Choking on Forced Laughter

I love laughing. I do it frequently and loudly, with a laugh some friends have described as a bark. I have laughed outside restaurants with such force that people from inside looked to see what was the matter. Often people say they knew I was in the building because they heard my laugh. Heck, just look at my initials if you don’t believe me.

But lately, I’ve been laughing less.

Here’s an example where I did not laugh:

Male Customer: Oh wow, thanks a latte.

Laura: Yep.

Male Customer: Well, I guess someone hasn’t had their coffee yet today.

Laura: Sure.

Male Customer: What’s your problem?

Glad you asked. My problem is that I’m tired of laughing at jokes that I don’t think are funny.

I have felt pressure my whole life to laugh at not funny jokes made by men, in order to be accepted, be seen as “harmonious” or attractive, to do well in school etc. etc. etc. And I almost guarantee that every other woman in the world can remember a time they laughed at a joke, not because it was funny, but because they were afraid not to.

The problem is complex, of course, because men want us to laugh when they think it is funny, but not when they don’t think it’s funny. Here’s a whole essay about the politicization of laughter if you’re interested.

I have often wondered about male comedians. We have been told that women aren’t funny. I think it is instead that women are conditioned to laugh at men’s jokes. And men are conditioned to expect it. That men are funny is taken for granted and if someone isn’t laughing at a man’s jokes, it is not because the jokes aren’t funny, but because there is something wrong with the audience. Think how often you’ve seen women being criticized as thin-skinned, told that they “couldn’t take a joke”.

But the crux of humor is its unexpectedness. The surprise of a comment jolting free nervous, excited energy into a spontaneous release. I’ve seen literally dozens of white male comedians, and male comedians in general. It’s awfully hard for them to say something that hasn’t been said a million times before.

Often, male comedians hide behind the idea of “political correctness”. As in, “all these women can’t take a joke, they don’t realize that nothing is out of bounds.” Meaning that the male comedian in question wants to make jokes about sexual assault and harassment and doesn’t understand why the women in the audience aren’t laughing.

But for women, sexual assault and harassment isn’t unexpected. We’re on the edge of our seat every minute of every day waiting for it to rear its head. In our commute to work, at our place of work, on the commute home, in the media we consume when we relax, and often in our romantic partners. Even when we close our eyes at the end of the day, the trauma of our harassment remains to haunt our dreams.

See, to us, sexual harassment isn’t funny, it’s lived experience.

Perhaps, you think, talking about it in a public place is unexpected.

But again, it isn’t. How many women have in a public place, with their female friends, sat around telling their stories. You know the ones I mean: being followed home, being harassed at work, the things men have said etc etc etc. We’re used to these discussions, almost a right of passage to unburden them with newfound female friends.

Just because you have never thought about harassment before, doesn’t mean we haven’t.

This is why I’ve never cared about Louis C.K. I’ve heard his jokes a thousand times before. This is why I didn’t care about Breaking Bad. I had all I needed in a tormented anti-hero from Hamlet. Or heck, even before that, Oedipus Rex. I’m tired of hearing the same stories over and over again and being expected to applaud.

And I’m tired of hearing the same jokes over and over again and being expected to laugh.

It if I don’t laugh, it’s not because I don’t have a great sense of humor. It’s just that you aren’t funny.

 

 

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Smoke and Silence

 

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller 

The problem is I can’t breathe. Three years ago nothing would have kept me from having a good time. Three years ago—pfft—nothing.  

But now.  

Now I’m sitting on the curb, outside the bar, wishing desperately for a cigarette, head still throbbing from that godawful-country-crap-cum-music, wondering how the hell I’ll make it home. If I even want to make it there. 

There’s something desolate about a Montana sky at night. The orange haze hovering above the horizon. The stars close and achingly far.  

I try to focus on the feel of the sidewalk underneath me, still radiating the day’s heat. I feel the urge to pace, but the sky, somehow, keeps me pinioned where I am.  

I am staring idly at my fingers, wishing they were covered in ash, brown with tobacco, when a woman sits down next to me.  

She doesn’t look Montana to me, not with her Day-Glo skin, vibrant even in the dying light. Certainly not her hair, cropped short and spiky, platinum blonde to silver. She looks as though she’s flown in from some tropical paradise.  

A half-moon hangs from one ear.  

I look at her side-long. She is sitting close to me, but not so close as to necessarily invite a conversation. Still it is a big sidewalk under a big sky and she sat next to me.  

I speak. 

“Evening,” I say. 

“Cowboy,” she says.  

“You got a cigarette?” I ask.  

“Coffin nails?” She says. “Are you sure you want one?” 

“Pretty damn sure,” I say. 

She eyes me for a second then summons a cigarette as if from thin air. It is wrapped in a sort of fine tissue I’ve never seen before. It doesn’t matter though, because I hold it in trembling fingers and she flicks a lighter underneath and it’s ablaze. 

The blessed nicotine.  

I haven’t smoked in three years.  

“You needed that, huh?” She asks.  

“You have no idea,” I say.  

She smiles slightly but doesn’t say anything.  

“What brings you out here on this fine night?” I say. “Shouldn’t you be in there making eyes at some fella?” 

“Fella?” She says. 

“Or gal,” I correct. 

“Not my scene,” Day-Glo says. “In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not from around here.”  

“No shit,” I say. “Where are you from?” 

“Here and there,” she says with a shrug. “Most recently, Texas Panhandle.”  

“What is that,” I say, “Austin?” 

“Huh uh,” she says. “Think Amarillo.”  

“How come you haven’t got an accent?” 

“Ya’ll don’t seem to take too kindly to strangers in these parts,” she drawls.  

“Boy howdy,” I say. “So, what’s your name?”
“What’s yours?’ 

“Alan,” I say.  

“Alex,” she says, with just enough hesitation to make me doubt her. “You got a car, cowboy?”  

“Even if I did,” I say, “I’m too drunk to drive.” 

“No problem,” Alex says, “I’ll drive.” 

“Forward aren’t you,” I say.  

“You want to get out of here,” she says. “I want to get out of here. Otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting on a curb having this conversation.”  

“Well,” I say. The itch has got ahold of me, the urge to move run shake scream breathe. Anything anything except to wait there for June to come out and find me. Another conversation ending the same way with tears and threats and pleas that I attend therapy etc etc etc 

“Shoot,” I say, “let’s go.” 

It is technically June’s car. But I have her keys. And damn if I don’t feel owed right now. Owed by the breathless sky and the bleary light of the same old bar full of the same old people waiting for their turn to die. 

Three years ago could I see myself here? Sliding into the passenger’s seat, tossing the keys over to a complete stranger, reaching out a casual hand to crank up the AC? 

Three years ago could I see anything?  

In the car I catch a whiff of her scent, not perfume, not unpleasant, but bizarre. The smell of sweat and salt and something vaguely rotten. It contrasts sharply with June’s smell, a clean soapy smell that has to me now a soporific effect. Sending me continually to sleep in the way only things too familiar can.  

It isn’t June’s fault. None of it is ever June’s fault. 

The thought pin-balls around in my head, threatening to shake it all lose. I turn to Day-Glo, Panhandle Alex. New, different, driving the goddamn car.  

“Where are we going?” I ask, aware by now that we have exited the parking lot, turned left at the stoplight, cruising down Main towards the bridge.  

“The river,” Alex says. “I need to get down there, and maybe some ways past.”  

“How far past?” I ask. 

“Scared?” She asks. 

“A little,” I say. 

“Good.” 

We sit in silence, the dull roar of the air conditioning, the occasional flash of passing cars. Outside people enter and exit bars. Dogs are being walked. Stores stand empty and dead.  

I wonder if June has started to worry about me yet. If she’s left the bar, noticed the car missing. As if in answer my phone begins to buzz. 

“Your girlfriend?” Alex asks.  

I don’t answer. 

“All right,” Alex says. “You’re lucky you’re here with me and not my sister. She hates cheaters.” 

We are crossing over the bridge now, the iron railings whipping past.  

“You have siblings?” I ask. 

“Just the two,” she says. “Sisters.” 

“Pull off up here,” I say, “if you want to get down to the river.”  

“Roger that,” she says with an exaggerated drawl.  

Alex steers June’s car into the gravel turn off, leading it down past the scrub trees to a low impromptu parking space. A steep overgrown path drops down to the water’s edge.  

“How old are you, cowboy?” Alex asks stopping the car. 

“Old enough to know better,” I say.  

“Good,” Alex says. She gets out of the car, leaving the key in the ignition, the engine still purring. I watch as she makes her way to the water, shedding clothes as she goes, silhouetted by the blaring headlights.  

I sit for a moment, not sure what is expected of me. The feeling between us isn’t exactly sexual but it certainly is intense. I feel drawn, pulled to her like a moth drawn to the proverbial flame. But I have learned by now not to think too often of fire. And more importantly not to think too often.  

I reach over and turn off the engine, dipping everything into an inky darkness. I drop the keys back into my pocket. I unlace my shoes and awkwardly pull off my socks, wincing when I step out on the rocks. They poke and prod at my feet attacking from odd angles. 

I hobble after Alex’s retreating form.  

When I catch up to her, she is already calf-deep in the river and completely naked.  

I see a pale scar tracing its way down the length of her spine, as if she has been sliced open and sewn back up. 

I roll up my pant legs and wade in after her.  

“Oh,” she says, as if surprised to see me, “hello.” 

“Hi,” I say.  

“Still craving a cigarette?” She says. 

“Not anymore.” 

We stand silent for a long moment, the water lapping at our legs. On the bridge cars roll by sporadically. If anyone looks down and sees us, they don’t stop. Perhaps we are not the strangest thing they have witnessed. Perhaps we are not strange at all, simply a man and a woman standing in the water.  

“Cold, isn’t it?” I say at last.  

Alex shrugs. Her Day-Glo skin, I note, stops chastely at the t-shirt line leaving the rest of her body pale. Her breasts are small, the nipples puckered against the night air. 

“I always need to go to the river after I’ve killed someone,” she says.  

“Ha,” I say.  

She doesn’t reply and the silence stretches.  

“Do you miss Texas?” I ask. 

“Are you sorry?” She asks.  

“For what?”  

She turns to look at me with silvery eyes, and I see within them a smoldering anger. A delicious invitation to slip out of my sleeping skin and into madness.  

I stand for a moment breathing in deeply, the cool damp air and somewhere far off the tinge of smoke. 

“Yes,” I say, “every day.”  

“Hmm,” Alex says.  

I shiver. In my pocket my phone jangles again, insistently. 

“Tell me,” Alex says. And it is a command. 

It was dark, I think. 

“I don’t know how to begin,” I say.  

Three years have passed, or maybe I am still trapped, trapped in that same room. Nothing to break me loose. 

“I don’t, I don’t have a drinking problem,” I say, “whatever June says. It’s just that—I don’t.”  

Alex says nothing, her body glowing against the dark.  

“It was a little over two years ago,” I say.  

Two years, eight months, and a handful of days.  

“I was drunk that night,” I say. “I’m the first to admit it, and I did.”  

The smell of smoke, thick, and somehow enticing. Inviting me to stay, sleep, drift off into that sweet surrender. If not for June, I could have slept forever.  

“I passed out,” I say, “dead drunk. Lit cigarette. Curtains. I made it out. June made it out. Shit everyone made it out except–“ 

That feeling of relief, disbelief, standing there out under the same Montana sky. Who knew so much smoke could seep out from such a small, slow beginning, writing great thick messages on the underbelly of the universe. The quick-cut red-blue of police cars and fire trucks. Wrapped in that yellow blanket, guzzling down oxygen. And all that time, in the adrenaline-buzzed midst of it, all that time– 

“The old woman, our upstairs neighbor. You know, we used to complain about her all the time. Her television turned up too loud. And her cats smelled so bad. And then–“ 

I could still feel the vice closing around me, choking, suffocating. Dreams of endless smoke-filled hallways, two lefts and a right, no, two rights, then—and never reaching the door in time.  

I turn at last to look at Alex. A slight smile plays on her lips.  

“And how did that make you feel?” She asks.  

I close my eyes, suddenly nauseous. A wave of stomach acid crawling up my esophagus.  

I went to the funeral, against my better judgment, against June’s advice. Like a bystander, eyes drawn to the sound of a car crash, needing to know, to satisfy that deep question: how bad is it? 

Closed casket, maudlin lilies, pitiful little family arrayed out on the pews. The drone of a church organ. The blood of the lamb. 

How bad is it? 

The sum of a life: a cloud of smoke and silence.  

“It was my fault,” I say bitterly. “How do you think I feel?” 

“Hmm,” Alex says. She turns to look at me, and I become suddenly aware of her body. The Day-Glo orange now almost painful to see, and rising behind her as if unfurling up from the cut in her spine, an aura, hazy and uncertain. If only I could focus, perhaps I could understand what is happening. 

But things are confused and Alex’s eyes drag me back, pinioning me where I stand.  

“You need to say it,” Alex says.  

“I am guilty,” I say. 

“And what,” she says, “do you deserve?” 

The tug of the river against my legs, dragging me, dragging me down. Alcoholic, June said. Help, she said, you need help. But she never understood, never saw that I didn’t want help. That what I wanted was–  

“Death,” I say. “I deserve to die.”  

“Dramatic,” Alex says. “But perhaps not incorrect.”  

I turn to her again and see her changing. The scar on her back split open and dark wings pushing outward, feathered and oily. Her eyes darkened, ringed with midnight fire.  

“What?” I say. 

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?’ Says the creature who was Alex. “A deserved death, to wipe clean the slate. Free yourself from guilt.”  

I stumble back, lose my footing, splash, flounder in the river.  

Overhead the stars stars stars and the creature wading, moving, oh so slowly, towards me.  

It is speaking now, in a voice of stones, low, rumbling, grating. Tectonic plates shuddering past each other through the slow roll of centuries.  

“May your sins be washed clean,” it says. “May the waters of this world carry you pure into the next.”  

“Wait,” I can hear myself saying over and over again. “Wait.” 

June, I think. 

It is upon me. And, god, I can’t breathe.  

This Barista Life: Part 3

Here we are and there we are and we are all together.

What was it like to once again pull up roots? This time moving back across the bay, closer to home and into the heart of the beloved Oakland.

If I haven’t made it clear, I love Oakland. I am less convinced at this point that Oakland loves me, but I will do my best to earn its love by fighting for it with every breath that I have.

I was excited, nervous, queasy to be meeting a whole host of new baristas, that first day of school feeling: what if they don’t like puns? what if they don’t like me? But I’m repeating myself.

And, of course, the thirst to prove myself, to put into play everything I had learned over the last nine months. My desire for perfection and cleanliness, my attention to detail, my abject humility.

They let me into a shining new cafe, and I was like a kid in the candy store. No problem was too small: should the for here set ups go under the espresso machine or somewhere else? Which way should the cups be facing? What does internal hospitality even mean?

I had too much fun nerding out, making puns, pulling faces, doing my cappuccino dance, etc etc etc. It is testament to my fellow baristas that my Ferry Building homesickness, though still intense, was not all-encompassing. I had the honor of helping to inaugurate a new cafe, and to welcome in a whole new neighborhood, hoping that we could learn from them, grow with them, and earn a place in their hearts.

I’m a little bit sentimental right now, if you couldn’t tell.

Anniversaries will do that to you.

So that’s where I’m at. A year at Blue Bottle. Still with so much to learn and so much to do. But I’m proud of all that I’ve accomplished. Proud that I went from steaming my first ever latte to competing in a latte art throw down. Proud that I went from tasting notes like “chocolate?” to participating in production cuppings. Proud that I went from knowing no one to pulling shots for our founder and CEO.

I’m so lucky and so grateful and so overly-caffeinated, and I can’t wait to see where the next year takes me.

This Barista Life: Part 2, Ferry Home Companion

If you spend much time on this little blue dot called Earth, and especially if you live somewhere in the vicinity of that cacophonous nation called the United States, then tides and times will likely wash you up onto the shore of the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

My first day to work was also my first ever visit to the building itself, although I had heard of it, even looked it up on maps before moving out West. There was nothing to prepare me for the reality of it, though.

Picture the train station of your imagination, it’s huge, bigger than any building ought to be, and the ceiling is made all of glass, cut through with iron supports. And sunlight falls in and turns everything golden, catching in the dust beams. This is the Ferry Building.

Picture, too, everyone you’ve ever met. They are all there, many times over. I can’t count the number of people, those I’d forgotten, or those I think about every day who I ran into completely unknowingly at Ferry.

Not to mention the vendors. If the Island of Misfit Toys were real, it would be there. These honest, messed up, pantheon of people.

I didn’t know that first day, walking awkwardly through the crowd, that these people would become my best friends, this magical building my home.

The first weeks passed in a haze. Here I was and there I was, inside the building outside the building, learning names and faces and how to brew a cup of coffee. Stepping on toes literally and metaphorically. I can never thank everyone enough for their patience and compassion in teaching me.

Every day walking to work was like diving underwater again, never certain who or what I would see. Whether the woman trying to steal our tip jar for the umpteenth time, two men picking a fight outside the window, or David Beckham and family attempting to slide unseen through the crowd. Some days all three.

But time passed, and I grew as a barista and as a person. My latte art started looking like latte art, and my extraction levels were sometimes deemed adequate. People I respect started commenting, supporting me to look for new ways to grow.

When my manager approached me about going to help start a new cafe, my immediate first response was “no way”. It felt like being asked to move across the country again. Everyone I knew and loved was in the Ferry Building, everything I’d built was there, I felt comfortable, safe, supported. Which, of course, is why I knew I had to say yes. As with all of my life, if it scares me, I probably should do it.

I know I speak for everyone who has ever worked at the Ferry Building when I say it is a unique experience. Working there will stay with me for the rest of my life.

But as with all things, this too, must pass, and it was on to Henry House!

This Barista Life: Part 1

As always I feel compelled by the passage of time, an hour gone, or a month, in this case it has been a year since I started working at Blue Bottle Coffee.

What began as an attempt at stable income has transformed into my life and family in the Bay Area. And more, a way of interacting with the world.

I began with no knowledge of coffee beyond the fact that I liked it and drank it in large quantities to make it through college. I first started drinking coffee the summer after my freshman year at Carleton, when I had snagged a job that required me to regularly be awake at 5:00 in the morning. My old roommates can attest, I am not a morning person no matter what I want to believe. From there coffee became more about a place, Blue Monday, of course. How many conversations, hours, laughter, tears, memories all tied up in that crowded little room with the mismatched chairs, all taking place over steaming cups of bean juice.

And I found coffee in my travels. Whenever I got a chance to explore alone, I would look first for a coffee shop and a bookstore, places in which I felt at home. This led me to coffee shops in Queenstown, Christchurch, Sydney, Dublin, Vienna, Lima, and all across the United States.

So when I was on the job quest last August, I felt drawn to coffee jobs. Little did I know all that would be in store.

I first experienced Blue Bottle down in Palo Alto, meeting with a friend of my sister. Of course, I walked past the place a few times before realizing where it was. (Blue Bottle never has the name on the building, only the symbol.) Once inside I felt as though I might be trespassing, these people seemed to know what they were doing, to be operating with some sort of purpose, to be achieving at high rates. Meanwhile, I was struggling to shower regularly.

But the feeling I came away with was warm and genuine, so when I saw that Blue Bottle was hiring, I jumped at the opportunity. I can’t remember what I said or did in the series of interviews, but something must have worked because a month after I applied, I was in training.

I was intimidated, but the training felt like school, so I sat front and center, took notes, asked questions, and was generally obnoxious as usual. And I found myself unbelievably entranced. Coffee brought together ecology, evolution, social justice, feminism, perfectionism, art, and people in this amazing combination. In one day we could talk about supply chains, extraction levels, and women in coffee all in the same setting.

And in addition to the intellectual stimulation, I got to make something with my own two hands. How rare a gift was that? For a person who has spent most of my life locked up inside my devious and ever-moving mind, to work with my hands is no small gift.

It was one of the things I loved so much about working in the prairies of Minnesota. To go out and touch the stalks of bending grass, smell the scent of bruising leaves after rainfall, listen to the gunshot of startled pheasants exploding into the sky.

I found this in coffee as well. All my creativity, my scientific inquiry, my people skills, and my drive were put to use here. Especially at my first cafe, the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

Charlottesville: The Continuation of White Terrorism

Driving a car through a crowd of people is an act of terrorism.

But the United States as a nation is profoundly racist. Terrorism is only ever associated with brown people. Hence the white men who continually perpetrate the worst shootings in the United States are never labeled as “terrorists” but are instead labeled as “mentally disturbed”. And the white men who use sexual assault as a weapon of terror often against trans women and/or women of color are not written about as “terrorists” but are instead labeled as boys who have made “mistakes”.

And a crowd of white supremacists are labeled not as “rioters” but as “protesters”. Because white people can’t riot. And white people aren’t terrorists.

Bull shit.

This is the time, has long since been the time, to face our country fully, to look deep into its eyes, our own eyes, and recognize the evil that long has been lurking. It is not an evil of darkness, it is an evil of whiteness.

I’ve been told to not call people racist. To not paint white people with a broad stroke. To listen to the other side. To show respect. To be a quiet, polite, good white woman. To keep to my lane. To not cause waves. To disappear.

I will not.

White people, we are the problem. This is about race. This is about gender. This is not going to go away by spouting slogans like “all lives matter” or talking about “absent black fathers” or saying things like “PC culture” or “overly sensitive”. This is not going to go away by telling me that being gay is a choice or that gender is fixed. I’m a biology major. There are a variety of genders and sexes controlled by a multitude of factors, genetic and environmental.

This violence of reality denial, the violence of physical and verbal oppression, has been in existence since the very first white explorers. It is not acceptable. And it will end. Now.

The terrorism in Charlottesville is not the beginning. But it is the sign for the end. No more. Fuck Nazis, fuck white apologists, fuck rapists, fuck gender excluding morons, fuck all of that.

No, I’m not giving up on love as an answer. But I’m also done with this bull shit. What happened in Charlottesville was terrorism.

Time to keep donating my time and money and life.

The Blog at Three

Yes, three years have passed (Three?? And only three???), and this blog is still in existence. And I have to say I’m at more of a loss than ever to quantify or explain it.

This clearly isn’t a lifestyle blog. Unless that lifestyle is living paycheck to paycheck in the most expensive area in the country.

It isn’t really about politics although I’ve certainly ranted a fair amount.

It’s not just about updating my family, although that’s a large part of it.

And until recently it wasn’t even about highlighting my fiction.

I think if this blog is about anything it’s about the power of words to connect. Across distances, across time, across barriers of any kind. The best responses I’ve gotten have been from people saying that I managed to capture something they had been feeling, and that, consequently, they didn’t feel so alone.

That’s what this blog is about. To let you know that however desperate or depressed or poor or lonely or bitter or angry or tired you are feeling, you are not alone.

You are capable of great things, even if you struggle to believe that right now.

Friends, I’ve been down. I’ve been to depths where I thought I wouldn’t survive to twenty or twenty-one or twenty-two. There were days, months, years, when I thought I couldn’t continue, couldn’t take one more kick in the teeth. But I could, and I did.

When I was seventeen, I flew on an airplane for the first time in my life. I got on board, buckled in and watched as the sun rose above the Atlantic. And I cried.

Because a few weeks earlier I had tried to kill myself. And I believed that I would die without having ever been on a plane.

But we survive.

We survive even when we don’t want to. We survive even when we think, we know, it is impossible. Because stronger than the voice telling us that we are weak and useless, is the voice telling us we are beautiful, fragile, imperfect and wonderful.

We are human and therefore capable of change. We are human and therefore capable of growth. We are human and therefore capable of love in the face of adversity.

We are human. And I love you.

We are human. And you are not alone.

Happy 3rd birthday, blog.

 

Frigid

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

In January the first of the planes fell out of the sky. It was a gentle descent, and we watched with about as much concern and mitgefuehl as a crowd of middle-aged sightseers at an aquarium. There was a vague murmur as the mass of metal shone and flashed through a series of acrobatic twists. Only when the plane threatened to kiss the ground did we think to shield the eyes of our children. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. They didn’t know what caused the fall. Most put it down to sheer bad luck. My wife, Lucille, called it a reverse miracle, as if the inclusion of religion might lighten the burden for the rest of us.

It’s cold in Wisconsin most of the time, even in the summer. This particular January, though, was a real record-breaker. The snow piled up to the lintels. We dug tunnels through it like arctic gophers. Icicles caught up with the ground in free fall.

In the fall, our younger daughter Joann had started kindergarten. I didn’t like the teacher much. She kept giving Joann right-handed scissors even though Joann was left-handed. It reminded me too much of those Catholic schools that thought the left hand belonged to the devil. Lucille and I went in for a parent-teacher conference.

It went something like this:

Teacher: Joann is actually doing very well-

Me: I thought as much.

Teacher: Except for one, I hesitate to say problem here, but-

Me: If you give her right-handed scissors you can’t be surprised.

Teacher: It’s a problem.

Me: I’ll say it’s a problem.

Teacher: She won’t speak to blondes.

Lucille: What?

Teacher: She won’t talk to blondes. She’ll talk to redheads, brunettes, jet black, gray. Even, when Sylvia’s mom dyed her hair blue last week so she could audition for that toothpaste commercial.

Me: Sylvia’s mother dyed her hair blue?

Teacher: Sylvia’s hair, yes.

Lucille: Well, have you tried getting her one on one with a blonde?

Teacher: I’ve done sharing buddies, napping buddies-

Me: Tried giving her the right kind of scissors?
Teacher: I think it might be good if you two would talk to her.

Me: We’ll get right on it. You’ve left us no choice really.

Lucille didn’t talk to me on the ride home.

Our house is set back from the road on a driveway that’s hell to clear in the winter. On top of that we had to start clearing frozen air. The weatherperson said that it was so cold that the molecules of gas were becoming solid. So we got frozen air: air that thickened and dropped to the ground in little invisible hunks.

We sat Joann down in the kitchen, away from the hubbub of the living room. Dover, who was supposed to be pure golden retriever but turned out to be mostly mutt, had gotten into Kathy’s National Geographic collection. She had been saving back issues for four years to create a giant collage made entirely of faces. She wanted to make a face out of faces. What a kid. Now hunks of glossy magazine paper stuck to the floor and sofa, glued by sticky dog slobber. Kathy was incon

solable at the moment so we thought it best to begin with the simpler problem.

“Joann, honey,” Lucille started, “we need to ask you a question.” Lucille always approached things from the side. Never one for a frontal assault. It had taken me several days to realize that she had proposed to me. She still hadn’t quite forgiven me for that.

“It’s about school,” Lucille continued.

“Uh huh,” Joann said. She stuck a finger on the counter-top and pressed down until the fingertip turned white.

“We talked to your teacher,” Lucille said.

Joann nodded understandingly. She tilted her head to one side and then the other. I had to fight the urge to follow her example. What would the world look like from this angle? What about from that? Could things fall upwards if you stood on your head?

“She said you won’t talk to blondes,” Lucille said. “Honey, do you have anything to say about that?”

“What’s a blonde?” Joann asked.

“It’s a person,” Lucille said, “who has light colored hair.”

“Like grandma?” Joann asked.

“No,” Lucille said, “like-” She paused trying to think of famous blondes.

“Like Marilyn Monroe,” I said. Lucille kicked me under the table.

“Like Big Bird,” Lucille said at last.

“Big Bird is a bird,” Joann pointed out.

“Yes,” Lucille said, “but the color of Big Bird’s feathers is the color of blonde hair.”

“Okay,” Joann said.

“So,” Lucille said.

“I like Big Bird,” Joann said.

“Okay,” Lucille said, “what about the kids in your class?”

“They like Big Bird, too,” Joann said.

Kathy came into the kitchen. Her hair clip had slid down the side of her head so that her hair was pulled over to the side. Her face was pale from crying.

“Can we put Dover down?” she asked.

“No, honey,” Lucille said.

“He’s a monster,” Kathy said.

“You call him a monster,” I said, “and then wonder when he becomes one.”

“Bill,” Lucille said, “please be helpful.”

“But look what he did,” Kathy said holding up what was once a special issue on primate evolution. A grinning chimp face peered out between gaping tooth holes.

“Yes,” I said, “our ancestors weep in their shallow graves.”

“Bill,” Lucille said.

“Is Dover a blonde?” Joann asked.

The second plane fell on Presidents’ Day. This one was closer. We could hear the crunch of metal on earth as the cabin folded in on itself. The sirens beat their way through the frozen air for hours; ambulances from Madison and Milwaukee and even for some unknown reason Green Bay.

The kids were in school for this one, but apparently the teachers turned on the news so that they could watch. Kathy came home from school crying. Joann came home with a note that said she was still not talking to blondes and would we please do something about this.

A special investigation was begun. Men and women in suits began to ask questions at the doors. Had we seen any suspicious people in the area? Heard any strange rumors? Did we believe in God as much as our neighbors thought we did?

And we locals did not sit idle. Faced by the seriousness of this local tragedy we came together as a community, bonding in ways mysterious and powerful. I signed up for the Committee to Support the Victims. CSV. I thought if nothing else worked we could perhaps form a counter-culture drugstore. Lucille said this wasn’t a time for jokes. CSV met in the basement of Joann’s teacher’s house. Her husband Mitch, led the meeting from the confines of his rocking chair.

“The primary concern, of course,” Mitch said leaning back in his chair ruminatively, “is how to be prepared for the next event. We need to get ahead of this. Start making pamphlets. Talking with our children. Rallying.” He was a big man with quite a paunch and what was people called “big-hearted”. He was always volunteering for things: chaperone duty, bake sales, coaching Little League. I felt an immediate deference towards him.

“Excuse me.” The man next to me raised a thin hand. He had been here six years. Still an outsider. “What next event? Shouldn’t we look to the survivors and families of these past crashes? Shouldn’t we investigate the cause?”

Mitch rocked forward, asserting his power. “It stands to reason,” he said to the air, “it stands to reason that we want to be proactive in a case such as this. Proactive not reactive.”

“It just seems odd to be doing nothing–” the outsider started.

“Bill.” Mitch barked out my name. “How would you feel about heading up the pamphlet-making portion?”

“Sure, Mitch,” I said. My standard response. “Sure, boss.”

He leaned back in his rocking chair satisfied.

“We don’t even know what caused this,” the outsider mumbled. “What good is a pamphlet?” If it had been the fifties we would have called him a communist, as it was the best we could manage was to deny him cookies at the end of the meeting.

Lucille and I didn’t have sex for the month of February. It’s a short month, thankfully. She stayed up knitting blankets for the children of families of the crashes. I stayed up designing pamphlets. I learned Adobe InDesign and Photoshop and then back to Adobe for the Illustrator. I picked a font. Microsoft Himalaya. It seemed to invoke climbing, heights, challenges met. I stared at the computer screen late into the night, letting the light wash over me with its cleansing glow. I crawled into bed long after Lucille had drifted off, and I lay next to her listening to the sound of her breathing. I wondered if I’d be around when the breathing finally ended.

Kathy finished her collage in early March. It was grotesque. A grinning human face made of grinning human faces. It was overall a white face, with bits of color in the cheeks and one Aboriginal in each pupil. It looked to me more like a skull than anything, but of course I played the role of supportive father.

“It’s hideous,” I said.

“Bill,” Lucille said.

“What?” I said. “It is.”

“Thanks, dad,” Kathy said, “I’ll take my critique from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. You can’t even make a stupid handout. ”

It was true that I still had yet to finish even a draft of the pamphlet. Mitch had been calling the house recently especially around dinnertime and sometimes Kathy would answer the phone.

“The next accident could occur at any time,” Mitch said. “We can’t be unprepared.”

“I know, Mitch, I know.”
“I just want to be sure your full effort is in this,” Mitch said.

“Sure, Mitch, sure.”

“We’re all counting on you here,” he said, “I can’t stress the importance of this.”

“I’ll have it done before the next crash,” I said.

“Excellent,” Mitch said. “That’s what I like to hear.”

It got colder throughout March. The snow got so cold that it turned directly to ice. Towers of ice stood on either side of our driveway, threatening to collapse at any second. Driving through them daily was a testament to my faith in modernity. See me, the modern man with my four wheel drive and snow tires, see me unafraid of my impending doom, oblivious to the fate waiting to engulf me.

The frozen air had also started to become a problem. Dogs and even some children were beginning to swallow it. The air cracked under the stress of expanding and broke into little bits just at the correct height and of the correct dimensions to choke small animals.

We talked to Joann’s teacher again to see what measures we could take.

“Don’t let her outside unsupervised,” her teacher said.

“Well, of course,” I said.

“I mean it,” her teacher said, “not even for a minute. The Everson’s Rottweiler escaped for a few seconds yesterday. Dead before the Everson’s even knew he was out.”

“We’re very vigilant,” I said.

“And how are the pamphlets coming?” her teacher asked, as if the two things were related.

“Almost done,” I said. I had chosen a color palette, bright orange and light blue. Calming, but with hints of warning for the observant reader.

“We need to be prepared,” the teacher said. I wondered if I even had the energy to hate her.

The third plane crashed before Lucille and I had had sex again, before the pamphlets were done, before we had a chance to look away. This one came down in the center of town. It crashed into city hall, setting the frigid trees ablaze for a few seconds. The sap had frozen solid, their wood simply fell away in smoldering hunks as though dipped in liquid nitrogen. The mayor was not in his office, but his secretary and two pages were sent to the hospital. All those onboard the airplane perished on impact.

The smoke from the crash wrapped through the air and came down on the school. It surrounded the ice towers at the end of our driveway. It triggered Kathy’s asthma. She stayed up the whole night coughing. Joann sat beside her, stroking her hand. I wondered what she would have done if Kathy were blonde. Lucille just sat watching the two of them. Occasionally she got up and walked downstairs and then came back upstairs a few minutes later driven by the same secret animal impulse that leads moths to the flame and lemmings to the cliff edge.

I drove to the crash site the day after. Most of the CSV were there standing around the yellow-police tape perimeter. They were muttering and nodding their heads, examining the angle of the plane, the vectors and velocities, reenacting the moment of impact with their hands. I walked around to the other side of the square.

The plane was closer to this side, surrounded by cranes and crews of men hacking away at the metal in an effort to clear the area of its existence. This did not happen, they said with their cranes and metal-cutters, their hard-hats and yellow-orange safety jackets. And if I looked away for

long enough, I almost believed them.

The bodies were gone, of course, taken to the local mortuary where their families could come collect them. Wives, husbands, children, cousins, from distant places like Maine or Hamburg. From the county over where the accent sounded almost the same. The bodies would be cleaned, restructured, dressed in the right sort of clothing. Perfumed like ancient Egyptians.

Lucille’s father died when she was in grad school. We had just begun dating, it was in the stages before sex was consistent, when we still approached each other hesitantly. The news came in the form of a phone call from Lucille’s mother.

I did what I had to: I held Lucille until my arms fell asleep, I drove her to the airport, I packed her belongings, I answered her phone calls, and when she came back the next semester, I told her I wanted to move in with her. All this time I never saw the corpse. I wasn’t at the funeral. I felt the loss from afar, through the hollowness in Lucille’s voice, the desperation of her hands on my back. Even if I had seen the body I’m not sure I would have felt anything.

I asked a police officer if there was something I could do.

He looked at me with his head cocked to one said. “Who are you?” he asked.

I explained that I was a member of the Committee for the Support of the Victims.

“What’s that?” he asked.

I explained that we were a committee interested in supporting the victims.

“Sure,” he said, “I guess. Donate blankets or food or something? What is there to do? Some of them was kids.”

Not anymore, I thought.

That night I stared at the pamphlet template for a long time. I put in a clip-art picture of a pl

ane. I put in a clip-art picture of a family. I cut out the father and then the child. I put them at either side of the plane. I put little clip-art flames on the wings. I saved it to my desktop and shut off the computer.

I crawled into bed. Lucille was awake next to me. Down the hallway I could hear Kathy wheezing. I put my hand on Lucille’s stomach. It was warm under my icy hands. I leaned over to kiss her. She turned away.

“I’m worried,” she said.

The next day, Kathy’s breathing had not improved, despite the fact that the smoke had blown away towards Minnesota. We took her in to the doctor. Joann came with us, because school had been shut down until the weather improved. Education did not have the same standards as the postal service.

The doctor listened to Kathy’s lung for a long time. He went out of the room. Lucille showed Kathy pictures of faces in the magazine, but Kathy didn’t pay any attention, she simply sat with her bum lungs pumping up and down. Joann kept kicking the legs of the chair. The doctor came back in. He had a thick white mustache smeared across his lip like powdered sugar from a donut. His forehead was creased with concern.

“May I talk to the two of you alone?” he asked.

Lucille looked at me. I looked at her.

“I want to stay,” Kathy said. Joann kicked the chair legs. Lucille nodded once.

“You can tell us all,” I said.

“It seems,” the doctor said, “as far as we can tell, that there is frozen air caught in your daughter’s lungs. Tiny particles have attached to her alveoli. We’ve had a few cases like this.”

“Well,” I said.

“There’s not much we can do,” the doctor said. He ran a hand over his upper lip. I expected sugar to come away on his fingers. “Keep her warm. We’ll give you some herbal remedies that might help alleviate the cough.”

“And?” I asked.

The doctor looked at me. His forehead remained creased. “We’ll keep you updated,” he said.

We set Kathy up in the family room, next to the fireplace. We covered her with blankets and comforters. We gave her a stack of National Geographic. She asked to see Dover, their feud of a few months ago apparently over. Dover leapt up on the sofa with her and wagged his tail like an idiot.

Lucille sat up late pointing out interesting pictures with Joann on her lap. The only time she smiled was when Joann noticed the image of a blonde woman and stroked it with seeming affection.

I went out that night to look at the crash site again. The plane had been mostly cleared away. Only a few folding pieces of iron stuck up out of the ground near the front door of the hall. The holes in the building had been covered with sheets of plastic. I walked around and around the square, forcing my boots through the layers of ice. I looked up at the sky through the cracks of pale cloud cover, barely move against the cold. Between the peaks, for one moment I saw starlight, a single point of light in the velvet. But it was a cold light, and I went home uncomforted.

The doctor called us late the next day. “Your daughter will need to be moved,” he said. “There is a treatment facility. It’s in Fort Worth, Texas, where it’s warm enough to work. Time is of

the essence. She has only a day or two at most.”

“Thank you, doctor,” I said.

We sat staring at the computer trying to decide.

“It’ll be less expensive if just I go,” Lucille said.

“No,” I said.

“It will be,” Lucille said. “We’ll save five hundred at the least. And we need someone to stay with Joann.”

“You stay with Joann,” I said.

“Bill,” she said.

“I mean it, Lucille.”

There was a night, when Kathy was very young and Joann had not yet been born. Kathy had gotten the flu, and Lucille stayed up with her all night. Sitting and holding her, rocking her back and forth, stroking her head even as Kathy bawled her lungs out. I had put in earplugs and gone to sleep. I had never been a spectacular father, and knew now that I never would be. There were some times when I could not rise to the occasion, some places where I could not go, but this was not one of them.

We got to the airport two hours early. We drove slowly through the winding Wisconsin roads. Every few miles we saw a car that had slid off the road, and I drove even more carefully after that. Kathy held onto her bag all through security. She let go of it reluctantly when it had to go through the X-ray, and clutched it to her again as soon as she was through. I had only a small suitcase. I rolled it along behind me clacking against my heels.

We sat in the waiting area. I thought about calling Lucille but didn’t. Kathy read her book s

ilently beside me. Sometimes her mouth moved, forming words. I wondered if she was aware that she was doing this. Something in her seriousness reminded me of looking in the mirror for gray hairs.

The flight crew showed up at last. I watched them surreptitiously, looking for signs that things weren’t right. They seemed normal, in a hurry and grouchy. They were wearing dark orange uniforms with light blue highlights.

We boarded the plane. Outside the snow was falling softly. There was little wind. I wondered if they’d cleared the runway of frozen air.

The captain spoke on the intercom. “Have a nice flight,” he said.

“You too,” I said as I always do.

I tightened Kathy’s seatbelt next to me. She looked up at me and smiled. If I could have taken a picture she would have fit perfectly into her own collage, but I couldn’t help seeing the skull beneath her skin.

“We’re gonna make you better,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.

The engines started, and we backed out from the platform. We turned onto the runway. Snow swirled in and out of sight, flickering in its macabre dance. The flight attendants readied for take-off.

We began our run. The wheels jolted on the ground beneath us, I felt the lurch of the plane as it attempted to shake free of its own weight. It surged. It lunged. The engines hit a higher gear. The wings bounced alongside us, like birds hopping up and down in anticipation. We were about to take off, to cut ties with gravity, when it happened.

The sound of propellers hitting ice, a crunching deadening noise. We were sliding then and someone was screaming. The plane was tilting and the world with it. Metal was twisting against metal.

My thoughts did not go to Kathy sitting beside me. Kathy whose lips were moving gently and wordlessly so that I wondered if somehow she had learned how to pray. My thoughts did not go to Joann who would grow up fatherless as well as using the wrong scissors and perhaps forever silently hating the Aryan race. My thoughts did not go to Lucille whose body was more familiar to me than my own. Lucille whose only fault had been loving something incapable of loving her back.

I went back instead to the first winter I could remember. I was eight and living in Monroe. We went out skating on the pond. I had mittens tucked into my sleeves. My breath hung before me in the air, a dragon in the snow. I skated clumsily, barely able to stay upright even without my older brother pushing me down.

I just wanted to skate around the pond one full circle. One single perfect brush with infinity. I focused hard. I put all my thought to it. I skated around and around, each time falling just short of the goal. The afternoon wore on, and I grew tired. The pond refused to yield, eternal in its frigid circularity.

The sun began to set, and my brother went inside. It grew colder. Snow got in between my mittens and my coat and bit at my skin. Tears froze in my eyes. I skated and fell, skated and fell.

At last the moon began to rise. Once more, I told myself, once more and it would be over. Once more and the world lifts under me and flies me off and away. I pushed my legs back and back against the clear ice. I made it around half, three quarters, five sixths, I was within sight. My

skate caught the back of my heel and I fell.

I landed hard on my back, the breath knocked out of me. Above the sky hung laughing. A single star looked down between the layers of cloud. It was a cold light, a brutal light. It knew me. It knew the ice lodged even then inside, the frigid weight that I was destined to pass on to my children and on and on through the generations. The distance that would define me for the rest of my life. Wisconsin is cold even in the summer. We breathe it in and damn it if we’ll ever breathe it out.

As I waited in the plane for the flames that started in the engine and worked their way back through the cabin, consuming everything in its path, devouring passengers and melting seats, metal and plastic, I felt the ice again in my chest, and knew that even in death there could be no thaw.

Clear Water, Bright Lights

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

I remember the date when I first realized I was drowning. December 19, 2014. It was written in violent pink on the bachelorette party invitation email. Eunice missed the wedding season, I’ll give her that, but there’s something cruel about inviting a bunch of twenty-somethings to go out drinking in the dead of winter in Chicago.

The wind was already clipping in off the lake with a sting, and I realized that this would be the first time I’d seen Clara in three months.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like Clara. I mean, she was my best friend in college. We’d lived in the same house our senior year, with Eunice, of course. We all three spent the last week together in a drunken haze hitting pieces of fruit out the window with tennis rackets. The sharp snap of an apple against wire. The spray of juice and fruit flesh.

And we all three ended up in Chi-town. Only a bus and a Loop apart.

But there’s something about living different lives, or there’s something about living no life at all that stifles conversation.

And I was living no life at all.

What do you call selling your soul to a non-profit? Waking up every day as if it were Wednesday. The blue glare of the computer screen. Styrofoam coffee cups with bite marks along the rim. The printer asking again and again if you’d remove the goddamn paper, please?

Squabbling with my roommates about rent. Telling my mother that, no, I wasn’t going to be producing grandchildren just because I turned twenty-three which is, yes, the same age she had been when she had me.

So, I hadn’t talked to Clara in a while. Three months. Since John proposed.

I mean I had to have seen it coming.

We took the train out to the Dunes, because John has always had this weird idea that I want to return to Indiana. That I hadn’t been running from it for four years. That I could forget the smell of burning trash out in the neighbor’s back yard. That I didn’t remember the depression of an endless cornfield. The dead white sky.

Yeah, we went to the Dunes. And idiot that I was, I was surprised when I turned around and he was on one knee. There was sand and wind whipping into my eyes, so I didn’t have to pretend to cry.

I said yes, because he’s a nice guy, and my mother would be happy. I hadn’t told Clara about it yet.

The bachelorette party was at a kind of dive-y bar. It used to be a stage for improv groups, people just spit-balling, coming up with crazy shit. I guess it didn’t really change that much.

They still had old posters for shows, a few pictures of the celebrities who had once been there. I showed up a little too early so it was just me and Eunice and Eunice’s sister for a while.

Eunice asked me about John. I asked her about her soon-to-be husband, even though I wanted to ask about her instead. That was the way it was when you were in a relationship. Your status suddenly revolved around this other person. This other life.

John was a consultant, making good money. I’d move into his apartment when we married.

I’d slowly submerge my life into his, forgetting the little peculiarities about myself. My urge to talk through movies, my desire to be a painter, the way I still couldn’t tell left from right without using my hands. But I was happy. And Eunice was happy. So what was the problem?

Other people began to arrive and I lost Eunice. It was dark. The stools were uncomfortable. I was nursing a white Russian in the corner while the others were taking shots of whatever. There were little white Christmas lights hung over the bar and everything felt soft and out of focus and I couldn’t give a fuck about anything.

Until Clara walked in.

What can I say about Clara? She has one of those faces that’s full of energy, like every line is dynamic and moving and if you could trace the path of just one of them you’d find the little buzzing center of the universe. Her eyes are the deepest, softest brown I’ve ever seen. They remind me of soil and the smell of spring. Or something.

So in walked Clara wearing her classic amazing style: a black jumpsuit that would look tacky on anyone else but looks like she just got off the plane from Paris. Which maybe she did, because it’s Clara. And she’s kind of really fucking rich.

She didn’t notice me at first, because I was hunched. I’m a huncher, and I liked watching her before saying anything. But eventually she caught me staring and smiled her smile that’s just for me and walked over.

“Ellie!” she said and we were just the two of us together and alone.

“Hey,” I said. “What’s up with you?”

“Oh goodness,” she said, “what can I say? I just got a new job and you won’t believe it. I’m working in this basement with this guy who smells like lima beans and it’s top secret and

ridiculous. And the other night I got called back to be in this toothpaste commercial. And I just got invited to spend Christmas in Florence. So things are pretty normal. You?”

“Yeah,” I said, “similar stuff going on here. I just got a new Swiffer, but I don’t like to brag.”

Clara laughed. I stood up and we hugged. We gave each other the traditional it’s-been-so-long hug. Arms around each other, pull tight, not long enough to get comfortable, just long enough to remember how comfortable it used to be.

In college we had a turtle for a few weeks. Not for very long. It mysteriously disappeared out of our modified fish bowl and we never figured out what really happened. We pretended it was our child. Decided what religion it would be. Reprimanded it for smoking in the room. Gave it the sex talk just to embarrass it.

“What kind of party is this?” Clara asked. “Everyone looks all washed up.”

It was true that everyone, myself included, looked like they were trying just a little too hard. Dramatic make-up, dramatic dresses, dramatic laughter. We needed this fix.

“Yeah,” I said, “well we can’t all leave lives of romance and adventure.”

“Not from what I hear,” Clara said and looked at me expectantly.

“What?” I asked.

“How’s John?” Clara asked even more pointedly.

“Okay, okay,” I said.Yeah, he proposed. How did you hear?”

“Eunice, John, John’s friend Brian, Kelly…” Clara said ticking them off her fingers.

“Yeah,” I said, “I need new friends.”

“Yes,” she said, “you do.” She paused. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

There was a tinkling of ice in a glass somewhere behind me. The soft lighting seemed to flicker.

I exhaled. “I wanted to tell you in person.”

“Well,” she said, “here I am.”

“John got down on one knee,” I said. “And then I said yes. And we’re getting married in June.”

“Classic,” Clara said. “You’re gonna have to get your claws out if you want to get anything good.”

“I haven’t really started thinking about it yet,” I said.

“For real?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why not?”

But then Eunice found Clara and we got pulled into doing a reminiscent shot of Patrone. And then someone pushed another mixed drink into my hand. And enough people had arrived so that a dance party started on the tiny dance floor.

Around midnight we moved on to the club that Eunice’s sister had picked out. It was loud and there were more shots and things were spinning just a little when Clara found me again.

“Maid of Honor?” she asked.

I pretended not to hear her the first time.

“Maid of Honor?” she shouted.

“Yes,” I said.

“Who is it?” she asked.

Lights of red, yellow, green, blue danced along the wall and dropped onto Clara’s shoulders, arms, legs, feet. They jumped onto her face, speckled her hair.

We went to Mid-Winter Ball together our junior year. We danced until one. The DJ was awful and someone peed from the upper floor down onto the crowd. I was drunk but not drunk enough to forget that she kissed me on the cheek when we were staggering our way out into the cold. The cold felt like nothing compared to the burning of her lips on my cheek.

“You,” I said, “I mean…you… if you…”

“Oh,” even over the bass it was not a happy sound. “Ellie,” she said, “I can’t be there. I’m gone in June. My new job. I’ll be traveling.”

“Oh,” I said. I turned towards the bar. “Let’s do a shot,” I said.

“Ellie,” she said.

“Shots,” I said.

“Sure.”
Next thing I remember we were on the shore of Lake Michigan. The rest of the party was scattered down a ways from us. Someone was vomiting behind a bush. Eunice was being lifted on people’s shoulders. She had left her coat somewhere and was now wearing the coat from the guy at the club. It flapped against the wind.

“It wasn’t anything serious,” Clara was saying, “but I just felt a connection you know?”

“What?” I asked.

Jeremy,” Clara said.

“Oh right,” I said trying to get back to the thread of the conversation.

Eunice rose and fell screaming in the wind.

The waves pushed up against the shore little and icy. I couldn’t feel my feet or my face. The pebbles stood out, etched by moonlight.

“Yeah,” Clara continued. “Like, I’d never felt that way about anybody before? It was strange because I knew it couldn’t last. Like,” she stopped and swayed a little. “Like, if it did last I’d burn up too soon or something.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Like a star,” Clara said, “stars when they go supernova or whatever. They’ve gotten to big and their atoms like just can’t bounce that fast anymore, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. She swayed a little more and bumped into me. She rested her forehead on my shoulder.

“So,” she said and inhaled deeply, “I ended it, right? Because I can’t supernova, man.”

I nodded and looked out at the long swathe of dark water. It rose up over me and for a second I wondered if it would come crashing down.

The night before I turned twenty-two, my senior year of college, Clara and I went down to the river and jumped in together. It was early March and freezing. The water knocked the breath out of me, and when we emerged the stars were out and my body was cold and on fire and alive and dancing. And hers was too.

The next day I went back and picked up a feather that lay on the spot where we jumped in. I never told her about that part. That day before going to the bachelorette party, I put the feather into my purse. It was still there burning a little hole against the lining.

“Clara,” I said. Her name felt so good against my tongue, so I said it again. “Clara.”

Mmmm,” she said from my shoulder.

“I— ”

“That’s how you feel about John, huh?” Clara said and turned her face to me. Her eyes so brown, the bottom of the lake, so deep. “You feel like you’re burning all the time? Super-fucking-nova?”

“No,” I said. I pushed her off my shoulder gently. “I feel like I’m drowning,” I said.

“Huh,” Clara said. She took a step to the left and looked at me. “Drowning. Love is water, Ellie.

“Yeah, Clara,” I said, “love is water.”

The next morning I woke up in Eunice’s apartment with the biggest hangover of my life. My head split into two equal halves, each half screaming at me for my stupidity.

Clara was on the couch across from me. Her hair swept across her face like the shadow of a shadow.

I left without waking anyone else up.

It was bright outside. Gray and white and bright bright bright.

I staggered down a few streets and took a taxi down to the shore again. In the daylight the lake looked smaller, bleaker.

I took off my shoes. Each step stung, each pebble felt like a knife. I walked down to the edge and let the waves hit my toes again and again. They lapped up the tops of my feet, my ankles, my shins. I walked further in. It grabbed at the edge of my skirt.

I looked across the water towards the place where John proposed. The other side of the waves. A different lifetime a different universe. Supernovas, man.

I opened my purse and pulled out the feather. I dropped it into the waves and walked back

out.

My legs screamed at me all the way home.

I called John from the cab.

“Hey, honey,” I said.

“Yeah,” I said, “I had a good time. I love you, too.”

I looked out the window of the cab up at the skyscrapers so high above my head, the bright sky so high above my head, and I was drowning, drowning, drowning and could never come up for air.

Girl Cries Alone With Camera (2017)

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

I’ve been here a year, a sun-soaked spotless year, the light bleaching memories until I return to a blank-page, useful for writing on, useless for writing with.

There is the Bay which is fertile and degraded, there are the hills which are aspiration and struggle, and then there is the Pacific, that’s for forgetfulness. You must wear your Pacific with a difference.

Bathe in the impure crystalline waters, sinfully blue and the mind becomes as unused as the virgin body.

I drown myself in the purposeful amnesia, because too many things have scarred and bruised me and I have grown weary at twenty-four.

***

It is a night job which means I have the days free should I want them. And I do want them.

I want it all: the innocence, the guilt-free living, forgiveness for a past I never wanted.

I take BART west, leaving right around sunset. I enter the bay tunnel with the last rays of the sun and emerge to a sunless night. One star dies to make way for millions. Is it such a bad thing?

But I am not a star.

I think I might be a sort of fish. The creepy big-eyed type that live their lives in total darkness. Their only use to ogle and be ogled in return.

I found the job on craigslist, one of the many ads I thought to be scams. But running on empty in a new place leaves you desperate, and, hell, I’ll try anything once.

I depart at 16th and Mission, make my way without making eye contact through the tangled web of homeless people. Their working legs walking wheelchairs in endless loops. Women sucking long slow death out of cigarettes, men with penises limp and barely concealed under sagging pants.

I try to remain small and quiet, unseen in the constant breathing city.

I walk the four blocks to the empty building. Corner of Valenica and nowhere.

There is a lock on the door with a key code. 1279. It doesn’t mean anything to me, but it reminds me of a sign I once saw.

“Please don’t break in,” the sign read, “there is nothing left to steal.”

I enter the key code. I enter the building.

There my equipment waits for me.

One (1) chair. Standard type stool with back, requires me to fold my legs onto the top rung to sit comfortably.

One (1) video camera. Possibly linked to the internet. It is always on when I enter. Always the blinking red light, the cords running off like so many dead blue veins into the shadowy rest-of-the-room. A dark and pulsing heart residing in the Somewhere Else.

I sit in the chair facing the camera. And then I cry.

***

Before I was the sobbing mass of a blob of a human that I am today, I was just a human.

Who can say when exactly your trauma creeps up on you and takes over and whether it was the big things, the sexual assault, the cheating and emotional abuse, the betrayal and lies and years of making yourself invisible, or the small things like the stranger on the street shouting “Smile, sweetheart! Why don’t you smile? You’re gorgeous!”

And when or where the snap happened exactly doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it did.

And it did.

I moved here for you. The you who held me as I cried about my broken body no longer sure if it was even mine. The you who watched my self-loathing crawl up and over my arms and told me that I was whole, that I would not die by my own hand, that you would be there for me, would always be there for me, whenever I called, you’d answer, like my shadow, my lungs, my heartbeat.

I moved to be with you, to get a beagle, and to grow old and happy and healed.

Until you woke up to love someone else. Someone who held water. Someone who reminded you of me, so you told me, but a younger and sexier me. Me 2.0.

And I, foolish heart that I am, was happy for you.

And only a little sad for me, left without an apartment, friends, or a job in a strange city that might have been the other side of the world.

I suppose I should pick up smoking. End it all a bit sooner.

***

I cry for two hours, have a ten minute break, cry another hour then I get my lunch. I bring water, snacks, and my book of Shakespeare’s sonnets in case I need a spark to set me off.

I stretch my legs during this time and walk around the space. It is your typical empty warehouse/industrial space. The streetlamps shining through dust encrusted windows. I watch a spider dancing in silhouette, spinning, spinning away in darkness beautiful.

Another two hours of crying, sometimes faking it, sometimes unable to stop, another ten minute break a final hour, and then home around 2:00.

BART is long since closed so I take Uber or brave it out on the night bus.

I sleep like the dead, losing myself in uncounted dreams, populated by men and women I don’t know but whose faces I have seen, the brain being incapable of creating faces of its own.

Or so I’ve been told.

***

It pays well, whatever else it is. The money appears in my bank account every week like clockwork and I have managed to pay the bills so far.

If it stops, I tell myself, so do I.

But I wonder if I wouldn’t show up to the building anyway, addicted as I am to the catharsis. Banging on the door to let me in, let me in, please, god, let me in.

***

I don’t know a soul in this city except you. And you’re too busy exploring your new life-changing love, enjoying your mind-blowing sex with Me 2.0.

I don’t harbor any grudges against her. I only hope she might die an early and excruciating death.

***

I have weekends free and I spend them as a zombie tourist, wandering stricken from the Golden Gate to Strawberry Hill over to City Lights Bookstore. The same empty expression, the same panic-stricken numbness in my chest.

I watch the fog creep down over the hills, deep and blanketing as the snow we used to see in Minnesota.

When we walked out on the frozen river and I split open for you, spilling drops of blood like so many pomegranate seeds for you to crush between your perfect teeth.

The irony of explaining the monstrous to a monster.

I wonder now which is worse: to bruise and rip a body or to break the wings of a soul.

***

San Francisco, city by the bay, take the past from off my shoulders, I have no more use for it. Make me washed clean, unburden me of these twenty-four years, meagre offering that they are.

Saint Francis, make me whole.

***

I get a croissant from Tartine Bakery. It is a little thing, but I am trying to give myself bright little things, trying to give myself space. Trying, in the end to heal in whatever ways are left open to me even if only between the flaky layers of a pastry.

I walk to the building early, thinking to stretch my body loose before the evening. Perhaps sit and draw the spider, sit and draw my own reflection spinning and spinning against the darkening sky.

I enter the key code, my prayer to the gods of empty buildings.

But for once the building isn’t empty.

“Whoa hey,” says a voice.

I have a bite of croissant melting in my mouth and nearly choke on it. “Hello?” I say.

My eyes are adjusting to the chiaroscuro, the shadow depths made two-dimensional and suddenly close.

“Hey,” the voice says again.

My pupils dilate and the voice solidifies into a man: youngish man, somewhere between twenty and thirty, white and, therefore, almost indistinguishable except for his beard which is streaked red. He is about my height, but stocky, with the thick neck of a bull that so many women my age seem to find attractive.

“Hey,” I say. “Um, sorry. I didn’t know-”

“That’s okay,” he says. “I’m almost done. Um.”

“Done?” I ask. “You do something here?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m, like, the AV guy, I guess. Mark.”

He extends a hand, and I see curled in the other hand the thick blue line of cord that I’ve only ever seen sprawled out as a snake. It occurs to me for the first time that they wouldn’t leave the camera running all day. That someone must come and check on it. That there is someone else involved beyond myself and the cheerful emails I received at the beginning, written in all caps comic sans.

“Lucia,” I say.

“Like the light,” he says.

“Like the saint,” I say.

His hand is thick, firm, warm. It feels like what I imagine shaking hands with a tree would feel like.

“I’ll just get out of your way,” I say.

“No worries,” he says. He smiles.

I eat the rest of my croissant.

“So you’re the girl,” he says as he unfurls the cord, plugging it into the outlet in the back of the room.

“Woman,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”

“Yeah,” I say suddenly self-conscious. It occurs to me for the first time that other people—that strangers—what I had known but never allowed myself to imagine—

I bring my attention back to the present to prevent myself from descending into madness, or perhaps from beginning the climb towards sanity.

“I am the woman,” I say more confidently.

“That’s really cool,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“I mean, it’s a pretty sweet gig, right?”

“I guess so,” I say. “It’s something.” A pause. “So, um, what do you do? This can’t pay for everything.”

“I do tech,” he says. “Couple small theaters. Worked for an event planning company for a while.”

“Cool,” I say. “I didn’t even know that was a job.”

“Sure,” he says. “There’s plenty of stuff that pays. It’s just that most people don’t know about it.” He winks at me, and I feel my face redden. It feels good. I also feel like vomiting.

“Cool,” I say again. I look at my watch. Mark is continuing to fiddle with the camera, adjusting it for the chair, I assume. It’s getting close to show time and for the first time I consider it a performance. I feel light-headed.

“Are you, um?” I don’t know how to phrase the question. And not sure what I want the answer to be. Mark’s hair is flecked with gold in the dying light.

“I’ll be out of your way in a sec,” he says and my heart stops pounding.

Moments pass in near silence. I walk slowly to the chair. I sit.

Mark looks up at me from behind the camera.

“Okay,” he says. “Looks good.”

I smile.

“I’ll see you around,” he says. And then as quickly as he appeared. He is gone.

I wonder about his last statement, if he is watching, whatever it is, wherever it is. That night I see his face above the camera and I find myself fake-crying more than usual.

***

I take another week before I show up early again. It doesn’t occur to me until I’m at the building that Mark may not be the only AV person. That there could be a whole team, a swarm of strange faces, waiting for me.

But I’ve already punched the final 9 and I’m opening the door.

Mark has his back turned.

“Hey,” he says. “Lucia, right?”

“Hey, Mark,” I say before remembering to have forgotten.

“How you been?” he asks.

“You know,” I say.

“Actually, I don’t,” he says. “It’s why I’m asking.”
I laugh.

“That wasn’t that funny,” I say. “Sorry.”

“A woman apologizes for laughing at a man’s joke,” Mark says. “Might be a first.”

“I doubt it,” I say. “People have done crazier things.”

“Really?” Mark says. “Can’t imagine what that would be.”

I laugh again and set down my bag by the door. I brought a beer tonight. I’m not entirely sure it’s allowed, but I felt like a beer and so I brought it. I actually brought two.

I reach into my bag, hesitate, and then offer one to him.

“Want one?” I say.

“Oh,” Mark says, “actually, I don’t drink. But thanks.”

“More for me,” I say and feel foolish.

“So,” I say. Just that word and the heat rises to my face again. I look anywhere but at his face. I do not want to look at his face, I tell myself. I do not want to make eye contact.

“Yeah,” he says, and out of the corner of my eye I can see that he is grinning.

“What?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he says. Then, “You’re here early.”

“Maybe you’re here late.”

“You can have my number if you want it.”

“Who says I do?”

“All right.”

“All right.”

A pause.

“What’s your number?” I ask.

***

“I love the ocean,” I say, “but I haven’t been out there as often as I’d like.”

“Oh,” he says. “Baker Beach.”

“I’ve never been,” I say.

“You should,” he says. “I’ll take you sometime.”

He doesn’t drink, but he smokes, the chink in his perfect knighthood, the trail of dragon smoke drifting up into late spring sky.

You didn’t smoke. I revel in this newness, as close to touching another person as I’ve come. I haven’t kissed Mark. I don’t think I can. Don’t think my lips can form those shapes anymore. I am afraid of him, the way I am afraid of most things.

He’s as harmless as any human being, which is to say a ticking time-bomb.

“I’ll take you,” he says. And I have no doubt that he could.

***

I feel as if I am back in high school. We go on dates, Mark and I. We take walks in parks, we drink coffee, sometimes we eat food. I drink wine while he watches, the stain of rotting fruit against my lips.

We do not kiss. I never touch him for longer than an awkward hug at the beginning and ending of these little sessions. We meet in the daylight. He walks me to work when I have work.

I can’t tell if I’m happy with this chasteness. Or if I am frustrated.

My body is ready for the dry-rot of sensuality. It yearns for that burning touch, for the holding and stroking, the worship and adoration of hands against skin. My body does all it can to reach towards intimacy. But my mind keeps it chained.

Every link is a memory, of you, or of him.

You: the taste of your mouth on mine when we are together in the shower, soap and hot water.

Him: the rush of blood to the surface of the skin and I know there will be another bruise tomorrow.

Between the two I could go insane.

Wait, I tell my body. But I don’t know what I’m waiting for, and as I wait, I am drying up.

***

DEAR PARTICIPANT!!

WE ARE EXCITED TO ANNOUNCE THE CONCLUSION OF OUR PROJECT “GIRL CRIES ALONE WITH CAMERA”!!!

WE COULDN’T’ HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT YOU! 🙂

PLEASE JOIN US FOR THE SHOWING ON JULY 4TH. WITH RECEPTION TO FOLLOW.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION!!

WE WISH YOU SUCCESS ON ALL FUTURE ENDEAVORS!

SINCERELY,

 

“BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD.”

-GANDHI

***

“Are you going to the reception?” I ask Mark.

We are on the bunker, that one that’s really close to the Golden Gate, so close I could reach out and touch it. Mark has told me the name, but I’ve forgotten and perhaps don’t want to know. I prefer to think of it as just another ruin, like Machu Picchu or the pyramids, great stone wastes growing up out of the moss.

It is hot out, getting on towards summer. My lease will end sometime and I might need to find another job.

We still have not kissed.

“I don’t know,” Mark says.

“Aren’t you curious?” I ask. I am sitting with my legs tucked under my chin, my head turned sideways to look at him. He has such a solid face. I let myself imagine it. We start dating, and for once it is simple and sweet and I don’t have to burn myself to feel.

I turn away and bury my face between my knees. I scratch the back of my neck.

“I mean,” he says. “I helped edit it. So I’ve seen it already.”

“What’s it like?” I ask.

“You haven’t seen it?” he says.

“I’ve just lived it,” I say.

“That’s weird,” he says. He shrugs. “It’s pretty much what you think it is.”

“Huh,” I say. “Are there other girls?”

“I don’t think so,” he says.

“I meant you,” I say.

“What?”

I sigh. It is the thing that stops me most. Mark is not quick. You were quick. He was also quick.

“Never mind,” I say.

He smiles as he does when he knows he’s missed something but doesn’t seem to care that he has.

“So what’s it all for?” I ask.

“What the project?”

“No,” I say. “The all of it.”

Mark looks at me. “I don’t know,” he says. “I try not to think about it too much.”

“What do you think about then?”
“Nothing,” Mark says. “I try not to think at all.”

I raise my head. I look out at the bridge orange and glowing against a backdrop of fog. Closer at hand a violet has pressed its way up through the cement. It is sharp and close. I realize I haven’t looked at something, really looked at it in so long.

Since I looked at your face, as near to me as my next breath.

“What are you doing then?” I ask.

Mark shrugs. “I’m just trying to have a nice time,” he says. He makes eye contact. I make eye contact back.

But I don’t lean in.

***

I wear a dress that is too short to the reception. All my other clothes are packed up.

It’s held in some tiny art gallery/trinket shop in the heart of the Tenderloin. I take a Lyft to the place and manage to only be catcalled twice on my way to the door.

There are about ten people there. The space is dominated by the screen. It hangs from the upper level, clear and big and bright.

There is my face in a hundred thousand pixels.

I don’t know if I expected sound, but there isn’t any.

It’s just me, silent, my shoulders shaking.

I watch myself with an odd feeling of detachment. My body, suddenly huge, my grief seems almost, laughable at that size.

What are you doing? I want to ask myself.

My big on-screen face leans up and I see the path of the tears from whatever day, whatever moment, whatever pain I felt then, dripping down my puffy red face.

And then I can’t help myself, but I do. I start laughing.

Everyone turns to look at me. Three or four men with soul-patches, a woman with half-shaven head, there may be a beret or maybe I just want there to be a beret. They all look at me confused, scandalized.

A moment of recognition, a few glances back to the screen. They see me now, the girl.

But I am not crying. I am laughing, so hard it hurts my ribs, so hard its cracking out my fingers, so hard I double over.

It’s hilarious.

I am laughing on my way outside. I am laughing as I get on a bus headed somewhere. Laughing my way down a few winding paths into the heart of the Presidio.

It is clear out. There are a few couples on the beach and a homeless man sleeping down a ways. But the ocean is empty and above it hang a thousand crystalline stars, brighter than the pixels, closer than the violet pushing through the cement.

You are a pebble and I throw you to the waves, he is a laugh and I release him to the sky, Mark is the feeling of water against my calves and I allow him in.

I can feel the weight of all the eyes, pulling me apart, placing upon me, and I laugh and scream and am until it is all very clear.