Nesting

A barren nest sits
in the tree
outside my window.
It’s a vacant hole
I fill with a baby owl
we once saw in daylight.
Its mouth opens
and closes, hungry
for whatever meal
its mother has to offer.
I fill it with fettuccine
I make when you’re gone,
when I’m missing you,
the opposite of you,
and everyone else
combined into one
larger than life you.
I fill it with water
spilling over the brim.
I fill it with pages
I wish would fill
themselves,
explain themselves
to the noiseless days,
when silence balloons
in my ears and chest.
I’d fill it with buds
but it seems
they’ve blossomed
into paper flowers
overnight.

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A proper send off

got a message from my brother

it’s meant for more
than one person and it says:

you’re dead to me
you’re all dead to me
you’ve been dead

I let out a weak laugh
because if I hold my
breath I can smell
the formaldehyde

the core of our name
decays, its flesh rots

down to the bones
down to the funny bone
which never made anyone laugh.

it’s my last day,
and no one is here
the lights over my head
flicker off because
even they are timed
and the room reeks of wasted seconds
working to mean something yet
wishing I was somewhere else

my 13 year old self shakes
her head in disapproval
she says I should have left
by now, I should be driving
a hippie van, giving hugs
to all the sad saps still
stuck inside themselves
she used to give a fuck
yet was better at pretending
she wore a suit of armor
rings on every finger
cheap bracelets
up to the elbows
a walking circus

how exhausting
the current me says
every morning as she
pries herself from bed

my dog is curled up
like a heart
outside my chest.
she’s so warm,
and I don’t want
to get up to face
the loveless.

-3°

A warm winter
fades into cold
that steals the breath
of my breaks.
I fear the front end
of my life for a second
as I pump the pads
with the foot I wish
was in my mouth
where the words spill.
My close call is the sound
of something fragile falling
a flight of many years.
A muffling in my ears,
the whispered sayings,
are reserved for underwater
staredowns with you
when we test the weight
of each other’s silences.
A whiplash of wind
against my cheek
outside your city
apartment. The frozen
water bottles on the floor
of your car about to explode.
When you drink, I watch
the seams of your throat.
It’s so cold, and I love you.

This womb

The woman curled
up in a bath
remembers a woman
in bed
in a white room
of her own undoing;
a body tight as a fist;
a mind unraveling
like a scroll.

Maybe smallness
is our way
of making our way
back to our space.

The ultimate cradle.

My hands droop
in the water
like flowers
with bent necks.

“Choose the life
laid out in front
of you. Feel its
aliveness. Its
calm vibrations,”
calls the woman
in my bathroom.

I want to believe
that my body
is a field of
green energy
but my eyes,
catch a glimpse
of white room,
porcelain tub,
walls made of
chalky plaster.

My chest falls
as she asks me
to concentrate
on sincerity,
on what is
important to me.

I reach for
my yours truly,
my serious
what is love face.

Should I reach
for what’s to come?

My body floats,
and the room hums.
The heater turns
on and off
like raspy
breathing,
but breathing
in and out
nonetheless.

This womb
is filled with
warm water
returning me home.

A Meeting with Bob from Beyond

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This part about life is true-ish: you can spend your day, or at least some of it, being focused, doing what makes you happy, or spend your day thinking about never having it or obsessing about losing it.

I’m walking down a nature trail. I’m talking to myself. As people pass me by, I hush up because I am too much of a puss to let them know I’m talking to myself.

I have today day off of work. I feel bad about days off, but I really enjoy them, like a lot of people. I try to have plans on those days, which doesn’t always work out. I want to use them to their fullest.

Please be patient with yourself. You smoked a little bit. You forget that you get a little paranoid when you smoke alone. And maybe that’s why you’re talking to yourself at all, so that it feels like you’re with someone.

 I think that you came here for a reason. You want to explore what is going on inside you without anyone else around you. I think this is a healthy thing to do. Recently, you’ve been overly connected to social media, and you’ve been feeling hyper and stimulated. Even when you were in Costa Rica, you were still checking your phone. You’re never free of technology.

Social media sometimes feels like a box, like a way to keep people inside. There are people who take advantage of social media for the right reasons. They want to share with others, give to others. They want people to come along with them for the journey. Follow them through this jungle, on this mountain, through those moments when they marvel on the face of their first child.

Voyeurism has consequences. What about the other chunk of people who are standing still? Just watching someone live their life? The viewer doesn’t even have to dream it up. It can happen right before their eyes. They continue to watch and watch and watch. We have become a new form of TV, this relentless watching of each other.

Today you’re distraught. You lost your journal. It’s this purple, silky thing that you got from Barnes and Noble about a year and a half ago. Let’s be honest; most the thoughts in there weren’t worth sharing with others, but they were worth mentioning to yourself in the moments that you wrote them down. You write in it for your future self. So that you can immerse yourself into what it felt like to be a younger version of you.

I am 27 years old. I miss my journal because it was for me. No entertaining. I could see myself thinking and rethinking in it. Messy. Not the best words I could come up with. Organic. Diary entries. Pieces of poems. I wrote one on Mother’s Day about my mother and how she says the word “fuck” better than anyone I know. She gives it grace.

I wrote about going down to southern Illinois with my dad to watch my sister graduate. I don’t think I finished that entry. I was waiting for it to settle on me, and then I lost it.

A bearded man and his dog just passed me, so I had to stop talking just now. I recently wrote a short story about this man who talked to himself in his garage at night, seething about the government. The only thing that calms the voices in his head is fishing.

I come from an entire family of talkers, and lo and behold, I’m a talker. But I’m also a good listener. Some people don’t need another person on the other side, and this terrifies me. I know someone who doesn’t need another person to listen. I can leave my phone on the counter and walk away for 10 minutes, and they wouldn’t know the difference. No interjections or counterpoints necessary.

Being around non-talkers used to be a big issue for me. Spending time with my boyfriend’s family, for example, made me feel uncomfortable, exposed. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I filled up the silence. Open mouth, open floodgates. I mean, sure they said things, but everything was so matter of fact. Not at all like therapy. Like live wires. Everyone wearing their emotions out all together at once.

I have to pee, but I’m kind of nervous. I’ve had some bad experiences with peeing in public lately. When I was in Costa Rica, I really had to go. I was at a resort, and I found this sort of remote-ish place by the beach, which obviously wasn’t remote enough. A hotel employee had caught me hunched over a pile of sand. He started yelling at me in Spanish, and I was already going, so I kept going. I was drunk, but horrified that he kept yelling at me, not even turning around and waiting for me to finish.

I pee quietly behind some bushes. A mosquito bites my ass.

Now, I’m looking over a pond covered in lily pads that bounce light to each other as the water moves underneath them. There are hundreds of dragonflies flitting in between them, dipping their butts into the water.

The fisher in my short story, the one with the voices in his head—he’s addicted to painkillers and alcohol. His kids keep finding him passed out in the bathroom. His body fails him. He was the funny one, the one who made you feel sane. Everyone’s favorite uncle. His kids and their cousins used to dog-pile on top of him every Christmas. Now he can’t even remember his kids’ names.

The intro of the story starts with a text message. A wrong number. From some guy named Bob who wants to go all-night fishing. The narrator is lonely, so she messages him back for the sake of conversation. She evens sends a fish emoji. The conversation ends once the mysterious texter figures out they are texting the wrong person.

I watch dragonflies clash into each other. It sounds like the crinkling of candy wrappers. A pier moves underneath my feet. An elderly couple shuffles next to me and onto a bench that’s bolted to the pier. They look out across the water, past the lily pads. The man is wearing a baseball cap with the word “veteran” on it.

“Do you see the lotus flowers?” he asks me. I look toward where his wrinkled index finger points. Fleshy pink petals poke out from the water.

“Yes, they’re beautiful,” I say. Suddenly, I feel like a tourist.

“Where are you from?” the stout woman asks, peeking out from the side of the man.

“Northwest ‘burbs,” I say.

“Terrible drivers over there,” she says with a half frown.

“That’s why I’m here. To slow down,” I laugh.

“This used to be a lively place,” the man tells me. “Every summer, people would rent out boats, and there would be concessions. Tons of people. Now it’s a ghost town.”

“What happened?” I ask.

“The state didn’t want to pay for it anymore,” he says and nods.

He points again. “Look at that barn swallow,” he says.

I watch a brown body pierce the air like an arrow. Then it dips and dives, making sharp, acrobatic turns.

Since fishing is on my brain, I tell the man that I tried fishing recently, and I still have yet to catch my first fish.

“Oh, have you been up by McHenry? Plenty of good fishing spots over there,” he says.

“I will be sure to check that out. I’m gonna get lucky next time, I can feel it,” I say.

“You will catch one, Sweetie,” the woman tells me.

I thank them. Their encouragement pulses inside my chest, and I am aware of the sun’s warmth on my face.

“It was so nice meeting you. I’m Sarah,” I thrust my hand out formally. I’m not sure why, but then I realize I want to touch their hands.

“I’m Sandy. And this is Bob,” the woman says. Bob smiles.

Clem

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I bought my rabbit, Clem, eight years ago from a thin, springy woman who ran a rabbit rescue from her large house in the country. Upon entering, I remember a sharp, rusty odor, but there was not a wad of fur or dropping to be found. Her house was immaculate for someone with animals living in every pore; rabbits munched and frolicked in their cages in the garage and living room. She even had a “private stash” in her bedroom that weren’t for sale.

I found this woman slightly unhinged. Little did I know, I would soon understand her need to cut across four lanes of traffic and throttle her car to the side of the road to retrieve an unventilated box of abandoned kits.

Clem was not my love at first sight. Nay, I had my heart set on a four-year-old Rex that looked just like the Velveteen Rabbit, one of my favorite fictional critters as a kid. My boyfriend, Sean, adored him too, but convinced me that it wasn’t such a good idea, since he had a large tumor on his hind leg. This would be our first pet as a fairly new couple, so I agreed to move on, reluctantly.

Clem flopped around a cage with a litter of rabbits that were indistinguishable from each other. They each had shiny black coats and stubby ears. We knew he was “the one” when he plopped right in front of us and shoved his nose into my hand. For 20 bucks, he was ours. On the ride home he nuzzled my waist, poking me with his whiskers and every now and then stretching his neck and sniffing the air. We named him Clementine; I didn’t learn that he was a male until a year later, when we went to get him neutered. I remember correcting the vet, who then schooled me by showing me my rabbit’s testicles.

Rabbits are not rodents; they’re lagomorphs, which is something I always threw into my father’s face. He assumed that rodents were less than those of the canine and feline families, and called Clem a “chew toy.” But I’m here to tell you rabbits are as sassy and conspiring as cats and as athletic as dogs. Did you know that rabbits can do kick flips with their hind legs? That they can throw cardboard boxes across the room? Pretty badass for a chew toy.

Clem has his own special brand of sassery. When I would study for college exams, I’d arrange all my books and notebooks across the floor and work, and Clem would come bounding across the carpet then nudge my hand. I happily mirrored his affection, but I’d have to shoo him away after the third or fourth round of pets in order to get any work done. Clem detested being shooed, so he’d devise a plan out of spite. He’d stare at me while threatening to chew through my lamp’s power cord. I’d sternly tell him NO and he would inch closer and closer to the cord anyway until I launched from the floor. The fluffy-tailed bastard would bolt underneath my dresser.

His favorite game to play with me though was the one where he’d rip a page from my notebook and flee with it into his cage. So fun. And everyone knew that once he was in his cage, he was untouchable; one could likely lose a finger in a single instant of reaching into his highly protected turf.

In literature, rabbits have always been depicted as tricksters, and I believe that every rabbit has a little of that witty, conniving Bugs Bunny in him. I believe Clem receives great pleasure when I bumble around the room to catch him. He is after all prey, and maybe he wants to be true to his nature by making his large, dim-witted oppressor hustle.

Clem lives for yogurt drops, his preciouses. All I have to do is rattle the bag of Yogies to get him to emerge from his dark tunnels. He rips them right out from my hand without a thank you. I was curious to know why he’s so hooked and decided to test them for myself. It turns out that the tart, artificial strawberry isn’t half bad. Hell, I prefer them to Smarties. Clem also saws down at least a quarter of a bag of hay a day. His mouth is constantly at work, rolling around in little circles.

A rabbit’s chow-down is much more complicated than it looks. They chew in sequences, first chiseling hay like a paper shredder, then grinding it down between the molars on one side of the mouth at a time, then pumping their intricate jaws to bring food to the back of the throat. They have a total of 28 teeth, including their trademark front incisors. Rabbits are delicate creatures; their skulls are not solid bone, rather they are thin and fenestrated, resembling a lace-like fabric.

There came a point when I felt guilty about Clem being alone all day, so I bought him a rabbit friend, whom we named Dexter. He’s cotton swab white with black rims around his eyes, which makes it look like he wears glasses like Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory. Dexter and Clem hit it off right away. They cuddled together so tight that they looked like one rising and falling ball of yin and yang.

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Around the time Dexter hit his teenage rabbit years, the love spell wore off. Dexter grew impatient with Clem’s dominance, his insistence that Dexter should clean his fur whenever he commanded. He was smaller than Clem, but faster, and growing into himself. He didn’t like to be bossed around and thumped in protest. I noticed they started sleeping on different levels in the cage. Dexter took the top bunk, and Clem huddled in the bottom one. It was a tragic observation. They were supposed to be brothers for life.

One day I was doing laundry in the basement, I heard a loud clamor coming from the ceiling. I slammed the laundry basket on the floor and heaved myself up the stairs. When I opened my bedroom door, Clem and Dexter were one again, except this time a tangled tumbleweed rolling around on the carpet. Patches of Clem’s fur were scattered across the floor in between small red dots of blood. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there deciding which finger I could afford to lose. I had a feeling this was an ultimate death match to decide who would be the alpha once and for all. Finally, Clem staggered, so I scooped him up, saving him and his dignity. Dexter’s tail was raised, and he was still grunting heavily. This fluffy bunny wasn’t fucking around.

In the end, Sean and I bought another cage and split them down the middle. It was devastating for us to watch. Their brief and passionate love was no more. I’m going to be honest with you; I felt a little resentment toward Dexter, even though I knew he was transforming into a man rabbit who wanted his space and independence. Clem couldn’t handle that. To him, he and Dexter needed to share one beating heart — one that beats 180 beats per minute (at rest). Was Clem’s affection too big, too suffocating for Dexter? Clem handled their breakup fairly well, though, in the time he spent chasing Dexter around the apartment, he made up for in eating. The poor bastard put on a couple of ounces.

It’s interesting how much value you can get out of 20 dollars, and also how much work. I guess most pet owners stumble over these crossroads.

The brushing of a rabbit is serious manual labor that you have to keep on top of. There was one year I was up to my eyeballs in jobs and homework. I vividly remember the messy hair buns and basketball shorts, the Monster Energy drink-induced nights where I was trying to decipher the Canterbury Tales, the braille of English. I slipped. I couldn’t keep up with Clem’s high-maintenance fur. What happens when you don’t brush a domestic rabbit? Well, they start to ingest their fur, which does startling things to their digestive tracks. Anyway, Clem ate so much of his own fur that it formed a web-like weave around his shit. The result was solid, golf ball size turds that Sean and I had to chop off with a pair of designated scissors.

Let me just say that rabbits aren’t as cute with solid rock turds hanging from their butts. Or when they’re yawing. Or when they’re eating their poop, which is pretty standard for most animals.

I thought we almost lost Clem. He wasn’t eating for a couple days so I rushed him over to a pet clinic near me. They turned me away because apparently Clem is considered “exotic,” which blows my mind. Clem, exotic? Give me a break. Exotic basically means risky, specialized, not to mention expensive, in veterinary terms.

So I drove Clem 45 minutes to a pet emergency center that was open 24 hours. I couldn’t locate his carrier so I sat him in my front seat, draping my cardigan over his head so he could hide, which he seemed to appreciate.

“We’re almost, there, Clem. Hang in there, old chap!” I told him. I turned my wheel gently, as opposed to cranking it. I didn’t want to freak him out even more than he already was with his wet, black eyes maniacally jutting out of their sockets.

I shoved my rabbit underneath my armpit, and we entered the emergency room. The receptionist, a young man with messy hair, jeans and a slight lisp, escorted us to our room and left us. I began to pace. I texted my friends about Clem’s updated status even if they didn’t ask. I let Clem sit underneath my chair as we waited for the vet.

About 30 minutes later I asked the receptionist how much longer until we were seen. Just as he was about to respond, a loud screeching alarm blasted through the hallway, bouncing off walls. Dogs began to bark, and two women in blue scrubs hustled past me with carriers with whiskers protruding from them.

“There was a gas leak. We all need to evacuate,” they told me. Clem was statuesque in his spot on the floor where scooped him up.

Rain pelted the street and cars. People huddled with their pets under umbrellas or scurried to their cars for shelter. Clem buried his head in my lap.

This was it. I thought chopping a poop ball off my rabbit’s ass had officially made me a crazy bunny lady, but I think the moldy cherry on top was waiting out the rain in my car with my supposedly dying rabbit until the firemen fixed the gas leak and told everyone to go inside.

The firemen waved everyone back in. We sat in the lobby waiting to be resituated, dripping in our chairs. A sick pitbull rested his head on his owner’s lap. The woman stroked the spot around his half-shut eye. A vet tech who was holding a cat in its carrier dozed off against a wall and dropped the cat’s fluids bag on the floor. Everyone in the waiting room peered at it on the floor until the tech noticed and snatched it up. Clem and I had a staredown contest with an overweight Yorkie who looked unamused with the entire situation.

Finally, Clem and I were herded into a room again where I began to pace back and forth, anxious to hear my rabbit’s fate. A vet tech popped her head in. She was pretty and looked slightly older than me. I stared at the infinity symbol strung on a chain around her neck when she spoke to me. I stared at it some more when she told me the final bill to keep Clem over night and administer medications. 1,200 dollars minimum.

“Lady, I love him, but he’s a rabbit. Give me a break, huh? I suppose you don’t do payment plans?” I laughed.

“No, but we take credit cards,” she said. Not a drop of sympathy in her clear, blue eyes.

“Ah, I figured as much. I think I’m gonna just take him home then. I mean, I just don’t have that kind of money. Is there any way I can just give him the meds on my own?”

“Well … I will check back with the doctor and see what I can do.”

She was tired. Clem and I were tired too. I took a peek at him. He was trailing off in my arms, but not really, as rabbits only sleep when it’s safe, which isn’t often for an animal born into fear.

We nursed Clem like he was a newborn. Five different medications, including one you have to mix into a green sludge. We’d take turns wrapping Clem burrito-like into a towel and shoving syringes past his two teeth. He jerked and sneezed as we force fed him the green sludge and spit it up if we gave him too much too quickly. Why is love always such a messy operation?

In two weeks, Clem was in perfect health. He rejoiced, kicking his hind legs, and all my began innards began to frolic.

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Rey Rey’s Repetition

SPOILERS. Attention, my good human, this has spoilers!!

The scene in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” where Rey gets slurped into Jedi island’s dark pit and spit up into a cave is what is known as the most defining, self-shattering oh-shit moment for a character. Or rather, it’s a focal point of every three-dimensional character. And as real life characters, we’re all familiar with it because we’ve either experienced it or we dread the experience of it, and do what we can to tiptoe around it. It’s when you reach that cockroach-shelled, lowly low place and come face to face with all your selves.

Rey pulls herself from a pool of water and onto a rocky platform and is faced with an image—her own reflection. Except there are many different Reys. Hundreds of her. She snaps her finger, and an entire army of her snaps her fingers. It seems like the snap’s echo will continue for forever. But Rey is convinced there isn’t a forever, she later tells Kylo, when their souls are paired together, before they touch hands. She believes she can see the end (or the beginning) of her reflection. She does see an end. And at the end of her reflections, there’s a frozen wall. She wants to see her parents. Behind the wall, there’s a hazy movement of what looks like two people that morph into one. When the image comes into focus, we see what Rey sees; it’s another version of herself. Not her parents. Not the answers she seeks.

Rey describes this experience as the most “alone” she has ever felt. As someone who plunged herself into the darkness for answers, one can understand the draw of sharing this with Kylo. He himself is as severed as she is, and there is comfort in that. His face has a jagged slit down the middle. They are both coming to terms with themselves, their power, and the balance they possess if they can focus their energies.

About a month ago, I saw this piece of art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts called “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism,” by American artist Josiah McElheny. It reminds me of the repetitive Rey effect. On first glance, it’s a glass case with four objects—a decanter, a vase, a box, and a bottle. But then if you look past each object in the mirrors behind it, you’re presented with a seemingly endless arsenal of decanters, vases, boxes, and bottles.

Along with the main photo, these are a few pictures that I took myself:

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The piece attempts to embody the “capitalist notion that all objects are eternally repeatable, that everything can be remanufactured endlessly without regard to era, geography, or culture.”

I was enamored with and haunted by this concept. The visual effect is trance-like. There’s a satisfying hum about it. The roundness of the objects, the shininess. The endlessness. But the longer you look at it, the more you want to find a beginning or end to it. It becomes exhausting. Because there isn’t exactly one.

This can be said about ideas too, that nothing is ever truly original, which many people in the history of the world have discovered and have said in different ways.

We could spend a longer time talking about capitalism here (and we could even get personal about the tight Disney grasp on creation and production), but I will keep this short for the purposes of this review. I know enough about a product to say even after all its updates and versions, it is still another version of the last one, an endless, unoriginal cycle.

It sounds kind of hollow when you pit the never-ending manufacture of objects next to self-awareness and understanding. It is that very repetition of looking, staring directly at your own production of images and never around it, when things begin to feel so isolating.

Ironically, Kylo and Rey need each other at this point in time, to see outside and around themselves. They’re so immersed in their own selves that only by connecting with someone as conflicted, can they separate the pieces.

Rey longs to know her past. Kylo wants to destroy his. When he finally tells her the truth about her parents, he comes from this place of destruction. “They were nobodies” who sold her into nothingness. And Rey is back in the pit again, staring into all her reflections, scraping at the frozen wall for her parents, but is faced with another copy of herself. This is where Kylo tries to make himself her savior. Like he’s the only one who knows that she’s someone outside these copies of copies.

Ironically though again, Kylo frees Rey when he calls her a nobody.

One of the biggest takeaways for me: be wary of the person who tells you to destroy your past, or cut yourself off from it (as Luke does initially), especially if it’s a painful one filled with lessons for your present and future selves.

When Rey can accept that she’s a “nobody,” that nobodies can align together for something outside their own reflections, she can become the somebody she has been all along.

Bath water

I take more baths than I ever did
even with a lack of rubber ducks,
practice breast strokes, homemade rain.

Now, when I breathe into porcelain skin
of a full tub, quiet currents take me.

This is the closest I come to clean slate.

To notice my two fleshy peaks rise
and fall, is to know my own body,

I listen to what’s submerged, to water
slipping down drains that belch
low croaks between lily pads of soap.

It’s a subtle sound of swallowing
a lost song, of dead poets whispering.

I’ve ignored poets for most of my life
because I couldn’t bear to face their sense,
but I sensed them, especially in old libraries.

Did you know if you press your ears to walls,
you can hear pipes clearing their throats?

The gurgle in my ears is intergalactic.

No one will ever find this place on a map,
and it’s a crying, hell, it’s a sobbing shame
because the fizzle of salt is good for your skins.

My toes look ancient under these dim lights,
and the curtain has a pattern of tight curls
that look like a doodle of a loose brain.
I could have drawn that, I start to think,
see, and there’s that pesky “I” again.

When does the self become so persistent?

What if when I go low, beneath the bath’s bowels,
I reach the highest heights I’ll ever know?

That’s enough indulgence for one day.

When I pull the stopper, a miniature tornado
surges between my legs, and time begins to drain.

In loving memory of my grandmother, DA BOSS

Scan 6

My dad calls me while I’m in the middle of a sketch. I’m drawing a bird with a top hat. It’s just a bird that I wanted to be a little more entertaining. Entertaining to no one in particular. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never figure out the elusive audience question. I keep drawing.

“Can you bring your grandmother a blanket?” my dad asks over the phone.

“A blanket?”

“Yes, a blanket,” he says.

“It’s no problem,” I say. “Hey, you holding up okay?”

“Don’t even get me started,” he laughs, and then it’s silent. I think the line goes dead, until he clears his throat and tells me goodbye.

I took off work the day after I found out my grandmother was dying from pancreatic cancer. I visited her but managed to say few words. It’s hard to see a busy body restless in a hospital bed. My grandmother, was a caretaker for her children and her children’s children — my siblings and cousins — at various points of our lives.

I shade the bird’s top hat, trying not to lean into the dark parts and smear the drawing with my fists. My coonhound, Maya, sleeps on the ground next to my feet. She kicks her legs, and I place my hand on her side, calming her in her eventful dreams. Getting a puppy a few months ago came in handy. After visiting my grandmother in the hospital, Maya curled up next to me in bed while I rolled myself into layers and blankets like a packed piece of sushi.

My grandmother scared me growing up. I thought we annoyed her. She  signed strict notes as “DA BOSS” and left them on the furniture. “SHOES OFF IN THE HOUSE.” “DON’T TOUCH THIS BUTTON.” “CASSEROLE IN FRIDGE.” She used to leave these notes in her absence when she went to bingo. She wanted to give us a lot of time with our grandfather, who had an unearthly amount of patience with children.

We’d be hunched over a TV dinner tray, polishing off a triple-decker turkey sandwich and watching All That or CatDog when she’d return. The first thing she did when she walked into the house would be to heat up some soup or lay out a bowl of fruit for everyone.

She was not a notoriously warm woman. Very critical at times. She complained about our clothing, spending habits, tattoos, loudness, long hair that got all over the carpet. She hated the sound of me picking my fingers and told me so.

She showed her affection in nonverbal ways. Food and things to remember her by. Like her spirit lies in the golden candlestick holders that belonged to her mother. It took me a while to understand. She wore practicality like armor. She helped my sister open her first checking account. She introduced me to her gynecologist.

Don’t get me started on her meatballs. The secret ingredient was veal, which bothered me a little because of the baby cow thing, but I cared more about having a relationship with my grandmother than eating ethically.

We ate on trays in her living room and watched black and white films together or Nickelodeon. And yes, you could eat food off her immaculate floor. Her home was always warm, and there were blankets that smelled like her folded in a basket next to the couch. Pictures of Italians lined the walls. The Sicilian side of the family had dark skin and were frowning in their photos. My grandmother was a young bride with a round face and a modern tea length length dress. This was my favorite picture on the wall. She looked like a glass doll. This is why everyone called her “Dolly.” Her real name was Santa. Yes, like Santa Claus.

After my grandfather’s passing, my grandmother and I grew closer. She texted me a lot. She still sent me coupons and birthday cards, even when they were for other people. When I visited her we’d watch Family Feud together. She thought Steve Harvey was a great host.

Sometimes she texted me late at night because she had a hard time sleeping. It must have been hard sleeping in a home without the man who lived with her for 63 years. They slept in separate rooms. Not because they grew distant from each other, but because my grandfather’s snores rattled the walls.

I walk into her hospital room, and she’s ordering tilapia off a menu. She’s wearing her glasses on the edge of her nose. Her hair is matted in the back, and she’s sitting up in bed. Her color is good. Her cheeks are sunken and pink. She wants mashed potatoes. She asks if they have any gravy, the brown kind. She asks for tea. She reminds the person on the phone that she has ice cream in the freezer my dad got her (Ben and Jerry’s vanilla) that she’s saving for later.

In between our conversation a nurse joins us. She has thick bangs and big eyes. She bows low like a well-trained dog, and all I can see are her bangs. She talks really slow to my grandmother.

“Santa. Would. You. Like. Me. To. Raise. This. Table? she asks. The nurse raises her arms as if to show that she is not full of sudden movements.

Another nurse comes in. She’s thin and fidgety. Her hair is tied into a fishtail braid.

“If you’re giving me another one of those pills, I don’t want it. They make me gassy,” my grandmother tells her.

The nurse laughs when my grandmother refuses the Ensure shake on her tray, which she says tastes like chalk and asks for her ice cream instead. Then fishtail nurse helps her to the bathroom. She compliments my grandmother’s cane, which has butterflies on it. My grandmother closes the back of her gown, embarrassed. I’ve never seen this much of her skin before.

I show my grandmother a post on Facebook that my sister Cassie wrote. My grandmother begins to cry when she reads the post. It says that my grandparents practically raised her and that it was a hard thing to do. My grandmother says, “Yeah we raised her like she was our own kid,” and she sniffs loudly.

My dad appears in the doorway. His work jeans are stained and torn at the knees. He’s wearing a Cubs hat that’s not all the way on his head. He looks worried. He brushes his eyebrows the wrong way and stares off into the distance. He seems happy to see me with his mom. He puts a hand on my shoulder.

“How are you doing, Bear?” he asks me.

My dad sinks into the chair opposite of my grandmother. We’re all silent for a while until my dad recounts the story about how his mother made him get a vasectomy after my brother was born.

“Ma grabbed me by the ear and took me to ‘Dr. Snip Snip.'” My dad sucks in his spit, making the sound of snipping. He uses his fingers like they’re scissors, slicing the air.

“Yeah the doctor who performed the surgery asked me if I had played a lot of sports growing up. Because there was a lot of damaged tissue. They had to dig it all out,” he laughs.

“Dad, no offense, but I’m not interested in hearing more about your vasectomy,” I say.

My grandmother chimes in. “I remember your grandfather’s vasectomy. He was so worried that his thing no longer worked,” she smiles devilishly. “It worked just fine when we tested it out. He gave me the ‘twinkle eyes,’ and I knew we were good to go.”

My stomach hurts. No one ever cares about being appropriate in my family.

I show my grandmother the magazine I put together. She is proud. So is my dad. He asks if he could keep the magazine. I’ve lost track of the amount of these things I’ve helped put together, and this is the first time I’ve shown anyone in my family my work.

I suddenly want to show them all the things. I show them a picture of the bird drawing. I show them pictures of my dog. They respect that I’m taking care of something. It’s not a kid, but it’s just as good, they both assure me. It surprises me how accepting they are. I’m not sure why I think my family won’t accept me.

My grandmother asks me, “Is there anything you can’t do?”

I want to ask my grandmother questions. Little does she know I’ve put together a little Q&A for her. It’s hiding on a sheet of paper in the magazine I brought. I write Q&As for work all the time. Company profiles. Chats with the president of such and such company. Sometimes I’m lazy and ask the same questions instead of coming up with new ones.

“Hey Grandma, can I ask you questions about your life?” I’m afraid of her reaction. She is mostly a private person.

“I don’t see why the hell not. I’m gonna be dead soon anyway,” she tells me.

Q: What made you most happy?

A: Being married to your grandfather. His support, love, passion, understanding, and humor made my life full and happy. There wasn’t a selfish bone in his body.

Q: When you get down on yourself or are in a funk, what do you do or tell yourself to make yourself feel better?

A: I tell myself to be strong. Face whatever.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: No regrets. Though, I do wish I would have been better with money. But then again, your grandfather and I enjoyed ourselves.

Q: If you could have told your parents anything while you growing up, what would it be?

A: I would tell them to be more understanding and supportive of me.

You have to remember my mother was very young when she had me. She was unhappy when she moved from some little hick town in Sicily and came to the U.S.

My grandfather had been in the U.S. for 12 years before he sent for his family. My grandfather was very mean to my mom. She couldn’t wait to get out of the house, and she rushed into a marriage with my father. My father was a cold man. I can’t remember many times when my parents weren’t arguing. Always arguing. My father couldn’t handle my mother. She had a nervous breakdown at one point. She was very sick. She wasn’t the nicest to me either. She stabbed me with a fork, even bit me once. She got better with age, though, and we eventually became closer.

I used to watch my sister, who was 12 years younger than I was. I was like a parent to her, practically raised her. I almost hated her for it. At 17 years old, I had to take my kid sister with me on dates with your grandfather. But he was understanding. On Saturdays he would wait patiently for me to clean the entire house, and then we’d go out.

Q: What did you like to do for fun growing up?
A: I played on a volleyball team for two years. And then I loved roller skating. I went two to three times a week. That was therapy to me.

I liked to travel. I worked at a travel agency and had a great time doing it. My favorite place I visited was Aruba. I liked the entertainment, the live shows. The gowns, dancing, and music.

I met my friend Lari on a plane going to Mexico. We had a blast. I was thin and blonde then.

This one guy came up to me and said, “Hey Seniorita, I want to show you a good time.”

I told him I had someone waiting for me back home. I told him no thank you.

He said: “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

I told him: “No, YOU don’t know what you’re missing.”

I used to love going out with your grandfather. I was happy no matter where we went.

I didn’t like our trip to St. Louis though. We got really bad sunburn, and there were snakes in the water. It was terrible.

Q: What were your hopes and dreams as a child?

A: That’s hard. I think for a while I wanted to conquer my inferiority complex. I thought I was inferior because of my disability. I lost my hearing in my ear when I was three years old. I was in the hospital for a month with a really bad kidney infection. The doctors thought that was the cause of the hearing loss. My parents treated me like I was stupid. I was a loner.

I started going to a school for the mute, deaf, and dumb. I spent one class a day learning how to read lips, which I didn’t take seriously because I was embarrassed. There were really smart students at my school, though. This one chick was completely deaf, and she was a truly gifted ballerina. She used a phonograph to feel the beat.

I didn’t know how bad my hearing was. I didn’t get a hearing aid until I was in my 60s. My kids begged me for years to get one. Finally, I did. The one I have now is an amazing piece of technology. My otolaryngologist did great work.

Q: What three words would you use to describe yourself?

A: Stubborn, private, and strong.

Q: What advice do you have for me and other young people growing up during such dark times?

A: I feel so bad for you guys. What a mess. So much anger right now.

Life is not fruit. Take a piece of it anyway. See if you can salvage it, make it better. Also limit who is in your life. Keep the people you know who care close to you. For the most part people like to gossip about each other. This always bored me. That’s why I didn’t hang downstairs with the rest of the folks in the bingo area. That’s all they like to do –talk about people who aren’t there.

Q: What brings you comfort?

A: When things are going good with the family. That was the same with your grandfather. He always worried about the family. When something went wrong, someone got hurt, he wished it happened to him instead. When Steven got sick, it crushed him. He was the softie, I was the bitch. He loved his grandkids. Being with them was his favorite. I’m glad my grandkids loved me even though I was a bitch.

“Grandma, the world needs bitches.”

Q: Are you worried about anything right now?

A: Not too much. I was worried about my credit card, but nothing is happening with it. It just drops off. And then I’m worried about the pain from the cancer. I mean I’ve gotten through plenty of surgeries (my kids don’t even know about half the surgeries I’ve had) but this is different. I hope I can hack it.

Q: What about after you die? Are you worried about that?

A: Well, I’m trying to pray, but it hasn’t been working. All throughout my life, I had faith without practicing any religion. I tried going to church with your grandfather for a while, but I disagreed with so many things. I felt like a hypocrite all the time too. Your grandfather respected my choice not to go. He always told me that I made up for it in strong values and a good heart.

I don’t know if my grandmother made her peace with God, but I know she’s at peace.

“I’m ready to be with your grandfather. I am 86. My mother was 84 when she died. My grandmother was 94.”

 

 

 

The loudest way to survive

So you didn’t get the knobby
shoulders you needed.
That’s a lot of us,
and I sympathize with relativity.
But let me let you
lean in on my secret:

my big-mouthery is
my own, but it’s also
cavewoman survival.

I did what I could
with sticks and stones.
But tried my best not
to break any bones
because I recognized
their malnourishment.

Children who have been
pushed down rivers
in baskets please
cry, cry, cry
as loud as you can.

Your cries will give way
to words, which you will use
as an armor of testament,
of existence, of proclamation
that you belong here,
that we’ve not yet
occupied Mars.

Don’t press so much on
the bruises, which
are designed or not
designed, depending
on how you look at it,
to fascinate and distract
you from what tickles
your insides and makes
you sneeze at the flower
raised in front of your face.

And if you can see it
don’t pluck the petals
just yet. Love me nots
are not yet in your equation.

This is your cliche to own.
These are your metaphors
to mix and match.

So lasso love.

Sling what you
did not receive.

When you pull it
from the earth,
rock it back and forth.

Then put it back
in the river you
remember floating
down so clearly.

Feed what will cleanse you.