Can You Hear My Ears Bleeding

I first noticed the alien on a stormy night in Amsterdam. Jared bought us a six-pack of Amstel from Sterk Avondverkoop down the street. We stayed in the hostel we called home, watching reruns of Friends until slurred snores were louder than the laugh track after Chandler’s jokes. When everyone else was asleep the alien whispered to me. He told me I was chosen—chosen to be the one to introduce him to the human world. His voice was so quiet then and I’d had enough beers that I didn’t really listen. I let myself fall asleep to the hum of Jared’s slow breaths and figured the alien would be gone with the hangover in the morning.

That morning I heard him in the crackle of my Coco Krispies. My spoon dropped violently to the ground. I screamed at Jared that someone spoke to me through my cereal and begged him to make them stop. Jared cracked up, the milk spurting out his nose as he said, “Are you still drunk? It was just a couple of beers!” I laughed along because he was probably right. Besides Rice Krispies are supposed to talk to you, that’s the whole point.

A week later Jared went to see some Indie Art film with our hipster roommates. Usually I would join them but I’d seen enough teen angst for the week and just wanted to curl up with a book and a mugful of tea. That’s when I heard the alien again. This time he was in the patter of the rain beating on the bay window I had commandeered as my personal oasis, replacing potted plants with pillows when we first got here. His voice was loud and pleading. He needed my help to learn the ways of the world. I was already comfortably struggling through Les Miserables by myself, but began to read out loud so he could hear. If he wanted to be a part of this world he’d need to understand human nature. I preferred reading out loud anyway—so I was really doing this for me not him. At least that’s what I told myself after we got through The Sun Also Rises and the entire Harry Potter series.

Months passed and the alien still spoke to me. By then, this alien’s safe journey to earth had become my mission. Jared began to notice the changes: I spent more time alone reading and listening; I’d drink tea at hole-in-the-wall cafes instead of going barhopping with him; and I didn’t want to finish our trip across Europe. What if we left and I couldn’t hear the alien anymore?

The alien’s power grew. I finally told Jared I was still hearing voices and he said I should see a doctor. I promised I’d go to a psychologist the next day. But I knew a shrink would just give me a pill or strap me to a hospital bed, so when Jared took me to the office I waved from the lounge then walked upstairs and joined a weekly yoga class instead. The deep breathing helped and I could hear the alien better here. In downward dog, the alien’s voice was a gentle purr.

Jared goes out every night now. I think he’s jealous of my alien. He doesn’t know what to do with his arms anymore when we’re together. I think Jared is afraid that touching me is the same as touching the alien, thinking if he rubbed me the wrong way he’d feel the alien’s bony fingers intertwining with his. I tell him he’s crazy, the alien’s fingers are soft not bony.

Sometimes I regret being the chosen one. I throw up when the alien screams into my ear. Jared can’t hear it so he sleeps soundly. Besides he stopped waking up to comfort me months ago. Though yesterday, Jared whispered a hesitant “hello” to the alien. Unsure where to direct his greeting, Jared settled on a blank stare at the ceiling. These days I choose the rocking chair in the kitchen over the bay window when I read to him. Like I am now, alien thoughts pooling. Just when I think I’m alone with the alien, Jared comes for me and drives us somewhere he thinks the alien would like.

But I’d rather show the alien the purple wildflower speckled meadow behind the house I grew up in. I’d take him to the patch of clovers under the swing set and we’d search for four-leafed ones until our fingers turned green. I’d lie beside him on the porch. Smile as his eyes widen to watch the sunset reveal stars and planets, finally looking at them like humans do.

I wake up to the sound of my own screaming. Jared is pale, eyes bulging. He hands me water, but I push it back because he looks like he needs it more than I do. The alien whispers, “It’s time” and I yell until I feel my vocal chords reverberating in my throat, they freeze into place once they pick a pitch for the screech. The alien pokes out his head, which is oozing with slime now collecting on my thigh. I grab unto Jared’s forearm, nails digging until they find a permanent spot in the blue of his veins. Jared’s watery eyes drain months of disbelief in a single tear down his cheek. When he holds the alien he probably only sees the green veins on his forehead or the purple sparkle of his eyes, but the smile on my face eases away the scowl on Jared’s as I name my alien.

Atousa Motameni is a Persian-American writer who recently graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with degrees in Psychology and English Literature. While there, she was a member of the Jiménez-Porter Writer’s House—a collection of misfit toys that write. She is obsessed with apples, pomegranates and cardamom tea.

Proposal pitching the next big breakthrough reality show to my hero, Andy Cohen of Bravo


Meet the Poets


Reality descends upon 16 obscure poets when they are thrust into a four-bedroom house well-stocked with wine, whiskey and cigarettes. Without a computer, dictionary, or thesaurus, the poets must dip fountain pen into ink and produce great poetry if they are to become the last poet standing. Dicey and dangerous words spill from quills in this high-drama, docu-style reality series in which the stakes are incredibly low. Think: “Ice Road Truckers” meets “Tabitha Takes Over” meets “The Millionaire Matchmaker.”


Co-hosts and beloved poets Sharon Olds and Billy Collins, wearing black turtlenecks and slacks, greet viewers as they tune in each week to Meet the Poets. It’s like Tabitha Takes Over except nobody’s taking over and nobody is a hairstylist named Tabitha. Sharon and Billy wield red pens like shears and occasionally suggest cutting extraneous words. Needless adjectives weigh down meaning, one of them will say. Things get hairy as, with each snip of stanza, hurt feelings fly like simile.

A Note about Winning and Losing:

Any poet who doesn’t follow the show’s guidelines (refer to attachment 1-B) will no longer be considered part of the show and subject to immediate removal. This will add to the drama as viewers feel like they’ve been hit by an ice truck and are left wondering, What the hell’s going on? What happened to that poet I liked?

Each week the poet with the worst poem must leave and the poet voted with writing the best poem wins five hours alone in the highly coveted writers’ retreat cabin. The last poet standing receives no financial compensation, but he/she will receive a complimentary copy of the TV Guide that lists that week’s final episode. One of their poems will also be considered for publication in a literary magazine of their choice—but no guarantees.

Episodes 1-11:

#1: Meet the Poets.

As the poets arrive, viewers hold their breath as brawls erupt over commas, where to place them, or if they should be there at all.

We meet Francois, who prides himself on ending lines with a preposition. He also overuses the phrase: to flail like fish. Prone to sentimentality, Francois is the first poet voted off the show.

Then there’s Madeline, the poet’s poet. Generous with both praise and helpful critique, Madeline encourages the others, all the while churning out stunning verse that knocks the other poets breathless. Contrast this with the selfish Morinda, who cares only about her precious windmill poems and exhibits rude behavior, such as flossing her teeth or leaving the set while others reveal their works.

Belinda is a lonely housewife and closet poet who, as quickly as she writes poems, shoves them under sofa cushions. Hilarity ensues when she learns there are no sofas and no place to hide. As she is forced to face her fears, viewers fall in love with Belinda and her poems.

Enter Al, who can forge metaphor out of metal, not to be confused with Sal, who is transitioning from male to female. A former lawyer who once wore ties and wrote powerful haikus on the sidelines of her briefs, Sal surprises viewers—and herself—with gripping villanelles.

A known semi-colon hater and slam poet who is inclined to rhyme arrives late on the scene; stirs bitter feelings among the contestants. Does the poet not concede that, at the very least, a semi-colon is necessary between two independent, yet related clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction?

Throw in a poet past his prime who wears a tweed jacket, smokes and drinks excessively, and you have yourself: One. Hot. Show.

At the end of this first episode, the contestants each draw a number to learn the order in which they will select a cardboard cutout resembling a dead poet. One by one they enter a dark, smoky coffee joint and place their cut out on a chair next to a cafe table that holds only a flickering candle.

The following episodes, with the exception of the finale, culminate at the coffeehouse. The poets take turns reading their work aloud to Robert Frost, Rumi, Sylvia Plath, Lord Byron, Basho, Maya Angelo, Anne Sexton, and others. The air is thick with smoke, the judges obscured, and the poets see only their silhouettes. (The true identities of the judges will be revealed in the final episode.)

After the judges vote, Sharon Olds approaches the table of the poet whose poem is deemed most unworthy. With thumb and forefinger, she extinguishes the candle flame. We hear a hiss or sigh (the poets will later argue over the sound of a flame dying). The loser must then immediately pick up their dead poet cutout and head out into the dark and stormy night or maybe it will be woods on a snowy evening depending on the night they lose. In episode #3, loser poet does not go gentle into that good night, but will rage, rage, rage against something trite.

As Sharon Olds licks her singed fingers, the camera cuts to the hands of Billy Collins. He’s opening a book that contains a list of the contestants’ names. Using the eraser end of a pencil, Billy rubs out the name of the loser poet. (Sometimes, especially when he doesn’t like the poet, he will rub so hard that he’ll make a raggedy hole in the paper.)

Scene fades as the winning poet dashes off to the writers’ retreat.

#2: It happens all the time.

Poets funnel into an empty room. Voluminous voices of editors who have rejected their fine work are piped into the room through large speakers in the ceiling. Against the backdrop of failures, they must persevere and write a haiku. Then, sent into a room without alliteration or rhyme, the poets, in nine hours, are required to compose an epitaph to time.

#3: There once was a poet named…”

Each poet must pull a word out of their butt. That word becomes the subject of their limerick. The more risqué the five-line poem, the more likely they will survive this episode.

#4: Land-ho!

Poets are forced to write a pantoum on a pontoon. Captain Lee of the hit show Below Deck is at the helm as the poet past his prime falls overboard, hits his head, ruins his tweed jacket, and is rushed to the E.R. He’ll return in the next episode, drunker than ever and without his tweed jacket.

#5: Haiku you?

The remaining contestants must write a haiku again. This time, there’s a catch. They must convince a stranger, preferably one they meet on a bus, to allow them to tattoo the three lines somewhere on their body. Former reality star and tattoo artist Kat Von D of LA Ink stands by to assist.

#6: It’s sonnet as easy as it appears.

While blindfolded, poets are divided into two groups. They must work in teams to pen a sonnet at sunset. They’re not allowed to reference light or lack thereof, or use any noun or verb beginning with the letter “S” or “R.”

#7: One part inspiration, but mostly perspiration.

Remaining poets are given $100 and let loose in a bookstore. They have five minutes to purchase inspiration for their next poem. The self-absorbed Morinda buys up copies of her latest chapbook, Windmills, writes a poem she entitles “Ottoman or footstool, you decide” and is promptly voted off the show. 

#8: Because I could not stop for Death.

We see a close-up of horses’ hooves clopping along city streets and coming to rest before the poets’ place. Contestants climb aboard Emily Dickinson’s leisurely carriage ride. They pass by everything familiar only to disembark at their future graves. There, amidst stone and moss, they tackle death and loss with only pen and paper.

#9: Woo-Hoo, William Carlos Williams!

This week, contestants are whisked away in red wheelbarrows and dropped off at a farm. Sitting on bales of hay, they must create prose poems as Vicki Gunvalson of The Real Housewives of Orange County arrives and starts chattering about her ex-boyfriend and how she can’t believe he faked cancer. Vicki is holding white chickens to her plunging neckline glazed in gold. So much depends upon whether or not their poem makes her toss a chicken into the air and shout out her trademark, Woo-Hoo! The poet who commands the biggest Woo-Hoo! is wheeled away and gets five blessed, camera-free hours in the retreat cabin. The losers must find their own way back.

#10: Are you botched, baby?

Poetry, as you may have noticed by now, lends itself well to crossover shows and so plastic surgeons and Bravolebrities abound in this series. In this episode, Botched stars Dr. Terry Dubrow and Dr. Paul Nassif thrust a mangled poem under the noses of the remaining contestants. The poets must salvage what they can and fix it. The hitch? They have one hour and must do it while under anesthesia and the watchful eyes of the plastic surgeons. Viewers will be transfixed, wondering, can this botched poem be saved?

#11:  Wait, er, I heard a fly buzz…

The season finale culminates in the greatest crossover show ever. After the final four poets receive fabulous make-overs, hosts Sharon and Billy pair the poets with a Top Chef contestant to create a meal that evokes the taste of their latest poem. But wait! There’s one final twist. Dressed as Walt Whitman, Bravoleb and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio bursts on the scene and informs the poets that they must also pair their poem with one of Bethany Frankel’s Skinny Girl cocktails along with a side of Sestina.

The poets serve up their poems, dishes and drinks to the judges—their identities now revealed—and wait for the final verdict. Judge Nene Leeks of Real Housewives of Atlanta points out one poet’s poor decision to pair a simple soup and Skinny Girl Naked Cosmos with a poem layered with meaning. Obsessive compulsive designer Jeff Lewis of Flipping Out flips out over the clean lines of another poet and then berates another for their clunky phrases but, in the next breath, congratulates them for serving their hunkless poo of poetry with meatloaf drenched in gravy. The third and final judge is the entire cast of Vanderpump Rules minus Lisa Vanderpump. Because they are beautiful, young, and stupid, these waiters and waitresses don’t contribute anything of significance other than the hotness factor.

And the final poet left standing is…..well, you’ll just have to produce the show and see who wins.

Reunion Show:

Hosted by Andy Cohen, the cast convenes in a library and argues over the pedagogy of poetry, wrangles over words, such as is bungle better than blunder? Viewers are treated to never-before-seen moments, such as an in-depth and heated discussion between Sal and Al about line breaks and when Madeline, Al, and Belinda confront the very nature of poetry. Naked and afraid in a public, but rarely frequented park, these three contestants create some of the show’s most raw, stark poems.

Final Thoughts/Comments on Casting and Spin-Offs:

If Angela Lansbury isn’t dead, her presence on the show may rope in older viewers. I loved her in Murder, She Wrote, didn’t you?

Bravo should be prepared that Meet the Poets will likely inspire wildly successful spin-offs, such as Meet the Playwrights and Meet the Hic Lit Chicks.

Jennifer Clark is the author of Necessary Clearings (Shabda Press). Her second poetry collection, Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman is forthcoming from Shabda Press. Co-editor of the recently released anthology, Immigration & Justice for our Neighbors (Celery City Books), Clark’s work has been published in Columbia Journal, Flyway, Amsterdam Quarterly, Nimrod, and Ecotone, among other places. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.



“My parents are famous,” Chanel boasted.

She stood on the dirty steps of Hollywood High school. A minty Newport dangled from her glossed lips. Her thin legs were wrapped in torn fishnets and she wore an oversized Sonic Youth shirt, belted into a sloppy dress. A mural sprawled behind her, acrylic and stucco images of celebrities—legends—former students who once stood on these steps and carried their books down these halls. Rudolph Valentino was the last painted face, dressed in his famous Sheik robes. He had gone to school in Italy.

Other students stood on the steps below her or in patches of desiccated grass. Ravers sucked on oversized pacifiers, their necks stained from candy necklaces and stuffed animals draped down their Day-Glo backs. Popular girls with shiny hair stretched their tanned legs over a fluffy pink comforter. They blew iridescent bubbles that they popped with manicured fingers. They ate bananas and tossed the peels behind them. Behind the girls were stoner boys with greasy hair and acoustic guitars slung over flannelled shoulders. They kicked up a limp hacky sack with the sides of their scuffed Vans.

“Who are they?” one of them asked.

Chanel bit her lip, tasted the saccharine berry of her gloss, and scanned her audience. It wouldn’t matter to them that her mom once photographed David Bowie or gave giggly hand jobs with Sable Starr. It wouldn’t matter that she’d been an early fixture of the Sunset Strip and was once invited to dance on the tables of the Rainbow. And her dad? The fact that he filled in the gaps of forgotten anachronistic bands wouldn’t matter either. The New York Dolls were nothing but a Hot Topic t-shirt to these kids.

They wouldn’t get it. They just wouldn’t get it. She was part of the wrong generation.

They were all idiots.

Chanel jumped off the wall, smashing her cigarette on the rubbery sole of her boot. Shimmering embers danced down the gray steps.

Everyone looked at her.

“You wouldn’t know who they are,” she said, smirked, and lit another cigarette.

“That girl is so weird.”

“Her parents are probably has-beens, anyway.”


Chanel walked home alone. She kept her head down, her steps brisk down the smooth sidewalk. She avoided the homeless men, burrowed under the bushes holding out their smudged hands and asking for spare change. Squishy headphone speakers throbbed inside her ears, blasting T-Rex’s Electric Warrior.

She was surprised to come home with both parents’ cars parked in the driveway—her father’s dented ’52 Buick and her mother’s Rabbit, white and boxy with a hanging muffler. They always said her mother had the reliable car, even when the car sputtered and blackened fumes spewed from the exhaust.

Chanel wished they weren’t home. It was better when the house was quiet and Chanel could imagine them—not listen to them complain about hangovers or explode into mutual denigration. She liked to pretend they were on red carpets or drinking champagne with Iggy Pop, maybe driving around in Liberace’s rhinestone car wearing top hats and gaudy jewelry.

She opened the door slowly, the hinge creaking. Overpriced antiques—a rusted Victrola, a dented Jukebox, sun-damaged reels of silent film—cluttered the living room. All of them covered in brown dust and old, unopened bills. The pieces weren’t arranged, just propped against the burgundy walls or piled on the sticky wood floor. Her father couldn’t resist a steal at the local antique malls, even when the electric company threatened to shut off the lights. And Chanel’s mother wasn’t any better. She charged credit cards, and then called her own parents sobbing, telling them she didn’t know how Chanel would survive. Chanel stashed the money given to her at birthdays and holidays inside of worn socks and cracked CD cases. Just in case.

Chanel heard her parents. Loud and almost frantic from the back room—the one where her father kept his collection of vintage guitars. Cigarettes stained the walls of that room, the paint greasy and yellow. Old ashtrays covered the floor and teetered on blackened windowsills. Getting closer, she heard her mother’s shrill laughter and the manic words of her father. He was probably trying to secure himself on someone’s tour. Probably trying to sell his musical skills—reminding them about that time the LA Weekly wrote a glowing blurb about his show. Or, maybe, he was trying to sell a broken guitar. Chanel pressed herself against the hallway wall, careful to avoid the framed movie posters.

“There’s a tribute show to the Ramones in a couple of weeks. I’ll get in touch with CJ and Richie—if we could be ready by then.”

“Cool. I have a contact at Spaceland, but we need to get our merch together before we play anywhere. I’ll get some shirts done up and CDs. Maybe some posters or pins?”

“Are we recording just a few songs? I mean, I have an old Moog. It’s pretty nice, with a crackly, vintage feel.”

“Nah. We need to do my comeback big. No home recordings. We need big name producers, stuff to get the press going. I’ll give Rick a call. He used to produce all my stuff in the eighties.”

Chanel recognized her father’s voice—laden with desperation. The second voice was also familiar. Another one of those guys, she figured. Bloated, sweating men coming to her house on an almost daily basis. They responded to the ads, with the blurry photographs of vintage instruments. In the photos, the instruments were intact. When these men came to buy them, they found her dad only selling them in pieces. Dismembered skeletons of guitars and drum sets, and putrid, decaying trombones. These men were disappointed, rambling how they once met Keith Richards and talked to Perry Farrell at the Scream. They had seen Guns N’ Roses with Tracii Guns.

“It’s 100 bucks. This guitar was in perfect condition,” her father would tell them. These men would dig into their pockets, counting out wet twenty-dollar bills while watching Chanel. They didn’t care that she was sixteen. She wanted to tell them that Lori Mattix wouldn’t have slept with Jimmy Page if he was anything like them. They left quietly with their instrument pieces. Their rounded stomachs protruded from their too-tight Cramps shirt, silvery stretch marks slashed across their skin.

Chanel pushed herself off the wall and walked towards the kitchen. She didn’t need to see any of them again.

On the counter was a package of macaroni and cheese and a can of diet coke. Chanel was shocked. Eating was fickle in this house. Her mother was usually on some incredibly restrictive fad diet, the ones touted by waifish celebrities. She vacillated between Atkins, South Beach, starvation, and diet pills sold at GNC. Chanel’s father seemed to forget food existed. He survived on impromptu salads, chain-smoking, and cognac.

Chanel was boiling water when they all walked by. Her mother and father…and him.

She knew him. She knew him from the glossy photos scotch-taped to her bedroom walls, the edges serrated from when she tore them out of Hit Parader and Spin. She knew him from the glitzy videos shown on MTV flashbacks. She knew him from the stories she created in her mind.

The man walking with her parents was Troy Velvet.

The glam god of 1980s New Wave and current fodder for VH1’s glut of documentaries. He made her hate her own generation, and wish she’d been a part of his.

Chanel couldn’t talk or blink or smile. This was the man she gave herself to. To his dated pictures and videos. In her room she would pretend they were meeting. The year was always 1983 and she was always dressed like Cyndi Lauper with him frozen in time. His eyes lined black and doused with glitter.

Troy Velvet was here. His black hair spiky. His eyes more blue than they’d been in any photograph.

He was in her house, in her kitchen, with the dishes spilling from the sink, watching her stand in front of the stove with her mouth hanging open. She forgot the interesting things she once said to him inside of her head.
“What band are you in? You must be a singer or something,” he said, winked, and leaned an elbow on the faux marble countertop.

“I’m not in a band. I just live here,” Chanel mumbled.

“So, Troy, can you call that person at Spaceland? Today? Maybe book a show by next week?” her father blocked their view, lighting a new cigarette while the old one extinguished between his lips.

“Sure. I’ll let you know tomorrow,” he said. Troy offered a small wave and friendly smirk to Chanel, who stood rigid in front of the stove, “Nice to meet you.”

The water was boiling over, sizzling on the red burners.

Troy was at her house the next day. And the day after that. He wore vintage suits and band t-shirts and heeled boots. Her dad ferried him outside to the makeshift studio while Chanel pretended to do homework. Chanel held her breath listening to the muffled sounds of crashing symbols and electrified strings. Her mother sat in front of the computer, selling old clothing and shoes on Ebay. She didn’t seem to notice Chanel’s behavior, didn’t notice her gliding through the house with her fingers trailing the walls.

After listening to her dad and Troy run through “Glam Boy” seven times, Chanel crept into her room, slowly shutting the door behind her. On her knees, she placed a scratched Joy Division record on the turntable. “She’s Lost Control” purred from her speakers. The record stuttered, repeated synthesized claps. Chanel loved how worn the record was.

She twirled around the room, her home-bleached hair swishing in her ears. Troy’s face was ubiquitous in her bedroom. There was an image of him from the late 70s, shirtless and wearing heavy eyeliner while holding a laced joint in one hand and a book of Dylan Thomas’ poetry in the other. Above her dresser was a picture of him from 1984, dangling from the article discussing his struggle with heroin. He was clean in this photograph, his eyes brighter. A little heavier.

Chanel loved him. She penciled their names together in class. She wrote his name in Sharpie around the scuffed whites of her Converse. She wrote I love Troy on the palm of her hand, watching the black bleed down the drain when she had to wash it off.

She knew everything about Troy Velvet. Trevor Vaughn was born on May 18th, 1958 in a Jersey suburb. He ran away to join CBGB’s coterie. They welcomed him—gave him beat up instruments, fed him flat beers, let him share their drugs. He cleaned up and went more new wave than punk. He won Grammys, had platinum records. Now he was here. In her house. In her kitchen. Practicing in her garage. It had to be fate. She knew his favorite food was pizza, his favorite color was red, and his greatest inspiration was The Velvet Underground. She was in love with him.

She placed her cheek on one of the pictures taped to her bedroom wall. The glossy paper stuck to her warm skin.

Chanel’s head spun with imagined, sensational magazine covers—her and Troy a front-page story. A scandal. A romance. Dizzy, she collapsed onto the twisted floral comforter of her unmade bed. She hummed the next song, “Shadowplay,” the needle leaping over the vinyl’s grooves. Her hands traveled down her stomach and under the elastic of her skirt. They moved along with the song’s dark notes, her eyes wide open and watching the picture of Troy above her bed. She didn’t stop, her eyes on his inanimate image.

Far away she heard a soft click. She wished she’d heard it quicker. She sat up, her heart pounding in her ears. Troy stood against her door, his eyes surveying her walls and seeing his own face everywhere.

Chanel wanted to die.

“I thought this was the bathroom,” he said, his hands flat against the door. Chanel’s hands smoothed down her skirt.

“It’s down the hall,” she muttered to her chest.

Troy didn’t leave.

“Your dad and I are playing that show at Spaceland tomorrow. I can get you on the list,” Troy said.

“They won’t let me go. My parents, I mean.”

Troy walked over to her. Chanel could smell the stale cigarettes and masculine perspiration.

He bent down in front of her, his index finger held to his lips.

“They don’t have to know. Meet me there at 11. Our secret?”


Chanel couldn’t eat. She wrote out what she wanted to say to Troy, then tore up the pages. Burned them with her lighter.

Her parents were oblivious. Her dad spent the day sleeping and then crafting his image for the show. He wanted to appear like Alice Cooper, only softer and prettier. Her mother called up distant acquaintances, telling them they had to see this show of a lifetime.

“Everyone will be there!”

Yes, everyone, Chanel thought. She worked on her own image, covertly in the bathroom. She dipped the ends of her peroxided hair in Purple Haze Manic Panic and snuck into her mother’s room for a black sequin skirt and a pair of false eyelashes.

Her parents left around nine. Their loud, cacophonous voices trailed behind them before she heard the rattling engine of the old car. Chanel ran to the living room, slowly peeling back the blackout curtain to make sure. She stared at the ticking clock on the wall, sipping on the small amount of vodka she had stolen from their open liquor cabinet and smoking a Newport.

She couldn’t wait for 10:45. That’s when she would strut up to Spaceland, her shoulders pulled back and pouting her lips.


“I’m on the list,” Chanel said in a powerful voice to the worn, bearded man leaning in the threshold.

“So?” he sneered back to her.

Chanel felt herself shaking.

“I’m on the list for Troy Velvet.”

“I said ‘so.’ I don’t give a shit who is on any list. I don’t work here.”

The man lit up a cigarette and leaned farther into the wall.

Chanel felt panicky. Lost. She walked farther to the door.

“What are you doing?” a woman with taut puffy lips asked.

“I—I’m on the list. I’m just trying to tell somebody.” Chanel wondered if Troy had forgotten. She wondered if he hadn’t meant it.

The woman sighed, flipping her long blonde hair.

“You gotta walk around the corner. There’s another door there. Aren’t you kinda young to be here, though?”

“I’m old enough.”

Chanel scurried to the other side of Spaceland. She heard Troy. Behind the black walls was his music. A cloudy and quieted version of “Junk” unbraided into the heavier “In the Bowery.” She stood on tiptoe and urged the three people ahead of her to move faster. The line inched past the smoking section. Chanel saw her mom, her head thrown back in exaggerated laughter. Wispy trails of smoke circled around her head like a halo.

She never noticed Chanel.

The other door was shut, plastered with torn band stickers and pieces of hardened gum. A man with a tall pompadour and a punk Virgin Mary tattoo on his bicep slouched on a stool outside of the door.

“I’m on the list,” Chanel told him.

“What’s your name?”

“Chanel Lombard. I’m on Troy’s list. Troy Velvet.”

The man grabbed her wrist, stamping her hand with a black bat.


Chanel stood in the shadows, her feet pigeon-toed. She saw Troy on stage. He wore a fitted black suit and skinny red tie. His ringed fingers curled around the microphone, while he jerked around the stage. A blue Stratocaster swayed across his front, bouncing between bony hips. Behind him her dad posed with his own guitar, his fingers sliding down the neck. He snarled to the last notes of “Glam Boy.” The song gurgled from Spaceland’s wall speakers, guttural and nothing like the version from MTV or 93.1’s Flashback lunch.

There were maybe a dozen people standing around the stage. Another fifteen stood or sat at the bar, their conversations dissonant. Plinking glasses laced through the grating voices. Five women huddled closest to the stage. Their hair conservatively colored and bobbed. Their middles rolled under clingy outfits they had probably pulled from the attic, buried in musty boxes beneath old Bop magazines and cassette tapes they’d forgotten about. Cellulite dimpled legs peeked from under miniskirts. Shoulders made shelf-like from the padding in their fluorescent jackets. Chanel noticed one woman yawn and look at her phone. The screen’s wallpaper was a smiling, freckled child. Troy ignored the women as they sang along to his songs, as they reached to graze his pant leg when he danced close to the lip of the stage. Chanel wondered if she should stand there. She wondered if Troy saw her.

“Thank you!” Troy yelled into the microphone. The ceiling lights brightened, bleaching the room. Chanel leaned behind a pillar.

The women surrounded Troy as he stepped off the stage. Shoved old records and tattered posters at him to sign. Took cellphone photos with him. Chanel knew he wasn’t happy and liked that he kept space between the grinning women and himself in each pose. After they took the photo, they walked out hugging their tattooed relics.

“That was worth coming out for.”

“I don’t even care how tired I’ll be tomorrow.”

Chanel stayed behind the pillar. Watched her dad put his guitar in the case. Watched Troy head to the bar. Watched her dad wave good-bye to Troy and dart outside. Watched the crowd thin.

She headed for the bar. Troy sucked down two amber shots before he sat down.

“Hey,” she tapped his shoulder. Let her finger rest on the smooth fabric.

He turned to her. His face was strange in the dusky glow of bar lights. She saw creases down his cheeks and darkness under his eyes.

“I’m glad to see you. We played already. It was awful.”

Chanel jumped onto the stool beside him.

“I heard some of it. I didn’t think it was awful at all. Those women liked it.”

“They like reliving the past,” he snorted.

“Yeah, I guess,” she muttered, running her fingers down the sequin scales on her skirt.

Troy turned to her.

“You want a drink?”

“Uh—I don’t know.”

“Nobody will card you.”

Troy bought her a drink, something pastel in a fancy glass. He also bought her a shot. She wouldn’t let herself gag. The room felt hazy and she was uncomfortably warm. Troy was talking about music. He was telling her piece by piece how it had gone downhill.


It was nearly two when he took her to the parking lot. They smoked cigarettes under the flickering street lights. Most of Spaceland’s crowd had already left, stumbling into yellow cabs and demanding a drive-thru. Chanel wondered if her parents noticed she wasn’t home, if they were even there. They were probably at some after-party. Sitting on plastic covered furniture talking about how great things used to be, and how great they would be again. Chanel was happy to be here with Troy. It was what she had always wanted.

“In the seventies, I ran away. You probably knew that, though. All the articles love that story. Some Jersey kid running to CBGB. The place was a mess. People shooting up in that dirty bathroom, fucking next to the stage. But I loved it. I got to stay with the bands. You know Blondie and Television? The Ramones? The Talking Heads? They were my first friends. Did you know that?” His eyes were wide, expectant. Chanel nodded. Hearing these same stories from him was magical. Even when he spoke about stained urinals.

“In the eighties, I had to go to England. That’s where it was at then. That’s where they helped me get really big. I hung out with everyone. Duran Duran and Adam Ant. Malcolm McClaren dressed me. I even met Princess Di. She told me her favorite song was ‘Glam Boy.’”

Chanel sucked on her cigarette. The world was blurred by the shots at the bar. Her stomach gargled. She realized she hadn’t eaten anything all day.

“What’s your favorite song?” He asked. Chanel paused.

“What’s your favorite song from the seventies? From the eighties? From the nineties?” His eyes darted around wildly. Chanel couldn’t answer, her throat was choked by an invisible pressure. Why did she suddenly feel so anxious?

“Do you wish you were there?” He asked, leaning forward. Under the eerie yellow of the streetlights he was different from the photos. Bloodshot, yellowed eyes. Gritty skin. Jagged shadows made him almost grotesque.

But he was Troy Velvet—he wasn’t allowed to be anything but perfect.

Chanel felt queasy when he slid her into his car. He had an old silver Volvo, parts of it held together with peeling duct tape. He had to jiggle the metal handle before he guided her in. The car’s interior smelled like trash and aged skin. How strange that he didn’t have a nicer car. A fleeting wish to go home quivered through her. She told herself to be quiet. Why would she want to go home?

“Let’s smoke again,” he said, lifting his lighter to her face. She nodded weakly.

“You’re really pretty,” he said, his breath hot and reeking like booze.

Chanel thought about the image used for Rock and Rhinestone. Andy Warhol had helped design the cover. Troy’s hair was ratted and he wore a pencil-thin silver suit. She loved the way he looked on that album.

He kissed her with his brittle mouth, his scratchy tongue sliding between her lips.

Troy pushed her sequin skirt above her stiff thighs. She heard the fabric tear, felt the dangling strands and the edges of the sequins digging into her stomach. Slowly, she unbuttoned her own shirt.

Her eyes stayed shut. She thought about one of his music videos. Her favorite one, from 1981. It was a parody of silent films—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Flesh and the Devil, and a medley of Harold Lloyd stunts. None of the films made sense together. The entire video didn’t make sense. But she watched it over and over. The VHS had warped, the screen smeared with blue and red streaks. The sound slow and demonic.

He undid her bra, the straps tugging against her arms as it was pulled off. He held her with moist, shaking hands. She stayed still. He grunted from on top of her, heavy and dripping with pungent sweat. Stinging wetness trickled down her nose and pooled in the corners of her eyes.

Chanel opened her eyes and stared at the car’s ceiling—drooping fabric held in place with mismatched thumb tacks. She tasted the dryness in her mouth. She watched the moon fade behind the fogging car window. She sang silent songs in her head.

It shouldn’t take more than a few songs.

He didn’t say anything when he was done, just stared ahead. Eyeliner smudged and dripping around his eyes. His pants were pulled down to his knees. Hairy thighs marred with scabs.

Chanel saw her own reflection in the rearview mirror. She was pale, her make-up bleeding. Scarlet splotches on her cheeks. Troy’s face was behind her. Ashen. Rough. He was somebody else in the reflection, not Troy Velvet.

“I have to go,” Chanel said quietly.

He unlocked her door, looking away.

“Things were so much better before,” he muttered, lighting another cigarette.

Chanel shut the door behind her, the metal clanging echoed in the barren parking lot.

Ashley Roth‘s work has appeared in 100 Word Story, The Molotov Cocktail, Moonsick Magazine, and HerStories: So Glad They Told Me.

Alyss’ 2016 Best of the Net Noms

 A little late in posting this but congrats to our 2016 Best of the Net nominees.  You can read their nominated pieces via the links below.
Almost Someone Coming Home by Alexandra Smyth
everytime I speak, my gums bleed by Amber Atiya
Grundy County by Tammy Bendetti
bone editor by Courtney Jameson
Sugar water, ugly bird by E. Kirstin Anderson
Warnings with emotions up to 40 miles per hour by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens
Grandma by Rosemary Hayward
Unfamiliar Skin by Erin Slaughter

Review of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

By Maggie Ferguson

For Christmas, 1956, Harper Lee’s closest friends in New York, a young couple, gift her with a fully-funded fellowship year (so jealous). She works on Go Set a Watchman, a novel that takes her back to the American South and to Maycomb, her fictional small-town microcosm of the South. As her main character, Jean Louise, compares the South in the 1950’s to the 1930’s South she was raised in, Jean Louise grows increasingly panicked at the pervasive racial prejudices amongst whites.

In Go Set a Watchman, the white populace of Maycomb, quintessential Southern town of the 1950’s, fears being overrun by N.A.A.C.P, by their black neighbors, and by the Federal Government. They feel they’re about to be attacked, and their preacher quotes Isaiah, 21:6, to warn them of an incoming assault:

“Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

Listening in church, Jean Louise re-appropriates the same language to cry out for a watchman to guide her through the justice and injustice plaguing the South. Jean Louise uses the same language for alarm to a different purpose. Her sense of right and wrong is in peril.

As Jean Louise wakes to how deeply-entrenched the social stratification rooted along racial lines is in Maycomb, her conscience marks the unfair and unjust, and she struggles with her repulsion. To the trained eye, the draft of Go Set a Watchman needs a rewrite. The novel feels cobbled together, and without any explanation, references old incidents as if assuming the reader already knows the backstory. The knowledge chiseled out in this novel, the same skeleton of characters and location, will informed Harper Lee’s draft of her next novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Go Set a Watchman, To Kill a Mockingbird traces Jean Louise’s loss of innocence, only twenty years earlier—in the 1930’s. The novel showcases the trial of a wrongly-accused black man Tom Robinson and the system that unfairly convicts him. Jean Louise watches her father Atticus defend Tom, evaluates evidence of Tom’s innocence, and still sees Tom convicted.

Both Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird share the same concern over an individual’s conscience. Conscience is touted as independently determined by the individual rather than ruled by the majority. To Kill a Mockingbird’s climactic trial is designed to make the reader see injustice prevailing in the Southern climate. The novel puts a lot of faith in a reader’s ability to see what is right. The reader is trusted to think with Jean Louise, independently, and recognize racism. Since its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird has entered school curriculum to instruct young minds on how to recognize injustice.

Go Set a Watchman didn’t even make it to publication before the press reported Jean Louise’s father, Atticus, is a pro-segregationist. In fact, Jean Louise seems like the only white character in Go Set a Watchman who is a desegregationist. If Go Set a Watchman can be said to have a narrative arc, it is that of Jean Louise fully engaging her sense of right and wrong, her conscience, against the prevailing attitude supporting segregation. Her uncle Jack defines conscience as:

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience.”

Go Set a Watchman is a mess of scenes, but it does succeed in championing a well-developed conscience as a weapon against injustice.

The narrative that the human brain is capable of being the watchman Jean Louise craves has been around since the inception of anti-slavery in the United States. Writing in 1852, Ralph Waldo Emerson came to a similar conclusion: he must speak to his peers about the entrenched injustices they weren’t seeing:

“I have quite other slaves to free than those negroes, to wit, imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts, far back in the brain of man,–far retired in the heaven of invention, and which, important to the republic of Man, have no watchman, or lover, or defender, but I.”

Emerson publically addressed anti-slavery by preaching the importance of self-reliance, of individualism, and of a man’s own conscience. He called upon men to make morally-right decisions, to think for themselves and not only of themselves.

Go Set a Watchman’s strength, like Emerson’s, lies in challenging others to have a conscience. This July, revisiting Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the Economist reports:

“Fifty years later . . . [if black America] were a separate country, it would have a worse life expectancy than Mexico, a worse homicide rate than Ivory Coast and a higher proportion of its citizens behind bars than anywhere on earth.”

“The wealth gap is much larger: the median white family in 2013 had net assets of $142,000; the median black family had a paltry $11,000.” (Source: The Economist, The fire and the fuel)

The language of Go Set a Watchman around race issues may be outdated, but as a challenge to recognize racial social stratification and desegregate, it stays relevant.


Maggie Ferguson lives and writes in Colorado where she is a long-time Lighthouse Writers Workshop member. Her fiction has appeared in Stone Crown’s Magazine and elsewhere. She’ll be attending Emerson College’s MFA program in the fall. 

Worse Things

If my demeanor tends to be a little dark, you can thank both of my parents for naming me after the second track on The Beatles’ White Album—“Dear Prudence.” A song that’s about convincing some gloomy girl to cheer up, come out to play, look around, see the sunny fucking skies? Seriously? So you see, my parents basically doomed me to disdain. Blame them, not me. Anyway, I’ve never really been what you’d call an emotionally giving person.

Not that people haven’t tried to coax me into being kinder, more sensitive; trust me, they certainly have. Especially my mom. My fucking mom, who I condescendingly refer to as Cheryl, once sent me on a mission to go and ‘be nice’ to my cousin Rebecca. I guess Rebecca’s mom, my Aunt Lynn, had told Cheryl that Rebecca was going through a lot or something, and together they came up with the brilliant idea that I could be a good influence. What a crock of shit. I was a mess throughout most of high school and everyone knew it, especially Aunt Lynn, who disapproved of me since 6th grade when I started wearing black eyeliner and listening to punk music. But it was Rebecca who had always been the model citizen and the ideal daughter. She played piano for a hobby and wrote the “In Our Schools” column for the Centre Point Star for fuck’s sake. What did she have to go through? I’d thought. And what the hell was I supposed to do about it?

But then Cheryl promised me she’d buy me tickets to see the next concert of my choosing if I just hung out with Rebecca for a day and figured out what was wrong. Yeah, sure, easy. No problem. So I waited until after my 18th birthday, after Easter, and after school ended to call Rebecca. Why did I wait? I had my own shit going on too, you know. My boyfriend, Joel, moved off to Colorado without a word and my parents finally got divorced and… whatever, I don’t need to explain myself to anyone. I called her, eventually, and that’s what’s important.

“Pru?” Rebecca had answered the phone like she misread the name on her caller ID. She didn’t dare call me Prudence—only my grandparents were allowed to do that.

“Hey cousin,” I said in the cheeriest voice I could muster. My normal speaking voice wasn’t much more than a drone. I was going to be nice to her, but not fake. “What are you doing right now?”

She sighed. “Umm, you know, just sitting on the porch, reading, and–”

“Great, so you’re not doing anything. Let’s go to the fairgrounds.”

My dad used to take us to the Lake County Fairgrounds when we were kids. Only until I was 11 and she was 8, but she’d remember that still.

“Sure, I guess.”

Her lack of enthusiasm annoyed me. But she wasn’t getting out of it. I thought, I’ll do my good deed and then I’ll be done. Cheryl would get off my back and then Rebecca could go back to taking care of herself just like I did. Besides, Marilyn Manson was coming to Chicago in September.

“Okay, I’m leaving now so I’ll see you in five.”

So after I hung up the phone, I walked down the steps of our porch to the long driveway where my dad’s old light blue convertible glinted seductively in the sun like a big eye blinking. It’s kind of an obnoxious car, so clearly bought in the midst of a mid-life crisis, but I’m definitely into the whole convertible thing. Plus, I got the car when I was sixteen, so I was able to drive all my friends around on the empty country roads so we could smoke blunts. The car had had its uses. I lost my virginity in that car. The ashtray was Joel’s birthday gift, made in his ceramics class, and now every time I smoke, even now, I think of him. That’s probably why I can’t quit.

I jumped in the car, turned on the music, and sped off toward Rebecca’s place. We’d lived exactly six blocks away from each other most of our lives. 10 blocks when her and Aunt Lynn stayed at Grandpa and Grandma’s, but I was so young I hardly remember that, and Rebecca probably can’t remember at all. My parents and I—well, before my dad moved out—lived in the historic section of town, within view of the red brick courthouse and the four one-way streets around it, “The Square,” where parades, farmers’ markets and wholesome town-wide parties like The Corn Roast take place. “The Square,” where my dad used to frequent several of the six bars (one on each street, three on one street—they have the monopoly).

I turned into Rebecca’s cul-de-sac and saw that she was sitting on her stoop waiting for me, book in hand, like we were going to read together while we hung out? I honked the horn as I pulled into her driveway.

“You put the top down. Nice,” she said, getting in.

“I always have it down in the summer.” I paused, inspecting her appearance. Jeans, even though it was hot as hell, a baggy black t-shirt, and greasy hair. Her usually pale skin was in that period between tan and burnt. Her freckles were out too, and she had sunglasses over her gray-blue eyes.

I could never decide who was prettier, me or her. I used to be more curvy, but I lost weight during freshman year of high school after my dad moved out, and a few months ago I started growing out my hair again so now it’s almost back to my natural color, dirty blonde. Her auburn hair was wavy in the heat. Both our moms are blonde and so am I, so she must’ve got that color and texture from her dad, whoever he is. No one ever talks about Rebecca’s dad. Aunt Lynn got pregnant at sixteen and it was probably the only amount of scandal she’d have in her lifetime. Sometimes I couldn’t even believe Aunt Lynn was Cheryl’s sister, she was so uptight. I definitely lucked out in the parental department, at least when it comes to our moms.

“So. How are you?” I forced myself to ask, pulling out of her driveway. This was what I was supposed to do, supposed to say. I was making an effort, goddamnit. “Anything new?”

She shrugged. “Not much. It’s summer. Everything’s boring.”

I was a little thrown off by her negative vibes. I took out a Marlboro Red and turned up the volume on the stereo.

“Can I have a cigarette?” Rebecca shouted, looking not at me but the radio.

“You smoke now?”

“Sometimes,” she shrugged.

I’d given Rebecca her first cigarette when she was 12. Joel and I used to go to the park to smoke and make out, back when we were just making out, back when my hair was white and I wore my lip ring. Joel and I must’ve looked like sisters; he even wore my jeans and eyeliner. Rebecca and her little friend had waltzed across the grass of the park and asked to try one. Sure, why not? I’d thought. She needed to grow up sometime. I’d had my first cigarette when I was 12. This town had a way of forcing kids to grow up fast; everyone was so fucking bored it only made sense to steal your grandmother’s ultra light cigarettes and sneak out at night to drink in the cemetery with your friends. She’d have smoked sometime, but I found myself feeling guilty about it afterwards.

“Sure,” I said, turning up the volume even more. “You can take one. Just don’t tell your fucking mom. And don’t flick your cigarette out the window. Use the ashtray. You can get pulled over for that shit.” This wasn’t my job, my responsibility, to teach her. I didn’t have the patience.

She lit her cigarette at a stop sign. It looked so awkward, her smoking, like she wasn’t really meant for it.

“This is my favorite Pink Floyd song,” Rebecca announced and gave me a look that said, ‘Are you impressed?’ No, I wasn’t, not particularly. It takes a lot to faze me. I was more like mildly surprised.

“You listen to good music now?”

“Yeah… That guy used to listen to them a lot.” She looked up at the sky, trying to seem nonchalant, but I knew.

I knew That Guy was her one and only boyfriend. The one Aunt Lynn had never liked. The one Rebecca wore black for. She never said his name. They used to make out in the hallways all the time at school. It was so nasty. It made me almost physically ill to see that. Part of me wanted to smack the shit out of her, but instead I just pretended she didn’t exist at school. Anyway, apparently they broke up sometime that spring because I stopped seeing them together. I decided not to ask about what happened because I didn’t want to get into all that drama. I just kept my eyes on the road.

We drove through The Square, cruising past the hot dog lady who set up shop on the corner all summer long, and into the hilly part of town. The Lake County fairgrounds have large hills, ideal for sledding if you were a kid or a drunk teenager, long walking or bicycling paths, a covered bridge that is ideal for having sex in at night, and 200-year-old grandstands where Centre Point’s hicks come to marvel at the demolition derby every August during the week-long fair. When my dad took us here, we would pack a picnic and eat it on the steps of the grandstands, staring out at Elephant Turd Lake. I don’t know if the lake had a real name, but that’s what my dad called it. He said it was because they used to bring in a circus during the fair, and the elephants bathed and shat in the lake. He told us this story when we were little so we wouldn’t try to go swimming like all the other kids. I drove into the fairgrounds and parked near the water, near the grandstands. No one swims in the water anymore. I guess they all found out about the elephants.

I didn’t know what to do, now that we were there.

I got out of the car and walked without looking behind me. This was a mistake. What the fuck did we have to talk about? There was nothing to say. Besides, Aunt Lynn and Cheryl were all freaked out over nothing. Rebecca was fine; she just had her first break-up, that’s all. No one tried to talk to me when I lost weight, or started skipping school, or wouldn’t get out of bed after Joel disappeared. They just thought it was typical Prudence behavior. Rebecca has the slightest bit of teen angst? Everyone freaks.

I lit another cigarette. Rebecca was still finishing hers.

I sat. She sat. We stared at Elephant Turd Lake. If you looked closely enough, you could see a mass of black flecks, mosquitoes, hovering just over the water. Rebecca flicked her cigarette into the air with unexpected finesse and I realized that I didn’t know her at all, and there was no way that she could know me.

There’s this picture of us one Easter when we wore matching red-and-purple-flowered jumpers. The picture is so grossly cute that I’d never show it to anyone. Rebecca’s wild, curly hair had blown across her face and I was sporting a goofy-ass smile. I only ever smile with my mouth closed now.

“How’s Joel?” Rebecca asked, and I flinched. I’d been saying Joel’s name in my brain, but even Cheryl knew not to say it out loud.

“Joel’s gone,” I responded, my voice flat and final.

“Shit. I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” Her face looked legitimately pained, like it was her loss, not mine.

“Don’t ask.”

“I wasn’t going to.”

“Good, don’t.”

I flicked my cigarette. It landed in the same spot as hers, three rows down.
Rebecca picked at her unpolished fingernails. Then she reached into her sweatshirt pocket and pulled out a joint. “Wanna smoke?”

I turned to face her. “What the fuck?”

Who had she turned into?

“It’s not a big deal. My friend smokes all the time. She has a ton of joints pre-rolled in her room. She didn’t even notice that I took one.”

“You stole a joint from your friend? Seriously?”

Clearly I’d embarrassed her, because she tucked her hair behind her ears and looked down at her flip-flops like I’d just stepped on her toes. She had always had thin skin. I’d known it since that time I accidentally threw her into a dollhouse.

“We don’t have to smoke, it’s fine. I just…” She exhaled in annoyance. “I thought you were into that stuff. Sorry.”

I couldn’t help it, I started to laugh.

“Why are you laughing?” She pouted, putting the joint back in her pocket. “You know what? You’re a bitch. Why do you have to make me feel so stupid all the time? You’re the one who asked me to hang out.”

I laughed harder. At least the girl had learned to stick up for herself. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I am. I’m not laughing at you, I swear. It’s just… I don’t know.” I paused to laugh a little more, my head between my knees. “Oh shit, I have to pull myself together. Thank you for that. I haven’t laughed in a long time.” I sat up and fixed my hair. “Fuck, man. You’re right. I am a bitch. But I asked you to hang out because I was trying to be nice.”

“And you’re doing such a great job so far.”

“I know, I know, I know. Give me a fucking break here. At least I’m trying.”

She nodded, staring off at the lake. I could see that she was almost smiling.

“You’re right though,” I added. “I am ‘into that stuff,’ as you said. So let’s smoke.”

She brightened. “Really?”

“Really and truly. Now pull out the joint and I’ll help you light it.”

She brought the crinkled white paper up to her mouth along with the lighter, and I curled my hands around her face to protect the flame from the breeze. Well, our mothers wanted us to bond, right? And bonding we were.

Rebecca inhaled deeply, and even puffed on the joint like a little wanna-be-pro. Then she started to cough and gave herself away. “I love… smoking weed,” she said through her hacking, her voice low.

I’d influenced her all right. I was starting to feel like a proud parent.

“You sure about that?” I chuckled, taking the joint from her.

“Drugs are a beautiful thing,” she sighed. “The way they help you forget, remember, mourn, and celebrate all at the same time.”

“Okay, stoner prophet.” I laughed. “God, I needed this, though. Thank you.”

It was genuine, and Rebecca knew it.

Above the lake, the mosquitoes were swirling through the air, colliding, condensing at certain point, and separating again. I wondered if they were getting high off the fumes of elephant shit.

“Has everything been okay with you?” she asked, taking the joint back from me. With your dad leaving? We never really talked about it.”

It had been three years since my dad moved to Chicago. Rebecca and I hadn’t exactly been close during the time when everything was happening; back when Cheryl was forcing me to go to these Ala-teen meetings, where the children of alcoholics get together and talk about their feelings and Mommy or Daddy’s drink of choice. Clearly it wasn’t the place for me. Every Sunday night, Cheryl, my dad and I would get in the car, drive to this church and go into our separate rooms. Dad in A.A., Cheryl in Ala-non, and me in Ala-teen. Those car rides in the convertible were silent. In the end, we all stopped going to our weekly meetings. They tried the whole separation thing. Dad moved off to Chicago to be closer to his job (so he said), Cheryl started online dating. Two years later, they just went through with the divorce like I always knew they would.

“I’m used to it now. It’s better, anyway. Cheryl’s a hell of a lot happier, that’s for sure.”

“Yeah. My mom says she lost like 20 pounds after the divorce.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, and got Botox. But don’t tell her I told you that. Your mom looks good too.”

“It’s stress,” Rebecca said, exhaling. “Hey, at least we’re going to age well together, if our moms are any indicator of how we’ll turn out.” She passed me the quickly burning joint. “But what’s next for you? Now that high school is over?”

God, I’d been asked that question so many times, I was tempted just to tell her to fuck off, but things were going fairly well and she’d brought weed and all, so I didn’t. “To tell you the truth,” I said, taking a long puff and holding it in, “I have no fuckin’ clue.” Smoke burst from my lungs and I let out a laugh. “I’ll probably just get a job waitressing for awhile till I figure shit out. Maybe take a couple classes at the community college.”

“Really? You’re not gunna try to get out of here? If I was you, I’d run away as fast as I could.”

“And leave all this?” I grinned, waving my arm out towards the lake and those mosquitoes.

I was feeling pretty stoned, so Rebecca must’ve been too. My thoughts drifted out of the grandstands, over Elephant Turd Lake and the stoned mosquitoes, above the sledding hill and landed in the gazebo where Joel and I smoked weed together for the first time. I was 15, a freshman, the same age that Rebecca is now. Joel got it from his older brother who lived in Chicago. I wasn’t thinking about the future then, a future in which Joel wouldn’t exist; I wasn’t thinking about moving out of my mom’s house, let alone going to a state college far away from Centre Point. I wasn’t thinking.

“What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” Rebecca whispered dreamily, her head tilted toward the sky. She’d taken off her sunglasses, and her eyes were all glazed over as if she’d been crying for hours. Her face seemed distorted, elongated, and I realized that she’d also lost some weight. Losing weight in our family signaled a greater loss. I assumed it was her virginity, but I didn’t want to think about that.

“Or actually,” she corrected herself, “what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

“Those are two different things.”

“Not necessarily.”

Even though Rebecca was younger than me, she always seemed more responsible. On nodding terms with the realities of the world. Even then, I knew she would go to college, a good college; she would leave Centre Point like Joel and my dad and live in a city. But not me, I thought. I told myself I would stay right there, in that town where I could draw you a map of the streets on a napkin, just off-center of the middle of the country—only an hour away from Chicago, we would boast to anyone who asked—right there, right then, where everything was safe.

The worst thing I’d ever done? I thought of losing my virginity to Joel, an act I couldn’t really remember.

Before the car, we were on the swings at the park. I can bring back that much. A video plays in my head like a home movie, like seeing yourself crawling around as a baby, bringing on a hint of remembrance: Oh, yes, the ceiling seemed so much taller then. The video shows Joel and I, him pushing my lower back as I kick my legs into the air as if I was trying to touch the sky. “Higher, asshole,” I could hear my slurred shout. “Throw me to the fucking moon!”

I was wearing Cheryl’s old Grateful Dead tank top. The weather was newly warm, barely spring, and it was too cold for me to be wearing a tank top, especially at 2 o’clock in the morning, which it was, but I was drunk; we were so drunk. I was so warm, in that tank top, so I took it off. I took it off, drunkenly shame-free, on the swings—I can remember that now, if I squint, and I can see the way that Joel carried me to the car. There’s nothing else.

I was wasted, practically passed out in the car. I’d wanted to screw him, had wanted to for months but hadn’t for no good reason (actually, I thought he was scared). I know that I told him he could screw me, because he’d never do it without my permission, but still, I can’t remember. Can’t see him on top of me, can’t see his face so close to mine, can’t see him taking off his shirt or pulling down my jeans, can’t see the roof of his car or hear the music he chose as the soundtrack to losing our virginities. The next day, I didn’t even feel anything different. I’d expected there to be this space inside me, but there was nothing different. It was like I wasn’t even there when it happened.

Shame came later, but it wasn’t mine, it was Joel’s. I woke up in his bed in the morning. I’d never slept over before. It must’ve been the hangover, but I straight up asked him, “Mind telling me what happened last night?” He blushed, he was so sweet, he had no idea how gone I’d been. I felt so bad I even told him I was starting to remember. But I didn’t. I don’t. There’s nothing.

Joel wished we could take it back, try again, do it right next time. But I told him there was no point in wanting to change it. The damage was already done. Besides, losing your virginity was overrated anyway. “You always find a way to say the most depressing things,” he said with a slight smile.

Hey, at least I lost my virginity to someone I loved. Someone that loved me.

Someone that loved me and left me and waited two weeks to write a letter of minimal explanation that started with Dear Prudence, I’m sorry I fucked it all up but I know you’ll forgive me.

I didn’t forgive him. He didn’t know shit.

But there was no way to explain all that. So I said, “I guess it was that time I stole sunglasses from the mall.”

Rebecca didn’t react. She just stared out at the lake and said, “There are worse things.” So matter-of-fact.

“Like what?” I asked defensively. “Those were expensive sunglasses.”

She laughed; it was a dark, sinister laugh. One I’d never heard from her before. “If I tell you, you have to swear not to tell your mom.”

“Why would I tell my mom?”

She put her face on her hands and leaned forward, almost in a fetal position. “I wasn’t going to talk about it.”

“Well, you’re talking to me now, so get on with it.”

There was a long moment that she remained silent. Then she slowly turned her head towards me, her back still hunched over with her forearms on her knees, and gave me this strange, chilling look like I wasn’t there and she was seeing beyond me. I felt a little sick. The joint had burned away in my hand.

“You know, that guy I was dating…” She started her sentence and then closed her eyes. “I told him that I would have sex with him.”

“Okay. So?”

To be honest, I didn’t care to hear beyond that sentence. I thought, I should just stop her now or run. But I let her keep going because I was trying. I was really trying.

“But I didn’t really want to. And I knew that the whole time but I—well, I really didn’t know how to tell him that, so I just said I was ready. But then he took me to his car and–”

“You had sex in his car?”

“Yeah, but I said no.”

Then, everything kind of stopped. It was just me, looking at her, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and that I was definitely going to hurl.

She shook her head, her brown hair frizzy now in the humidity. Her voice was desperate and apologetic, like she was in confessional, though neither of us had ever been to church. “It wasn’t his fault. Not all his fault.” She wasn’t talking to me anymore. She was looking out past the lake and above the gazebo. “I asked for it. I did. I told him he could. I asked for it and then I changed my mind. What was he supposed to do?”

What was he supposed to do? The words reverberated in my head.

It all made sense now. Why Aunt Lynn talked to Cheryl. Why Cheryl asked me to talk to Rebecca. Aunt Lynn couldn’t deal with this. Not her perfect, pristine child. Right, but let’s ask Prudence to clean up this mess. And she knew—she fucking knew!—that I’d keep Rebecca’s secret. Rebecca confessed for the both of them. Now it was me who had to carry around their burdens. It was so selfish. And this was exactly why I hated Ala-teen meetings. I didn’t want to deal with anyone else’s problems; I could barely handle my own shit. And that was it. I shut down. I was done playing nice, done doing what was asked of me. I didn’t sign up for some fucking counseling session.

“This is too heavy.” I crushed the rest of the joint in my hand, making my palm black with ash. “I’m too high for this.”

“I’m sorry for telling you,” Rebecca pleaded. “I had to tell someone.”

“Yeah, and you got tricked into telling me because your fucking mother couldn’t carry the weight alone anymore.” I spat out. I needed a fucking cigarette.

“Excuse me?” Rebecca sat up straight, breaking her self-induced trance.

“You heard me. And you know what? These things happen,” I said in my most authoritative, all-knowing voice. I tried not to think of Joel. But that wasn’t the same, not even close. He didn’t hurt me. I never said no. There’s a difference between rape and shitty sex. After that first time, we had tons of sex that I could remember, and I never regretted any of it. It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t.

I stood up and Rebecca stayed sitting down. “Maybe someday you’ll find it all funny.”

Her eyes were wide and scribbled with red as if someone had drawn blood vessels with colored pencil. Gazing up at me, she whisper-cried, “What is wrong with you?”

I knew what I was supposed to do, what Cheryl and Aunt Lynn had wanted me to do. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t wrap my arms around her and tell her that it was all going to be okay because it probably wasn’t, and one of the things I’m not is a liar. I knew that Rebecca would probably hate me, that Cheryl would kill me, but I didn’t care about that then. Fuck Cheryl, fuck Aunt Lynn, and fuck Rebecca. I had to get out.

“I’m taking you home now. Let’s go.”

I walked down the steps, out of the grandstands, and sat down in my car. All around me, nothing looked familiar anymore. The grandstands glared down at me and I wished they would just collapse already. Don’t you look at me like that, I wanted to shout. I didn’t know what to say to Rebecca or even how to look at her. I just wanted to get away, to drop her off at the curb and take off for Chicago or Colorado or anywhere else. I wondered what she’d tell her mom. Aunt Lynn would be furious; I’d ruined her plan, but what had she expected? What was I supposed to do? What kind of comfort could I give? I lit a cigarette and waited for Rebecca to climb into the passenger seat. But she didn’t. I couldn’t see her, sitting in the grandstands, but I knew she was still there. I honked. I even waited for five minutes. Then I took off, dirt and gravel pinging against the side of my dad’s car, and drove away from the grandstands, away from home, and away from the town with so many little streets on napkins. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know anything.


Taylor Sykes