In the video, you’re riding a brown horse around a dusty cement arena somewhere in Mexico, the place you told me not to visit because you were enjoying your solitude, so I didn’t bother learning the city’s name. The horse trots and you bounce like a child on his uncle’s knee. As the horse makes its rounds, jogging you up and down, you laugh – a laugh I know well enough to know it isn’t from joy but to mask your lower back pain from an old skateboarding injury.
Anyone else watching this video would think you’re having fun, but as grainy as the video is, I see suffering. In November, just seven months ago, I drove you to the hospital in Tuscaloosa at dawn, sat in the waiting room for hours for your outpatient lumbar surgery. When the nurse called my name to meet you, I was in the bathroom. You were afraid I’d left. Call her again, you slurred, heavy-lidded from anesthesia, not realizing I’d walked in behind you. Two days shy of your 44th birthday, you slouched in a wheelchair, sipping apple juice from a Styrofoam cup. Your relief when I said, I’m here, mirrored my own elation decades earlier when I was a sobbing child separated from my mother in JCPenney, just to realize she’d been behind me the whole time.
When we got back to your apartment, I helped you into bed, then tucked myself in beside you. You curled your arm around my waist and said your biggest fear was my cancer coming back. I whispered, That’s my fear to have, not yours. As you shuddered into sleep, you said you loved me for the first time. You didn’t remember it the next day.
Seven months ago. That’s not so long.
In the video, your sunglasses hide your grimace, but as the horse speeds up, your mouth opens slightly and you let out a sound I’ve heard before, halfway between a laugh and a cry, and my own spine throbs. Your groan is not unlike the sound you made so often in bed, the soft moan as you turned me on my side after sex, staying inside me, our bodies slick with each other’s sweat.
You post this video on Facebook after three days of radio silence. After nearly a year of daily communication. After hundreds of messages claiming I am everything you ever wanted.
In the video, someone is offscreen, recording. A woman. She giggles each time you trot by. In her giggle, I hear everything you haven’t told me—why you didn’t want me to buy a plane ticket, the precise way you have been enjoying your solitude. You post this video three days before sending me an email you didn’t have to send. The video is enough. Still, you feel compelled to tell me: I’ve met someone special.
Sara Pirkle is a Southern poet, an identical twin, a breast cancer survivor, and a board game enthusiast. Her first book, The Disappearing Act (Mercer University Press, 2018), won the Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry. She also dabbles in songwriting and co-wrote a song on Remy Le Boeuf’s album, Architecture of Storms, which was nominated for a 2023 GRAMMY in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album category. She is an Associate Director of Creative Writing at The University of Alabama.
Before I wrote color essays for an arts magazine, I was curator of a gallery. Before I became a curator, I was moving 3000 miles across the United States. Before the 3000 miles, I was meditating six hours a day in the snow. Before the stillness and cold, I was a marriage counselor causing many a divorce. Truth telling breaks up static. Before the truth, I gave shiatsu massages where I had to do pushups with my thumbs to keep them strong. Before weak thumbs, I memorized Shakespeare while training my voice to project on stage without a mike by repeating daily manalathavaza and other voice exercises, using a bone prop propped between my lips to keep vowels open and consonants sharp. Before those three years, I modeled flannel nightgowns in NYC and waited on tables, and before that flunked junior year of high school but managed to fake my way to graduate on time. Before that I was stuck in the middle of three brothers in the middle of the United States. And then I was born. In between all this, I hitchhiked for two years through the Middle East.
Hitchhiking on trucks, sitting in smoke-drenched cafes with only men, following a stranger to a dark hallway in Aleppo to change money for a better exchange rate, riding through Damascus in a beat-up Fiat instructed to remain silent lest the government hear us while 16-year-old boys with machine guns guard the streets– it’s impossible to know what my boundaries are. How much to assert myself. How much to speak. It’s difficult to know what is cultural and how much is individual bias. I drink four tiny cups of Turkish coffee with a Bedouin family and it is one too many; tradition deeming three as hospitable and four you’ve outstayed your welcome. Being a woman I tend towards remaining quiet and later question whether I should have spoken up. Invited to dinner ends up sitting on the floor with eight men, eating with our fingers while a woman’s hand keeps passing plates of food through a curtain. One of the men says, while casting sidelong smirks my way, “Women change with the moon or rather the moon changes women and money changes the man.”
I write this on a table of weathered wood, the turquoise paint peeling into the knot beneath my notebook. My past settles behind me and the future is now. My heart expands and my forehead softens and the sea is turquoise beyond the blond sand. Through the open window the sun lies gentle on my face. I don’t want religion. I want to experiment with other realities, but not with drugs. It must be possible.
If society is narrow then I must be wider. The world is in me. I am the world. A colorful shawl, some warm tights, a pair of wool socks and I’m on my way. I move less as I move. It is a consideration of tasks.
Dian Parker’s essays have been published in 3:AM Magazine, The Rupture, Anomaly, Epiphany, Tiny Molecules, Channel, Event, Burningword Literary, Westerly, Critical Read, After the Art, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Her art writing is with Art & Object, Fine Books & Collections, Art & Antiques, Art New England, London Observer, and others.
I write about my mother in beginnings. 1187 words. Then 1090, then 886, then 690. Finally, something I title, “Mom, Trying,” but it’s a blank page. A pretend surface for zero ideas. A bald-faced failure. Mine and hers.
Then not-made-up short fiction: a 1971 protagonist, sedated by Elavil and Valium. Her doctor calls her one of his unhappy housewives. She walks through her living room in the mid-afternoon, her gauzy nightgown brushing the carpet, the house empty. She picks up the local college newspaper from the coffee table and sees a headline: “Sexuality Conference Begins Next Week.” She reads the words women’s liberation for the first time.
Her legs fail her. She grabs the back of a frayed wingback chair and holds on. She does not fall. She reads the story again and again.
She leaves her husband, a drunken narcissist English professor.
But also her two children, who are none of these.
Here, I stop writing.
A few years later, my mother files for custody and wins, her debt a mountain, her regret an ocean below.
She now appears in essays I write: At 16, I make myself vomit as she pounds on the locked bathroom door. At 18, I withhold plans to drink and drink and drink as she waves goodbye from the front door. At 22, I sob in paranoia and panic as she drives me to a hospital.
At 25, I ache with morning sickness and shame as she asks no questions and, I am certain, wipes out her savings account when she mails the check inside a folded note. I’m so happy to help, she writes. I’m glad I can do this. Make sure you get enough sleep. Each line level across the page, her cursive steady.
As I revise this, she is dead at 83. She had dementia. All of her lifelong struggles gone, her final hours both terminal and restless, tremors of objection she could not control.
Mom, I said. I held my face in her line of vision as her knees shook beneath her sheet. Do you know who I am?
A storm of memory in her eyes.
Yeah, she said.
She would not have retained my thanks, I tell myself. She would have forgotten, immediately, who I am.
It’s your daughter, I could have said. Who you loved.
Anna B. Moore
For the last two decades, Anna B. Moore has been publishing creative nonfiction, essays, and short fiction in a variety of literary journals and magazines, including The Missouri Review, The Offing, and Identity Theory. Two of her essays were nominated for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net 2022; her first novel will be published by Unsolicited Press in 2024. She lives in Northern California—read more of her work at www.annabmoore.com.
Each time gets you instant skinny. As soon as the kid slips out. Okay, maybe not exactly “slips.” More like twenty-two hours of show-off stoic teeth-clenching stuffed-down guttural silent wailing, spring-loaded contorted spasming and twisted viscera vice-gripped wrenching, on all fours, crouching, bucking, crouching, bucking, butt-up then flipping, or being flipped, waxed pussy exposed to probing perineum massaging fingers stretching skin not meant to be stretched so thin it rips…. No! No! No! No! I changed my mind. Too late, can’t go back, can’t stop now. No epidurals for you. Just fifteen milligrams of morphine that do nothing. NOTHING. Get it out of me! They won’t let you push. Not now, just rest, just wait. The calm between storms. Worse than the searing stabs of pain is waiting for it to attack again. You’re doing great. Take a break, have a rest.… YOU HAVE TO SHIT IT OUT NOW! Why won’t the let you? Jerking, kicking, flailing, an animal eviscerated from the inside out, sinewed innards ripped apart like string cheese. You clutch Naomi Wolff’s Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood so hard it drips ink onto crumpled sheets, scream accusations during the exorcism to nurses checking vitals. Your husband’s face so close you could bite it off as he mansplains Lamaze-class breathing techniques. FUCK him and anyone else in the room not being ripped right now from sphincter to urethra by a live basketball trying to drive itself through a pinhole. He orders in Thai food and watches a crime show while you “rest.” Then, finally, spun on your side, legs held up and out, one final UGHHH …. Easy. And you are skinny again. Or, at least not pregnant. Instant relief. You can breathe all the way. Your body torn, pulled inside out, is yours again. The infant placed upon your chest, slimed-alive pygmy alien crawls blind-eyed to the nipple and suckles.
You can see your feet and roll on your stomach again. And the boobs, a puberty you never had, big and hard, so full and round they look fake, Instagramable tits producing life juice, immunity superfood full of nutrients. And you thought pregnancy gave you boobs? These are another category, cups so full they shoot way up the alphabet. For the first time in your life, you have a chest that sticks out, more proud and womanly than ever been before.
Then the shitting starts. The first day out for a walk, alone with your precious angel perfect infant snug-wrapped close against your body, swaddled in the all-natural fiber baby wrap, imbuing you with a preternatural youthful beauty, though yours was a geriatric pregnancy. You wear white slip-on sneakers, the denim maxi-skirt from a French designer bought on sale at a boutique you permit yourself to browse in only once every two years, if that. The air as alive as you and your newborn. A bright calm clean day bears witness as you mother life upon your very being when your body decides to go rogue, and your anus explodes, a poop right there on the street. Your butthole expels a warm soft-serve you feel ooze down your thighs. You want to run the block and a half home but must keep the legs closed, fast walk in urgent tiny Geisha steps. Squeeze sphincter, squeeze sphincter, hold it, hold it… Almost home, your body relaxes before you are ready; something opens, dribbles out a warm splurt again. You all but throw your precious days-old cargo onto the bed, work fast to extricate yourself from the muslin cloth and leap onto the toilet. With speed and care you pull the postpartum mesh underwear down and out, so as to not spread the excrement even more, a move you will come to perfect in years to come when changing infants and toddlers in the same predicament. An expert in the tender cleaning of messes.
A. Cabrera’s creative nonfiction and fiction have appeared in The New Guard, Brain,Child Magazine, Colere, Acentos Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Best Travelers’ Tales 2021 Anthology, Deronda, Anti-Heroin Chic, and other journals. Their work has been nominated for a Pushcart Award and adapted for stage by the Bay Area Word for Word Theater Company.
Male high school students back in the 1950s were prone, like teenage boys everywhere, to boast about their exploits. Whenever one of them told a story that was hard to believe, the others would blurt, “Swear to God?” The storyteller was required to reply: “Swear to God!” The tale often involved some sexual exploit that had about as much chance of being true as the teller’s having recently been transported by aliens to the moon. Never mind: if it was lurid enough or entertaining enough, fantasy would happily substitute for reality. For enormous whoppers, the other boys would say not merely, “Swear to God?” but also “Mother’s honor?” To which the proper response was: “Mother’s honor” uttered with right hand raised, left hand over the heart, and eyes tilted heavenward. It is unclear which was more sacred, whether “Swear to God?” ranked first because it was invoked first, with “Mother’s honor?” called upon simply to bolster the case or whether “Mother’s honor?” ranked higher because it was invoked last and was the ultimate court of appeal. There were other solicitations, such as “No shit?” and “Cross your heart?” but “Swear to God? and “Mother’s honor?” got top billing. One particularly tall tale required that we pull out all the ritual stops. My glibbest sixteen-year-old friend, for whom truth was absolutely no constraint, concocted a story of how the most beautiful older girl in town had succumbed to his charms. She was in her mid-twenties, had dark, dreamy eyes, full, sexy lips, large pert breasts, and an irresistible beauty mark halfway down her right cheek. The seduction tale proceeded in a heated frenzy for at least fifteen minutes during which my friend omitted no obscene detail whatsoever and his panting cohort listened in rapt awe. At the climax of which, so to speak, the group shouted: “No Shit?! Cross your heart?! Mother’s honor?! SWEAR TO GOD?!” To which my friend calmly replied, with his right hand raised, left hand over his heart and eyes titled heavenward: “No shit. Cross my heart. Mother’s honor. Swear to God.”
David Blumenfeld (aka Dean Flowerfield) is a former philosophy professor and associate dean who in retirement returned to writing poetry, creative nonfiction, and children’s literature, which he abandoned in his thirties to devote full-time to philosophy. One of his recent pieces was cited in Best American Essays, 2022 as a “notable essay;” another received a Pushcart Prize nomination; a third was “highly commended” in the 2022 Autumn Voices international poetry competition and will soon be republished in Five Points. His work for children has appeared in The Caterpillar, Balloons Lit. Journal, Smarty Pants, Carmina, and various anthologies. www.davidcblumenfeld.com
I shift a pile of books on my desk, and dozens of slips of paper shower to the floor. They’re wrinkled and torn, some no larger than one square inch, each decorated in my dad’s shaky cursive—noting an idea, a page number, the name of a theologian long dead.
My dad threw away nothing. His home office was uninhabitable, full of faculty meeting agendas from the 70s; sixty years of tax returns; yellowed articles about canning tomatoes and pruning apple trees; tattered lecture notes for every class he ever taught; a lifetime of letters from his mother.
During his final year, I pressed him to go through boxes—“What do you want to keep?”—and he would grow quiet, brow furrowed. I scolded him as I sat on his living room floor, sorting bag after bag of junk mail. “Why don’t you just throw these away?”
Going through his things, I sometimes discovered a treasure: the letter written to his congressmen when he was twelve years old, imploring them to help the people of Finland and China; the curled black and white photos of him at eighteen on a San Diego pier in his Navy uniform; notebooks from his first year at Yale, thanks to the GI Bill. Each provided a glimpse into an earlier version of my dad, before I knew him.
But why keep the departmental minutes from 1982? The dozens of church bulletins? The wrapping paper scraps and flyers from neighborhood handymen he never hired?
Now that Dad is gone, it’s up to me to parse what has value and what does not. But now, of course, everything holds more value than it did before—each item or paper or Post-It note a tether back to him.
So, I have become a curator of his things: the faded red tape dispenser and the heavy lead stapler that sit on my desk; his unfinished manuscript, which I emailed to myself for safekeeping; hundreds of his notated books that populate my shelves; his Martin Luther bobblehead perched on my dining room window sill; his prize tangerine tree, which I carefully rotate into the sun. And those many slips of paper decorated in his shaky scrawl—the physical manifestation of his mind at work—those I hold in my open palm like wilted blossoms so that they, too, are not lost to me.
Kate Hopper is a writer, editor, writing coach, and the founder of Motherhood & Words®. She is the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, winner of a Midwest Independent Publishing Award, and she’s co-author of Silent Running, a memoir of one family’s journey with autism and running. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals, including Brevity, Creative Nonfiction’s True Story, Longreads, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times online, Poets & Writers, and River Teeth. Kate has taught creative writing for over 20 years, and lives in Minneapolis with her family. For more information about her work visit www.katehopper.com.