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Role/Model

By Gayle Brandeis

Essay

young compositeMichael and I had lunch at The Castle today, a new Middle Eastern restaurant in Riverside. The lentil soup was fantastic, spiked with lemon. The Lebanese salad was tart and fresh, a dice of cucumber and tomato and mint. The place is new, but not really. I can’t remember if you and I ever went there together back when it was still Pitruzello’s, back when you were still alive–I don’t think so, even though I can picture you in one of the booths, your pale skin glowing against the black vinyl; I can picture you there the way you looked before I was born, when people mistook you for Audrey Hepburn, your hair in a short beehive, a cigarette between your fingers. I can’t remember if I ever told you I answered the restaurant’s call for lunchtime tearoom models in 1987, when I was nineteen. Probably not. As much as you wanted your girls to be open with you, more often than not, your measuring gaze made us pause .

Even now, at 46, I’m not sure what compelled me to respond to the ad they placed in the San Bernardino Sun. I hated modeling as a kid–I was too shy, too self-conscious in front of the camera. I cried at almost every audition, every photo shoot. At nineteen, I didn’t see myself as the modeling type, either. I was a hippie chick with hairy armpits and legs, a sophomore at the University of Redlands. I had gained the freshman fifteen and then some eating three cafeteria meals a day, the only vegetarian options being cheesy, starchy casseroles like lasagna and enchiladas. My belly stuck out nearly as far as my small breasts; my face was almost as round as it had been when I was on long term steroids a few years before. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was awkwardness. Flaws.

deskjob TNBI chugged hard on the last of my beer and wiggled the empty can in the air for Mustachio behind the bar to see. Another cold sweaty can arrived with its short shot buddy. Then another. And another. A parade of cans and shots across the bar and the place filled up with people.

A woman I recognized came through the door and pushed her way into the crowd. She walked down the bar and sat next to me on the only empty stool.

chokecherriesAt Easter, in the early years when my mother was still sane, she cut lengths of pussy willow branches and brought them inside. Not yet budded, they came laden with soft silver pods like rabbits’ feet. She took colored powders and dusted the fur pods. Pale yellow, pink, lavender, blue.

My mother told my father, They’re trying to kill us. She said, They’re coming after us.  She said, They are a band of assassins hired by the CIA to kill the families of Green Berets. He said to her, that doesn’t make any god damn sense.

Reality is slippery. If someone tells you something often enough for long enough, regardless of whether it’s true, you begin to believe it. Or at least you might begin to doubt your own perceptions, think, maybe she knows something I don’t know. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there’s something here that I don’t understand.

Generation RX_FINALJust Let Me Forget

 Luke tells me it is the rush that draws you in. It makes you forget the darkness.

He flicks a lighter under a spoonful of syrupy brown liquid and says he is ready to die. Fumes rise from the potion, filling the room with the scent of vinegar. It is sickly and sweet at the same time.

We are sitting side by side, Luke and I, on his unmade bed in a sober living house in San Juan Capistrano, a seaside town in southern California where I am reporting a story on the epidemic of pill and heroin abuse. We have just met, but he lets me in, lets me close to the poison that has taken over his life since he became hooked on prescription painkillers eleven years ago, at age fourteen. And he’s right: there is a rush. There is something exhilarating about the poison in his hands, just in its presence, the way that it swirls and bubbles in the spoon. I wonder about the strange seduction of these little bits of crystallized black tar swimming around in circles. I wonder what my brother felt like as he stared down at them three years ago.

No Man's War_FINALCurrahee

 Three months before my disoriented search for my other green Croc in the middle of the night, my front door has another reason to open in the wee hours. Each time Jack and I plan the good-bye scenario for a deployment, we think we’ve come up with a magical way to make the process of good-bye anything less than brutal and horrific. Even if we keep the brutal and horrific under the guise of a scripted scene, with firm hugs and confident words, the wailing agony is right under the surface. Every single time. This time he needs to be at the brigade headquarters in the middle of the night to manifest and draw his weapon, so he arranges for someone to pick him up from the house, sparing me a drive in the middle of the night. He has considered driving his Jeep and just leaving it in his office parking lot for me to pick up later, but we are so new to Fort Campbell, and my unfamiliarity with the straggly and spindly layout of this post takes that option off the table. Navigating my way to his office seems overwhelming; it’s the small things that overwhelm at these times, so Jack knows arranging a pickup is best. This plan will be a piece of cake. He can tuck the kids into bed, then sleep a few hours before he has to go. His rucksack waits packed by the door. His uniform is draped over the closet door.

excavation coverFall 1986

“Open your notebooks,” Mr. Ivers ordered, stepping backward from us, his eyes blinking rapidly behind his glasses. I saw a glimmer of a smile, and then a furrowed brow in mock seriousness.

“You’re going to use these notebooks to compose journal entries. You’ll turn the notebooks in to me once a week, every week. You can write about whatever you want, so long as there’s evidence of writing somewhere, somehow, in that notebook. Got it?” He held his elbows. He caught my eye.

wendy ortizWhat are you working on now?

My next book is slated for release in November 2014 from Writ Large Press. Hollywood Notebook is a prose poem-ish memoir-ish book of over 80 short chapters that was originally a blog I kept from roughly 2002 to 2004. It’s a book of ideas, appropriated text, lists, dips into the abyss, and the kind of joy and darkness one gets hit by when they’re in the middle of a Saturn return and Pluto transit.

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This is the first installment of my column, CNF 500. The column will deal with topics related to anything and everything creative nonfiction, and will be 500 words. As essays editor of The Nervous Breakdown, I’m always ready to consider essay submissions of any length for publication. Please email essays to ekleinman at thenervousbreakdown dot com.

I’m going to tell my mom about my writing.

We’re in the International District in Seattle. It’s January. I’ve always liked these types of outings with her. We took the bus from Lynnwood. I’m wearing her coat because I live in Austin, Texas and I don’t have anything warm to wear. It’s a black coat from JCPenney with huge pockets and a fluffy hood.

Chest Pains

By Zach Ellis

Essay

itsababy

I’m going to tell you a story about breasts. Tits. Boobs. Bosoms. Chesticles. Headlights. Hooters. Jugs. Knockers. Melons.

Mine.

The first time I noticed my father staring at my chest, I was a fourteen-year-old girl. I was doing jumping jacks in our basement for exercise. He asked if he could join me. We faced one another, sweat pouring off my forehead. Journey was on the radio. We jumped at the same time, his middle-aged body facing mine. Steve Perry reminded me to not stop believin’ as I caught my father’s eyes, staring right at my tits. Just enough time for us to get out of sync. Just enough time for him to see me following his gaze. He walked away when the song was over. We never said anything about it.

The second time I noticed my father staring at my chest, I was a grown man.

Goldman, Francisco author photo credit - Mélanie MorandI fell in love with the writer Francisco Goldman in 1992 when I read his semi-autobiographical first novel The Long Night of White Chickens, in which a young man who is half Central American and half American Jewish becomes obsessed with the political murder of a Guatemalan woman he has adored since childhood. Since then Goldman has published the novels, The Ordinary Seaman (1997) and The Divine Husband (2004), a nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder (2007), and the very autobiographical Say Her Name.

Goldman, Interior Circuit jacket art 9780802122568From the air, on a flight in, what the eye mostly picks out from the megacity’s stunning enormousness is a dense mosaic of flat rooftops, tiny rectangles and squares, and a preponderance of reddish brown, the volcanic tezontle stone that has forever been the city’s most common construction material, also other shades of brown brick and paint, imposing an underlying coloration scheme. But there are also many concrete and metallic surfaces and many buildings painted in pastel and more vivid hues like bright orange, and rows of trees, and parks and fútbol fields, and modern towers rising here and there, in Polanco, Santa Fe, and the august Torre Latino Americano at the edge of the Centro, and the straight and snaking traffic arteries, beady and silvery in the sunlight, and an infinite swarm of streets. You think, of course, awed, of the millions and millions of lives going on down there. (I reflexively think, as I have for years whenever flying into the city, that she’s down there somewhere, living her mysterious life beneath one of those tiny squares, her too, and also her, Chilangas, female residents of the DF, who over the past two decades I’ve met only once or twice but who left an impression, women who almost surely no longer remember me.) From the air, perhaps because it is such a predominately flat city and almost all the roofs are flat and because so much of it is brown, Mexico City looks like a map of itself, drawn on a scale of 1:1, as in the Borges story “The Exactitude of Science,” which refers to “a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point.”

The Ministry of Thin_FINALAlice and I are walking down the aisle marked Dairy. I take four small tubs of Total 0% Greek yogurt, a couple of raspberry-flavor Müller Lights. I add a four-pack of vanilla probiotic Activias, then a two-pint carton of skim milk. My sister grimaces at the red-top milk—“Skim? That stuff looks like dirty water.” I nod cheerfully, “I know, tastes like it too.” We turn the corner into the aisle marked Meat, where it’s Al’s turn to stock up: bacon, chicken, and some kind of fish.

At the checkout line, we look at our baskets: butter, bacon, and eggs in hers; muesli, pita bread, Greek yogurt in mine. I also have apples, broccoli, bananas; Al has sparkling water, salmon, avocado.

See what she’s doing, and see what I’m doing? Without even thinking about it, we both have our forbidden foods—or, if not entirely forbidden, substances we steer clear of. Al never buys coffee or wine, although she will have the occasional cappuccino or glass of wine when she’s out. I literally don’t go near butter, and I wouldn’t know how to cook any of the meat she buys. Odder than her wariness of caffeine, and my strict vegetarianism, is our avoidance of whole food groups. I don’t do fat; she doesn’t do carbs. A few decades ago these might have seemed strange rules to follow, but these days they’re pretty normal. In the twenty-first century most women police their diets in some way.

9780547519272_hresPart One

These then are some of my first memories. But of course as an account of my life they are misleading, because the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important.

Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being

I was standing when I came to. Not lying down. And it wasn’t a gradual waking process. It was darkness darkness darkness, then snap. Me. Now awake.

It was hot. My thin shirt clung to my back and shoulders, and my underwear was bunched into a sweaty wad. The heat left the ground in wavy lines, and the air was tinged blue with diesel exhaust. A woman in a burqa pushed past me. A small man in a ragged red vest ducked around me. He was hunched under the massive steel trunk on his back; the corner of the trunk nicked my shoulder as he maneuvered by. I was in the center of a crowd, half surging for the train, half surging for the exits. I stood still. I had no idea who I was. This fact didn’t panic me at first. I didn’t know enough to panic.

David MacLean

Your book The Answer to the Riddle is Me is subtitled “A Memoir of Amnesia.” Isn’t that a contradiction?

Yes and no. On the surface, it has the pleasing allure of an oxymoron. But deeper in, one of the things I remember best in my life is the time when I had no memory. My brain was stripped and open to sensory data. I think most of my life I treat life like triage as I move from errand to errand, chore to chore. These errands and chores create in my brain a hierarchy of the data I take in, things that aren’t associated with whatever task at hand get winnowed out of my consciousness. When I woke up on the train platform in India, I had no narrative, no chore, no task at hand, and so the sensory data I was receiving wasn’t ranked by any hierarchy. It flattened the world so that all data was of similar importance. The birds in the rafters were as important as the train in front of me. This feeling haunts me. It has made me aware of how much of the world I miss on a daily basis. In some ways I remember the feeling of no memory better than I remember anything else.

OutofDublinAt age 22, I emigrated from Dublin to San Francisco. In addition to the shiny pink Green Card peeking from my Irish passport, United States law also required me to present to the sour-faced immigration official, his cheeks studded with pores like drill holes, a large X-ray of my lungs—the ghostly snapshot proved I was free of tuberculosis and made of the same stuff as Americans.