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At Daybreak

By Jasminne Mendez

Essay

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Alabama. 1984. Mami is very pregnant.

 

Open your eyes and breathe life into your belly still swollen

with pain pills from the night before.

 

Papi is working the night shift as a guard on base

and his gaze is on the moonlight hovering over

Mami’s room in the barracks across the street.

She came with him “por si acaso.”

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In the strip club, we watched the girls dance and Ben told me they were molested as children. Ben will move soon to study law in Virginia. He was above it—all those dancing girls. He said that without saying it. What he did say was that he couldn’t get into it about them, because he just knew what most of them have been through. No need to discuss. Then he bought his friend Dave a lap dance. Then he began to rub my leg.

“I don’t even know how we ended up here,” I shouted.

This was how I expressed feeling uncomfortable in a strip club—one that we had walked into through an alley. The alcohol wasn’t wearing off but it was turning inside me. The lightness of the first part of the night always gave away to the dread, the magnification of all the bad things. We did more shots as all the others bars had closed up shop. We smoked cigarettes. We were in the club because we ran into people who had better ideas than we did about where we should be.

Scott and Jen

 

By the time my debut novel came out in 2013, I had honed a one-word answer for when people asked me what the book was about: loneliness. Of course, it was about a lot more than that (immortality, magical realism, an enchanted herb, partition-era Poland, World War II, 1940s country music stars), but people can relate to loneliness—who hasn’t felt, at some point in their life, on the outside looking in? But now my second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, has come out, and I’m struggling with that one-word answer. Often, I say the book is about a dysfunctional family, another great sales generator (just ask Jonathan Franzen or Gillian Flynn). That answer feels disingenuous, though, because there is a much more direct (and more uncomfortable), word to describe it: incest. Brother-sister incest, if you want to be really specific.

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Blood comes before the scar; hunger before the apple.

–Leslie Jamison, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”

 

“Defensive”

1. defending or protecting someone or something from attack: helping to keep a person or thing safe


2. behaving in a way that shows that you feel people are criticizing you


 

It’s not my fault the new rosebushes didn’t get watered. I was running errands, taking the kids to soccer and music lessons, and I have an essay for American Lit due tomorrow. Why didn’t you do it?

When my husband complains, I first point out that it’s not my fault, and then point out why he is culpable instead.

It’s not my fault the dinner burned. I had to get our son into the shower, and make our daughter do her homework, and couldn’t you hear the oven timer?

But more often than not, my husband was merely stating that the rosebush was suffering because everyone forgot to water it. He didn’t mention the burned dinner other than to ask, what’s that smell?

I grew up in south Louisiana’s Bible Belt. I read my Picture Bible, with its comic strips, until I knew all the stories. There were plenty of moments where Jesus gave women grace and forgiveness—the Samaritan woman at the well and Mary Magdalene come immediately to mind. But the women in the Old Testament were out of luck. Jesus wasn’t born yet.

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I don’t know how to write this essay. It’s smarter than me. I’m overthinking every line, every angle. I write it, and I take it apart. I hold a broken piece and try to fit it in somewhere else and stare for a long time and take it out again. Writing about family is complicated. Reading what I write about my family is complicated. Write, delete. Hold back, unleash. Delete, delete. I’m exploring the idea of family because I have some sort of family identity struggle going on because I always have a family identity struggle going on. Is this what happens when your parents get divorced? When your parents break do you break too? Divorce or separation doesn’t equate brokenness—doesn’t have to but usually does. People don’t get divorced because their relationship is going well. Divorce means something is wrong—so wrong the animosity between my parents is still palpable after twenty-five years.

I want to tell you stories about my parents, and I want those stories to reflect me with big psychological terms. I want to contain my identity in a manageable, cohesive space. This essay. I’m starting to think this is impossible.

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July 8, 2016

To: Nelnet Education Loan Servicing, The U.S. Department of Education, the FSA Ombudsman Group
, and the Better Business Bureau of Nebraska

CC: Loretta Lynch, Barbara Lee, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Barack Obama

BCC: The Nervous Breakdown

From: Ariel Gore, Oakland, CA

 

I am writing to make a formal complaint against Nelnet Education Loan Servicing and, by extension, the U.S. Department of Education that empowers them, for a pattern of willful incompetence that I believe amounts to fraud.

I entered college as a young single mom in 1990. I was told that an education was the road out of poverty. I did not take out any private loans. I took out the maximum government student loans recommended to me, and was assured they were reasonable based on the educational products that were being sold to me. Those loans amounted to less than $40,000. I did well in school and graduated from Mills College with honors in 1994. Instead of studying creative writing at the graduate level, I opted for a more “practical” master’s program in journalism and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1996. I have been on an Income-Contingent / Income-Based Repayment Plan since 2002 and have always made the required payments on time.

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My ex-husband and I used to half-joke about what we’d do if we got divorced—I don’t always like you, I’d say, but I like being married.

He’d say: I’m never getting married again if this doesn’t work out.

His girlfriend moved in with him before the divorce was final—they’ll be married in a few months.

Our two sons have yet to be introduced to a man in my life.

We separated six years ago. Neither of us is who we said we were.

 

***

 

Though it gets a bad rap, not being in love with your boyfriend is a comfortable place to be; one doesn’t feel off-kilter. When he was unhappy with me I was clear-headed, took out a notepad and wrote down his concerns, moved toward problem-solving to preserve the trappings of what we had—daily phone calls and text messages, steady sex, a date I needed one. I made space to accommodate this thing I kind of wanted, this thing I was finally mature enough to settle into. Not being in love with a very nice boyfriend is a good compromise.

 

Figures

By Donald Quist

Essay

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Sometimes, when P and I walk holding hands in Bangkok, I will notice someone’s confused gaze. “Just ignore it.” I can’t. “You know it’s not like in America, in the South. Here they’re staring because they don’t understand. It’s not hate.” (Figure I) I glare at the observer, but they don’t look away.

 

Figure I

• Members of P’s family have expressed their bewilderment.

• Aunts and cousins have asked:

• Why didn’t she marry someone like her, Thai-Chinese?

• Why, after spending over ten years in America, hadn’t she chosen a white man instead?

• With P already possessing coveted light eyes and hair, P’s relatives believe her half-Caucasian children would have been beautiful. P’s hypothetical offspring could have grown up to become Thai soap opera stars.

• When I asked P how she felt about these comments, she offered me the same dismissive shrug I imagine she gives her inquisitive kin. On one occasion, P’s indifferent gesticulation was mistaken for doubt, and a concerned cousin told P not to worry. The cousin said she understood—one can’t help whom they fall in love with. She praised P’s bravery. And, if P decided to have children, her cousin could procure supplements and traditional remedies to ensure the baby would not look black like its father.

• P can repeat her cousin’s words with a smile. “She means well. Try not to take it too personally.”

• I wonder how many other well-meaning people view my appearance as something in need of a remedy.

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What I hide by my language, my body utters.

—Terry Tempest Williams

 

When she teaches me, I am six or seven, afraid of letting go of her hand, but with her gentle push I finally find my balance on those two metal blades, alone in the middle of the ice, everything spinning around me.

My mother claps her hands for me then circles wide, taking flight. One foot over the other, her skates scissoring madly, the breeze blowing back her bell-bottoms, her arms swaying freely at her side.

She is light, beam first then scatter.

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Ho Chi Minh City, 2000. A US Marine in plain clothes sat in the waiting area. I’d done enough overseas trips as a White House advanceperson to guess he was a Marine Security Guard detailed for this presidential visit, the first since the war ended.  He exuded youth and boundless strength, with the kind of pectorals earned on a family farm. He looked at me sheepishly. Did he feel caught? I wanted to laugh with him: this wasn’t some neon-lit storefront we were patronizing. This was the hotel spa—where the clerk looked sharp, posh even, his polo shirt buttoned to his neck, like everyone else in this Vietnamese five-star hotel, all of them making wartime seem forgotten. The same hotel where the leader of the free world would stay just as our advance teams had for days. If there was anything sordid about this place we wouldn’t be here.

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Chapter 1  – “The end.”

When I—we—struggled to get pregnant, and I’d read a story about infertility, I’d skip to the end to find out how an individual or couple resolved their infertility. If you want to skip to the end, then yes, I got pregnant. I had a baby who is now a happy, healthy, bright one-year-old. It took three years, and it was super fucking hard.

 

Chapter 2 – “We can’t make a baby, but we can make our own language.”

A brief set of terms you’ll find in this essay:

IF – Infertility

Infertility is known as IF in online support lingo. (Can we send that back to committee? Of all acronyms, is this the best we can do?)

RE – Reproductive Endocrinologist

Fertility doctors make a shit ton of money.

TSH – Thyroid Stimulating Hormone

The thyroid is a butterfly shaped thing in your throat that controls multiple functions in your body and if it’s off in the slightest, your body is fucked.

Pool Boy

By Tatiana Ryckman

Essay

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I knew I would soon be seeing my family because of an illness, or maybe worse. I distracted myself by wondering what sports were in season. Deflected my frustration by watching some physical display of strength.

That same day I was due to see my family, I was yelled at by a man at the gym when I tried to learn how to share a lane in the pool. I don’t use the word “yell” lightly here, but literally. The scolding dragged on for some very uncomfortable minutes with a small audience. It reminded me of the people I was traveling across the country to see, my uncle had already worried to my father and aunt that I’d be in the way at my grandfather’s hospital bed. Like a child or an idiot. I was not feeling sad for the loss of a patriarch. I assumed the sadness would come later with understanding.

House of the Large Fountain

Here, not much remains. Among other things, there are a few sheared-off pillars and some grass-covered stairs, a pebble-strewn atrium, four marble thresholds of four bricked-up rooms, some nettles and a bowing brick arch. Yet the back garden’s eye-snaring fountain is still fully intact, with its patterns of stones and glass and shells, its mosaics of wing-spread birds and half-moon bands and a baffled looking river god with a scraggly beard of reeds, and its two stone-carved faces – a mask of Tragedy, a lion-hooded Hercules – gap-mouthed and flanking the sides.

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In high school I aspired to be anorexic or bulimic, but the truth is I just wasn’t motivated enough. I would join a sport for a semester—basketball, gymnastics, soccer, track—but I’d quickly lose interest and find myself exactly where I’d begun: lying on the floor with a Smiths album on repeat while thinking about boys. It was the only activity I was able to dedicate myself to. And because my weight was really not the reason boys were not interested in me—it was likely a host of skin and personality flaws—I could safely misdirect my attention without accidentally fixing myself. I didn’t want to do the soul-searching or book-reading that would make me realize the person I really wanted to be. I just wanted to be thin. And then I wanted that to be enough.

 

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God possessed Father Michael during mass. I was sure of it. I knew if I squinted hard enough, I could see beams of light shooting from our priest’s body, making him convulse in a sort of spiritual shiver signifying the exact moment God settled into his bones. ‘Go in peace to serve the Lord,’ God would say, raising His arms at the conclusion of mass. And then, following His somewhat self-serving farewell, He would return to Heaven in a flutter of robes, leaving a shinier and slightly steaming Father Michael.

When I explained this theory to my mother one day after church, she didn’t clarify, didn’t point me towards a bible or suggest I pay more attention in CCD. She only looked at me like she wanted to power-of-Christ-compel-me before saying, “No, that’s not right.”