Lunch at the Blacksmith

“In the Studio,” oil on canvas, by Marie Bashkirtseff, 1881.

by Cornelia Nixon

I think at last I will give up the Blacksmith House. I’ve liked the place since college, when my best friend Celia and I would meet for coffee in those frugal, scrubbed-pine rooms, full of the feel of long-dead Puritans, which we were not. You could smoke in public in those days, and we sucked unfiltered Pall Malls, the most kick for the buck, making sure that there was paint on us somewhere. Celia was beautiful, part Indian, part imp, with Coke-bottle green eyes and skin that somehow let you know it wasn’t white, though it was nougat-pale, creamy. Her father and older brothers fished in Maine, and she liked to wear ripped jeans, flannel shirts, and stroll along beside the tweedy Harvard crowd with languid grace.

Underneath, hidden to everyone but me, she had a conscience worthy of Aquinas, and a deep God streak. She wanted to discuss the moral implications of our every act. Was it right to buy paint when you could give all your money to the poor? Was a portrait of a dying homeless person just sensation for itself? For years we wondered what she could do with a certain married professor that would be morally correct, yet satisfy her raging need to get into his pants.

“He tucked the label in my shirt,” she said one day, upstairs in the Blacksmith House. “I felt his fingers on my neck. He went on staring at my canvas like it was nothing. I think he has some casuistical system worked out, wherein he can do anything so long as his motives are pure. He pretended to be calm and said something about Gauguin. ‘What was his crime against perspective?’ as if I might do it too. As if his mission were to prevent me.”

“What did you do?”

“I didn’t know what to do. Do I have to say something, to keep from being wrong? Like keep your mitts off, buster? Not as if I mind. Do I have to lie, to keep from tempting him?”

“Yes, you do,” I said and gave her a hard look. It was one of our big subjects—lying from kindness, to protect someone, lies of omission. When did they become the same as any other lie?

She took the cigarette out of my hand and sucked on it. “But you never lie, do you? And you know it. Would you tell him you wanted him, and therefore he should keep his mitts off you?”

I reached across the table, pushed a silky lock out of her eyes. We touched each other all the time in public, made a point of it. We held hands, or stood with one arm draped around the other’s neck. I was what some people would call a tall cool blonde, and we must have been a sight, Celia soft and dark, me all bones, entwined. Not even lesbians did that in public yet, and we weren’t lesbians. I’d had a parade of men and boys, a new one every two months. Celia was not a virgin, but she wanted to get married, have a baby some time soon. I wanted that life, too. It’s just that our approaches were a little different.

“You can’t tell him unless you want to seduce him. Because you know it would. He’d go insane.” I had seduced a married professor myself, the year before, as Celia well knew.

Her laugh was soundless, like a bellows puffing in and out.

“Knowing I felt the same? But I keep thinking—what if he’d be happier with me? His marriage is hollow. He never sleeps. He reads all night. He drives me home three nights a week.”

I nodded. Celia lived about three blocks from him, in a house with other students.

“And that’s fine. So long as you never do a thing you couldn’t look back and approve of fifty years from now.” It was our principle, the one that stood to every test.

She closed her eyes. “Oh, God. Of course I can’t. The guilt is even too much now.”

She leaned forward, searched my eyes.

“You know what I wish? I wish we could be Catholics. They know exactly what a sin is and how to get absolved. Protestants have to obey the spirit of the law, and that’s endless, because it’s vague. And no one hears your confession. You carry the same sin year after year, and never get absolved. ‘We are forgiven,’ says some minister who hasn’t heard your sin, and what is that supposed to do? It hasn’t been removed. Not like when a priest has heard the whole earful, and he frees you from it. Go in peace and sin no more. Then it is truly gone.”

I held my hand over her head. “Go in peace, my child, and sin no more.”

She caught my hand and gazed into my eyes. “You laugh, but you know it helps, even if it’s you. Do you really think I am absolved?”

“No one was ever more innocent than you.”

“That’s now.” She laughed her soundless laugh. “How will I ever keep from telling him?”

I grinned. “Just stare at that little bald spot on his head and think about Gauguin.”

*

Celia stopped riding home with him. We graduated, wondered what to do. We both wanted to paint, but how were you supposed to eat?

There was art history, and we got fellowships to read a million books while grading freshman essays on the Post-Impressionists. We spent more time on Levi-Strauss and Baudrillard and Lyotard than anyone who’d ever held a brush. We took the same classes, and dominated them. Celia hated abstract art, except Rothko and Franz Marc, in whom she thought the spirit moved. She could say words like “numena” and “grace” with a straight face, while I tried out the tougher faiths of Marxism and cultural historicism.

“Art is hoax,” I said, “And surplus capital, effluvia of luxury. Art is imperial aggression, very thinly veiled. The sun never sets on Jackson Pollock’s empire anywhere.”

Then I retired with Celia to the Blacksmith House, to discuss the hierarchical behavior all over academe and how there was no way to escape judging constantly. We wondered if we could foster our students without hurting them, and read each other’s seminar papers before we turned them in. We talked an hour on the phone at night, even if we’d met that day. We wore each other’s clothes.

“We need another year,” she said one afternoon. “For this friendship to gel.”

“To gel?” I said, a little hurt she could think so. How much more gelled could it get? She was already the best friend I’d ever had.

“I mean, for it to become strong and flexible, the reed that bends in gale-force wind. So even if one of us had to commit murder, we’d defend each other automatically. Three musketeers.”

I picked a tobacco flake off of my tongue. “You planning to murder someone soon?”

Her green eyes shone. She laughed her puffy gasps. “You never know.”

Our second year in grad school, Celia met a future minister named Daniel, moved in with him, and took two incompletes. Her back hurt, she said, from so much reading, and she couldn’t paint. She carried a pillow into class, and went to chiropractors instead of to the library.

“Paint gives me hives,” she said. She went to herbalists, who made her give up cigarettes and coffee. She quit going to class. One day I saw her disappear into the big brick church on Harvard Square.

“We’re off art, and into God,” she told me when I asked.

“Okay. But what will you do now?” As far as I could tell, she wasn’t doing anything.

I was too busy to pay attention for a while. I finished course work, studied for my doctoral exams. I had to memorize the history of Western art and every theory about it. For a year, I hardly slept. I read. I smoked three packs a day, and knew what time it was by counting butts.

People fainted in the course of their exams and threw up in trash cans. The written part was sixteen hours long, plus three oral, two more when the art department challenged every word. By the time I finished, I knew nothing about anything, and staggered out to Celia in the hall. She waited with me while the art department debated my fate inside. Finally, the tall, gray-haired chairman came out from behind the bevelled glass.

“It was a pass, but not as good as we expected it to be,” he said mournfully.

Celia gripped my arm and led me out of there. She took me home to the apartment she now shared with Daniel, a decent place in an old house in Somerville. Daniel was extremely thin, with deep lines in his face, though he was only twenty-five, like us, with a blond shock of surfy hair. He gave a wry smirk as he held a champagne glass toward me. I reached for it, began to sob.

“It was too hard.”

Celia crouched beside me, pressed her cheek to mine. “I know,” she said.

And it was true. She did.

*

That summer, Celia married Daniel at her parents’ seaside church, and stopped taking my calls. Daniel answered every time.

“She isn’t here,” he’d say. Or, “She’s resting now.”

Resting?” I said. “Resting?”

Had Celia become an invalid? Did Daniel keep her locked inside their room? Even prisoners got one phone call. I phoned every day for weeks, but she did not call me.

“Hey, Daniel. Tell Celia I’m not calling back again. She’ll have to get in touch with me.”

“Okay,” he said. But when my phone rang, it was never she.

A year later, I caught a glimpse of her in the chilly reaches of the Harvard swimming pool. She was hugely pregnant in a green tank suit stretched tight, and I watched her underwater do a dreamy breaststroke back and forth. In the locker room, we both stood at the mirror, several women in between, while she drew a faint brown line beneath her eyes and smudged it with a fingertip. I’m sure she saw me in the frame of her vision. But she did not turn her head.

I supposed it was the saga of my life, the way the boyfriends came and went, that looked especially boring from her new position on the inside of a wedding ring. I could almost understand.

But when I knew that Celia was gone for good, I was more crushed than I had ever been by any man. You expected that from lovers, but not from your best friend. I caught the flu, kept smoking, and it turned into pneumonia. I spent a month in bed, unable to catch my breath. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I wanted to find a deep woods, crawl inside a big black garbage sack, and put a gun inside my mouth. I wanted to dispose of my remains and never be identified. I had no messages to send to anyone.

Instead, I found a psychiatrist who took me on for charity at half the going rate, and spent a year weeping for Celia in his red wingchair. Dr. Douhomet was hairless as a frog, and hardly said a word, except “Time’s up” and “Thirty-five dollars, please.” Once when I described the way that Celia and I had touched in public, he gave a small, superior smile.

“It was erotic, but not genital,” he said and nodded with a click.

I shook my head. “It wasn’t erotic. It was playful, and about defying categories. It wasn’t easy to freak out the art department, but we tried. We wanted to show them even straight girls could do that. That there were more things in heaven and on earth than were dreamt of in their philosophy, Horatio. Or in your philosophy,” I said with sudden energy.

He went on beaming his Olympian grin, and didn’t say a word.

One afternoon I saw him drive his BMW convertible through Harvard Square, and I lit up like the preteen fan of some rock star. I ran a block to try to catch him at the light on Church, and when his car was gone, I laughed and laughed. So that was transference—and if I felt that way about a frog, of whom I knew nothing, it was a very strange experience. I supposed he wanted me to transfer onto him and somehow feel what I had felt for Celia, and cure myself by understanding it.

But the feeling I had on the street was nothing I had ever felt for Celia. I loved Celia, but I would not have chased her up the block. Sex was what gave you that crazy energy, and I had done stranger things for men I hardly knew. And after I had slept with them, I felt related to them, forever and ever, amen. It must be because my genes got mixed up in it, trying to fulfill their evolutionary destiny.

But I didn’t feel that way for Celia. Evolution wasn’t interested in friendship, and that gave it a democratic feel. Friends loved each other voluntarily, no matter how close they got. And that meant Dr. Douhomet had nothing he could do for me.

“I’m not coming back,” I said the next week, in his chair.

His cheeks went purple.

“But you’re finally getting somewhere!” he shouted. It was the first time he’d expressed emotion, while I’d been weeping for a year.

“That’s okay. I feel much better anyway.”

And it was true, when I walked out of his office, it cheered me up. I didn’t need a shrink. I needed a friend to talk things over with, share the details of my life.

But I was wary, and I had a dissertation now to write, on the New York School. It took me five more years, and I was over thirty, so lonely I thought I might implode, before I had the heart to find another friend.

*

It was the week I broke up with my sweetest lover ever, a handsome pipe-welder who sculpted on the side. Ricky had made me an eight-pound valentine of inch-thick sheet-metal, with a small arrow he had somehow made to pierce right through. He’d done it tenderly, precisely, using his blow torch. He made love like that, too. But he had gotten a vasectomy at twenty-three, and he was never going to marry me.

“You’re never going to marry me, are you?” I said, one night on the phone.

“No,” said Ricky in a voice of mild suprise. “Did I ever say I would?”

He hadn’t, that was it. Now what was I supposed to do?

I needed someone I could tell it to. I thought of Katie, who was art director of a Boston magazine. Katie was thirty-eight, and lovely, confident, good at what she did. We had met socially, and she took pity on my student poverty, gave me castoff clothes. They were the best things I had ever owned, a wool Ralph Lauren skirt, a hand-knit harlequin sweater, fawn-brown Gucci loafers light as glove leather. For the shoes alone, I ought to call Katie.

We made a date for lunch at the Blacksmith House. I hadn’t smoked since the pneumonia, and half of Cambridge had quit, too. Most restaurants around the square ignored the trend, went on as smoky dives where you could swill martinis, chew on fat and gristle in the dark. Only the Blacksmith had clean air, mesculin salads, homemade soup—which meant it would be packed with parents, kids in strollers, diaper bags. So I put on the Guccis early, dodged the icebergs crossing Harvard Yard, as snow began to swirl.

The tall, lean windows of the Blacksmith streamed, as frost-bit people packed inside. Puffed coats stood eight-deep to the counter, babies squalled. I tried to wiggle into line. But someone dropped a bowl of lentil soup down the staircase, and the crowd recoiled, slipping on the oak floor.

I waited half an hour, and was almost to the register when Katie wedged inside. She looked about nineteen in a hooded car-coat, tall suede boots, hair sprung out around her face in bright banana curls. She worked out hours every day with weights, got massages, facials, manicures. She had her pores vacuumed, hair lightened with special weaves. Unwinding her long scarf, she cried out in a cheerful voice, inches from a woman trying to pull a toddler out of its snowsuit.

“Sorry! The gynecologist ran late. I asked him to check out the bacteria in there, you know, take a smear and look under the microscope. And he said, ‘Whew! Have you got bacteria in there!’”

Katie was from Manhattan, and I’d noticed that New Yorkers could say anything in crowded restaurants, sure they’d never see the same people again. But Cambridge was about the size of an Upper Westside block, and I cringed as she shouted on.

“And I have this thing on my shoulder, this little nothing red spot. I showed it to him, hoping he would say it’s definitely not herpes, and I should forget it right away. Know what he said? ‘Yep! Sure looks like herpes to me!’”

Mortified, I stared into the deli case. What did I care what these people thought? I did, though. I cared. Holding up one foot, I pointed to the Gucci loafer, trying to distract her.

Katie smiled and nodded, shouted on. “He said it can be years in incubation, so there’s just no way to tell who gave it to me. It could be some guy ten years back, who didn’t know he had it. He may just be getting symptoms now, and wham it’s got me, too. The doctor says I shouldn’t bother notifying guys I’ve slept with in the last few years, since they’ll find out soon enough. Oh, lentil soup, how perfect, don’t you think?”

The girl behind the counter had six rings through her upper lip, and she lifted it as if she hadn’t realized women our age still had sex. I had once given that look to my mother and her friends, when they fixed their hair or shopped for clothes. Why do they bother? I had wondered then. Who’s going to look at them?

“Two lentil soups,” I said. I turned to Katie loyally. “I bet you’re going to be fine.”

She seemed to strain to hit a high note that went through walls. “No way. He said there’s herpes now in half the single population. But even married people aren’t quite safe, are they? Think of Bob’s poor wife. You know, that guy I slept with last year? She’s probably got herpes too!”

The girl behind the counter slopped our soups in haste. Hoisting the tray, I turned to fight my way into the crowd. But it parted like the Red Sea, averted eyes on every side.

Upstairs, no one knew how dangerous we were. All the babies had been crowded into two small rooms, like steerage class in a potato-famine year. The only empty table lay buried in coats, children squirming all around. We worked our way in, settled down beside a young blond woman with her sweater pulled up, one pink breast exposed. She looked like a Swedish grad student, and her tiny red-faced infant suckled audibly, so close I could smell milk.

I smiled at Katie, rolled my eyes. Of course we’d have to talk on neutral subjects here. Katie knew a lot about the art scene, and she had explained to me the process of full-color printing and the problem with the greens. Shaking out my paper napkin, I held my spoon above the soup.

“So, did you see that thing on Caravaggio, in Art in America?”

She brightened with delight. “By that dick Howard James? Oh, sure, you know who he is. He did those burning scarecrows under glass. ‘American Gothic.’ You know, you saw that. I knew him in Soho, when he was sealing dead seagulls in plasticene. And he not only was a dick. He had this huge one that he thought you were supposed to die for. He thought it was about pumping, you know? Pumping! Half an hour, in-out, in-out, in-out, on and on and on!”

Crowd noise ceased, and Katie could be heard in the next room at least.

“Does that do anything for you? You know, pumping?”

I took a slurp of soup and gestured to my full mouth. She leaned forward, yelled.

“What’s that you’re mumbling? I bet it’s no. It doesn’t do a thing for me either. Oral sex is what I like. Licking, I mean. But most guys only seem to like it for themselves. It’s been an age since I found anyone who’d give me cunnilingus, more than two minutes anyway. Have you? Do you have trouble finding men willing to lick you properly?”

She waited for an answer, as did everyone at every table on the second floor. A pierced and tatooed, gender-non-specific busperson paused with a tray nearby, pretended to scan the room.

“Let’s not talk about it here,” I whispered.

“What?” She gaped at me. “Not talk about it here? Why ever not?”

*

I was miserable for days. I was not cut out for friendship, that was clear. Why couldn’t I have talked to Katie and forgotten all those people listening? I was raised to be inhibited, by unhappy Protestants. Why couldn’t I have shouted pump! lick! herpes!, told a few tales of my own? Maybe then I’d have a friend.

But I didn’t have one, and now I was even more alone. I missed Ricky terribly. I’d been invited to an opening in the Back Bay, and he might be there. I knew I shouldn’t go, but I put on his favorite dress, a knitted cream silk sheath, and the three-inch heels he said made my ankles unforgettable. Wrapped in my somewhat shabby overcoat, I took the T to Arlington and wobbled through the slushy streets.

I had almost reached the gallery, when a cab pulled up in front and Ricky bounded out. He looked devastating, wide shoulders in a tweed jacket, curls on his strong brown neck. He turned back toward the cab, and Katie stepped out in a tight black dress and heels. Her ankles looked extremely good. Laughing, he put an arm around her, and they disappeared into the gallery.

My toes froze as I stood, and certain memories came back to me.

“You and Katie, what a team,” he’d said, the night I introduced them, warm brown eyes gleaming. Once I went up to Vermont to see my family, and when I got back, neither of them told me they had met. Then Katie had a party, and I took Ricky. It was a November night, cold in her living room, and Katie shivered in a shimmering tube top. She fiddled with the radiator valve.

“Ricky!” she cried. “This thing doesn’t work. You’re the only one who ever made it put out any heat. What did you do?”

Ricky blanched, and so did I. He rushed in, and the two of them fussed with the valve, animated as if on a stage. They shouted about a painting on the wall, which someone had given Katie. Ricky thought that it was bad.

“Really bad!” he cried. “Wretched!”

“Oh, not that bad!” she yelled.

“No, really bad!”

They laughed frantically. Now all I could think of was how Ricky’s favorite brand of sex did not involve pumping.

*

I had a friend once, loyal and true. I was five, in a mill town, and Sue Ellen’s family lived next door to mine. Two years older than I was, she still stuck with me all through elementary school. We talked for hours on her brick front stoop, about the strange things people did, and where pets went when they were dead, until she graduated into junior high and started to wear nylons and french heels, and smelled like Campbell’s Soup when it was warm. Then my father lost his job, and we had to move to my grandparents’ farm. I never saw her after that, though we wrote for a few years, on the perfumed stationery our brothers gave us every Christmas and birthday.

In the country, I had cousins but no voluntary friends. Then Radcliffe took me on for charity, let me wait tables in the dorm. I made friends with Amy, a small, dark, quiet girl I waited on, who was smart and funny when you got to know her, privately, and had the finest taste I’d ever even seen. She was from the Upper Eastside of New York, and she got married after our sophomore year and moved back home.

I heard from Amy sometimes and had been to visit her and her husband, Alex, and their little boy. Amy had a gift for friendship, and I often cried when we talked, as if I were in therapy. She had in fact become a therapist, but had to limit her practice, while Alex was chief surgeon of a major hospital, and wrote books in his spare time, about medicine and ethics, life and death. “Poetry,” The New York Times had called his last, which spent a few months on the bestseller list.

Why didn’t I call Amy more? I picked the phone up, punched her number in.

“But how did you know?” she cried. “I’m coming up to Boston for a conference. Let’s have lunch at the Blacksmith House.”

I had no qualms. Amy was the most discreet person I knew, and she never even gossiped or said mean things about anyone. Merely being seen with her should raise me in the eyes of all those supercilious pierced persons in the Blacksmith House.

The day she met me there, she looked the way that I remembered, lovely and well dressed. She could look natural inside a tailored skirt, a cashmere sweater, pearls, at eleven in the morning, in 1998, and I felt tasteless in my tight black pants and chunky shoes, like some fake teen. My hair had never once been so well cut as hers, in a simple shape from some hairdresser you needed an hereditary link to see.

“You look wonderful,” I said. “Mind if I just go shoot myself?”

“Don’t do that, please. I like the way you look. It’s so … caj,” she said, meaning casual, and I felt a rush of pleasure. The last time I had seen her, we decided that should be the term for suave, cool style. I was touched that she remembered what we’d talked about.

We carried tea and mesculin salads up the stairs, and at first we had a good few feet between us and the nearest mothers with children. But soon a troop of Japanese tourists came shyly in. The Swedish grad student wedged next to me and flashed her young pink breast, as if we had agreed that she should always nurse by me.

“Are you all right?” Amy murmured. “Everything okay?”

I felt the urge to cry, because I missed Ricky and had no money for haircuts. But I held it off a moment, almost happy, knowing I could tell it all to her.

Suddenly she gave me a big blazing look. Her eyes looked huge and black, intense.

“Well, I’m not all right. Alex told me last weekend he doesn’t want me anymore. We’ve only made love about twice in the past year, and I asked him why. I took my clothes off, waved my breasts around, and nothing happened. I asked if he has any sexual feelings, and he just looked uncomfortable.” Her voice rose to a seagull’s cry. “I think he’s fucking someone else!”

At tables nearby, conversation ceased. I tried to notice only what she’d said. Alex was urbane and charming, asked intelligent questions about my work. The last time I saw him, he’d started to go bald and grown his hair long on one side to comb across. I caught a glimpse of him emerging from the shower, a wing of hair about a foot long jutted from his ear. Was that some kind of danger sign I should have recognized?

I kept my voice down. “Maybe he’s just getting middle-aged. You’ve been married a long time.”

Her voice stayed loud. “But I’m still horny, and why shouldn’t he be too? Bald guys have lots of testosterone. I bet he’s having tooth-and-claw sex with some nurse right now. It makes me so angry! And horny! You know that awful kind of horny you get when you think everyone is having sex but you?”

She gasped, and dropped her head back on her neck. Around the room, no one moved. The tattooed bus-nerd lingered near our table, stared. If Amy noticed, she didn’t care.

“You know what I want to do? I want to masturbate some guy while telling him how much I hate him. Doesn’t that sound great? Go fuck yourself, you say and yank on it. Go fuck yourself!”

Sometimes life presents you with a test, and you have ten seconds to pass or fail. I had failed most of them so far. Did it matter that I’d never wanted to do what she’d said?

“Wow, sure does!” I cried. “Jerk off the jerk! Only you shouldn’t do it all the way. Just almost, and then say, ‘My hand is tired.’ Tell him you’re going to find some guy who doesn’t have to comb his hair across his big bald spot!”

She whooped. “Some guy about nineteen who wants it all the time!”

“He’ll beg for it!”

“He’ll be your slave!”

“And you can tie him up and torture him!”

Amy giggled, stared at me, along with everyone else in the Blacksmith House.

“Well, I suppose, if that’s what you like,” she said demurely, sipped her tea.

*

A week later, another therapist told Amy Alex did indeed have someone else. Not a nurse, but a psychiatrist whose name was practically a household word. She wrote articles for The New Yorker and commentaries for “All Things Considered,” and Alex had been seeing her for years. All the therapists in New York knew, except Amy. When she confronted him, he seemed relieved. He moved to an apartment near his hospital.

“Everyone knew but me!” Amy shouted on the phone. We had been talking for so long, the phone burned against my ear.

“Why didn’t Alex tell you? What exactly was his plan?”

“He says they thought I was too vulnerable. They thought! Him and his concubine, like I’m this patient in their care! I think everyone’s been doing that to me. Did you know he was seeing her? Would you have told me if you did?”

“No way.” I felt a qualm. Could I have lied and kept it to myself, and would that have been better? I wished with sudden violence that I could talk to Celia.

“Are you glad you know? Do you still like the person who told you?”

“I do. I like her more. Where would I be without her? In the dark! When I think of everyone who knew and kept the truth from me!”

I took the train down to New York and sat up half the night on Amy’s couch, talking it all through. Punchy in the dawn, we told each other jokes, about how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb, and how many art critics. I told the one about the penguin who tried to drive across a desert, but its car broke down. The penguin took the car to a garage and went into an ice-cream parlor to cool off, and covered itself in vanilla ice cream.

“Looks like you blew a seal,” said the mechanic, coming in.

“Naw,” said the penguin. “This is just ice cream.”

We laughed and squeaked. Amy tried to speak.

“What do you call that ugly piece of flesh on the end of a man’s penis?”

I didn’t know.

“That’s … the man!”

*

A few weeks later, back in Cambridge, my phone rang at 1 a.m.

“I have to find a man,” said Amy, in a panicked voice. “I want to have sex right this minute! How do you find men? Tell me quick!”

All the men I knew were either married, or untrustworthy, or recently divorced and needed time in the emotional deep freeze. Half of them were my old lovers anyway, and I’d already told her what was wrong with them.

“I don’t care! He can be a jerk, and live in Timbucktu. So long as he’ll fuck me!”

Two weeks later, Amy had found Steve, a nice genetic researcher at NYU, younger than she was. She didn’t call me for a week. I left messages, and she called back a few times. But she was busy now with Steve, and her divorce, and juggling her practice and her son. Soon we only talked to each other’s answering machines.

I understood, though I was shocked to realize how few resources I had left. I had nothing but my dissertation, and even that was getting done. I applied for jobs, and went down to a conference in New York for interviews with two midwestern schools. I called Amy, and she said she’d be with Steve all afternoon. But could I meet her around six at her favorite sushi place?

The sushi bar was tiny and crowded, and Amy was half an hour late. They wouldn’t seat me until she arrived, so I had to stand. At last she breezed in through the bamboo-decorated door, flushed and grinning in a rumpled tweed suit, and they put us at a table about two feet wide, in the center of the tiny space. She looked great, but she’d been drinking martinis all afternoon and seemed unable to talk quietly. Her voice was high and powered by a laugh.

“God, isn’t sex great?” she yelped. “Is it always so great for you? Is that what you’ve been doing all these years, fucking every afternoon?”

I murmured that, as she knew, I had not seen anyone for several months.

She shouted sympathetically. “But you have to find someone! If only I had known, I never would have waited for Alex to fuck me twice a year. I would have done it with the Fed Ex man. Surely you know someone you can fuck!”

I wondered if such things were shouted all over the country now, wherever women met. I couldn’t take it anymore. I snapped.

“Let’s not talk about this in a sushi bar, okay?”

“Okay, sure. Sorry.”

Sake, she gestured to the waitress from across the room, holding up her hands to imitate the china bottle and the cup.

“If it makes you uncomfortable. But just tell me one thing.” A giggle squirted out of her. “Don’t you think sex is great?”

*

After that, I did without close friends. Sometimes I did talk to another grad student, Lisbeth, who was English and even more bitter than I was about the years we’d spent in school. When we started, Lisbeth had been glamorous and willowy, but now she drank, and she was shapeless as a tube of pudding, with a red face and broken vessels in her cheeks. She liked to say things like, “Mmmmm, Dom Perignon, and such a full bottle!” She liked to slander women we both knew. She insisted so-and-so “would screw a bush if she thought there were a snake in it,”or that no inch of someone else was untouched by the surgeon’s knife. A man we both knew had a lovely wife, who happened to be rich, and of course Lisbeth said he’d only married her for money. I knew Lisbeth’s intentions were not especially good, and I mostly steered clear of her.

My final year at Harvard came down to a pinched, reluctant spring. In June the sun burned through, and lilacs opened, sweet enough to make your temples pound. I got a job at one of the midwestern colleges, where I would know no one. But my fellowship was over, and I had to go. I filed my dissertation, packed up my few things.

A few days before I had to leave, I walked through Harvard Yard. It was hot summer now, and I could smell cut grass, Chinese restaurant, hints of sewage from the Charles. Circling the square, I visited the stations of my youth. On the brick sidewalk, I could see Celia ahead of me look back laughing, in a ripped tank top and ragged cutoff jeans. The bricks were there, the yellow light on them. But where was Celia?

I’d been invited to a party, in a loft in Watertown. Everyone I knew in Cambridge would be there, and I was tempted not to go, avoid saying goodbye. But I had nothing left to do. At nine o’clock, I dressed and took a cab.

The loft was in a warehouse with big clanking metal doors, the room high-ceilinged as a barn, a hundred people packed inside. The first person I saw was Lisbeth, face already splotched. She held a drink in one fist and a burning cigarette.

“Fancy running into you like this!” she cried and kissed me on the lips, which no woman had ever done before. Startled, I stepped back. Her voice rose as if eager for an audience.

“And to think that I just had a call this very afternoon from Celia!”

Arrested, I stared like a cow unaware it has been shot in the head. Celia called Lisbeth?

“Oh, but how tactless of me. What a shock it must be for you to hear that. Can you ever forgive me? Here, let me get you a drink.”

She took hold of my arm and dragged me off to find a double scotch. Then she backed me in a corner, stood too close, and offered me a cigarette.

“Pardon me, it slipped my mind. Your marvellous pure lungs, like Celia’s. You two were always quite the pair! But you seem rather sensible, next to her. Poor Celia’s quite batty, you know, up there in New Hampshire with those eight or nine small boys. I thought the worst was when she needed to be Born Again, as if once weren’t bad enough. Tent meetings, all that, passing out for God, that sort of thing. And of course she’s always been a positively devoted hypochondriac, exists on rice and greens.”

She took a drink, and her shoulders shot up with eagerness to swallow it and tell me more.

“And now! The horror! She’s become a Catholic. A lay nun, no less, part-time bride of Christ, and scribbled a book to enlighten the rest of us. God Is My Co-Dependent, I believe it’s called, or perhaps it’s Going All the Way with God. Still married to the country parson, though, alas.”

I tried not to show that every word of this was more than I had ever heard. Lisbeth shrugged my murmurs off and stared into my eyes, as if she knew this news would hurt but still be good for me.

“Now, you do realize, I trust, my dear, that she is nothing to disturb yourself about. She has become a very ordinary housewife.”

“Disturb myself about?”

She shook her head, as if to dislodge a fly. “Oh, you know, your lesbian period. We all knew about it at the time. Such a good idea, I always thought. So sensible of you! It’s just that Celia couldn’t bear it, though, you see. She recoiled, in fact. Oh, dear, I fear I have stepped in it, haven’t I? Can you ever forgive me? Let me take you out to lunch, say, Thursday at the Blacksmith House?”

*

I escaped, and made no dates. I went home and tried to blot out Lisbeth’s voice. Had everyone believed I was in love with Celia? Had Celia thought I was? I knew it wasn’t true, and yet I couldn’t sleep. I dreamed of sneering faces, murderers outside my door, and woke up every twenty minutes all night long.

In the morning, big white cruise-ship clouds stood motionless against a hot blue sky. I packed up my last things, and the phone began to ring. I had forgotten to unplug the answering machine. A woman’s voice began to speak.

“I had to call. I had a message. It was very clear.”

It was a dry Maine voice, full of salt cod. It took me several moments to be sure.

“It was the strangest thing. I was just praying, and I knew. I had to call.”

I picked up the phone. My tongue wouldn’t move.

“So, Celia. How’ve you been for six or seven years?”

Sharp intake of breath. “It hasn’t been that long.”

Who was I to argue with someone who heard from God?

“Okay. What did the message say?”

“They’re not in words. It was just a feeling, that I had to talk to you. But when it happens, I don’t question it.”

I felt impatient with the call. Had she had my number all this time, like when I was plotting to dispose of my remains?

“So, hey, Celia. Why did you stop speaking to me?”

She seemed to expect this. “That’s too big a question to answer on the phone. Meet me in an hour at the Blacksmith House.”

“Okay,” I said before I thought, and Celia hung up.

So she was in town. She had swooped in, and now I was to report as ordered. Had she come to prove me wrong about the democratic nature of friendship? Was I supposed to just eat mesculin salad with her as if nothing had happened?

Sweating, I drifted to the Blacksmith House. The moment I saw Celia, I felt calm. She did not look the way that I recalled. She did look like a nun, or an old-maid clerk in 1956—stick-thin, in a Peter Pan collar and lace-up shoes. Her hair was bowl-cut, but her eyes were still Coke-bottle green, and when she saw me, something impish flashed through them. She walked toward me with languid grace.

“But you look wonderful,” she said, as if she had heard differently. She kissed my cheek, and laughed her airy laugh.

“Hey, thanks. Want some lunch? They make good salads here,” I said, as if she’d never been there before. “I mean, they’ve gotten better lately.”

“Sure.” She laughed again, breathless, as if this were hilarious. She seemed astonished to be there with me.

We carried salads up the stairs. The place was packed, but without piles of snowsuits, there was more room. The baby of the Swedish grad student could now sit up. Most of the other mothers looked familiar, too. Even the Japanese tourists could be the same.

Celia showed me pictures of her two small sons, and Daniel, and the white church where he led the flock. Daniel was even thinner than before, his face ashen, as if he’d been incinerated from within. He looked ill in his white collar, and even in the Santa suit he had put on for a children’s party at the church. But their boys were round and rosey, cheerful, with pink cheeks.

“And have you joined the Catholic Church?”

“Oh, yes!” She flushed with happiness, and told me all the steps she had gone through, and what a lay nun was, and that she hadn’t taken vows and might not. But she said Daniel understood and even envied her.

I got us coffee, cream for her, the way she’d always taken it. She was pleased that I remembered, and gave me a searching glance. She played with the flimsy cream package.

“I should answer your question. I’ve thought about it now for years, of course. I’m not sure what to say.”

“You don’t have to, if you don’t feel like it,” I said in a rush, not meaning to. Of course she had to say. I had almost killed myself, and I was over it. What could she say now that would make a difference?

“Just tell me why you wouldn’t take my calls. You could have explained. It’s not like we weren’t talking every day.”

She waved one hand, laughed quick clean puffs. “I know, I know.”

She seemed unable to go on. But something in her face told me I had to wait. I waited, wishing that I didn’t need to know.

She did say something then. I know I heard it, saw her lips move and her eyes beseeching me. But seconds later I could not remember what it was. It may have been so vague my mind refused to take it in. Or maybe it was what I’d always thought, that, being married, she could no longer approve of me. Whatever she said, it might have held the secret of friendship.

But it was gone the moment she said it, and part of me began to keen, and shred its handkerchief, its plastic garbage sack. What did she say? It was as if no one was listening at all.

Celia seemed relieved, and talked with animation, asked questions about my life. I told her, leaving out the year with the psychiatrist, since it seemed rude to mention it. She talked about her children’s choir, her husband’s early mid-life crisis, and how impatient she felt with it.

“He actually said lately that he doesn’t know if he believes in God. As if he’s twenty-two! The weekend he said it, we’d had this major breakthrough, too. I didn’t think there were any more barriers we could overcome.”

“What kind of breakthrough?” I said, not really following.

She flushed happily, began to shout.

“It was the most amazing thing. You know how, when you’re fucking, and you feel the Holy Ghost descend? And your orgasm sends you up to a higher dimension?”

Around us, people froze. The same wait-nerd who’d been there every time appeared a few yards off, perforated ears open wide.

I didn’t pause. I shouted back.

“Your orgasm? The Holy Ghost shows up when you come? Do tell! How does it feel?”

I leaned back. I relaxed. At last I knew what was going on. I knew where we were headed to. Lifting my cup, I nodded encouragement, as Celia went on.

“Lunch at the Blacksmith” originally appeared in Ploughshares and won a Pushcart Prize.

Cornelia Nixon’s books include Now You See It, Angels Go Naked, Jarrettsville, and The Use of Fame. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, New England Review, The Gettysburg Review, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere, and have won two O’Henry Awards, two Pushcart Prizes, and a Nelson Algren Prize. Her novels have received The Carl Sandburg Award and The Michael Shaara Prize. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe.

Q

“The First Mourning,” oil on canvas, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1888.

by Lee Martin

The Miklers were glad to see the holidays come and go, so they could forget for a time Gunther’s brother, Max, and all he asked of them.

“Good riddance,” Nan said the day after New Year’s, and Gunther couldn’t disagree.

He welcomed the gray days of January and February and the cozy feel of hibernation he always had during that time when, outside of keeping the driveway and sidewalks free of snow, nothing much was expected of him. By that time, Max had gone to his winter home in West Palm Beach, and Gunther and Nan were able to breathe more easily, outside the reach of the demands he made on them when he was nearby.

“Come get me,” he’d say when he’d call, which he did frequently.

“Where are you?” Gunther would ask.

“How the fuck do I know? You figure it out.”

Gunther knew the usual places to check—The Hollywood Casino, The Sirens Gentlemen’s Club on Cleveland Avenue, the downtown Metropolitan Library. More times than not, it was the library. Max would walk from his home in German Village and then forget the way back.

“I can see it in my head, buddy boy,” he’d always say, “but I can’t quite map it out.”

So Gunther would go and find him and take him to the modest brick home where he lived alone, his wife, Grace, having passed on some years before.

“You can’t keep doing this,” Gunther told him one day shortly before Christmas. “One day, you might end up in real trouble.”

“I’ll be out of your hair soon,” Max said. “I’ll be soaking up the sun in Florida.”

“How do you think you can do that?” Gunther said. “You can’t even find your way back here where you’ve lived so long.”

“U.S. 35 to I-95 south. Easy as pie.”

That was Max—bullheaded. Even as a boy he’d been that way. Gunther had never forgotten the day he’d walked all the way from town to their farm—twelve kilometers—instead of getting in the car as their father insisted. Max took off through the sugar beet fields. He was angry because their father had refused to let him buy a shotgun. When their father said it was time to get in the car and go home, Max wouldn’t move. “All right then,” their father said, “you can just walk.” And that’s exactly what Max did.

It was little wonder, then, that he worked his way through the mechanical engineering program at the Technical University of Braunschweig and eventually found his way to America. His focus had always been intense, his thinking clear, and his actions precise. How much harder it was, then, for Gunther and Nan to watch his mind deteriorate. Always a student of history with a long memory of facts, he’d recently embraced conspiracy theories. His latest was QAnon.

“You mean to tell me,” Gunther said to him one day, “you believe the world is run by a powerful cabal of Satan worshipping pedophiles who are working to undermine our president?”

“Barack Obama’s one,” Max said, “and so is Hillary Clinton.”

“That’s nonsense. I’m glad Grace isn’t alive to see you like this.”

“You just wait, buddy boy. The Storm is coming.”

The president, Donald Trump, had been chosen by God, according to those who believed in Q, to arrest thousands of members of the cabal on a day of reckoning known as The Storm.

“I don’t know who you are,” Gunther said.

“I’m your brother,” Max said in an earnest tone. “Where we go one, we go all.”

*

Gunther slept in those winter mornings, at peace with the fact that Max was in Florida—“I got here okay,” he’d said when he’d called from West Palm Beach. “Nothing to worry about at all.”

All right then, Gunther thought. Nothing to concern him. Put your worries in your pocket. He slept late, and then went for a long walk—seven miles—along the trails of the Scioto Grove Metro Park. He tromped through the forest and along the river bluffs, coming out finally on the native prairie. It was one of those cloudy and still winter days when sounds carried for miles. He listened to crows calling overhead and what sounded like a dead limb crashing to the forest floor. He didn’t mind the cold. In fact, he found it exhilarating. Dressed in layers of thermal and cotton and fleece, his hands in gloves, his head and face warmed by a balaclava, he made long strides, his hiking boots bearing him up nicely as he walked a pace that soon had him sweating.

He’d never minded being alone. The older brother, he’d been an only child for twelve years before Max came along.

*

“A mistake,” his father always said, his contempt for this late-in-life birth barely hidden. “Verdammt das Glück.”

Damn the luck indeed. Damn the luck that Gunther and Max had a father seemingly incapable of making room in his heart for his own children. More times than he could remember, Gunther had suffered the pain of his drunken blows, and he knew Max had gotten it even worse. That was partly the reason that Gunther had vowed to take care of him, to be the father Max had never had. That’s why on these winter walks, Max was never far from Gunther’s thoughts. He hoped he’d be all right in Florida. He didn’t think he had any business being there, but to stop him from going would take a massive intervention, one that Gunther couldn’t quite muster the courage to attempt. Next time, he kept telling himself, as he walked. Next time, he’d do something to protect his brother.

One afternoon, he came home from his walk, and, as was his habit, he turned on MSNBC to catch the latest news. It was an election year, and Trump was blustering and bumbling and firing up his base for his relection run while at the same time, he was facing a possible impeachment trial. Just after New Year’s, he’d announced the killing of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian military leader. Now, MSNBC was reporting, two Iraqi bases holding United States troops had been targeted by Iranian missiles. The world, Gunther knew, was such a fraught place. These tensions on top of reports of a deadly virus running amok in China.

“Why do you watch this junk?” Nan was watering her houseplants. She paused and pointed the spout of her watering can at him. “It just makes you fret, and who needs that?”

“I can’t not watch.” He slouched in his chair. “I have to know what’s going on in the world. People closed their eyes in Germany in the 1930s and look what happened. Nazis. Hitler.”

“Do you really think this Trump is that kind of man?”

“Don’t you?” Nan had always been a take-it-or-leave-it sort of person, ready to dismiss anything that threatened her instead of considering the potential consequences. Gunther liked to think himself too much a realist to ever turn away from what might be on the horizon. “He’s an autocrat,” he said. “He wants to rule whatever’s within his reach. We can be stupid, or we can be ready.”

“Baloney,” Nan said. “He couldn’t find his ass with both hands and a map.” She lifted her eyebrows and stared at Gunther, waiting for him to respond. “He’s a clown,” she said, and then she went back to watering her plants.

Ever since the Christmas party they threw each year for a group of neighbors that called itself The Patio Club, Gunther had been wanting to talk to Nan about the awkward thing that had happened, but it was as if the two of them had reached a silent agreement not to broach the subject. They’d bid their guests goodbye that night and had cleaned up without a mention of their neighbors, Peter and Honey Vanlandingham, and whatever it was that was going on between them—some sort of spat that ended with Honey shouting, “You cruel bastard.” Her rage had mystified and embarrassed everyone. Gunther hadn’t known what to say when she stormed out of the house, but now he did.

“People are unkind,” he said. “People who should know better. Our neighbors for instance.”

He could see immediately that Nan knew which neighbors he was referring to. “Now you listen,” she said. “What happened with Honey and Peter we won’t talk about. We’ll leave that business to them. Glass houses, Mr. Mikler. Glass houses. How much would you want our neighbors to know about your brother?”

What was he to say to that? He closed his eyes and let the drone of the television nudge him into sleep.

The next thing he knew, Nan was shaking him awake. “Gunther. You’ll never believe what I just saw.”

It was Max, she said. Max on the television.

“Max?” Gunther was groggy from his nap. “Where did you see Max?”

“He was in some sort of crowd,” Nan said. “I don’t know what it was, but I saw him. Just for an instant. Right there on the TV.”

“You must be mistaken. Why would he be on the television?”

“I am not mistaken,” Nan said. “It was Max. He was holding up a sign that said ‘Q.’”

*

The call came that evening. “You don’t know me,” a man said. “I’m a friend of your brother’s.”

“What is it about Max?” Gunther asked. He’d been trying to call him throughout the day with no luck. Now it was dark, and Nan was preparing a light supper. They’d spent the rest of the afternoon watching MSNBC, hoping to see the report that Nan claimed had shown Max, but nothing showed up to give them a clue. Trump was having one of his Make America Great Again rallies that evening, this one in Toledo, and a good deal of the reporting was about that. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced that she was beginning 2020 cancer-free. U.S. officials were confident that Iran was the one responsible for shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was facing increasing pressure to send articles of impeachment of the president to the Senate. All of this would have at one time mattered to Gunther—he worried more and more that the country was on the verge of something akin to Germany’s embrace of the Nazi party—but now all he could do was worry about his brother. “Tell me what you know about Max,” he said.

“You should come get him,” the man said. He sounded like a young man—clear-voiced and amped up on adrenaline. “You should come before there’s trouble. Real trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Q trouble. You come to the Huntington Center. I’ll keep my eye on him until you get here.”

“The Huntington Center?” Gunther searched his memory for something like that in West Palm Beach but came up empty.

“Trump rally,” the man said. “Toledo.”

*

Toledo was a two and a half-hour drive from Grove City. By the time Gunther backed out of his garage with Nan aboard, it was dark and snow was falling.

“Be careful, Mr. Mikler,” Nan said. “Be very careful.”

The streets were just starting to glaze over, but Gunther felt confident the interstates would be clear. He had to tell himself that to keep going when really what he wanted was to be in his warm house with Nan and a glass of wine, letting the snow fall all around them. What he really wanted, if he had to admit it, was to put all thought of Max out of his head, an idea he’d floated to Nan after the call from the stranger—an idea, she noted, that was out of the question. “He’s your brother,” she’d said.

Of course, she was right. If Max were in trouble, who else would be there to protect him? He kept reminding himself of that as he felt the rear end of his Mercedes SUV slide a bit before finding traction. Snow slanted down through the headlight beams. The first traffic light, a block away, was a watery green. He accelerated, but just as he did, a woman dressed all in white stepped into the crosswalk.

“Gunther,” Nan said.

He was already slowing, tapping the brakes. The woman was ghostly in the white night, and she froze in the crosswalk, turning toward Gunther’s oncoming headlights, as if she were waiting calmly for whatever might be about to happen. Her coat had a fur-lined hood, but when she lifted her face, Gunther was surprised by what he saw.

“Honey,” Nan said, just as the Mercedes found dry pavement and came to a stop only inches from Honey Vanlandingham. Nan put down her window and leaned out into the snow. “Where are you going?” she asked.

Honey didn’t answer. She merely walked around the front of the Mercedes to the passenger side, opened the back door, and got in behind Nan.

“I was walking,” she said. “I was thinking.”

Gunther’s fingers were trembling on the steering wheel. He moved forward, driving slowly, not knowing what to do now that Honey was in the car.

“We almost hit you,” Nan said.

“Wouldn’t that have been funny?” Honey laughed. “Killed by my neighbors. How would that have been for The Patio Club?”

Gunther didn’t think it was funny at all. The snow was heavier, and he had miles to go, and now he didn’t know what to do with Honey.

“You should take her home,” Nan said to him.

Honey’s quilted jacket swished as she shook her head with vigor. “I don’t want to go home. I can’t bear the thought. You can just let me out.”

Gunther watched her in the rearview mirror as she reached for the door handle. He never once thought she’d try to open that door. She’d always been overly dramatic. He glanced down at the speedometer. He was driving around twenty-five miles per hour now, and he was losing patience with Honey and her theatrics. Then he felt a rush of cold air, and when he looked back in his rearview, he glimpsed a sliver of light and saw Honey just beginning to push herself out of her seat. He didn’t have time to think. He threw his arm back over the seat and caught her by the hood of her jacket and held on as he pulled to the curb.

Verrückte Frau.” He realized he was shouting, but how could he not? Crazy woman.

The car door was shut now. Cars crept by on Gunther’s left. Honey sat with her head down and her fists clenched in her lap. Nan said, “Darling, tell us what’s wrong.”

But she couldn’t. For a time, in fact, it seemed as if she were incapable of speech of any kind. Gunther felt the minutes ticking away. He looked at Nan, lifted an eyebrow. She gave a slight shrug of her shoulder.

Then Honey spoke. “Wherever you’re going,” she said, “take me with you.”

*

So, Gunther drove. He followed Hoover Road out of the city and made his way through the sleepy towns of Kenton and Findlay and finally to Interstate 75 which would take him to Toledo.

Honey went to sleep in the back seat. She’d told her story to Gunther and Nan. It involved Peter, of course. “I’m positive he’s seeing someone else,” Honey said. “I found a bottle of perfume in his jacket pocket tonight. He said it was a gift for me.”

“It could be it was,” Nan said.

“No.” Honey looked down at her clasped hands. “He knows I never wear perfume.” All Gunther could think about was getting to Toledo to find out what Max was doing there. “I walked out,” Honey said. “I told Peter there wasn’t a thing he could do to stop me.”

Now she was sleeping. She was unaware that the farther north they went, the harder the snow fell, the lower the temperature dropped, and the slicker the roads became. Even the traffic on I-75 was taking heed. Gunther passed more than one car that had spun off onto the shoulder, or out into the median. He kept his eyes on the barely visible track on the roadway and steadily made his way north.

Nan had told Honey all about Max. “I’m so embarrassed,” Honey had said after finishing her own story, and Nan had said, “We all have stories.” Then she’d started in, telling Honey about Max, his deteriorating mind, the conspiracy theories he believed, the phone call Gunther had received telling him Max was in trouble in Toledo. “A Trump rally,” Nan said with distaste. “Can you imagine?”

“I met him once,” Honey said. “Your brother. We were on your patio watching the fireworks at the high school, and he offered me his jacket when I got cold, and he even held my hand. He was very sweet.”

Yes, all of that was true. Gunther remembered it clearly. The neighbors on the patio. A late-night chill in the air even though it was July. Max on his best behavior. He was still with them, then. He hadn’t begun to crack. He was polite and witty and charming and warm. Honey and all the other women in The Patio Club adored him. Peter Vanlandingham had been out of town at the time, and Max insisted on walking Honey home.

“Such a gentleman,” Honey said, when Nan had finished her story. “It makes me so sad to think of what’s happening to him.”

“Yes, it makes us sad, too,” Nan said, and Gunther was thankful for that, to know that beneath Nan’s grumbling about the inconvenience Max was turning out to be there was a genuine lament for the loss of the man he’d once been.

That man had possessed a beautiful mind. No mathematical equation stumped him. Numbers danced an elegant ballet in his brain as he engineered a system for a line-conducted digital telecommunication between a switching exchange of a telecommunication network and a subscriber connected to that network, or a device for a circuit arrangement to generate a clock frequency for a data transmission system. There were other patents he held that Gunther had a limited capacity to understand. His beautiful brother. The one who’d walked twelve kilometers through the sugar beet fields in protest of what he considered to be an injustice. Gunther gripped the steering wheel and peered through the snow slanting down in front of his headlights.

Honey had started to snore.

“Poor kid,” Nan said.

Gunther was less sympathetic. “Verrückte Frau,” he said again and kept driving.

*

The Huntington Center was located in downtown Toledo on Jefferson Avenue. A walkway connected it to the Seagate Convention Centre. Gunther had been there once or twice for conferences, and last year, he and Nan had gone to a Reba McEntire concert. It never failed to amuse people when they found out that they were country music fans, but, when they’d first come to the States, what could possibly been more American? They’d voted for Barack Obama in 2008—their first presidential election after becoming citizens—and they’d been Democrats ever since. But this Trump? Mein Gott! A Hitler in the making.

“What a circus,” Nan said, when they turned down Jefferson and approached the Huntington Center.

American flags galore along with blue flags that said “Trump 2020. Keep America Great” in white letters. More than one man had stars and stripes painted on his face. Another had on a white tee-shirt that said, “Donald Trump, Finally Someone with Balls” across its back. Women and men in tee-shirts with giant Q’s on their chests. One group had a sign that said, “The Q Parade.” The merchandise was on sale at various tents with Trump flags flying from them. Men and women in military fatigues and tactical gear stood in small groups with automatic weapons in their hands.

This was the overflow, the people who hadn’t been able to score a ticket but wanted to be nearby. Something was happening in this country, some rage rising, and there were plenty of people who wanted to be a part this cult-like movement.

“They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid,” Gunther said, making reference to Jim Jones’s cult which ended in 1978 with a mass suicide—over 900 dead—from drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.

“Now if they’d just fall down,” Nan said.

They were whispering because Honey was still asleep. Gunther drove as far as he could down Jefferson before realizing he wouldn’t be able to get to the parking garage, and even if he could, what chance would he have finding a place to park? He cut down a quiet side street and pulled to the curb.

“What now?” Nan asked.

Gunther didn’t know. He realized he hadn’t asked the man on the phone how he would find Max. He heard the man say there was going to be trouble at the Huntington Center in Toledo at this Trump rally—trouble, Gunter assumed, that involved Max—and then he hung up the phone. Sitting there now in his warm Mercedes, Gunther wondered if he’d panicked—too eager to be on the road to Toledo rather than listening to all the details—or had he deliberately not wanted to know how to find his brother?

And then there he was. Max. He was sitting on the hood of his car—a black Lincoln—with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his palms. His camel’s hair topcoat, unbuttoned, draped the fender. After all that Gunther had imagined—all the miseries and terrors—now he only had to get out of the Mercedes and take a few steps and say, “Hello, Max.”

How many times had it been like this, Gunther coming to save him?

Snow dusted the shoulders of Max’s topcoat. He lifted his head and studied Gunter for quite some time.

“I’m just sitting here,” he finally said. “I’m waiting for Q.”

Gunther had read enough to understand that no one really knew who Q was, although there were speculations about certain individuals and groups. Someone was responsible for all the whack-job conspiracy theories—all the misinformation and the lies—but it was hard to say who. QAnon, or so it seemed to Gunther, was simply Nazism rebranded, a collective of anti-Semitic and racist right-wingers who feared they were being left behind in favor of the progressive left. Hadn’t such fear and propaganda worked in Hitler’s Germany? Even Gunther’s father had been a member of the Hitler Youth, and before him his grandfather had been a Brownshirt. The Sturmabteilung, for god’s sake. One of Hitler’s Storm Troopers. Years later, when Gunther finally worked up the courage to ask how it was possible that he and Opa had been caught up in such a thing, his father said, “It was a different time. People were afraid. It was easy to get swept along. We weren’t always thinking right.”

No excuse, Gunther remembered thinking. No excuse at all.

Nor was there any excuse for this QAnon nonsense. It was a poison mist seeping into people, leading them to crazy thoughts and deeds. Its believers had harassed a CNN reporter at a Trump rally in Tampa and targeted the attorney representing the stripper who claimed Trump paid her to keep their affair on the down low. That same summer, a member armed with an AR-15 assault rifle drove an armored truck to the Hoover Dam, demanding that Hilary Clinton be arrested and thrown in jail.

Gunther was considering all this while he stood there looking into Max’s eyes. The snow was falling over them, and in the distance Gunther swore he heard gunfire.

“You’re supposed to be in Florida,” he said to Max. “West Palm Beach for the Winter. Remember? U.S. 35 to I-95 south? Easy as pie?”

“I was detained,” Max said in a toneless voice. “Diverted. Now I’m waiting.”

At that moment, a man came out of the shadows. He was eating a hot dog from a paper wrapper. Gunther realized then that he and Nan hadn’t taken time to eat the supper she’d prepared. It was waiting for them in their refrigerator.

The man with the hot dog said, “How about that?”

“Excuse me,” Gunther said. The man with the hot dog was close enough now for Gunther to smell the spicy mustard and the pickle relish.

“This whole deal.” The man swept the hand holding the dog back and forth, indicating everything around them—the snow, the streetlights, the chant rising from outside the Huntington Center where people were listening to Trump’s remarks over a loudspeaker. Lock him up, the crowd was chanting, Lock him up. “What a night. The Storm’s coming, baby. Ain’t that right, brother?” He nodded at Max. “We’ll do more than just lock him up.”

With that, the man stuffed the last bit of the dog and the bun into his mouth and then smiled. Gunther had lost track of who Trump wanted arrested. He always wanted someone locked up.

“High five, bro.” The man tossed the paper wrapper to the ground and held out his palm. “Don’t leave me hanging.”

Max looked at Gunther, and Gunther saw the confusion in his eyes. “How did you find me?” he asked.

“I came where they told me to go,” Gunther said, and then, with absolutely no knowledge of why, he added, “I came looking for Q.”

Maybe he said it to make fun of the whole circus surrounding Trump and QAnon, or maybe he did it to bedevil the man with the hot dog, or maybe—just maybe—he said it because he’d run out of things to say. His brother was slipping away from him, and he didn’t have words that would stop that from happening.

“And now here I am.” Max spread his arms and his topcoat opened like wings. “The great and powerful.” He smacked the man’s palm. “Hell, yes,” Max said. “The Storm’s coming.”

More people were coming down the street, people with their Trump signs and their Q signs and their Keep America Great hats, people who were jazzed up and looking for some way to keep the current flowing. Lock him up, they kept chanting. The rally might be breaking up, but its people weren’t in a hurry for the night to end.

Gunther heard a car door slam shut, and when he turned, he saw Honey Vanlandingham walking toward him. She glided along in her white pants and jacket and hat and her white boots, and something about the sight of her mesmerized him. At the moment, she seemed like the loveliest thing he’d ever seen, and whatever resentment he’d felt for her because of the way she’d behaved at their Christmas party lifted from him, and he felt a lightness in his heart, and he said out loud, “My god, she’s an angel.”

Then she was swallowed up in the crowd that had grown in the time it had taken her to leave the Mercedes.

Nan put down her window and stuck her head out to call to her. “Honey,” she kept saying. “Honey Vanlandingham.”

But Honey was beyond her now, lost somewhere in the crowd that was moving like a swarm.

The man with the hot dog dropped down on his knees in front of the Lincoln. He grabbed onto Max’s pants cuffs and bowed his head. “Are you really him?” he asked.

“That’s right,” said Max. “I’m the genuine article.” He laid his hand on top of the man’s head as if to bless him. “Where we go one, we go all.”

Those were the last words Gunther heard his brother say, for now the crowd was upon him. “Lock him up,” someone shouted, and a sudden rage, beyond Gunther’s understanding rose up, and the man with the hot dog, looked up and said, “Don’t you see? Don’t you see? It’s him. It’s Q.”

“This man?” a red-faced man in camo fatigues said. “This man is nothing but a crazy man.” He grabbed Max off the Lincoln’s hood. Gunther made one move to hold onto him. He touched the hem of his topcoat, then the crowd had him, and he slipped away. The last sight Gunther had of him was his knees hitting the pavement as the men dragged him along.

“Gunther, help him,” Nan said.

It was madness. It was all madness. Something had gone wrong somewhere outside Gunther’s understanding, but he could feel it all around him. The menace. The insanity.

“Max,” he called out, but it was no use. The crowd was now a mob, angry and hate-driven.

Then, somehow, Honey Vanlandingham’s voice rose up above the din, and what she said was, “Nothing can stop what’s coming.” She said it over and over, and the power of her voice was startling. It was a siren screaming, a bell ringing, a band saw cutting through metal. She emerged from the edge of the mob. A streetlamp cast its light upon her, and she was beautiful in the light. For just an instant the mob saw what Gunther saw—the white angel sounding her warning. Something was coming. Something that would send them to their knees. Something no faith in God or man—no not even Donald Trump or this imagined Q—could protect them from. No cult strong enough. “Listen to me,” Honey said, and Gunther wanted to believe in the future, to believe that he could go home and move through whatever days remained to him in peace, without shame or regret.

The night had gotten so still. The snow was still falling, and Gunther looked up into that snow, letting it hit his face, the way he and Max had done when they were boys in Germany. Once upon a time, had there been a chance, a final opportunity where good people could have done the right things and the Nazi Party would have never come to power and the world would have found its proper arc and life for years and years would have been beautiful? Gunther felt that opportunity before him now.

But someone from the mob shouted, “Fuck this!” And then it was moving on, leaving Honey behind, taking Max with them.

A jogger would find him downtown the next morning, wandering along the Maumee Riverfront, frost-bitten and beaten. The jogger would report that Max questioned her in a language she couldn’t understand. He was overwrought, she said, his face wet with tears. He clutched her hands. Gunther imagined it all. He imagined Max saying, “Wo ist er? Wo ist mein Bruder?

Where is he? Where is my brother?

Lee Martin is the author of two short story collections, four memoirs, a craft book, and seven novels, including The Bright Forever, which was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. His short stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Ms., The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Best American Essays, Best American Mystery Stories, and other places.

1969

“Hope, II,” oil, gold, and platinum on canvas, by Gustav Klimt, 1908.

by Kathryn Kulpa

You look forward to marriage and want yours to be the holiest and happiest possible. Thus you are preparing yourself now by practicing self-control, by acquiring the virtue of purity.
—from 20th-Century Teenagers, by “A Friend of Youth,” St. Paul Editions, © 1961

You gave up chocolate for Lent but it didn’t take. You aren’t good at saying no. To hamburgers on a Friday. Glasses of pale beer at a college party where none of his friends guess you’re only sixteen. You’re a wild girl. A hungry girl. Hungry girls want everything.

You want to see everything. Stars and elephants, titan footprints, dinosaurs, meteors, galaxies expanding, spilled milk and moondust cupping the horizon like the hand that cups your breast. Your gauzy peasant blouse slipping from one bare shoulder as he kisses lower, lower, on the dark balcony of his off-campus apartment with the whole world watching. No one is looking, he whispers. Mr. and Mrs. America are in bed, they’re watching Johnny Carson, and you think of the pamphlet your mother gave you, the boy and girl in a lover’s lane, arms reaching for each other, but they can’t touch because Jesus sits between them in the car. Jesus in the picture is shiny and half-invisible, like a jellyfish you don’t see until it stings. You could pop him like a soap bubble if you put your hand through, and you do. Too late to stop now, you think, and three months later, bent over the bowl, stomach hitching, you know it’s too late for everything. Woodstock this summer, he’d said. Europe, later, but now he won’t take your calls and the nuns say what your mother says: Why buy the cow?

You’re a cow in in a barn with bile-green walls, the home for girls who should have known better. Girls who come fat and leave skinny, nothing in their arms but a suitcase. Babies signed away to the church, to a fine family who’ll bring them up right.

Daily Mass. Mopping floors, washing dishes. Food so bland and boiled and beige girls fight over smuggled-in ketchup packets. Sometimes people get away. A girl whose boyfriend showed up late one night with a ring: they all tell that story. Another girl, with bedsheets: an ambulance driving away slowly, siren off. And Sheila, who swallowed soap so they’d have to take her to the hospital. Hospital doors aren’t locked, the girls say.

The girls say: carry low, a boy it’ll be; carry high, a girl you’ll see. The nuns say: You’ll get what you get. What God wills. You know you’ll have a girl. A girl who will someday imagine a thousand lives for the mother she never knew: truck stop waitress, call girl, party girl, runaway bride; bored housewife, teenage alcoholic, Bonnie to someone’s Clyde.

You imagine your daughter only one way. Free.

You put your hand against the window glass. It ripples like a jellyfish Jesus. Like a vow, so easy to break.

Kathryn Kulpa is the author of the flash chapbooks Cooking Tips for the Demon-Haunted, forthcoming from New Rivers Press, and Girls on Film (Paper Nautilus). Her work has appeared in Atticus Review, Flash Frog, Five South, and Smokelong Quarterly, and has been chosen for the Wigleaf longlist and the Best Microfiction anthology.

The Escape Artist

“The Art Lover,” oil on canvas, by Henri de Braekeleer, c. 1884.

by Partridge Boswell

In the museum of trauma, you stand back at least ten feet from each painting. Out of respect for other patrons mainly and the tacit rules of viewing. You don’t want the docent to sidle over in a loud whisper: Ma’am? Plus there’s always the chance of re-infection wedded to the benefit of distance—a wider lens that lends the full effect of an artist’s intention—each painstaking brushstroke melded into an overarching composition. The way say, at first glance, a Bruegel hamlet-scape renders a charming tableau of ordinary folk going about their quotidian; whereupon closer inspection, colored urgences burble to the surface: the same mundane individuals engaging in depraved acts of inane, if not insane, everyday cruelty.

In the museum of shattered dreams where you’ve attempted to grow from something raw, vestigial and two-dimensional an arboretum encased in two-way glass that lets you see out and no one but the sun in … the terrorist in your life slithers in through a sewage pipe—texts to apologize for thirty years of abuse and infidelity now that he’s found Christ. Asks you for forgiveness in a curt meaningless aside that may as well be a nail driven through your open palm.

Sunlight knifes the canvas between morning’s bare rim and roof of clouds. Your shared hostages older now, freed by time’s ransom. Safe in your new remove, you assumed you were done—obit written and shitshow shuttered at last—past praying to see him genuflecting in your rearview mirror. Now this—this nada footnote, one more scapegoat euphemized from the herd at random. Why now? and where to begin? the broken vow’s broken disc slipping as it skips over and over Thou Shalt Thou Shalt Thou Shalt … like anaphora like mantra like alphabet a victim never learns … abortions he scheduled unilaterally for your sons; the guns kept at arm’s length in case the vise of his manifold hands-on manipulations didn’t tighten tight enough; the time you were clutching your youngest on the ferry, he pushed you down the metal stairs with everyone watching and not one helped you to your feet.

How can a seed sprout without soil or sun? How can you begin to write a poem of your own atonement without specificity that might elicit him to own the slightest glimpse of your experience of him? If he can lift and take one, just one, from the litany hanging here and leave a blank wall for you to stare at to envision not a framed replacement but a ripening bright fresco, the wall itself espaliered, transfigured in freedom … How can a destiny reboot or reckoning take root without a rendering? How surrender to an alphabet that can’t articulate a single particular, that can only muster in a follow-up text: You don’t have to forgive me, it’s up to you. Up to you—like everything else: from hills of bills you climbed, to boys you raised to men, to peace you prayed for, if only in yourself.

You step back and take it all in. The artist, her composition. The gallery empty, except for a small unaccompanied child who enters the frame of your vision, beelines for the painting, his hand outstretched, pointing to a figure he’s sure is him, touching where soft bristles left their hardened mark. You wait for a docent that never comes to tell him what no one will, to remind him what sort of museum this really is.

Author of the Grolier Poetry Prize-winning collection Some Far Country, Partridge Boswell is co-founder of Bookstock Literary Festival and teaches at Vallum Society for Education in Arts & Letters in Montreal. He lives with his family in Vermont and troubadours widely with the poetry/music group Los Lorcas, whose debut release “Last Night in America” is available on Thunder Ridge Records. His Saguaro Poetry Prize-winning chapbook Not Yet a Jedi is also now a thing.

So Slow That It Sounds True

“Mother and Child,” oil on canvas, by Helene Schjerfbeck, 1886.

by Vanessa Tamm

You remember running barefoot on a long road that spiraled down a mountain, and the road was wet, and bits of gravel cut into your soles, and on either side of the road was a steep drop where people liked to dump their broken television sets and their car batteries and their trash. Your mother’s sweaty hand was holding the collar of your dress, pulling you down the mountain, faster, faster, and as you ran beside her, you noticed a new ceramic sink someone had thrown out. It lay upside down with its silver pipes sticking up into the air like it was signaling for help, signaling to you, and you felt sorry for leaving that sink behind, the flowering ivy already starting to twist round the taps, as if you were leaving yourself to rust and crack and break apart in the dirt. You kept your eyes on the sink for as long as you could, an apology of sorts, as you and your mother ran from your father who was back inside your big warm house beating down your bedroom door.

Then you were sitting at a kitchen table that was round instead of square and your neighbor was setting a glass of water in front of you and folding her hands on her bulging stomach. You could hear your mother speaking in the other room, her voice high and frantic like the bird your grandma used to own, the blue one who grew anxious whenever someone tried to feed it until it finally starved to death. Your mother was repeating she was fine, faster and faster, as if that would make it true. A candle in a glass jar was burning on the neighbor’s counter right beside a photo of a little boy who had a purple birth mark covering his chin. You remember the candle smelled of lavender; you remember you felt sorry for the little boy.

Behind you, up the road, your father was trying to find where you and your mother might be hiding, opening wardrobes and looking under all of the beds and checking inside the bread basket, where he found half a loaf of sourdough. He tore the loaf into pieces, still racing up and down the stairs, until there were tiny bits of bread scattered throughout the house. Your mother had left her purse and your shoes and all of her money because there wasn’t any time, she had to fly with you down the back stairs, so you sat there stroking the plastic tablecloth and trying to hide your dirty feet beneath the chair, wishing you had grabbed your jelly sandals. All the time the neighbor was urging you to drink the glass of water, faster, faster, and the man on the radio was shouting about the game, and your mother, still cradling the phone, was whispering to the players, rooting for her team, praying for them to win.

But when she asks you,
What can you remember?
out of the blue on a Saturday night as you’re walking to your car, you think about the hours sitting at her table speaking of sewing patterns and picture frames and weekly scores; you think about the harmless things and pleasant things she worked so hard to keep; you think about the way she grabs your hand when somebody strikes out. So you turn away and tell her, so slow that it sounds true,

I remember a ball soaring past the bleachers, and music filling up the stands, and a crowd of strangers gathered in the floodlights to cheer and stamp and lay their hopes on one good night.

“So Slow That It Sounds True” originally appeared in Meridian.

Vanessa Tamm holds a BA in creative writing from Birkbeck, University of London. She was a finalist for Meridian’s 2019 Short Prose Prize, and her work has appeared in Cimarron Review, Epiphany, Zone 3, and elsewhere.

Things Are Different Now

“Farmhouse with Birch Trees,” oil on canvas, by Gustav Klimt, 1900.

by Karen McIntyre

Summer, 2002. Seventh grade is finally over. But here I am, sitting cross-legged in bed with the Hello Kitty 3-ring binder I carried against my chest that entire endless year, open to the section formerly known as “Social Studies.” Every morning, I make a neat grid with 10 perfectly square boxes, each square worth 100 calories, and that’s what I get for the day. It’s a good plan. I can eat whatever I want, as long as I write it in one of the boxes: an apple. Three carrots. A half cup of low-fat cottage cheese. I know these are technically less than 100 calories, but better safe than fat and ugly. Sorry, Oprah, but it’s true. You can afford to be all body positivity and love-yourself-as-you-are. You’re rich and beautiful, and if you wanted, you could hire someone to follow you around your mansion and knock the snacks out of your hand. I’m on my own here.

My morning ritual is secret. Not that I’m doing anything wrong. But I’m guessing my mother, slapping makeup on her face in the bathroom down the hall, would not approve. Even my old toy horses on the shelf above my bed, staring down at me with their flared nostrils and proud, muscular chests, make the back of my neck feel funny.

By mid-July I have lost 12 pounds, which is good, but to be on the safe side I want to lose at least 10 more before school starts. I picture myself stepping off the school bus, triumphant in tight jeans. “Who’s that?” “Is she new?” Janey Rodgers and Meg Sherwin will whisper, but I’ll just smile and toss my hair. I’ll have figured out how to blow-dry it by then, not scriggly-scraggly or stiffly straight but Carelessly Tumbled, because I’m not trying too hard. I close my eyes and fall back on my bed, hunger buzzing through me. I’ll slam my locker shut and spin around so my hair flies out like a cape, feeling Richie Signorelli’s eyes on me, and I’ll hoist my books up my arm and stride off, because I’m not the kind of girl who needs guys to stare at me—but if they do, well, that’s their problem.

All day, while my mother is at her job, I keep busy cleaning the house, working out to her old Jane Fonda tapes, and walking our neighbors’ dog, Buddy. He is part German Shepherd and part Golden Retriever, and he walks with a jaunty step, like his paws are on hinges. After our walk, I grant myself an exquisite 10 minutes of rest and lie down with Buddy in a patch of sunlight on the Petersons’ beige carpet. I press my face against the good popcorn smell of his fur and let myself pretend he’s my dog, and that I live here, and a pizza delivery guy is coming up the walk. If I squeeze my eyes shut, I can see a cute boy just a little older than me with his finger reaching for their old-fashioned brass doorbell, and I can see right through the pizza box to the glistening gooey cheese sweating oil. And since in my daydream I have been safely skinny at a size 0 for two years, I imagine taking that first delicious bite with the cheese stretching and the point of dough against my tongue, so delicious a tear slides down my cheek. Buddy licks it away, panting dog breath hot and urgent on my damp face. “You’re the only one who understands me,” I tell him, and his tail thumps the floor.

I wish I could stay there forever, but when the 10 minutes are over, I get up with my head spinning, and go home to do my second workout. Every time I leave, Buddy tries to follow me, and I have to press him back into the house so I don’t catch his nose in the closing door. I hate to leave the Petersons’ house, especially their kitchen. The refrigerator is covered with photographs of their kids as babies on blankets, at my age on skis, or, older, standing in cap and gown squinting into the sun. In this kitchen, I would never have stood at the fridge gobbling cold Chinese food straight from the container while my mother lay crying on her bed with the television laughing. The sunny yellow cushions on their chairs match the ruffle on the curtains and the daisies on their wallpaper, like something from a magazine. The Petersons’ house always seems to be smiling at you. Ours always seems to be holding its breath.

One morning, my mother sneaks up behind me while I’m measuring out my half-cup of Special K. I jump and the little grains rattle onto the counter. Fine. I won’t eat those. “You’ve lost enough,” she says. “Your face is getting gaunt.”

“Gaunt” is a word I like. It makes me think of tortured artists, soulful poets, virtuous survivors of unjust wars.

Besides, I don’t want to be like my mother, sighing and scuffing around the kitchen in her work suit and house slippers. Mom is always on a diet but always the same 20 pounds overweight. When she gets home at night, she drops onto the sofa and pulls off her shoes and just sits there with her face blank, staring around our living room. When she gets ready for bed, her big soft breasts bobble under her bathrobe, and it gives me the same sick raw-egg-inside feeling I got when her sometime-boyfriend Tim looked at me last winter and said, “things are stacking up nicely.” Of course, he won’t get the chance now, because A) I wear an old button-down over my untucked tee shirt and B) I don’t have breasts anymore.

My period is gone too, but who could miss such a thing? The whoosh of shame when I stood up in class. The hot swamp of blood I woke up to because the stupid maxi pad leaked. No thank you. Things are different now. Hunger is boiling my body clean.

My friend Kate comes over on a break between going to Disney World with her mom and stepdad and going to Bethany Beach with her regular dad and his new girlfriend. She sprawls on my bed and nods approval at the jeans hanging off my hips. According to Kate, most men end up cheating, especially if their wives “let themselves go,” which is clearly what my mother has done. I look away when she says that. But Kate is a cool girl now, so it’s something of a miracle that she still likes me. She’s not super skinny, but she doesn’t have to be. She’s beautiful, with bright blue eyes and a perfect oval face. It’s average girls like me who have to work to bring themselves up to standard. Probably because Kate is beautiful, bad things bounce off her. Or maybe because her parents have been divorced since we were in kindergarten, she doesn’t seem to care.

“Look at it this way: double vacation,” she says, swinging her hair. I wish I could feel the way she must feel inside. Calm and blue like her eyes, not a cloud in her sky.

My mom tries to lure me back to eating bad food. She brings home hamburgers and French fries from the diner near her work. She doesn’t know I take in the crude meaty smells and think, death. I look at the grease on the paper and think, poison. Then I see her bent over her plate, stuffing, and she reminds me of Buddy when I put his food bowl down, and I want to collapse in her lap and cry but instead I rise stiffly and take my salad bowl to the sink and run the remnants down the garbage disposal, so I won’t be tempted to eat the last few leaves of lettuce or the chunks of tuna that fell to the bottom. And even though I barely put two ounces of tuna in, and only half a tablespoon of dressing, I charge myself the full 300 calories, just to be on the safe side.

I see Dad every other weekend. When he comes to pick me up, my mother puts on makeup and we both sit in the living room, waiting. But when we hear his car in the driveway she runs upstairs to her room and the house is so quiet I can hear her door go click before the bell rings. One Saturday, he takes me to the mall and says, I want you to meet the nice lady I’ve been seeing, and a tall woman with red hair comes walking out of one of the stores with her nametag still on. Valerie. She’s one of those ladies who knows she’s not pretty, so she just blasts ahead with the bright coppery dyed hair and brown eyeshadow like she’s going to fool you, but I’m not buying it. She takes me to a store she says her niece likes. It’s all cheap jewelry and belts and pocketbooks and she pulls some earrings off a peg. It’s a pair of owls with sparkles for eyes. She holds them out to me, but I don’t take them.

“Have your own daughter,” I say, my voice tight and mean so it doesn’t even sound like me. I watch the words go in and she puts the earrings back and turns to go to the other side of the store where my dad is waiting. Being mean to Valerie doesn’t make me feel better, but it feels like something I should be doing with all that emptiness inside me.

Later, Dad takes us to Cinnabon, and I sit perfectly still while they pull apart the gooey cinnamon rolls and ask me why I won’t even try a bite. I just sip my black coffee and smile tightly. There is an oily rainbow sheen on top of the coffee, and for a second, I think, oh my God, what if they accidentally put some kind of fattening Cinnabon oil in there and it’s not zero calories like the diet book says? so I miss what my dad is saying until he says it again, “Hey peanut, are you okay? You look really thin. Come on, take a bite.”

He holds the Cinnabon right up to my face and I say, “I’ve got to get home to Mom.” A look passes between him and Valerie and she stands up, pressing her purse to her side.

When my dad drops me off, I feel worse than ever, because we were together a whole afternoon, and I didn’t even look at him. Even then, in the car with the motor running, I keep my eyes on the gearshift and my hand on the door.

“Your mother is worried that you’re getting too thin,” he says.

I could say, “well, I’m not,” but that would start him off on the rib thing and he might try to feel them again. Or I could say, “You know Mom, she worries about everything,” but then it’s like I’m taking his side against her, which she has accused me of, even though it’s something I would never do. He’s the one who cheated. So instead, I just sit there, strong in my silence. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to keep my mouth shut. If you never open it to put food in or let words out, you can never betray yourself. And it’s working, because Dad gives me his Automatic Smile and I can tell any second, he’s going to look at his watch. Before he does, I slam the car door and walk fast to the house through the dots floating in front of me. Two hundred calories, that’s all I’ve had all day.

When you are hungry all the time, it stops being a voice that demands an answer, and becomes a low, buzzing white noise that cancels out all the other noises in your head. When you are hungry all the time, you feel you can do anything, because you are doing the hardest thing, something even famous rich people cannot do. I look back at the days I couldn’t stop myself from unwrapping another Snickers bar and biting through the cheap chocolate to the harshly sweet, plastic-like caramel inside. I hated the taste, hated the way the caramel soldered itself to my molars until they felt knobby and thick against my tongue. But once I started, I couldn’t stop. That’s my problem: I want too much. I’ve heard Dad say that to Mom, like it’s the Ultimate Insult—you want too much! Nothing I do is enough! and I resolve I will never want too much. In fact, when I grow up, I will not want anything at all, because I will have already figured out how to get it.

Mom comes home that night with a book she bought at Barnes & Noble about a girl my age who stopped eating, which I point out to her, I have not done. I’m just eating healthy.

“All lettuce and carrots is not healthy!” she shouts.

“Oh my God,” I say, and take the book from her hands. The girl on the cover has cheekbones that stab the air, and big haunted eyes I admire. Her arms are ropy with muscles and visible veins. And I think, how did she get rid of that last little bit of fat around her middle?

My mother sees me staring at the cover and says, “Her kidneys failed.”

“Well, mine are fine,” I say, “so stop it.” And I go up to my room and slam the door.

To Mom, I’m still her fat baby girl cuddled up with her late at night when we thought Dad was working. We’d lie there watching those dating shows where girls claw each other’s eyes out trying to get the one guy, eating microwave popcorn or cheese doodles or Crunch ‘n Munch. Sometimes our fingers would touch in the bowl, and she’d pretend her hand was a big spider chasing mine, until she caught it and brought it to her lips going maw maw maw like a monster.

I want to tell my mother: you could be so pretty with your green eyes. I would tell her, Dad’s girlfriend is nothing. His apartment is in that new development by the mall, the kind of place you drive by and say, who’d want to live there? But Mom is not the pick-your-self-up-and-fight-back type. Mom is the fall-down-and-cry-for-a-week type. She’s even scared of Buddy. When I brought him to our house one day to meet her, she stayed inside our screen door and said, you’re right, I can see that he’s a nice dog, but then when she opened the door and he walked toward her wagging, she said, he’s not going to jump on me, will he?

The next day, I take Buddy for his walk, but the sun is so hot, I feel dizzy and sit down hard on the grass. I close my eyes. The sun blazes red through my eyelids, so I cover my face with my arm and fall back on the Peterson’s lawn. Buddy goes crazy licking my face. I’m fine, I say in my mind. I’m just resting. Buddy presses his nose against my cheek, then collapses on top of me, resting his big warm head on my shoulder. It’s unbearably uncomfortable and unbearably hot, yet it makes me feel calmer, and I wonder if this is what it feels like to die. A good warm weight pushing the air out of you. A loving force that tells you, that’s enough. You can stop fighting now.

I must’ve fallen asleep on my mom’s bed because it’s late afternoon when I wake up. She’s sitting on the bed beside me. The TV isn’t on. She’s not doing anything. She’s just looking at me.

“I’m taking you to the doctor,” she says.

“No,” I say, but she puts sneakers on my feet, and I let her, like I am a toddler again. She sits me up and my head fizzes. I’m not sure I can walk but I stand up and she helps me down the stairs. My overnight bag bumps against her hip.

When we get downstairs, Dad is there where he used to sit at our kitchen table. He springs up when he sees me.

“Hey, kitten,” he says. “Your mother and I are taking you to one of the doctors in that book she got.”

“I don’t need a doctor.” I’ve heard of these places. They’ll make me eat bad things, and I’ll get fat again.

“Your mother thinks—”

“It’s not what I think,” Mom says. “Look at her. Look at our child.”

She grabs my shirt and yanks it up, and I try to push her hand down, but she’s got a fistful of fabric and I feel the air hit my stomach and I close my eyes at the look on their faces.

“Jesus, Rena, you’re her mother, don’t you feed her?” Dad asks, and my mother takes one step toward him, then another, and her face is crumpling, but then her hand goes whack right across his cheek. We all stand in the silence after, and I think he might spit out a tooth like they do on TV. The sound was that loud. He rubs his face and looks like he might say something. The moment goes on and on until he takes his suit jacket off the back of the chair and Mom hands him my bag, and he says, “Okay, I’ll meet you there.”

She has her arm around me, and I think about just letting my knees buckle and falling to the ground, only I keep walking, because she is walking the way she used to when I was very little: slow and deliberate. When she gets the car door open, I drop inside, and she leans in and buckles the seat belt around me. Her knee makes a popping sound and her hair smells like the shampoo we both like. I keep thinking, any second, she’s going to stand up with a grunt, one hand on the small of her back. But she stays there, leaning in, rubbing my back and making muttering sounds. I don’t know what is going to happen, only that something is, and we both sit there feeling the breeze come in the open car door, and she just keeps holding on.

Karen McIntyre is an advertising creative director and a graduate of SUNY-Binghamton. Her work has appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, The Arkansas International, and elsewhere. She is a three-time Lascaux Prize finalist.

Brooklyn Bridge

“Expulsion, Moon, and Firelight,” oil on canvas, by Thomas Cole, ca. 1828.

by Grace Shuyi Liew

I’ve been restless all day. It’s the first Tuesday of the month, which means we have our monthly team motivation town hall. Nothing ever happens in these meetings but dubious clapping and corporate bullshit. Last month, someone brought in a gong. Since then it’s been the ritual to ring the gong for every birthday, baby shower, daily sales target achievement, wedding announcement, any reason really. As soon as I’m released to the store floor, I turn against the company. I scan every third item the customers bring to the register. Buy one item, get two free, corporate can suck it. Usually the customers don’t even notice. They are scrolling their phones, minding a toddler, bickering with their wives or husbands. When it comes time to pay, they dig around for a card as they eye the total amount on the little screen. That’s when their eyes shift. They stand up taller. They grow eager to get out of the store before I realize my deliberate mistake, willing to make a run for it if it comes down to that. The unspoken rapport gets my little heart going too.

Han’s eyes bulge into saucers right from the start. They grow bigger when she sees me throw her baby socks and eye drops and whatever into the plastic bag without scanning them. I think, oh no. She’s one of those. She’s going to cry out loud that there’s been a mistake and ask to pay the correct prices. The kind who throbs for a gold star from God. They drive me nuts with their superiority complexes.

I casually roll a peach along the conveyor belt as I stare at her, daring her to say something.

She smiles slowly, asks, how’s your day so far?

Right away, I know she’s the kind of girl who is going to mess me up. She’s dressed sparsely, no coat, even though it’s forty degrees outside. The front of her orange hoodie says SLEEP in block letters, though there is nothing sleepy about her eyes, burning hot as they stare back at me. She’s in leggings and a dirty pair of Uggs. Her jet black hair, combed back, has that Kim Kardashian-esque wet look, Kim’s signature style during her Pete Davidson era. The last time I met someone this intense in a Target was when they actually pulled out a gun to rob a register. I was a trainee, on my third or fourth day, and almost peed my pants. The gun turned out to be fake, but the gunman had that same look in his eyes.

Fine, I say, looking away from her killer eyes. I aim the lone peach into the plastic bag, held agape by metal sticks, and shoot. Slam dunk. How’s yours? I ask.

Bit rough, but you know, Han says. Just life.

The way she says this, like it’s a comment on the day’s weather, blue skies in paradise, makes it hard to feel sorry for her. I bite my tongue to stop myself from asking more questions.

Totally, I say.

Han shrugs and stays quiet. When I am done packing up her groceries, she taps her credit card on the scanner and starts collecting her bags.

I’m only working here to pay my school fees, you know, I say. I’m not just a cashier.

Han raises an eyebrow. What a relief, she says. You’re not a very good cashier.

Okay, I say.

How about I repay your kindness? She asks. You saved me a good chunk of change here.

What do you mean?

I was thinking of dinner, Han says. She sets the grocery bags down again and fishes out a name card from her wallet.

I take the card and wave it in the air. This right here makes you look very ancient, I say. In the future you might want to stop handing out name cards to strangers.

Is that a yes, Han asks. A smile.

I look past her and yell, next customer!

When my shift ends, I look up Han’s full name. I find an accountant and a doctor. I don’t see Han. I text her to ask if she’s considered something called an online presence.

Thanks for the pro tip, she texts back. She sends me a link to her law firm, where I see her photo above the title Junior Associate Attorney. She’s wearing a black blazer and button-up shirt underneath. I see that I’ve misspelled her name by one letter. Her lawyer profile says she enjoys learning about wine, volunteering, and snowboarding in her free time. I don’t know any other Asian who enjoys snowboarding except for Chloe Kim, who’s famous and doesn’t count.

Now show me your online presence, she texts again.

I hem and haw for a while. I tell Han I am many things. I went back to school to study acting after many unfulfilling years doing this and that. I’m quite serious about being an actress.

Stick around and find out more, why don’t you.

Han sends links to three different restaurants and asks me about this Friday. I click on the links. They all show at least three dollar signs, which makes them all the same to me. Han looks like someone who pays for dinner, and someone who likes her date to make decisions.

I pick the Korean option.

We text nonstop for the next three days. By the time Friday rolls around, I know that Han is thirty-five, she has a six-year-old son, she’s been single for a year, she grew up in Orlando, Florida and moved to New York when she was eleven after her mother remarried a carpet magnate, she’s only recently able to have a somewhat okay relationship with her mother, and her father died when she was very young in a plane crash. He was flying a single-engine Cessna. It was sheer idiocy, Han said. He ignored the blinking fuel gauge, thinking he could land before the fuel ran out. What was he thinking? It took three years for the life insurance policy to conclude their investigation that no foul play was involved, during which life was very, very hard on her mother, her brother, and her. But after that they entered a new social strata of rich-ish people, the kind that went on vacations to the Caribbean, which was where Han’s mother met the even-richer carpet magnate.

I can’t relate to the pain of losing someone to a plane crash, but I almost tell Han I can understand what her father was thinking. I regularly drive around with my fuel icon glaring bright orange. The buffer zone. It’s the thrill of racing against some invisible ticker. Once, I really did run out of fuel in the middle of a freeway. When I stepped on the gas pedal, it sank cleanly into the floor while my car slowed down. It gave me a rare sensation of surrender, the kind that sinks its teeth into your flesh and pulls you under a rip tide. The driver behind me screeched to a halt and bolted out of his car, full of anger, before he helped me push my car into the shoulder of the freeway. I decide against telling Han the story. The way she cups her fat wine glass, her fingers splaying open into the shape of a bowl, makes me feel another kind of surrender. She asks me if I am enjoying the wine. I nod. She tells me about the time she visited a vineyard in the south of France, how they measured a grape’s ripeness with a special device, how there is something to be said about how everything these days can be measured to perfection, even sweetness.

Even sweetness, I say, sweetly.

The food comes in small flat plates. It’s like eating on mini butcher blocks made of stone. Even the banchan are laid neatly on stone blocks. Han pays the bill with the kind of sureness that tells me I don’t have to even pretend to touch my purse, which makes me want to kiss her even more. I wait until we are out on the sidewalk. She puts a hand around my waist and pulls me in, kissing me back. Her warm tongue grazes my lips once, then stays obediently in her mouth for the rest of the kiss, which lasts the entire duration it takes for the valet to return with her car. For a dangerous second I believe I’ve never wanted anyone more in my life.

She starts driving toward my apartment to send me home.

I don’t say anything until Han asks, is everything okay?

Her voice, full of care in the darkness, makes me almost want to cry. I ask to go to her house. I feel like a lamb, loose-limbed and mewling. She starts to say something, then catches herself, and keeps driving until we are in front of my building.

Come over on Sunday, she says. I’ll make you brunch. Tonight I have my kid with me.

She cups my face like a bowl and gently rubs her nose against mine.

The next morning, I go to a nearby coffee shop to meet a group of women who have decided to have children while unpartnered. Single mothers by choice. We text nearly everyday in a group chat and try to meet once a month. I am what they call an aspiring mother. I want to have kids in the next two years, after I give my acting career a real shot. The mothers in the group all tell me our world is not our mother’s world. Women are having kids well into their forties, especially in a place like New York. The doctors are practically swimming in geriatric pregnancy cases. We are the new norm.

Han thinks I’m twenty-six, because I have a habit of telling people I’m twenty-six. I am thirty-one years old. I go to these meetings because I don’t know how to come to a firm decision. Everyone tells me when you know you know. So I go every month, just to wait for the you know feeling to hit me.

I eat my egg sandwich and share a conversation with Michelle’s two-year-old. She’s just learned how to say “no” and “boobs.” After repeating those words for the umpteenth time, she flashes a toothy smile and sprints off to the other end of the table. Michelle is pregnant again by the same sperm donor, so her two-year-old will have a biological sibling. Michelle plans ahead like that. She runs the group’s Brooklyn charter and stays on top of coordinating our meetups. Coffeeshops, park picnics, bookstore event spaces, back rooms of nonprofit offices. You can trust Michelle to keep it fresh.

It’s important to stay connected with other people who share similar ambitions and struggles, she loves to say.

Sonya has brought her four-month-old. It’s the first time she’s shown up since the baby’s delivery, which she tells us was very rough. She lost three pints of blood. The baby, wrapped in a swaddle, looks as fresh as a warm muffin. I take in his newborn smell as I caress the soft of his head. There’s a small dent at the top where the skull has not yet fully hardened.

Sonya laughs, a baby is a whole life trapped inside a very breakable shell.

At that, Keisha cries softly. She bounces Sonya’s baby on her lap as she tells us she got her period yesterday. Again. She’s been doing IUI for a full year now. Every month, she goes to the doctor’s office to get injected with sperm. She’s so blue, she’s thinking of taking the next month off. Everyone agrees. Go wild, live a little. Keisha cheers up. Maybe she will take a break. She can’t remember the last time she’s had a drink or a vacation. The next logical step for her is IVF, which will cost at least twenty thousand dollars that she doesn’t have. We tell her not to give up. The next time could be the one. IUI takes patience. Rome was not built in a day.

After the meeting, I walk for an hour and a half to what appears to be an office building to audition for a role in a SUV commercial. I did the voiceover for their radio ad last year. The editor told me he’d keep an eye out for any castings, and texted me last week to come to this one. The whole thing goes by quickly. After I say a few lines, smile in different directions, I am told to wait for a callback. The money is better than expected. It’s three o’clock when I step back out onto the street. I put my earmuffs on and walk for fifty minutes until I reach the Brooklyn Bridge station. I ride the subway into Manhattan. I don’t like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge because it makes me want to run the length of the bridge just to get to the other side faster, in case the bridge falls into the water. An irrational fear. There is something macabre about the feeling of being trapped in open air. I arrive very early at the hotel, so I read for two hours in the lobby on my Kindle. It’s a book about a boy in a Turkish village who has set out on a quest to look for his birth mother. His journey takes him across many towns. He encounters a traveling dance troupe, a talking lion, a red-lipped seductress, and a very old man who digs wells for a living.

It’s a gift, to smell the earth and know where water resides.

Mark shows up at six o’clock sharp. He kisses the top of my head from behind. I order fish and a gingery mocktail. He orders seafood pasta. It’s hard to explain Mark. I met him years ago, when my roommate Becca, a painter, worked briefly as a cam girl. I went with her to meet one of her fans IRL—a gallerist and her most generous tipper. Becca wanted to pretend we were lesbians in case the gallerist had the wrong idea. She was looking for advice from him about putting out her own gallery show, nothing funny. After a polite dinner, the three of us went into a dark bar and took rounds of Jameson shots.

The gallerist disappeared into the bathroom every twenty minutes.

The night ended at his midtown condo, when Mark, who lived next door, knocked on the door. It was 2am. The speakers were blaring. Becca was fast asleep, topless, on the white leather couch. The gallerist stumbled to the door and shouted in Mark’s face. I shook Becca awake and dressed her.

“Where’s my purse?” she cried out.

The gallerist turned toward us. His sweaty face contorted in a cocaine rage as he called us dykes, scammers, talentless hacks. Mark walked into the living room, turned the music off, and pointed to Becca’s purse, slung across a white chair next to the couch.

Becca quit camming after the gallerist promised her a solo show in return for an exclusive relationship. When I looked her up again a couple months ago, I saw that she was now dating an even more famous gallerist, whose last name was ubiquitous in the art world. Her paintings now sell for six figures. I continued the ruse of being a lesbian, cruising bars and online apps, until I could no longer call it a ruse. Mark and I stayed in touch. He’s a Bronx-bred Jewish former lawyer who founded a film production company and sometimes sends me money for no reason at all. Over the years, we’ve established a comfortable routine of having dinner every three or four months. He’d talk about his English Poodle’s health problems, his incompetent staff, his latest sexual exploits with the next hot talent in music or film or art. I never blink at his outrageous stories. I’m the closest to a tithe to the poor as he can get without actually believing in god. I see the noblesse oblige look on his face kissing the ass of god whenever he asks after my life, which he likes to tell me is just waiting to happen. So far, he hasn’t tried to sleep with me, but I’m not clueless. I don’t drink around Mark.

How’s life at the great Tar-jay? Mark asks.

The last frontier of late-stage capitalism, I say, as I sip on my Ginger Mocktini.

I don’t know why you do that to yourself, Mark says. You can be so much more. Anything you want, you can get.

I tell him not to worry his big little head off. I tell him about my day. The meeting in the morning with the single mothers by choice. The audition. The wait. For the feeling of when you know you know. By the end of dinner, he promises to send me something to add to the baby fund.

On Sunday morning, I lay out my most domestic-chic options on the bed and settle on a white wool jumper, black jeans, beige-colored leg warmers that come up to my knees, and a pair of platform loafers. I turn down Han’s offer to order me a cab. Three blocks out, I change my mind. I circle back home to peel off the leg warmers. I switch out the loafers with combat boots. I wipe down the boots and spray it with an all-weather protectant before I set out again. It takes an hour and forty minutes to walk to the West Village. By the time I arrive in the neighborhood, the sun has thawed off last night’s snow. I take off my coat to let the sweat wick off my body before I get to Han’s apartment. The sidewalks are slick. Water drips from somewhere above me. The eateries are noisy with brunch-goers, wrapped in Canada Goose jackets and navy pea coats. I smell trash and croissants. Coffee and piss. I reach an Italian restaurant and press a button to the left of the entrance.

Han buzzes me in.

It’s a little second floor walk-up with a cramped foyer that opens into a majestic living room. Han kisses me and takes my coat. The house is tidy, fresh flowers on the kitchen counter, crowning a blissful clutter of pancake batter and squeezed orange rinds. In the entirety of my existence, no one has ever squeezed fresh orange juice for me before. By hand. Han pours me a glass. She wipes the damp of my forehead with a little tea towel. Nice walk? I look at her in awe. We are standing under an arched doorway. Is that a mistletoe? Han has her short hair in two French braids, like a martial arts fighter. I have no idea how I am finally starring in the tv show of my own life. Light is coming at us from a window somewhere. It doesn’t matter. Han looks like an old master oil painting, her edges feathered and warm. The air around her has an aged quality to it. We are from a time elsewhere. She apologizes for being disheveled and smelly. She’s just rushed back from Barry’s right after dropping her kid off at her mother’s, and didn’t have time to shower.

What’s Barry’s, I ask.

It’s a workout class.

Oh, yeah?

I set my orange juice glass down and reach under her shirt. Her midriff is soft and still damp with sweat. I inch upward and find more softness. I lift her shirt up. She raises her arms to take it off all the way. When I taste her skin, salt spikes my tongue. We leave a trail of clothes on the way to the bedroom. The way she uses her tongue and her fingers on me is as if every muscle in her body is etched with tenderness. Her movements animalistic but restrained. The two of us tumble until I feel her close in on all sides. I am engulfed. Held closer than a private thought inside her mind. The bed takes us in for an eternity. We decide to shower. Under the water, we cradle each other some more. Han hands me a thick robe and a pair of fluffy slippers. She shows me the hairdryer before pattering out to the kitchen to finish up the pancakes.

I sit at her miniature vanity table.

Her scattered collection of rings, two colognes, and a novel. It’s the same one I’m reading, with the man who digs up wells. If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is. I see a plastic car and a metal train, both small, on the table too. I try on her rings. Admire them with my fingers stretched taut in front of me. I take them all off except for one. A thin copper band. I wonder if she got it for herself, or if a lover gave it to her.

Where did she get it? A crafts market? A jeweler?

I shout coming! when Han calls. The egg yolk runs perfect and bright yellow when I pierce it. We leave a mess of dishes in the sink and fall into the couch. It’s the softest couch I have ever sat on. The clean color of thick cream, as if there are no children in the house. Something pokes my shin. Another toy car in between the soft cushions. Han takes it from me and aims it into the toy bin in front of the tv. We watch a new k-drama about a group of noodle sellers who moonlight as demon catchers. I bury my face in Han’s robe during the gory scenes. She brushes my hair, lifts my chin, and kisses me. We take each other’s robes off. The day fades into an early darkness. Han’s son is at her mother’s for a week.

We crawl into bed together by 8pm and fall asleep in the nest of each other’s heat.

The next day Han leaves for work at 7am. I stay at her place and practice lines for an audition. It’s for a student short film, no pay, but the student is the daughter of a famous director, and the role calls for an Asian lesbian. She’s a nurse and has a messy dating life. I call in sick at Target. I look online for cheaper alternatives to IUI and find a fertility midwife who does in-home insemination for $300. All I have to do is order the sperm, which costs $700 after I use a discount code. I eat celery sticks and crab dip from Han’s fridge. Prosciutto and cans of oat milk coffee. The Asian lesbian nurse is Canadian, so I practice my Canadian accent. Mark keeps his word. I get a notification about a deposit. When Han comes home, she brings takeout from the Italian restaurant downstairs. I ask her about the book she’s reading.

Which book?

The one with the man who digs up wells, I say.

I decide against telling her it’s a sign. Save it for down the line, when we are asked about our first date, what sealed it for me. Well keep reading on, I say, it gets really good. Shan tells me she doesn’t really have time to read these days. She talks about a new case. She thinks it’s a no-go. A group of women, all harassed by this guy, wants to file a suit against him. Except they are not officially his employees. #Metoo will not trend for another three years. Who will believe them?

I feel taken into confidence. I share my own secret with Han. The sperm donor I have chosen is a nineteen-year-old British Chinese guy who enjoys silent films and is finishing up a Mathematics degree. I play a clip of his voice for Han. His voice sounds faraway, reassuring as a news report.

I ordered three vials, to start.

Don’t worry, I say, I don’t plan to use them right away. The bank will hold on to them and keep them properly frozen. It’s part of my two-year plan. I’m not ready now, but I’m readying myself to be ready. Han looks at me intently. I feel teeth surfacing in my eyes, ready to rebuke anything, but Han smiles and says, thank you for sharing.

We kiss.

I clean the kitchen. We watch more episodes of the demon catchers before falling into bed. I stay at Han’s for the rest of the week. Charmaine and Gladys cover my shifts at Target. School is out for the holidays. I ask for an extension to complete my final project. I explain to the professor that it’s contingent on hearing back about the nurse role. I wear Han’s thick robes and organic cotton sweaters. I launder my own clothes in her in-unit washer and dryer. I steam the creases out of my clothes with her chrome steamer. I make orange juice with her hand-squeezing tool. I listen to the British Chinese guy’s voice over and over. He talks about how when he was a child, he loved splashing in rain puddles. That earned him the nickname Puddle. I imagine red rain boots, yellow umbrella, a see-through poncho. Every night, Han brings home takeout for dinner. On Wednesday, Han gets a little too drunk and starts talking about Mark, the guy with the impending lawsuit. I wonder if it’s the same Mark I know. She has decided to accept the case.

I’m not supposed to tell you any of this, she says, but it’s not like our circles overlap anyway.

We go to bed early and wake up when it’s still dark outside. It’s a miracle to wait by the balcony and watch the morning light pour in. The day blooms. I kiss Han goodbye when she leaves for work. I land the nurse role. I print out my lines with Han’s printer and begin memorizing them. The tall windows carry a calm light throughout the day. I have never seen sunny winters like this. I think of a life big enough for the person I have inside me. I finish watching the demon catcher series by myself. I mute the scary parts. I clip my nails with Han’s nail clippers. It’s hard to resist my own imagination. The two of us, sharing our body’s fluids, our discarded nails, our sleep sweats and night murmurs, all the vicissitudes of a merged life.

I wash my hair with her shampoo, customized with her name on the label. I dig around the basket for the conditioner. That’s when I see it. A bottle labeled with another name. The contents are nearly full. Did her ex leave it there? I step out of the shower to go into the bedroom, my body dripping wet from the shower, and crack open the novel. It’s dog-eared about a-third of the way in. By this point the man has dug up wells across many different villages. I don’t dry myself. I climb under the covers and start reading from the bookmarked page. My wet fingers crinkle up the pages. Evidence of my touch. The well digger is confronted by a teenage boy who wants to be his apprentice. He does his best to scare the boy off, who doesn’t give up. I don’t get out of bed for many hours. I tear up random pages of the book then slot the torn pages in haphazard order back into the book. I fall asleep hugging the book. Han comes home and climbs into bed with me.

You’re all warm and toasty, she says. She puts the book back onto the night stand and starts reaching for my body.

On Friday, I answer the door in Han’s bathrobe. A woman is holding a child’s hand. What are you doing, she says. The child’s round cheeks are patchy and red. He’s dressed warmly, in a white parka and tiny gloves. Some flecks of pastry around his wet mouth. I almost reach down to wipe them off. Instinct. What are you doing with a married woman, she says again. I don’t say anything. The child smiles and asks, Is Umma home?

I close the door to their faces.

Han texts me ten minutes later. Let’s go out to dinner tonight. Switch it up.

I change out of the ridiculous bathrobe. At 6pm, Han sends a car that takes me to a restaurant in midtown. A noisy Pocha, unlike her usual vibe. It’s dark and not in a romantic way. We eat a seafood stew bubbling over a gas stove and drink frozen beer. Han keeps ordering. Her face flushes with drink. She says something about having her kid too early. Something about not being ready. Bad decisions she’s made. I strain to hear her. I say very few words in return. She’s wearing the white silk shirt I steamed for her this morning. When I held down the neck opening to get the crease to stick, the steam almost burned my fingers. She says the word sorry. I don’t have any questions for her. People move around our table in blurry shadows. Han jumps whenever their hips bump the table. Tight space. I forget where I am. Han can’t stop talking. Eight men at the table next to us cheer as they dunk their soju shots into their beer mugs. Han reaches for my hand. I get up for the bathroom. The line is eight people-long.

While I wait, I send Mark a text to ask if he’s made any enemies lately. He calls me back right away. I let it go to voicemail.

When I return, I see that the tab has been paid. Han is gone. I finish Han’s beer, then my beer, then the bottle of soju. I eat the octopus tentacles, rice balls, mackerel flesh. I finish the seafood stew. Everything blurs. I stumble out into the snow, forgetting my hat and gloves. All my desires are laid bare again, but I don’t feel cold. Something flashes in the corner of my eye. A group of girls are taking photos in front of a shop window displaying a neon ice cream cone. They ask me to take a photo for them. I do. Their laughter echoes brightly against the blurry everything. I walk past the bright throng of Manhattan. I slip my moorings and veer onto the Brooklyn Bridge. The shrieks and cries of the world fall away as I walk into the sky. A subway train rattles by, noiseless. I press play on the voice clip again. The mathematician talks about the magic of faraway galaxies. The beauty of mathematical proofs. Despite his scientific disposition, evidence of life on earth is ultimately something to be felt, not proven. For the qualia of life is this unfalsifiable thing called love. That’s why he is doing this.

Whoever hears this out there, he says, your time will come. And when it comes, you will know for sure that you have always known.

Bile rises. I slam both hands into the metal fence on the side of the bridge and bowl over. The contents of my stomach appear by my feet. I taste the wind. Bitter, sour. Flecks of my dinner slip through the metal fence, fall into the air below. My phone chimes with an email. The mathematician’s sperm has sold out. But not to worry, the sperm bank has twenty thousand other candidates that are just as good. They practice stringent quality control. I sink to my knees and wait. Somewhere far and near, closed in by the luminous skyline of this immutable city, the brackish water, the roiling clouds, the heaves and gasps of bodies, the lift of a wine cup to someone’s mouth, the push of words whispered into a lover’s ear, the roughly hewn happiness strung together like prayer beads, the choke of a little copper ring, I claw against the illusion of knowing as the length of the bridge beckons a hardened beat—of joy, possibly—to drum its way back into my body against the night’s darkness. What does a desire beget but an eternity. When I find my legs again, I run.

Born and raised in Malaysia, Grace Shuyi Liew is a lesbian poet and fiction writer currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Her awards include the MacDowell Fellowship, Tin House Writer in Residence, Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize (judged by Min Jin Lee), Center for Fiction in New York, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and more. She is the author of the poetry collection Careen (Noemi Press, 2019), which has been named Electric Literature’s “14 Unmissable Poetry Books of 2019.”

First-Person Eye-Witness Reports: The Factual Sightings of Nessie

“Loch Ness,” oil on canvas, by Jane Nasmyth, n.d.

by Meg Pokrass

Probably the weirdest and most wonderful report of all was that made by the elderly Ms. Margarita Polkraski on June 8th, 1993. Cryptozoologist Ben Dinglefern interviewed the ailing Ms. P. and this account I regard as the almost accurate:

“This was back in 1976. My on-again/off-again boyfriend Rollo and I had passed through Dores, on our way over to the Wee Drop Inn, when just as my car was climbing a tiny knoll, an extraordinary-looking animal jerked crossed the road ahead of us, as if caught in a private moment, experiencing a series of shudders. Poor embarrassed thing, I said to Rollo, but he seemed more interested in his reflection in the rearview mirror. Rollo was finally going bald. When we were on the road together, what to do about it took up practically an entire conversation.

“Rollo saw no actual skin on the monster, he said, but we were far across the road, with Rollo finger-combing his own remaining strands, before he had time to take the experience of the miraculous beast in full.

“Did you see our Nessie? I asked, gasping like a star-struck child, having seen a most excellent female monster with a full, lustrous head of scales, but already she had been out of sight for a few seconds, and my Rollo was sipping from our wee flask and gasping from stress.

I can tell you right now. The creature was of a size six, and I envied her confidence in this terrible, crazy world. She had very long and thin neck, which undulated up and down, and was contorted into a series of half hoops. God, I thought, please help me find the right man.”

Meg Pokrass is the author of 8 flash fiction collections and 2 flash novellas, including Spinning to Mars (Blue Light Book Award, 2021) and The Loss Detector (Bamboo Dart Press, 2020). Her work has appeared in over 900 literary journals has been anthologized in 3 Norton anthologies: Flash Fiction International, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, and Flash Fiction America. She is the Series Co-Editor of Best Microfiction and Founding Editor of New Flash Fiction Review. Meg lives in Inverness Scotland.

Height Determined by Distance

“Clouds Passing Through a Valley,” oil on paper, by Anonymous, c. 1770.

by Tommy Dean

We’re in the car again. Dad drunk and playing with the radio from the passenger’s side, his knuckles bruised and swelling. He takes his anger out on the walls, often striking a stud, the drywall crumbling, the picture frames dancing, but hanging on. My face stuttered against the impact. The glass already broken from the last time he knocked it off. My mother doesn’t cower, just stands there in her robe, arms crossed, an immovable object, so I cajole dad into the car, his car, the smell of stolen cigarettes on the upholstery. There’s a rhythm to this I’m starting to despise. A countdown until I’m out of the house. Seventeen. Senior year. A down payment mailed and delivered to the private college two hours away.

“Where to,” I ask, the car tires crunching on the gravel driveway, red lights flashing as I pause for oncoming traffic. His face, a mask of inebriation, drips in the scarlet shadow. I think of candles melting into a ring at the bottom of a glass jar.

“Oh, the bar, my good friend. Where all the sorrows of the river tend to flow.”

When he’s in this state he thinks himself a poet, a bard meant to entertain. There’s a duty here, to my mother, one that we never mention, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy the banter.

“Forget it,” I say. “I’m not sitting in the car half the night waiting for you to come out and puke in the bushes.”

“A gentleman never pukes,” he says, as we pass the competing churches. Body guards attempting to keep us in this silent town, but we slip through, gliding through the stop sign, keeping up speed to pass the bar. He does a bit of tattoo on the glove compartment, but he doesn’t argue. I’m in charge. The speed sitting him back in his seat as we bump onto the two lane county road. He can play whatever he wants on the radio, but I decide where we go, how long we drive, where we might stop. Some nights I drive until he falls asleep, head bumping gently against the window. Mom says this was the only way she could get me to sleep, that I’d cry until I was buckled in the car seat, eyes already growing heavy as she started the car.

Tonight, I drive the next town over to the ball park, circle past the high school, flash my lights at the sitting cop, my father waving like they’re old friends. Probably went to school together. A past I know nothing about. Wouldn’t care anyway. I’m present in the car, wondering how I’ll wake up tomorrow for school, knowing I won’t miss class. He won’t take that away from me, too.

There’s a spot I like to go, but only once he’s fallen asleep. I turn the radio down and he doesn’t object. He’s finally lulled away from whatever troubles him. That sear of pain that dulls and bubbles. Worlds he keeps to himself. Each of us a planet orbiting but never touching.

A farm, house black with the char of a fire put out some years ago. I found the place on one of our first drives. He was awake that night, telling me about putting shingles on this house. How he was afraid of heights, but his dad demanded he help. Five dollars an hour to think about falling and dying. A pride I couldn’t identify in his voice. Fear, I said, I could agree with. But he changed the subject. Complained about the new supervisor. I stared at the exposed rafters, the shingles melted and hanging like errant eyelashes.

Tonight, the high beams expose the base of the house, the cracks in the cement, the yellow curled weeds culled by winter’s freeze. A wild thought of scooting him out of his seat, leaving him here, wondering if he’d wake before he froze. Something holding me back. Moving helps, keeps my hope in the future, discounts the ways this responsibility will fuck up my life, keep me in a cycle of caregiving. But again, I reach for the future, when the present finds me talking, fogging the windshield. Like radiation I hope the words sink deep, a risk of cancer, but isn’t it just another way the cells try to change?

No stars, just clouds. Exhaust connecting ground and sky. “You ever wonder what I’m afraid of?”

But I can’t speak anymore; my fists are curled, and they ache to move, to split, and projectile away from this body keeping everything in, so I punch his shoulder and he sways, mumbles, and I punch again, and again, and here he’s awake, rubbing his arm, while I stare out the window, and he says, “You know I put that roof on. Hated the heights. Always been afraid of falling.”

“Height Determined by Distance” originally appeared in The Bureau Dispatch.

Tommy Dean is the author of two flash fiction chapbooks, Special Like the People on TV (Redbird Chapbooks, 2014) and Covenants (ELJ Editions, 2021). Hollows, A collection of flash fiction, was published by Alternating Current Press. He lives in Indiana where he currently is the Editor at Fractured Lit and Uncharted Magazine. A recipient of the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Short Fiction, his writing can be found in Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020, Best Small Fictions 2019, Monkeybicycle, and numerous litmags. Find him at tommydeanwriter.com and on Twitter @TommyDeanWriter.

In the Museums of Heaven and Hell

“Mound of Butter,” oil on canvas, by Antoine Vollon, 1885.

by Goldie Goldbloom

On either side of the halls of Heaven and Hell are the great glass-fronted cases displaying the glories of this world. Heaven has the stonefish, the blue-ringed octopus, all five-thousand varieties of coral polyp, the smallest tooth of the sperm whale, the trembling light from a star that died millions of years earlier, the last time a baby nurses from its mother, the look in the eyes of old friends when they meet after a long absence. Hell has scalped tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, a bathroom scale, a plagiarized essay with an A in red ink at the top, a speedometer, a whiff of perfume, the words a CEO used about the least of his employees, shame, humiliation, disgrace, a tiny white flag.

Still waiting to be catalogued appropriately: the roar of the wind down the valley at night when you are feeling lonely; the coin you dropped unwillingly in the hand of the addict begging outside the 7-11; the ragged, badly-fitting wig and the fifty extra pounds you wear in order to appear less attractive to men who might hurt you; the memory of your ex-husband’s face like a desiccated bone stripped of its meat; the soft fur of moss that grows on the side of your children that didn’t receive enough sunshine; the irrational love you carry for people who do not love you back.

“In the Museums of Heaven and Hell” was third prize winner in the 2022 Bridport Prize Flash Fiction Award and first appeared in their winners’ anthology.

Goldie Goldbloom is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the City of Chicago, the Brown Foundation, and Yaddo. This year, her most recent novel won the French Bookseller’s Prize for Fiction and the National Jewish Library Award. Previously her novel The Paperbark Shoe was placed on the NEA Big Reads list. Her writing has appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, on NPR, and in Le Monde. She is a single mother of eight and an LGBTQ advocate.