slow motion. The sun hangs in the sky, dipping its toes in rippling water. Graffiti adorns the speckled buildings around us and plays psychedelic tricks on our eyes. I stand leaning on the rusted rail of the abandoned rooftop and the image seems to be holding the universe together. It seems that if either of us move, if the peace of the moment is disturbed, the whole world will unravel. Chaos will ensue.

I live for that ephemeral presence of air poetry
the moment itself worthy of a museum wall–
sentimentality painted into the strands
of this one fleeting masterpiece
this temporary traveling exhibition
it is a clichéd take from a poorly-funded indie film:
camera shaky liquor sharp / spirits high lighting low

the smell of salt
the sound of waves
the taste of sweat
the feeling of his skin
the view from the open rooftop of
a forgotten skeleton (this building).
when eventually the moment slips away in secret
like a one night stand tip-toeing his escape
no goodbye.

lost in conversation lost in you
voluntarily trapped in my subconscious I’m not confident in my ability to escape – even if I tried even if I wanted to. high ideas of you; green clouds hazy images of your body over mine lingering like smoke… floating above reality with you / in another galaxy with you. I trace all the constellations of your skin with my tentative tongue, connecting dots lost in the chaotic cosmos of your eyes. let’s smoke again.

The star-spangled sky lay above the seaside city, leaving a dim air of light just barely illuminating your features. We sat side by side, legs dangling off the pier hanging above calm waters. Your tattered flannel feels like home over my nicest dress; it subdues the subtle chill running down the spine of the summer evening. We tilt our heads toward the starscope, breathing in deep enjoying a buzz from the Dark and Stormies we sipped at dinner. I was 19; you made me feel old and young at the same time.

“I think that’s Jupiter right there. That tiny speck is an entire planet.” You spoke the periods that ended your sentences each an intimate silence.

“The Universe is crazy, isn’t it? We’re so small.” I always thought you looked so sexy when you stumbled over your thoughts, your words sending my mind on marathons and my libido chasing its tail in circles.

“It is crazy – kinda freaks me out if I think about it too hard. It’s scary how much we don’t really matter, ya know?”

“Yeah. We do matter, though, relatively. You matter to me. Don’t think you don’t.”

Blood to my cheeks. Although I put all my effort into suppressing my dorkish smile, I slip. You smirk back the way I like.

say goodbye to the too-good-to-be-true kind of love     oh, i could die

/ACT CHANGE/

day 123
I am nomadic in my pursuits. I move from hell, to purgatory, on to paradise (if I’m lucky). nothing is permanent and I like it that way. I crave chaos, the burning satiating sensation Hell brings—substance abusing sexual arousal, a complete lack of regard for anyone other than myself. I think it’s healthy to let selfishness consume you – at least for a few hours. days. weeks, maybe. until you reach purgatory— when the guilt consumes you and you recognize that you cannot live a balanced life fueling the fires of Hell. you scold yourself this isn’t the real world… you tell yourself I’ll be better… And you are. Better by the standards of our hypocritical cookie-cutter society. I do what I am told, completing the chores of pious monogamy and modern domesticity. finally, I arrive in paradise. I am agreeable, I’m whole and simple.

…soon though the demons lure me down, a brown haired distraction
with a strong jaw and a golden bottle of liquid courage…
back to Hell I go, smiling ear-to-ear the entire ride.

now i’m strangled by guilt
squeezing into a corset that’s a little too tight
i can’t commit, i guess i should’ve told you that before
i could be should be quiet and wholesome
but where’s all the fun then?
(i’ve surrendered myself to exquisite men).
an inner monologue between the devil on one shoulder
and an angel on the other
Satan over there suggesting all seven sins
while the angel apologizes for interrupting,
but I “really probably shouldn’t”
although I usually do…
flirtation whispers in my ear
and the allure of deception seduces me

eventually the devil wins, as he always does.

dissolve to: separation
day 182
a letter

writing “dear” felt unnatural… how do people start letters now? Shit this whole thing is strange, speaking to you through a fucking letter. Anyway, thinking back it’s funny how curious I was about you from the second I laid eyes on you. Walking around campus in your glasses a mess your books almost tumbling out of your hands. I hoped they’d fall just so I could’ve had the chance to pick them up for you. It’s funny how we found our way to each other. What we had (whatever we had) was real but it wasn’t.

It was real but I couldn’t fill all that was missing. I think you just wanted every experience and every feeling you could feel. I know that and I forgive you even though you don’t need to be forgiven really. I hate how things happened but I get it. It’s just we could’ve been great, you know. We could’ve really loved each other one day. Fuck you.

Sorry — this is hard. The past is the past and I wanted to send you this because what we had was worth more than some bullshit texting conversation. I wanted to tell you I loved the summer we spent together and I loved making love to you. Of course I’m mad and I’m sad about everything that happened, but I hope you find all you’re looking for. Fuck I hope I do, too.

sincerely,

yours

always

the next summer: about one year from the beginning
day 372

eyes closed, I dream your ghost next to me
frigid winter night turns back to lush summer mornings
tangled in your sheets legs tangled in each other’s legs

your sunbleached hair is pulled back messy eyelids flutter open, bleachedblue
shining with the albedo of the daylight spilling through the open window
you utter something in your sleep, subconsciously pull me closer by naked waist.

i wanna steal the clock – dissolve time
stretch the moment on forever.
i dare you not to move.
We could lay in this bed forever.
let’s never move.
blink awake, back to reality this time
and it’s another cold morning
i’m alone now
— you moved.

The Things He Taught Me
I. Clear your mind often – It is easier than you think.
II. There is nothing a nicely rolled spliff cannot cure.
III. Sharing everything with another human being is exhilarating.
IV. Do not confuse commitment with confinement.

Giuffrida park on
E year sin
Ce I’ve seen you
R face
And I think
I stil
Love you
R memory
But you
‘Re different n
Ow I am too
How poignantthe park
stayed the
Same.
The death of
Love is n(ever)
n(atural).

but when I see you again I reach for my scars
familiar lips now unfamiliar face
the same eyes (same same but different)
my soul falls into sinking i’m sinking
deeper between fumbling hands that hold me like i’m
glass fragile and i’ve never felt so fragile
swimming in a glass of champagne and lost time
so many nights i felt the ghost of your
fingertips ridges on a blank canvas
strokes over lonely linen so lonely
for you i fill the empty spaces with hollow bodies
back beaded sweat and i never listen to the words
they say i just play your laugh over on repeat
till the record spinning between my eyes skips
the sound lost as i am

all is lost until i’m back in this
moment.

An excerpted version of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents a full, unedited version of this piece.

Guilt Treatment by Noah Bukowski (2017)

Aetna Creative Nonfiction Award Undergraduate Winner (2017)

The form said that every article of clothing we wore that day had to be white, even our undergarments. My dad wasn’t into this kind of thing, so he had normal clothes on and was going to drive around for most of the time we were there. My mom had been looking forward to it for months and had been wearing the appropriate white slacks and white blouse since sunrise. I was afraid of seeing too much, so whenever I talked to her, I stared at her heavy-set chin. Don’t look down. Everyone seems more vulnerable when they’re only wearing white, but it doesn’t magically make you see-through.

That day in early October of my sophomore year of high school, my parents took me to a Catholic miracle healer that was making his rounds on all of the daytime talk shows of a few years ago. His name was John of God, and he was said to have miraculously cured anything from cancer to Alzheimer’s. My dad started looking into it after a distant relative went to go see him, and after the process, her brain cancer went into remission. But he didn’t schedule the reservation for me to see John until after he saw the Oprah Winfrey special that showed actual footage of the man operating on somebody with lung cancer. I was born with complications resulting in a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy, which in my case affects my muscles and how I walk, talk, and exist in our very physical word. My parents had always been looking for some sort of cure for my incurable condition. They mean well, but I’m surprised I’ve yet to receive snake oil as a Christmas present.

I didn’t have any strong feelings for or against taking part in this ritual I knew none of the specifics of. My biggest concern at the time was figuring out how to destroy, in a way that looked like an accident, a laptop given to me by the high school that I had used at home to watch porn on. Unfortunately, my time was up and disability services wanted it back now. But from the few genuine questions I had about seeing John, my parents largely assumed I was against them. They made it seem like I was being immature for not believing that some weird Italian guy could repair the ruptured synapses in my brain. He wasn’t even going to be “working on me” as far as I knew.

My dad said, “I think you should at least give it a try. He probably won’t be able to fix everything, but maybe it could help with your walking or your right hand.” The absurdity of this reasoning didn’t fully hit me at that age. I also didn’t want to smother that flickering light of hope in my parents’ eyes that has remained stubbornly alight for my entire life.

Both sides of my family mesh together into one mass of thoroughly Americanized Polish people. The biggest cleave to occur between generations lies in the early nineties, when all of my cousins and I were born. Pushed towards the brightest of futures by immigrant parent guilt–the motivator that knows no reserve–all of us are now pursuing doctorates as a way of rectifying the sacrifices that have been made. With this, some of us have come to harshly deny our Roman Catholic roots. Our parents speak candidly of spirituality and we try to intellectualize its rhetoric to critique it like a seminar paper.

My older brother Brandon went to a Catholic school until eighth grade. When it was determined that there was enough going on for me upstairs, I was denied the chance to join Brandon in the pew each morning because the school was not required by the government to provide accommodations so that us cripples could be fully immersed in a religion that overly symbolizes our struggles. Public school afforded that the biggest cross I had to bear was my game-losing play on the kickball field in second grade. As we got older, our faith became inversely proportional; Brandon wanted a science program that was actually rational, and I started staying awake for more masses.

Before I could analyze the philosophical inconsistencies of the Old Testament, I enjoyed being a body in church. Robotically turning my head around to the parish, I’d see so many warm faces mouthing prayers directed towards me. Like a game, I’d pretend their words were having a visible effect on me, and like some macabre sci-fi creation I’d slowly straighten up and look back at them in wonder. You cured me! I could take as long as I’d want in the line for communion, purposefully making each step more labored and uneasy than the last, and the deacon would just beam at me. Everyone makes it at their own pace.

I came to hate faith because of the unnecessary weighty meaning it gave to all aspects of my life, starting with my survival. Everything had a reason for happening that I couldn’t rightly claim as my own volition. It was God’s will that I survived complications that kill or severely disable millions. No. I did that. My newborn body with only a heartbeat to call its own was able to endure and heal. People chalk these things up to God or miracles because they can’t conceive of a human of their own measure doing them unassisted. But it happens, and I think it’s healthier to err towards narcissism than placing faith in unexplainable outside sources.

However, it’s easy to forget that the mess I caused doesn’t end with me. My whole family is wrapped up in it, my mom the most tightly wound. October 10th is a day that is almost entirely a celebration of progress, but my parents can’t help but localize it back to 1995. Every birthday dinner conversation has this stilted patch when my mom’s eyes tear up when she looks at me all dressed up. My dad tries to save her and recounts his perspective on that day:

Concentrated panic. Terri and you unexpectedly on your shared deathbed. Brandon puts a racecar in my hand and I’m trying to figure out how I’d explain all of this and parent him on my own. Guilt. Terri’s mom is blaming me in between prayers. Who did you sleep with? You’ve killed my daughter and my new grandson.

This has the opposite effect and sends my mom into a meltdown of tears. She was out of it for days after the birth and so she remembers only the aftereffects. I’ve never asked her about specific times or events during the three-year period after I was born when my mom didn’t work. I can only see the difference in old pictures of her. There’s one of her and Brandon at Chuck-E-Cheese for his second birthday, almost exactly a year and a half before I was born. Brandon’s trying to flee from the man in the Chuck-E suit while my mom laughs and goes after them. She looks just like her sister who’s one year younger than her with a thin face and sharp eyes. The pictures at my first birthday party are very different. I’m planted securely in a high chair with a blank expression on my face as I cautiously eye the man in the rat suit. My mom leans in and smiles, but we both look equally deflated. I did that.

***

My mom and I arrive for our day with John. It’s nothing remotely close to one-on-one attention–there turned out to be a couple hundred people with us–but my parents told me there was always a possibility of being plucked out of the masses. We were getting corralled along with droves of other people into the entrance of this health and wellness center that seemed to be more of a hippie retreat. We all looked like a big cult. I had never seen so much whiteness before. We slowly churned forward like a hive mind, nullifying the sharp hues of the tribal artwork on the walls. White sneakers even.

I was finally able to get a good look at everyone else here to see John when we got onto the main grounds. There were some other people with disabilities, but the more disabled they were, the more loved ones they had around them. A man who looked catatonic had a whole group around him cheering and whooping, jackknifing through the slow moving crowd. “Colin’s Cure Convoy” on white t-shirts in black lettering. They even played it safe with plastic white crucifixes.

The two main groups of people that were there seemed to be old people and cancer patients. Both there to cling desperately to their lives, not willing to let go, even going so far as to get a TV spirit healer to push God’s hand away. I immediately felt like I had the wrong reasons for being there with them, especially the cancer patients. Here I was at the nubile age of fifteen–still thinking about trashing the laptop and alternative ways of watching porn without it–while a man beside me tenderly held his colostomy bag with as much dignity as one can. On the whole, their pale bald heads seemed to sprout out of their collared white shirts with no clear line dividing between the two. Others had fleshier heads with staples in U shapes that had dried blood on them, indicating excised brain tumors.

These people were probably here as a last resort. I imagined them getting the diagnosis, throwing out their alcohol cabinet, and drinking wheatgrass shots instead. At that point you’ll do whatever it takes. They had very hopeful looks in their eyes. You could tell they’d been waiting months for this. I took a deep breath and out of respect for those around me, I decided to take all of this more seriously. I still didn’t logistically get what John should be doing for me or for any of these people.

We were herded under this large white tent in an open field. There were fold-out chairs in rows that made me realize the scope of how many of us there actually were, easily over a thousand. There was some sort of itinerary, but I neglected to look at it, wanting to feel surprised by whatever inane activity they’d make us do. Once we were all seated, the main speaker from the venue organizing the event gave a few opening remarks. He seemed well versed in this perverse niche of emceeing; his voice soothed the crowd and we quickly began guided meditation or prayer, whatever floats your spiritual boat.

I had never meditated before. Pop culture had taught me to focus on my breathing, but I found it hard to do in the presence of so many people. My eyes opened and I looked over the faces of those around me, seeing a mixture of intense, screwed up faces, as well as some placid ones who were clearly in the process of finding their center. Whatever their countenance, they all seemed linked up to some grand unifying thought complex that I just couldn’t tap into. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mom also trying her best to no avail.

As suspicious I was of this whole situation, I can’t deny that I felt some latent presence under that tent. The air started brimming with a faint electricity. All of these decaying bodies from all across the world, unified together by a common goal. Silence.

***

They gave us a lunch of hummus and other dry, tasteless grain pastes spread on flatbread wafers. I can’t manage delicate finger foods or hefty sandwiches because my hand can spasm and crumble the whole damn thing to bits. My mom fed me so that none of it would fall on the white clothes that would very visibly bear stains. For twenty-one years we have had this unspoken acknowledgement of feeding. I used to be self-conscious about it in public, but eventually my love of the Chick-Fil-A Spicy Chicken Deluxe outweighed that. Now, when our errands are done for the day and we invariably end up at the best fast-food establishment to happen upon Wallingford, we eat and talk about what book she’s reading on the list that I made for her. She manages over fifty people and English is her second language, but she’s only a few books behind me. The first bite she gives me is still overambitious, and so I usually pull away with sauce in the corner of my mouth.

“Oops.” We laugh.

Our predicament seems to have supercharged my mother’s predisposition for caring. But it’s too souped-up and fueled by the wrong reasons. She’s never outright said it, but I can see that in my mother’s eyes I embody her greatest mistake that she had no part in making. Both of my parents have times when they either think longingly about how differently our lives would be if the complications had not occurred or theorize about how my life will be supposedly whole once I am cured. My dead grandmother’s voice still rings in their ears. It’s your fault. You did this to him. Rectify it. But my mother bears the brunt of this burden, since, technically speaking, it was her shitty uterus that did us both in. You almost kill your child, leaving him permanently disabled. How do you look him in the eye when you tie his shoes every day?

We all marched back to the main tent. We were arbitrarily separated into smaller groups and huddled together. The main portion of the day involved one group at a time being selected at random to go into the smaller chamber where John of God actually had resided all of this time. We would meditate in that room for about five minutes–his presence was supposed to strengthen our spiritual connection, and then we had to walk single file out of the chamber. He would be seated just before the exit. The idea was that if he felt something in your spirit, or had some higher indication that he could help you, he would make some sort of hand motion and you would be whisked away to some deeper examination room.

It was our turn. Our ragtag bunch went down the makeshift plywood boardwalk that lead to the chamber. One man was missing his arm up to three fourths of his bicep, his shirt sleeve proudly rolled up to the armpit. What would John do in this case, regrow most of a man’s limb if he felt he had good vibes? Would the new arm just sprout out of the stub, or would he grow it out in a piecemeal basis? One inch of bone, sinew, muscle, and skin for each three hundred dollar visit? These were the thoughts that I had while the others were appropriately mentally preparing themselves. We arrived in the dimly lit chamber that reeked of incense. I saw him way up at the front of the room, slumped over in a gilded chair. He was heavyset with a plain crew cut. His eyes were closed and they remained that way the entire time; I pictured them lazy and darting around in their sockets, like a wise blind man.

Throughout the day I had been trying to piece together the other peoples’ beliefs of this man and why I didn’t fall in with them. I would be forcibly reminded of our fundamental differences, their lust for life and my indifference, only to then be brought back by the allure of that electricity in the air, the uncommunicated communication between all of us and that man. When I walked by John, nothing happened. He didn’t even shift his posture. The same with my mom. I went through the rest of the day’s meditation exercises in a fugue state between utter disappointment and complete awe. I couldn’t figure it out. After we finished, my mom and I sat outside of an old mom and pop store way down the road.

We didn’t talk much. She called my dad to come get us and I heard them yelling at each other about directions as if none of the events of the day had happened. My mom was mostly concerned with what I got out of it–whether I felt different in any way or not–but she didn’t press like my dad did. I was irritated by her unwillingness to share her take on it. This wasn’t supposed to have just benefitted me. I thought about the symbiotic relationship we share. She had almost killed me, but I almost killed her too. I wanted to really ask about those three years after I had been born. Yes, I’ve heard all the stories about putting me in the earliest rehabilitation programs, which is likely what allowed me to be able to type this shit out instead of dictate it from a wheelchair. But what about her sleepless nights? The endless masses her mother bought so that people would pray for us. The guarantee that whatever my ability, I’d likely be dependent on her until the day she dies. Not knowing if I’d ever be able to walk, talk, or have the intellectual capacity to be stupid enough to watch porn on a school computer in the first place.

I wish my family could just shed the collective guilt we have for the circumstances that happened on October 10, 1995. We need a different yearly reminder to genuinely reflect. A time to say: We’re doing great things. We love each other. It was nobody’s fault.

But most importantly: a time to work through all of these silences that we have created for ourselves. To confront that electricity while still keeping it alive.

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the unedited, full version of this piece.