Keep It Real, Patches!

by May Overmyer

Patrick Samuel Hanley, or “Patches”, was always swinging for the fences, but, to continue the analogy, he had terrible hand-eye coordination.

Patches and I went to a small Catholic elementary and middle school; the type that just breeds cringy but entertaining failed-romance-anecdotes. (Patches cluelessly plays the protagonist in almost every one.) He was the type of middle schooler who no one made eye contact with after the teacher announced, “you can pick your own partners.” Yet he was too busy to notice, entirely consumed by whatever new scab was on his doughy arms or legs.

Here’s a picture of middle school Patches: he’s average height, has a mop of curly blond hair, and is only slightly overweight. He’s unathletic and has illegible handwriting. Given the option between the uniform pants or shorts, he opted for shorts 365 days a year. He frequently paired his navy blue polyester shorts with a ski jacket when the weather dropped below freezing. He was just disillusioned enough to think of himself as very romantic, and just endearing enough as to never be creepy.

Patches wasn’t friends with (m)any girls, but he definitely liked them. All of them. By the end of sixth grade, Patches had attempted, one by one, to earn the affection of each girl in the class. There was the time at recess when he dared Thomas, to dare him, to hug Caroline. There was the time he wrote Maryanna Evans a love note using red sharpie, and it bled through the page onto his desk, eternalizing his love for a misspelled Maryanna. And of course there was the time he had claimed to know “a bunch of babes” from a neighboring school called The Heights, and was publicly defamed by another student who pointed out that The Heights was an all boys school.

Patches was a passionate man. The guy had no problem expressing his love—or his anger. He felt things in the extreme, and this was never more clear than the day after our middle school had received an exciting donation of 16 lovely plastic hockey sticks. Tyler Gates, an athletic little hot-shot, had been schooling Patches all PE class, and Patches had just about had enough. I reckon that for Patches on that day in 2009, there was nothing more intense than this co-ed PE class in our cafegymatorium, with lunch tables for goals, donated sticks, and a tennis ball puck.

By the end of PE, everyone was apathetic and ready to set the tables back upright for lunch. But not Patches—this was his moment. He dodged and weaved with that little tennis ball, confronted Tyler, unnecessarily spun around him, and slap shotted right into the ‘goal.’ The thrill! The energy! The excitement! Patches then proceeded to lift his hockey stick with both hands and bring it down rapidly, snapping it over his knee. In the stunned silence, he pointed to Tyler and yelled with gusto, “YAH! YOU CAN TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME!” I’m still trying to work out what that means...

Patches, Thomas (the student who was dared to dare), and I went on to attend the same high school. Our incoming freshman class was roughly 20 times the size of our graduating eighth grade class, and the three of us were able to blend into the crowd. Patches, unsurprisingly—given that he was called Patches—changed his name to Samuel upon arriving. (I never converted, try as I did ‘Sam’ just wouldn’t stick...)

I didn’t see much of Patches for the bulk of high school, but towards the end, he and I came to share a good mutual friend named Grant. In the final months of senior year, Grant asked me to prom. (I walked into the art room and four guys were lined up in aprons, with the letters PROM painted on them. Grant was the question mark holding flowers, and a smiling Patches was the “O”.) I said yes, and a few weeks later the girl Patches asked said no. Grant and I thought, what the heck, inviting him to join our group and go as a trio. Patches and I had been classmates since Pre-K. We were about to part for college, and this felt sweet, good, redemptive, right.

We got to Prom and the girl who had rejected Patches showed up with someone else. Patches hopped right back into the limo and hotboxed it. Everyone in our group was charged a $75 cleaning fee. Once a beloved goon, always a beloved goon. Happy Valentine’s Day, wherever you may be, Patches!


Thumbnail image by Emmaline Waller and Sabrina Sanchez.

Stained Glass

by Edison Cummings

 

At nineteen years old, I’d never dated a woman, let alone a man. I was still a virgin. I'd made peace, on somewhat nihilistic terms, with the idea that I would never find a husband. Faith gave my life ultimate structure and meaning, and when I pictured my future I imagined my kids running between pews in church. Unfortunately, queer folk like me are isolated and elusive in Christian circles. We are afraid to be seen and afraid to look for others. Many live in fear of a witch hunt. It’s even harder to find the ones who don't hate themselves into a dark spiral of  chastity disguised as heavenly purity. My odds of finding a boyfriend were astronomical, and I had largely given up. It sucked to know I wouldn't find someone anytime soon.

I couldn't believe my luck when I met Victor.

I saw him my first semester in college. As all gays do, I stalked his Twitter and Instagram first for cues to his sexual preference. I call this process investigayting—the drawn-out social media game to find out if someone’s safe to flirt with. I never reached a conclusion, nor did I introduce myself. There was never a good excuse, and I'm a horrible liar.

One Thursday night I was about to leave the cafeteria when I spied him at a table laughing with a few of my friends. I scrounged up every last bit of gay courage I had, and I strode right to the table. I made small talk with my friends, then I went in for the kill.

“Hi, I don’t think I’ve introduced myself. I'm Edison,” I said, shaking his hand and pressing contact with his black eyes.

“I’m Victor.” He had a polished-clean look, tan skin, perfect eyebrows, and a winsome white smile. I wanted to melt.

 

A strange dance soon followed. We messaged off and on at an odd rhythm, then he asked me a question that made my stomach lurch.

“Do you want to get lunch?” The message sat opened on my phone. Then I fumbled a "yes" with shaking thumbs, trying not to sound too eager.

That Sunday, he drove me to a local teriyaki place after we attended our respective church services. It wasn’t romantic, but he made my heart beat too fast for me to care. I wore my favorite sweater, blue and white stripes. We sat at a booth.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” he asked after our food arrived. We’d been talking about how our churches responded to social issues like visible queerness and the Black Lives movement. I mentioned LGBT Christians offhand, hoping to guide the conversation. I wanted him to know.

“Sure, I’m an open book,” I replied. I could see it from a mile off.

“Would you say you... identify as gay?”

I had never said this to anyone before. I—both of us—could be expelled if our school's religious authorities deemed us involved in "homosexual activity."

“Yeah.” I blurted it out eagerly, but it wasn’t as cathartic as I thought it would be. I felt weak, and my hands trembled when I reached for more gyoza. I ditched my chopsticks for the fork and blamed it on my coffee habit.

“Me too. I came out to my parents recently, but it’s been hard for them. They don’t really care to meet my boyfriend,” Victor said.

At the word boyfriend I lost my will to live. I suppose that’s dramatic, but I wanted to burst into flames and cast myself into the depths of the ocean, more or less.

 

After that lunch, I thought about Victor constantly. The possibility of seeing him on campus made me anxious. We only saw each other by coincidence. He commuted to school; I lived in the dorms. He studied nursing; I studied history. Thankfully, he ended up in a study group with a lot of my mutual friends.

Whenever I saw him, I fidgeted at my buttons. I picked at my teeth; I searched for mirrors. I'd never felt this way around anyone. When our study group organized a movie night at the student apartments, I knew Victor would be there, so I had to go. The concern of Victor having a boyfriend eased into a dull throb. Victor's boyfriend lived hours away, and he rarely drove to campus. When Victor sent me winks and hearts over the phone, I felt absolved of my guilt. This wasn’t wrong. I would compete with Victor's boyfriend, no—I would win.

The night melted into a puddle of blankets and giggles. We were reclined on the couch watching a scary movie, and Victor kept jerking and gasping to make me jump. It worked every time. I was glad he couldn’t see my face flush red in the dark. Halfway through, he stretched out and gently put his head on my shoulder. I smelled his cologne. He looked up.

“Are you comfortable?” he asked.

“Yeah."

The movie was terrifying, but I couldn’t help but smile. He was honey spreading through my veins. Fear had always stopped me from anything like this before. I felt warm, safe, and fuzzy.

 

Movie nights became routine. More lunches and coffee outings came and went. I texted Victor before school chapel, and we sat by each other. Sometimes he even leaned on my shoulder. How-was-your-day? texts were an everyday thing.

He was always on my mind. I pictured a blue house with a wraparound porch and a big garden in Maine and two golden retrievers. He could work while I wrote. Then, when my books sold worldwide, we'd retire in Greece. In those months, I probably seemed happier than ever, struck dumb at every thought of him.

Everything went according to plan until the week before final exams. That night Victor and I had been messaging, and he asked me a question I'd been expecting for a long time.

“Are we flirting?” My phone stared back at me in cold white.

The answer, of course, was yes. I knew it was the end. He apologized for giving mixed signals. All communication from that point onward ceased in perpetuity.

I’m not a crier, but in that moment I wanted to be one. I grieved what never was, which only made me feel more pathetic. Victor was all I wanted; he was good and he was kind. He was startlingly handsome. Victor was everything I thought I needed.

 

I spent a long time in the stained-glass closet. My heart felt cheated, like an unraveled ball of yarn I can’t rewind—it still does. But knots of thread can still become a tapestry, eventually. It just takes a little bit of time to untangle it all.


Thumbnail image by Amelia Stanford.

The Legacy of Three Grandmothers

by Youn-Joo Park

Editor's note: 'The Legacy of Three Grandmothers' was the fifth piece published in our Morning Breath II series in February 2017. The series also includes 'Craving' by Joseph Cambonga, two poems by Sabrina Sanchez, 'Wedding Invitation' by Dean Graham, and 'Ownership' by Abbie DeHaas.

If I were to define “young adulthood,” the definition would not be complete without the mention of frequent moves. Once the tectonic plates of life subside, I owe my friends a new address book to replace a messy, crossed-out list of past entries. “I now use a pencil to update yours,” proudly remarks a friend.

I tolerate the hassles of packing because it presents the perfect opportunity to purge prosaic earthly possessions from life’s mosaic. The decision of whether to keep or toss an item not only offers me the chance to momentarily relive and reconstruct the story of my life, but it also reveals patterns of what I consider to be meaningful. In my moves, I always keep the following three items as part of my permanent collection.

One box contains an old doll that fits the cliché of one person’s trash being another’s treasure. With a scratched beady eye and a missing mouth, the doll is a paragon of beauty in my eyes. My love for this doll was so great that I took him everywhere until his clothes became tattered. Not a problem, as my grandma hand-sewed a new outfit for him three times in eight years without my request. Her handiwork talent was evident in the amazing meals she cooked for me that heightened my standard of taste and forever spoiled any other foods I would try. Grandma’s quiet, gentle love was my childhood’s song without words.

Another box reveals two cassette tapes that contain a hundred of traditional American music for children. This was a surprise gift from “Mabel Grandma,” as I called her, whom I adopted as my American grandma after my mom and I had immigrated to the United States. As I sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “The Hokey Pokey,” the tapes became my passport to English pronunciation and vocabulary. Once I had memorized all the songs, Mabel Grandma joined me in singing, skipping, and dancing around the neighborhood on a walk from the grocery store. An elderly driver slowed down to roll down the car windows, shake his head, and cluck his tongue in disapproval at an 83-year-old woman jumping up and down with an 8-year-old girl. I delighted in her contagious joie de vivre.

The last box contains a small Christmas manger set. Via phone, Grandma Margie said that although I am constantly moving around, I should have some sort of holiday decoration. Her upbeat outlook in midst of her many illnesses testified her deep, unwavering faith in God, and she filled my mailbox with her many cards of “just because.” As a bright star had led the wise men to Baby Jesus, she shone her light of Christian love and inspired me with encouragement in my own spiritual life.

Mere words cannot express the blessing of love demonstrated by my three grandmothers. All three have passed from this earth, and for me, this has signified the chapter closing of my childhood and young adulthood. However, their love permeates my worldview that everyone should use individual talents to be a blessing to those surrounding them. Their wisdom and care were rays of sunshine to this young plant. From them, I learned how the best gifts in life are often subdued in the background, for their talents were not ostentatious but rather simple, personalized bursts of nourishment that now rest forever etched in my heart. How great is our God who gently shows us affection through people close to us. It is my ardent hope that, wherever the location or whatever the task, I may find ceaseless opportunities to be of service as my three grandmothers have done for me.


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

Childhood Wasteland

by Isabelle McCauley

Editor's note: 'Childhood Wasteland' was the second piece published in our Smoking Under the Mistletoe series in December 2016. The series also includes 'The Christmas of '96' by Lis Stanford, 'A Letter From Rudolf' by Rachel Sheldon, and 'Years Only Happen Here Now' by Jaxon Bradshaw.

There I was, squatting under the low part of the slanted ceiling in the attic, sobbing. The dust had made my eyes so itchy that this moment came at no surprise to me. I laughed a little. Cried some more. I wasn't even holding anything of mom’s, I was clinging onto a framed photo of me and Ezra, our old standard poodle. I realized that he's probably dead now, but none of us know because someone adopted him from us almost ten years ago—the summer after mom passed.

The attic was this surreal cave that symbolized everything I'd been feeling about home over the past two and a half years. It was a disastrous mess of pictures, keepsakes, and decorations; old homeschooling journals, manilla folders stuffed with my brother’s graded assignments, my princess cape mom made me, church programs, broken nerf guns, dusty luggage, all from our lives growing up. My childhood wasteland. I was sitting in it—sweating and sneezing and, finally, sobbing.

I was only squatting in the attic of the house I grew up in to find old family Christmas ornaments for my brother’s Christmas tree. (I stay with his family when I'm in Virginia now, that's “home.”) It's weird to me that the renters have an attic full of my family’s history—weirder that I had to knock on the door to get into it. I got up there and realized immediately that my dad was right when he warned me not to tackle this place alone. Mom’s stuff was everywhere. Not, like, delicately packaged for safekeeping. No, her things were thrown, spread, and stacked on the floor and mixed in with actual garbage. I forgot about finding ornaments and hopelessly tried to gather her pictures, costumes, VHS workout videos, scriptures she’d once hung on the kitchen wall, and anything with her handwriting on it. That lasted maybe three minutes before I wound up crouching, rummaging through a box of sticky photographs. It was a mess but I should've expected that. I wasn’t thinking, “damn this family for neglecting all of this!” Instead, I nodded my head in pitiful understanding as I wiped my tears. She was the only one who’d know what to do with all of this.

She'd know what to do with all the broken pieces of my childhood that lay lifeless on Lansing Ave. There are so many memories—I found them there in the attic—but they're abandoned and messy. Not gone, just untouched. Mom could help me. She would know how to sweep out the trash and find a place for the valuable stuff. But instead it’s all swimming together in a place we forgot about.

As I clung to that photo I cried tears for the dogs, Gus and Ezra. We gave them away during the transition from our big homeschooled family to our single-dad, public school lifestyle where Francis and I (the last kids living in the house) hopped on the bus and hoped for the best while my dad tried to juggle work, keeping the house in order, and survive double-duty parenting. During our last summer with the dogs, I remember sitting in my mom’s bed before they remodeled the master bedroom. I was wearing her bathrobe that I found hanging on the door. The dogs smelled it. They jumped on the bed and laid at my feet as if it were any other night snuggling with mom. They needed her so badly. We all did. Poor Ezra might be dead now, and none of us really know—his photo was tossed in the attic with the rest of it.

I wish I could say I got myself together and organized every last corner of that abandoned, sacred place. But I'm not my mother, and I had a train to catch in the morning. I managed to grab some Christmas ornaments and a couple of photos before climbing back down the cluttered stairs, leaving so many things behind that I could neither deal with or properly say goodbye to. Mom would whip that place into shape, she'd find a spot for the good stuff. But this Christmas, the attic collects dust.


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

The Christmas of '96

by Lis Stanford

Editor's note: 'The Christmas of '96' was the first piece published in our Smoking Under the Mistletoe series in December 2016. The series also includes 'Childhood Wasteland' by Isabelle McCauley, 'A Letter From Rudolf' by Rachel Sheldon, and 'Years Only Happen Here Now' by Jaxon Bradshaw.

One Christmas at the age of 3 I would get my “big girl” bed. Back then my mom would stay up all night arranging the living room of our mobile home to make it look as if Santa Claus had come to visit. She would write on the tags of very specific presents:

“To: Elisabeth/From: Santa Claus.”

Even then I would recognize my mom’s handwriting.

It’s too unique to mistake it for an old fat man’s.

That morning I would wake up at the crack of dawn, jump on top of my big brother’s bed and run into the living room to find all kinds of gifts. My mom and dad would already be awake. No doubt my mom had not slept the entire night. They would already be behind the video camera in their slippers and fleece pajamas sipping their steaming cups of coffee.

“Merry Christmas darlings!” my mother would exclaim. My father would say nothing. I would run to jump on my “big girl” bed and fall straight through. My mother would scream and fumble to switch off the camera.

My father would laugh.

My mother would glare.

I would wonder why I had fallen through. My mother would explain she just put a blanket over the bed frame to make it look presentable, that they hadn’t put on the mattress yet because I was sleeping on it.

Years later I would find it hilarious. My mother would still be horrified. And my father wouldn’t have spoken to me in 4 years.


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

Just Skate

by Rachel Sheldon

Author's note: The following piece has been adapted from a longer journal entry, which took place over the course of a day. Some details have been condensed or omitted.

There are 150 Asian kids playing foursquare in my living room. I mean, technically I don’t have a living room right now, just a gigantic courtyard, but it’s pretty much my living room. And it’s currently filled with children. Yelling. Screaming. Likely snot-nosed children.

I press myself flat to the wall and glower at them all like some 4’ 10” female version of Argus Filch. I’m afraid if I lose my cover, the kids will stampede over me like those Best Buy shoppers who trampled a lady while running to get to a half-price flat screen TV last Black Friday. Even the kids’ youth group leaders look uneasy – they kind of stand in the center of the chaos and flap their hands around, shouting stuff like, “Jacob! Don’t climb that wall!” and “Sarah! Stop punching Jacob!” and even, “Mark! You’re in Mexico! Don’t let that stranger in the door!”

Yeah, Mark, I think, giving the sheepish-looking kid the stink eye. Don’t you dare. This compound – my home for the time being – is in a poorer area of Ensenada, and there are always sketchy people trying to con their way in through the front door. Just yesterday I had to turn away a guy dressed as a clown. He wouldn’t tell me what he wanted, he just kept doing that mime-trick where you pretend to be stuck in an invisible box. I made him a sandwich and told him to leave.

The 150 screeching little dinosaurs – err, I mean, darlings – know none of this. They are the combined youth groups of four Asian churches from California. They just arrived a half hour ago to build houses for homeless families in the hills around Ensenada. We get groups in every week throughout June. I might like these kids if I didn’t have to clean their bathrooms. I might like these kids if they hadn’t just gotten off their buses and if they didn’t have the energy equivalents of squirrels hooked up to IV bags of Mountain Dew.

I start inching along the wall James Bond style, trying to make it to the safety of the staff lounge. I have a feeling my friend Alfredo is camped out in there, watching skateboarding videos on youtube. He told me we were going to sneak down to the beach and shoot off fireworks later, but he’s probably still glued to the TV. Let me tell you something: to the casual onlooker, all skateboarding videos look the same. Guys fall on their faces. Guys hit their crotches on handrails. Guys occasionally nail a cool trick. There will often be rap music in the background, but then it's more difficult to hear other sound effects, like bones breaking and people shouting, "Hey! I thought I told you not to skateboard here!"

Most of my friends like these videos because they are from the skate park out back. Alfredo lives down the road with his parents, but other guys, like my friend David, are more-or-less homeless, so they work here in exchange for room and board. The skatepark is what drew them initially.

I actually run into David on my way to the lounge. He is leaning against the dirty stucco wall. He looks serene, cradling his skateboard, watching the chaos unfold with his sleeves rolled-up so you can see the scars running up and down his forearms. He’s wearing a white button-down and taped up vans and these sleek, sleek sunglasses that are only a little bit cracked in one lens. Hell, I think. He looks like a song written by the Arctic Monkeys.

David smokes pot every single day. He thinks no one sees him when he does this, but everyone knows. Particularly when he methodically eats my entire bag of mini-marshmallows and then tells me the universe is made of glass.

He sees me now, pulls off his sunglasses, and breaks out into a smile that drags on for eternity. I check his eyes. He’s not stoned yet – he just always looks high.

“Que onda, David?”

“Raaaay-cheeel,” he says. Spanish-speakers usually have a hard time with the ch sound. David never switches to calling me Raquel, even though I told him he could. “It’s crazy here, no?”

“It’s like feeding time at the San Diego Zoo.”

“Yes,” he muses. “But it’s nice. Different…to see many people…happy.”

“Is that what you’re doing? Standing here, watching people be happy?”

“Me? No. I am waiting.”

“Waiting for what, David?”

He frowns. “I don’t know.”

His eyes are bright, like crazy bright. I mean crazy in the literal sense of the word. I mean I think someone cut open a glow stick and poured all the liquid stuff into his eyes.

“Huh,” I say. “Uhm. I’m going to go make a cup of tea. Do you want some?”

His eyes light up even more. “Ooh, I love tea,” he says in that slow, warm, broken English of his. “When I was small and had no food, I…I…walk to my neighbor’s house and take his leaves. Then I make tea and drink that…to be full.”

“What the heck, David! Where were your parents?”

He smiles again. “No parents, Ray-cheel. Grandparents. Grandparents, I love so much. But they die…leave me in the house. Many years.”

“Didn’t you go to school?”

“No. Stop going. But go to my friends every day, outside of school. Say, hey, can you give me one peso? He gives me one peso. Ask another friend – hey, one peso? Gives me peso. Buy food sometimes. Live like this.”

“How old were you?”

“Ah. Don’t remember. Trece?”

“Thirteen.”

“Yes. Thirteen. That is the age.”

“And when they didn’t give you pesos?”

“Skate in the street and drink tea.”

He doesn't say anything else, just looks down at me and keeps smiling his daydreamy smile. We stare into each other’s eyes, searching. All around us, the world is a whirlwind. The lights are low. Adults have joined in the foursquare game – the ball now soars impossibly high and impossibly fast, bouncing around like it's stuck in a pinball machine. Kids are jump roping, playing tag, drawing on the ground with chalk. People form circles to gossip, the din of their voices occasionally punctured by a child’s laugh.

"My tea," I say apologetically, taking a step back. "I forgot it in the microwave."

“Go get it, small Rachel.”

I run rather than walk to the kitchen. I make my tea. I am very quiet.

There’s an image in my mind. David’s clothes are clean and he doesn’t have the knife-fight scars on his arms, just the ones from skateboarding. He is holding the keys to my car, he is talking to his friends in a school parking lot, he is listening to his ipod plugged into the aux cord. He is going to the movie theater, he is putting presents under the Christmas tree, he’s calling my mom “mom” and my dad “dad”. His room looks like mine, but there are Pink Floyd posters on the walls and the bedspread is different. When he looks at you, he does so directly. He doesn’t look through you, look through the wall behind you, and disappear into space.

The vision is blinding. My hands shake. My thoughts come falling like tetris blocks:

 

      We had so many

      Empty rooms

      When I grew up

      My house was big

      It was

      Room after

      Empty room.

      It was like

      A museum

      Of empty rooms.

    

I press my face into my hands until the image ebbs away, leaving my head like mist dissipating in the sunlight. I drink my tea, pace around, get my penny board from my room, and go back out. David is now sitting at the table, hand on his chin, watching the crowd with that dark, far-away gaze of his.

I am 19. I am not a lawyer like my father. I am not a social worker like my sister. I am kind of nothing, honestly, nothing living on a border town in Mexico. I am here to scrub toilets and make beds and introduce myself over and over again because no one ever knows who I am. But I am this way by choice.

The sun is setting off David’s sunglasses. I blow dust off the wheels of my board. You can hear the ocean wherever you are on the base, can smell and taste the salt, can watch the breeze play red rover with the palm tree leaves and the 7pm sun make the water look like a sheet of hot glass. Summertime in Ensenada, the weather is always perfect.

“C’mon, David. Let’s go. Be wild and free,” I say. “Let’s go shoot off fireworks and run when the police chase us.”

I point across the courtyard to where Alfredo is ducking out of the staff lounge with an armful of roman candles. He is trying to sneak past all the little Asian kids. He is failing.

“C’mon,” I say again, punching David in the arm. “Ya weirdo. Come skate. Skate with us. Skate with me.”

I have this feeling David has spent enough of his life feeling sad. He doesn’t need to see it in my eyes, too.

“No pienses en nada,” I say. “Please. Don’t think. No smoke.”

David nods and steps on his board. “Okay.”

I’m thinking that everything we’ve ever done – every heavy thing – gets tied around our ankles, and we spend our whole lives dragging them around behind us. When you can’t take the weight anymore, you fall. You sit down. You don’t move. But someone – every now and then – comes along and helps you throw them off and run like hell in the opposite direction.

On clear nights in Ensenada, we don’t run.

“Just skate.”


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

Flip Phone

by Rebecca Calhoun

There is not one single thing I ever did from womb to age eighteen that my mother did not know about. For all her selfless loving-kindness, she’s also the scrappiest person I’ve ever known. Until I started college my cell phone went on the kitchen table every night at 9pm. She would cross-check all the text messages online to make sure I hadn’t deleted anything.

Once when I was seventeen she just turned the text messaging off. It was expensive and I was too consumed with it anyway. Oh, what a hysterical mess I became. How would I EVER communicate with anyone again? Being the wise teenager that I was, I formed a superior Plan B. On my way to church (ha!) the next week, I stopped at Wal-Mart and bought a gray flip-phone with prepaid text messaging capabilities.

I opted not to tell my mom. After all, I drove myself in my own car full of gas that I paid for with my own money from my after-school job as a secretary. I purchased the phone with the money I saved from working at Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park during the summer prior. And now I could talk to my own friends whenever I wanted. Finally I had something that did not concern her. For the next few weeks, I executed the stealthiest rebellion operation ever performed. Secret pocket in my purse, never left in broad daylight, casual mentions of how I talked to my friend on the phone that day. That’s when I realized: being an adult is about doing whatever you damn well please.

It was with the same attitude that I left the secret phone exposed on my bed one Saturday afternoon. My mom burst in (without knocking, how dare her!) to find me performing a frantic grab-and-hide behind my back. Rookie mistake. But still, in all my wisdom, I did not accept this to be the end. Activate Plan C.

Clutching the phone I zipped past the woman like I was Flash himself and proceeded to run circles around the kitchen island for ten minutes. When she caught up to me, I shoved the thing down the front of my shirt. Back to the refrigerator, nowhere for either of us to go, I touted a look of smug triumph. To which my mother replied, in all her scrappy glory, “Don’t think I won’t go in there.”

My eyes widened. I pulled the measly flip-phone from its winner’s circle and plopped it into her left hand, enemy territory.

“Oh. A cell phone? I don’t care about that. I thought you were hiding condoms.” She tossed it back to me.

Why on earth my mother ever thought I would leave condoms laying on my bed in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon and then fight to hide them from her is beyond me. Mostly because I’m a Christian and Christians don’t have sex. Ever. Everybody knows that. Apparently all I had to do in order to keep my phone was ensure that it was not a condom. Done.

“Wait, really? You’re not mad?”

“You have a job. You can have your own phone if you want. It’s probably a waste, though.”

Soon I would crash my navy blue Jeep into a white, rusty flatbed Ford while texting on said flip-phone. The mangy redneck would get out of his truck and accuse me of murdering his children. I would cry. The cops would assure me that the children were fine. Weeks later the mangy redneck would be on the front page of the newspaper for having used the insurance money from the accident to purchase autographed Dale Earnhardt Jr. tires. Meanwhile, my jeep would be totalled, my insurance bill would go up, my driving record would go down, and I would have spent $93.76 sending unmemorable words to other teenagers.

There, reading the headline “Man Acquires Priceless Tires” on the front page of The McDowell News from the passenger seat of my mother’s minivan, is when I became bored with texting on my flip-phone. That’s also when I would realize: being an adult is about doing what your mother told you.


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

Why Should We Read Romeo and Juliet Again? (And while we're at it, why is King's starting an English major?)

by Ethan Campbell

On the second day of my Research Writing class this January, I had a familiar conversation.  The class meeting had just ended, and a student took me aside with a determined look.  “I just have to ask,” she said.  “What do you think about Romeo and Juliet?”

I have fielded some variation on this question every semester at King’s for about ten years.  Romeo and Juliet (R&J for short) was not on the syllabus.  In fact, I rarely teach it.  But it remains by far the work of literature King’s students most want to discuss—and argue about.

So I gave my standard response.  I love R&J, I said; it’s my favorite play; it contains everything that makes Shakespeare great, from comedy to tragedy to compelling characters to soaring poetry; it was ahead of its time in bringing fully realized human characters, especially female characters, to life on stage; it has something to teach us even today about love and romance ...

Somewhere around this point, students usually stop me.  “So you think Romeo and Juliet are actually in love?” she asked.  “But they only know each other for one day and then kill themselves, right?”

Well, yes, that does happen.  But even if we agree this is a grievous fault, the play’s strengths remain.  “They don’t call it the greatest love story of all time for nothing,” I said. 

“Yeah, that’s what one of my friends says, but I don’t buy it.  They’re in lust, not love.”

Though I disagree with this opinion, I don’t usually try to talk anyone out of it.  Because behind this question so many students ask—“are R&J really in love?”—sits a bigger one:  Is this a work we should take seriously?  Why should we read it again?

--

At the same time that I’ve had my usual conversations about R&J, I’ve also been talking this semester about something new: the new English major King’s is launching in the fall.

As you might expect, I’ve spoken with several prospective students and parents.  But I have also talked with a surprising number of current students who, even if not interested in declaring the major, are curious to know why King’s has decided to offer it.

Behind this question sits a bigger one as well.  If we are preparing students for Christian leadership, how does an English major advance that goal?

It seems appropriate that we are launching this program on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (on April 23rd), because I think the two questions are linked:  Why read R&J again, and why study imaginative literature?  Both get to the heart of what we are doing as a Christian liberal arts college and what we most value, not just in academics but in life.

With the rest of this article, I am going to try something ambitious.  I will offer a close reading of the first act of Romeo and Juliet, which I hope will persuade you of its value as a work to be re-read and savored—even if you’ve read it before and hated it, or didn’t believe it, or thought its main characters were foolish.  And along the way, I will make a case for English as a discipline at King’s.

--

Like most of you, I read R&J for the first time in high school—in Mrs. Rau’s freshman English class in Ainsworth, Nebraska.  We labored through the first page of servants lobbing dirty-minded insults (“I will be civil with the maids; I will cut off their heads.” “The heads of the maids?” “Aye ... or their maidenheads,” etc.), explicating every double entendre.  As a teenage boy, I could appreciate a good dirty joke, but this seemed like too much work.

Then I met Mercutio.

As you may recall, Mercutio is Romeo’s irreverent friend, who wishes Romeo would drop his ridiculous obsession with a chaste girl named Rosaline.  In the first act, he delivers a monologue that imagines Romeo has been possessed by a fairy demon:

            O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

            She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes

            In shape no bigger than an agate stone

            On the forefinger of an alderman,

            Drawn with a team of little atomi

            Over men’s noses as they lie asleep. (1.4.58-63)

Mercutio describes, in fifty lines of breathtaking poetry, all the men Mab seduces while asleep—lovers and courtiers and lawyers and parsons.  When she gets to soldiers, and finally young ladies, the speech turns violent, and Romeo has to calm his friend down:  “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace.  Thou talk’st of nothing.”  Mercutio’s immortal reply:

            True, I talk of dreams,

            Which are the children of an idle brain,

            Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,

            Which is as thin of substance as the air

            And more inconstant than the wind, who woos

            Even now the frozen bosom of the North

            And, being angered, puffs away from thence,

            Turning his side to the dew-dropping South. (103-110)

I had never read anything remotely like this before.  My favorite reading material at the time was Spider-man comics and Stephen King novels, purely plot-driven.  For the first time, I stood before the raw power of the English language.  Mercutio’s voice reached across the ocean, across 400 years of history, across the divide between fiction and reality, into a ninth-grade classroom in rural Nebraska, and seized my heart. 

Before anything else, my vision for the TKC English program is to give students this kind of experience—to push them in front of a great work of literature and let it run them over like a freight train.  The best literature teachers, in my opinion, are those who clear away obstacles to understanding, to make that impact as bone-crushing as possible.

--

Twenty years later, I watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of R&J, featuring an Irish actor named Jonjo O’Neill as Mercutio.  While he spun the tale of Queen Mab, I was in high school again, hearing Mercutio voice, this time with an Irish brogue.  After the performance, I approached Mr. O’Neill and said, “No offense to the actors playing Romeo and Juliet, but you stole the show out from under them.”

His reply:  “Well, good—that’s Mercutio’s job, isn’t it?  That’s why Shakespeare had to kill him off!”

He’s right.  For all of Mercutio’s exuberance, attractiveness, life on the page and stage, he represents an attitude that the spirit of the play as a whole fights against.

When Romeo meets Juliet, Mercutio urges him through a series of filthy puns to just have sex already and get the love bug out of his system—“Prick love for pricking and you beat love down” (1.4.28).  Some of his wordplay is so explicit (if you’re interested, look into his fruit imagery, the “medlar” and “pop’rin pear’), I’m embarrassed to discuss it in class.

From Mercutio’s perspective, Romeo is “in lust, not love.”  He criticizes Romeo for being fickle and obsessive, calls him weak and insane, implies that Juliet is a whore, and predicts the romance will not last.  It’s as if Shakespeare time-traveled 400 years into the future, heard the debates King’s students have every semester, and wrote them into the play!  Several steps ahead of us always, Shakespeare places our suspicions about Romeo directly into Mercutio’s mouth.  (For Juliet, this role is played by the Nurse, another brash and funny character.)

But even before Mercutio dies, Shakespeare encourages us to reject his cynicism.  For one thing, we discover that he has never been in love himself—“He jests at scars that never felt a wound,” Romeo says (2.2.1).  His puns are funny, but he’s no expert on sex, never mind love—he’s a locker room braggart, whose claims to worldly wisdom melt upon closer inspection.

Romeo’s other friend, Benvolio, fares little better, though he at least survives.  When Benvolio meets Romeo in the opening scene, he’s taken aback by his friend’s extreme dejection over Rosaline.  And Romeo really is in bad shape, delivering himself of overheated poetic conceits that border on nonsense:

            Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs;

            Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;

            Being vexed, a sea nourished with loving tears.

            What is it else?  A madness most discreet,

            A choking gall, and a preserving sweet. (1.1.197-201)

This is pretty poor stuff—Shakespeare is deliberately cobbling together clichés that don’t quite fit.  Romeo searches in vain for metaphors (“What is it else?”) and rhymes (“tears” dangles alone between two rhyming couplets).  The Petrarchan sonnet tradition, of which Romeo is a keen disciple, often draws its force from illicit or unrequited love—Petrarch himself wrote poems to a woman named Laura, whom he only saw from afar.  But Laura and Rosaline, objects placed on poetic pedestals, are only pretexts for men’s contemplations of love in the abstract.

To help his suffering friend, Benvolio suggests a practical course of action:

            Forget to think of her ...

            By giving liberty unto thine eyes.

            Examine other beauties. (233, 235-36)

Romeo doesn’t reject Benvolio’s suggestion, but claims it won’t work:

            Show me a mistress that is passing fair;

            What doth her beauty serve but as a note

            Where I may read who passed that passing fair? (243-45)  

Shakespeare, like Petrarch, borrows ideas about romantic love here from Plato.  In the Phaedrus, for example, Socrates teaches that lovers’ souls have a faint memory of the perfect heavenly form of beauty, which they see in glimpses through their beloved.  The women Benvolio has in mind might be “passing fair,” but Rosaline will surely “pass” them, as a more perfect representation of the divine ideal.  But Shakespeare is critiquing this approach—it leads not only to emotional misery but to bad poetry.

--

So what does any of this have to do with TKC’s mission to develop Christians who will have an influence on our culture?  To answer that question, look for parallels between the romantic attitudes Shakespeare rejects here and our own attitudes in 21st-century, hyper-connected America.  When I think of Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio’s outlook in R&J’s first act, two relatively recent technological “advances” come to mind.

The first is online pornography, the ultimate extreme of “giving liberty unto thine eyes.”  I don’t need to rehearse the reasons consuming pornography is a bad idea, or why its effects on our culture have exploded thanks to the speed and anonymity of the Internet.  Suffice it to say, Student Life staff members at King’s have been sounding the alarm on this issue for more than a decade.

Just this month, Time magazine devoted a cover story to online porn and the pernicious effects it has on real-world relationships.  Reading it in light of R&J, I was struck by quotes from men who said they felt incapable of experiencing pleasure and women who felt like objects without an identity. When she’s with her boyfriend, one said, “All of a sudden my mind shifts and I’m not a real person; it’s like, This is me performing.  This is me acting. ... And I don’t even know who it is I’m playing, who that ‘she’ actually is.  It’s some fantasy girl, I guess ...”

C.S. Lewis warned of a similar danger in a 1956 letter to a young male reader.  The “real evil” of sexual fantasy, he wrote, is that it stunts the ability to look outside of oneself:

... it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides.  And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. ... And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.  The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce, art. 

Notice that Lewis’s main objection is not that pornography is immoral—though he would no doubt have equally eloquent things to say about the moral dimensions of lust.  No, the bigger problem, the “real evil,” is that it damages the imagination.  And when the imagination suffers harm, so does art, and along with it our ability to empathize with other people.

Romeo and his friends, in differing ways, are all caught in the same trap.  Mercutio is a genius when he indulges in fantasies, like the fairy queen, but his deficiency is exposed (in an entertaining way, to be sure!) when he turns his attention to the realities of sex and love.  Romeo, too, has an imagination that has curled in on itself, and he is left to construct a fanciful image of the perfect woman out of air, from leftover fragments of romantic poetry that were already clichéd by the Middle Ages.

Romeo’s predicament and Benvolio’s advice remind me even more strongly of another modern technology—the cutthroat comparative approach to beauty and romance promoted by online dating sites like OkCupid, in particular “swipe apps” like Tinder and PlentyOfFish, which allow users to quickly browse through a visual menu of potential partners.

Recently I’ve been reading Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance, about the state of dating and romance in America, and Ansari’s own travails in the world of texting, sexting, and online matchmaking.  Ansari is a comedian, so the book has many laugh-out-loud funny moments, but beneath the humor is serious social science (his co-author is a NYU professor of sociology), which provides a sobering look into contemporary relationships.

The central gist of the studies and surveys he quotes is that paradoxically, the technological aids that make it easier to find a date can actually hinder the search for a life partner.  A seeming infinity of choices leads to indecision, he claims, not just because making the best choice is difficult, but because the overload of options leads to “creating a fantasy person full of all our desired qualities,” who can’t possibly exist.  The solution, according to Ansari, is to “treat potential partners like actual people, not bubbles on a screen”—a great idea, though at the book’s conclusion, he struggles to figure out how to accomplish it:

As we see more and more people online, it can get difficult to remember that behind every text message, OkCupid profile, and Tinder picture there’s an actual, living, breathing, complex person, just like you. ... No matter how many options we seem to have on our screens, we should be careful not to lose track of the human beings behind them.  We’re better off spending quality time getting to know actual people than spending hours with our devices, seeing who else is out there.

It’s hard to argue against this prescription—obviously, spending time with real people is healthier than spending time on virtual or mediated relationships online.  But I would add another suggestion.  In a culture that encourages us as never before to objectify, devalue, and dehumanize others, cultivating the imagination is supremely important, the only real chance we have to see other people as people, exactly as complicated and valuable and possessed of inner lives as ourselves.

--

When Romeo first sees Juliet, he is overwhelmed by her physical beauty:

            O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!

            It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

            As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—

            Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.

            So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows

            As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.        

            The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand

            And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.

            Did my heart love till now?  Forswear it, sight,

            For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. (1.5.51-60)

Romeo is once again writing poetry, heroic couplets to be precise.  And it’s metaphysical, marked by over-the-top metaphors that draw exponential comparisons between the lightness of Juliet’s face and the darkness around her.  She is brighter than torches, a jewel against an Ethiopian’s dark skin, a white dove among crows.  Using fair skin as the primary marker of beauty sounds racially insensitive to us today, but it was standard practice among Elizabethan poets—and we know Shakespeare didn’t care for the convention, as he brillliantly mocks it in his sonnets to a mysterious Dark Lady.

But while he is making these conventional comparisons, Romeo drops a couple hints that he might be changing his Platonic outlook.  First, Juliet is “too dear” for the earth, an indication that she is not just closer to the heavenly ideal than other women, but actually the ideal itself, “true beauty,” against which others must be measured.

So Romeo formulates a plan when “the measure” is done.  He is referring to the dance music, but the word contains a pun, one that Benvolio used earlier when he said of women at the party, “We’ll measure them a measure and be gone” (1.4.10).  For Romeo, the time for “measuring” is over.  He will now attempt something more than looking and judging—he will touch.

Romeo begins his exchange with Juliet as we might expect, with a complex poetic metaphor calculated to impress.  He takes her hand and says:

            If I profane with my unworthiest hand

            This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:

            My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

            To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. (1.5.104-107)

There is hardly a stronger example of pedestal-placing in all of literature.  Juliet’s hand becomes a house of worship, a pure and holy place that Romeo imagines his very touch will defile.  He pushes the metaphor further and compares his lips to pilgrims, on a journey to kiss the object they venerate.

What response does Romeo imagine Juliet might have to these clever lines?  Will she blush and turn away?  Compliment his wit?  Reject him and become the next Rosaline, a pretext for more unrequited love poetry?  Either way, I can’t imagine he expects what Juliet does say.  Pause and savor the moment here, as one of literature’s greatest heroines springs to life:

            Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

            Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

            For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

            And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss. (108-111)

Juliet starts by appropriating his metaphor, though she shifts it—Romeo himself is now the “pilgrim,” not his lips; his hand is just part of his body, not a visitor to a shrine.  But just because she borrows his metaphor doesn’t mean she accepts it.  In fact, she rejects it utterly, and wrenches him back to reality.  He has exaggerated his fault; Juliet is neither shrine nor saint.  It was not a profanation for him to take her hand—it was an ordinary gesture of “mannerly devotion.”  Even if she were a saint and he a pilgrim, hand-touching would not be a sin. 

In the next moment, she picks his metaphor back up and extends it, to playfully fend off the kiss he wants to bestow.  If he truly is a palmer (a pilgrim to Jerusalem who carries palm branches), he should know that the act of touching hands, “palm to palm,” is already a form of kissing—no need to get the lips involved!  She will play his word games, but physical touch will be granted on her own terms.

In four masterful lines, which follow the same rhyme pattern as Romeo’s initial salvo, the poetic dreamer has met his match in a real-life woman.  Romeo, flustered, tries to bring his preferred body part back into the conversation:

            Romeo.  Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

            Juliet.  Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

            Romeo.  O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.

                        They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair. (112-15)

Look carefully at what Juliet does here.  Romeo stumbles in line 112, in an awkward attempt to reclaim the metaphor Juliet has deftly snatched away.  But Juliet doesn’t strike back with a cutting one-liner and claim her victory.  Instead, she responds earnestly and introduces a word, “prayer,” which both fits Romeo’s initial image and holds a variety of meanings, perfect for poetry-making.  Religous pilgrims pray to God with lips and hands; Romeo the romantic pilgrim will “pray,” fervently ask, his beloved to grant a kiss.

It’s no accident that after two exchanges of independent quatrains, Romeo and Juliet are now speaking together, echoing each other’s rhyming lines.  Juliet is not only encouraging him in his pursuit, holding him at bay while simultaneously drawing him forward—she is also turning him into a better poet.  She is no muse like Rosaline, sitting silent while Romeo labors with tortured comparisons—she is actively sharpening his metaphor-shaping wit with her own.

After another complex exchange involving the word “move,” the banter reaches its climax when Juliet grants him a kiss.  Romeo has achieved his goal, but there is no chance he will walk away now—the poetry is too good!  He retreats to his original metaphor, imagining Juliet as a holy relic which can take away his sin.  Once more, Juliet takes it, twists it, and serves it back to him:

            Romeo.  Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.

            Juliet.  Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

            Romeo.  Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!

                        Give me my sin again.

            Juliet.  You kiss by th’ book. (118-21)

The pilgrim’s “sin” is playfully passed back and forth via their lips as Juliet “sweetly urges” Romeo forward into territory he has never visited before—a real love affair with a real person, working with him to create beautiful language.

As Juliet’s final put-down suggests, Romeo’s education is not yet complete—he is still a conventional lover, a conventional poet who knows more about books than real life.  Juliet, however, has ensured that he will eagerly run to his next lesson in Act II.

--

There is an irony here, of course, as Shakespeare uses fictional characters to contend that real people are preferable to fiction.  But he understands that this is the only hope we’ve got.  Only the imagination—developed through poetry, narrative, drama—gives us a fighting chance of feeling empathy for others outside ourselves.

Consider this a manifesto for the English major at King’s.  As Christians, we know that human beings are eternal creatures, images of God, more valuable than anything else on earth.  For students and teachers of English, our goal is to appreciate works of imaginative literature which help readers to experience this truth, not just intellectually but deep in their souls.  As our culture pushes us increasingly toward isolation and self-love, training Christian students to read and write in ways that bring the fullness of humanity to the vastly different others around us, is more essential than ever.

And yes, we will read Romeo and Juliet again.


Bibliography

(Note:  My R&J citations come from the Folger Library edition of the play, which I use in class because it is cheap and comes with facing-page notes that make the text easy to read.  All Folger editions are also available for free online, at www.folgerdigitaltexts.org.) 

Ansari, Aziz, and Eric Klinenberg. Modern Romance. New York: Penguin, 2015.

Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis vol. 3. Walter Hooper, ed. New York:

            HarperCollins, 2009.

Luscombe, Belinda. “Porn and the Threat to Virility.” Time 11 April 2016, 40-47.

Orenstein, Peggy. “How Porn is Changing a Generation of Girls.” Time 11 April                      2016, 47.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine.                      New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. 

------. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York:                  Simon and Schuster, 2004.


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

When Stephen Died

by Davis Campbell

I was 16 when Stephen killed himself. My brother and I were on a mission trip in South Africa, teaching kids about AIDS and how to avoid it, cleaning classrooms and painting and stuff like that. There were probably close to 100 people on the trip, split into two groups in two different cities, Durban (where my brother and I were) and Port Shepstone. Many of the other people participating were high school students, like we were.

A little over a week into the trip, the leaders brought us and a few others who knew Stephen into a small room in the guesthouse where we were staying and had us sit down in moderately comfortable cushioned chairs. Shelves stacked with books and board games lined the walls. The leaders all maintained grave facial expressions as Aunt Donna broke the news to us. At first, I thought it was some sort of sick joke. Of course, Aunt Donna would never joke about that, and even if she would, she wouldn’t be able to convince so many others to get in on it. But to me, the idea that Stephen, someone I actually knew, could have died, let alone killed himself, was even more preposterous than the possibility that Aunt Donna might falsely claim that he had for a couple of chuckles. I had never really known anyone who had died until then. Stephen and I had had classes together; I had seen him almost every day for the past year in Mr. Keegan's AP Economics class. Could it really be that I would never see him again?

In the midst of the absurdity of it all, I couldn’t help but smile, and almost laugh. You can’t put one past me so easily, I thought. I waited for the mood of the room to lighten, for all the serious faces to morph into grins and for Aunt Donna to reveal that Stephen was alive and well, excited to begin his studies at Vassar College at the end of the summer. But there was no grinning; there was no joke. This was real. The smile fell off my face as it dawned on me that my friend was actually dead.

We weren’t close, Stephen and I. He was certainly a friend, but we didn’t hang out much outside of school. Still, I had this hollow feeling in my chest as we filed out of the game room, this sense that the world was somehow emptier than it had been before. To be honest, I don’t think that sense of emptiness had as much to do with Stephen’s permanent absence as it had to do with the shock of encountering death. It knocked the wind out of me. People die. People actually die. Stephen died. Stephen is dead.

I went to my room and lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling. Crying might have been appropriate, but I was just sort of blank. The idea that Stephen was dead was simultaneously simple and impossible to grasp. I know what “dead” means; I know who Stephen is (was). It’s not much of a leap from there to understanding the meaning of the sentence “Stephen is dead.” And yet there was no way for me to make sense of it. I had known what death meant in the abstract, but this was real — it was personal.

A silly thought entered my mind. Stephen and another one of my friends, Ben, had made a slap-bet (the winner of the bet slaps the loser, in lieu of financial compensation) with each other regarding the outcome of a basketball tournament which was to take place about two years in the future. One of them had bet that our high school would win, and the other that we would lose. I have since forgotten who bet what. But I was the slap-bet commissioner, meaning that I was to preside over the slaps (they had bet two slaps, rather than just one) when the time came. Now that Stephen was dead, the bet was off, presumably.

A few days after hearing the news, those of us who knew Stephen visited the group in Port Shepstone. We had some friends over there who also knew him, and the leaders of the trip wanted us all to have a chance to grieve together. They brought us to a beach. It was winter in South Africa, and the salty ocean breeze chilled the trails of water left by tears falling down our faces. Waves broke and clawed their way up the shore before gravity mercilessly dragged them back into the sea. The sky was gray and lumpy. I strummed on the guitar I had brought and we sang some hymns as we looked out over the horizon. “It is well, it is well with my soul,” we sang, even though it wasn't.

We sat in a circle and shared memories of Stephen. Some of us were crying. Someone mentioned Stephen’s many roles in our school’s theatrical productions, prompting us to smile. Stephen had wanted to be an actor. He and Ben, the same friend with whom he had made the slap-bet, were the leads in our school’s performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Ben was John Worthing and Stephen was Algernon. They were funny in that show. We talked about Stephen’s facial hair. The guy could grow a beard when he was only like 13. At one point, when he let his hair grow out, he looked sort of like Jesus. Maybe he’ll come back from the dead.

That evening, we all had dinner at a restaurant called Mugg & Bean. Apparently they have good coffee, which makes sense given the restaurant's name, but I didn't drink coffee back then. We avoided talking about Stephen while we ate; the time for that was past, and we were tired of being emotional. Instead, we acted almost as if everything were normal, talking about our expectations for the rest of the mission trip and the quality of our food, cracking jokes, telling stories, laughing. An outside observer would probably not have guessed that our friend had died, and that we had gathered for the express purpose of grieving him. After our meal, we said goodbye to our friends from Port Shepstone and went back to Durban. The day was over.

If Stephen were still alive today, he'd probably be graduating from college in a couple of months—it has been almost four years since he killed himself. He and I would probably have seen each other every once in a while, too—Vassar is in Poughkeepsie, not too far from New York City, where I live now. He and Ben would probably have made more slap-bets—probably. We don't know what the world would be like if Stephen were still with us. All we really know about that world is that it doesn't exist. In this world, the actual one, Stephen is dead.

When Allergic Reactions Become Part Of The Enigmatic Relationship Fabric

by Paul Glader

Editor's note: 'When Allergic Reactions Become Part Of The Enigmatic Relationship Fabric' was the fourth piece published in our Morning Breath series in February 2016. The series also includes 'Astrology For God Fearers' by Lauren Schuhmacher, 'Tokyo' by Maxine Webster, and 'Luxury Tax.'

Sitting in a crowded, darkened theater watching The Imitation Game just after Christmas in 2015, my wife and I were transfixed on the clever dialogue between Alan Turing and other characters trying to break the Nazi’s Enigma machine. Then my wife started breathing heavily and muffling her coughs.

“Are you OK?” I said, leaning over and offering her a sip of my Diet Coke.

“I think so,” she said, looking unconvincing as she tried to will her allergic reaction away.

We tried to think of what might be triggering the reaction (she is allergic to tree nuts and shellfish). Was the popcorn bathed in peanut oil? Was someone munching mixed nuts nearby us? Did somebody sneak in a shrimp cocktail in their coat?

“Let’s go,” I said, seeing her condition worsen. As we excused ourselves and tried to tiptoe out of our row, my wife’s arm clung to my neck. Her slender limbs moved sluggishly, like a robot with weary batteries. Patrons seemed annoyed, then puzzled, then concerned. One woman hopped from her seat to help. At this independent theater – Cinema Arts in Huntington, NY, -- the main exit required us to hobble my wife down around the front of the screen and past the entire 300-person audience.

As we did so, I recalled my wedding vows (delivered by my father, a minister) to love “in sickness and in health.” I also thought of the various dates that had been ruined by these allergic reactions and in a growing assortment of locations: New York, Greece, Italy and Spain. Murphy’s Law seemed to apply: The odds of an allergic reaction happening (and happening without us having an epinephrine auto-injector such as an EpiPen, inhaler or antihistamine such as Benadryl on hand) seemed to coincide with romantic occasions.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says allergies are the country’s most common, yet often overlooked, diseases that affect roughly 50 million, or 20%, of Americans. And 15 million Americans have food allergies according to the Food Allergy Resource & Education. Roughly 4.1 million children, 5.6%, reported food allergies in 2012 according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. While food allergies are more prevalent in children than adults, my wife and other adults with her condition face severe (and sometimes fatal) anaphylactic reactions. Such reactions make up 200,000 ER visits each year. And it’s something that’s become part of our relationship.

When we first started dating, Eleni had an allergic reaction to nuts while we were at a park in Brooklyn. A few months later, she reacted to an unseen shrimp while we dined with my Swedish cousins at an Asian restaurant in Manhattan.  The next year, she nearly passed out at a West Village restaurant because a waiter accidentally dropped a hazel nut in her soup.

After we were married, we moved to Berlin for two years and her allergies went Trans-Atlantic. Our daughter was born abroad and we took many small trips as a family. During a summer visit to Venice in 2012, we were enjoying a perfect Sunday afternoon stroll on nearby Murano Island, where craftsmen make famous glass chandeliers. We ordered gelato from a vendor, asking for one with “no nuts.” The request apparently translated wrong because the woman gave us a cone of Hazelnut-infused ice cream, a fact we realized only after my wife ate most of the cone and was stumbling out of a cathedral. To make matters worse: we had switched diaper bags that morning and didn’t have my wife’s medication.

Seeing no drugstores nearby, I walked Eleni to the nearest café. The owner’s face turned grim as he explained he had no medications and that drugstores and doctors’ offices were closed on Sundays.  Older women in the café, dressed in their Sunday best after morning mass, grew worried as the man called an ambulance. Turning around to check on Eleni, I saw her resting on a red bench seat along a wall. The Italian women fanned her with dishtowels. As her eyes tried to roll shut, I stroked her hand and said, “Up, Up, Up! Don’t sleep!” Seeing our 4-month-old infant daughter riding on my chest in an Ergo baby carrier, the Italian grandmas became more dramatic, making signs of the cross, folding their hands in prayer toward the heavens and speaking verbal supplications to the Almighty on our behalf.

The ambulance arrived, pulling up to the dock right outside the café. It was a speedboat. Medics guided us on board and whisked us back to the main island ER. There, we saw other tourists who had collapsed from heat exhaustion. As the ER staff gave my wife an IV, I realized my chest was soaked. Amid all the excitement, my daughter had made a major, diaper-defying pooh in the Ergo carrier. A nurse gave me a separate room to handle that emergency. Five hours later, the ER handed me a bill, which totaled only Eur 27. We walked out and, chalking one day as a loss, continued our vacation.

A similar tragedy struck a year later as we visited San Sebastian, Spain. During a walk across town, a cold front caused us to pop into the beautiful Hotel Maria Cristina for a drink, a snack and to get warm. Eleni ate one potato chip from the snack tray and realized that a peanut had fallen into a curl of the chip and she had accidentally bit into the peanut. We rifled through our bags and, again, realized the allergy kit wasn’t there. So I sprinted down the hallway to the front desk, asking for an ambulance. As I ran back, I saw my wife crumpled on the floor. Another couple in the lounge area was nervously watching over her and our baby, who was sleeping in a stroller. 

Within minutes, we were in the ambulance again and heading to a hospital. This time, my 1-year-old daughter was cognizant of the danger, worried about the sirens and nervously uttering a new word: “mamma!” Again, the disaster was averted and my wife was OK. But that was not the last.

Eleni had to go to the ER in Athens, Greece, later that year while visiting friends. In 2014, she had an allergic reaction as seafood smells wafted the Chinatown section of Washington DC as we walked to meet friends for brunch. (We spent the day at an ER in Foggy Bottom instead.) This past fall, Eleni was supposed to meet me in Manhattan for a fancy fundraiser dinner. I was looking forward to the event (got my dress shoes shined that morning). We had a baby sitter lined up. Then I got a call that my wife mixed up a peanut butter spread with a soy butter spread at home and was in the ER. Her friends came to watch our daughter until I could get a train home. No dinner at the University Club for us to hear investor Peter Thiel speak that evening.

Eleni even developed new, serious strains of asthma in the last year, causing several more trips to the ER. We were not sure what was the cause: Pollen in the air? Faulty car air conditioner? An heirloom Greek, shaggy rug in our living room? Bedroom furniture from IKEA? The possibilities drove us nearly bonkers. In the end, the doctors said it was just a new, wild case of Asthma. They assigned her a large Ziplock bag full of asthma medications. We’ve learned to use them and manage her condition.

When these setbacks strike, my first concern is for my wife’s health and safety. But, once that is established, I have to admit, it’s hard to hide my disappointment. I’m a person who prefers to be on time, to stay for the credits of a film, to see all exhibits in a museum. The idea of skipping an event or missing a vacation is depressing. I get bummed when plans go awry. But, in retrospect, the allergic reaction dates remain some of the most memorable and, even, comical in the rearview mirror. What’s the old formula that time + pain = humor? I don’t wish that on anybody. But I also accept that they are part of the fabric of our relationship. And I realize they cause me to loosen up and accept that plans get twisted sometimes.

As we walked out of the movie in December, I ran through scenarios of what to do next. I tried not to badger myself about us forgetting her meds. I also kind of wondered when we would get a chance to see the rest of the film. But, mostly, I just wanted Eleni to be OK.

“Should we go straight to the hospital,” I asked.

“No,” she whispered and wheezed. “Just take me home. My inhaler and meds are there.”

The gentlemen working at Cinema Arts, sprang into action and got a coffee from the concession stand (which limits the effects of asthma and allergies) and checked to see if they had an antihistamine (they did not). They did give us free make-up movie tickets, including one for the Good Samaritan woman who skipped the movie for 5 minutes to help us. We used the coupons recently to see the film, Trumbo.

A manager, John, waited with Eleni while I ran to pull our car up to the front door. We thanked him as I picked Eleni up off the bench and shuffled her out of the theater. I took the stylish purse out of her weak hand and slung it over my shoulder. “Now that’s love,” John said.

Before we drove away, my wife buckled her seatbelt and I leaned over for a kiss. “I love you more than any movie,” I said. And, even if we never found out how Turing broke the Nazi’s Enigma machine, I meant it. 

Glader is an associate professor of journalism at The King's College in New York City and director of the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute.


Thumbnail image by Sabrina Sanchez.

Luxury Tax

Anonymous

Editor's note: 'Luxury Tax' was the third piece published in our Morning Breath series in February 2016. The series also includes 'Astrology For God Fearers' by Lauren Schuhmacher, 'Tokyo' by Maxine Webster, and 'When Allergic Reactions Become A Part of the Enigmatic Relationship Fabric' by Paul Glader.

The table was full of Monopoly money, Natty Lite cans and powdery white specs of cocaine. I sat on my boyfriend’s lap in our friend Tom’s basement. It was 2 in the morning and it was my turn. I rolled a six, passed GO, collected $200, bought a house on Baltic Avenue (my boyfriend’s property) and slobbered “Happy Birthdayyyyyyyyyy babe.” It was his 18th and the night before I left home for my first year of college. I hated the word "babe," but I chose it anyway because the thought of leaving him made me feel lost and halved, like a dog chewing up a Beanie Baby in an abandoned park.  

The next time I rolled, I landed on St. Charles Place, another one of my boyfriend’s properties, and owed him $18. He smiled, the illocution of which (I thought) was “pay up bitch.” I handed him 18 Monopoly dollars and reminded him that I had more American dollars to my name than he did (it was true; I worked part time driving a van that summer), which initiated a night of confusion, shame and violence for both of us.

My boyfriend, who I’ll call A, pushed his Monopoly dollars off of the table and said he didn’t want to play anymore. Tom and I looked at each other from across the table while A kept his head down and snorted a line. “You’re being a chick,” Tom said. He wore a lacrosse pinnie. A threw me off of his lap onto the floor and called me the "C" word and started to list “more appropriate measures of wealth.” They were all ridiculous and included the amount of weight he could bench press. Because I was disoriented and extremely high, I forgot about all the times he made me make his bed after sex and his fear of heights and eating egg shells and became jealous.

I was crying pretty forcefully when I picked up my keys and threatened to drive home. It was raining outside. He told me to “knock myself out,” so I did. I rolled down the grassy hill that was Tom’s front yard and climbed into the driver’s seat of my Subaru. After driving for about four minutes, I pulled over in the middle of the expressway and put my hazard lights on. All of the cars seemed to be passing by like rockets and I curled my knees up into my chest in the backseat—the side furthest away from traffic. I figured he’d call me soon and he did. He said, “Where the hell did you go? I want you back here. I’m sorry. I really mean it.” I said he had to come to me.

He appeared in my rearview mirror running and, mistaking him for a homicidal stanger, I grabbed pepper spray from the glove box. He tapped on my window and I sprayed it on the glass in front of his eyes. I came to recognize him, so I dropped the spray. I made him sit in the backseat when he finally got into my car because his clothes were wet from the rain. “Sorry about the spray,” I said.

I drove my car back to Tom’s house, saw Tom sleeping on his couch in his basement, and had sex with A underneath Tom’s pool table. It smelled like grass and rain. We were looking at each other apologizing the whole time. I thought about the fact that he just ran a mile in the rain to rescue me from rocket traffic, the funeral we had for a dead squirrel my dog killed in my backyard, the Christmas tree Pandora bracelet charm he bought me, the time he drove twenty minutes to fill up my gas tank in a blizzard, and the times he let me pick the movie.

We stayed underneath the pool table hugging. After about five minutes of silent hugging, he told me that he thinks about Topanga from Boy Meets World when we’re having sex. I laughed so hard that I was choking on my own spit. Tom’s dad woke up, came down into the basement, saw us naked underneath the pool table, put his hand over his eyes, said “Get out of my house,” and I punched A on the right side of his face.

I could tell it hurt because he spit out a tooth and his eyes were red and watery. He threw my shirt at me and said, “C’mon.” He left his tooth on a dresser. We drove to Burger King and shared a large Sprite in the parking lot. Third Eye Blind was playing on satellite radio. At around 6 AM, we fell asleep in the backseat. He kept his arm around me while we slept so that I wouldn’t fall on the floor in between the front and back seats. 

Three years later, I broke up with A in his doorway while his parents watched from the couch in the living room. If I ever see God and he asks what I have to say for myself, I'll probably tell him that I get why he's disappointed but, from a human perspective, it's very confusing what exactly we're supposed to love and how much we're supposed to love it. I understand now that drugs don't love me and that the feeling I felt toward them wasn't love. But people are different--even if A is by all accounts a huge jerk, he is still a person and he still needs love. It's very hard to love a person like him. So I guess I would apologize to God for trying in my own fucked up sort of way.

Tokyo

by Maxine Webster

Editor's note: 'Tokyo' was the second piece published in our Morning Breath series in February 2016. The series also includes 'Astrology For God Fearers' by Lauren Schuhmacher, 'Luxury Tax,' and 'When Allergic Reactions Become A Part of the Enigmatic Relationship Fabric' by Paul Glader.

I was nineteen when I lived in Japan.  I was on a six month service trip living with eighteen other people in a tiny house on the outskirts of Tokyo, and somewhere between orientation and the last lunch of ramen noodles, I made a close friend.

We were both young with no real responsibilities; two people from opposite sides of the globe who bonded over a few similarities, but mostly over differences.  Him, the tropics; me, the north.  Him, music; me, tone deaf.  Him, sincere; me, sarcastic.

The mornings in Tokyo were freezing and our house didn’t have heating.  We ate the same breakfast every morning: a fried egg with two slices of white bread and apricot jam.

One night we borrowed bicycles from a neighbor and ventured off with no idea where we were going.  We rode under bridges and along small, man-made bodies of water, exploring the narrow, concrete maze that is Tokyo.  Several times I thought we were lost, only to realize he knew where we were.  At one point we had to walk the bikes up a steep hill; after he had made it to the top he turned around and, noticing I was struggling, walked halfway down, took the bike from me and walked it the rest of the way up, saying nothing.  I have no idea how he navigated a foreign city without a map.

We spent New Year’s Eve in a vacant subway station blasting LMFAO and displaying every stupid dance move we knew.  The only people we saw was a group of thirty Nepalese tourists who joined our dance party for one song.  I couldn’t label what we were, just that we were more than friends but not in a position to be dating. I constantly dreaded the end.

I applied to University while I was in Asia.  I had always dreamed of studying in New York, but the idea of living so far away from him was difficult.  In a moment of honesty, he admitted to me that he hoped I didn’t get in so I could move to his country instead. 

But I did get in.  And with the understanding that our lives were going in different places (literally and figuratively), I moved to New York shortly after returning from Japan.

There was a thrill in moving to the city.  That first month I made a handful of new friends, got a part-time job and adjusted to the ebb and flow of the city.  While I was proud of myself for flourishing in a brand new place, all I had to do was see a couple on the subway and heartbreak would come flooding back.  It angered me to think I had wasted time and energy and emotion on something that never materialized.  None of my successes seemed to matter at the end of the day.  I have never experienced a single year so equally characterized by thriving and pain.

Four years later, the friendship only exists in flashbacks, small lessons learned through heartache, infrequent Facebook messages, and the realization that everything I experience becomes a part of who I am.  Although there is little to show from that friendship other than what I carry from it, perhaps the weight of those things is a normal part of life.  And maybe the burden will be useful to me one day.

I received a message from him a few months ago.  Through a chance encounter, he recently met the only other person I know from his country.  They have since moved in together with a few other people.  I still don’t know what to make of it other than acknowledge that the world is impossibly small.

Despite the recent coincidence, I have no idea if I’ll ever see him again.  I’d like to see what four more years look like on him, but maybe seeing him would only wash up memories of loss.

Despite the rare, uncomfortable feeling of missing someone I only knew for a moment, I’m happy we were friends.  If our worlds met again, I hope I could convey to him the grace and kindness equal to what his friendship meant to me four years ago in Tokyo.


Thumbnail image by Sabrina Sanchez.

Astrology For God Fearers

by Lauren Schuhmacher

Editor's note: 'Astrology For God Fearers' was the first piece published in our Morning Breath series in February 2016. The series also includes 'Tokyo' by Maxine Webster, 'Luxury Tax,' and 'When Allergic Reactions Become A Part of the Enigmatic Relationship Fabric' by Paul Glader.

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy, tells Annie (Diane Keaton) that he loves her, but he says it like this: “Love is too weak a word for the way I feel. I lurve you. You know, I loave you. I luff you. With two Fs.” Alvy is compelled to literally make up a word for how he feels for Annie; “love” just isn’t going to cut it. 

For some reason, language isn’t powerful enough when it comes to love. Something about love is too elusive to be put to words; it never quite comes out comprehensively, and so romantic poets wrote what they did and Woody Allen made up a word. That love is so hard to talk about makes it unquantifiable, and this aspect of romance is deeply distressing to those of us stuck in a culture obsessed with personality typologies and data categorization. What do we do with something that we can’t talk about adequately, let alone quantify?

My middle school youth group pastor had some thoughts to share on this topic. He argued that it is important not to casually throw around the phrase “I love you,” that the value of the words could wear off, and it’s trite to apply it to anything (or anyone). Be careful, in other words, and don’t give away your love too easily, or the person who deserves it might not hear you clearly enough, he said. You might have to make up new words for the person you love later. Be afraid of language and its limitations. If something is hard to talk about, simply don’t, in other words.

The language of love is a very popular Christian culture topic, as it turns out. Consider, on the opposite end of the spectrum from my youth group guru, Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, and all its iterations (The Five Love Languages “of children,” “of apology,” “of appreciation in the workplace,” “of teenagers,” “singles edition,” “men’s edition,” “military edition,” and “the love languages of God”). This is an attempt to categorize love and make it accessible through language, and it makes sense in the context of the ever-popular Myers-Briggs categorizations. We live in a world clearly compelled to categorize everything, even ephemeral things like personality and emotion. It’s like astrology for God-fearers, where our signs aren’t determined by our birthdate, but by inputs into a multiple-choice test.

We are all about trying to decode those things that can’t be said. We have a strong interest—as Christians, as Americans, as millennials, as humans—in categorizing everything. The youth group pastor of old categorized love as something to withhold until you’re “ready” (really, what does this mean?), and Gary Chapman offers five distinct categories of love languages. Yet, I’m unconvinced that either of these metrics actually helps us accomplish an understanding of why love is elusive to language, and they certainly don’t give us a realistic framework for dealing with what love is.

Love doesn’t belong to the realm of quantification, or to categorization. To try to decode romance does everyone a disservice. We’d do better to simply be in love than to see if our Myers-Briggs are compatible, or to unravel our own love languages with the help of a book clearly intended to just sell copy after copy. It is as silly to compare astrological signs as it is to work within Christian-condoned typologies, simply because all of these things miss the point: love is bigger than our arbitrary distinctions, and we have no business subjugating it to patterns in the stars or patterns in our personalities.

It isn’t even right to make up a word for it, as Alvy does for Annie. The motivation behind that scene gets at the truth, which is that love is too elusive a thing to capture in a word. This is the same reason the youth pastors of the world declare to be careful how often we say “love,” as if they could fix the inadequacy of language by simply charging us to preserve it. The truth about love and language, as it turns out, is less neat than either of these solutions imply. We neither need to be quiet about love, make up new words to talk about it, nor try to discover what our own secret love language is. We just need recognition, in a data-obsessed world, that this one thing doesn’t get to be quantified, or reduced to language. It just gets to exist. 


Thumbnail image by Sabrina Sanchez.

Elusivity Killed the College Student

by Larisa Kline

“She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl. We did not know what to make of her. In our minds we tried to pin her to a corkboard like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.”

Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli

***

We had almost been dating for six months when I cheated on Eddy. Our six-month anniversary would have been on February 19, 2014 and I couldn’t believe we had made it to January already. Not because our relationship was terrible, but because I’d never been in a long-term relationship before.

When we started dating in the summer, we were magic. We hadn’t seen each other in months and after he kissed me behind the Philadelphia Art Museum, I was his. I spent June through August in an East Coast beach town and he would drive three hours every few weeks to see me. It was the most romantic thing a boy had ever done for me. Our visits were full of ocean flirting and late night sneaking around and driving through town in his dad’s BMW. We hadn’t admitted it yet, but we were in love.

And then the fall came. I went back to New York City to start my junior year of college and Eddy flew to Hong Kong to start his. Our long, sandy days were replaced with short, choppy Skype dates and I could no longer remember what his sunburnt lips tasted like. But I remained hopeful he would return and we would finally admit we were in love.

Our airport reunion was a slow motion movie montage. He dropped his suitcases and suddenly the foreign families and sign-holding chauffeurs faded away.

A few days later he told me he loved me and I made him say it over and over again, just to be sure it was real.

***

There’s a book I read a dozen times throughout middle and high school called Stargirl. I’m not exactly sure why or how, but it changed my life. The main character, Stargirl, as she liked to be called, is different from the other girls at her Arizona public high school. She has long blonde hair and throughout the story everyone goes from not understanding her, to hating her, to loving her, back to trying to understanding her again, but still failing miserably. The narrator of the story falls in love with her from the beginning, but is unwilling to admit it until she tells him she’s in love with him too.

And then, just as quickly as she appears, she’s gone. Stargirl is eternally elusive. And for some strange reason, she was exactly who I wanted to be.

So, I longed to be elusive.

***

Spring semester of junior year came even quicker than the fall. A fever of feelings hit me hard and I no longer knew what I wanted. Eddy was too clingy. He was too far. He was the one. He said the wrong thing. He needed to hold me. He needed to leave me alone. He tried to understand me, but I claimed he couldn’t understand. He was never what I wanted when I wanted it.

And then there were the nights out. My best friends and I would giggle and guzzle free pineapple-infused tequila shots at our neighborhood Mexican restaurant before stumbling into our favorite West Village pub. They were both single and I watched my curvy blonde companions turn down or kiss whoever they wanted, whenever and wherever they wanted.

Our Saturday mornings featured tales full of their storage closet hook-ups and bartender after-hours blowjobs. My stories were theirs, just from the third party perspective.

I was, after all, very exclusive in my happy, committed, long-distance relationship.

***

I met Dylan through mutual friends at a party fall semester of my junior year and instantly recognized him as the cute senior I’d had a crush on my freshman year of college. He was tall and funny and had just accepted a job at a major newspaper.

That particular night, Dylan and his friend showed up at Fiddlesticks and the five of us spent the night complaining about commutes and convincing the bartenders to give us free shots. Dylan kept laughing at my jokes and putting his hands on my waist, but I reminded myself that I was in a happy, committed, long-distance relationship. With The Cranberries blaring and a Stella Artois-induced haziness starting to blur the bar lights, that happy, committed, long-distance relationship started sounding less and less happy. My friends were just as drunk as I was and didn’t notice how close Dylan and I were standing to each other.

And when that elusive boy kissed this non-available girl, I stopped worrying about that happy, committed, long-distance relationship.

That Martin Luther King Jr. weekend was a blur of West Village bars, ignored phone calls, and waking up naked in arms I didn’t recognize. Dylan wasn’t anything special, but he was here. He made me laugh when Eddy was making me cry. He kissed me when all I wanted was to be loved. And he held me tightly when Eddy didn’t show up like I’d asked.

It was a month before our six-month anniversary and within my selfish weekend I’d managed to break not only Eddy’s heart, but mine as well.

Is it possible to ever forget the worst things we’ve done to the people we loved most? Because I didn’t just break hearts, I broke trust. And I think I’ll always wonder what would’ve happened if I’d never started that fight or I hadn’t felt lonely and tied down or I hadn’t kissed him back that night.

***

I think the thing I loved—and if I’m honest still do love—about Stargirl was her ability to be exactly who she was without explaining it to anyone.She secretly did good deeds, serenaded students on their birthdays, and said hello to everyone she passed. Stargirl’s goodness seeped out of every aspect of her life and even though no one understood, because she was good, they didn’t have to.

***

The words crawled out of my mouth in between hiccups and pauses and the weight of heavy lungs. He was silent and loud and then what he was saying stopped making sense. I sunk deeper and deeper into my roommate’s bed for over an hour while Eddy tried to understand what I’d done.

And then he said the most unexpected thing: “I forgive you.” He said he still loved me. And instead of making him say it over and over again, I asked him to stop.

He wouldn’t break up with me, so I broke up with him instead.

The rest of January, all of February, and the first half of March left me restless. After a stint of hangover-filled weekends suggested by my best friends, I stopped going out altogether. The mention of alcohol made me nauseous and the thought of any boy besides Eddy left me guilty. I was finally everything I’d thought I wanted—I was elusive.

And that was the worst reality of all.

***

I should’ve longed for her goodness, but instead, I selfishly desired Stargirl’s attitude. I thought the beauty of Stargirl was her disregard for explanations and the status quo. But I was wrong.

I wanted to be what I wanted when I wanted to be that way. I wanted to do what I wanted when I wanted to do it. And to top it all off, I definitely did not want to suffer through the consequences of my decisions. I wanted to escape and fly away before I was found out.

She was fictitious and yet, I thought Stargirl was the most beautiful girl in the world. But I’m coming to terms with the fact that she’s not real and it’s okay that I am nothing like her.

Because trying to be elusive isn’t just exhausting, it’s lonely. And for a girl with a broken heart who was still very much in love with her boyfriend, loneliness just wouldn’t do.

Unlike Stargirl, I couldn’t evade the consequences of my actions. Being elusive is fun until you remember that being misunderstood caused so many problems that Stargirl was constantly changing names and schools and looks.

She was elusive, but she was also totally unsure.

***

My newfound elusive existence could never replace the sudden relief that comes after locking eyes with someone who understands you to your very core.

Maybe being misunderstood is only cool in books and movies and the stories you tell your friends at 2 pm Saturday brunch. Maybe I’m not the only one who’s stomach clenches when they “brag” about how great it is being on their own and being very careful to use that particular phrase instead of the dreaded “I am lonely.”

But even in all those John Hughes movies, doesn’t the loner or loser or average girl always find at least one person who gets them? When has the protagonist of any romantic comedy ever not ended up with the wonderful guy? She’s full of goodness and actually a nice girl. She’s that character who fumbles through her sentences and fusses over her hair and questions everything. She’s the one who kisses the nice boy over her birthday cake candles.

So what’s the opposite of being elusive? I’m not exactly sure, but I know that whatever it is, that’s what I want to be.


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.

Exodus 14:12

by Jesse Scott Owen

I

“I’m from Belleview,” Jesse said, turning toward her, “If I convinced you to marry me, well, we couldn’t wear wedding rings.” Most girls he knew weren’t okay with that. They were fine with the standards: no jewelry, no make-up, no cutting their hair, and all the rest. But, their churches were a bit more lenient; wedding rings were okay.

“I can deal with that.”

---

Jesse walked quickly—the teenager’s hair trimmed and neatly organized, a button-up shirt and a tie, cuff links, a black suit and sharp black dress shoes—navigating towards the side door through the throngs of people, several hundred Apostolic Pentecostal youth from around the state, and their youth pastors and some parents, milling about the huge dark church.

“Jesse!”

He turned when he heard his name. “Hey Sister Robbins!”

She hugged him, “Have you seen Natalie yet?”

“I haven’t. I’ve been running all over.”

“Well, she’s around here somewhere.”

He smiled. “I’m sure I’ll run into her.” He started away, but a deep voice stopped him.

“Jesse.”

Jesse turned to shake his hand. “Pastor Robbins.”

The minister smiled, “What did I tell you about hugging my wife?”

She smiled and interrupted, looking up at him, “Have you seen Natalie?”

He looked at Jesse sternly, “Not since I got here. You looking for my daughter?”

“Um.”

He laughed. “I think she’s practicing with the worship team.”

Of course. “Well, I’ve got to keep moving. I’ll see you both around.” Jesse turned to leave, and the Robbins looked at each other.

---

“My dad likes you.”

“Really? He always seems so brusque.”

“He's that way with everyone. But he mentioned the other day that he likes you.”

---

As armor bearer, Jesse sat on the platform behind the man himself. He stood and clapped and raised his hands at the appropriate times during worship service, but didn’t let himself get too caught up in the music, in case the young evangelist needed a mint, or a water.

The sermon was amazing, as every sermon from every Lehman has been for a hundred years. As it came to a loud and energetic end, the worship team came back out and began to sing, and the hundreds of teenagers flooded the altar, standing, jumping, dancing, crying and speaking in tongues. The glistening, wild-eyed speaker walked down into the midst of it, planting his hand on people’s heads and praying loudly in their ears, speaking words that would change their life.

The whole night had gone off without a hitch. Lehman was hydrated, minty-breathed, and handkerchiefed. The crowds were hysterical and filled with the Spirit. Once during service, Jesse even caught Natalie glancing over.

II

I stopped sweeping. I started again, and stopped. Nathan looked up. “Is everything okay?”

“Um.”

“What’s up, Jesse?”

“It’s all for real, isn’t it, Duby?” I asked.

---

I had just left home, working as an assistant counselor at a sleep-away camp in Maryland.

Before I left, I told an old pastor about the job. He said, “Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun. But that's dangerous. When you spend much time with other people who call themselves Christians, you start to think they’re saved and going to Heaven as well.”

If only I hadn’t decided to brush up, to be strong in my faith before I left home. Reading the Bible, I began to see that my beliefs didn't match. I was perplexed by the notion that speaking in tongues and an apostate formula of baptism were more important than “Love God; love others.” I had been the one twisting verses, not those Christians I thought were sinners.

So I was seventeen, and I was clotheslined. The foundations of my life crumbled in a matter of weeks. They crumbled, but I was still clinging to every piece. I was trying to hold them together. Away at camp, some things got away from me; others I let go. I wore short sleeves, people could see my elbows. I began to wear friendship bracelets, strictly forbidden in my growing-up years. I put my grandfather’s dog tag from WWII on a piece of leather and tied it around my neck. Once I swore.

Most nights at camp, I stayed working late in the kitchen, cleaning with Duby.

---

“Talk to me,” he said.

“God. Heaven, hell, Jesus, all of it. It’s all real. I have to deal with this,” I said. He put his mop into the bucket and walked over to me. “Nate,” I asked, “What’s a Christian?”

We sat in dry storage for hours and talked. For the first time in my life, I admitted, “I am not a Pentecostal.” I didn’t know what I was, but I knew what I wasn’t.

---

If mainline Christianity has it right, then those who call upon the Lord will be saved. If my parents and the people I grew up with are right, then I’m going to hell, and so are most Christians, and so are a lot of the Pentecostals too. And everyone’s at risk all the time.

So according to some insane Pascal’s wager, my best bet is to go back to my roots, to repent of my backsliding (because that’s what I’m doing; my mother almost certainly prays every night that I come back to Christ), and live as the song says, as a “one-God, Apostolic, tongue-talkin’, liberated, born again believer in the power of Jesus’ name.” But I can’t.

I can’t, because I know better. I wish I didn’t. I wish I could be oblivious again, attending Gateway Bible College—Bishop once said he’d pay my tuition—or maybe graduated already, engaged to Natalie, serving as children’s pastor at her dad’s church. People who know me now can’t fathom it, but these were my plans, my hopes, my dreams. And I was well on my way, until I picked up a Bible.

Maybe that’s why it took so long to pick one up again. The fear it might tear my life apart again.


Thumbnail image by Dean Graham.

Kissing Cousins

by Bianca Caraza

“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” says Norman Bates, Psycho’s chillingly creepy
villain. More interesting than Norman’s campy habit of cross-dressing to look like his
mother (a shocker to a 1950s audience for sure) is his obsession with her. Though the
late Mrs. Bates and her seriously demented son never share the screen, the Hitchcock
classic suggests some heavy Freudian themes between them. What makes Norman such a messed up dude is that he, like Oedipus, killed his father (or step-father, as it were) and wanted to “marry” his mother (psychologically).

In the fifties, just the whiff of that mother-son relationship was enough to chill
audiences, but to a generation with little off-limits, writers have few taboos left to play with onscreen. Today’s favorite flavor of deviance is incest. Incest itself used to be more loosely defined, a fact at which Tina Fey pointedly pokes fun in cult classic Mean Girls. Karen talks about her first cousin being a “good kisser,” and tries to explain why it’s not, in her eyes, forbidden: “you have your cousins and then you have your first cousins…” to which her horrified friend replies, “No, honey, nu-uh.”

In HBO’s booming series Game of Thrones, the entire first season’s mystery revolves around (spoiler alert) the fact that the Lannister twins, Jaime and Cersei, are totally doing it. Somewhere in the HBO sexy-fying shuffle, the title of Uncle-Father migrated from the provinces of the backwater American South to high-class Westeros
royalty. Similarly, Showtime’s Borgias delves into the depths of the sibling incest trope by pairing up Cesare and Lucretia Borgia. No, honey, nu-uh.

As with any industry, the themes and tropes of cable programs leak into TV’s lower forms. FX’s American Horror Story: Coven dealt with enough mother-son incest this season to make even Sigmund’s head spin. Evan Peter’s character, Kyle, starts off as a nice guy jock from a single-parent home. We quickly realize, however, that his life’s not as clean-cut as it seems: his mother has been sexually assaulting him—and the results are disastrous for all parties involved. Though this issue is left unresolved for the rest of the series (aside from a bloody reckoning in which mommy earns a final rejection), it’s clear what Glee writers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are trying to convey: she’s a bad lady.

Bates Motel takes us full circle back to Norman Bates’ mommy issues. In A&E’s spiffy reimagining of the Psycho story, Vera Farmiga gives a fabulous—if sometimes exhausting—performance as young Norman’s manipulative and explosive mother, Norma. It’s easy to see how Norman could go from cute little Freddie Highmore to a demented Tony Perkins, as Norma smothers him with her capricious hot-and-cold approach—screaming at him one minute and sharing a bed the next (he’s sixteen!). It’s disturbing even to write, but the sexual tension between Highmore and Farmiga is incredibly palpable, and it makes for a train-crash effect: both impossible to watch and to stop watching.

Writers use exaggerated character flaws to show us what we don’t like, to give us villains we love to hate. Plato wrote that stories are cathartic: they inspire pity and fear. And the incest trope is the perfect platform for both emotions. In shows like Bates Motel and Coven, the incestuous relationships are on unequal footing: we can pity the victim and fear the villain. Sure, it’s pretty sick, but it makes for a campy story. The real issue arises with illicit relationships on equal footing, as with the Lannisters. Why watch something which thoroughly disgusts us?

I’d posit that we’re fascinated by deviance. Sociologists who study deviancy agree that every social group must have corresponding deviants: a group of outliers who violate the norms, mores, or ethical codes of the larger in-group. Deviants exist to bring the in-group closer together, much like a common enemy in times of allied
war. They’re a group we can collectively point to and hate, sighing, “At least we’re not them.”

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the term “defining deviancy down,” which refers to the idea that deviancy isn’t immutable, but a set of flexible boundaries depending on time and cultural shifts. In short: today’s deviancy is tomorrow’s normalcy. Today, much of what was considered deviant fifty, thirty, even ten years ago is the norm. Deviancies have been defined down, and it’s harder to pinpoint behaviors (from a politically correct standpoint) that we are allowed to publicly revile. Perhaps the reason television presents incest on such a wide spectrum, from the serious to the downright campy, is because it’s one of the last taboos left to us, the last dark cave of humanity that can be explored and—across the board—condemned.


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.