At 2:30 a.m. and two weeks early, her water breaks. She calls her mother. I pack: notebook, pen, phone chargers, On Becoming a Novelist, my laptop, my clothes, her clothes, the duffel bag, grogginess, excitement, hope, fear.
At 3:26 a.m., I text my family. “Her water for sure broke this time. Now at the hospital.” On the delivery room couch, I take the January stillness into me. Because of her principal’s promise of being fired, she sits in the bed, tethered by machines and data, and tries to lesson plan. I read, underline, and write page numbers on an ink-smudged sticky note under the front cover. We wait in peace only broken by the occasional nurse’s check.
At 9:15 a.m., her parents and sister arrive from over four hours away. We worried they wouldn’t make it in time. We didn’t know they had ten hours to spare.
At 11:24 a.m., contractions cause her to clamp hands on the bars of the bed. I sit on the couch devouring donuts necessitated by low blood sugar. Unsupportiveness consumes me.
At 12:30 p.m., she’s stopped dilating. Eight is her plateau but ten is the magic number. I begin to get impatient. Anxiety cascades, overloads, and overflows my brain. What if my daughter’s heart stops beating on the monitor? What if they both die and leave me?
At 2:00 p.m., she’s pushing, breathing, pushing. I need to check the mail. Have my comics been delivered? “You’ve got to remember to breath.” I could have taught all my classes by now. “Make sure to keep your chin down.” No more pushing. Instead, walking, standing, leaning. Why can’t they get her out? What if she is in there too long—her head squished and her brain damaged?
At 4:10 p.m., there’s no more natural birthing, but instead, an epidural after the point they said it was unsafe. I watch without watching through the reflection in the mirror above the sink.
At 5:30 p.m., the bro anesthesiologist throws the cap for another needle across the room at the trash bin. He misses just like his efforts to relieve her pain. She’s delirious and shouldn’t feel her legs by now. She can still feel everything.
At 5:40 p.m., the doctor and nurses talk about what to do. They decide a caesarean section is the only choice if after another hour and a half nothing changes. She’s too tired to care or worry, but neither of us wanted that option and thoughts of her death return.
At 6:15 p.m., she’s still not ready. They give her more drugs, but they’ve stopped telling us what they’re pumping into her. I write this and everything else in my notebook. At first, these were notes for a poem, but now, it is record just in case.
At 6:30 p.m., her delirium breaks. “I need to push!” she yells.
At 7:36 p.m., I cry more than anyone else even Gwendolyn, my healthy daughter.
Seth Kristalyn holds an MA in English from Kansas State University. His work has never been published. He lives in southwestern Kansas where he works as an English instructor.
Henceforth, your wife declares, Friday night is christened family game night (which will later turn into Friday movie night, which will later turn into leave-us-the-fuck-alone-night, which will probably one day turn into let’s-Skype-the-kids-who-live-3000-miles-away-night). As a Mormon, you are supposed to believe families are eternal and despite your best efforts you are tethered to each other in this life and the next, like a string of cosmic paper dolls. You volunteer to make dessert. You select marshmallow surprises, a kind of gooey cinnamon biscuit discovered in an 8th grade summer cooking class. You are the only boy in class. The girls in your kitchenette wear fake nails and fake smiles and with fake whispers so everyone in class hears compliment you on your tits as you put on your apron. You don’t tell them how you stand at the mirror pressing little boy boobs together wondering if God made a mistake, which you believe is impossible because in the 8th grade you still believe in a benevolent deity. You come home crying, accusing your mother of hating you. Why else would she enroll you in a class for girls? She says one day you’ll thank her and—after thirty years still refuse to admit this to her—she is correct. In college you host dinner parties and discover college girls don’t want Neanderthals for husbands and find your dexterity in the kitchen arousing, as does your wife who has on occasion whispered inappropriate things in your ear as you prepare bœuf à la Bourguignonne. Dip marshmallows in melted butter and roll in cinnamon and sugar mixture. Wrap each marshmallow in pre-packaged croissant pastry dough, pinching dough at corners to seal marshmallow inside. Cook at 350° for ten minutes. Game night is Pictionary. Your turn proves complicated: self-portrait. This is confusing. Which self? As a firm believer in the multiverse you live in many hypothetical realities. You are a 16th century alchemist in the Bohemian court of Rudolf II with a cabinet of curiosity envied all over Europe. By day you are a fin de siècle flâneur in Paris, but by night a steampunk inventor. You are abandoned by your aristocratic parents because of a congenital heart defect and raised by gypsies in Budapest and educated on the high seas by cleft-palate Somali pirates before coming to America where you write leftist poetry loved by millions of New Yorkers. You are a vulture fighting over a roadside carcass. Again and again your lives return to the problem of religion. You practice messianic Judaism with Sabbatai Zevi and atheism with Rousseau. You make love to Rābi al Basri the Sufi mystic, take a vow of silence in Pangboche, protest slavery with the Quakers, spit on Christ as he walks to Golgotha, talk to jellyfish on a mescaline odyssey with a Navajo shaman, run through a busy market in Kabul wearing a fashionable C-4 vest shouting Allahu Akbar, and are a disembodied spirit sitting at the judgment bar before three empty chairs. Smoke fills the kitchen. A few of the marshmallow surprises are crisp sugary delights. Most have exploded into charred goo. You return to the drawing pad and as you draw a stick figure are seized by the possibility that in all these inflections of yourself, all of your transdimensional Whitmanesque multitudes, you have the same wife and the same four children and the same literary anonymity and the same kitchen full of smoke, a hope so impossible—so absurd—you have faith it has to be real.
Ryan Habermeyer’s debut collection of short stories, The Science of Lost Futures, won the BoA Short Fiction Prize (2018). He received his PhD from the University of Missouri and an MFA from UMass Amherst. His prize-winning stories and essays have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, his work most recently appearing in or forthcoming from Bat City Review, Hotel Amerika, and the Los Angeles Review.
Back in the day when we wrote letters to each other (with a pen or a typewriter or, in that odd transition time, writing on a computer, printing out the letter, and sending it through the mail), I remember more than one correspondent signing off with “in haste” above his signature. Virginia Woolf, reviewing some newly-found letters of Horace Walpole (1717-1797), whose correspondence would eventually fill 48 volumes in the Yale edition, says that he often used some variation of “in a violent hurry” at the beginning or end of his letters. A whole bookful of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters exchanged with the Duchess of Devonshire was titled by its editor In Tearing Haste, because of the ubiquity of that phrase in Leigh Fermor’s letters—though from their length and the care with which he composed them, you would not have thought him in a hurry.
No one writing an email or a text these days bothers to put down that she is in a hurry. When messages fly from writer to receiver at the speed of light (“twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is” according to Eric Idle and Clint Black), saying she’s in a hurry is superfluous. The medium is the message about speed here. Yet she still underlines her haste by skipping capitalization and punctuation, while abbreviating to the point of indecipherability. but u no im just :) 2 hear from her
Michael Cohen has been publishing personal essays (The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review and elsewhere) since his retirement from teaching. He lives on the Blood River in Kentucky and in the Tucson Mountains. His latest book is A Place to Read (IP Press, 2014).
A week after our father’s memorial service, my sister and I leave town for our cousin’s wedding. A wordless clamp lodges at my temples. My sister turns me sideways in the bed, places her hands in my hair. Maybe I can make it go away, she says.
The women in our family are always the loudest. Our cousin Marsha, yellow hair, red dress, calls out steps: the wobble, the slide, two kinds of shuffle. We dance with her into the din. We’re following orders, we’re miming happiness until we (goddamnit) feel it, every movement prescribed.
It’s a relief not to think for a while.
Later, my sister and I lie side by side on the queen-sized bed because we’re too tired to go back down and request a double. My sister says: Nope. Not tonight. We’re not going there.
Don’t say it.
No tears allowed, no crying.
There’s a snake around my neck that used to be a lion.
Melissa Benton Barker
Melissa Benton Barker’s work appears in Jellyfish Review, Peach Mag, Smokelong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Elemental, was named semi-finalist in The Atlas Review’s semi-annual chapbook reading period and finalist in Eggtooth Editions annual chapbook contest. She is the former managing editor of Lunch Ticket and a first reader at Vestal Review.
He looks like a more drunk, shorter Santa Claus, minus the charm & good cheer
except he’s got a fresh gash under his left eye that’s bleeding Christmas red & every word from his mouth is buckets, & I mean buckets, of cheap fifths of gin. This white homeless man, first asking then demanding a dollar from me & the woman I love in front of the pharmacy on the corner of 8th & University. I raise my hand, silent apology offered
as we move toward the door to find a birthday card for a friend. It’s people like you,
he says, catapulting his five-foot-four-and-a-half-inch frame into a monument of self-
righteous fury, and I’m talking to YOU, he barks the spit-laced words, calloused index finger nearly touching the raw umber hue of my fiancée’s clenched jaw—You’re not even
human, he says, you fucking monkey.
I knock him the fuck out—feel the sting
in my index & middle knuckles, relish
that crunch from when I sledgehammered
his jaw. His face becomes Mr. O’Reilly
telling me to stay out of trouble when
I came back to visit freshman year, it
becomes the mutiny of my body on
a dark street passing a man in a low-
pulled hoodie, it becomes my father’s
slight accent & my fifth grade friends
who giggled whenever he said the word
womens, it becomes my deeply buried
relief at knowing a cop protects me,
the time I carried my drunk hallmate
home in college, held her hair back
while she threw up for three hours, how
a hallway of mostly white faces still
assumes I fucked her.
When I write the story
in my head, I am always
the hero. In the old ones,
I was always the victim.
I easily have twenty pounds of muscle on this dude, not to mention
thirty years, seven inches, & one less extended tour at war—
not to mention enough light-skinned privilege of my own, enough
class benefit-of-the-doubt. I could pummel him into a coma
with a gang of NYPD officers nearby, explain why & have them chuckle,
nod, & say, Don’t worry, pal. We get it. Just clean up afterwards.
He follows us, my love in tears, as she retreats into the closest aisle.
I turn & face him: You just called my future wife a ‘monkey.’ Why?
You’re better than that. Imagine someone said that to a person
you love. And his eyes suddenly arrive—no longer
in Vietnam or his uncle’s basement in fourth grade chained
to a radiator or three decades’ worth of park benches—histrionic tears
start to drown the haphazard whiskers on his ruddy cheeks, as he pulls
sheets upon sheets of stolen frozen crabmeat from his tattered backpack,
his arms extended to her, offering them up as penance. The irony,
the allegory of this white man offering cold seafood to a Black woman
with a shellfish allergy.
A broken man has bullied the woman I love & anything I do will make me his bully.
I ask her, What would Darnell or Maurice do? What would Dr. King do? What would a ‘good man’ do? What should I have done? And again, the world demands answers from her but then mutes her response, silent as her voice in this poem, asking her to answer for something she has never owned nor sought. She’s between sobbing & punching the next man who talks, trying to busy her hands with Hallmark cards she can’t read through tears.
I imagine the scenario again, except this time while holding the hand of our six year-old
daughter & I am convinced that what just happened was either the bravest or most cowardly thing I have ever done.
I lie awake until we finally talk – she’s angry still,
the ache fresh as the gash on that hobo’s left cheek:
Honestly, fuck your social worker bullshit. He was
more important to you than me.
But, baby, what was I supposed to do? Beat his ass? What would that have done?
I don’t know, she says, I guess sometimes our options are only what is
At rest upon a body
of water without life
at the bottom of the earth
wedged between two peaks
in the middle of the Middle
East, serene resort
in the midst of a cluster
of ubiquitous crisscrossing
wars that are now just
landscape: two bodies
learn how to float again
for the first time. Two
best friends. Close
enough to the end to no
longer keep track of hours
or days. They carry
nearly two centuries
of stories and losses
and secrets between them
into this stinging cold
that refuses to let them
sink. Each refusing
to release the other’s
arthritic grip, knowing
they came here today to
let go—and so the lake
becomes a sea of schoolgirl
giggles hijacking their hoarse
throats, now laughing as
their scars make them
into glowing quilts beneath
the sheen of heavy salt. I see
only them in this sacred
pool that is closer to hell
than any other, called Dead
because nothing is able to
survive its grasp for too
long and yet here they are:
two old ladies who’ve defied
Carlos Andrés Gómez
Carlos Andrés Gómez is a Colombian American poet and the author of Hijito, selected by Eduardo C. Corral as the winner of the 2018 Broken River Prize. Winner of the Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize, Fischer National Poetry Prize, Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, his writing has been published, or is forthcoming, in the New England Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Yale Review, BuzzFeed Reader, The Rumpus, Rattle, CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape (Simon & Schuster, 2012), and elsewhere. Carlos is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
I wore my secondhand Ann Taylor dress for the occasion, a clean navy A-line with a futuristic geometric collar. That morning, underneath a colorful illustration of Dolly Parton, my cat inhaled food from his bowl and I didn’t think of you then because I was trying to get out the door.
You weren’t on my mind during my commute or when I was busy crunching numbers for my new boss. You weren’t there when I walked from 5th Avenue to Madison on my break, forgoing all the overpriced lunch places and instead deciding to enter a bank. When I shook the hand of a banker and told her I was there to open my first business account, you weren’t around. But when I spotted the “private client” sign on her desk, that’s when you entered my head.
You in your office with that unreasonably large computer screen and that framed letter J Edgar Hoover wrote to your mom’s dad. Hoover died almost fifteen years before you were a single cell ready to divide but even before you had a pulse, you had contacts.
You in your daily uniform of custom Brooks Brother suit, polished wingtip shoes, and a haircut that ages you by decades. You’re a young move maker motivated by a corporate spirit. While people your age are running companies that celebrate jeans, you prefer your female employees teetering in heels.
You come from people who know people so pictures of you shaking impressive hands are your favorite kind of art. The office’s only décor is framed pictures of you wearing the same smile and holding the same grip. There you are with the leader who is known for sexual assault and that other leader who filled that mass grave and there is that pin loving secretary of state. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen your office but I’m sure there are new frames of you shaking an Oscar-winning lady, a certain Vice President, and that daughter who grew up in the Senate.
As my smiling banker asked me questions, I remembered how on my last day you could barely shake my hand. At the elevator you looked like a kid playing grown-up, trying to look me in the eyes as you offered to help me in the future, considering yourself extraordinarily generous for giving me one week’s pay for severance.
As I transferred most of my small savings into my business account, I thought how luxurious it must have been for you to start a company that only presented a risk to your reputation. As my banker asked me to sign some papers I thought of your family Rolodex, Union Club membership, personal trainer wake up calls, and the thrill of starting my own business began to feel a lot like regret. My plans started to cracked, my mission and vision blurred, and I was about to tell my banker to stop when I really remembered.
I have that letter you signed, the one you asked me to help you print. The letter that says your company didn’t need me anymore because after two years of running matters of compliance, I was suddenly too qualified. I remembered that out of all the smart people you hired to hold you up, I was the only one to have her position dissolved. And that’s when you left my head and I went on with my business.
Angela Santillo is a playwright based in New York City. Her plays have been produced and developed in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Her first nonfiction story, “Everything I Could Dump Into a Prologue” was published by Exposition Review and has been nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize. She is producer and host of the podcast And Then Suddenly. She has her BA in English and Theater from Saint Mary’s College of California and an MFA in Theater from Sarah Lawrence College. www.angelasantillo.com