2020 San Antonio Book Festival

Bless Your Little Gothic Heart: Megan LeBrees, Editor of Kirkus Reviews

Amber Sparks, author of And I Do Not Forgive You

Edward Carey, The Swallowed Man

Gothic literature didn’t thrive just in Victorian England—it’s alive and well now, ushering in overcast shadows and a mordant, sardonic take on the world’s miseries. We’ve asked Edward Carey and Amber Sparks to color it dark for us during this session. Carey is the acclaimed author of Little whose new novel, The Swallowed Man, imagines the years Geppetto, Pinocchio’s creator, spends within the belly of a sea beast. Amber Sparks’ latest story collection, And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges, is populated with such heroes as time-traveling queens and video-game designing goddesses, and such specters as clingy ghosts and mediocre men.

Moderator Megan Labrise is the editor at large at Kirkus Reviews and the host of their podcast, Fully Booked. Please support our writers, the Festival, and Nowhere Bookshop by purchasing our writers’ books using the Buy the Books button.

Edward Carey: Two years prote spents in belly of monstrous sea creature. Was in children’s hospital in Florence at the time, where Pinocchio lived most of his life. Pinocchio often asked what it meant ot b ehuman. I ask am I still human to have been stuck inside the belly of a fish?

Favorite gothic: Auntie Toothache by Hans Christian Andersen

Amber: The Eyes of St. Lucie. I have obsession with collecting small objects.  Been interested with idea of escape into miniature world.

Edward: I love the idea of inverse fairy tales. I teach fairy tales, and I’ve been doing it for years. Why do you go back to those? What is it about them? Old texts are very dark. They’re the opposite of what Disney has made of them. As if you’ve cut off the form of human head and died inside neck hole, now you’re swimming about the insides. Gets back, crawls away from all the rest of the boring stuff. Let’s deal with monsters, death, the issues of surviving, really real issues. My experience as a writer was sort of given a rebirth-I got really lost as a writer writing a novel that took me fifteen years to write. I didn’t care about people who really existed, it’s the fake ones I like. I got so lost in it. How do I reset myself ? I asked why I was writing, anyway. What do I think I carea bout? I went back to books that meant more than anything to me as a kid. I love that rumpelstiltskin can get so angry that he can tear himself in two. I love thtat there are real monsters around and they can reflect on our real world existence. Let’s have blood everywhere. Exaggeration is essential. If there’s something under the bed, let it come out.

Amber, would you say a gothic novel is a fairy tale for an adult? I think they’re for adults. The non-sanitized versions certainly are. I do think they have a lot of similarities. A lot of times, gothic novel goes into the happy ever after. What you really find out about mr. Rochester and the reveal there.

SABF & the Portland Book Festival Present Jeff VanderMeer in Convo with Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed speculative novels Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Signal to Noise, Certain Dark Things, and The Beautiful Ones; the forthcoming noir Velvet Was the Night; and the crime novel Untamed Shore. She has edited several anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (aka Cthulhu’s Daughters). She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer is the author of Dead Astronauts, Borne, and The Southern Reach Trilogy, the first volume of which, Annihilation, won the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award and was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland. He speaks and writes frequently about issues relating to climate change as well as urban rewilding. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, on the edge of a ravine, with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, and their cat, Neo.

Notes from the Bathroom Line

Catherine Cohen

Catherine Cohen, a native of Houston, is a comedy sensation who has a residency at Joe’s Pub and hosts a weekly show at Club Cumming in NYC; she also cohosts the popular podcast about dating, boys, and sex, Seek Treatment. She has been featured in The New York Times, Vogue, and The Village Voice, and was named Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019. Her many film and TV credits include a role in Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds and Season 3 of High Maintenance on HBO. She’s also the author of God I Feel Modern Tonight: poems from a gal about town. Follow her while you’re young @catccohen on Instagram.

Amy Solomon

Amy Solomon is a film and TV producer, most recently on HBO’s Barry and Silicon Valley. She runs Alec Berg’s production company where she develops movies and TV that you’ll hopefully see someday. She’s originally from Chicago but now lives in Los Angeles with her dogs, Nan and Goose, who are perfect. She is the editor of Notes from the Bathroom Line: Humor, Art, and Low-Grade Panic from 150 of the Funniest Women in Comedy. She’s a graduate of Princeton University. She loves baseball and her friends’ kids.

Tien Tran

Tien Tran is an LA-based comedian, actor, and writer. Her stand-up has been featured at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal as part of the 2019 New Faces of Comedy showcase. She’s written for Showtime’s Work in Progress and is a co-host of Crooked Media’s Hysteria podcast.

Rachel Wenitsky

Rachel Wenitsky is an actor and writer in LA. She was a sketch writer on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and has also written for Saturday Night Live, Reductress and is the head writer of The Story Pirates Podcast. She’s one half of the comedy folk duo Friends Who Folk and has been on been on *television* which is pretty cool if you think about it.

From Isabel Allende, the New York Times bestselling author of A Long Petal of the Sea comes The Soul of a Woman, a passionate and inspiring meditation on what it means to be a woman. Signed copies of The Soul of a Woman are available while quantities last! 

“When I say that I was a feminist in kindergarten, I am not exaggerating,” Allende writes. As a child, she watched her mother, abandoned by her husband, provide for her three small children without “resources or voice.” Isabel became a fierce and defiant little girl, determined to fight for the life her mother couldn’t have. As a young woman coming of age in the late 1960s, she rode the second wave of feminism. Among a tribe of like-minded female journalists, Allende for the first time felt comfortable in her own skin, as she and her female colleagues wrote “with a knife between our teeth” about women’s issues. But what feeds the soul of feminists—and all women—today? To be safe, to be valued, to live in peace, to have their own resources, to be connected, to have control over our bodies and lives, and above all, to be loved. On all these fronts, there is much work yet to be done, and this book, Allende hopes, will “light the torches of our daughters and granddaughters with mine.”  

Journey into the Hinterland, a brutal and beautiful world where a young woman spends a night with Death, brides are wed to a mysterious house in the trees, and an enchantress is killed twice, and still lives. Melissa Albert is the New York Times bestselling author of The Hazel Wood and The Night Country. She was the founding editor of the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog and has written for publications including McSweeney’sTime Out Chicago, and MTV. Melissa lives in Brooklyn with her family. 

Please support our writers, the Festival, and Nowhere Bookshop by purchasing our writers’ books using the Buy the Books button.

Moderator Melissa de la Cruz is the #1 New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Publishers Weekly internationally bestselling author of many critically acclaimed books for readers of all ages, including the Alex & Eliza trilogy, Disney’s Descendants novels, the Blue Bloods series, and the Summer on East End series. Her books have sold over eight million copies, and the Witches of East End series became an hour-long television drama on the Lifetime network. Visit her at melissa-delacruz.com.

Three writers with new books: covering fiction, nonfiction, poetry-wrestle with ways of depicting and resolving questions about Latinx masculinity. In Pedro’s Theory, Marcos Gonsalez explores the lives of many Pedros, real and imagined Several are the author, while others are strangers, lovers, archetypes, and the people Gonsalez might have been in other circumstances. all are journeying to some sort of promised land, or hoping to discover an America of their own. Benjamin Garcia makes a stunning debut with his poetry collection, Thrown in the Throat. In a sex-positive incantation that retextures what it is to write a queer life amidst troubled times, Garcia writes boldly of citizenship, family, and Adam Rippon’s butt. And Rudy Ruiz’s The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez is a novel of magical realism that weaves together the past and present as Fulgencio strives to succeed in America, break a mystical family curse of masculine rage, and win back a woman’s love after a doomed youthful romance.

Moderator Lilly Gonzalez is the executive director of the San Antonio Book Festival.

THE ROAD AHEAD | A story about the sweet thrills of something new and uncomplicated. —

Fiction published originally in Dear Damsels, Feb. 14, 2020

We sprawl beneath the canopy of colourful scarves tied to my bedposts as Belinda Carlisle sings in French on her Voila! record. The notes carry across the room and mix with the scent of Nag Champa burning on my incense stand.

He lies beside me, head indenting the duvet’s mandalas, rough haircut grazing my belly as I peer through the window at the waxing gibbous moon, feeling ancient and eternal – a woman acquiring rings of wisdom.

Undoing my bra is a struggle. I reach up to assist, but he brushes away my hand.

“Let me do it,’ he says. ‘Keep looking outside. You’re beautiful in the light.”

We’ve been through this before. As the seconds pass, I consider offering oral, think of the ensuing sense of power, the stubborn persistence and grit and transcendence of a tired neck. Or maybe I’ll let him fish in my mermaid’s net for a while.

I reach for my shirt.

“Let’s try again later,” I suggest, pulling it back on. He tilts his chin upward, wearing a look of wild gratitude, eyes dancing like a child’s.

To celebrate my thirty-fifth, we walk to the market where we first met. He fills a reusable shopping bag with cabbage, sweet potatoes, and other veggies. We return to his apartment and he cooks me stir-fry, followed by a dessert of tapioca pudding and coconut cake with arrowroot. We eat off one plate with two forks, then fall into the sofa and laugh through sitcoms. Our bodies are fluid, morphing into animal, vegetable and mineral. Once, I was human, but now I am a carnivorous plant, a Venus flytrap that devours all ten thousand of his stares. Over the course of the next couple hours, we explore the landscape of each other’s mouths, writing a new language with our tongues.

On weekends, we visit the park to be amidst couples pushing strollers and children with balloons. I study him in his crewneck sweater as he ignores the signs saying not to feed the birds, tossing them pieces of bread and casting me sidelong glances. Like a baby bird, I’m hungry and want him to feed me. But all along, I’ve reminded myself not to do that. I once liked a guy who always drank iced tea, so I ordered it whenever we went out, thinking it would make him like me back, but it didn’t. Instead, I ended up drinking a lot of tea when I wanted soda.

“I guess this makes me like St. Francis,” he says with a strut that draws looks from strangers. He tosses more scraps.

“I guess it makes you someone who doesn’t follow park rules,” I answer. It’s odd how he behaves in certain instances and not others – but then again, so do I.

On our way home, we see a bra lying on the sidewalk next to the bus stop. Black. Lace. Flung. He points as he steps over it, spelling out the letters, B-R-A-S-S-I-E-R-E, as if I’ve never seen and wouldn’t recognise one.

When I get home, I take off the one I’m wearing and leave it on the living room floor in a pile of dirty laundry. I set up scenes that look like coincidences to give meaning to our encounters when I know there is none and that they’ll lead no further.

But whether they do doesn’t matter. Ever since we met and started hanging out, I’ve felt like a kid, free to roam without facing the consequences of sex. The scenery around us has come alive like time-lapse photography that captures flowers blooming and bees making honey and the sun crossing the sky. The world zips by at hyper-speed while we amble along sidewalks, enjoying the crunch of leaves beneath our feet.

My heart leaps in my chest when I hear my phone chime each day at 4:56 and see the letters of his name appear on the incoming message. I leave the office in a jiffy and skip down the stairs and out to the street. We find our stride easily. The road unfurls before us like a ribbon, an unchained silver necklace. Beneath the shaded elms, his eyes shine like mood rings, like flipped coins that have yet to land on heads or tails. Always, there is a feeling that I wish would decide on an emotion.

I consult my co-worker, Paula, who’s sworn off most of the men we’ve discussed. Her ex was an alcoholic who kept a scabbard by their bed, she’s told me multiple times.

“He might be your Man of La Mancha,” she suggests. We’re eating lunch al fresco, and she squints through the sunlight.

“What do you mean?”

“Don Quixote, remember?” She takes a bite of kale and chicken salad. “We read it in high school Spanish class. He goes after Dulcinea, the prostitute. They meet in public. He recognises her virtue and tries to take her home and reform her.”

“That’s not how I remember the story,” I tell her. “Dulcinea was imagined. He thought he needed a woman to be chivalrous. Why does what I told you about me and this guy remind you of Man of La Mancha?”

She shrugs. “All I’m saying is be careful. A lot of guys, from my experience, turn out to be like Quixote.”

She continues to munch on her salad while making strange giggling sounds. I focus on a vase of gladiolas placed in the corner to distract myself.

There are more dates, more strolls, and more sightseeing. We sprawl across the mattress, my body a desert canyon and he a starry-eyed lynx peering up from the peaks and valleys of my new paisley comforter. He lies in my ravine like a river, sculpting new terrain.

When we ride bikes around town, he veers purposely off course, cutting a path through adjacent parking lots.

“Let’s go this way,” he says, hearing my voice trail behind as we loop around a corner and slide down a hill past a theatre and a string of art galleries, stopping to hear a group of street musicians play accordions and bagpipes. It’s what I’d hoped for – the serendipity that would seal the night and lend it a sense of completeness.

“I went to a funeral with bagpipes once,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“It was nice until the drone pipe started playing in the background. That instrument’s all noise. Shall we continue?”

He pedals forth and our ride wends to the market, where we sit on the patio eating coconut almond and cara cara orange gelato and discuss all the places we want to visit: Arches National Park. Big Bend. The Davis Mountains. Palo Duro Canyon. Telluride. The Cosmos at Marfa. Out west to stay in a teepee, an airstream, or a flying saucer. Out west in a ’50s Plymouth to view outsider art. The Alps to hunt for mushrooms. Glacier National Park to spot elk. The list goes on, and I marvel at our ability to keep updating it with new destinations.

Still, I wonder how long we can prolong this adventure – this build-up of moments not leading to sex – the thrill of leaving it open-ended and not knowing what lies ahead. Part of me suspects it’s a matter of time before it runs its course and peters out with a whimper. Then, I remember the fun is in possibly never finding out.

2019 Houston Writers Workshop

2019 Houston Writers Workshop As an editor and blogger, attending The Houston Writing Workshop, a one-day writers conference held this Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, at the Airport Marriott at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, was an excellent opportunity to connect with other writers, pitch book proposals to agents, and learn the ins and outs of today’s publishing scene. The event, organized by Writing Day Workshops and longtime Writer’s Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino, featured one-on-one meetings with agents for authors to have a chance to pitch their ideas and receive individual feedback and critiques on their concepts. This year’s agents in attendance included:

 

· Carolina George, CYLE Literary Elite

· Vicki Selvaggio, Storm Literary

· Ann Rose, Prospect Agency

· Carlie Webber, Fuse Literary

· Jessica Kirkland, Kirkland Media Management

·  Leticia Gomez, Savvy Literary Session topics included: How to Write an Awesome Query Letter to an Agent: Quelling Your Query Conundrums, taught by agent Ann Rose. Talking About Craft: 7 Ways to Improve Your Writing, taught by former literary agent Laura Biagi “Writers Got Talent”—a Page 1 Critique Fest “Writers’ Got Talent: A Chapter One Critique-Fest” in the vein of American Idol or America’s Got Talent. You, the Protagonist: Developing Your Character (Author) Brand, taught by agent Caroline George. You Have an Agent Offer or Book Contract — Now What? taught by agent Carlie Webber. Other topics included effective branding to reach a target audience and knowing one’s skill sets to tell your story effectively. “We need to be intentional about how we’re molding our brand,” said former literary agent Laura Biagi. “Branding, like writing, is subjective.” Popular hashtags and links for sharing live conference updates included @writingdaywksp#houww, #HoustonHouWW, @writersleague, #Texas, #amwriting, and @bookstagram.   What makes a memorable protagonist? When building characters in their novels, writers should keep in mind that a memorable protagonist is well-connected with the story, stressed agent Carolina George of CYLE Elite. “All of you are flawed, quirky, multi-dimensional, and relatable,” she said. “There are obstacles in your journey. Branding is simply projecting that character identity to other people.”

She referenced Frodo from The Lord of the Rings, asking the audience to imagine him starting a GoFundMe page to pay for his trip to Mordor, and Katniss Everdeen, the iconic, girl-on-fire protagonist from The Hunger Games.

“We know exactly what her cause is, her personality,” she said. “It’s about about building traits so people can remember us.” Literary agent Caroline George discusses building memorable protagonists. Her additional advice for getting published included knowing who your readers are and how to engage them. Because agents work to pitch books to editors, they seek out writers for the “long haul,” or duration, of their career.

Writing platforms and social media

Writers can benefit from posting and sharing their updates through various social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram once or twice a week, depending on their genre. “Make sure everything falls under the umbrella of your brand,” George said. “Social media isn’t about you, it’s about your followers. When building platform, invite people into your conversation. Talk to each other. Writers help writers. Understand reviews and the importance of engagement and keep your bridges intact. Branding builds community and fosters growth. Think long-term.” While platform has value if it translates into potential book sales, value has shifted within the social media community, with publishers seeking out numbers but also wanting valuable platforms, she added. Writers should clean up the content on their social media channels if they’re pitching a new project, George said. “If you’re not getting traction on a book right now, keep writing, because that next book could come up as a success.”

What makes a best-selling novel?

It’s hard to say, though agents know what they like and don’t like.

“I don’t like romance, so don’t send me romance–in addition, you’d never send me a romance novel, because I have no connections in that world and don’t know any of the editors,” said Carlie Webber, an agent with Fuse Literary.

“I do, however, love mystery, thriller, suspense, young adult, and middle grade. My agency has been successful selling romance with other agents.”

It’s important to build rapport with agents in order to have an in-road and branch out and pitch projects in other genres, she said. “Publishing is very much a business of personal relationships,” Webber said. “Build rapport with agents who have experience and connections in the world.

Growls of Fate – Katie Nickas — The Cabinet of Heed

Fiction

Published originally in The Cabinet of Heed

Sometimes when I’m alone in my apartment, the maker speaks to me. It talks about my husband.

We had a blowup last summer. I got mad and moved out. Our cat listened to it happen from the ledge, because cats hate shouting. Now, she stays with him. She’s sweet and adorable, with a face like an owl that peers from the ends of hallways and claws that dig into flesh to show affection. He has her and a good job and a nice place to live. He should be happy, but he’s not. I know this, but the maker tells me, anyway. It whispers like a surrogate conscience all the things he does to try not to be alone.

Books.

Grr.

Music.

Grrr.

Guitar.

Grrrowl.

In the daytime, I go for long walks through the blue-green hills that resemble bunches of broccoli. I look at the bluebirds and marshmallow clouds and walk to the store to buy groceries. When I get home, the rooster on the weathervane is stuck pointing south, its figure suturing the fog. I carry in the groceries that I’m addicted to buying and pour water and grounds into the maker, switching it on and listening to it brew. The whispers begin almost immediately. They’re palpable in the silence.

“He wants to be alone,” I say, unloading heads of garlic, carrots, celery, cheese, crackers, thinking I’ve been transported to some other dimension.

Grr.

“He pushes people away and then asks them to come back.”

Grrr.

“He’s bad.”

Silence.

“He can’t stop.”

Grrrowl.

Though soft at first, the sounds become more plangent as the cycle runs its course. I pour a cup, lean back in the chair, and close my eyes. Images of family and friends appear. Their features are nondescript, like tiny grains of sand swept in and out of form. I imagine my neighbors sitting down to dinner all throughout the neighborhood. It’s twilight. I know what happens at twilight. Shadows rise and mists settle, holding everything in their vaporous breaths until morning.

Sometimes, the maker splutters at these times. That’s when the heaviest truths are divulged—when it’s running on steam and wants to be fed more water so it can continue talking.

I sip and think I must have really good hearing.

They’re all gone now, those closest to me. Not gone—distant. It’s only the maker and I in this thick, cloistered silence.

Suddenly, I hear the flawed person inside and panic. Its voice fills my head—the voice of someone who’s been abandoned and who’s doomed to ask questions with no answers. I’m angry—angry that my husband treats people like puppets, bending them to his whims.

“Why did he do this?”

The thought sends shudders through my collarbone and pushes up beneath my skin, wanting to be let out. A plaintive growl spreads out across the room. Except instead of making a sound, it forms a word. There’d often seemed to be an echo in here, and while the maker’s percolations have been well timed to coincide with my questions, they’ve never implied they belong to an actual being or presence—a mind. I’d fed it water, electricity, and grounds. From those ingredients, it pressed out something like a piquant juice—sometimes smoky, others intense—but always juice and no more.

Yet the word was unmistakable. I straightened in the chair, my back turned rigid.

Suicide.

“Suicide?”

Yes.

More than a growl—an affirmation, with the maker reaching into its grizzled depths to lay a finger on its pulse and measure the beats of its efficient, little heart.

“He is, or intends to?”

No answer.

“Why?”

My imagination spirals back to all the possible causes: Childhood abuse, neglect, the old tunnel with no light at the end, his loss, our loss, the growing apart, the splitting after so many years together.

“Will it be fast or slow?”

No sound.

“Fast?”

Nothing.

“Slow?”

Grrrowl.

Yes, I might have guessed that. He’d already been killing himself slowly. One moment later, another question arises.

“What can I do?”

Silence.

“Buy him a book?”

Silence.

“Dinner?”

Silence.

“Cakes? Treats? Records? Phone calls?”

My brain kicks itself. You’ve already tried all that. For god’s sake, think of something more original.

Finally, it comes.

“Maybe, somehow, I could help him live?”

I hear the longest growl of all. Not only a growl, it’s something chthonic that seems to rise from the earth and shift through night’s inchoate shroud—something that speaks for others.

Clutching the sides of my chair, neck laced in sweat, I realize it’s not the maker at all. It’s he. He’s somehow found his way inside and is channeling himself through it.

The notion seems to lift some of the fog. To hear from another source that his life is truly out of control offers closure. But I’m just as unnerved as before, wondering what can be done to help someone live a life whose intent is on ending it, however gradually.

Rising from the chair, I walk to the kitchen and look at the maker sitting on the counter, its contents settled in the bottom. I could give it more water to listen to it talk some more. I could do that.

Instead, I pick up the phone and call him.

“Sex Ed Now”

Fiction

Published originally in Ghost Parachute on June 4, 2019. Featured artwork by tattooist/artist Brett J. Barr.

The night of our date, we agree that you’ll drive your pickup truck into an embankment while I stand on the side of the road filming it, making sure no animals are harmed in the making of this video about abstaining from sex with the guy you like.

This is Sex Ed now. The earlier version dropped circa 1995-‘96, before all the infamous change and explosions happened. Back then, they handed us pamphlets covered in cheese curls and confetti, because sex was a celebration. Inside were models who resembled the characters from Saved by the Bell but who were not the same people. Practice safe sex, said the Mario Lopez lookalike, because sex led to babies, and life was dangerous.

In those days, you sat on the bus with your friends and giggled about sperm while I primped my bangs and checked for lumps and anticipated wearing “feminine napkins.”

Now, we’re grown-ups who learn about sex while lunching in cars with the seat fully reclined and a sandwich wedged between our legs. From that perspective, it’s easy to see the school nurse’s head floating high above the treetops—our guardian angel appearing like she used to via laserdisc.

“Remember, sex can be nice,” she cautions, “but sex is not the same as love. From gonorrhea and syphilis to HIV and AIDs, sex can kill.”

We absorb her lesson like frogs or other liminal beings, supping it from the pool of knowledge.

When you invite me to dinner, I take all the necessary precautions, asking about getting to the restaurant, how long we’ll be there, and so on. There’s a quick shortcut we can take, you say, tracing the route with your finger.

The directions are easy, but you’re nervous giving them. Your face turns bright red against the desktop’s potted ferns. This is another part of Sex Ed now—managing the queasiness that never seemed to go away, even though the adults at the time said it would.

At the table, you nibble your meal as I stare at the ring on your finger. You make everything about sex, confusing my favorite TV show with a local topless bar of the same name. The conversation folds in on itself, with all my fear and trepidation springing to life. We finish and go to the park as friends trying to have fun and be social. Exercise is good for the glands.

Afterward, you invite me to your house and serve me iced tea while showing off your mom’s Hummel collection and the black-and-white photos of your grandparents sitting on the steps of their trailer near the lake. A framed picture of a blonde woman beams from the shelf.

“This is my wife,” you say, holding it proudly at arm’s length. There’s another one of you both superimposed on a zigzag of fir trees, the waters of Niagara Falls, and a silver spring.

My heart sinks as I study the happy couple.

“She’s pretty,” I manage to say.

You smile but don’t reply. In your bedroom, I leave a bloody pad wrapped in a napkin behind your dresser.

At home later that night, I watch the video we made. It’s graphic. The impact of driving into the wall at a high speed left you unconscious. Yet thankfully, you’re uninjured. While you rest, I text you pictures of bunnies, rainbows, and hearts, knowing you’ll see them when you wake up and I’m gone.

In the end, we succeed in going through all the motions without engaging in the act itself. There are fresh, excruciating images, but no flesh or blood at play. We refrain from having real sex by simulating it. As a result, lives are saved.

This is Sex Ed now.

Long-Limbed Maidens — sidereal magazine

Published originally in Sidereal Magazine, Issue Seven, (date)

Objects in the bathroom mirror appear farther away—the fleur-de-lis hook where my bathrobe hangs, the portrait of the cat I drew from my bedroom window—all are stacked and hung in these rooms, which feel like they’re made of papier-mâché, that if someone whacked hard enough with a stick, it could scatter drywall and plaster across the carpet like confetti.

This level of decrepitude feels strange and jarring, but it’s mine and there’s no room for fear or regret in what’s ours—only patch-up work and setting paintings over holes and scratches and trusting that self-healing will eventually seep into the walls and repair them, too.

So I buck up and leave the bad stuff in a garbage bag on the doorstep next to the white marble cherub left behind by the last tenant—beads from Mardi Gras or Carnaval still strung about its neck—and agree with Drunk Larry, whom I met last Wednesday in the laundry room and keep seeing everywhere, that the emerald-green moss growing on the sidewalk stones appeals to the romantic in all of us.

No one else but a romantic would want to live here.

In the Italian restaurant two blocks down, there is an ad for wine featuring a famous painting by the Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. It depicts a circle of long-limbed maidens in white gowns holding hands in a forest.

In 1482, Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ would have afforded him a $2 bottle of wine. Now, it’s priceless, the tagline reads.

One Friday night after work, I sit sipping wine across the table from my boss, who asked me to dinner. He wears a grim expression no matter what the future holds. It is difficult not to notice this.

The tall, spindly red chalice placed against the ad’s black background enchants me, compels me to lace my fingers around the stem of my own glass of red. At this point, I’m not drunk or tipsy, even—just kind of woozy.

“How are the product descriptions coming along?” he asks.

“They’re coming.”

Despite his sallow complexion, there’s something about the squib that’s bold—even debonair.

“Good. Next week, I’ll have your teammates show you how to use the specs.”

Taking another sip, he holds the contents in the space between his lower lip and teeth, making a dry, sucking sound. I clasp my hands beneath the table.

“I’m feeling better about things,” I lie. “There were butterflies at first.”

He smiles in recognition.

“That happens to people when they first start. Once you get the hang of it and find your own way, it will flow more smoothly. It’s my job to get inside your head and see what we might be able to work on improving together.”

That’s it, I think—where the boldness lies. Not that he wants to get inside people’s heads, but that he’s fond of telling them. Is that boldness or shamelessness?

He notices me staring at the painting and sighs.

“I wish I could keep your attention.”

“It’s not you,” I say. “I’m easily distracted.”

He raises both eyebrows.

“You’d better make sure to hunker down and focus. We’re going to be having a whole lot more items coming in once the year unfolds.”

I continue drinking. We’re now three-quarters of the way into the bottle, inebriation setting in. I will hunker down, I tell myself. I will focus. But first, I need to tell him I’m ready for the check because I can’t sit there with him any longer.

Without hesitation, he gets the waiter, which earns him respect.

Once at home, I type Botticelli into my computer. According to one article, the painting is considered one of the most controversial since the birth of Neo-Platonism. An allegory for the lush growth of spring, it contains hidden imagery and symbolism, including Venus, Cupid, Mercury, and the Three Graces.

I think of it one night a few weeks later as I’m standing in front of the bathroom mirror checking out my figure in leopard-print panties and a matching underwire bra. Part of me wonders if the time for wearing this type of lingerie already came and went before I remind myself it might never have existed.

Coming out of the bathroom, I slide down the hall and peek into the bedroom to find my bed empty, which is disappointing. For some reason, I thought the boss might be lying there—not that sleeping with him wouldn’t be disgusting and immoral, but because it’s also so fearless.

I return to the bathroom mirror and look at my reflection again. This is boldness, I whisper. This is fearlessness: standing by myself.

My co-worker, Val, is in top form Monday morning. She’s carefully concealed her disdain for the office in a collection of unrelated objects that sit on her desk—a black plastic spider with wiggly legs, a family of succulents, and a brown nameplate with white letters spelling out the words Every Day I’m Hustlin’.

Val knows I know how much time she spends trying to get under my skin. She glares at me from across the expanse, her eyes widening to deep, dark lakes. I want nothing more than to escape—to frolic through the woods like a long-limbed maiden in a white gown. I want to be honest with Val, to tell her how scared I am to let go of these fantasies. But I know she’ll just roll her eyes and tell me she’s busy, or add whatever truth I reveal to the list of insecurities to use against me later.

I imagine us parting on one of our last days. The scene plays out in my head.

I’m sorry we couldn’t be better friends, or even acquaintances. Maybe we could get a coffee someday, or go to a movie. You like movies, don’t you, Val?

The bloodier, the better.

She is staring at me as my imagination wanders. Val is a spirit, I realize, both dead and not dead. Someone who is trying to rise above the dry, graven earth that always felt so natural to me.

I know I have to treat her kindly from now on.

At the end of most days, there’s time to spare. That’s when my brain reels flashbacks to entertain itself.

The scene is a grainy picture of an old, brick house surrounded by maples and pines. While the outside of the house is dark, the inside is aflame with color—bright bursts of orange and red. There’s music and drinking and dancing. People are gyrating on tables. It’s my first night away at college and my roommate has taken me to a party. I’ve just sipped a beer and fallen back in my chair. I glance up to find her dancing with two guys on the table, beer bottle clasped loosely in her hand.

The oddness of reliving the memory at the office makes my head spin. I close my eyes and rock back and forth, waiting for it to pass, but instead it keeps rolling, the haphazard camera work throwing up the scene at odd angles, the partygoers upheaved with wedges of bar, table, and floor.

Now they’re holding hands and dancing in a circle, carefree, blissful, like the maidens themselves.

Rocking creates a soothing motion that returns me to serenity. Then I can relax, knowing instants like these are wont to roll into the light of memory from time to time, emerging from ancient forests like new.

“Yearbook Photo”

Fiction

Originally published in FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry, Issue 53

This is the comment that I provided at the end of the story on why I wrote it: Life is layered with new experiences as time passes, while these static images of our memories remain preserved. In this instance, a photograph—specifically, a yearbook photo taken at a much younger age—embodied this sort of preserved state of mind and the untold promises that we presume the future holds.

Evie wasn’t proud of taking the pills, but they leveled her moods, smoothing out the peaks and valleys. Gave her serenity so life could flow through her—at least, some of the time.

Things didn’t go as hoped the morning she called in her prescription. The doctor’s office told her the order was ready when it wasn’t, causing her to have to wait 24 hours and not get to the pharmacy until after work the next day, which meant sitting in rush-hour traffic.

Her car inched along as she waited behind the pile-up at the stoplight, eyeing the trash on the side of the road. An empty liquor bottle was pitched into a shrub with nearby broken glass flecking the sidewalk. Traffic at that hour was a slow procession—endless, funereal, and symptomatic of some deeper problem plaguing humanity.

People didn’t seem to be moving much faster on foot. Once in the parking lot, she waited impatiently for a throng to clear the crosswalk.

“Fucking meanderers,” she muttered as a gray sedan with a Baby Up In This Bitch sticker attached to its rear window veered into the lane.

Once inside, the pharmacist cast her a smarmy grin—the same grin she’d seen on him before when he’d been the one working at the pick-up counter, like instead of a pharmacist, he was a brilliant alchemist who’d concocted the drugs in his home lab and to whom she now owed something more than an obligatory smile and payment.

He was handsome in a clean-cut way. Normally that would have kindled her interest, but today she was tired and annoyed and wanted to get her supplies and go home.

“You’ve taken this before, right?” he asked, stapling the receipt and instructions for the prescription to the paper bag in the consultation booth.

“Yes.”

“Any questions?”

“Can I wash it down with vodka?”

He served her a suggestive look, even winking.

“Sorry for the delay,” he said. “Something happened between here and the doctor’s office that caused us to be unable to fill it until today.”

Her smile tightened. Yes, obviously something happened, though it wasn’t clear what.

“That’s all right. They’re here now,” she said.

The man tucked his chin down into the collar of his white coat. Beneath the neatly pleated lapel and smooth front, she noticed his body, picturing the bones under the nerves and muscles and skin and the hard lattice composing the marrow inside them.

Something about him struck her as familiar.

When he noticed her gaping, his mouth peeled back into a pristine grin.

“Asshole,” he hissed, drawing the word out under his breath. It was an insult she’d heard muttered so many times by total strangers that it now felt as routine as traffic and hidden fees and spam in her inbox and missed phone calls and dogshit on sidewalks and sudden shocks from static electricity that built up on carpets. Asshole didn’t hurt as an insult anymore. It bounced right off her.

He reached out to hand her the bag, which crunched loudly enough to be heard by everyone within earshot. When their gazes traveled up to meet each other, his eyebrows lifted expectantly, as if he were waiting for her to respond. In those intervening seconds, unspoken words were exchanged between them: She was asking him in a pleading, babe-in-the-woods type of voice if she were really the person for whom the pills were intended or if there’d been some mistake and they were really someone else’s—someone who switched places with her while she daydreamed in line, maybe. A double who snatched her identity and went around pretending to be her while she stood there with a headache that radiated out and up toward the fluorescent lights and walls, wondering where she was.

The man focused his deep, chocolate eyes on her blues. The corners of his mouth twitched into a little smile. It was a look of awareness, like he was quietly reading her thoughts. Then, the muscles in his face defaulted to a serious expression.

“Take care,” he said, with a tinge of disappointment.

As Evie left with the bag, she overheard him say something to his co-workers. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the entire pharmacy staff turn toward her in unison and break out in laughter, as if something were so funny or outrageous it caused them to pause what they were doing and share in it together.

The farther away she walked, however, the more she became convinced the incident had been imaginary.

* * *

Once at home, she reclined on the sofa and switched on the TV, which offered 20-some odd channels picked up through rabbit ears. The trek to the store was a hassle, but at least she had the pills. The rest of the night would be nice and relaxed like she planned. She’d recline and let herself melt into the cushions until her body took on the form and texture of a marshmallow. It was just as everyone said: Serenity was what she needed right now.

A few hours later, she lay in bed with her eyes closed, enjoying sedation, when an image of the pharmacist appeared suddenly in her subconscious. It was a paper-thin remnant of the man she saw hours before—more like a child version of him.

She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to sharpen the edges and bring out the contrasting tones. As it came into view, she realized she was looking at a small, thumbnail-sized picture about the size of a yearbook photo.

Oddly, the person in the photo also resembled her at a much younger age. A time when she looked less like a boy or a girl than an entity—the idea of a person—with a blank slate for a face, a short, wavy haircut, and wearing a macramé sweater. The subject’s half-smile reminded her of the one she offered in exchange for the bag of drugs.

Turning her head to the side, she gazed out the window to track the signs along the highway. A neon cowboy in a ten-gallon hat stood next to a whirling bucket of chicken. Double exposure. One image superimposed on another. She’d inherited her mother’s photographic memory. Images forged from anything her eyes happened to land upon: coffee mugs, tears of wine on tablecloth, water drops suspended on faucets, street festivals, storms, the collection was endless.

The image-memories dated back to when people’s faces were only smudges, like wind-blown features on the nascent earth. She remembered her mother painting in sun-streaked rooms and tending to beds of daffodils and white-hot sunlight cutting the blades of grass at sharp angles. The flowers printed on her dresses and the broken eggs she fried sunny-side-up on Saturday mornings. How dad showed her his science experiments—light refracted through a prism and 10 pounds of iron filings wriggling with freakish speed onto the heels of the horseshoe magnet.

She remembered seeing the stains in her underwear when she first got her period. The watery, pink strokes resembled the ones left behind in the chrysalis when her butterflies metamorphosed. Her mother buried her head in her lap, telling her that even though people called it the curse, it was supposed to happen.

It hurt badly at first. She spent all of that summer moping around the backyard garden, trying to shed the process like an exoskeleton, an unwanted skin.

Shuffling through the old mental images, Evie landed on the one of the yearbook photo again, the boy-girl’s androgynous good looks assembled by the tiny dots of toner onto the coated stock paper and embodying a promising gaze.

She once met a guy who had that look when she went to the carnival with her friend, Marie. They ran into each other in the funhouse. She stood next to him as they observed their figures distorted by the mirror, thinking that was one of the few times she felt a connection to a guy. She might have fallen in love with him at that instant.

Was that the pharmacist? Had she recognized him from there?

Marie pulled her away from him. Said it wasn’t time to chase boys because they were still busy with girl stuff.

But the boys came eventually. Boys who eyed her nervously from the booths at the pizza parlor where her parents took her on Friday nights. Boys who drove her backwards through drive-thrus of shuttered restaurants and out to the countryside in their pick-up trucks, parking at the end of dirt roads where the headlights lit up the fields. Boys who seemed kindred, soft, and cruelty-free, like human-sized rabbits.

Boys whose hot lips caressed hers as they sprawled in the grass behind the house while deer watched from the woods, their eyes glinting in the moonlit dusk. Those same boys undoing the button on her jeans, shimmying her pants down her thighs, and pulling them off one leg at a time, burying their mouths in her breasts and belly and inching their way down between her legs.

Their bones jibed with hers. They were like mastodons—giants that roamed the layers of ice formed by glaciers some 15,000 years ago.

They murmured into the curve where her leg joined her hip. Teenaged boy murmurs. Teenaged boys whose skin smelled like a mix of sweet grass and sweat and who had no idea what the hell they were saying or doing, only that they thought it might sound good if they told her she was a beautiful goddess and had the nicest body they ever saw.

Amateur pre-college-try shit that made them look experienced when most of them couldn’t even undo the clasp on her bra.

That was about the time the anxiety started. Anxiety about the world she’d been introduced to—land of heaving machinery and XXX signs and erotic bakeries, where entire lives were drilled down assembly lines. The world in which she arrived at a specific date and time, though her birth felt somehow ambiguous. The world where her body never seemed to be good enough no matter how beautiful it was, simply because it was female.

Despite that, she relished the delicious, icy thrill of their breath in her ears and along her neck, their fingers sliding under the lining of her panties, how they made her feel so alive.

Evie shot up suddenly in bed, recalling something that happened one of those nights. She and her boyfriend were kissing in a damp, muddy patch of grass when they decided to get up and move. It was night and the woods were dark and she couldn’t see and she stepped in a hole or tripped over a tree root and lost her balance, falling and landing horizontally on her shoulder. There was a sharp pain upon impact along with an audible snap.

They took a dozen X-rays at the emergency room. She studied the ghost-like shrouds of her collarbone’s jagged, separated ends. How cool the X-rays looked. How she anticipated showing them to her friends.

Her friends were all like Evie—fleshing meaning out of the stillborn shots of themselves and each other. They’d all grown up believing they were the child stars they saw in magazines—wonders for the world to see.

Evie knew why the yearbook photo popped into her head: It was she and the pharmacist in the woods that night. The photo was a fusion of each other into a separate person—the child they might have had if she didn’t fall.

Snap. She heard the sound of her collarbone breaking again. A snap like the sound of a picture being taken. There’d be more pictures and trips to the store, where she’d study the man’s handsome face as he handed her another prescription. Another bottle of pills she’d take indefinitely while wondering if anyone really cared whether they were taken correctly or if she didn’t take them or what they did.

Evie turned her head toward the window again. Smelled the highway smell of fermented syrup and wafting tobacco, saw the pantone ribbons of light and the cars circuiting rapidly east and west. She focused on the distant buildings that receded like mountains—flat, Coptic, geometrical shapes that made no impression on her—the building blocks of an indifferent mineral world. But the mineral world was serene. Serenity was what she needed now. She embraced it like she would the sight of an ancient pyramid or monument, coveting the twinkling lights like jewels or amulets that protected against sickness or peril.

Feeling the back of her skull indenting the pillow, she thought the yearbook photo might be like that. Something locked in another time that surfaced to remind her of the past—a former version of her now crystallized. She could fall asleep to that. When she awakened, there’d be plenty to consider, and more memories to channel like new.

“Bare Minerals” featured in Reflex Fiction

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Fiction

Originally published in Reflex Fiction Anthology Volume Two, March 25, 2019

These days, my skull is harder than ever—a gazing ball filled with clear, lucid visions ensconced in a base of ivory that never forgets.

My body is a hermetic chamber and my brain knows its private thoughts. In this intimate space, I hear the rake of sinew and tendon, the whisper of bone on bone.

We’re all in this together, hello, hello.

It happens by orderly regression—by air sighing in and out of joints. Time is an irreconcilable difference that’s slow and drastic, like plate tectonics.

My skin robs the spotlight, crowd-sourcing photons. It has arrived and come into itself as the separate organ shown on charts and diagrams—the ones with clear-cut shapes and lines.

At the beach beneath the pier, there is a peaceful hum of waves. Trucks roll up and down the sand blasting oldies. Fishermen nab steelhead trout. It is all part of a system—whirring zoetrope of arms, legs, fins, and valves.

Rocks crumble down the cliff side as a hawk spreads its wings and pushes off the escarpment, meeting the naked sky. I feel it happen inside—jagged feldspar monoliths scraping the peak of my spine—the sound of nails on chalkboard.

Between these reprises, I’ve learned the truth: my body is a landscape, and the mineral world has grown indifferent to it.

New Work in The Furious Gazelle – “White Rabbit”

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Published originally in The Furious Gazelle, May 4, 2019

It occurred to me at some point during our second date that Mike might not exist in real time.

When we first met, he seemed friendly—cruelty-free, like a human-sized rabbit. We ate at Lenny’s Subs off I-35. On the way, he wheeled his big, white Texas truck backwards through the drive-thru of a shuttered restaurant. It seemed like the perfect accident—a ploy to make me accept his wonky habits.

Waiting in line at the shop, he cracked jokes that made me roll with laughter. I told him I used to work there—that I was once a struggling sandwich artist who was so busy fixing cold cuts and meatball marinara, I hardly had time to sit down and eat them.

“Order like you used to work here,” he said, watching me tell the man behind the counter I wanted a six-inch sub on wheat bread since I was vegetarian. Mike chose a foot-long that was heavy on ham and salami. He asked me to pay when we got to the register, promising to cover the next one—pay it forward, he said.

Grabbing a booth, we sat on opposite sides. Mike unwrapped his sandwich and began taking neat bites, which made me jealous. It was like he was making love to it.

“You were pretty easy on that guy,” he said. “I thought you were going to give him a hard time.”

“Working here wasn’t that bad.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

It turned out we had the same tastes in music—old-school rap like Snoop Dogg and Outkast and ‘90s dance/techno. My favorite show was Twin Peaks. He thought I meant the restaurant where girls wore low-cut tops and short skirts. I could have taken that as a warning, except it seemed more due to him being awkward than untrustworthy.

Afterward, I offered him a wet wipe from my purse. He accepted and ran it over his hands.

“This is pretty moist,” he said, tossing it onto the empty wrapper.

I stared at the table in response.

“It is a wet wipe,” I said.

We were flirting and it couldn’t go anywhere since we were co-workers, but I still liked him. He seemed to appreciate that I wanted to excel at work, even though I styled my hair and wore makeup and trendy clothes.

When the topic of work surfaced, he smiled, never saying much.

The Saturday we spent in the park was when I realized he might have multiple personas—what my roommate once termed an inconsistent character.

Ambling along the sidewalk where people fed the pigeons, we stopped beneath a grove of manicured trees. I studied him in the crew-cut sweater, hands tucked neatly into his pants pockets and face sewn into a peaceful expression.

Moments later, a kid’s voice rose somewhere on the opposite side. I turned my head in that direction, and when I looked back, Mike was gone.

My eyes followed the birds to where they pilfered hunks of bread off the concrete. They turned their heads to cast me that universal avian look, as if seeking the inspiration to remain on earth like other creatures did.

Where did he go?

Maybe Mike was a time traveler. Time travel didn’t seem like far-off technology anymore. Flying cars would come soon, I sensed. That he could teleport wasn’t that difficult to fathom. Or maybe he was really an electro-simulation or hologram. He did work in software development.

Still, I knew it was more likely he’d wandered to another spot while I wasn’t looking. I began perusing the whole area, expecting to find him hiding behind a tree or somewhere obvious.

After searching for more than a half hour, he was still missing. Then, all of a sudden, he reappeared over my shoulder, wearing a look like he’d been there the whole time.

“Where were you? I searched everywhere.”

“You didn’t see me? The sidewalk winds into a trail that leads up to the road.” He traced a route with his finger, not averting his eyes. “I went over there.”

“I didn’t see you leave.”

“I’m quick on my feet.”

My eyes narrowed as he sensed my distrust.

“I’m not lying. I get antsy sometimes.”

No. You’re not lying—just being an inconsistent character.

Seeing him around the office in the following days and weeks, it was difficult to concentrate on anything else. Before, he seemed cute and innocent. Now he appeared more robust, with muscles flexing beneath short-sleeve shirts. I imagined his figure blown up to the size of one of the highway signs—a blinking, swaggering cowboy outlined in neon.

I glanced over to where he sat staring motionlessly at his computer screen. I swiveled in my chair, glancing away. When my gaze returned, his cubicle was empty, headphones laying on the desk and chair spun around. It was as if he’d vaporized into thin air.

This happened multiple times. The office wasn’t that big. I always ran into him on the way to the bathroom or parking lot. I wanted to tell him he was really good at disappearing, but that would have been too obvious, so I just smiled and continued walking.

Naturally, I desired him the more elusive he became. I studied his fine blond hair when he wasn’t looking, admiring how it swept neatly back to his temples, the way he seemed to know what he was doing at all times.

I wouldn’t fuck him, though, I decided. I’d known guys like him—the calm, collected types to whom coming on too strong might spell sudden death. I knew I had to pace myself—to refrain—if I were going to hold his interest.

So I lost myself in mindless diversions—things like flickering light bulbs, tears of wine on tablecloth, and water drops suspended on faucets. Renewing my focus on photography, I wandered around with my lens capturing myriad objects. At night, I lay in bed staring up at the ceiling fan, remembering how when I first opened my eyes, the world had only wind-blown features. Later came form and feeling: a boy’s lips pressed against mine as we sprawled in the field, the sensation of deer watching from the woods, their eyes glinting in the moonlit dusk.

As much as I tried, I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about him. Even my innocent daydreams became tinged with desire, slip-sliding into fantasies of us making out in the break room when no one was around.

Another night after we hung out, I fell asleep to awaken later from a dream and feel something between my legs. Looking past the mound of my breasts and belly, I was surprised to see his head poking up from my thighs, wearing an attentive stare.

I blinked several times to confirm he was actually at the end of the bed eating me out.

“Don’t be nervous,” he murmured into the curve where my leg joined my hip. “You have a very nice body.”

It was Mike. I wasn’t imagining things.

How had he gotten there?

My mind spiraled back to several hours before when we ate at another restaurant. I’d been anxious. Not about the date—that was going well. It was anxiety about the world. The same panic I’d felt since I was a kid and random things started making me upset—the sight of heavy machinery and forklifts stirring up dirt along the side of the road, or XXX signs and factories pumping smoke into the air. The world to which I’d been introduced that Mike seemed so well adjusted to, while I struggled.

Maybe the reason was I felt like my body—however nice it was—would somehow never be good enough simply because it was female. While his words were reassuring, I wasn’t sure how much they’d help my self-esteem.

We returned to the park after dinner, where the birds were profuse—dirty white and black things that flapped their wings in my face. I brushed them away. One couldn’t be afraid of getting dirty in parks. Besides, I had to remain alert, or the birds might sweep him up and cause him to vanish again.

Now that his face was buried in my lap, I was enjoying the sensations. More than that, I liked the reassurance that he wasn’t going anywhere—at least, not for now.

Turning my head to the side and gazing out the window, I glimpsed the highway ribboning down the hill, smelled the acrid-sweet smell of exhaust and tobacco and something like fermenting syrup that pervaded its atmosphere. The same road we’d been on just a few hours before.

While the road was circuitous and austere, the space we shared in the room was intimate—a secret between the two of us. As Mike worked his tongue against my folds, I began to sweat. The smell of his cologne mixed with the aroma. It was damn fine and sexy. I was losing control—the whole lower half of me expanding and becoming like a separate organ that was still somehow part of me.

He was good, caught up in the moment. My head craned back as I climaxed. I pictured us scaling mountains and exploring starry canyons, staying in a tipi, a flying saucer, or an Airstream out in the desert where the sand blanketed the ground like lavender.

As I finished, my body fell back against the mattress, where I lay for several seconds.

Mike was gone when I looked up again, the space between my legs empty. I wasn’t really surprised. My roommate was right: Some people were inconsistent characters.

What did surprise me was that a small, white rabbit was left in his place, its wet nose sniffing furtively around the hills and valleys of the sheets.

New Work in Anti-Heroin Chic – “Thirst”

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Fiction

Published originally in Anti-Heroin Chic, 5/2/2019

That which consumed me wasn’t hunger, but thirst.

To drink was to imbibe an elixir that promised longer life. I loved the calm it brought—cold and dark, like sharks roaming through the depths.

I couldn’t ever drink fast enough. Thirst was insatiable even when my belly was full. Not tummy or stomach, but belly. The more I drank, the thirstier I became—guzzling until the glass almost swallowed me. Until I was sated.

Then came other sources: juice, milk, sodas, and grenadines served in sparkling glasses. One day, I tasted wine. It did more than quench. Made me feel alive, weightless, and immortal—the true elixir. But it also robbed the water from my body, leaving me thirstier than before.

I was used to thirst by then. On weekends, I walked to the neighborhood emporium to marvel at the colorful syrups that flavored the Italian sodas, drink in the sun-dappled awnings, and stare at the wedges of cake and pie in the dessert case. Cats lay in chalky strokes of light, over-licking their paws. This was where I came to cope, knowing my thirst would never be gone. It was a constant presence, like the cry of a wild animal.

I didn’t drink—only relished the surrogate pleasure of watching and listening to others do so. Flowers glowered at me from vases, their petals and stems fat with water like the tentacles of sea monsters. I listened to the quiet slurping sounds mix with the babble of the fountain. Ladies talked at a nearby table, speaking in the third person.

“She always was attracted to damaged types—men who aren’t any good for her,” said the blonde. “But that’s her—looking for someone to care for, someone to fill her up.”

I didn’t know if she were talking about me or someone else. Was anyone good for anyone, or were our personalities like basic needs to be met, I wondered?

I stared at the tears of water on the white tablecloth and the oil that swirled on the women’s salad plates. The blonde’s eyelashes were layered with thick mascara that reminded me of a deer. Her cheeks were dewdrops and her eyes olives.

Their singsong voices overlapped with the shuffle of feet and the clink of silverware. Everything seemed to float. I tried not to laugh. I was sitting alone. If I laughed, I’d look nuts. But it was no use. I laughed, anyway, glad no one noticed.

He was like thirst—waiting for me outside the store, body slanted against the painted bricks, wearing that smile that was more of a sneer.

He called out as I walked past, his gaze hovering, expectant, the way a fly’s compound eyes and succoring mouth look beneath a microscope. Up close, I noticed the pupils of his eyes were white instead of black. White stars surrounded by tangled, blue strands. I watched them disperse to a field of pressed flowers, a cosmos of insect wings flecking yellow amber. The whole universe seemed suspended in his gaze.

“You’re really pretty,” he said. “Would you like to go with me somewhere?”

We went a lot of places in the coming weeks. We went for a bike ride through the Five Points neighborhood and down the St. Mary’s strip. I strung my bike with LEDs that twinkled like a Christmas tree. He was fast and fearless, blazing down the middle of the street and cutting in front of buses, but I was spontaneous—the essential ingredient in adventure-making.

“Let’s go this way,” I said, veering right to cut through the parking lot of a shuttered gas station.

“Oh, yes, let’s…”

His voice trailed off as he followed me around the corner and down the hill. He’d gotten used to my sudden movements, where I’d swerve unpredictably down a perpendicular street. He was getting tired of them, I sensed.

The street wound past a theater and a string of art galleries, where a group of musicians stood beneath an awning playing the bagpipes. It was what I’d hoped for—that moment of serendipity that would close the night. Maybe he’d realize I was good at running into things that seemed meaningful or quaint, though I really had no idea what I was doing.

“We’re being entertained,” he said. “My family is Scottish. You know, I went to a funeral with bagpipes once.”

“Yeah?” I asked.

“It was nice until I heard the drone-pipe playing in the background. That was kind of annoying. Shall we continue?”

I felt exposed and caught off guard, laughing nervously as he rode ahead.

I wondered how long we could drag this out. Pretend our capricious flights through town were going to lead to sex when we knew they wouldn’t. I didn’t want sex, and neither did he. We were both into the thrill of it. Savoring all the moments and their little deaths when we came close to doing it but didn’t.

Paused at a red light, he stared at the colorful spokes on my wheels, his eyes focused in the vicinity of my crotch.

“I like your bike,” he said, dumbfounded.

“Thanks.”

I lowered my leg like a kickstand and straightened proudly, as if I’d garnered an award: first prize for being with the hottest guy I’d seen in years, let alone spoken to, and resisting the urge to do anything other than pedal around town.

We could go on forever, I realized.

Eventually, we wound up in his house and then his bedroom, though all we did was watch movies and play games. I listened to the cool slurp of wooden letters on the Scrabble board one night, not speaking.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned.

“Nothing. I’m just really tense.”

It was more than tension. I could sense myself weakening. His gentle come-ons were getting harder to resist.

He reached across the bed, resting a hand on my upper shoulders.

“Well, here,” he said, all innocent. “Let me do this.”

He began to caress my shoulders, running his palm up and down the back of my neck while applying pressure. It felt divine. I slumped forward, relaxing. He scooted closer, watching with that expectant gaze again.

When we kissed, it was like the first time, where the kiss seemed to stretch across oceans, our tongues speaking the language of our most subtle, awakening urges. Waves of pleasure rippled over me. The room felt damp. The air seemed to drip and collect like the sea through a shell. I imagined I was an eel, a dolphin, or a jellyfish.

We didn’t ever actually have sex— only dry humped. Over the next couple hours, we mastered the art of dry humping.

His lips grazed my entire body from head to toe. White light tunneled my vision, throwing the room at odd angles. I passed through all the lunar phases. On the fourteenth day of the month, the moon stopped in its tracks and scratched instructions in chalk on the sky: Fuck with a capital ‘F.’

His thrusts were rough through fabric, aimed at the juncture of my hip and thigh. I kept getting wetter and reached down to find the seam of my jeans was soaked. I turned my head to the side and peered out the window at night’s black chasm.

He scooted to the end of the bed as I walked my panties down my legs like a panda climbing a stalk of bamboo and twisted my arms back to undo my bra. He buried his face in my lap and I reached down to hold his head. He peered up from between my legs, wearing a spaced-out but attentive look.

The next hour was akin to starting at the bottom of a canyon and slowly making our way to the top. We were like a couple of pack mules or out-of-work horses.

Our feet tripped over the rocks and stones lining the walk. We tripped over each other and fell out of rhythm. His teeth sparred with my pubic bone. A woman in a crinkled skirt hawked flowers on the side of the road, distracting us.

But we kept going. When we reached the top of the hill, I was thirstier than I’d ever been. I expected a smooth climax, but it was nothing like that. Instead, I resembled a monkey clashing a pair of cymbals between my thighs, my whole body lurching and convulsing forward, my eyes squeezing shut and my feet flexing and my knees going all bowlegged like a frog swimming through Jell-O. Meanwhile, he sort of latched on. My hips were rocking so quickly that he might have come flying off otherwise.

Afterward, he relaxed into the mattress, whereas I was nervous and self-conscious. My body felt white and gigantic, like a flesh sundae.

“You have a very nice body,” he said, as if he could read my thoughts. As if that fixed everything.

In the morning, he was still asleep when I woke up. I felt drained. The events of the previous night were hazy. Searching the room, I found a bag of Jolly Ranchers on top of the tiny fridge. I sat on the bed sucking on one after the other, hoping he wouldn’t wake up and see me eating all his candy. He did wake up, but it was only for a second. He craned his head toward the end of the bed where I was and then slunk back down to the pillow, asleep again.

He woke again mid-morning, rising up to pull on his jeans and peer at me over his shoulder, all matter-of-fact.

“I’m hungry,” he said. “Do you want anything?”

“A coffee. And some water.”

“There’s water in the kitchen.”

“Coffee. Large.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.”

He returned a half hour later with a coffee, soda, and a bag of fried chicken. I held the coffee under my nose and inhaled the steam while he slouched on the mattress eating from the bag. The aroma of chicken filled the room. I felt heavy, as if my bones were made of lead.

While it was only morning, the day felt over already.

“I really like your bike,” he said.

“I like yours, too.”

“I wouldn’t take it on any super-long trips, but it’s a nice one.”

“Why, are you afraid I won’t make it?”

“It’s not built for long distances. It’s a hybrid.”

“I could make it.”

He watched me with an incredulous stare, his eyebrows raised and his jaw protruding with food. It was irresistible. I’d succumbed to him, I realized. I could get used to this. Even envisioned us being able to stay together without driving each other crazy. Still, he was a succedaneum. Nothing could replace thirst.

The following weekend, I drove to the coast to visit my parents. They were waiting when I arrived. Mom always made something sweet.         This time, it was her famous chocolate cake.

“Have some,” she said, serving me a slice. “It’s been a while.”

She watched me sit at the table and eat, taking quick bites that made it vanish. Dad pointed at the light refracted through the glass prism on the windowsill. At night, he showed me the stars through his telescope. They knew about the thirst. Everyone did. But they also knew there was no real fix. They suffered, too, and could only be compassionate.

Walking with mom along the beach, I noticed how it sprawled like a wet desert, a plain of sand that seemed to recede infinitely. Blades of grass cut through the dunes. Birds flew in sharp aerials above the sere landscape.

Being by the sea made me feel like a part of it. Like a pent-up sea, I was constantly churning.

“It’s a monster,” I cried.

Mom’s laugh was helpless and surrendering.

“It is a monster, but if you learn to respect the monster—to know its limits—you’ll be fine.”

An image formed in my mind. A grainy picture of mom and dad, like the one that appeared on my phone whenever they called. I heard the fizzing sound of the connection as their faces came into view. Many years had gone by, yet there they were—the same two people I’d known as an infant—as if not a day had passed. The picture was static and unchanging.

I wanted those years back—all the intervening years before the thirst took over my life. Time once seemed fluid, like it could flow forward or backward. Until now, it didn’t occur to me it might be irreversible. Yet it wasn’t loss that I felt, or even longing, but something more elemental, desperate, pining…

I knew what it was. Felt it pooling like saliva in my mouth, though I wouldn’t say it out loud.

“I love you more than the ocean, more than the sky,” mom said. “But I know you have your own life to live.”

There was plenty of love here, I thought. It was more than enough for one person. Why didn’t I stay? Why did I leave the people I loved in search of fleeting pleasures?

When we got home, I stood on the porch gazing toward the ocean. Though it was salty, I imagined swallowing it whole. I wished for rain—a thunderstorm—the clouds cracking open and shedding thick torrents. Yet the sky was a bottomless blue.

Mom watched from the window. When she saw me standing and staring like that, she came to bring me in.

“Come in and have lunch,” she said.