Wednesday, January 15, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Patri Hadad, Ashley DeWitt, Jill Christman, Mark Neely, Genia Blum

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


Forty years alive to the day. Fourteen thousand six hundred times around the sun and the northern hemisphere holds the reins as we swing past away from her burning glory, giving us fewer hours of light, and all the days unfurl beneath my feet as I’m still wobbling.

Awaken in an adorable little Tucson casita that I’m housesitting and remember that this is not a normal day, it’s Saturday, a witchy solstice my friends said. It’s my palindromic birth date and this is the day that essaying has made and let us rejoice and be glad.

Clean my friend’s house and launder the sheets which means hurrying to the outside garage in night-fade and I can see my breath. Pour-over-coffee and watch the steam swirl. Consider that I might have woken up to the very minute I was sliced out of my mother’s womb. Not of a woman born. Cat stares at me as I diffuse my hair. Post my annual birthday selfie. Amid the birthday messages, get a work text comma with birthday message. Sing to "Hungry Eyes" in the car and swish my curls around like Baby.

Lower my arms from the hands-up-or-I’ll-shoot pose coming out of the full-body scanner when the woman asks me if I have anything in my pockets and I thought all I had in my pockets were fingerprints but she points to a hot-pink—like 1980s hot-pink—hair-tie sticking out and says Uh-Oh and am back in my arrested stance. Wonder if it’s my high-waist jeans that make it look like there’s something in my pockets that secured this woman’s hands between my thighs or if it’s because I changed my name recently back to the Syrian name Hadad which causes my TSA PTSD or if it’s because the agent earlier asked for the ID with my re-adopted maiden name and not my married name which I still carry as I transition and to seem legit I said that some states take your ID away when you change your name and why the fuck do I say something so stupid. So, she said we’ll use this one since it hasn’t expired instead of a happy birthday which might have been code because my Arizona license doesn’t expire until I’m 65 and just how old did she think I was?

Dream a little that I’m going to New York for my 40th birthday passing other gates. Picture a selfie in front of the Christmas tree in ‘Rockefella’ Plaza wearing an adorable hat and scarf and writing about twisting my ankle while ice skating in front of Prometheus. Return to the stranger’s eyes that held my gaze as I turned away from the water fountain by my gate. Bless these painted-on jeans.

Earplugs for flight anxiety. Airplane mode. Count smiles in the inflight magazine. Seventy-two smiles in 154 pages. Miles of smiles. Open laptop. Consider writing: “Every time it is my birthday, I would like to have sex” but my Rueflean wish is everyone’s birthday wish. The plane descends into cloud cover – the last of the sun. The woman next to me asks if I’m writing a novel. I thought I was sitting next to a future famous writer.

Look on from the back seat between the silhouette of my parents. Land on the Gulf Freeway from the 610-Loop off-ramp and we are greeted by twinkling reds that brake between strip malls, high-mast lamps, steel-lattice powerlines, and billboards. We are close to NASA and the Putt-Putt where I celebrated my ninth birthday in an Epcot Figment hat and a white turtleneck and I unload my luggage in remnants of my childhood bedroom in a newer house: white-painted bamboo bedroom set, butterfly sherbet-rainbow sheets, a unicorn collection, a lifelong disdain for suburbia.

My brother joins us as we go to Landry’s for dinner on the Kemah Boardwalk where I worked while taking community-college comp classes and sat in a kiosk house where I read Sonny’s Blues in a white polo and khakis selling candy to circus tunes. We walk past a giant Christmas tree, bored attendants, empty carousels, and a Ferris wheel shining over the blackness of Galveston Bay where I learned that fish were ugly but delicious. They swim in the dark. Here it is the longest night of the year in a short memory.

At home, we eat chocolate cake, we reverse the four and the zero candles for laughs, forget to make a wish, fawn over my new InstaPot, laugh at Elf. We toast to my day, to my parents’ anniversary that same day, and maybe it’s the Moscato bubbles and the lingering smell of the sea and maybe it’s just that celebrating my forty years with the ones who brought me here feels good.

Patri Hadad is a writer, editor, illustrator, and painter and the former managing editor of the New Ohio Review. She works for the University of Arizona Poetry Center.


What happened on 12/21/19?

"I wonder if someone could simply decide: today is going to be an important day in my life. And then concentrate so much that the sun rises from within one’s soul and the galaxies swirl slow and mute." —A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector (p.53-54)

In one’s living room:

a. yellow and grey rug, haggled for
b. lift-top coffee table, silver candle lid
c. slammed-shut balcony door
d. snowprint moonlit below
e. an empty dog kennel
f. dusty pawprints warming in the sun

I’m in a green-lit dream in which sand loosens from itself, dried-up dead like tape. When it’s done, I feel strongly that no grain of sand knows another anymore. I’m just happy I’ve had a dream.

When a Disney+ ad on the Roku TV cycles in again, I reorient pillows stamped with gold pineapples. I also wake up sorry. From a mint Living Spaces couch cushion, I order pancakes using someone else’s Grubhub app. Siri shuffles metal from an Apple HomePod on the kitchen isle, cars leaves on the curb. I stretch my oversized t-shirt over my knees, time allotted for my mind to narrow. So what.

Once the unopened maple syrup packets are cleared from the counter, I read. I read the book on the coffee table (A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector) in ten-page increments because it is so good I dream, arms crisscrossed over my chest: how I’ve slept since pneumonia in July.

I bite my cheek at the coat rack, remembering again that hat-trading has become somewhat of an intimate act in my life—hats so close to the mind and all. I’d traded away my favorite hat earlier this year, a brown fisherman beanie they still sell from Urban Outfitters. I think of this today as I slip on the Packers one because I know someone from Wisconsin. He doesn’t even like the Packers, but—and this does bother me, to be clear—it doesn’t matter. I recently learned he’s been engaged since October.

At a nearby shopping center, the thirteen-week-old Samoyed under my care, ears mail-flagged back, lollops in the reflection of a Kate Spade store window. When he glances at me I pull mulch from his mouth, skip it down the sidewalk like a cigarette. My Docs grind salt outside Macys: I wait for a bottle of Marc Jacobs perfume. As I wait, one hot pink puffer jacket—an under-one-year-old—shows me her teeth (two of them) while I worry she’ll note “lack of eye contact” for the first time. Babies make me want to hide the developmental faults of everyone. (I’m not sure examples suffice as warnings.)

Nearby, a woman massages a diamond-shaped earring—a black gem—hair in bun, phone plugged into a USB port. She says, “Mmmhm, hmm. Hey, I’mma get off this phone, ‘cuz we on a different time difference.” When I notice my cord had fallen behind her, (“sorry sorry sorry”), she turns around, smiles, and assures me, “I promise I wasn’t trying to keep it.” Typing it out I feel suspicious for no reason—and a little sad my charger was rejected. I get sad, too, when the puppy drops a leaf he had been carrying for half the walk.

I purchase chè from a place most would think is a boba shop, stopping next door for a box of jiaozi dumplings. And my plan works: the Lush employees make the puppy smell better, a single green glitter stuck upon his nose.

At home in the living room, the puppy smushes himself against the glass door as if he had flown into it, gem fireplace roaring beneath Cops. The mouse clicks to my left remind me of my dad working on our Dell PC in my third-floor bedroom, and also of the conversation I had recently with my psychiatrist—a woman who oddly enough used to breed Samoyeds—about productivity and the watching of trains. In other words, I’m comforted by others working.

To mix my chè I use a fat boba straw and plastic spoon like chopsticks, mung beans cookie-cut into star ornaments. A light switch flicks in a neighbor’s apartment, and I imagine fireplace heat cool, a record player beep like a preheated oven. I look at the dusty pawprints unveiled by the sun and wonder about winter leaves, if we can ever catch that singular moment an orange road work ahead sign slips upside down.

I squint in the sun, I watch a man below cross the street in blue speedos, I pour Nature’s Miracle on artificial grass. I press the sinus in my cheek to check for pain. On my way to the bathroom I can’t help but check. I weigh double digits again.

Attached to the wall is a landline I expect to work when it eclipses my ear, and yet there is no dial tone, no going back to an earlier time, no sand sifting to or from or within one’s dream. When I look in the mirror I see acne, another mess I’ve made on the counter.

I bathe the dog at the complex’s pet washing station, scratching my wrist often as splashes dry then re-wet from my rolled-up sleeve. He is sprayed once by a perfume tester: Flowerbomb by Viktor & Rolf, which I like okay but wouldn’t wear. (It’s kind of like soap in the mouth). When he’s dry he’s so soft I almost can’t feel him there.

I ponder pen names, my knees warming at the fireplace. I wonder if I should ever dye my hair, get a tiny tattoo, write something. Here, I’m given an early Christmas gift: a men’s shirt in medium, Navy blue with small, arched text (“Ravenclaw”) on the back my hair will hide. I wish to no one in particular that “not so strongly opinionated” become respected in social media bios, if nowhere else.

The sun sets beyond the blinds, its soft, red sting. It stains the white brick house across the street, one light shining from the second floor. It is not yet 5 pm, not yet Christmas day: we are on the cusp of very popular favorite times. I like it because change in this position is bittersweet: the two chapters left in a good book, or a face held bulb-lit in a courtyard past midnight.

I hold my last birth control pill, a tiny, green thing, from outside its packaging. I had neglected its need for a refill, day after day. I remember, finally, I want to show someone a movie trailer. (I don’t).

People whose houses I’ll never know the smell of pass by in cars on the street, and I faintly understand my aversion to tradition comes from a loneliness I’d chosen long ago.

And I understand I choose to be somewhat vegetative, thinking of nothing as I hand a clerk a credit card my dad pays off. I cast Breaking Bad Season 2 to the TV and slip the Samoyed on my lap, his dad next to me—picturing a family.

Ashley DeWitt is an MFA student at Northern Arizona University.


Pura Vida

If it’s possible that there are days when the conscious act of paying close attention becomes a liability for success, December 21, 2019 was such a day. In outline, our plan was to wake up in our house in Muncie, Indiana, pack ourselves for Christmas in New Orleans with three of my four siblings (our first Christman Christmas since our father died in 2018) and then onward—toting bags that could weigh in at no more than thirty pounds each—for a post-Christmas journey to Costa Rica (to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday). We needed to clean the house within reason so that we could ask our neighbor Kathy to water our soon-to-be-abandoned Christmas tree and keep an eye out for any errant packages, pack for the dogs, drive the dogs out to the country kennel in Gaston where they were to enjoy the holidays, get ourselves to the Hyatt Place near the airport in Indianapolis by 3:20, park the car, catch the airport shuttle, board a flight to Hartfield-Jackson—because, as they say in the south, whether you’re going to heaven or hell, you’re going to have to change planes in Atlanta—connect to the Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, land at Louis, pick up a rental car, drive the twenty-five minutes to the “airport” Hilton Garden Inn, pray to the Cajun gods that en route we’d find something to feed to our 11-year-old chicken-nugget-eating son (easy) and nearly vegan 16-year-old daughter (plum near impossible), pour ourselves tipples of Maker’s from the travel flask, and fall into bed by midnight-ish. The following morning, we would visit the French Quarter, get Henry his first beignet, grocery shop for sixteen, and meet my family in the giant house on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain by 4 p.m. on December 22nd to find out what it would feel like to have Christmas without our own built-in Santa Claus.

That was the plan anyway. On the morning of December 21st, this seemed like a lot to make happen in a day and I didn’t make any promises—to myself or anyone else—regarding the minutes I’d devote to taking down the details in my little green notebook.

The packing was brutal, and a marital skirmish was inevitable. While I believe I possess excellent organization skills, these talents, for reasons I’ve never been able to fully grasp do not extend to the art of packing light. Thirty is not very many pounds for a two-destination, two-week journey. I would have liked to have had that much weight in our preferred spray-on sunscreen (which I did not pack because, you know, aerosol, despite TSA saying it’s okay: do we really want lots of tiny sunscreen bombs in the belly of the 747 in which we’re all crossing the Gulf of Mexico? Or, say, over Lake Nicaragua?). I was stressed out. My teeth were on actual edge.

Our winter solstice 2019 pre-departure fight was about headphones. Mark handed them to me to put in Henry’s backpack. I put the proffered headphones down on the table because I was making sure the backpack had a sketchpad and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first, apparently giving Mark a judgmental look in the process (in general, I cannot control my face). Imagine a sudden change of pressure. I am the propellant in the aerosol and Mark is the oxygen—actually, probably the other way around—and like a flash fire we rose up in a brilliant fury. It was over quickly and we were in the car, laughing at ourselves, and wondering if all couples crack under the pressure of getting a family circus stuffed into a car with shoes and medicine packs and the many different chargers of modern life? Alas, we departed twenty minutes later than we’d hoped and it seemed we’d only make our scheduled shuttle if we found ourselves utterly alone on the road to Indianapolis.

We didn’t make it.

Pulling into the Hyatt Place parking lot at 3:31, we passed the 3:30 shuttle pulling out. I waved miserably. Calculating that it wasn’t a logistical necessity to summon a Lyft, we waited for the shuttle to return. I made the most of the delay by crunching a big, juicy, designer-green Granny Smith apple, the signature fruit of Hyatt Place. Mark and Henry hit the gas station across the street and stocked up on Lifesavers, Chex Mix, and Ruffles Cheddar Chips for the flight.

The shuttle driver reappeared on the dot of four, as promised. A Cowboys fan, dating a nursing professor at IUPUI, he’d recently cut short a trip to New Orleans to see the Cowboys play the Saints at the Superdome because his girlfriend learned at the eleventh hour that she’d won a prestigious educator-of-the-year award and the ceremony was scheduled for that night. How such absurd notification-to-ceremony timing is possible, I do not know, but I can tell you that our shuttle driver hopped the next plane home, missed the game, and escorted his girlfriend to the ceremony, likely racking up a goodly number of boyfriend-of-the-year points in the process. “It’s okay,” he said, catching Mark’s eye in the rearview. “The Cowboys lost anyway.”

We arrived at the airport precisely one hour prior to our scheduled departure. Know this, Hoosier travelers: the Indianapolis International Airport (which has no other name, alas: may I suggest Madam C.J. Walker or Judge Silthia Jimison?) will soon be host to a MAC and a Sun King Brewery in the Southwest terminal. Already my favorite airport, IND will be yet better. Maybe don’t spread that around.

Also, for months I’d fretted that I’d remember every little unnecessary thing and forget the passports, or somebody’s passport, so I kept counting them in their special pocket in my travel purse. Here is what I forgot: face wash and hair conditioner, both of which were readily purchased at the CVS in Slidell. No problema. Pura vida, as they say here in Manuel Antonio, although I fear I’m getting ahead of myself, typing up these notes-of-a-day from my perch overlooking the Costa Rican jungle and the Pacific, this morning a kind of hazy blue. A howler monkey I cannot see just let loose a roar, which our naturalist guide told us yesterday is the third loudest noise produced by a mammal—after the African lion and the blue whale. Pound for pound, the howler has quite a howl. In any case, I’ve strayed from my green notebook and I’ll try to focus on the solstice (although, might I mention before I leave this tropical veranda that here, so near the equator, the sun rises and sets at 5:30, morning and night, day after day, 365 days a year, which compels one to think more carefully about our Earth’s rotation on her axis).

Back at Gate B21 in Indy, we moved ourselves into boarding formation, and I saw a twenty-something kid wearing a backwards Vans hat, Vans socks, and actual Vans of course, push back from the counter where he’d been sitting, look around to see if anybody was watching, and then toss his dirty napkin into the box with the remnants of his hotdog, leaving the whole mess for someone else to pick up. I was watching. The world is not your garbage can, you punk. Before I could spiral, I was distracted by a man who, with his Santa-like physique and facial hair, reminded me more than a little of my dad, aka “Pappy.”  I had been in this same IND terminal, Terminal B, en route to Savannah, when I got the news that I was too late for a final visit with my dad. Minutes before seeing the man with the ukulele, I had passed the potted tree where I had crouched to sob when my sister told me over the phone that our dad had died in the night and pointed it out to Ella, who had patted my back sympathetically. The man with the big white beard sat on a chair in B21 with his lone carry-on bridging his knees: a powder-blue ukulele case. Pappy had a ukulele, probably several, but he’d have loved one in blue. The girl sitting across from this stand-in Pappy asked a question I could not hear and he smiled, rotated the case on his knees, and unclasped it, proudly displaying a ukulele of the same lovely blue inside. I hoped, in this moment, for a mini gate concert—that’s surely what Pappy would have done with such an invitation—but instead, he just ran his thumb across the fretboard once, a strum, and then latched the case. Together, we boarded, passing under the giant candy canes tied to the Southwest number posts with fluffy red bows.

In Atlanta, we could find nothing for Ella to eat but soggy waffle fries from Chik-fil-A, and along came the ukulele Pappy to our same gate with his own Chik-fil-A bag, tucking his ukulele under his feet and ripping open a packet of salt with his teeth to pour in its entirety over whatever was down in his own white paper bag. No! I wanted to chide. Your blood pressure! Watching him chew with salty satisfaction, crumbs falling into his beard, I fell through the portal back to Savannah where my dad, the real Pappy, taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design and in the 80s summers when I would visit, he’d send me down to the back of Mrs. Wilkes’s boarding house to pick up orders of fried chicken, biscuits, and sweet tea. One afternoon when I arrived at the screen door, I surprised the woman mixing a batch of biscuits in a giant silver bowl, sleeves rolled, up to her elbows in flour and water. She paused and lifted her palm to her face, sniffing, and then scraped a mouthful of dough from her palm with her top teeth. She caught my eye, grinning, smear of flour across her cheek, called me Honey, and yelled for our chicken. Back in my dad’s office, squeezed in with the camera equipment and piles of prints, we leaned over our napkins, salty, crusty chicken, flaky biscuits, grease and crumbs falling where they shouldn’t and I told my dad about the woman eating the dough. Mmmhmmm, he said, That’s why it’s so good. 

On the plane, I pulled out a sheet of drink coupons, set to expire on 12/31/2019, and winked across the aisle at my husband, May I buy you a drink? I could, but I had to wait until we reached cruising altitude and the air smoothed out and there I was holding Ander Monson’s fresh-off-the-press True Story, “My Monument,” in one hand and my coupons in the other, sucking Lifesavers and breathing through my nose to fend of air sickness until the glorious moment when I could squeeze a lime into my Tanqueray and tonic, crunch a pretzel, and commence reading. It was worth the wait. From the first page, Ella couldn’t help herself and started reading over my shoulder, so I held the tiny red book on the tray table between us, in the circle of white light shining down from the overhead panel, and we read; in this way, I learned that she’s a much faster reader than I am. She was always ready for the page turn, nodding. At the part with the cat, we both started to cry a little. Sometimes we pointed and giggled. For example:
Among the many glories in the catalog, I spied a huge Rudolph. . . . That’s a big Rudolph, I said to myself. What kind of idiot would buy something like that?
If you’re reading this, in Essay Daily, I’m thinking you’re in the population most likely to have read “My Monument,” and if you haven’t, what the heck are you waiting for? Give yourself that, at least, this holiday season.

When we landed in New Orleans, we claimed our luggage, Christmas stowed inside, and boarded the steamy shuttle for the world’s longest trip to a rental car center. At long last, we were deposited outside the automatic doors of a cavernous room with a long, long counter. The huge room was crowded with travelers negotiating extra drivers and tired children slumped over rolling bags. There were many choices of rental car companies, but we were booked with Enterprise and my eyes scanned for the green sign. There was no line and only one person there in front of us talking to the agent, his blue ukulele case resting at his feet.

We had arrived.

Jill Christman is the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure & Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, as well as essays in magazines such as Brevity (yes, she did see another sloth in Costa Rica), Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Longreads, River Teeth, & True Story. A senior editor for River Teeth, she teaches at Ball State University. Visit her at and @jill_christman.


What Happened on December 21

December 21, 2019, the winter solstice, was a travel day, much of it spent encased in steel and hurtling towards our destination at various rates of speed. If all went well, we’d arrive at our hotel in New Orleans between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m., and be off to a house on Lake Pontchartrain the next day to rendezvous with Jill’s siblings and their families for Christmas.
     I remember feeling a sense of relief as we hustled around that morning—packing, getting the dogs to the kennel, and prepping the house for our absence (this included scattering a few peanut butter-baited surprises for the family of mice who had recently moved in for the winter). The day before had been the last day of the semester for the kids, now halfway through 7th and 10th grade, and it occurred to me that, for two weeks at least, I wouldn’t have to worry about them getting shot at school. A ridiculous fear, I know. They were almost certainly in more danger on our drive to the airport. But I had recently read an article that estimated a child’s chances of being involved in a school shooting at 1/66. And since there were 417 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2019, the most ever for a single year, my fear seemed less and less ridiculous every day.
     That morning, looking toward the beginning of a new decade, my son Henry, said “This will probably be the last year of my life that will end in –teen.” I paused, doing the math, surprised he was aware enough of his own mortality to be making these kinds of calculations. His sister sat at the kitchen table, eating an English muffin, absorbed in a magazine. Mistaking my pondering for doubt, Henry added, “Well, probably.” So maybe I had mortality on the brain. Maybe, as I inched (or screeched, tires flaming) toward age fifty, mortality on the brain was becoming a permanent condition.
     Around noon, I drove to drop the dogs off at the kennel north of Muncie, where the land is flat as a skating rink, the roads long straight shots that disappear over the horizon, the fields now covered with just enough snow to obscure the rows of withered corn stalks. The dogs looked out the windows, expectant, slightly agitated. It must be strange, never knowing where you’re going until you get there. I remembered a few lines of a poem I’d read a few days before, something about the number of dogs a person gets to have in a lifetime: “Around 6 I reckon, if you take / good care of them.” For me, these two made four total. I wondered, if you didn’t take good care of them, did the number go up or down?
     Later, heading out of Muncie toward the interstate, we passed the local purveyor of monuments and headstones, conveniently located beside a large cemetery. As a kid, I used to hold my breath when I passed a cemetery, some superstition picked up on the schoolyard, but this one is too large to make that possible. Just after the cemetery, the entrance to a community of trailer homes called Holiday Park.
     “Some Holiday,” I said, looking at the bleak collection of single and double-wides placed just a few yards away from each other. My daughter, Ella, pointed out that they aren’t exactly going to call it Downturn Village or Poverty Place. I remember a guy I used to work for in college, doing landscaping and other odd jobs. He had a side gig breeding cockatiels in his double-wide trailer outside Champaign. I always wondered how he survived the morning racket.
     Then the feeling of being at the airport, on time, with all the preparations behind us. The four of us sat in a row of black, institutional chairs, and I pulled out The Great Gatsby, which I hadn’t read since college. To be honest, I can’t say for sure if I’d made it through the book back then—I always loved to read, but at times found it almost impossible to read a book which I had been assigned. It seemed counter to the idea that certain books find us at particular times in our lives. I was enjoying Gatsby this time around, particularly struck by Fitzgerald’s ability to define a character with one signature feature: Daisy’s musical murmur, Tom’s cruel physique, Gatsby’s “old sport,” the forced phrasing of a poor kid playing at being one of the aristocracy.
     I’ve always been aware of a book being a mode of transport—“there is no Frigate like a Book,” etc.—but I had rarely felt this so intensely as I did at that moment, with the “A” group passengers already lined up a few feet in front of me, waiting for boarding to begin. If I looked up, here were my fellow 21st century travelers, in that communal state of exhaustion and excitement that airline travel brings. Looking down, I found myself in the parlor of an opulent, soulless mansion at the beginning of the roaring twenties, as Nick Carraway watched over [spoiler alert] the body of his enigmatic friend.
     Of course the spell of a book is easily broken by the world outside, and at some point my attention was drawn to a man sitting across from me, a vibrant teal ukulele case on his lap. A couple of teenage girls across from him asked a question I couldn’t hear.
     “It’s a ukulele,” he said. “Let me show you something.” He unzippered the case with a little flourish. Inside lay a matching ukulele, painted in the same shiny teal. The man was an older guy, wearing a black t-shirt and saggy Levis—Dad jeans, I guess you would say. His gray hair gathered in a long pony tail. When he stood up, I notice the ukulele was his only carry-on item.
     On the plane, I finished Gatsby, lingering on its famous final sentence, and started a new book. I always turn off my phone on planes, and never connect to the wireless, even when it is available. For a while, it seemed airplanes were the only space I found myself where I was disconnected from the digital world, and I always found it a welcome respite. Henry sat beside me, simultaneously playing Super Smash Bros on his Nintendo Switch and reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Kids his age, I’ve noticed, are almost always doing at least two things at once. Their brains, wired on distraction from an early age, don’t seem to be able to function without it. We chatted a bit, sipped our complimentary beverages, snacked on a bag of Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles, and arced toward Atlanta.
     Before our second flight, Jill handed me the latest issue of True Story, which publishes one long essay per issue. This one happened to be by Ander Monson, coordinator of this very endeavor, so it seemed appropriate reading material on this day I knew I would be recording later. The essay, “My Monument,” is about a giant (like two stories tall giant) inflatable Rudolf, which the author installs in front of his Tucson, Arizona home each holiday season. There is a strange pleasure reading something written by a friend, since things you know about the person add a sort of extra-textual halo around the work. But you also realize how much of a writer’s inner life remains hidden to us in “real life,” and can only be revealed in the writing.
     In the middle of the essay, we hit turbulence—“a few bumps,” as the pilots say, as if the sky were a road pockmarked with potholes. Sometimes during these bumpy moments, I think about the plane crashing—back to my mortality theme. This is often a theoretical kind of thinking, as opposed to a real fear. This time I have the thought that plane crash victims don’t have the kind of evidence of last moments as people who die in more peaceful environments. At home, for example, you might find The Great Gatsby and “My Monument” on my nightstand, but here they would just be more ashes from the fiery remains. Even as this thought passed through my mind, I chided myself for having it. It seemed equal parts morbid and narcissistic. I picked up the essay where I left off. At one point, Ander ponders getting zipped up inside the giant, fully inflated Rudolf, which seems foolhardy and likely dangerous. I was rooting for him to try.
     After collecting bags in New Orleans, we headed to the rental car desk, where, leaning on the counter in front of us, was the ukulele man. He had no suitcase, no backpack or other luggage. Just the clothes on his back and the teal ukulele. What kind of person travels almost a thousand miles with no change of clothes, no toiletries, no book or iPad or laptop, not so much as a magazine? If this were a movie, the man would surely be the alter ego of some angel or superhero, tasked with saving us all. As it is, we moved up to the counter and by the time I signed and initialed the various forms, he was gone, just a memory now, or some foolish figment of my imagination.

Mark Neely is the author of Beasts of the Hill and Dirty Bomb, both from Oberlin College Press. He teaches at Ball State University and is a Senior Editor at River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.  


The Flying Flu

Winter solstice falls on December 21 this year—the shortest period of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere and the last day of my two-week stay in London. This evening, my daughter and I will board an Airbus A220 at Heathrow Airport and fly home to Switzerland, to celebrate Christmas with her father and brother.

Daria studies at the Royal Academy of Arts, and my visits to her are always heavy on art-related activities. During the first week, we went to museums, gallery shows, openings, viewings; I took part in a reading together with our friend Russell; we met girlfriends for afternoon tea; socialized in pubs and restaurants. In the second week, Daria and I came down with the flu.

For the past few days we’ve been holed up in her spartan Hackney flat, fighting fever and congestion, moaning on her King size bed, drinking hot liquids and filling wastebaskets with soggy paper tissues. A persistent pain below my right shoulder has kept me awake most of the night, and I’ve self-diagnosed it as a symptom of pneumonia. Daria, young and resilient, is feeling marginally better, even though for the past two nights my restlessness and incessant coughing have driven her to sleep on the sofa.

In the morning, my iPhone starts lighting up with notifications. I disable its vibrate function, place it screen down on the nightstand, and press a pillow over my eyes. Around 10:50 am, unable to fall back asleep, I pick it up again, and notice a WhatsApp message from my friend Renée:

Safely home! Can you wear a mouth mask on the plane?

Only if it’s Dior

Not Dior, but I’m planning to cocoon my face in a large, silk and cashmere shawl during the flight.

Silk fibers possess antibacterial properties, don’t they? (But maybe not antiviral …)

I swathe myself in a blanket, shuffle into the living room, and accept the mug of tea Daria has brewed for me. Her flat is large by London standards, but it’s dark and, despite central heating, extremely cold. Wrapped in red wool, I sit on an unpainted Ikea stool, at a white Ikea table, and lean my back against a scorching radiator. There’s one on every wall, each almost too hot to touch—how is the place still freezing?

Last week, I bought Daria a pair of discounted UGG slippers at Selfridges—pink and ugly, but very warm, and she insists I wear them together with a pair of her thickest socks. She’s made oatmeal porridge, but its sliminess puts me off, so I chew on a piece of buttered toast instead. It tastes like cardboard. The pain in my shoulder is fading—perhaps it was only a tight muscle. We both get dressed, and Daria goes for a walk. She returns with a box of Tesco mince pies. We start packing.

I don’t feel sufficiently healthy to apply makeup—but well enough to open my MacBook for bragging on social media about a recently published essay. I post on Facebook and Instagram, but run out of steam before I can drop the link on Twitter.

Daria has pre-ordered a taxi to take us to the airport. It arrives at 16:30, when it’s already dark outside. It’s raining. We buckle up in the back seat, and I type a few notes into my iPhone (in case
I’m ever well enough to write about this day):

not uber / addison lee / in the rain / in the dark / very cold / pull my scarf over my head / D’s scarf over my knees / coughing / two strong peppermints

My daughter’s mints ease my throat tickle, but I hate all things peppermint flavored; after dissolving two in my mouth, I turn down her offer of a third one. Daria is very pale, but suffers in silence. She covers my knees with her scarf, and pats me on the back. She’s an angel.

According to my notes, the drive to Heathrow lasts as long as our flight to Zurich:

arrive Heathrow 1 1/2 hrs later 

The airport is crowded and saturated with holiday cheer: artificial trees, glitter, colored lights, seasonal music. We check our bags, pass through security control, find a restaurant, and slump at a table for two—its surface is sticky, but we’re beyond caring.


Tofu Ramen is the closest thing to a cup of bouillon on the menu. A large bowl of pasty rice noodles, soft tofu, hard pak choi, and what appears to be a thousand-year egg is placed in front of me. Ignoring the solids, I sip the steaming broth. Daria picks at a salad. We’re not hungry, just sensible. In the end, I decide to consume the purple-tinged egg for the protein—it tastes less offensive than it looks.

Pop holiday classics continue to waft through the terminal: canned choirs harmonizing in “Let it Snow,” “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland;” Mariah Carey tearing into “All I Want for Christmas is You.” In Switzerland, we’ll get a bit of “Stille Nacht.” Or an actual silent night.

The Harrods shop lures us in with half-priced Christmas novelties, stacked on a table near its entrance. I pick up a box of crackers, notice its rubbed corners, and decide there’s nothing here for us. We find a shop offering aisles of sweets, grab a roll of fruit gums and a small box of Ricola lemon lozenges, and head for the gate.

Before we get on the plane, I receive an iMessage from Russell:

We’re in Shoreditch Town Hall / You two still ill? / Meet us for a drink in a bit?

We’re at Heathrow! Boarding in 15! Coughing!

The flight attendants from Swiss mouth “willkommen” but none of them cracks a smile, transporting us to Switzerland before our plane has even left the ground. In my seat, I arrange my black puffer jacket, duvet-like, over chest and thighs and wrap my shawl around my face. The pilot announces a delay, and I remain like this for an hour before liftoff, sweating and coughing into layers of jacquard weave.

The air turbulence during the flight doesn’t bother me, because my fear of flying follows no logic. I cope with my extreme anxiety during takeoff and landing by clutching Daria’s arm while watching a movie on my iPhone. (Consulting Netflix, I see it was the forgettable Ingrid Goes West.)

A relief, when we land safely in Zurich!

My tall, handsome husband is waiting. (I should have downloaded Love, Actually.)

“Your face is all caved in.” (I should have worn makeup.)

We drive home in our heated car, enthroned on heated, leather seats; Daria nods off, while I continue coughing. It’s past midnight when we arrive in Lucerne.

Since we’ve forfeited one hour traveling east, I’ll take the liberty of extending this dispatch by a few minutes:

Daria’s brother is outside, standing just around the corner from our house in the old part of town, talking to friends. We roll down the windows, and he plunges through to hug us. My husband drives the car right up to our front door.

Upstairs, in the darkened living room, a ceiling-high Christmas tree glows and twinkles, hung densely with baubles, painted glass figurines, silver tinsel, and garlands of tiny lights.

I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.

In the kitchen, our refrigerator and cupboards are filled with food; the counters and table piled high with fruit, cookies, Lebkuchen, Stollen, panettone; an entire crate of champagne stands in a corner, waiting to be chilled.

Soon, our appetites will return.

And next year, I swear, I’m getting a flu shot.

Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received a Best of the Net and several Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essay “Slaves of Dance” was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. When not writing, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.

As of now, this is the last installment of the What Happened on December 21, 2019. Thanks for spending your time with us. —Ander and Will

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