Dark Sky City

Vix Gutierrez Dark Sky City Later, you will find out that the man who presented your face to the pavement is a six-foot-two, two-hundred-plus-pound former enlisted...

Issue 28/29: Spring/Summer 2020

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Wynne Hungerford

Wynne Hungerford

Interviewed by Savannah Horton

The narrator in your story, “Sacred Window Exhale,” is a former guest and current employee at an alternative medicinal retreat that spans the realms of the real and surreal. Could you explain a bit about how you developed this backdrop and whether you began with the environment or its characters? They seem perfectly matched. You so carefully balance the humor and strangeness without dipping into mockery—was that a concern while writing?

I had the idea of a trepanation retreat in the Smokies a few years ago, so that was definitely the first seed. No characters yet. My initial approach was to have it be journal entries covering a patient’s stay at the retreat, but that wasn’t working, so I decided to take that patient and have her end up becoming an employee later on. And I’d had this other idea floating around that I’d like to write something about a celebrity in the midst of a huge scandal, so I thought this could be an opportunity to drop that scandalized character into this trepanation story, and finally I got some traction. 

As I was working on this, I never intentionally wanted to mock alternative medicine or the retreat. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that I never thought of this as satire. I had to approach it as earnestly as possible, even if some of the details are pretty wild. I always imagined it as a mix of summer camp and health retreat. This allowed the itinerary to encompass pretty much anything I wanted––like ice cream socials, horseback riding, and rafting trips. This is also a high-end, expensive place, so anything I feasibly dreamed up could be there. Want a float tank? Boom. Sure. That gave me a lot of room to play.  

You manage to very successfully humanize and complexify an accused pedophile through his relationship with the narrator, who is driven not only by an urge to serve and care for others but also by her need to understand. The narrator asks herself: “The question is about me and him, and everything invisible we were wrapped up in together, apart. The question is what kind of a woman likes a pedophile?” When you were developing your story, what led you to frame the traditional villain in the eyes of someone empathetic to his situation?

The empathetic approach seemed like the only option to me––I never considered doing it any other way. I’ve always loved the play Doubt, which never explicitly says “yes, the priest did this” or “no, the priest didn’t do this.” I think it really makes the audience more involved. You get to address that gap in knowledge however you want to and that also teaches you something about yourself as a person––are you willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt? Do you assume the worst is true? How do you handle not knowing?

Another influence was “A Father’s Story” by Andre Dubus. In that story, the narrator has done something that is morally questionable, and it isn’t revealed until much later in the story, so you have all of this time in the beginning to get to know the character without any judgment. Then you find out what the narrator has done, and you understand why he has done it. I intentionally didn’t use the word “pedophile” until the end of my story. It’s a charged word. It drops and there are ripples, you know? I think if that had appeared on page 5 it would have been a totally different story. 

How did you decide to incorporate an unnamed celebrity into your story? The narrator claims: “I want to offer you the gift of seeing him as I saw him––without judgment. I want to give you the opportunity to like him and know him and remember that he is a person like everyone else. What is good about him is good about all of us.” What do you think this type of anonymity can do for contemporary fiction, especially when blurring the lines between real and not?

Incorporating an unnamed celebrity was there from the beginning. While Flip Goldberg is a fictional character, I definitely drew on examples of scandalized celebrities that I’ve read about in the past. The anonymity worked on a practical level, because the narrator’s job would require her to be discrete. Confidentiality and protecting privacy would be a huge deal, especially considering these guests are also patients. It also adds this other layer of the narrator wanting to protect Flip Goldberg and, in turn, protect herself. This narrator is very empathetic, but I think there’s also a degree of her trying to convince herself of these things as she’s going, almost trying to support the version of the truth that she wants. So, you can read this story and wonder if Flip Goldberg is guilty or innocent, but you can also read it and wonder if the narrator is super compassionate or totally delusional. 

Regarding the anonymity in contemporary fiction thing, I’m not really concerned with what’s “real” and “not real.” If something is published as fiction, then I read it as fiction, and everything is presumably the same degree of “real.” I do think that including known figures in fiction, which I’ve done more of lately, can be really fun. I recently wrote a piece about Andy Richter. And one about Tiny Tim. 

Your narrator’s backstory is subtle yet very poignant, especially because her desire to serve stems from a somewhat difficult relationship with her parents. When you are drafting, how do you typically incorporate a character’s background to ensure it seamlessly flows within the narrative without revealing too much? Do you often use backstory to enhance the events transpiring or to contextualize a character’s actions?

Hmm. It’s hard to generalize, but I hope that any included backstory is enhancing events or providing some necessary information. For this particular story, I knew that the narrator suffered from migraines and that’s why she was a patient at the retreat. A lot of the other details just…appeared as I was writing, and I trusted that they were correct. 

The retreat itself is very much based on undergoing invasive physical procedures to achieve inner peace and change. The narrator also admits to harming herself in an attempt to try to “heal old wounds by opening up new ones.” She refers to her head as a “pressure-cooker.” How did you think to combine these concepts of physical laceration and emotional trauma?

Honestly, I don’t think I consciously tried to combine those ideas. It just happened––maybe because it’s a biological quirk or something. I was going to say it’s a quirk in humans, but even birds will pluck out their feathers if they’re stressed out. I’m not sure if that technically falls under the umbrella of “self-soothing” behaviors, but it is interesting to think about the line when a self-soothing behavior becomes self-harm. The moment in the story where the narrator goes home and cuts herself, I remember that happening very suddenly while I was writing and then I looked back and thought that it actually made sense for this character. Kind of funny to think of stories as a balance between calculation and surprise. 

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Dark Sky City

Vix Gutierrez

Dark Sky City

Later, you will find out that the man who presented your face to the pavement is a six-foot-two, two-hundred-plus-pound former enlisted U.S. Marine. By then you’ll also know he is a police officer. But that night, with fear and adrenaline pumping hot blood through the fresh gash in the back of your head, with your heart kicking fast into the middle of the street, all you know is there is new weight on your back, new ill-meaning hands around you. And you fight back.

This is Flagstaff, Arizona, home to the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. A liberal mountain town of students, hippies, and outdoors enthusiasts, surrounded by desert, snowbirds, and ranchers with rifles. This is a training place, both for athletes who come in the summer to fortify their lungs in the high-altitude air and for students at Northern Arizona University. It’s also the stomping grounds for a stern-sounding scramble of acronymic law enforcement agencies like the ATF, USFS, USMS, FPD, FBI, ICE, and AZDPS, flexing their muscles outside of border towns and the greater Phoenix sprawl.

This is Flagstaff, Arizona. As someone who grew up in twenty-plus countries, it’s as close to home as you’ve ever known. A soft walk behind you is NAU, where you received your BA in journalism. Those two points in the distance are the Sacred Peaks, soon to be covered in snow. A hop over to the right and you’ll be back in your old hood, where all it takes is a dash of lighter fluid to set off a chain of grills from house to house. Where people gather around the smell of barbecuing chicken, garden vegetables, or whatever’s on hand. Any day of the week, you’ll find neighbors, homeless folks, new friends singing together and passing stories and bottles across low picket fences.

You and your boyfriend met at the tail end of one of those impromptu block parties. You were twenty-five and high up on a makeshift swing, watching the whole of a friend’s front lawn swoop beneath you in big, sweeping arcs. From across the street, a neighbor stuck his head out of his bedroom window and asked you to start reining it in because it was four in the morning. But the next day, when you and your friends went to your regular swimming hole among the red rocks of Sedona, he tagged along. You all took turns jumping off the high rock into glacier-cool water, and then he gave you a wildflower and a line involving the word “beautiful,” and somehow, in that setting, it was not at all cheesy.

Your backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. You spent your childhood putting on puppet shows and choreographed dance acts for people in refugee camps, never went to formal high school or prom, knew how to say goodbye in a slew of tongues. He’s a midwestern boy who grew up singing “America the Beautiful” at Fourth of July parades, who didn’t have to be nudged to put his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance, who stops to pet every dog he meets.

When he put his arm around you that night, he craned his head to the crystal moon, and the singing voice that came straight from his chest was that of an oldtime bluesman.

You found your common ground in the sky.

That summer, the two of you spent many nights on his lawn couch pointing up into the Milky Way, whisper-reciting the names of the countries you wanted to visit together like prayers to the constellations.

This is Flagstaff, Arizona: the world’s first International Dark Sky City, where electric lights are capped at night to preserve your view of the stars.

Once a clump has broken free from the other parts of the cloud core, it has its own unique gravity and identity and we call it a Protostar.

Earlier tonight, the two of you went out for a drink after getting off the late shift at the restaurant where you both wait tables. You clinked glasses with friends and told them about your upcoming trip, first backpacking for a few months in Peru, then off to Southeastern Europe where you have yearlong contracts to teach English in Georgia. You sat jacket-free on the patio at Flag Brew, made some noise for the bluegrass band that was playing their last set by the time you arrived, signed on to their email list when they brought it around. You bought a six-pack of craft beer and were headed home when the ground fell through.

Later, the pieces will start to fit into a quasi-narrative frame, but that night it’s a collection of sensory details coming at you so fast you don’t have time to register one before something worse is going down. You and your boyfriend are crossing the street kitty-corner, holding hands. He lets go. Crash of glass. Car doors slam. He is taking punches to the face. A rapid series of full-force blows. One impossibly tall man is holding your boyfriend’s arms behind his back while two more take turns smashing their fists into him. This image will stay with you. Your beloved, eyes already swollen shut, unresponsive as the fists hail into his face. You have to stop it before it’s too late. You charge into the vicious cluster, straight for the guy who’s holding your boyfriend in place. He’s so tall, you can’t even reach his nose, so you kick him in the knees. The contact of your meager leg does little, but for a moment, the sickening knuckles-to-flesh sound abates, and you are overwhelmed with relief.

Then: “Bitch!” A female voice from somewhere behind you, and, before you can turn to place it, a dull thud.

The stars are in the ground.

Later, the report by the private detective you hire will confirm two things you already suspected: (1) The thud that hit you in the back of the head was a beer bottle. (2) The carload that originally attacked you and your boyfriend have a hefty bunch of criminal records.

So why, when the police arrive, do they take the criminals’ side? While you and your boyfriend lie knocked out on the ground, with the red and blue lights of Dark Sky City closing in, the four people who assaulted you for a six-pack of beer they are not yet old enough to buy themselves corroborate a story. In that story, the roles are reversed: You were the attackers.

Outbursts from a young star change the chemistry of the star’s disk, from which planets may eventually form.

Maybe if you had been calmer when you came to, the police would have assessed the scene and reasonably deduced that the story from inside the car was off. Maybe if you hadn’t woken up with the new weight of a malicious stranger straddling your back, you wouldn’t have stirred up round two.

Eventually you’ll read about it in the police report: “The suspect repeatedly managed to slip out of the handcuffs, she was agitated and energetically resisted arrest.”

Later you will replay the scenario in your head and understand that when you struggled, you were acting out a scientifically recognized physiological response to danger. Even though you spent your teenage years bringing relief supplies to countries freshly ravaged by war, you will suddenly gain an intimate, personal understanding of textbook concepts like fight-or-flight.

Well, you can call yourself Houdini. Between the sweat on your wrists and enough adrenaline in your bloodstream to power an elephant stampede, you manage to slide your small hands through the tight metal latch again and again.

And as you lie prone on your stomach, flailing for your life, the officer, sitting astride your back, struggling to get your hands back inside the handcuffs, must feel like a blundering hippo. It must be very frustrating for him, there in the middle of the intersection, struggling to lock down this girl who weighs the equivalent of one of his legs.

Maybe the officer is only responding to his own biological cues, or maybe he’s reverting to his military training when he picks your head up by the root of its scalp, hits you in the face, and then smashes it back into the city street, where any passerby can see everything he’s doing.

Later, the private detective’s report (not the police report) will quote a witness who said that on August 22, 2010, “the officer grabbed the girl, getting on top of her, then ‘threw a full-on lunging punch,’ striking her in the face.” The witness will also be quoted as saying that “the girl had bad scratches all along her back and she was a small girl compared to the officer” and that “when the officer hit the girl, he felt the officer was trying to ‘take her out.’”

Months from now, when you are surprised again by a summons to appear in court, you will be dumbfounded by the charge against you: aggravated assault on a police officer.

All those liberal arts course studies about law enforcement cover-ups and manipulated evidence—you’ll understand them now on a cellular level. You’ll hear it in the white-noise static where your boyfriend’s official recorded statement somehow got erased. You’ll read it in the police report, in the blank spaces where the testimony of six witnesses should be. When the police are concerned with covering their own behinds, your story is not the one that will matter.

Later, inside the official evidence packet, you’ll see a Polaroid of the ex-Marine/officer, taken at the scene. If you weren’t still having trouble sleeping at night, you might laugh at the way he uses his fingers to hold out his lower lip, like even his pout is contrived.

“Injury sustained by punch to the face,” the handwritten caption says. If it weren’t for the explanation, you might not know what you’re supposed to be looking at. If you focus hard, you might just see a hint of red where he’s pointing, but it’s so faint, there’s an equally good chance you might not, or might assume you’re just imagining it.

The officials will not have taken pictures of you. Three days later, after you’ve bailed yourself out of high-security jail, you and your boyfriend will take some of each other with the same Nikon D60 you bought for your trip to Peru. Even after seventy-two hours of healing, the wounds are gruesome, the bruises varying shades of fiery-fall-foliage hues. You and your boyfriend take turns with the camera, getting evidence from all the hard-to-reach places: Blistering wounds across your back. A blood-clotted gash in the back of the head. Swollen eye. Face like a puffer fish.

“I don’t usually look like this.”

Your quote in the police report—without context—comes off as vain. One might imagine a dissatisfied prom queen whining into the mirror at a beauty salon. Based on the report, one wouldn’t know that the words came between great gasps of air after the sight of your own readjusted face in the hospital bathroom shocked you into hysteria. You balanced on the edge of the ER bed surrounded by uniformed men asking stern questions and struggled to enumerate the events that led you there. You couldn’t understand why they kept steering your questions away from the attack. And when you said, “I don’t usually look like this,” what you meant was Please, don’t you understand? The truth is right here on my rearranged face. All you have to do is look.

What did you do? That’s the question you will see in others’ eyes when you try to explain all this to them later. You would ask it too if you were the one being told this story. If the Dalai Lama wound up with a felony charge of assault against an officer, you would take his side, of course. But even as you shook your head in solidarity, your eyes might dart to his upper arm, imagining it flexed in rage. You might think there always was something a little off about his smile. Because things like this just don’t happen to people who haven’t done anything.

Years later, you may still want to give police the benefit of the doubt when you read about Jemel Roberson, the Chicago security guard who was killed by law enforcement officers after heroically stopping a shooter while on the job. Reports say police shot Roberson even as witnesses shouted at them that he was a security guard. That slain hero was twenty-six, the same age you were that night in Dark Sky City.

In fact, it is possible all stars go through this dramatic stage of development in their youth, but many of the outbursts are too short in cosmological time for humans to observe.

The true story is out there. But it’s not in the police report. You’ll only need to read the police report once to realize you’ll have to find an unbiased professional to do the things the police should have done themselves: interview eyewitnesses, take photographs, investigate the scene. You and your boyfriend will use a thousand dollars each of your long-saved travel fund to hire a licensed private investigator.

Judging from the gaping holes the police left in their report, it’s not likely
they’ll want to hang it out to air-dry in trial. That’s what a lawyer friend tells you, and you agree, but just in case, you pool the cash for the private eye who will put together a hefty packet filled with the missing parts. You’ll find out that, before police arrived, you appeared to lose consciousness twice, the second time when you were dragged down the street by a moving vehicle. In the private detective’s report, you’ll read a witness account of what your body did when your senses had checked out: “[Witness] said that a girl grabbed onto the driver’s side of the car to prevent it from leaving … it appeared that the suspect driver was holding onto the girl as he accelerated northbound causing the girl to be dragged for a short distance.”

Then you’ll remember in hazy flashes how you got the screaming welts on your back. How you woke up just in time to hear sirens, running, car doors slamming, shouts of “Let’s go!” Your head was throbbing, but you ran after the vehicle to stop your attackers from getting away.

You are lucky. It may not appear that way on the surface, but break it down later and you’ll see there are many places where the story could have forked off in a much darker direction. Think of it like a video game where the magical banana in your arsenal gives you a life. Who would have thought that your hair could be a magical banana?

“The girl with golden hair.” That’s how an eyewitness will describe you in the private report. It’ll take a few reads before you realize they are talking about you. Your hair is long, straight, light brown, with highlights. But golden? It’s a romantic image that reads oddly in the context of the report: “Then the officer tackled the girl with golden hair.”

Later you’ll see the faces of people who have been killed by police after offering much less resistance. Some were children playing, or young adults walking home at night, same as you. They were doctors, thieves, students, women, men, children, old, young. But line up their headshots and you’ll see that not many of them would be described by a witness as having “golden hair.”

In a few years, BBC News will say about a twelve-year-old black boy named
Tamir Rice, “Video footage shows he was shot within one second of the police arriving.”

The final collapse is a messy, chaotic event … This may cause spectacular bursts of gamma rays or supernova explosions. But in some cases at least … the stars would seemingly vanish without trace.

After you’ve spent a night locked up in the holding tank, your golden hair will be matted into stiff, bloody locks.

The arraignment room is packed worse than a DMV, but with more sweat and higher stakes. You catch a glimpse of your boyfriend on the other side of the room, his eyes swollen down to two slits, his hands cuffed. You try to use impromptu signals to communicate with him, but the guards catch on quickly, bark you down. When your turn comes to face the judge in the telemonitor, drops of blood dribble down from the ends of your hair onto your arm. Drip. The old judge’s face is blown up 20x on the flatscreen. Drip. The look he gives you, with your crimson-splattered shirt and swollen face, is the look of a man who’s found a dead fly in his champagne.

In college, you’d learned from sources like Psychology Today that “the clothing defendants wear, the jewelry they display, the way they style their hair, can sometimes mean the difference between doing time and dodging jail.”

The blue lace top you’re wearing has been refashioned into a single-strap
with crimson-brown tie-dye, and the last time you saw your platform shoe, it was lying on its side across thew street, but still! Up until that moment, as you sat in that overpacked room, you were thinking—you were assuming—that once your turn came, the whole mess would be sorted out. All you had to do was explain. Drip.

You’ve landed in prison. “Jail!” your uncle Frank will later correct. Your uncle is an old dog, a former cop himself, who in the eighties, while you were being pottytrained, ran for sheriff of Maricopa County against the now infamous Joe Arpaio. “Prison is where you go after you’ve been convicted. You went to jail, honey.”

OK, so jail. But this is no drunk tank, cooler castle, jive joint, country club. We’re talking high-security long-term holding jail, where they keep people like the bigboned Native American woman one cell over. She’s been held there for five months while in New Mexico prosecutors prepare their case against her. Murder. On the third day, she’ll warm up enough to give you too many details. On the first day, after you’ve worked through most of the contents of the compartmentalized meal tray, all she does is jut her chin at your peas and say, in a voice/stare combination that would make the earth quake, “You gonna eat those?”

Let’s talk about jail. Jail is the place where you get marched over to the clinic where someone with a face guard conducts a thorough search through your hair because the last occupant of your bunk was afflicted with head lice. Jail is where your gaping head gash remains unbandaged, so they prod around in there, never mind the blood-crusted clusters of hair, looking for lice or lice eggs. Jail is where there are no partitions around the showerheads, and the water is cold. Jail is where the drains are level with the floor so that when the blood washes down from your head, it makes a swirling, red pool over the entire surface. Jail is where there is no light switch. Where the fluorescent bulb eats through your eyelids, hums into your mind. And when the light goes out at nine o’clock, the darkness is sharp, total. If your cellmate is not a sociopath, you may work out a system for using the shitter in quasi-privacy. It’s the focal point in your otherwise hollow room. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to poo. The time between minutes is long, flickering corridors that taper closer and tighter but never end.

Sometimes you’re glad for the tears. You are legally blind without contact
lenses, and now yours have shriveled up in your eyes, for want of solution. In the real world, your purse exists for the sole purpose of carrying contact lens solution. But this is your real world now, and there is little that is more real than having to choose between sharp bits of dried-up plastic in your eye or taking your contacts out and relying solely on your sense of smell for survival. I smell bleach, body odor, piss, shit. Or, worse, your hearing. I hear my cellmate rambling on conversationally again about her child abuse charge, I hear the insect hum of the fluorescent bulb, I hear grunting. I hear a tinkle of water hitting water. I hear keys jangle-jangling down a hollow hall. No, you need your eyesight. But they don’t let you pack for jail. And they don’t rush to provide you with the essentials, either. You try to preserve your sanity by writing imaginary Yelp reviews. “The cell service in this place is terrible.” “I’m giving it one star because there is no zero-star option.” “Between the poor cuisine and the open-floor bathroom layout, I’ve discovered how a person can experience diarrhea and constipation at the
same damn time. Two thumbs down.” You make up music videos featuring a hefty turd singing, “I’m locked up, won’t let me out.”

Truth is, that’s not what’s going through your head in that jail cell in 2010. You are thinking of your boyfriend as you last saw him, with his eyes bruised and swollen shut. You are seeing him lying wounded in body and spirit in another bunk in another part of the jail. All the plans you had lined up, they’ll torture your mind—the flight to South America set two weeks from now, your teaching job in the Republic of Georgia, contracted to begin a month after that. You’ll think about just the other night, when your boyfriend kissed you under a vast sky. How you saw yourselves in a pair of shooting stars. You’ll think about it and it will hurt more than the open wound on the back of your head, more than the road rash that burns against the hard top bunk. The Yelp reviews, the joking around. That’s all you later as you try to tell this story. Because the act of telling means revisiting, and your mind does not want to go back to jail.

Black holes are the dark remnants of collapsed stars, regions of space cut off from the rest of the universe. If something falls into a black hole, it can never come back out Not even light can escape.

By day two you’ve already started to acclimate. When the droning first stretch of the second day verges into the outrageous clamor of lunchtime (“It’s chicken nugget day!” your cellmate says brightly), you fall in line, take the tray from the receiving portal, eat the compartmentalized portions of frozen carrots and gristly cold chicken and chase them with a mini-box of milk. Your peas you offer to the big-boned murder suspect. (You do not, as you did on day one, save the crackers for later, which you have since found out is against the rules.) Then you stack the tray against the wall beside the bars, not on the sliding side, the way you did on the first day, inadvertently causing a monumental jam and bringing a severe glare from the meal distribution staff.

Now, as they collect the trays with austere precision, you step back and bow
your head.

There’s a pay phone on the wall of the common area. It’s a big, boxy, ancient-looking thing. When, on your first day, you tried to conjure a phone number from memory, the other accused cons gaped. They leaned in while you dialed what you hoped was your aunt’s number. But there was no ringtone, so you hung up and they all laughed.

On the third day, you approach the magic box again, ignoring the stares. Now you see that there is a list of phone numbers stickered to the side: bail bondsmen.

You dial the first number and are surprised when a voice answers. You’ll be rendered momentarily speechless by the professional human greeting—“Bustout Bail Bonds”—and you’ll find out that, yes, you can bail yourself out of jail, it’ll just take $3,000, with $1,000 of it put down now. And here’s where your second magical banana comes in: You happen to have $1,000 ready to go. Sure, you’d saved it to pay for your trip abroad; sure, you’ll need it soon on legal fees; but fuck if you aren’t glad to have it now. The man on the other end is happy to take it off your hands. Only, since it’s not in your hands, but in the bank, he will have to escort you to the bank in
handcuffs so that you can get it. You don’t hesitate to agree.

Maybe because, at 110 pounds, you are an unlikely overpower-and-escape risk, or maybe because of your golden hair, the bondsman does not end up following through with the handcuffs bit. Although the bank tellers do give one another some nervous back-and-forth looks, what with your face notably bruised, withdrawing $1,000 in cash while a hefty, unsmiling man watches nearby, arms crossed.

Your boyfriend did not have the same success that you did with the pay phone. Instead, he’s had his bail posted by your mutual boss. He arrives back at your shared apartment looking like a pole that the tent has collapsed around. You go in for a hug, but it’s not the reunion you’d anticipated those nights on the top cot, since he winces under the pressure of your embrace.

In the movies, incarcerated folks have dreamy conversations in which they talk about the first thing they’ll do when they get out. In your case, it’s not a shower or a hot, well-seasoned meal that you want. Instead, after hugging your boyfriend, you go straight for the Nikon D60. Even after three days, the wounds make for dramatic visuals. On advice from your lawyer friend, you hire the PI to gather evidence on your behalf, then take your trip abroad as planned, feeling your hearts lift along with the plane.

In Peru, you seek healing deep inside Amazonian jungle. You drink ayahuasca, the ancient, bitter brew, and feel your spirit pulled into shamanic song. With your eyelids closed, you feel the shadowy presence of uniformed men. You recognize the fear. You see the waves of energy that connect everything on earth and understand suddenly that these uniformed men exist on a lower plane than the one on which you are floating, far above the laser lines on ground level.

But when you are summoned back after a few months to face criminal charges— cutting off both the remainder of your trip and your teaching jobs in Georgia—it’s as if you’ve been sucked into a black hole.

If there was nothing to stop it, the star would just continue collapsing for millions of years until it became its smallest possible size … But there is a pressure pushing back against the gravitational collapse of the star: light.

Juries are moved by dramatic visuals. If you stood next to the officer you are accused of assaulting, your cheek would brush his holster. While no advantage on the street, this size difference is potentially a magical banana in the courtroom, where a judicious observer may be moved to question the real threat posed by a five-foot-two girl to a towering, thick-necked former Marine. Juries are moved by dramatic visuals. Still, you’ve seen enough news stories to know the dramatic visuals aren’t always enough. So you pool your remaining savings and hire an attorney.

Your public defender is court-appointed. She looks at your folio and then into your eyes, and, by God, you believe her when she says this is absurd and she’s going to fight for you.

Your boyfriend is not so lucky. His court-appointed representative has straight-up told him that she doesn’t “have a dog in this fight,” and pushed him so hard to plead guilty in exchange for a plea bargain that he has no other option but to hire a pro. Now he’s being defended by the best criminal attorney in town, and his going rate proves it. The two of you pooled your remaining travel funds to pay the retainer; you borrowed more money from family and hoped like hell the case could be resolved without going to trial. A person could spend the rest of their life working off the cost of a single day in trial. Trial or not, the two of you are firm: you will not—even to reduced charges—plead guilty. Your boyfriend’s charges are technically less severe, but the irony will boil your blood. They’re trying to nail him with “Assault and Resisting Arrest,” the former for the assault that he himself sustained, the latter for when he shouted and tried to shake off two restraining officers to help his girlfriend while another cop smashed her face.

Your lawyers have a few tricks up their sleeves, and they bust them all out for a nearly empty courtroom at the pre-hearing, the purpose of which is to decide whether the state has reasonable evidence to proceed. Your public defender explains this point carefully to make sure you don’t get your hopes up: In 99.999 percent of cases, even if it’s the weather that stands accused, the court always rules reasonable cause.

At the pre-hearing, they don’t make you stand next to the officer you are accused of assaulting. You’re OK with that. Psychoactive-plant-induced epiphanies aside, in that courtroom you feel very much reachable.

Between bail, the cost of the private detective, the flight back from Peru, and hiring the defense attorney, this whole affair has already gobbled up every crumb of your savings and then some. You can’t afford a new court-appropriate outfit, so you spend the “getting ready” hour trying on and taking off every old shirt you own before settling on an old button-up work blouse with a collar and a bit of a puff around the sleeves. Under the unforgiving fluorescent lights of the courtroom, you can see that the blouse is more yellow now than white, and your attempt at ironing the thing only served to awaken semi-dormant fryer smells from the Italian restaurant where you waitress evenings.

More important, you’re relieved to be sitting, because just the sight of Officer Hard-Fist, “the victim” over in the elevated witness stand, gives you a fever chill. You stare at your hands, at the varnished walnut grain of the courtroom bench, at the garish light flickering on the floor.

Beforehand, your lawyer advised you not to look at the officer who punched you in the face. With his pressed, starched uniform, the officer looks very official in the witness stand. Composed, sitting straight upright, he answers in short, no-frills sentences that bounce over the hard edges of the courtroom, filling the empty space between the curved benches and the judge’s podium. It takes all your willpower to control your eyes as this trained fighting machine sits calmly in the witness stand and tells the courtroom in fabricated detail how you, the accused, beat him up. You feel righteous indignation rise inside you. It wants to beam forth from your eyes and cast him naked under the all-knowing light of Truth. But you heed your defender’s advice. She is the professional, and later you’ll realize that she was right, of course. What you thought was the searing light of Truth would have been interpreted as a thuggish glare, the kind that is followed in gangster movies by a threatening swipe across the throat.

For a person facing their attacker, the officer/victim is amazingly calm. His composure falters only for a suppressed half breath when, in a dramatic turn, your lawyer produces the self-portraits you took. Upon the appearance of evidence on your behalf, both the prosecutor and the officer look surprised. Now, with the two sets of headshots lying side by side, the contrast is even more dramatic than the size difference between you and the cop. Your lawyer’s voice rises like Tom Cruise’s in A Few Good Men:

“And were you aware, when you arrived at the scene on August 22nd, that Ms. G. had sustained multiple injuries?”

“No, I …”

Splat! Another print hits the table. It’s your face this time, glossy and enlarged, but far from glamourous. Your skin is swollen and inflamed and dramatically bruised. Splat! Another print, this one of the back of your head, where the hair is bloody and matted around a gaping gash. It’s still gooey and red in the self-portrait.

“So you did not see the bleeding wound to her head when you found her in the street and attempted to arrest her?”

The dramatic peak. This should be the part where Jack Nicholson’s character turns into a lizard and sneers, “Truth? You can’t handle the truth!” But in this courtroom, even though it is pretrial and the whole theatrical display has been wasted on a few teams of lawyers and a judge who would sleep through the second coming of Christ—and who knew before this dress rehearsal started that the case had reasonable cause (99.999 percent of cases do)—you feel a wash of relief, a moment of vindication, of the possibility of fairness and that, maybe, justice does
sometimes triumph. All the fine hairs on your body do a standing ovation. There is something powerful and cathartic about hearing this articulation of the obvious truth—no jargon or conditions in that ritual altar room. The words wash through you, and all the frustration, hurt, fear, and relief comes out in a salty brine through your eyes. You cry through the rest of the hearing, and that, along with the blouse, does little for your image.

This is the only time throughout the year-plus legal process that it will ever get close to resembling a Hollywood movie.

Once you’re past the heart-jolt moment of falling through the ground, it’s a slow, suffocating death by desiccation. Your life falls into an anxious pattern of court dates and deferred hearings. Deferred hearings. Deferred hearings. Run home from work. Change. Show up at the courthouse. Feel your pulse quicken. Wait most of the afternoon. Not today. Court date reset. Come back in a month. Fill the space between with shadowy scenarios. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

The process of collapse destroys every characteristic of the original star except its mass, spin and electric charge: everything else is radiated away as gravitational waves.

When the lights go dark, you can see the stars, or maybe you’ll just see shadows. You may find that you are not, as you once believed, composed purely of love and light. You may lash out against yourself, play the role of victim. You may weep, feel your heart curdle over the injustice of it all, cry out, “Why me?”

You may ride your bike to the bar in the night after drinking a bottle of vodka on your own. You may flip over on the railway tracks and wind up in 
screaming at nurses in uniform. You may find yourself facing new charges after an officer in the hospital recognizes your name and encourages the staff to take legal action against you when you resist a forcible injection of sedative. Maybe it’s the sedative, or your own numb spirit, but you won’t even care when they send you back to jail and the intake warden tells you to bend over, spread your ass cheeks, and cough. You may find that you begin to assume the role the legal system has cast you in.

Your attorneys are invested, though. They find a legal loophole to keep the hospital incident out of your case record. Later, when you scroll through the ACLU case profiles of some of the 3,278 people—an estimated 65 percent of them black—who are serving life without parole for nonviolent, circumstance-driven offenses, you will begin to realize just how lucky you were, even then.

After sixteen months of deferred court dates and unwavering prosecution, the official conclusion is anti-climactic, as if the whole case had just bored itself to sleep. By the time the prosecuting team has used up the maximum limit of deferred hearings—you still refuse to accept any plea agreement that would label you guilty—once it comes down to a matter of trial, the prosecution folds faster than a poker player with a bad hand. They drop your felony charges and give you another deferred: “Deferred Prosecution.” Stay out of trouble for a year, go to anger management class, write a letter of apology to the offending officer, and all charges will be wiped from your record. It will be as if this never happened.

But your spirit will have imploded.

For a case that never made it to trial, you’ll get your share of judgment.

“I would have taken it all the way,” your friend’s friend will say. Your friend’s friend may not understand that the cost of trial translates into a lifetime of indentured servitude. Your friend’s friend may not know the uncomfortable experience of gambling with your life in a legal poker game where the odds are stacked in favor of the house.

You’ll tell yourself to be happy, that what you got was the best possible outcome. Remind yourself that you’re a poor public speaker, picture all the ways they could have found weak spots in your character, reiterate that you might have lost. Or how, even if you had taken it through and won, you would have lost your financial credit, your emotional health, and years of your life.

You got the best possible outcome. You can move on, you tell yourself, and continue to remind yourself every time you sign in to the anger management class, or fill out an alcohol consumption questionnaire, or opt out of a job or lease application that requires a background check because your arrest record might show up. You’re lucky. You can move on.

Still, sometimes you’ll allow yourself to imagine what it might have felt to stand in that courtroom and hear the words “Not guilty” reverberate from the juror’s bench through the rest of your life.

A constellation family refers to a group of constellations located within the same region of the night sky.

About six months after reading the last word of legal jargon, after the surface wounds have gone internal, you and your boyfriend are invited to participate in another healing ceremony, this time on your home turf. This ceremony is led by teachers, social workers, and artists, modern apprentice practitioners of ancient, indigenous medicine. These local leaders acknowledge the limitations of American institutions, the subjugation of spirit that occurs when human lives are commodified. In search of alternatives, they gather in the arid plains.

And you, who have had all your complexity of emotions filed away in a guidance counselor’s office drawer, who have felt rage expand inside you while sitting on metal chairs in anger management classes—you and your boyfriend will go into the desert.

And there, under an infinite expanse of naked sky, and under the influence of bitter plant medicine, in a circle of relative strangers, your boyfriend will tell the story. Of the night he was attacked without warning and punched within a beat of internal damage, and how you tried to help him and were hit on the back of the head with a bottle, and how when the police came, they listened to the aggressors, who sat in their car and constructed their story even as the two of you lay bleeding in the street. How when the police came, they came not as saviors but as a posse. How after the two of you tried to put the whole hellish business behind you, were blindsided for the second time by a summons to answer felony charges with gravesounding
names.

After the telling, one of the elders seeks your boyfriend out. This elder has heard the resin of pain, the anger, the hard let-down in your boyfriend’s voice. He has noticed how your boyfriend’s aura, even his face, has darkened visibly over the course of the storytelling, how his eyes have gone from sunny-sky blue to flash-flood mud.

“That’s an interesting story,” the elder says, “and brave of you to share. But now, consider this.”

The elder is then silent for a long while, and when he finally speaks, even the wispy clouds lean in to hear.

“That story is yours. You don’t ever have to tell it again.”

Your boyfriend respects these words. He takes the elder’s advice to heart. If he stops feeding the story by retelling it, it will lose its hold. Finally, two years after the first blows, he will begin to heal.

But sometimes, in years to come, you will see the wet-glass look in his eyes, you will see him glring at the sky, you will hear the edge in his voice when he sings to the moon, and you will wonder whether, without the release that comes from telling, a story can corrode into a life force.

You, who have delivered aid inside war-torn countries, who have dodged land mines, who have witnessed the deep imprint left by military-grade boots—you will wonder whether this elder’s advice is right for you. You will see the faces on the news. Sometimes, when the U.S. flag waves, you may squint between the stripes and read a different story in the box with the stars.

Only much later, when your pain is no longer fresh and the scar tissue has grown over your scalp, will you understand that when the elder said, “You never have to tell that story again,” he was speaking to the immense power of story—how a narrative pulled from an open wound can tear it wider still. But a story owned, one that reaches beyond itself, that seeks to connect—that story is the difference between a bunch of floating gas and dust particles and a galaxy.

You will see citizens rally together under the power of storytelling, and understand that it is turbulent atmosphere—winds blowing in many different directions—that causes what we perceive as stellar twinkling. When you read about people like Cyntoia Brown, sentenced to life in prison after shooting her rapist in self-defense when she was sixteen, you pick up your laptop, your credit card, your phone, your picket sign, your microphone, your mixing board, your pen. You find your fire, link arms with others, and form a chain of light across the darkened sky.

In the case of a star, it absorbs all radiation that falls on it, but it also radiates back into space much more than it absorbs.

Sources:
Fraser Cain, “Interesting Facts About Stars,” Universe Today, February 2009.
Peter Christoforou, “10 Interesting Facts About Star Constellations,” Astronomy Trek, February 2013.
Dan Falk, “What Is a Black Hole?” Mach, NBC News, December 2018.
Michael Marshall, “Introduction: Black Holes,” SPACE, January 2010.
NASA, “Loneliest Young Star Seen by Spitzer and Wise,” July 2016.
Jon Schiller, 21st Century Cosmology (BookSurge Publishing, 2009).
Larry Sessions, “Top 10 Cool Things About Stars,” EarthSky, May 2016.

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Interviews, New Interviews

Vix Gutierrez

Vix Gutierrez

Interviewed by Timothy Schirmer

In your essay, Dark Sky City, you recount a violent attack that you and your boyfriend suffered late one evening while crossing the street in your hometown, Flagstaff, Arizona. You use the second person perspective to strap the reader in for an immersive experience. In a technical sense, it has always seemed to me that the second person is like cilantro: people either like it, or they don’t. I personally like the second person, and the effect it has in Dark Sky City, and I wonder if it was an intellectual or more of an intuitive choice to tell the story from that vantage? Can you comment on how writing a long-form personal essay in the second person might have been challenging? Or liberating?

Because this experience was so difficult to revisit, I’d filed it away for years under the general label “That thing with the law.” Recently, though, I began feeling an unrelenting urge to tell the story. I knew I was ready but was having a hard time taking the first step. I joined a creative nonfiction workshop at the Attic (led by the phenomenal Brain Benson) in Portland, Oregon and procrastinated until I only had a few days before my draft was due for submission. Our suggested reading for that week was Jerald Walker’s “How to Make a Slave.” I remember getting the chills when I read it, because of the way the second person voice placed me inside the author’s shoes. By using second person, the author invited me into a complexity of experiences and emotions that I might otherwise have only perceived as a spectator.

Because my role in the story evokes immediate assumptions and connotations, I realized that writing in first person felt almost like I was trying to plead my case in the court of public opinion or tell my side when, sadly, this is essay is not only about my story, but that of many Americans who have had their lives upended or even ended by the same justice system that is supposed to protect them. The “you” voice felt right because it asks the reader to imagine themselves inside a scenario that many reasonably law-abiding, non-marginalized citizens have probably never imagined themselves inside of, just like I never fathomed it would happen to me until it did. Misuse of power is not someone else’s problem, far, far away, but something that threatens all of us, that we need to acknowledge and examine as a society.

Once I started writing in the second person, the story just flowed and within two writing sessions, my first draft was complete. I did try rewriting the beginning in first person, but it didn’t feel right, and I changed it back to the “you.” I like cilantro. As a creative writer, it’s liberating to know I can experiment with voice and form, and that there are many storytelling tools to choose from.

One of my favorite components of your story are the short and sporadic asides about the science of star formation deep in the cosmos. Taken out of context, these sections of text could be seen as educational, or informative, but spliced into the narrative, they assume some serious poetic muscle and shine. Are you especially interested in outer space as a subject? And how did you come to settle on the cosmos—and star formation specifically—as a thematic anchor for the essay?

While I’ve always loved looking up at the sky, I can’t say I understood much at all about star formation, or had even paid much attention to the workings of the cosmos, before this essay. It was only after I’d written the first draft and named the essay “Dark Sky City” that I thought about looking more deeply into the science of stars. The first text I read about star formation was a hair-raiser—all those descriptions of sudden implosions, violent collapse and energy sucked inward—the information could have just as easily been describing my personal experience. The more I learned, the more I saw that our connection to stars is both metaphorical and literal, that we really are, as Carl Sagan said, made of star stuff.

A provocative question is touched on near at end of Dark Sky City, and that is the issue of how—as human beings, and storytellers—we are to better understand our own experiences, including those which are painful to look at. At a healing ceremony in the desert, an elder who hears your boyfriend recount the attack tells him that it’s okay for him to stop retelling the story of that night, and to let it go silent inside him as a way of moving forward. At what point did you know that the alternative approach was true for you, and that you needed to put your story on paper? Did it occur to you early on, or after some time? Did writing this essay transform your relationship to the events?

As a storyteller, I’ve thought about this a lot. In the same way that we have choices with form and voice, there are also important questions of perspective and distance, especially when it comes to personal trauma. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer and there are times when a story absolutely needs to be told, and right away. But I think it comes down to the fact that we do have a choice, that we have ownership of our own stories.

In this specific case, my boyfriend was reliving all the toxic emotions every time he relayed the events. The wound was still wide open and by telling the story frequently, he was not giving space for it to heal. I remember when he told me about his conversation and the elder’s advice, I misinterpreted it at first as “You must never tell that story again,” when in fact he said something close, but monumentally different: “You never have to tell that story again.” The difference between “never tell it” and “the story is yours, you can choose whether, when, how, and to whom to tell it” is the difference between silencing and freedom.

While writing this story, I had to go through an old file of official reports and witness statements, taken at the time. It’s difficult even now, to revisit those events. I can only imagine how painful it must be for people who have to relive traumatic moments through their retelling in court, or for the loved ones of people like Ahmaud Arbury whose murder is replayed again and again on social media and yet who have no choice but to keep telling the story, because otherwise his case would just slip through the cracks of our prejudiced justice system. One personal way that this story has changed me is that I can no longer separate myself from the realities of injustice. I’m aware of living in a white wealth- privileging country with an ugly history that has not gone away but has instead been folded into institutional policies and the national psyche. Even now with Covid-19 threatening health and lives across the nation, the CDC reports that “current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.” While acknowledging these injustices can be difficult, ignoring or denying our reality is not an option if we do, as we say, value freedom.

In my case, I think this story had to be written now, years after the incident. Now, with more distance between myself and the immediate trauma, I can look back and see the bigger picture beyond my relatively small experience, now I can also see the large-scale failure of the justice system and the systematized class and race prejudices that are deeply ingrained in policy making. James Baldwin said, “It takes a long time to understand anything at all about what we call the past—and begin to be liberated from it.”

A piece written from the place of fresh pain would have been a different story, one that may have been unable to see beyond the immediate, the personal. Or in star terms, the story might have been too absorbed in its own fiery process and missed the perspective that comes with looking back from a distance and seeing the whole night sky.

There’s a line in the essay that expresses your confusion over the randomness of the attack and its subsequent events: “Because things like this just don’t happen to people who haven’t done anything.” At one point in the essay you share your experience of traveling to South America, where you took Ayahuasca with a shaman, and you were able to see how everything in the Universe is ordered, connected, and perhaps harmonious. Based on your experience, do you think plant medicines like Ayahuasca are helpful for healing old wounds?

Based on my personal experience, yes. However, once again, each experience is very personal and there is no right answer for everyone. My experiences with Ayahuasca were extremely intense and I’d recommend careful research and consideration for anyone interested in going that route. There’s also the matter of respect to indigenous cultures and that if we do ask for this gift, we must approach softly, with humility, willing to admit we know nothing, desirous to learn. My experience with Ayahuasca brought immense release, but first, I had to directly confront the slew of uncomfortable thoughts, memories, and feelings that resurfaced in my consciousness. To quote James Baldwin again, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Plant medicines or not, I think our whole society would benefit from stepping back and considering our connection to one another, to the sky, and to life. And to cilantro.

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Uncategorized

You Will Not Cry

Santiago José Sánchez

You Will Not Cry

We stopped on the side of the path for two men on their way back to town. One had leathery skin and thick barbell earrings. The other was shorter, wearing a bright neon green Speedo, his biceps banded by tribal tattoos fading into blues and grays.

“Hi, love,” they said. And to me: “You must be John’s boy.”

“That’s me,” I responded, turning to John with a fake smile.

“Heading back from the beach so soon?” he asked, and they began to talk about who else was in town, where everyone was staying, and what parties were where that weekend. The three of them massaged one another’s shoulders, standing close together in a triangle. His friends were also in their fifties, and all three of them had been coming to Provincetown, year after year, since they were my age—or at least these were the gaps I filled in as I took in everything they were saying, grasping only fragments of how the people and places they spoke of made up their lives.

Occasionally, as they spoke, John shot a glance over his shoulder, to where I stood behind him to block the sun from my face. And I understood that he wanted me to see him being kind, funny, that he was bringing his most charming self out from wherever he kept it from me, for the pleasure and entertainment of others.

This is what I’m withholding from you, his face told me.

The beach, when we reached it, was empty. A single man held a yoga pose in front of the frothing waves. He looked weathered and bronzed, a statue. I wanted to see other men and I wanted them to see me. This was, after all, Provincetown, where legions of men before me had come to drink and dance and fuck, to be among their kind. I had but two days left.

“I thought there would be more people,” I said to John.

“They gather down that way.” He pointed to where the coast bent back behind the line of wind-shorn trees. “Go find them if you like.”

He slipped out of his trunks and T-shirt. His orange-hued skin against the blue of the sky, the blue of the slow-churning waves, was gorgeous. A bestiary of tattoos decorated his body: an Egyptian eagle spread its wings across his back, a blue whale and a howling wolf stared each other down across his thighs, and a bear brandished its fangs between his dark nipples.

“But I, darling, am going for a swim.”

John retrieved his wetsuit from his drawstring bag and snapped it in the wind, the whole black thing unfurling in his hands like a shadow. His fat, pendulous balls dangled as he raised his feet into the slots of the suit. Admiring the flourish of graying pubes, where I’d buried my face countless times, I crawled to him on hands and knees. I rolled the suit up his pale thighs, over the small mound of his hairless belly, around his freckled shoulders, where the skin was thin and shiny as scales. When I finished zipping him up, I already longed to see his naked body again. His hands, groping my ass, drew me into him. He lined up his legs with mine and pushed my feet with his into the sand. I adopted the shape and rhythm of his breath, our bodies in accord. And then he chuckled, the firm curve of his bulge jabbing my stomach. His piss, as he went inside his wetsuit, flowed warm between us.

Some men climbed over the ridge behind me. I waved and bantered with them, the first group I’d seen since John left.

I could find them beyond the trees, they said, if I got lonely.

“My man,” I shouted over the wind, pointing at the sea. “I’m waiting for him.”

When they were gone, I rubbed the erection that he had cruelly left me with through my trunks. An hour passed and there was no sign of him. It was impressive. I knew he swam at the Chinatown Y, and the Rockaways when the weather permitted, but I hadn’t expected that a man of his age could swim for this long.

When two hours passed, I wondered what would happen if he went into shock in the open water. He was old enough that a heart attack wasn’t out of the question. Or what if he was stung by a jellyfish? Attacked by a shark? What if he never returned? I would have to call the cops. I would have to file a report and contact his friends and family. Would I speak at his funeral? Would I grieve like a widow? But before all that, I would have to bike into town to get cell service, and I wasn’t even sure I knew the way back. I scanned the coast. It was too early to worry, but I couldn’t help feeling that I had to, as if I could stave off all the terrible things that might happen to John by anticipating them. The light was shattering in long shards over the waves. I closed my eyes and lay back down with my arms over my head to tan my palest skin.

Another hour passed. He should have warned me he planned to be gone for so long. Was this normal? How far could he really swim? I stood to touch the water. It was cold. The temperature was dropping and the tide beginning its return. I moved our things farther up the dune and watched the swirling pools form in the sand in front of me. The men who had earlier invited me to find them behind the trees were leaving with their fold-up chairs and empty coolers. Earlier they had noticed me. Now their eyes swept past me like I was part of the scenery.

By the time another hour had passed, I had thought of several scenarios to explain his disappearance. Either he had died in the water, or he had found old friends swimming, or, worse, he had run into an old fling and they were getting reacquainted in the bushes. The sun and the moon shared the sky. Tiny silver fish in the pools danced like starlings. I didn’t have any water left and my stomach rumbled for food. When I climbed to the top of the dune, there was no sight of him. Behind me, over the marsh we’d crossed, the water was rising, already ankle deep.

I was furious when I saw the speck of him wading through the waves. John, studded in gems by what was left of the light, stood up on the sandbar. He unzipped the top of his wetsuit and the bear with its glinting teeth glared at me.

What I had known best, all of my life, was the power of silence. I would say nothing for him to hold on to. I would begin to disappear now. Before he had time to change, I climbed to the top of the dune with my arms crossed, my shoes and bag in my hands. Below me, he hopped on one foot, then the other, nothing in his face acknowledging how long he’d left me waiting.

His body swooshed through the waist-high water as he caught up with me. I held my shoes and towel over my head to keep them dry. Swift little things slithered past my legs below the water. I followed what seemed like a path between the shoots of marsh grass. The tune he whistled behind me bled into the night and I could almost, if I were another person, believe that everything was all right with us. He put a hand around my neck, his fingers kneading their message into my skin: I’m leading you.

“You always do this,” he said.

This will be over soon, I told myself. Don’t cry. You will not cry.

“You shut up inside of yourself.”

His hand drove me forward. The water broke like glass against my ribs. My arms trembled. I couldn’t tell when I had begun to shake. The sun smoldered behind the line of trees, indicating the road to town was still in the distance. If I could catch the ferry back to Boston, I would go home tonight. I would never return to Provincetown. I would never see him again.

“You’re not even here right now.”

In a moment, without thinking, I sneezed. It was the first sound I’d made in hours. My spit in the wind freckled my cheeks.

“Fucking gross, Santiago.”

My name echoed behind me. I went so still I could see the water wrinkling out from my body. He let go of my neck, and when I turned around he brushed his face with the backs of his hands, as if something of what I had could get into him.

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Interviews, New Interviews, Uncategorized

Elisa Guidotti

Elisa Guidotti

Interviewed by Sarina Redzinski

So first I wanted to start with a little bit about your background. Youre from Italy, but you live in Germany and The Drama Clubis written in English. How did you come to decide to write in English, and would you say your Italian upbringing still influences your writing (outside of the setting, of course)?

 I’ve been writing stories in English for quite some time, since I was fifteen years old. Back then, my reason for switching from Italian to English was mostly pragmatic: I’d been writing fanfictions in Italian and posting them online, but I understood quite soon that only if I wrote in English would my stories actually be read by someone. However, I was still writing my own original stories in Italian. Then, after moving to Germany, I started to speak English daily and to read almost exclusively in English, and I joined a local Creative Writing group of (mostly) non-native speakers who write in English. Eventually, I decided to stop writing in Italian altogether: I’ve come to realize that English is the language that best suits my voice as a writer, and I now embrace the challenges of writing in a non-native language as part of what makes the process of writing so exciting.

To answer your second question: growing up in Italy, I think I’ve developed a fascination for ruins, emptying towns, abandoned buildings, collapsing infrastructures, etc. which shows through much of my writing. It emerges quite clearly in “The Drama Club,” but I find myself returning to similar images even when I’m writing stories that aren’t necessarily set in Italy.

The setting of Italy is obviously very important to this story, and you spend a lot of time describing both the physical surroundings of the characters and the culture in which they are living. Would you say you drew more from your own childhood surroundings, or were you more focused on the current Italy in which young people live?

 I definitely drew a lot from the physical surroundings of my own teenage years, which I entered right as the economic crisis struck, so I grew up surrounded by images of factories, offices and shops shutting down. Besides, in my hometown there are plenty of unfinished or unutilized buildings and not many places where young people can hang out, just like in the town where the kids of my story live. A few years have passed, but the empty and unfinished buildings are still there, and not enough new businesses have opened to replace the failed ones; besides, many people in their late twenties still live at home with their parents because they can’t find a well-paid job, and if you enter any tobacco shop in Italy, you’ll find someone obsessively playing the lottery or using a slot machine. So, yes, I’d say that the town I describe is a town that could exist in current Italy.

 

Even though Italian culture is at the heart of this story, theres also a lot of conversation around American culture as well as that of other countries, like environmental careers in Australia and British artistic figures like Shakespeare and Banksy. There almost seems to be an unmoored nature to the world the teens inhabit. What would you say is the ultimate purpose of this melding of cultures, and do you think it speaks to the current cultural state Italy finds itself in now?

I didn’t think of it as a “melding of cultures” as I was writing this story, actually, because to me American popular culture is just popular culture: in Italy—but I guess the same could be said about many countries outside the US—we are constantly exposed to American movies, music etc. so American culture shapes our own tastes and interests to the point that it is experienced as our own popular culture. The same could be said about Shakespeare or Banksy: they’re artists about whom most people know just as much (and perhaps more) as about Italian artistic figures. At the same time, we’re sometimes keenly aware of the foreign origin of American culture, especially when we compare contemporary American and Italian cultures: in these cases, I see lots of people (especially young people) lamenting, for instance, that Italian music or movies are not as good as American ones, so there is a widespread sense of inadequacy, I’d say, when such comparisons are drawn. But there are also many young people who prefer Italian popular culture, so it’s not easy to make broad generalizations. I can only say that, as a person who’s always been much more up to date on (and enamored of) American contemporary culture than on Italian contemporary culture, it came naturally to me to represent young Italians who are fascinated with cultures coming from outside the country and who make these cultures their own.

Within the context of the story, American culture is perceived by the kids mostly as familiar, though it also introduces them to realities that they won’t get to experience directly (like drama clubs), thus leading their expectations about growing up to be disappointed. There is a discrepancy between the stories they grew up with and the reality of their own lives, yet they keep wanting more than what is available to them in the “here and now.” In this sense, their fascination for cultures coming from other places can be seen as stemming from the desire to live different lives from the ones they’re “stuck in.” Similarly, Australia sounds to the freckled girl like a country that would give her the opportunities she lacks in her town (and in Italy at large). In Italy we grow up being told that we must move abroad because our country has nothing to offer to us, and some of us are quite young when we decide we’ll leave sometime in the future, often without even trying to look for a job in our own country. I know something about that myself, since I moved to Germany before even getting my Master’s degree.

Similarly, the story seems to exist in a kind of in-between space. The characters explore an unfinished theater that theyre not convinced wont be completed one day, they live in a town hovering in the despairing space between economic collapse and reconstruction, and even the ending leaves the audience unsure of the fate of the freckled girl. What made you decide to locate your story in so precarious a place, and how did you approach helping your characters navigate through it?

As I mentioned before, I’m drawn to precarious places, perhaps because I grew up and still live in an era defined by precariousness: it’s hard to find or keep a well-paid job; there is a widespread feeling that the younger generations will be worse off than the previous ones; moreover, climatologists predict a much more dreary future, a prediction that goes against all narratives of progress that have dominated Western culture for quite some time and that represent, I would say, an “unkept promise,” much like the theater in my story. In this regard, I guess I tend toward writing uncertain endings because they reflect the uncertain, hazardous nature of this era. On the other hand, though, my characters are teenagers who cultivate their own ambitions and dreams, which implies that, at least when it comes to their personal lives, they believe in the possibility of a future that will be better than the present. This is what helps them navigate the gloomy reality they inhabit. Their attachment to the theater is rooted, partly, in a delusion, though it also constitutes an act of resilience, if not of rebellion against those prophecies of doom, which is why I had them break the rules and trespass the construction site, so that they could make use of the theater and try to realize their aspirations in some way and keep dreaming against all odds. However, I also wanted to show their failure at seizing the opportunities that lie in front of their eyes, and for this reason I wrote about a love story that ends miserably before being given a chance to begin.

Growing up is a lot about carving out your own space in the world, and your story explores this quite a bit. Do you think teens nowadays tackle this problem in different ways from when you were a teen, or do you think there is a kind of universal route that we all take?

I think finding or creating your own space in the world involves a lot of exploring and experimenting and going against what you think is expected of you. This might be a more or less universal route most young people take, though of course in practice different kids from different times and places find their own specific ways of carving out their own space. What was already true when I was a teenager, and is even more true now, I suppose, is that the Internet offers alternative spaces for kids to experiment with their identities and be themselves when they lack such spaces in the physical world; besides, on the Internet, kids are exposed to plenty of diverse subcultures and ways of living, and this influences how young people come to define themselves and what they desire also outside of the Internet.

I particularly loved the way you touched on the theatricality of being a teenager. Oftentimes your characters seem to be performing for each other, or even themselves. Was this influenced by the setting of the theater, or did you choose the setting of the theater in order to showcase this teenage behavior?

I decided upon the setting early on in the outlining process, whereas it was only when I was actually writing the story that I found myself adding details pointing to the theatricality of being a teenager. Beside being a common teenage behavior, I also see it as a specific response to the characters’ peculiar condition: in a context in which young people’s desires and frustrations are invisible or neglected, it is somewhat empowering for the kids to give vent to the full intensity of their emotions or even to simply feel seen.

Theres a bit of a shocking turn that comes at the end of the story, which is colored by violence that disrupts the safe haven of the theater and ushers in a new reality for the teens. Do you think this is indicative of the way that their childhood ends (i.e. bluntly and without warning) or do you think the characters in your story still have a ways to go before they give up their youthful outlook?

A bit of both. I see the freckled girl as the most disillusioned kid, so at the end, when she falls and thinks that it’s a good thing, after all, that the theater will be demolished, to me this is indicative of how she’s now seeing the theater the way adults see it, that is, as something that has no future. Similarly, the American boy is confronted with a tragedy that definitely marks the end of a phase in his life. At the same time, however, I see the indigo girl as someone who wouldn’t give up her hopeful outlook entirely, despite being faced with the harsh reality. I like to think that after the story ends, she’ll become even more resolved on imagining and building toward a better world for herself and other young people like her.

Lastly, I have to ask—were you a theater kid growing up?

I took part in many school plays as a child, but then there was no drama club in my middle school and high school, so I stopped acting, unfortunately, and lost interest quite soon. Now that I’ve rediscovered my love for the theater and that I’ve been reading a lot about the experiences of American kids in drama clubs, I wish I’d had the chance to become a theater kid myself. I guess the kids in my story and I have that much in common!

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Uncategorized, Works

The Drama Club

Elisa Guidotti

The Drama Club

If you’re looking for the kids, and it’s a Friday afternoon during the school term, look no further than the theater down Risorgimento Martyrs Street, close to the on-ramp to the highway leading to Rome. Rain or shine, ninety-four pages left to study for a biology test on Monday or not, they will be sitting in the orchestra anywhere between the first and the fifth row, and always at the center, of course, because that’s where they can get the best view of the stage, even though some of them will actually have their backs turned to it and their gaze directed toward their friends. After all, no play has ever been performed here, no actor has ever stepped onto this stage to enthrall an audience with his interpretation of Hamlet, so the five kids might as well watch the dramas unfolding among themselves. One day the girl with indigo streaks in her hair laments the tragic loss of her most beloved book to a leak in the ceiling, her voice sonorous, her gesticulation wild, while a ray of the setting sun spotlights the fierceness of her expression. Another day the boy with an American-sounding nickname remonstrates about the frequent (and never announced) cancellation of the buses heading to the capital, and his monologue is echoed by a chorus of “Yeah,” “I know, right?” and “Fuck this town” that fades out as the sunlight dims. Some days, instead, it’s a screen that captures their attention, and they all cluster around the kid holding the phone and laugh at a comedy sketch, saying “That’s you” every time a character acts just like one of them. The “you” chuckles the loudest and agrees. “That’s me.”

To be fair, the kids do not always remain sprawled on the tiers. There are afternoons when they climb over the brick parapet into the boxes like restless monkeys, others when they roam about the building in stunned silence, taking in the geometric pattern of the truss upholding the paneled roof, staring at the scaffolding towering at the back of the stage. Like foreign tourists visiting the Colosseum and trying to imagine what it looked like in the past, the kids try to imagine what the theater would look like in the future. Rows of velvet chairs, a purple curtain dropping from the ceiling to brush against the wooden floor of the stage, the walls painted gold and the pillars a veined white to look like marble columns—the kids’ vision is detailed, and faithful to the digital rendering of the theater, a masterwork of 3-D virtual design at which they marveled when the project was first announced. That was six years ago. The kids were only ten back then, yet they won’t forget what they were promised. Children never do.

Picture this: with a seating capacity of 426, the Lavinium Theater was set to be the largest venue in the whole province of Rome, Rome itself excluded. Companies would come from all over the country to perform Shakespeare, Pirandello, and their own original pieces on its brand-new stage, and the townspeople would have the privilege of being the first audience to see productions that would go on to win national acclaim. Moreover, the theater would open its doors to schoolchildren in the morning, and to teenagers in the afternoon, so that the youth of the town could have “a place to gather, to play, to make art.” Now, you must understand that the kids have watched dozens of American movies in their lives, and that these movies have led them to entertain the belief that anything can happen at a drama club. The high school jock discovers a burning passion for singing. The shy science nerd overcomes her fears and delivers a performance to remember. Two star-crossed lovers share their first kiss behind the backcloth on opening night, while even the most austere parents tear up with pride and jump from their seats clapping after the final act. So you can imagine the kids’ excitement at the prospect of a plot of uncultivated land being transformed into a framework of pillars and crossbeams, how that excitement simmered as the months passed and the building rose in front of their eyes, all while the kids’ bodies, too, transformed, getting taller by the day, and growing hairs and breasts where there once were only glabrous, flat surfaces. Glancing at the sign posted at the entrance to the construction site, the kids did the math: the works would be complete by the time they turned fourteen, just in time for them to live their high school years to the fullest. It was perfect. Almost too good to be true.

In fact, according to the kids’ parents, it was never true. Didn’t the kids know how things worked in Italy? The owner of the construction company must have been a friend of a friend of whoever allocated the money for the theater. Anyone who took the trouble to do a little digging would soon have found out that some guy high up in government had gotten himself a penthouse overlooking the Tiber before the ink of his signature had dried on the project approval document. The building was never meant to be finished. Only to be paid for. “Don’t hold your breath, kids, or you’ll choke.” For a while the parents groused at such squandering of public money, but one can harbor such an emotion for only so long before it becomes wearying and trite. Wasn’t there a hint of satisfaction in their voices when they said “I told you so” after the workers stopped coming to the construction yard? Yet the kids, being pigheaded, as kids are, didn’t believe them. They couldn’t fathom how the workers could simply walk out on a building they’d labored so hard to raise, how they could be so indifferent after they’d sweated off fat and health to lay the foundation, brick upon brick. Years have gone by, but the kids still await the workers’ return. In the meantime, they take what they can get and claim their seats in the closed-off construction site. After all, they technically own the place.

This is what the indigo girl said to the girl with freckles on the day they first contemplated breaking into the theater: “It’s technically ours, you know.” The freckled girl frowned. Though the sign clearly stated KEEP OUT, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, she knew that didn’t mean them. But the indigo girl has always had a flair for rhetoric, more so since they studied Aristotle at school. “Hear me out,” she said. The theater was paid for with public money. Public money comes from taxes. The kids’ parents pay taxes. What the kids’ parents pay for belongs to the parents. What belongs to the parents belongs to the kids. Therefore, the theater belongs to the kids. It was a simple syllogism, its conclusion as elementary to the indigo girl as the fact that being human makes us mortal. Without further dispute, the freckled girl followed the others inside. It wasn’t like there was anywhere else they could go anyway.

When they were younger, they had other places. They could spend time in one of the playgrounds scattered around town, but now the swings creak as soon as the kids rest their butts on the seats, and elementary school children pout and glower at them. Next to each playground, even the dogs have their own parks. The kids used to have a bar where they hung out, but it has gone out of business, while the other bars are thronged with retirees playing scala quaranta from morning till dusk. Nor do the kids wish to cross paths with the other dreamers in town, the middle-aged men and women who look up at the TV screen calling lottery numbers and have faith that the next time will be the one, just wait and see, can you imagine how many things you can buy with six million euros? “Play these numbers, Anto’, quick, only fifteen seconds left before the draw.”

What about the main square? you might ask. Sure, it would be the perfect place to hang out, if only people didn’t die every other day, and mourners didn’t pour out of the church into the square, drowning out the kids’ laughter with their weeping, shaming the girls’ shrill voices into silence with their muttered condolences. And the streets? A parade of shops that have succumbed to the economic crisis, closed shutters and empty windows everywhere, sidewalks like paths through a graveyard—you’ll agree that it makes a gloomy backdrop for a stroll. Can’t they just meet in one of the kids’ apartments, then? Where? In the bedrooms they share with their elder siblings, grumpy old men at the age of twenty-eight, their degrees gathering dust on the wall while they scrape together money with temporary nighttime jobs? Or do you mean in the living rooms, where their laid-off parents pretend to watch TV from the couch while eavesdropping on the kids’ every conversation, unfailingly offering unsolicited advice as a substitute for the allowance they don’t always pay? No, it won’t do, so let the kids embark on the little adventure of sneaking through the holes in the fence and working their way through the weeds. What’s the harm in it, really? Let them have this, at least.

Look at them, how skillfully and dauntlessly they climb the scaffolding to reach the highest point—you’d think they were five Quasimodos, grown up amid pillars as naked as fleshless bones, well versed in hiding their luminous pimply faces from people in the streets. Look how cozily they sit there on the tiers, feasting on barbecue potato chips and Coke, listening to Drake, Imagine Dragons, and De André from a Bluetooth speaker, confident that the music will be drowned out by the noise of passing cars. When the indigo girl is in charge of the soundtrack, you might hear Broadway cast recordings playing on repeat. Lately she’s gotten into Dear Evan Hansen, and she takes the stage to prove to the others that she’d be a perfect Zoe, given half a chance. “We only need three more people to have the full cast. We can rehearse here. Come on, it’ll be fun.” She’s bought a book about the show, with photos and interviews with the cast. She’s listened to the album countless times. She’s seen pictures and videos posted on the official Twitter and YouTube sites for the musical, and every morning at breakfast she watches the stories of the actors and understudies on Instagram. “Trust me, it’ll be as good as the real thing.” The “American” boy is intrigued. He wants to be a millionaire, and you’ve got to start somewhere. His rags-to-riches story might take off from playing the lead in an amateur production. Who knows? He can see the headlines already: FROM THE PROJECTS IN THE PONTINE MARSHES TO A SEVEN-BEDROOM VILLA IN HOLLYWOOD. Like Jim Carrey and Jessica Chastain. Like Emma Stone in La La Land. He wants to buy his parents a house, where his father will finally have a big kitchen with the one-thousand-euro food processor he’s always said he wants before he dies. “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s do this, guys.”

Unlucky for them, not all the kids are moved by such lofty aspirations. The freckled girl has grown to like the theater well enough, but only in the most concrete sense of the word. She might concede that the building, seemingly stable and already roofed, does its job as a shelter from the rain. However, becoming a star is not in her plans, which involve studying environmental engineering and being a brain drainee in Australia. When it comes to the hulking boy and the girl with a henna tattoo, on the other hand, I guess you could call their ambitions “artistic” if you consider love to be a form of art. A painting or a poem is seldom interesting when it’s uncomplicated and its meaning transparent. Similarly, it would be too straightforward and easy for these two smitten kids to simply ask each other out, so instead they give each other fleeting glances and faint smiles, their lips quivering, their fingers itching to reach out and touch the other’s skin.

“Who the fuck did this shit?”

Clearly the indigo girl doesn’t like what she’s seeing today. And how could you blame her? On the parapet of the boxes, on the right side, some graffiti has cropped up, and nothing about it would lead them to think that the tagger might turn out to be the next Banksy. BITCHES CAN SUCK MY DICK, accompanied by an unambiguously phallic drawing. The hulking boy blushes and averts his eyes. The indigo girl is outraged at the desecration of the venue and googles “how to remove graffiti,” only to learn that she can’t simply scrub it off with bleach and water. The daub is there to stay. Gone is the confidence that when the workers come back, they will find everything exactly as they left it. The end has begun, thanks to what the indigo girl calls “a jerk with no regard for public property.” In her eyes, the graffiti counts as an act of self-sabotage. The freckled girl tells her not to fret too much about it. After all, isn’t this kind of like the beginning of In the Heights? (The musical was the indigo girl’s favorite a couple of months ago, and the kids all know the plot and the songs by heart at this point.) The indigo girl hesitates but eventually agrees, and as they walk home later tonight, the kids will feel a bit like the protagonists of In the Heights, torn between their yearning to leave this godforsaken town and their dogged determination to save it.

The henna girl already has a project in store, its blueprint mapped out down to the tiniest detail in her mind. She’s going to redeem what used to be their favorite bar by turning it into a board-game pub where a fusion of Italian food and Chinese, Romanian, Pakistani, and Ecuadoran dishes will be served. When someone expresses doubt that she’ll succeed, she says “Watch me” and smiles a knowing
smile. Little does she know, however, that she’ll be the first one to leave, and that her departure won’t be a glorious flight to Berlin or Shanghai or New York but merely a relocation to another lousy hole after her mother’s employer presents her with a simple choice: either she moves her whole family to the North or she loses her job. What good would it do the henna girl’s mother to say that it makes no difference where her ass is sitting—whether in the office here or in another branch in the North—since all she does at work is exchange emails with co-workers in India and Poland and oversee contracts negotiated on the Internet? She keeps quiet and holds on tight to the family’s only source of income. She agrees to go. The henna girl must go with her.

Farewell, native home. Farewell, ye mountains of trash at the side of the roads, ye school nicknamed Alcatraz, which now sounds like a term of endearment instilling tenderness in the girl’s heart. Farewell, hulking boy, who on the last day almost shies away from hugging the henna girl, though eventually they’re in each other’s arms, and the warmth of their bodies feeds their imagination about what they could have had: timid kisses in the privacy of the backstage, hands held in a mild PDA, and, who knows, perhaps even undressing to expose the flesh and find out what happens after a lovemaking scene fades to black. All they say before the henna girl leaves is “Let’s keep in touch.” But “touch” is a treacherous word, because touching is what they won’t be doing when they text and group-Skype, and the promises made online—”Of course I’ll come to visit you all!”—are never fulfilled, either because of the high price of the train tickets or because it is onerous to lead a double life, split between reality and what-ifs. And this is what the hulking boy’s reality will look like: though anatomy books will offer him some knowledge of women during his time in med school, he won’t be able to fathom how his own body could ever perform the biological functions that the books so accurately describe; he will never quite think of himself as a suitable protagonist for a rom-com, and even when he falls in love again at the age of twenty-seven, he will dawdle in the first act for far too long, held back by his fear of attachment, his fear of loss, the chance that his desires might never be satisfied.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The kids are still sixteen years old and still sitting in the orchestra, though there’s only three of them now. It’s been a few weeks since the last time the hulking boy joined them, and they already think of two months ago as “back in the old days,” which is what their grandparents say when they talk about the postwar years and the economic boom. None of them speaks of the theater being finished anymore. Perhaps they worry that they’d jinx their wishes if they voiced them, so instead they discuss what happened this morning at school, and to say “Fingers crossed that Mrs. Narducci won’t test me next week” is as much as they dare to hope out loud.

The theater is now littered with smashed beer bottles and cigarette butts. Graffiti has mushroomed all around the building, even in places where the kids haven’t been brave enough to venture. “Pigs,” the indigo girl mutters, booting a can of Red Bull and sending it bouncing down the tiers toward the stage. The freckled girl glances at it but doesn’t move. She used to pick up the trash, but lately it’s started to feel like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket. Whatever, the workers will clean up. If they ever come back. In the meantime, the “pigs” serve the role of common enemy, which history has proved time and again to constitute the most resistant of social glues. The kids fantasize about catching the hooligans red-handed, as the saying goes, their hands in this case literally red with spray paint. The indigo girl imagines a scenario à la West Side Story, with the two gangs of kids glaring at one another, not foreseeing that it’ll be the American boy she’ll have to face one day to save this place from destruction.

When the day comes, she screams at him to stop while he punches the walls and kicks the pillars, as though he is trying to tear the building down with his blows. His knuckles are bleeding. His eyes are red from crying, and all they see now, when they look at the theater, is six million euros’ worth of waste. How many things can you buy with six million euros? Loads of food and clothes and infinite months of rent and bills. A man’s life—the American boy’s father’s, who three days ago hung himself outside of the factory where he used to work, because he couldn’t bear not being able to provide for his children, as any good father is supposed to do. How expensive hopes can be, and what’s the use of a half-finished theater, anyway? The American boy climbs the scaffolding in a fury, aiming for the top. The two girls go after him, terrified that he might decide to follow his father and jump off, but he only wants to feel the strength of his muscles, to make sure that a heart is still pounding in his ribcage. “Leave me alone!” he shouts when the indigo girl grabs him by the arm, and after he shoves her away, she falters backwards and bumps against the freckled girl, who slips off the platform and falls onto the stage.

Something cracks when she touches the ground. Perhaps a femur. Perhaps her spine. The freckled girl’s thoughts are too fuzzy to make an accurate assessment, though she can see with clarity that her friends are climbing down toward her, and when the indigo girl yells “I’m calling an ambulance!” she’s keenly aware of what this means. The town will find out that the kids have been trespassing on the construction site. Parents will worry that their foolhardy children will be the next to come back home with a fractured bone, or to not come back home at all. Concerned citizens will rally to demand the razing of the building, and in a few months, when municipal elections are held, the demolition of the Lavinium Theater will be among the campaign promises on every candidate’s leaflet, and perhaps the easiest one for the future mayor to keep. What an unhappy ending for the kids, right? And yet, if you look closely, you will see that the freckled girl is actually smiling. The demolition company her father works for has not been doing too well lately. He’ll be glad to hear that there’s business coming their way.

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Interviews, New Interviews

Daisy Fried

Daisy Fried

Interviewed by Kayla Beth Moore

You’ve got two very different laundry poems in this issue. How would you describe the role of domestic labor in each of these pieces? Is it background music, the thing that’s happening while the speaker explores another domain in her mind, or is it more intrinsic to the poem or consciousness of the speaker than that?

Ha, I didn’t even notice that connection when I sent the poems off! They were just the most recent poems I’d finished. Mostly I think just enjoyed how different they are, format-wise, paired together. In fact they came from very different places. “A Monkey Thing” wasn’t called “A Monkey Thing” until quite recently, and had a lot of different formats and settings and intersections of material over several years during which I returned to my high-school-band-at-the-laundry material. “Chorus Line” happened rather quickly; I’d been looking through an art book called Madam and Eve: Women Portraying Women and, as an exercise, writing a single quick sentence about 50 paintings each in turn. There was a painting of somebody’s tights on a rooftop clothesline. I took the sentence I wrote about that one, and started messing around with it.

But here’s the thing: Laundry has been a big deal in my life for the last half-decade or so, because first my dryer broke (so I was hanging wet clothes—including tights!—on the line in my tiny back courtyard, as well as in the shower, over the railings, on the radiators, etc.) and then my washer broke a couple years ago, and I couldn’t afford to buy new ones, so I was going to the laundromat around the corner all the time. And while I don’t think of my poems as autobiographical in the sense that I am trying to tell people literally what-happened-to-me-plus-metaphors (after all, I think of “I” as a performance and a strategy, not as myself), certainly whatever I am spending a lot of time on, in my life, is likely to get into my poems. I don’t mind domestic labor, and sometimes enjoy it, although like most women (people?) who also work a more or less full time load, plus act as the frontal lobe for their household, I feel a bit peeved about it at times. I should add that I did finally buy new appliances recently, and in fact, in retrospect I’m pretty sure that coincided with my finishing both of those poems. Hmm. Direct relationship between convenience and productivity? I may be finished with laundry for thematic content for awhile, anyway.

What does prose poetry afford you that other forms don’t? Do you even care for the distinction of “prose poetry” as a form, opposed to more traditional, enjambed things?

I’ve written only four prose poems in my life that I’ve published, so it is hard for me to speak with any expertise about the format (none of the four started out as prose, although occasionally a poem of mine which is lineated in its final form started out as prose). Naturally, my inexperience with purposefully making prose poems hasn’t stopped me from developing a craft class I’ll teach this July at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers (where I’m faculty) about prose poems. I want to figure out more about it: what makes a prose poem work? But I’m not particularly interested in genre distinctions. I mean, shrug. I do love this little thing by Harold Nemerov:

BECAUSE YOU ASKED ABOUT THE LINE BETWEEN PROSE AND POETRY

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

Then came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

And I like Gertrude Stein’s “What is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose…” (Quoted from memory but that’s the gist.)

But ultimately what interests me with any piece of writing is what makes it tick, what’s its logic, from the inside out. Why does the format the writer has selected for it, or arrived at, become necessary to the thematic content? So my two questions for myself and for my class (and I try to teach classes mainly where I don’t have the answers) for any poems we will be looking at will be: 1) What makes it good? and 2) Why does it need to be in prose? That is, why does this piece of writing need to give up the power of the line?

“A Monkey Thing” took many forms over several years, most of them lineated. (One of the things I do quite often when I’m looking for the poem in the material is to change lineation: short to long, even to jaggedy, lines to prose to lines, etc.) At one point, under a different name, it was trying to be a sonnet sequence! When I switched into prose, I loosened up some of the language, which in turn suggested other rhythms and syntaxes available to me, when also seemed to dose the poem with badly-needed oxygen, and allow me to meander in ways that felt natural rather than excessively mannered—which is how my digressions in the lineated format(s) were feeling to me. The baboons only arrived in the poem once I started in with the prose. I don’t really know why. They seem to me (at least the ones at the Paris Zoo) chaotic animals that don’t do well in the cage of my line breaks…

So maybe my aesthetic metaphor here, with this particular poem anyway, is Free the Baboons!

Your poem “A Monkey Thing” begins in a laundromat and ends with the speaker’s memory of a Paris zoo. It’s lovely and it called to mind for me Baudelaire’s introduction to Le Spleen de Paris where he says that poetic prose is something of a miracle, that it’s “musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and jarring enough to be adapted to the soul’s lyrical movements […] to the twists and turns that consciousness takes.” Do you agree with this idea, would you amend it?

I’m so in love with that Baudelaire passage. Thank you for reminding me of it! “Supple and jarring enough.” You can substitute that for my explanation of why I turned “A Monkey Thing” into prose: because prose was supple and jarring enough to get from the laundromat at 9th and Christian Streets in Philadelphia to the Paris zoo, not to mention back into the speaker’s teenage past when she awkwardly propositioned a grownup volleyball player! (What was she thinking!?)

You’re a great poet of people-watching. Has this always been an inspiration or interest of yours?

I live in Philadelphia where the people-watching is good: lots of people out and about, lots of character and variety here. My husband and I have always people-watched together. We love sitting in cafes wherever we are, and drinking coffee or beer and scribbling or reading and looking at people and talking. So much evidence passing by. I’m just remembering we used to have this thing where we’d take the bus to NYC for the day (Philly is 90 miles south of NY), and before doing whatever else we had planned, we’d go to the first Starbucks we found near the bus station and sit in the window and drink coffee and count how many passersby actually looked happy, and it was like 1 in 10 in midtown Manhattan. But I mean, yeah, doesn’t everyone write novels in their heads about people they see? Doesn’t everyone look for evidence that other people are doing it right or wrong or differently? I also learn a lot about language from eavesdropping—what’s really idiomatic as opposed to what do authors like to pretend is idiomatic? How do people reveal or evade or withhold themselves by what they say and how they say it? The thing about putting other people in your poems: they kind of disrupt the fixed authority of your “I,” right? They reflect something about the speaker (what I say about somebody else is not only about that person but also about me), but also they don’t let the speaker get away with as much lyric supremacy. They allow the speaker to be embarrassed or hesitant or even shitty in ways that are hard for a lonely “I” to reveal convincingly about herself.

You have a book called Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice. You spend the whole of the book playing with the idea of a “women’s poetry” and teasing strands away from the concept. I’m curious whether you think there is such a thing, or rather, if there is a specifically female consciousness that exists in the poetry women are writing these days.

Re: the title of that book: I mean it with complete sincerity and with perfect irony. The book’s title poem starts by ventriloquizing Marianne Moore’s famous poem “Poetry”: “I too dislike it.” The great thing about that line is that it makes liking or not liking poetry a non-issue while also telling us what’s important about poetry. We don’t say “I like” or “I dislike” about breathing, or love. So why say it about poetry either? The statement is also literally true: I don’t like women’s poetry or men’s poetry or anyone in particular’s poetry. I only like individual poems. I need poetry. Women’s poetry, of course, does and doesn’t exist. It’s like a car (the title poem is about a pimped-out car). It might have purple lights underneath, or outrageous hubcaps, or an enormous spoiler jutting off the back, but underneath it’s still a car.

It does occur to me to ask, at this moment when the visibility of trans and gender-fluid poets and poems and politics is high, whether the question about “specific female consciousness” is the same as it was when I wrote that poem and that book. I mean, it is for me—I only can write out of my own experience. One of my students, whose pronoun is “they,” was writing about femininity, and I realized that I think I have much less of a sense of what that might mean than they did, maybe because I’ve never particularly had to ask myself what my gender was. I’m like, I’m a female, so if I do it, it’s feminine. Is my female experience (cisgendered het married middle-aged mom) different from the student poet’s? But isn’t it also different from all the other cisgendered het married middle-aged moms of my acquaintance? Really, as with the question of genre and prose poems, the question of gender and poems is less interesting than the specifics of each poem. But that—as my undergrads say—is just me.

What are you reading this summer? Any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

I’ve been reading around for my prose poem class—I’ve been particularly interested recently in Bhanu Kapil’s Ban in Banlieu, Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, Donna Stonecipher’s book about the prose poem, Prose Poetry and the City, and Kate Colby’s Dream of the Trenches (which is billed as “Essays” but I dunno.) These aren’t really discrete narrative or lyric or dream sequence prose performances, but rather fragments of things rubbing up against and building on each other—and I think that’s one of the things that’s interesting me about them. How do you get incompleteness to perform? I thought Jeffrey Yang’s Hey Marfa was fascinating, one of last year’s best books, written in all kinds of formats collaged together—plus paintings and drawings by Rackstraw Downes—as a way of thinking about place and colonization and history and art and violence.

I’m also very much liking Connie Voisine’s The Bower, not prose poetry, but a book-length personal/political travelogue in couplets, divided into shorter sections, having to do with the city of Belfast and its conflicts and music and stories, with growing up American and working class, with mothering, with reading. Connie is compassionate and steely, lyric and thinky, and I love those combinations. And I’m reading Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady again, third time through, I think. A book I love.

I’m working on my fourth book of poetry, poem by poem. (I don’t write project books; I just write poems that start to link up when there’s a whole bunch of them that are good enough.) I’ve got about three-quarters of a manuscript, I think. An ongoing project, meanwhile, is that of selecting the poems for Scoundrel Time, the online literary resistance journal, where we’re building an archive of responses to the current political climate. One feels so helpless just now, but this feels like creating space for humanity and attention in the midst of everything working against those things.

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Works

Chorus Line

Daisy Fried

Chorus Line

After she handwashed
in a mint green pail
eleven pairs
of black tights
then hung them
on the PVC clothesline
out back, she found
the early evening
air grew too
chilly so went
in to read more
Middlemarch
on her Kindle
though her currently
difficult husband
was also within,
“divided between
the impulse to
laugh aloud
and the equally
unseasonable
impulse to burst
into scornful
invective,” and so
from the corner
of her eye she
didn’t notice beyond
the window
four deflated legs
twining into helixes
while others kicked
out at the too close
cement block wall,
risking catching
and tearing holes in
their nylon silk blend.

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Uncategorized, Works

A Monkey Thing

Daisy Fried

A Monkey Thing

Inside the plate glass window, I’m putting my whites in, and bleach, and my denims, and lights, darks, and hots and handwashes, when the tourbus grinds to the curb outside to drop the teenage Southwest Drum and Bugle Corps at Clean Laundry, South Philly. There it idles, its slab sides silver, decaled script and musical notes America-colored. The kids debark pell-mell and fill, apologetically, the aisle between the washers and dryers, politely vying to put loads in, bonking their duffels to the ground, pausing confused at the change machine chucking chains of quarters into their hands and the little basin. They excavate Tide pods their moms left like chocolates in their bag bottoms. One drops to the floor, I pick it up, in my hand it has the weight and flex of a small testicle. I hand it back.

I’m invisible as air in the interstices of their conversation. Caden, Corie, Braden, Jordan, Jaden or Jerry from Albuquerque or Pasadena made some mistake at last night’s armory showcase, so they didn’t win, but gave it their all, made strides and their best effort, they’ll shake it off and, next year, nail it. Are we going to see Suicide Squad this afternoon, a teen girl says to a boy group the aisle’s full of. They lean at her with meaty lurches, swig from water bottles they unclip from belt loops and knapsacks.

But one kid’s saying how this creepy teacher, he hits on girl students like all the time, it’s gross … Does it matter? Does it? In this light, matter? “Sorry, I’m a teacher,” I say, “and a mom, and that shouldn’t be happening. You should tell somebody in authority.” They nod, shrug, turn to their affairs.

It’s interesting, being invisible, watching myself utterly unwatched.

Sixteen, I said to the volleyball player, 28, from my co-ed all-ages JCC team, who flirted and drove me home after practice, “do you want to fool around?”

“Sounds nice,” he said, never touching me, waiting for me to get out of the car, never offered to drive me home again. I heard he died young, though he lives in my mind today, with his bald spot, hard spike, already fattening belly.

If you get up early, in Paris, and walk to the zoo so you get in just as it opens, pay your way in, pass the other dispiriting exhibits, with the cud chewers, their tongues hanging out, and the sadness of thick-tailed leopards in cramped tiny jungle spaces, barely able to prowl down a hill; and ignoring the shitty peacocks, displaying their iridescent astonishments to no one who cares, with stressful screams like babies in pain; then you might round a corner—if you’re early enough—to see the baboons come out, like clowns from an improbable car, released fighting from their unknowable indoor pens to the outdoor space along the artificial rockface where they spend their daytimes. And your baby girl, a perpetual warm lump in your arms, extends her arms toward them.

They were quiet all night, you believe, and if not free now, freer, and they flash, swing, jump, chatter, and shriek at each other. They’re so killingly angry. Why don’t they kill each other? There are so many of them, how could they fit inside wherever they are, nights, and do they hate? Is hate a monkey thing? Is anger a constant baboon state, or is it the tiniest opportunity in the suggestion of breeze on the outdoor air that changes things? It’s like an energy, electric, transferring beast to beast to beast, any dissipation barely noticeable at first but there’s an eventual stilling until, bored, they settle down to watch themselves watched.

How inexperienced I am. How inexperienced I still am.

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Interviews, New Interviews, Uncategorized

Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson

Interviewed by John Bolen

How did you come to name the antagonist of the story John F. Kennedy in the first place?

It was mostly an accident. A boy who antagonized me in high school was named after a different US president, and I used that name in the first draft and then I thought, “Oh, shit, what if he read it?” So I just picked another president.

Music appears often in your stories. In “Kennedy,” Jamie tells us that he likes Tevin Campbell and Britpop, Kennedy is into Death Metal, and the art teacher plays John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks in class. In the title story of your latest collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, the main character, Adam, has just been forced to leave his indie-rock band. He moves back in with his mother, and, in perhaps my favorite scene of the book, plays Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as a dirge, while his mother listens.

 What kind of music do you listen to? Do you ever listen to music while you write, or do you need complete silence? Music is such a major component in our lives, and yet I rarely see it incorporated into fiction as seamlessly as I see it incorporated into your stories. How do you do it so well?

This is all stuff from my own life. In junior high, I was deeply obsessed with Tevin Campbell. In high school, while everyone else was listening to grunge, I was into Britpop, buying import CDs and magazines at Tower Records and staring at pictures of, like, the lead singer of Suede for hours. My art teacher played nothing but Yanni and John Tesh CDs while we worked. A friend of mine does a version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as a really, really slow song, and it’s so wonderful.

I pretty much just listen to rap music, and then I listen to whatever my two boys (Griff, eleven; Patch, six) like, which right now is BTS and Froggy Fresh and the Bob’s Burgers Soundtrack.

It’s very kind of you to say that about my stories and how music works within those stories. Ever since I was a kid, music has been really important to me, as I imagine it is to most people, but I have obsessive tendencies, so I sometimes get way too invested in music (see: Campbell, Tevin). I’ve always loved the way Jennifer Egan used music in A Visit from the Goon Squad, especially the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” and “Ask Me if I Care” chapters, the way the music serves as this point of connection, to pull two people together for a brief moment, to share the sound. And for someone like me, who struggles with anxiety and being around people, music is a kind of common language that lets me connect with other people. So I try to bring that into my fiction.

I do listen to music while I write sometimes. For my last novel, I listened to Phoebe Bridgers on a loop, one album, over and over and over. For The Family Fang, when I did the revisions, I listened to Sam Amidon’s “Relief,” a single song, over and over and over for hours and hours while I revised. I wish I could remember what I was listening to when I wrote this story. Oh, actually, it might have been the Silver Surfer NES soundtrack. Or the Robocop Gameboy soundtrack, since I was writing about videogames. Videogame music from the 90s is about as perfect as it gets.

Did you play video games growing up? Do you play them now?

A majority of my childhood was spent playing video games. Going to the arcade with five dollars and just playing Mortal Kombat and Cyberball and NBA Jams for a few hours, I was as happy as I could be. It was a way for my brain to kind of calm itself, let the colors and sounds do their work. And videogames were a great way to figure out narrative, to break down a larger story into smaller chapters, to see the progression.

I haven’t owned a system since my SNES in high school. I kind of lost the desire and then games passed me by, and I wasn’t good at them anymore. But now that I have kids, they love to play, so we have an Xbox and it’s made me really happy to play with them, though I am very bad at it. I also still have my original Sega Master System, so the kids love playing those games with me, like Shinobi or Pro Wrestling, and I can really wow them with how goddamned good I am at them.

About halfway through the story, we, as readers, realize that there is at least some narrative distance between the events that transpire in the story and Jamie’s retelling of it. (“Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, what the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive.”) It’s clear to the readers that, years later, Kennedy still has an impact on Jamie’s life. When you write a story like this, do you have a mental image of Jamie as both a teenager and as an adult? If so, what is his life like now? Does he have children of his own?

One year in high school, there was this boy. And he wore Cannibal Corpse T-shirts. And one of my friends and I were in an art class with him. And he poked us with X-ACTO knives and burned us with glue guns while we made a Parthenon out of cardboard. He’d hit me. And he said pretty bad things to us. I never once tried to protect myself or tell anyone or ask for help or stand up to him. It didn’t even really occur to me, even though I was fifteen years old. I think that my complete passivity was repulsive to him, to the point that I angered him, my existence. Now, I don’t even think that boy would remember me. And I don’t think he’d consider anything he did to even be bad.

But the ending of the fictional story is not my story, thank god, so there’s this point where Jamie, who is me, becomes not me. He becomes what I guess he always was, just a character. And I have a family and my life is good. But I don’t think Jamie’s life is good. I don’t think he has children of his own. And I feel those echoes, where our stories separate, and who he is. It’s a strange sensation.

At another point in the story, Jamie speaks directly to the reader, saying, “In such a short amount of time, my life, which was boring but tender, a thing that mattered to me even as I understood that it would eventually change, had become a kind of dream. I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as it feels to me.” Those lines split the story wide open for me. In the most beautiful way, they add another dimension. What is the reader’s relationship to Jamie?

I’m not sure. It kind of works like this for me. At first, it’s just me talking to myself. And then it’s me talking to the reader. And then it’s Jamie talking to the reader. And then it’s Jamie talking to Ben.

I like those moments in fiction when you’ve been with the story for a while and then the narrator suddenly talks to you, pulls you into the narrative, and you have to give yourself over to that intimacy. It’s startling, but I love that moment, when I feel like the narrator can see me, knows me in some important way.

At the end of the story, after Kennedy has committed his final—as far as we know—atrocity, I immediately thought of the poem, “The Second Coming,” by Yeats, particularly the line, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” I’ve always understood that line to imply chaos, and the fact that Kennedy repeatedly destroys the miniature Parthenon—a monument of exactness—seems to play into that same idea. Does Jamie’s inability to understand or comprehend the events that occur in the story suggest an attempt to apply order to a world where order is seemingly absent? Should the writer concern himself with questions like that, or is that the literary critic’s job? (Or is it no one’s job, because it’s a stupid question?)

No, I think a writer needs to think about that stuff, but I think it happens after the fact, when you realize what you’ve done and you’re trying to make sense of it. 

At the heart of the story, it’s a boy trying to understand why someone did a bad thing to him. And there’s no good answer. It’s just random cruelty. But it’s your life and you can’t really just shrug your shoulders and go about your business. Or at least I can’t. So you try again and again to look at the moment and figure out what it meant, how you could have changed it.

So I wasn’t thinking about chaos and order. I was thinking about JFK, the force of his anger and agitation. And I was thinking about Jamie, completely unable to protect himself. And the story just happens. Afterwards, I can see those things, but not in the moment.

You’ve now published two story collections (Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and Baby You’re Gonna Be Mine) and two novels (The Family Fang and Perfect Little World). At what stage do you determine the form an idea takes? Have you ever condensed a novel into a story, or expanded a story into a novel?

In most cases, I know pretty quickly if it’s going to be a short story or a novel. I spend so much time just worrying narratives in my head, spending a long, long time visualizing them, so once it comes time to actually start writing, I have a sense of how long it will be.

I turned a failed novel about a half-human/half-bear baby into a short story. And I turned a short story about a brother and sister who play Romeo & Juliet in a high school production into a chapter in my novel The Family Fang. I think this is mostly because I never want to throw out anything that I write. I’m always trying to figure out some way to reshape it into something halfway decent. So sometimes figuring out the form can do that. Sometimes it doesn’t, sadly.

You also have a novel coming out in November called Nothing to See Here. Could we hear what it’s about?

It’s a weird little thing about friendship and children and spontaneous human combustion, which is a neverending obsession with me. It all takes place over a single summer and it’s this really compressed narrative with weird elements, so it was fun to write. I wrote it so fast, in about ten days.

How do you manage to get all that writing done?

Honestly, I don’t really write for much of the year. I think it probably averages out to about two or three months out of the year when I’m actually on my computer writing. When I’m teaching and grading and reading, I don’t have much time for writing. And my kids need my attention and I like hanging out with them, and they don’t really want me to go sit in bed and write all day, so I don’t even try. I used to feel like a failure, and I’m always telling my students to write as much as they can, but I don’t do it. I have friends who write every morning for two hours and I admire that, but it’s not something that I’m capable of doing.

So I kind of save it all in my head. All the time, I’m trying to figure it all out in my head, and I just go over it again and again and again. To me, that’s my real writing process, just holding it in my head, cycling through it, building it up. So when the summer comes, or I go do a week-long residency, and I can sit down and actually write, I tend to be a frantic writer, going really fast.

Subtropics is incredibly lucky to have the pleasure of publishing both you and your wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, in the current issue. Is Leigh Anne your first reader? Are you hers?

Leigh Anne is one of my favorite writers so I’m honored to share space with her in this issue. Leigh Anne is my first reader. I actually don’t show my work as a draft to anyone except Leigh Anne and then my agent. That’s it. Those are the two voices I trust. And Leigh Anne has known me for so long that she knows what I’m trying to do, so it’s helpful for me to hear from her because she can help me figure out how to make it exactly how I envision it.

Leigh Anne goes to residencies a few times a year to write and I love that moment, after the kids fall asleep and it’s just me awake in the house, when she calls me from some cabin, and she reads me what she’s written that day. I love hearing it for the first time, in her voice. It’s probably as happy as I get.

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