Letter from the Editor
In many of the pieces you are about to read, there are things
missing: a beloved wife, a place on a map, a cure for a disease,
snowfall in Florida. As readers we will embark on a search for these
items, hoping to find them buried between the lines or hidden
on the next page. Sometimes we will find these things, but most
often, we will not.
For the past three years I have had the privilege of searching for
items lost while working on a magazine of which I am exceedingly
proud. We at the Long River Review love breathing life into pieces
once hidden at the bottom of desk drawers or scrawled on the
edges of class notes. We represent a demographic that includes two
AM journeys home from the bar, New England winters, stolen
diaries, and dormitory living.
In such a niche group of peers, you would expect a certain level
of camaraderie. Don’t we all celebrate the same completed term
papers, twenty-first birthdays, and second loves? Yet we are so
quick to write each other off. Within five minutes of meeting
another person we decide whether or not we like her. We decide
if she will say something worthwhile. We lose so many stories that
way. The Long River Review reclaims them, and in this tiny book
we allow each story to speak for itself.
While in many of these stories there is something missing, there is
also something to be found.
Start your search.
The Wallace Stevens Poetry Prize
The Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction
The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize
The Aetna Creative Nonfiction Award
Given by the Aetna Chair in Writing to support excellence in undergraduate creative nonfiction
Alyssa Palazzo, Undergraduate First place
Christopher De Marchis, Undergraduate Second place
Lisa Nic an Bhreithimh, Graduate First place
The Aetna Children’s Literature Award
Given by the Aetna Chair in Writing to support excellence in
undergraduate children’s literature
Grace Vasington, Prose
The Long River Graduate Writing Award
For the best piece of writing in any genre by a graduate student
Miller Oberman, Poetry
The Long River Art Award
Katherine Robinson, Photography
Gloriana Gill Art Awards
Basia Karpiel, Photography
Diana Vi, Photography
Chris Cater, Illustration
- Editor in Chief
- Managing Editor
Christopher De Marchis
- Poetry & Foreign Literature Editor
- Poetry Panel
- Fiction Editor
- Fiction Panel
- Nonfiction Editor
Bryce de Flamand
- Nonfiction Panel
- Interviews Editor
- Blog Editor
- Faculty Advisor
- Print Designers
Bryce de Flamand
- Web Designer
Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest, 1st Prize
After Philip Larkin
I’ve spent hours desperate, trying to find
‘Birzsch’ on a map of Lithuania–
this place where my family studied Torah
under apple trees, a syllable sighed
soft, a wind-worn whisper hushing itself
across history, six letters that spell
or spelled home–a thick word in which to hide.
The shtetl, the old country, the one place
I know my family once existed–
translated from Yiddish to English.
From photographs of graves I try to trace
an explanation of how a town can lose
its people, and why, and who gets to choose
if this place stays named for the unnamed faces
in my photocopied photographs. I
want proof they were before they were not
in Auschwitz, proof of these people who brought
my great-grandfather up–who kvelled and cried
when he left for gold paved cities, who lived
quietly, ‘til one day they no longer did.
and when they vanished ‘Birzsch’ became ‘Birzai.’
Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest, 2nd Prize
Heart as crowded stall, heart as oil spill
sweating toil; some drowned
sound in the shudder club beats.
While decedent sulks like
in want of blood, I thrum
metastatic, conquering body, any-
body anywhere: expanding
But the AM rave, but stitches
in our sides as tender as bulrushes.
But what grows in the hot dark
space lining bone and soul and whatever
tissue between? Can love? Parting
me, you fumbled it all, my insides
broken through for the sake of it and for
pleasure. How you cancered me. Casting
Wallace Stevens Poetry Contest, 3rd Prize
At The Art Opening
She swam darkly at me like an eel,
one eye blazing, the other pupil
pinned half inside her head.
She handed me a wood cup
and motioned that I drink.
It tasted like rotted sweat.
She must go around, with a jar,
collect the sweat of corpses.
We walked to the far hall,
I want to show you my painting.
Where? Here, she said
and swept my legs out
from under me. On the floor,
“Body as a Sack of Sand”
Her leg ended in a boot.
She swung it back
and kicked the sack.
The burlap split, sand sagged down
through the floorboard’s gaps.
She kneels in the grit, straddles
the sack’s chest, you should have come
when I asked nicely. One eye
looking at me, fire-joyed.
The other thrashes in its socket,
jerking at its cords.
Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, 1st Prize
I breathe life, and I’ve breathed irreverently. I learned under a city bridge, on days that you were in school learning the ABC’s and who chopped down what cherry tree. Started when my Dad had a girl over and my brother was with Benny. I left since Dad was in his room, Vince was in our room, and I didn’t want to listen to all of them while I was trying to draw.
City bridges don’t go over clean rivers. They go over the waste and refuse of the city. Beneath a city bridge is just a cesspool of old family dinners, which people maybe talked over, but probably just said nothing and ate until they were full, and there’s garbage, the kind people dump off a bridge because under the bridge is out of sight, and rats like you wouldn’t believe, and then there’s this thick band of brown water that brings it all together in that deep clay mud that stinks like sewers. On each bank there are these ruddy brown clay deposits, left over from when this place used to be beautiful. And kids like me, who don’t like to talk, who like to keep quiet and let the rest of the world make the noise, we fit in pretty good under the bridge.
Anyway, I was down by the river, looking for arrowheads and snakes, even though I’d never found neither, when a bearded old Cyclops caught me by the shoulder. He smelled of burnt wood and his long hair was matted with mud, but he had me by the shirt and said, “Hey, boy, wanna see something?” And he lifted his eye patch, “to see better,” and there’s just a hole–not even like a socket, really, nothing gross or puffy or oozing. Just this perfect, round, black hole that looks like it goes back forever. He dipped his bare hand into the mud our shoes were sinking into. I remember that next to his hand there was this needle, and the sharp end sorta touched him, but he didn’t even care. He didn’t even care.
He rolled the mud in his hands and made a ball out of it right near his chest. His elbows cocked up, and he was squirming and twisting this way and that, and every now and then he’d stop and really squeeze it between his hands, and this thin gray liquid that was probably water would dribble out. Each time he did that he sort of laughed and looked up at me with the one brown eye.
I thought about running, but then I figured if he got really weird, I’d just run faster than him, me being twelve and he being a sick, old,
He finished, and in his hands he’s got this perfect little bird, brown and already starting to crumble, coming apart, but right then the thing was standing, actually standing, on the two legs and the little talons he built for it, propped up on his palm.
Then came the important bit. He cupped the thing in his hands and brought it up to his mouth. His crusted lips locked over its beak, and his cheeks puffed out and took on this rosy, shiny color, like balloons, and the bird moved. It shook its head like it was annoyed, then lifted a wing and preened out its sopping, clay-covered feathers. The hobo tossed it over his shoulder and it flew away, dripping the dregs of city life from its long, sharp tail.
No school for me the next day. I took a bottle from the kitchen cabinet, some of that rank gin Dad drank before bed, and smuggled it under my shirt down to the bridge. I was going to trade him: animals for hooch. All the homeless guys had that itch. My brother used to give them a beer per punch to the gut, that’s how bad they wanted it.
The Cyclops held it by the long bottle and smirked. “Kid, you ever hear about the alligators in the sewers?”
“They’re not alligators, and I don’t drink.”
He smashed the bottle against the concrete bridge and sent me away.
That felt pretty lousy, you know? I expected to see another bird, maybe something cooler, and instead I got sent off by a freaking hobo like getting kicked out of class. Home wasn’t really an option, Dad’d kill me if I got caught skipping, and no way was I hanging out under the bridge. I started walking to the library to see if I could get some colored pencils, when a chorus of footsteps started echoing off the buildings all around me. I turned and a big fist caught the side of my head. “I saw you with Dad’s booze, I saw it,” Vince said, pulling me in a headlock while cocking his arm. “You think you some kind of tough guy? Little Mikey all grown up?”
Between my heart racing like a jackrabbit’s and the repeated trauma to the back of my head, I tried to protest, but the words got all caught up in my throat.
Somewhere in the background, I heard someone laughing, and an older voice–I recognized it as Benny’s–said, “In the mouth, the mouth,” and a fist grazed my lips.
I buried a knuckle into Vince’s solar plexus–that’s the spot right
between your ribs, where you get hit and lose all your breath right away. Learned that in the library drawing books. He started choking on the little air he had, and I turned to run back towards home. Dad would be pissed, but he never wanted to pay hospital bills, either. But just as I broke Vince’s grip, two hands clamped down on my arms, then wrenched them both back, hard, torquing my shoulders until they nearly popped.
“Fuck you think you’re going?” hissed a hot voice in my ear, and Benny had me pinned. Benny, who was only in high school, but tall, lean like an adult, with knives in his waistband and a permanent scowl on his face. My brother kept close to his heels and ate whatever scraps Benny would toss his way. In return, Benny taught him a few tricks. Vince was a scrapper, could hold his own against the older kids, and a few of them already owed Benny some money. Funny, how early that all started.
Vince got up pretty quick from losing his wind, and he looked at me with those here-comes-trouble eyes that preceded every punishment, every suspension, every arrest that he ever got. Vince loved me, really–that’s something you gotta remember–but he was what teachers called “prone to outbursts,” but what the other kids called “out of his fucking mind.” And he was coming at me with the hunched shoulders and lip curl that I’d learned to hide from, and either Benny didn’t yet know that meant some real blood, or, more likely, he did and didn’t care.
Well, it wasn’t the worst beating I ever got, and that’s probably because his first hit caught me right on the forehead and split it open pretty good. Cuts in your head don’t hurt too bad, but they bleed like hell, so by the fourth or fifth hit I was already dripping onto the pavement. “Shit,” he said, wiping away a few drops of blood under his boot. “Go get cleaned up or something. And don’t drink, you’re twelve goddamn years old.” He pushed me off to the side and they stalked away, leaving me dizzy on the pavement.
Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, 3rd Prize
Officer Perry parked the cruiser outside a decaying New Haven home. His face showed no real expression, merely a thin straight line for a mouth and sleep-deprived eyes. He was the opposite of me, radiating happiness. I wasn’t flashing a beaming white smile, obviously. For one, a brutal caffeine addiction begun in my high school years prevented such a gleam, but more importantly, it would have been inappropriate.
Today I faced my first trial as a newly-christened social worker. Before we left the station Officer Perry had noticed my glow, my smile, and pleasant demeanor and had warned me to cut that shit out if I was going to make it. He appeared quite jaded, a mere caricature of a real cop, which I found unusual for a man who seemed young enough to have graduated with me.
“The red one ahead. Unhealthy living conditions. Suspected spousal abuse. Noise complaints from the neighbors.” I thought it was a little scary how uninterested he sounded reading the report.
I, on the other hand, was on a crusade. I was going to save people, help children, because I loved every living creature. I loved bunnies and kitties and doggies, but most of all I loved babies, and I hated everyone that would harm babies. Not enough to stop from loving them, though. I loved those evil people too, if only a little bit. I loved all life, I’d loved it all ever since my father caught me pulling the legs off of spiders as a kid and beat me so hard I had to wear long-sleeved clothes for weeks in the summer.
I smoothed out my grey skirt and checked my hair in the side-view. Symmetrically parted, black strands tied tight into a bun. I was ready. We got out of the cruiser and climbed crumbling concrete steps to the front door. I ran my hand over the tally-marks just above my elbow, a nervous habit from my youth when I asked a girl to kiss me. I didn’t know girls didn’t kiss other girls so I left a tally-mark in black Sharpie on my arm to remind me of my failure, the second one after the incident with the spiders.
I never said I wasn’t nervous, even a little bit scared. But my resolve as a crusader for justice kept me strong. Officer Perry rapped viciously on the rotten wood. I pointed to the doorbell, but he waved me off, assuring me it wouldn’t work, they never work in this part of the city.
“What?” a woman’s voice spoke from within.
I smiled to no one in particular, least of all the door with no peep-hole. “Hello, my name is Naomi Takayoshi; I’m with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. I’d…”
“Fuck off,” the voice responded curtly. I could hear a brass chain-lock slide into place. I frowned at this being’s lack of concern for her child, to shut us out like that.
Officer Perry stepped in front of me. “Ma’am, open the door, we have a court order to search the house and speak with you or your husband.”
The brass lock slid back. I pushed the grim frown off my face
and brought back the original misplaced smile, still lacking teeth.
The door opened and we both stared into a dark cave. I was overcome with a horrendous stench of shit and sweat. I tried to
keep my smile, but with a scrunched nose I imagined I just looked
like some ghastly witch. I tried to look at the floor and the ceilings
and the piles of rotten mail while I adjusted to the stench. Officer Perry winced. Later he told me the worst was a home he’d investigated as a young cadet in Canton. They called in a panic, saying their child had gone missing, and all the cops in Canton, Avon, Simsbury, even Farmington and Burlington came out for a massive manhunt. Eventually they found the kid’s body, suffocated within the bags of trash that filled the family garage and flowed out the
bay doors into the driveway. I nearly vomited a second time then and fiddled with my long line of tally-marks to keep my stomach down. There used to be a lot less tally-marks, but I kept screwing up and I added one tally-mark for each screw up. Now there are actually more tally-marks than screw ups because I thought there should be one tally-mark for each spider leg I tore off, but I couldn’t remember how many I’d torn off so I just added two or three every so often.
The voice, now I could see, was possessed by some heavyset black woman. Her nostrils flared, her gaze bearing down on my frame. She eyed me warily. I would not be deterred.
“I’m sorry Ms. …” I glanced at the board, “Driggs, but we’ve received numerous reports about the poor living conditions within your home. I would like the opportunity to examine your home and determine if there are safe conditions to raise a child.”
“We’re a good family, we don’t want no trouble.”
“It’s not my place to judge that, I’m just here to investigate. Do you have any questions before I do so?”
She said nothing, content to guard the door from anymore hostile invasions. So I began my rounds, stepping cautiously, yet with a bounce in my step, as I took in the horrors of this lair. Dirty laundry and diapers everywhere. A pile of dishes in the sink. A baseball bat, not against a wall or in a closet, but propped against an easy-throne containing some other horrid brown being with one hand wielding a remote and the other a bottle of Coors. He hadn’t spoken or moved since we’d arrived; it seemed his only concern was whatever sitcom was emanating from the black and white television set I could’ve sworn was older than me.
“Sir? My name is Naomi Takayoshi, do you know why I’m here?”
“I heard; do what you want,” he said, waving me off. He seemed to think he could run a functioning household right out of that chair. He was sorely mistaken.
I continued into the kitchen, hearing Officer Perry gently pull the bat away onto the hallway rug. I found the innocent creature seated in a rusty chair and nursing a yellowed sippy-cup. I put my sunglasses to rest on the table and smiled, using my teeth this time, and pulled my hand away from the tally-marks. His confused eyes stared up at me with such hope and pleading; he greeted me
by saying, “Hi,” but it might as well have been, “Save me, save me!” I counted at least two bruises on him, one on his arm and the other around his eye.
Officer Perry stood upright against the frame joining the kitchen and living room while I passed through the hall towards the bedrooms. Compared to the realms I’d just passed through, this place was quite normal. It didn’t reek of mold and who-knows-what-else, the plush rug was clean, and it even had a tasteful landscape or two on the walls. Imitations, of course, but even I didn’t have real paintings in my home.
The master bedroom and bathroom, as well, were pristine, well-ordered. Beds were made, windows wiped, no abandoned plates or clothing or drug paraphernalia or anything else on my mental checklist. Aside from a hole or two in the walls, it looked like any middle-class family’s home. The real tragedy came when I found the child’s room. Broken furniture, crayon-murals, taped-up-window frames, all sorts of damages and signs of neglect. This child had no discipline, no structure, no order. I could feel heat rise to my cheeks at the thought of a kid running around un-corralled by morals and understanding of proper behavior.
I stormed down the hall but stopped just before the living room to compose myself. Explain the findings, what happens now, be calm, don’t give away anything, Naomi. I formed a professional-looking non-expression and proceeded into the living room. The beast that greeted me was still there with her curves upon curves, dreadful curves, as if she were the beautiful, benevolent one and not I. Her curves were lumpy and misshapen; they weren’t like my curves, the curves of my breasts that my white boyfriends like and the curves of my ass that my black boyfriends like. I was the pretty and good and kind and just one, not her. I held my clipboard-shield over my chest to protect my precious bleeding heart.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Driggs, but it appears to me that there are several signs of abuse and neglect in your home, in addition to the verbal complaints we have received. I regret to inform you that we’re going to have to remove the child from your care and place him under the supervision of a foster family.”
She remained silent, nodding her head rapidly, her face shaking with each bob. She tried to look pitiable with her curves upon curves, as if she were the beautiful victim and not I. Her curves were lumpy and misshapen; they weren’t like my curves, the curves of my breasts that my white boyfriends like and the curves of my ass that my black boyfriends like. I was the pretty and good and kind and just one, not her. I clasped my clipboard-shield close to my chest and returned to the kitchen.
As I carried the child into the living room, the chair-beast called out, “Where the fuck you takin’ my kid?”
I heard the easy chair slide back with immense force, more
force than I thought the father could muster. I was unconcerned; Officer Perry had stood between the two of us the entire time, his hand resting on the butt of his service pistol. The father and I locked eyes for a moment before I looked away. I slowly stepped into the hall, savoring the moment. I turned and tried to stare right into the eyes of the first monster, but she didn’t look at me. Tears were streaking down her fat face, and smudged makeup intermingled to make gross rivers on her cheeks. I explained what was expected of them at this point, but after a while her nodding, sobbing,
and my legal codes became a whole lot of white noise in my head.
She looked as if she wanted to speak, to defend herself, to justify her failure, but she just turned away. I clenched the child closer to my chest, for its protection and so I could stroke the tally-marks on my arm.
By now Officer Perry and the father had come to the door. The man glared up at his beast, silently scolding her transgressions. Officer Perry stood between the pair, waiting for the first strike that never came. Through the whole encounter he had said nothing
in the house. The woman was sobbing openly now, her hand buried into a bag of Lays. I hated her and wanted to pull off her fat, ugly legs but I just stammered out an apology to no one in particular before Perry pulled me away and shut the boulder to this cave.
As we made our way down the steps, I could hear pounding on the walls and loud screaming. I knew these sounds. The confused child called out, screeching for his mother in between nonsensical gibberish that flung saliva onto my papers and my starched shirt. Perry placed his hands over my ears until we got to the cruiser, now possessing a few more dents than we’d entered with. I realized I’d left my sunglasses resting on that battered table but no longer had any desire to enter.
The child continued raging in agony, strapped in the dusty car-seat in back. After we’d passed six exits on I-95 his rage and anguish had drained his energy and he slept.
“Did they love him?” I asked Perry.
“Not important. It was a necessary evil.”
We said nothing for another ten minutes. By then the child had awoken again. Now it screamed audibly, “Momma! Momma! Momma!”
I felt bread and lettuce rise into my throat. “Stop, Perry, stop!”
He slammed on the brakes and I threw the door open to vomit into a patch of parched, yellow grass. I told him I needed a bathroom and walked briskly over to a nearby McDonald’s, pushing past some confused man with a fleet of kids behind him. In the bathroom I tried to vomit again but came up with nothing and just dry-heaved into the sink. I stood up straight to keep my balance as I scratched and squeezed my swath of jagged tally-marks. Long ago when I had just the two tally-marks, they were black, but black ink wasn’t permanent enough so I fixed it all with red ink. I wanted nothing more than to engrave a new, red tally-mark into my arm but I knew nothing in that bathroom would do it; everything was safe, edgeless, and child-proof. So I just picked at the skin of my forearm until red ink ran down my finger, correcting my mistakes all the way down as I sobbed into the disgusting sink.
I smoothed out my hair and wiped the tears off my face with a cheap paper towel. I rolled down the sleeves of my shirt and left the bathroom. Officer Perry had moved the car into a handicapped spot up front and was shuffling through some papers when I got in. He looked at the sleeves and didn’t ask about the wad of paper-towels in the sleeves because he didn’t need to and I knew he didn’t need to. We said nothing the rest of the ride because there were no more words to be said.
In my warm and sunny house I meticulously filled out the mountain of paperwork I’d been saddled with. After a while I couldn’t focus anymore, so I swept the hardwood floors and dusted the oak mantle and polished the granite counter-tops. I called my father and told him I loved him and thanked him yet again for the beautiful house with its oppressive loneliness and asked how the woman who birthed me was doing, and all he asked was why I needed to tell him all of this at one in the morning.
I finished up the work for the case and stapled the packet at a forty-five degree angle, then slipped it carefully into a manila envelope. I pulled off my now gross clothing and drew a scalding bath. I lowered my pale body into the tub and felt the sharp stings of heat that reminded me of my one and only bee-sting that had led to my third tally-mark. At that thought I remembered I hadn’t
made one for earlier, so I took the polished straight-razor resting on the edge of the tub and cut one into the flesh of my arm, and then I cut another for forgetting to record my mistake, and then another for calling my dad so late at night, and another for thinking something bad about this lovely house, and another for the spiders I’d pulled the legs off of, and I was about to make another for I forget what. But I saw that the tally marks had reached my elbow and that I couldn’t make anymore. And I smiled. I smiled fully, showing off my stained teeth in the mirror. I was happy that I’d finally completed this arm’s tally marks. With red correcting ink swirling in the water around me, dissipating like tea, I took the blade in my left hand and marked the first correction into the skin of my right.
Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, 3rd Prize
The Tower sat in the middle of the Ring. Perhaps “Tower” wasn’t quite the right word for it; it didn’t even come up to his eye level, after all. The Tower, for that was what he called it anyway, was a rectangular chunk of onyx-colored glass. It was the only contrast that existed against the dusty, sandy color of the walls, the floor of the Ring. He leaned against the bars of his cell. Set several feet back and three stories up into the thick stone walls, all that he could see was the Tower in the middle and the cell on the far opposite wall, where the Other engaged in everyday misery just as he did. He could only see the door to the one Other, but when he had first come to the Ring, he had seen the dozens of holes like his that pocked the stone.
He stuck his hand out through the bars and waved. He thought he saw the Other wave back. That was the extent of their communication every day, and even that was only when the weather was clear. The top of the Ring had no ceiling; every day it let in the beating sun and every night the bone-breaking cold would follow. Sometimes birds would fly through the Ring. Once he saw one perch on the tower. It had been an exciting day until the bird had begun to look at him. That made him uncomfortable. Then he went to sleep.
The door to his cell was never locked. All he had to do was lift the handle and push and the door would swing wide open. His first few days in the Ring, he had thought this was a mistake, he thought he had the chance to escape. But then he saw the drop. Over thirty feet down onto solid stone. Even if he lived, he would be in no shape to run from the Tower. The Tower. Hours and hours were spent every day contemplating that void in the middle of the Ring. He knew it had a door on it somewhere. A hood had been tied over his head when he came to the Ring on his first day, but he remembered two sets of hands on his arms guiding him to his cell. A rope had been tied around his waist and he was hoisted up into his cell. By the time he got the knots on the hood untied, it was all gone; the rope, the guards, they had to have gone somewhere. The hood lay under his mattress, long forgotten.
He had started to fill his days trying to figure out what the Tower was. The idea he returned to most often was that it was simply the control room for the Ring. He imagined the guards sitting, looking out through the glass at the cells, drinking coffee, laughing at the damnable excuses for humans that they held in their grasp. Sometimes, though, he had more fanciful thoughts about the Tower. Once he imagined it contained a hidden exit from the Ring. Or maybe it was just the peak of an underground portion of the facility. Maybe it was where the guards lived, keeping an eye on him and the Others all day, every day.
A flash caught his eye, interrupting his meandering thoughts. Looking out through the bars, he saw the Other signaling to him.
A shard of glass, a mirror, something reflective. The Other had used it to reach out to him every day since his incarceration. He still didn’t get why, but he would watch the reflection of the sun every time until the Other stopped. He had no way to signal back and he always felt that if he tried to yell across the Ring, he would come to deeply regret the decision.
That was what drove him mad more than anything else: the dead, oppressive silence. No one ever made a sound for fear of the repercussions, he assumed. The flashes from the Other had stopped. He returned to his bed and collapsed into the hazy rest that defined most of his days.
He awoke the next morning more rested than he had ever felt since coming to the Ring. For one night, the nightmares had subsided. For one night, he actually slept without disruption. Perhaps it was the sleep that had emboldened him, but he walked straight to the door of his cell and flung it wide open. Standing on the dusty precipice, he cupped his hands to his mouth and let out a yawp. It was cracked, dry, and as full of dust as the Ring itself. But
it was a sound, and it was his sound. He hadn’t heard his own voice in ages; he had given up talking to himself long ago.
Taking a deep breath, he yelled out again, hoping the Other would call back or at least retort with his usual signaling. But, after a few minutes with no response, he sighed and lowered his expectations once more. Still, he had yelled and no response had come from the Tower. He began to yell more, looking for a response from anybody else in the Ring.
Still garnering no response, he figured the Others were still too afraid to respond. He was just about to give up and try again later when he slipped. He let out a hoarse cry and flung out his arms, grabbing the door to his cell, hanging back over the depth of the Ring. A small chunk of the stone had slipped out from under his feet and caused him to fall. Gripping the door, he pulled himself back into the cell with what little muscle he had left. Panting, he lay down on the cold stone, facing out into the Ring. That’s when he saw it. There, directly below the door to his cell, was the bit of stone that had broken from the floor. Yet, there was something amiss. He may have had very little mental stimulation over the long months of his incarceration, but he still had his common sense. Those bits of rock were not thirty-some feet down. They looked as though they were barely even five. Crossing himself, he hooked his feet through the bars of his cell door and slowly lowered himself over the edge of the cell. Just as he was beginning to regret his decision, his hands hit the glass. Glass. Cold, thick, invisible glass. He fought through his shock and confusion and let his feet come loose from the door, tumbling to the invisible slab.
He had no clue what the glass was about. He couldn’t even be sure if he was truly awake anymore with the absurdity of the goings-on. Picking up one of the bits of rock, he dragged it across the back of his hand. It bled. It hurt. He was awake. That was when it began to come back to him, slowly but surely: the reasons he had been thrown in the Ring.
He stayed prone and began to crawl, elbows and knees across the glass floor, methodically feeling in front of him in case the floor fell away. Halfway across the Ring, he rolled onto his back and looked around him. He could see his empty cell, the door hanging wide open. Looking around the Ring, he saw the other cells that pocked the Ring. Something was off. None had doors except for his and that of the Other. The rest were just gaps in the stone. Empty. No people, no beds, nothing. He did not understand. Rolling back over, he continued to crawl.
When he got close to the Tower, he paused. He was even with the top few feet of it, and he knew somewhere there was a way into it. Crawling around the perimeter of the Tower, he eventually came to the opposite side of the Ring. He became distracted from his search when he saw the cell of the Other. What he had thought was a cell. Quite the opposite from the rest of the ring, it was nothing but a barred door bolted into the rock face. A shard of glass hung from
a rope knotted around a bar. It twisted in the slight breeze, reflecting the blazing sunlight. There was no Other. He was the only captive in the Ring. He was alone. He was infuriated. He slammed his fists into the glass floor and roared, his voice still cracking. He bellowed until his throat was raw.
At least an hour had passed before his anger subsided. With redoubled vigor, he crawled his way back to the Tower. Reaching the fourth side of it, he found what he was looking for: a nearly seamless door in the onyx glass. Reaching for it, he paused. It was the first time he had actually looked into the Tower since reaching it. He stared into the eyes of his reflection in the onyx glass. He hadn’t seen himself in… weeks. Months. Years. He didn’t know how many years. Not anymore. He shook his head at the reflection. He didn’t believe it.
Shaking the thoughts from his head, he did the only thing that
made sense to him: he reached out and pushed on the door. With a
hiss of air and a pop, the door swung inward and revealed a simple ladder in a dark shaft. The glass let in very little light, but he could see the Ring perfectly. Lowering himself onto the ladder, he slowly made his way down. Each rung over the ladder introduced indescribable agony into his body. His muscles had decayed slowly over his years of incarceration. In the beginning he had attempted to exercise in his cell, to keep his body in the shape it arrived in, but after a while he lost the willpower.
His muscles felt like he had climbed down the ladder for miles, but it was no more than a few dozen yards. Reaching the bottom, he sank to the floor, panting and shaking. A simple revolving chair sat in the middle of a fair sized circular room, not dissimilar to the Ring itself. Instead of cells carved from the stone, though, there were monitors. One was looking into the very cell he had been in that morning. One seemed to be from the point of view of the dangling shard of glass. One viewed each empty cavern in the walls of the Ring. A small panel below the monitors glowed with red text: cONDEMNED.
The chair. There, in the simple chair, in the barren room, underneath the most oppressive structure ever built, was a package wrapped in ordinary brown paper, tied with twine. He picked the package up, fumbled with the knot, and unwrapped it. Inside was a uniform with a dusty-colored circle embroidered on the breast and sleeve. Without giving it a second thought, he stripped off the rags he had worn for the past many years and donned the uniform. It felt good to have clean clothing. There was a brass nameplate pinned to the shirt. He ran his fingers over it and read the name. WatCHER. Not a name, but a position. He couldn’t remember his name. Not anymore. WatCHER. There was a dial on the arm of the chair. For better or worse, he knew that dial meant answers. He sunk into the chair wearily. He rotated the dial once. It clicked.
The monitors went black and then came back to life. What he saw wasn’t quite the same. The small panel below the monitors blinked. FOUR. He flicked the dial again. FIVE. And again. SIX. He kept turning, and the number kept going up. The monitors seemed to show the Ring each time, but something was always different; the spacing of the cells, the height or shape of the Tower, the weather, the doors. SEVEN. Click. cONDEMNED. Click. NINE. Click. TEN. He clicked through the numbers, not stopping for more than a few seconds on each. He went through dozens of sets of monitors, dozens of Rings. Sometimes he saw others like him sitting in cells. Sometimes alive. Sometimes dead. Many times both.
FORTY-SEVEN. The Ring was covered in snow. A woman had just been locked into a cell; he could tell by the way she was hanging on the door and screaming. He had done that too. He was tired now, but had no desire to sleep. He rested his head on his hand, staring at the monitor that showed the fresh prisoner. And he Watched.
The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize for Poetry
We’d separate our photographs into lights and darks,
take them out of cloth hampers, transfer them to white machines.
We’d turn knobs, adding measured amounts
of white detergent, and then watch the water run.
Unapologetic just like us, the machine would erase the content of
the 4 x 6’s.
The images would be mangled by the rinse cycle,
the soapy water would make the glossy prints indistinguishable.
And that’s what we’d want.
The machine would beep and the photographs would be unloaded,
the lump of moist memory almost humorously transferred to the
where the images, now merely paper, would be spun and dried—free of the weight they once soaked.
The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize for Prose
The Race Toward Home
Alyssa Palazzo’s “Athanasy” won The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize; however, as this piece is not available for publication, we are publishing this in its place.
I stood at the stove melting butter and milk into the pasta. The roads were thick with brown sand and slush, perfect for staying inside with an air hockey table and a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese. Five-year-old Ian stood on his chair, and I ripped the packet open for him. He dipped his fingers into the powder and brought them to his mouth. He refused to eat the pasta unless he tasted the powder first.
“Okay?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
Over the past four years, I had grown to know the house and Ian’s family as if they were my own. I knew all the best places for hide-and-seek, which toothbrush belonged to which brother, and how to turn on the moon nightlight in their bedroom. I knew to put my shoes in the basket by the door so that the dog, Emma, didn’t run off with them, and that Emma was known on occasion to eat frogs. When Ian and I ate lunch in silence, it was a comfortable one, interrupted only by the noise of snowplows. When he got up to use the bathroom, I rinsed his dishes, pet Emma, thought about walking home in the snow. Five minutes passed, then ten.
“Ian, do you need help?” I asked. The house was an old colonial, and the knob on the bathroom door was low and broken. Ian’s older brother, Matthew, had often gotten stuck in this particular bathroom and screamed for me to come let him out.
I knocked on the door.
“Stop hitting yourself; stop hitting yourself; stop hitting yourself,” I heard.
“Stop hitting yourself.”
I opened the door. Seated on his red booster seat, Ian was repeatedly whacking himself in the head with a toilet brush.
“Stop hitting yourself,” he said.
I leaned against the doorframe and laughed, although half of me wanted to cry. Often, when I think of Ian, I think of this moment: me, in my UConn hoodie, hands clapped to my mouth in giggles, yet doubled over as if in pain. My heart hurt.
“Ian, please put that down,” I said. “We don’t hit ourselves, and if we do it’s certainly not with a toilet brush. It’s full of germs.”
“Stop hitting yourself; stop hitting yourself,” he said.
“Ian,” I started, but then I stopped. His eyes were glazed over. He was looking right through me.
When I was sixteen years old, Caroline, a music teacher and former actress, and her husband, Mark, moved in across the street. They had two children. Matthew was three, and Ian was eight months. At three, Matthew already chattered away on any subject, an articulate little genius. Ian had big green eyes adorned with thick lashes. I fell in love with both of them immediately.
On a fall afternoon Mark would leave them with me to go see Caroline perform in a small Connecticut show. I would set Ian in his play saucer and focus on Matthew, who loved little cars and pirate ships and particularly loved flying them off the coffee table. While Ian fiddled with play mirrors and plush animals, Matthew and I would set up his alphabet mat on the floor and scour the living room for objects that matched each tile.
“Ball,” he’d say, holding the dog’s toy.
“Okay,” I’d prompt. “That starts with….”
“B!” he’d say, setting the ball on the mat.
All the attention I devoted to Matthew is probably why it took me so long to notice there was something wrong with Ian.
When Ian was one year old and we had days alone, we would play the same games over and over again: setting up block towers and knocking them down; climbing up and down the porch steps; opening and closing the back door. Ian would spend the whole afternoon this way, fascinated with how the mechanisms in the doorknob moved. I would sit on the hardwood beams of the porch, tug the sleeves of my flannel shirt down over my fingers, and watch. These were beautiful afternoons. The backyard filled with ducks or turkeys; the leaves were fire against the gray-blue sky. Old birdhouses yielded the shells of robin eggs. Traipsing back and forth in the yard, Ian looked like a little explorer.
When a rain shower blew in, we roved into the living room and turned on the soundtrack to The Lion King. I sat in front of Caroline’s bay window looking at the rain, and Ian stared at the stereo, transfixed, for hours.
He never cried. One day I was playing with the boys outside. The grass was dewy and soaked through my sneakers, so I tried to keep Matthew and Ian on their gravel swing set. Ian was digging in the rocks with Emma when Matthew swung into him, striking him directly in the head. Instead of reacting, Ian sat on the ground completely silent, fingers still clutching the gravel. When I went over to comfort him he snapped.
“No,” he screamed at the top of his lungs. He stormed away from the play set and stared right through me, screaming “No! No! No! No!” until I sat in my lawn chair and decided to ride it out. He tore at his t-shirt; his face turned red. He would not be comforted, even when Caroline came outside with a bag of Dum Dums.
“No,” he screamed at her. “No.”
It was startling. He was three years old, but he wasn’t using any other words.
“Don’t worry,” I said to Caroline. We stood on the lawn, our sneakers soaked, watching him scream. “Some kids develop language slower than others. It doesn’t mean anything.”
She was unconvinced. Dozens of people had already said the same thing, including friends, family, and the organization CT
Birth to Three, which had observed Ian at twenty months. Even they said that he was fine. His development was below average, but eventually he would “catch up,” they said.
But when Caroline picked Ian up at daycare in the afternoon she asked him whom he played with. “I play with Jeffrey,” he said. It was the same response she got every day, even weeks after Jeffrey stopped attending nursery school.
It strikes me as odd that it took so long to diagnose Ian. The repetitive behavior, the unwillingness to play with other children, the lack of speech was always there. Even I noticed it early on, and I was a teenager who knew nothing about the disease.
Ian was evaluated by the town’s integrated preschool when he turned three, and diagnosed with delayed attention and verbal skills. He did therapy for speech, social skills, attention, and focus, but none of his teachers saw the signs of Autism.
The ADHD Center in Middletown and the Center for Autism at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center diagnosed him at four, and it was a relief. Finally, he could get the help he needed.
I never had relationships with my own brother and sister. My brother moved away when I was twelve. I haven’t spoken to him in eight years. My sister has spent the last four years in and out of the hospital. I never see her. Matthew and Ian are very much the younger siblings I never had.
I remember holding their sister, Molly, the month after she was born. It was December and the Christmas lights shone in through the windows, bathing her in a feathery golden glow. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She was swaddled in a pink blanket, the nails on her fingers infinitesimally small.
“What do you think, Ian? Do you like being a big brother?” I asked. He looked at me blankly and wandered from the room.
When Molly was a year old, she could point to the princesses in her Disney books and identify them by name. “Rella,” she said proudly, tapping the princess in the blue gown.
I sent the boys to bed at night and allowed them to sit up and read while I rocked Molly. If I put her in her crib and left the room she screamed at the top of her lungs, so instead I sat in her open doorway and read from whatever book I had at hand. Over the winter of my junior year in college, it was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, and I tried to make my voice as low and soothing as possible. She would watch me intently with big blue eyes, and study the ebb and flow of my voice, listening to the words in a way Ian never had. When she drifted off, I would tuck in the boys.
On one such night, Ian asked me, “When I go to sleep, you go home?”
He spoke slowly, every word chosen with care.
“No,” I said, scooping all the books off his bed. “I’ll wait for your parents to come back.”
“But you’ll be here when I wake up. To make waffles,” he clarified.
“But where would I sleep?” I asked, setting the books on the shelf.
“You sleep here,” he said. “In the closet.”
“I can’t sleep in the closet.”
“Then you sleep under the floor,” he said.
I laughed, but while this simple mix up of “on” and “under” made me smile, I also wanted to cry. His baby sister, at one year old, could already form words, point, laugh, and say, “Up, please,” when she wanted to be carried. Yet this boy, nearly six years old, struggled to make sentences.
I have said that it is odd that it took so long to diagnose Ian, but I find it odder still, that a disease that impacts one in fifty–four boys gets such limited recognition. The first references to Autism are recorded in the early 1940s, but there is still no known cause or cure. It’s the fastest growing developmental disability, yet it receives the least amount of funding among other childhood diseases. Leukemia impacts one child in every twelve hundred, while Autism impacts one in eighty-four, but Leukemia receives over twice the amount of research funding. When I mentioned this to a friend she scoffed at me.
“Kids with Leukemia die,” she said.
But people with Autism struggle all their lives. How could she compare the two?
Ian is high functioning. He can memorize entire piano pieces, read books to himself, and attend kindergarten. Low functioning children require full time care in all aspects of their lives. They have medical issues like epilepsy and self-mutilation. They have difficulty mastering simple things like toilet training. I witnessed a crying mother speak of her seventeen-year-old son who would not stop beating himself. They had to keep him handcuffed and in a helmet twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Another woman had a son who was 6’3” and over two hundred pounds. He barreled through her home on a daily basis, putting holes in the walls and smashing furniture, but she feared he would be mistreated if she put him in a group home. People who say which disease is worthy of more money are naïve.
But please tell me: if there is no cause, no cure, no money, no recognition of how significant Autism is, then what do we have?
During Ian’s fifth summer, Caroline and Mark remodeled their house and sent me to the park with Matthew, Ian, and Molly. On the way home, the boys raced, with Matthew on his bike and Ian on his scooter. Matthew is a very typical older brother. He loves to instigate competitions that only he will win, and usually I do nothing to discourage this. On one of these races, Matthew screamed, “Ian, you can’t catch me!” to which Ian flung down the scooter and flopped face down on the cement sidewalk. I momentarily tightened my grip on Molly’s stroller, but walked evenly.
“Ian, what’s the matter?” I asked, stopping beside him.
“I can’t win,” he cried into the sidewalk. “I can’t keep up with Matthew.”
“You can walk with Molly and me. Aren’t we cooler than Matthew?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“You okay?” Molly asked, reaching out of her stroller to poke him.
“I’m not okay,” Ian replied.
“Ian, you okay?”
“I’m not Okay,” he screamed at her. “I’m not Okay; I’m not Okay; I’m not Okay.”
I sat down beside him. A jogger slowed and stared, and I met her gaze, daring her to comment on the boy lying prostrate on the sidewalk. She picked up her pace.
How could I make Ian understand that there would be so many races he couldn’t win? That his brother would tease him, that he would be bullied in school, that he would not always be able to speak with the same freeness that others take for granted? How could I make him understand that he would have to live with this for the rest of his life, but that even though he couldn’t speak, I thought he still had a voice?
“Ian,” I asked, “do you want to know a secret?”
“No,” he wailed.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “It’s really important.”
He turned his head and stared at me, green eyes now turned brown. I love you, I wanted to say. You have Autism, but that doesn’t matter to me. You’re the most amazing brother I’ve ever had. But I couldn’t say those things.
I said, “You’re the best boy I know.”
The canopy of leaves rustled above us. Molly reached out to him from her stroller. And he didn’t understand. I would never be able to communicate that to him.
We sat on the sidewalk wondering how to get up and finish the race home.
The Aetna Creative Nonfiction Award, Undergraduate 1st Prize
For Myles Udland
“Let me call the police,” Jordan says.
She has been my roommate for six weeks. I am embarrassed. This is not how we are supposed to start off a friendship. I sit on my bed, my knees pulled to my chest. My calves are slim and white but for the bruises stippled across my skin like clouds.
“I’m scared,” she says. “Let me call the police.”
Her hair is unbrushed, eyes edged in sleep. She looks so normal standing there in the loose green cami she slept in that the words, “I’m scared,” don’t register. I cannot remember the last time I told anyone I was scared. Not once in the whole fifteen months I have been with J did I let those words leave my mouth. Not even now, as he stands outside, pounding on the door and screaming up at my window. He tells me I have two minutes to get downstairs before he comes up.
I don’t call the police. I think of you and how glad I am that you are not here to witness this moment of personal shame.
Last night, when he and I walked by the lake through piles of leaves and dried cattails, I told him I was leaving. He caught me by the arm and spun me around to face him, and my fingers tingled. Static ran down my arm. There was the shock of his skin against mine and I could sense a charge in the air. The wind came from farther north, colder and lacking the familiar smell of decay. The birds stayed silent. Dryness stuck in my throat. That night there would be a once-in-a-lifetime Halloween snowstorm that would knock down the power lines, and keep residents without electricity for days, but I didn’t think any of it was coming.
He asked me to repeat myself and I did. “I think we should break up,” I said, and he grimaced, thin-lipped. His grasp felt like a compression cuff. My arm hurt. The wind made my eyes water. My nose ran.
“We’re not breaking up,” he said.
During the last fifteen months, there were so many times when I should have left him, but every time I should have left I did the same thing I did now: I nodded. I told him he was right. I told him that I was being an idiot, and that I was selfish, and that I would never ever leave. I kissed him on the mouth, and took in the familiar taste of hash, saliva, his thin worm lips.
But when he eased his grip, I turned and I ran.
Weeks before I leave him, I ask you how to run again.
You are only vaguely familiar. We spent the spring semester together in writing workshop, and this fall we have been flung together again. You used to run university track, and you slosh with me to the center of campus, around the static construction sites and flooded sidewalks. In the dark your face looks narrower. Your hair is swept across your forehead, covered with the black Saucony baseball cap you always wear when you don’t shower. Your body is light and toned.
“My ankles hurt,” I say. “Sometimes, I go for a run and one will completely give out on me. I’ll have to limp home.”
“Where does it hurt?” you ask, and I have to restrain myself from saying “everywhere,” from the bruises on my breasts, to my aching pelvis, to my lungs which feel scorched every time I take a breath.
Instead I say, “Here,” and point to the tops of my Adidas.
“Toe taps,” you say. “It’ll strengthen the tendons. You’ll feel better.”
“Toe taps,” I repeat. “Okay.”
I have been taught that when I’m afraid, sensory receptors send signals to my brain. They travel through my thalamus, sending electrical impulses from synapse to synapse until my sympathetic nervous system has been activated. My heart races, my arteries expand, my breathing speeds up, and my pupils dilate. In the split
second this happens I either stand and fight or turn and run. Running has always seemed to me like the weaker of the two options.
J was a track captain when I first met him.
We were research partners in high school and spent our time looking up articles and bitching about physics, although we did not date until the summer after my freshman year of college.
“Race me,” I say, hopping in front him. “Race me! Race me! Race me!”
He sits on his bed and fiddles with the spokes on his electric guitar. When he’s not imitating Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen, he’s furiously tuning, making, what I think, are the most god-awful sounds in the world.
“To where?” he asks.
“To the town fountain and back,” I say. I shake him by the shoulders, trying to make him stop plucking chords. “Come on, race me!”
“You’d win,” he says. Cigarettes and heavy drug use had ruined his lungs so that he grew winded going up the stairs. “I don’t know why you bother,” he adds, pushing me away. “You don’t run so much as hobble. It’s like jogging with a stutter.”
No one ever asks me why I didn’t leave J. In the months after our separation, when people learn that I have been abused, Jordan sometimes makes expressions like she would like to cry. My guy friends make arrangements to walk me home from class at night. My girl friends only refer to him in terms of “that asshole” and instantly drop the topic as soon as he is brought up.
Jordan only mentions him once, and she turns to me, blue nail-polished fingernails between her teeth. “What was it like?” she asks.
I don’t know what to say.
I can say that the first time I had sex I was bullied into it. At 4:30 on a December afternoon I slid off my jeans and laid on my bed, watching him wrestle with a condom that was a size too small. I choked on his tongue.
I could say that we were pulled over on a road trip down to the Connecticut shoreline. He was going eighty-two in a fifty mile-per-hour zone, and had two ounces of pot in the side door along with a bowl, scale, six tabs of acid. The trooper stood at the passenger window, and I crossed my fingers. Pleasepleaseplease don’t notice the drugs, I thought. Pleasepleaseplease. J got an eighty-dollar ticket for failure to adhere to traffic signs and he pounded on the steering wheel and screamed. I screamed back.
I could say that at a summer house party, I ran up the stairs to his room and flipped over his mattress. I rummaged through his drawers, and pulled out the lining in the window and took all the weed, and Oxycontin, and acid and flushed it. His friends were downstairs getting high and listened to him rattle the lock to his bedroom. No one commented when they heard the release of the knob or the noises that he didn’t bother to cover. They just continued passing the bowl.
But I find I cannot bear to tell Jordan any of this.
I say, “I was always tired. It was like I had to go out every day after a flood had hit and bail water for hours. Only once I had fixed the damage from the flood, there would be acid rain, or a fire, or a twister.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she says. “I mean were you scared?”
I could say I was terrified. I ground my teeth in my sleep and had so much anxiety that I couldn’t breathe and had to stop running. I couldn’t draw enough air into my lungs to get up the stairs.
But I can’t say that either.
“No,” I say. “I was never scared.”
I am afraid to get into your car.
You are parked across the street from my building the first night I spend with you, and I inhale the January air deeply, tell myself you are a nice boy, that it is only a five-minute ride to the empty Chinese restaurant where we will eat sesame tofu and shrimp fried rice. You will break open your fortune cookie and read, “A romantic night is ahead of you,” and I will laugh, but when I kiss you good night it is on your cheek.
What will happen if I love you, and you don’t love me back? What if you are like J and you scream, and hit, and hurt? I have been reading Katherine Mansfield, and I grasp the pregnancy of the moment as I walk to your Camry. “If you love me, I don’t mind how much it is,” I recite. “Love me as little as you like.” Only, please, love me.
You teach me how to run, although we never run together.
In fact, I only ever see you run twice. The first time is in person. I am jogging on state highway 430, which wraps and winds through Connecticut woods past rundown colonials that house small families and college students. My sneakers kick up old snowplow sand. The March air is filled with dust. When I turn into campus you fly by me with a grin and neon Under Armor tights that make me laugh out loud. Your form is upright, every muscle optimized and perfected after spending years training. It’s amazing: the speed and power your body has.
The second time I see you run is out of curiosity. I google your name and find an old high school meet. I watch you soar, the girl holding the camera shouting your name, as you push the first runner into second. You are only seventeen in this video, and I watch your younger self walk off the track and stand alone by the wall, not reveling in your win or gasping for air, but studying the other runners around you.
You teach me how to run, but you also teach me how to trust my body again. The bruises on my breasts and pelvis have long since faded, but I keep expecting some betrayal. I do not trust my lungs, which could not get me up the stairs, to support me through a two-mile loop. If my ankle gives out, I don’t think I can pick myself up. I haven’t been able to pick myself up in almost two years, but you keep teaching me and I keep learning. You teach me that rolling my ankles will strengthen them, and knee raises are good for my hips. You say that I should try running barefoot on the soft Astroturf when my feet hurt and then switch over to the track. You take me to the specialty run store where you work in Short Hills and fit my feet, which are uncommonly narrow, and let me choose the neon orange Newtons although they are twice as expensive as the Asics you recommend me.
As hard as it is to trust my body, it’s even harder to learn to trust you. You tuck me away on a bench underneath the April sunshine, and my hands are shaking slightly as I carve away at my ice cream. You philosophize on David Foster Wallace with an energy and persistence that cuts to the center of your love for writing. We talk of how one day one of us will publish. We joke that if our relationship ends poorly, one of us will either slander the other or tell a story of unrequited love. You tell me about your little brother, Tyler, who runs for Princeton and how excited you are for him. Your whole face lights up. But as we talk about all of these things, I can only think about last night, the fight that erupted over the phone over a missed date, a mixed message, just an accident, really. You toss the wrapper from your cone and I speak.
“I think it took guts to call you this morning.”
“Why?” you ask.
“I was nervous.”
You tighten the straps on your backpack and squint at the sunshine. “Did you really think I was mad at you?”
I wipe the chocolate off my fingers.
“I feel like you’re expecting me to show up at your door one day with my fists bared.”
“What can I say?” I ask. “I’ve been conditioned.”
“I know you have.”
But on the way home you let me slide my hand into yours.
I love you best in the morning. I slip past your parents’ room and ease through your door. “Wake up,” I whisper. I pounce on top of you and nuzzle my face in your neck. “Wake up, wake up, wake up,” I say, and you open your eyes and shut them promptly, merely rolling over. I kiss your jaw and your ears. Your blond hair is tousled, forehead bathed in sweat, green t-shirt clinging to your skin, and you have this perfect capability of tuning me out. I curl next to you instead, and you slide over, lifting the covers up and draping them over my side.
“Wake up,” I whisper, and you touch your finger from your lips and to mine. “Wake up,” I whisper. “Wake up.”
I once read a book in which the world slowed more every week. The days extended to seventy-two hours, then one hundred and forty-four, then until the birds couldn’t fly, and the wheat couldn’t grow, and time ceased to exist. It isn’t until the summer before my senior year of college that I learn it is true, that it actually can happen.
I am pursuing an internship in Manhattan and live with a girl named Charlotte from Occidental College. She is baking kale chips in our oven and performs little calculated movements as she reaches for this drawer or that spatula.
“The rotation of the earth slows every year,” she tells me. “Eventually the magnetic poles will be thrown off, and the current of the ocean will change.” She shrugs and gives the chips a flip. “I wouldn’t worry about it for another million years though.”
After weeks of living with Charlotte, I make the hour train ride into New Jersey to stay with you. Your family is in South Carolina and it is in these weeks, when we are alone, eight months after I first slid into your car, that my old nervous habits start to show. When I go to sleep at night in your brother Tyler’s room, I lock the door. When your friends smoke pot in your backyard I retreat inside and sit upstairs, alone. I apologize for everything I do. I ask “are you angry?” continuously. I’m afraid you don’t love me, but I can’t say, “‘Love me as little as you like,’ but please, love me.” Instead I tell you that you’re inconsiderate, that you’re self-centered, that you’re stubborn. You sit on the edge of Tyler’s bed and listen to everything I say until I’ve run out of words.
“I’m sorry,” you say.
You get up and gently close the door behind you.
I wonder why I can’t take happiness as it comes and forget about J and the abuse. I wonder why I’m so afraid and why I can’t admit it. Despite what Charlotte says, I am certain the world has stopped spinning and time no longer exists.
I pad softly onto the landing where I sit at the top of the stairs and listen to you wash the dishes. It is twelve AM You must think I’m asleep, but you appear at the bottom of the stairs with two glasses of water. You hand me one, and sit down next to me.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
“I’m scared,” I say.
I feel sick. You heat up a bag of rice and tuck me into Tyler’s narrow twin bed, turning me on my side, and resting the bag against my stomach. You flip off the lights and lie down next to me, and I settle up against you, trying to make my breathing as slow and even as yours.
I don’t know whether or not you do or did love me, but you do leave me. We come back to September when the sky once dropped off and I tapped your arm in the rain. I know you are only one hundred and seventy miles south, but it’s like you never existed. I have no ticket stubs. No t-shirts. No books, no letters, no pictures. Just the sneakers you bought and put on my feet.
My earth slows. The sky drops off. I want the ground to split open wide. I want it to swallow me whole. But it doesn’t. And so I keep moving in the only way I know how: I run. I take my usual route on state highway 430, and I am surprised at my speed and endurance. My calves are slim and toned. I acknowledge the power of my heart. I know I that I owe all this to you, that I am stronger now, but I stop at the intersection on North Eagleville and Separatist roads, and I find I’ve lost myself entirely.
You’re the one who taught me how to run again, so please explain to me: what do I do now?
The Aetna Creative Nonfiction Award, Undergraduate 2nd Prize
Christopher De Marchis
If I was feeling brave
It’s a windy August evening and our barn creaks as the chicken weathervane moans on its axis. A step at a time, I climb to the second floor, hugging a seventy-pound storage bin from Walmart. My mind erases the planked stairs underneath my flip flops, and I imagine myself walking up an invisible staircase. Below me are Dad’s tools, your gardening rakes, my bicycles, and Hayley’s punching bag. Pliers, gas-powered lawn mowers, weed whackers, tire pumps, and flower pots intermingle among each other, migrating once they’re used and returned. The first floor moves farther away with each step until with heavy arms and tired legs I reach the
I now face coffins of family artifacts. Despite the bin’s weight and the tightness in my back, I’m still. The second floor of our barn is a graveyard of storage boxes and tied trash bags. School projects, Barbie dolls, toy cars, and old furniture pieces hide inside opaque plastic. I slowly lower the Walmart bin on top of a box labeled “Christopher’s School Projects,” turn on my heel, and take the stairs back down.
• • •
The blue bin doesn’t stir in a passing draft and probably doesn’t
even budge when a raccoon brushes against its side. It’s filled with the books you read to me when I wore stuffed Snoopy slippers and Mardi Gras beads every day of the year: The Cat in the Hat, The Hardy Boys, Harry Potter, and Goosebumps if I was feeling brave.
Though you remind me not to, I sit on the back of the couch cushions with my knees against my chest. As you softly turn pages, it gets darker outside; I hear your voice, but not your words. I fall asleep while falling off the cushions, onto your shoulder.
• • •
A year later I fight to stay awake past nine p.m.
“I don’t want to go to bed yet. Keep reading, please.”
“Okay, but only one more chapter. You better be paying
The words form images, and the images transport me off the couch and into a world of magic and mystery. I interrupt every other paragraph.
“Can you read that again?”
“Fine, one more time. Pay attention!”
Soon afterwards we move on to Goosebumps books where the reader becomes the character and is asked what to do next: To
follow your little sister down the dark ally, turn to page 267. To go back to your room, turn to page 153.
“What do you want to do, Christopher?”
“I want to go back to my room, page 153!”
“You always take the safe way out. You’re following your sister down that dark ally.”
I curl into a ball as you turn to page 267.
• • •
It’s my second week of third grade and you help me write a report on King George III. I’ve decided to dress up as the king, and you are drawing a goatee on my chin with eyeliner. I practice reading the essay in front of you, forgetting my inhibitions. The last line is: God save the King!
“Christopher, say that louder. Put more meaning behind it.”
“GOD SAVE THE KING!”
Dad puts in his ear plugs and closes the door to his office.
“That’s better,” you say.
• • •
It’s your birthday, and I use our feeble dial-up Internet connection to make you a card. I google pictures of “cakes,” “furry animals,” and “moms.” I cut and paste the appropriate pictures on a piece of
computer paper and fill in the white space with speech bubbles and narration. Though the story is flimsy, you tell me that you love the dialogue.
• • •
“I’m just going to practice in front of you.”
You’re taking the wash out of the laundry. I walk back and forth across the cold tiles in the mudroom, reciting with gusto, lines for the fifth grade play. Later that night, you play every part besides my own when we read lines together. I have it memorized in two days.
• • •
I begin to write creatively. Ideas come to me at night while
I lay awake, inexplicably nervous for the mundane day of high school ahead. In the dark, afraid to turn on the light, I write these fragments of stories on the scrap paper on my nightstand. In the morning, only half of these cryptic notes are legible; out of these, only one or two still seem like good ideas.
“I had this dream last night that I was a private detective who fell in love with the murderer.”
“Why are you always falling in love with someone?”
“Also, the other night, I dreamed about aliens accidentally abducting one of their own.”
“What are you talking about?”
“They picked up who they thought was a man, but he turned out to be the captain alien’s cousin in disguise.”
“I think the alien would have recognized his blood relative before he abducted him.”
“But he was wearing a mustache!”
“I hear the bus coming. Go to school.”
I don’t tell you that these dreams were dreamed consciously, but I think you know.
• • •
Creative writing courses in college provide me with the license to write. I still tell you my ideas and plans, but I don’t disguise them as the stuff of dreams.
“I think I’m going to write about Dad’s time in the city.”
“Okay. That certainly leaves you with a lot of material. You’d be able to fill a dictionary with his old girlfriends.”
The majority of my nights are spent pacing my apartment, encouraging inspiration through constant movement. I’ll write an opening, take a shower, and go back to work in a towel, afraid to lose the momentum. I send you my writing; you print it out and read it the next day.
“What do you think?”
“You have a split infinitive in the first paragraph, and a misplaced–”
“Wait, but do you like it?”
“Find and fix the spelling mistake in the third line. Then I’ll like it.”
• • •
I write for you because you’ve taught me how to read and write, how to express myself, how to relate to those I’ve met and will meet. I often think of those books on the second floor of the barn and
the day when I’ll come over to carry the bin down the stairs. That evening, I’ll read to my son, to my daughter.
The Aetna Creative Nonfiction Award, Graduate 1st Prize
Lisa Nic an Bhreithimh
Flames on the Page
“Why did we wait?” His breath is heavy and his words come between kisses thick with passion as he pulls my body to his.
“I don’t know,” I say, gasping for air but wanting his kiss more. I run my hands through his hair and wrap my arms around his neck remembering how long it’d been that I’d wanted to do that.
His eyes burn into me. I can only make out the black and the white of them in the moonlight. My blood runs hot through my veins, setting every pore of my skin on fire. I can feel explosions, like fireworks at every nerve ending.
“Sam–” I gasp and he cuts me off kissing me harder. He holds my waist as I stumble back toward the bed. He pulls the thick lace dress from my body over my head and draws me to him again, closer this time so that I can feel every inch of his body against me. He runs his hands up my back and his lips across my chest, tightening his fingers at the nape of my neck.
“Why did we wait, Lisa?” He doesn’t seem to only be asking
me–he’s hitting himself, wondering why and asking someone else.
I’m wondering the same. He pulls his t-shirt over his head showing his naked chest. All I could do was to stare at how perfectly individual the tattoos made his skin. He stares at me again and whispers, “My god you are beautiful,” and our bodies fall to the bed and into the ocean of the dark blue sheets.
We kiss and make love for hours and afterwards, as the sun begins to flood the room, we lie holding each other, our bodies and our minds out of breath. We talk until the morning sun rises high, answering all the questions we wanted answered. Why had he waited? Why had I? He tells me how beautiful I am to him and I
tell him how glad I am that he kissed me.
When I have to leave I lean back to him and kiss his lips softly and he begs me not to go. I tell him I have to and I don’t stop smiling for the rest of the day.
We write when we feel something; when something hits the chords inside of us just strongly enough that we rush for the pen and the paper. We let the emotions and the feelings flow from the pores of our skin onto the page in a jumble of words and lines. Something has been ignited inside us and the writing washes over the flames and cools us down.
Sam and I met in the spring of 2008. A group of us from college had gone away together and someone else had arranged that we would live in the same house. I remember when I saw him first wearing his usual rugged skinny jeans and a black t-shirt. We introduced ourselves and chatted briefly. I noticed how great his voice sounded and I wanted to listen to it more.
He had shaggy auburn hair with flecks of blond you could see when he stood in the sun and a smile that made me shiver inside. He made me laugh and I made him smile. In days I could feel myself falling for him. There was a connection between us that never really made sense. I’ve never been sure if it was infatuation or love.
We would walk home together separating ourselves from the rest. He introduced me to his favorite band and I loved them because he did. Late at night, when we all stayed up after coming home from the bar I’d lean my head on his shoulder and it felt like the most perfect place to rest. We never kissed or told each other how we felt then–we just talked and watched each other’s eyes on the long walks home.
Months later, back home, it finally happened. I was wearing a white lace dress and as I danced he’d finally taken my hands in his and kissed me.
That kiss and that night were the best we ever had. The infatuation, or whatever it was, didn’t last and he hurt me in a way I’d never really been hurt before. He fell away in a breeze of dust that I couldn’t see through or understand. When I saw him again he pulled me close for a second, told me I looked great and walked away with a look on his face that I couldn’t figure out. Soon after I saw him with his arms around another girl. I was angry at myself for crying for someone who didn’t care that he’d hurt me, but I
The heartbreak I felt after Sam was like a cold wind blowing through my chest. I felt a dull pain in the pit of my stomach without him. I felt like Juliet dying as Romeo walked away from her. A more unrequited kind of tragedy. The beauty I felt when he looked at me had fallen like feathers to the ground and I didn’t feel beautiful again for a time.
I wrote about the day I met Sam.
I wrote about how I felt when I heard his voice.
I wrote about how his kiss felt on my lips and in my stomach.
I wrote through hot tears the night I’d seen him with his arms around another girl.
I wrote when I finally learned to love someone else.
Years later I met Sam again. I recognized him from a distance. He didn’t seem to recognize me but he looked up and stared. When I got closer he seemed surprised that it was me. His hair was different but it still had the same shaggy feel that I’d fallen for.
I kept walking, finally happy to walk away from him without feeling like a magnet being pulled from metal. We bumped into each other again later that night and we talked and enjoyed each other’s company as we had before. He looked into my eyes without saying anything a few times and I could almost hear him ask again, “Why did we wait?” Maybe things would’ve been different if we hadn’t waited so long or maybe he would’ve just hurt me more.
I didn’t write that time. My hands didn’t tremble in excitement when I saw Sam and my heart kept its regular beat.
I noticed the color of Sam’s eyes that night under the light in the bar. Funny, I never had before. Maybe I never loved him. It didn’t take love to make me write, but it took passion, excitement, or pain and Sam gave me all of those.
“You look so beautiful in the morning, Lisa,” he said, pushing a lock of my hair out of my eyes and I smiled.
The Aetna Children’s Literature Award
A Cat Called Dorian Gray
Dorian Gray was the handsomest cat anyone had ever seen.
Handsomer than Oscar, the mayor’s dashing tabby. Handsomer than Felix, the swashbuckling alley cat. Handsomer than Sir James Windsor. Sir James Windsor lived with the Queen in Buckingham Palace and ate clotted cream for tea every day.
Dorian was very proud of his blue-gray fur, his white whiskers, and his eyes the color of fresh-cut grass.
One day, Dorian’s human decided to paint him. Basil studied Dorian. He scratched his head. He wiggled his ears. He shimmied in place. And then he began to paint. He painted all day and long into the night. And all the next day too. Then he signed his name, big and bold.
Basil was perfectly pleased with his painting. He stuck his head out the window.
“Henry,” he hollered to his neighbor. “I’ve just painted the handsomest painting anyone’s ever seen. Come on over!”
Henry looked at Dorian. Then he looked at the painting. He scratched his head. He wiggled his ears. He shimmied in place. He said, “That’s the handsomest painting I ever did see.”
Dorian purred with pleasure. But then he heard something worrisome.
“It’s a good thing you painted that painting now,” Henry said. “Before you know it, that cat’s going to get old.”
Dorian’s blue-gray fur stood up. His velvety ears went flat. His white whiskers quivered. His eyes the color of fresh-cut grass opened wide. Old? He didn’t want to get old. Dorian bared his teeth at the painting. If only, he thought, the painted cat would get old instead.
The years went by, and sure enough, Dorian didn’t get old. Oscar, the Mayor’s tabby, began getting flabby. Felix got a bit silver about the ears. Sir James Windsor ate so much clotted cream that he got positively plump.
Dorian gorged himself on all of the kitty nibble he could find. He licked his fur one hundred times until it shone. He lounged all day in the window seat so that all of the cats could admire him. And he stayed as fresh as a spring day.
Basil stared at his painting and scratched his head. It wasn’t
so handsome anymore. It looked… old.
Dorian got so busy admiring himself, he never played with the other cats. He wouldn’t go to purring choir with Daisy and Honey. He wouldn’t go wall-climbing with Lioness. He wouldn’t even cuddle with Jax, Henry’s cat.
Then Dorian wondered why, even though he was young and beautiful, the other cats did not like him.
One night, Dorian was prowling the halls. He stopped. There hung the painting…
The cat’s ears were tufted white. Its jowls hung loose. Its fur grew every which way. It had splotches like fall frost.
Dorian peered close. His blue-gray fur stood up. His velvety ears went flat. His white whiskers trembled. His green, green eyes opened wide. He leaped–
The next morning, Dorian woke up. His ears were tufted with white. His jowls hung loose. His fur grew every which way. There were splotches in it like fall frost. Then Dorian did something he hadn’t done in a long while.
He padded outside. He went to purring choir with Daisy and Honey. He purred louder than anyone. He went wall-climbing with Lioness. He cuddled with Jax.
The sun had never felt so warm.