Sunday, December 29, 2019

What Happened on 12/21/19: Katerina Ivanov, Gina Arnold, Linda Sage, Nora Almeida, Anonymous

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.


I’m home—my parent’s house is Florida— and I’m reminded of this because I wake up to my mother cooing over my face. You’re so beautiful, she says. I am drooling and in an XXL t-shirt that reads “CACTI LOVER” (her purchase, a gift) and no pants. Would you like to go on a walk? 

It’s around nine. Before the heat and humidity settle, thick exhale of Florida winter.

No, I mumble. I was up until five.

Why so late?

Couldn’t sleep. Lemme have an hour more.

Maybe I could have slept, had I tried. But I spent the early morning, while night herons and fruit bats called at each other from distant swamp water, watching Jeopardy episodes from 2015. I’ve been watching a lot of Jeopardy, mostly because I haven’t been writing and I need to feel like I’m good at something. So, I’ve been swearing at Alex Trebek and muttering things like “what is pleasant pheasant” at categories like BLANK THE BIRD.

Sleep for another three hours, wake-up around noon to my phone seizing against my cheek. Stumble out to the kitchen and toast a bagel.  Scroll through TikTok, an app where teenagers post 10 seconds flashes of viral dances and wormholes of jokes. Coat it in butter, then cream cheese. Pour myself some frosted Cheerios on the side. I imagine what the other writer-participants who are completing this exercise must be breaking their fast with. Boiled eggs and sliced tomatoes. Grapefruit. Bran flakes.

I feel very young here, sleeping in my childhood bedroom with mattress, half-stiffened from age and disuse. I am young— twenty-four. My mother likes to say my spirit is older, because I feel too much. Because I am a heart with legs. Today, I feel like a child.

My sister, the scientist, is also home. She’s gotten Invisilign— those see-through braces—a few days ago, and keeps playing with the plastic coating around her molars, and complaining that she can’t eat as much.

Maybe you should get Invisalign, my mother tells me, looking pointedly at my bagel. There’s grease from the melted butter on my face.

Maybe I should just wire my jaw shut, I say.

My mother is more tired than usual: circles like she’s smeared night sky under her eyes with her thumbs. My mother works harder than anyone I know. My mother shells corn over the sink. My mother plays NPR as she works. I have, she keeps saying, so much to do. 

I offer to run some errands for her. We need sweet Vidalia onions, cooking oil, and I’m out of mascara so my eyelashes look faint, like whispers. I’ve inherited this from my mother. Sparse and light eyebrows, lashes, body hair. She likes to say, it’s the colonizers who are the hairy ones. 

I drive her car to the Walmart and connect my phone to the Bluetooth, where I play the audio of an old Jeopardy episode I’ve probably seen twice. This is probably illegal. This is the Walmart I used to go to in high school, where I sat in the parking lot and pounded nips of vanilla rum and 7-11 Slurpees. Somewhere on the outskirts of this lot, I buried the plastic evidence with my hands, shifting the wet earth, cicadas sleeping until spring

I am amongst my people, in the Walmart. I show up in CACTI LOVER and my sister's very short running shorts and a pair of fluffy purple slippers that show my toes. No one gives me a second look. I fill the list, watching Billie Eilish music videos on my phone as I shop. Her voice is like trying to catch your fingernails on smoke.

I pick up some flowers for 9.99. Pink carnations and a few scraggly roses and something purple I can’t place and some baby’s breath that, well, looks like it’s on its last inhale. Mama will like those. Or she’ll like that I thought to get them. Or she’ll say “don’t waste money on flowers!” but secretly be pleased, and set them in the center of the dining room.

Shortest day of the year, I word vomit to the cashier.
SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR, I say too loudly.
Oh. Ha ha. Longest lines of the year! 

I pray that my credit card stays undeclined. I pray for the Salvation Army guy ringing the bell like a hymn’s chorus. I pray for the woman giving hell to the teenager at customer service— the powers of women with chunky blond highlights and designer flip-flops are at their most potent during The Holiday Season. I pray for Alex Trebek, who has pancreatic cancer, but is fighting it, hard.

My card goes through. The cashier says, Merry Christmas. I wonder if they make them say that.

I send my friend, a law student, a short video mocking ambulance chasers that has me in hysterics. He says, you’re addicted to TikTok.

Double Jeopardy on the way home. It starts sprinkling, something I could taste on the walk to the car. Rain is different in Florida, more urgent. Makes itself known in your lungs and your tongue. I drive worse on wet roads, so I shut off Alex’s voice before the contestants make their wagers.

It’s quiet. My friend HR has been telling me I need this book called How to Do Nothing. I said I can’t fall asleep without blasting television into my eyeballs until I black out. That I have headphones on hand at all times. That I’m rarely not consuming something. She responded, that sounds like a bad time. 

I can’t stop eating or sleeping or watching television. I wish I could wire my jaw shut. Glue my eyelids together. Or tape them open. I want control. I want to write something good. I want to take care of myself. I want everyone to understand my consumption: the hunger, the desire for noise, why I get heart-stricken by silence. I want to evaporate like rain on hot pavement.

I track mud into the house. My mother looks damp as well. Because I had the car, she walked to her afternoon church service. Her eyes look a little lighter. The fall on your knees part of O Holy Night is playing on the living room speakers.

Look, I tell her. Flowers! For you!

Pink! She says. My favorite color!

If they were yellow, she would have said the same thing. She pulls me close and smells as she always smells: fabric softener and tea-tree shampoo and something warm and mulled that I’ve never been able to place.

Katerina Ivanov is a Mexican-American writer who is just trying to keep her houseplants alive. Her multi-genre work has been published or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The Nashville Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Pinch, Joyland, and others. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at University of Arizona.


Solstice story

On the morning of the winter solstice this year, I walked to the Italian café on the main street of my little town to get a cup of coffee. Now I’m pretty sure most people in this town wouldn’t consider leaving the house for something so trivial. Instead, they tell Alexa to make their coffee, using imported beans and a thousand-dollar espresso maker which is sitting atop a vast kitchen island with a specially-ordered countertop made of marble from Tunisia. Then they tell her to turn on the lights and toaster and some unobtrusive music: rather than read the news, they flick through something on their phone.
     That’s what’s going on in the houses that I walk by this morning. But there are still a few people like me who show up right when the café opens. Rain or shine we come, clutching our hand delivered newspapers, eschewing the $12 pastries, trying to hold on to a sense that the world still happens face to face. There’s a core of us regulars who do this, and we are all what I’d call old Palo Alto, that is people who inherited our homes here, rather than buying into what is now officially the most expensive zip code in the entire country. I have no choice but to live in Palo Alto right now, but it is not really where I would choose to be. The problem is that there are only two types of people here, and the division isn’t about race, or class, or religious or political affiliations, what separates us is sheer, rampant, wealth. There’s a social fissure here as big as the Gaza Strip, only it’s weirdly invisible unless you know where to look…like into the café, where if you looked really closely, you would observe the inheritors of an old-fashioned world view that doesn’t sit quite right in the heart of Silicon Valley.
     Take Gino, a middle school P.E. teacher who sits across from me every day amongst a cabal of other men about his own age and one dog named Buster. Gino was a few years below me in high school. The first time we talked, he asked me who the quarterback was the year I graduated there, and I was super surprised to realize that I knew the answer. Gino and his pals all live in the modest houses they grew up in which are now worth millions, and which now have so much equity in them that they all now own second homes in Tahoe. Their own kids are all grown up and have kids of their own, so on the morning of the Solstice, Gino brought his five-year-old granddaughter Tessa in to the café in her party dress so we could admire it. Tessa was going to see “The Nutcracker” in San Francisco, a Christmas ritual that, from my day to this one, is often the only time that people from Palo Alto venture up to “The City”, as we call it.
     The City is only 27 miles from here, but it might as well be Manhattan.
     When I was young, that was the thing that bothered me most about the inhabitants of my little town: they never went to San Francisco and when they did, they came back complaining bitterly about how hard it was to park there. In my youth, my great goal in life was to live in San Francisco, and I achieved that, residing there for many years before time and tide and the startup economy forced me back to my ancestral home, a one story, three-bedroom two-bath craftsman cottage built for servants that is currently sinking into the ground. My house is very down market, but some of my nearest neighbors are Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sergey Brin of Google, the Steven Jobs family and Marisa Mayer, the former head of Yahoo. On Halloween, Ms. Mayer presents a real haunted house on her property and gives out full size candy bars and there’s always a line around the block. So do the Jobs, only they add in an ipad for every thousandth person in line.
     Life amongst the billionaires is a little bit uncomfortable and depressing, akin to if you were an ordinary woman at a party full of supermodels, or a person who struggles with math in a calculus class, or maybe a dwarf on an NBA basketball court. In all those cases, there isn’t really anything wrong with you, it’s just that you’re surrounded by people who have become celebrated for a set of magical traits that society has decided to venerate. I often sit right here in this café and listen in on conversations between the start-up dudes and venture capitalists, who use this venue for meetings and interviews. I used to write down the weird things I heard here, but the only exchange I remember was when a tech guy was talking to a young woman about the series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and he said to her, condescendingly, “Haven’t you ever heard of Margaret Atwood?”
     “Are you kidding?” she responded. “I’m a Canadian!”
     Him, arrogantly: “So? What’s that supposed to mean?”
     This morning the tech bros are nowhere in evidence, though: Saturdays aren’t so good for them here because the cafe turns off the wifi on weekends. So after I had finished my coffee and had praised Tessa on her velvet dress, I got ready to go to diving practice. No, not scuba diving: springboard and platform, a pursuit I began forty years ago, at age eleven, and which I still do on a team made for “masters,” i.e. old people.
     I wouldn’t say that I have gotten that much better at it from when I dove for UC Berkeley, but I have definitely gotten…something. And I’ve met an enormous number of interesting people through it, too, in part because one way that intensely rich overachievers like to express that about themselves is by doing some weird and hard physical hobby, like marathons, or power yoga, or sailboarding, and apparently high diving fits into that paradigm, because no less than three of the people on my team are actual billionaires. They take private planes to our diving meets, buy season tickets to the Warriors, build pools in their back yard. But my diving team is like my town, in that there are also people who do none of those things and are really very ordinary. There’s a guy on it who’s a postman for instance. And a woman who works in the porn industry. My synchro partner, Peter, is a San Francisco cop.
     This year winter solstice was the last practice of the season before we take a two week break for the holidays. It was a cool day – about 50 degrees – and as I walked into the pool area, I was flooded with memories of other December practices like this one. That’s the thing about moving back to where you grew up: the smallest thing can set you off down memory lane, and the smells and sights and sounds of a Christmas practice is unavoidably nostalgic. December was the time when the team would pile on the yardage, 7,000 yards at least, both morning and evening. Every day of vacation, we’d arise at 6 AM, pull pajamas up over our bathing suit and arrive at the pool in the pitch dark. Steam would be rising so heavily from the water that you wouldn’t be able to see the sweep clock’s face, and you’d be able to skid across the frosty pool deck in your bare feet and plunge on in.  I used to recite poems by TS Eliot to myself as I swam, and I had T shirts that said, “Miles to go before I sleep” and, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ but I had no idea of the origin of those phrases, I just thought they described my life.
     I swam for eight years before changing to diving in college, which is a way more interesting and painful and hard sport, and which has its own version of bone chilling cold, though the state-of-the-art pool I practice at now has a giant hot tub we can sit in in between dives. It would have to be a lot colder than it was on Solstice for me to have got in it, though; I come from an era when we learned to dive outdoors in winter with no hot water and no sparger – that’s the underwater machine that turns the water to bubbles so kids won’t land so hard when they’re learning big dives from the tower. Today’s divers learn everything in conditions I’d call soft, and though it makes them into much better divers, I still value my own experience, shivering on the board with my teammates, gathering up my courage in a bundle as if it were a tangible form of warmth, lying awake stressing on how I’d learn a 2 1/2. There were no soft landings for us if we did dives wrong back then, and I feel like that’s a metaphor of some kind. Today’s young divers work really hard to perfect our antique and beautiful skill set, and like me, they do it for love. But being a ten-meter diver is also a sure way into the college of your choice. Bingo!
     Diving practice ended at 3:30 PM and by then the light was already waning, not so much because of the Solstice but because a winter storm was coming in. The kids had piled presents of chocolates and booze on the coach’s table, and my teammates and I desultorily pulled on our sweat pants and UGG boots and fleece lined parkas and said good bye to each other for now. “See you next year!” we joked, as we’ve joked at Last Practice for the past half century. I trudged into the parking lot, through Alumni Grove, where the Stanford Band practices and large groups of people get drunk on football Saturdays, and I started up my car. In the distance, I could hear the faint strains of one last carol: the sky was turning lighter in that way that it does just before it shuts itself off for the night. Christmas lights were winking out from the shopping mall across the street, and an enormous number of Teslas were pouring into it, so their owners could find ways to spend more of their hard-earned lucre. Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky…The words came unbidden to my mind, and for a moment time stood still.  It felt like not just the day, but the year itself had been a spinning top that had gradually slowed down and started to wobble, and it was now just about to fall over.
     Then the sun set, as if on cue, and the nights began to grow shorter. Years are funny things, you can never catch them in the act of changing. It always seems like everything stays the same, in my life, in the pool, and in the world all around us, and yet at the same time, every day is different. Tomorrow I’ll walk to the café, and anything could happen. The truth is, I can’t wait.

Gina Arnold is a former rock critic, an author, a teacher, a diver, and a mom. You can follow her on twitter and Instagram @ginanarchy, or check out her blog


Walking the Salt Line

Once the central heating kicks in I shower and dress. Sip steaming coffee in the kitchen as I watch blackbirds feed greedily on the lawn. Due to a rise in temperature and recent rainfall over the last couple of days earthworms have to come to the surface. Easy pickings. Bluetits perform acrobatics as they work the wire-caged birdfeeder for peanuts and sunflower hearts. Mature trees of oak, ash and horse chestnut in our garden attract a wide range of birds. Species that would normally search for food in natural woodland have ventured into our garden pushed out by new housing developments. Nuthatches are one such species. A striking looking bird with a black eyeliner stripe that extends as far as the shoulder, slate grey upper parts and peach coloured breast. And that all important dagger like bill. Pure delight to watch.
     I hear the click clack of toenails on the hallway’s wooden floor before the kitchen door bursts open. Enter my son’s one-year old Boston terrier, ‘Tommy’; the life and soul of any party.
After breakfasting on scrambled eggs, wholemeal toast, and more coffee, I walk Tommy along the Salt Line. A disused railway track turned country path; once the Sandbach to Wheelock branch of the North Staffordshire railway line; now frequented by dog walkers, joggers, families on bikes, horse riders, and others who just use it is a short cut from Wheelock to Elworth on the outskirts of Sandbach town.
     The line opened in 1852 to carry coal and limestone to the salt works. Cheshire is renowned for its salt. Laid down in the region 220 million years ago during the Triassic period.
     Tommy and I walk all the way to an old railway platform at Wheelock, where a map of the area replaces train timetables on the notice board. On route we bump into Popeye, a chestnut spaniel of some sort. His owner tells me what a wonderful companion Popeye had become over the years after he took him off his breeder. They had no use of a dog with only one eye.
     We pass a pony, dressed in full winter coat with a straggly mane and tail, feeding on scrubland, fenced in by wire. Tommy and I descend the bank to check him out and Tommy nearly pulls me over in the bracken. The pony’s hooves look in good condition from my side of the fence, so I don't think he’s neglected. I pat his neck and he nuzzles my hand. I feel sorry for him. He looks lonely. I make a mental note to bring him carrots the next time Tommy and I walk this way. Turning to climb back up the bank, a volery of Long tailed tits gathers in the oak tree above. These gregarious birds are like a fluffball on a stick and remind me of Peter Pan and the lost boys as they flit in and out of the branches, calling to one another “tsee, tsee, tsee,” and “tsirrup”. My friend likens them to flying teaspoons.
     The sun is out now. Tommy and I rest for a while on a bench, enjoying the moment, until I get to thinking about all the jobs I have waiting for me at home. This is such a busy time of year, with Christmas just around the corner and my son’s birthday on Christmas Eve. My dad was born on Christmas Day, too, so I’ve never known a household without a birthday and Christmas rolled into one.
     My son hates it. He blames me. I hate it. I blame him. As a family we try to separate the two anniversaries. Not easy. If we celebrate at a restaurant there’s always Christmas parties going on. February 17th should have been his true birthday. “We could celebrate your birthday then if you like?” I say to him, but he doesn't rise to the bait. He is lucky to have been born at all, so it is what it is.
     His younger sisters weren’t so lucky. Identical twins. Changed their minds at 19 weeks’ gestation. Twenty-five years ago, today, 21st December. Twin on twin transfusion syndrome. There. It’s out now. I’ve said it so it must have happened. I no longer torture myself by unwrapping the tissue paper that shrouds their tiny woolen hats, nor look at the only photographs of them; pieces of meat laid out on a butcher’s slab. Skinned rabbits come to mind. Was it too much to expect a photograph of them lying side by side snuggled beneath a blanket in a Moses basket? Together in death, as they were in life. The nurse brought them to me in a woven bread basket so I could say goodbye; her young face drawn in shock horror at what she had witnessed. The doctor saying how sorry he was over and over again, as if the outcome of my pregnancy was all his fault. That day certainly didn't feel like the shortest.
     Tommy and I continue our walk. He loves being outside and is great company. When my son declared he was buying a puppy I thought he had lost the plot. We are cat people and have been so for fifty years. I now understand the love of a dog.
     Tommy snuffles out a hairball from the path’s verge. It’s a mix of black, grey and white, with the texture of fine wire. Probably badger hair. They are resident along this stretch of the Salt Line. It rolls along the path like mini tumbleweed. The last time we walked this stretch, carved pumpkins left over from Halloween were all over the place, bobbing along in the water filled ditches that flank both sides of the trail and grinning in the long grass.
     I can see a man in the distance. He’s dressed all in black wearing a large brimmed hat. He appears strange and I wonder what he is up to. When we get closer I realise what he is doing – laying out bread crumbs on the back of a wooden bench for the birds. Task complete he shuffles on his way. It doesn’t take long before a robin takes up his offerings.
     The Salt Line is interrupted by a main road. From here the trail connects up to other pathways. One of which leads to Hassall Green nature reserve; a safe haven for wildlife with rich woodland and wildflower meadows. Five years ago, the space was a dump for demolition waste. During the summer I spent several mornings at the site identifying wildflowers in the meadow: spotted wild orchid, self-heal, mallow, yellow rattle, knapweed - all rich in nectar for feeding insects, and different species of butterfly and moth: peacock, meadow brown, painted lady, cinnabar moth and scarlet tiger moth. The reserve is closed for the winter, but once the evenings become lighter I can’t wait to see how the wildlife has fared.
     The road is too busy for us to cross today so we head for home; a cosy bed by the fire for Tommy and a nice cup of tea for me.

Linda Sage Lives in Cheshire, England, and is a keen gardener and nature lover. She writes features for countryside magazines, is interested in fiction, non-fiction and a mash-up of the two and loves projects like this.


7:54am. Up early. Coffee and some of the bitter herbal potion my acupuncturist gave me. They’re roots, I think, ground into powder. Traces of old snow on the balcony. Rotting dead succulent. Tree branches shivering out the window. I turn on a table lamp and plug in the lights on Judy Garland, our Christmas tree. My arm skims her side and a shower of needles upsets the cat. Today we will undress Judy Garland and put her out on the balcony because she is, like her namesake, long dead. The problem with New York Christmas trees is that they’re like the rest of us: from elsewhere. They’re shipped down from Vermont and the Hudson Valley and Ontario and by the time you get one home, it is brittle and has retained only a tiny hint of pine smell and dies rapidly and noisily. This is the first time our tree hasn’t actually made it until Christmas. I’ve been vacuuming nightly and after work, when I sit on the couch with the radio off, the sound of Judy’s needles falling is like regular rain. I know it’s only a tree but it feels like something else. An ending. J and I agreed today is the day but he said we can’t leave a tree out on the curb before Christmas or the neighbors will think we’re crazy.

Screw the neighbors, I said, picturing us untangling the tree lights, we don’t want to get a sanitation department ticket.

11:27am Near the end of yoga class, my teacher, E, tells us we have to embrace the darkness in order to grow, like a seed in soil becomes a tree. I cringe a little at the word tree. E tells us to make an intention for the new decade. Ten years seems like a long time to plan for anything but I put a word in my mind. Then, at the count of three, E has us yell our intention into the void. I just yell, “CALM,” which seems like the opposite of calm. The woman beside me yells, “Positivity?” with a question mark at the end.

12:16am Even though I almost never go into Manhattan on the weekend, today I take the 4 train to Union Square to attend the East River Park Tree Rebellion. We are gathering to protest a municipal “East River Coastal Resiliency Project,” which is, like most things in New York, a secret real estate development plan pretending to be something else. The project will result in the privatization of public park land and the loss of almost 1000 trees and will threaten some of the precarious wildlife that clings to the margins of New York City. There is another flood mitigation plan that doesn’t destroy the park but the city has abandoned it in favor of this plan for political and monetary reasons.

The train pulls into 14th street and I suddenly realize I’m starving and think about buying a banana but as soon as I get to the top of the stairs, I see them. They’re in a circle with Extinction Rebellion flags and Extinction Rebellion signs and Extinction Rebellion patches on their bags and jackets. I see B and C and G and M, and a few other people whose names I don’t know that I’ve seen at other protests or in photographs of other protests on the internet. They’ve set up a temporary booth made of PVC pipe and plywood, piled high with boxes of green fliers and clipboards. In the center of the circle a guy is holding tree-pose and everyone else is trying to do tree-pose too but we’re all wearing boots and heavy coats and losing our balance. G tapes some flyers, I mean “leaflets,” to the tree-pose man’s “branches.”

The rebels are joined by group long-time housing and environmental activists from the Lower East Side (LES) who tell us about all of the East River Coastal Resiliency Project protests leading up to this one. They have homemade signs and their own hashtag and are wearing neon. We split up into 3 groups, armed with leaflets and talking points, given a flag, and assigned a LES activist and a designated “de-escalator.” Some of us head north to the part of Union Square with the farmer’s market and others head west, into the narrow, claustrophobic, cinnamon-scented corridors of the holiday market. Save the trees! I say as people jostle past us. Protect our public parks! I meet a girl named N who tells me about a recent successful rezoning struggle that she was involved in. Up in Inwood? I ask her, because I read about it and she is delighted. We high five and she holds onto my hand for a minute. A few yards away, rebels from my group are doing tree-pose and taping leaflets to each other’s branches. My jeans are dusty with the imprint of my boot soles. N asks if I know Felicia. I don’t. Felicia is part of this, she says, waving the East River Park Tree Rebellion leaflet around. And costumes, she’s great at costumes. N pulls out her phone and shows me a photograph. It’s her but dressed up like a tree with face paint and an elaborate hat with branches. We should collaborate, N says, and gives me a laminated collage with her name and email address on it. B comes up and says that someone from the market is calling the cops on us.

Our group clusters together near the man from the market with walkie-talkie who has already called the cops because he says we’re impeding the flow of traffic. He scowls and folds his arms while we do tree-pose. When the cops show up and start to talk to us, more people get curious and want the leaflets. I say, save the trees! and add, protect our right to freely assemble.

Isn’t this a public space? We ask the cops. And it usually is except when the city rents it out. We’re just doing yoga, B says and the cops roll their eyes. My toes are numb and I don’t want to get arrested or harassed. I give G the rest of my flyers and disappear into the throngs of shoppers and commuters and realize that I’m shaking because I still haven’t eaten anything and I’m freezing.

3:12pm I meet J at a cocktail bar in our neighborhood. A bartender we know is working and we get whiskey cocktails and sandwiches. He’s a surfer and we ask him about the humpback whale that a bunch of surfers saw on Rockaway beach a few days ago. He pulls out his phone and shows us a video of a perfect wave breaking. We talk about Costa Rica and California and Puerto Rico. The radio is playing some gems from the 80s and 90s. Roxette comes on and we remember she just died. It must have been love, but it’s over now. We talk about how we all want to leave New York soon, probably next year. We have this conversation every time we see this bartender and increasingly when we see most of our friends, many of whom have plans to actually leave or have already decamped to suburbs.

What’s keeping us here? I say aloud. Inertia? J guesses, but really it’s more complex than that.

It’s still the best town in America, I say and then add, sometimes.

At least it’s cheap, says the bartender and we all laugh.

J and I stay at the bar until we are warm and the bartender gets too busy to talk and it starts to get dark out and the whole place fills up with the sound of other people’s voices. Outside it’s quieter than usual. On the walk home, I stop to buy a pineapple for us and a toy mouse for the cat.

What do you want to do tonight? I ask and J takes my hand: let’s go take Judy Garland down.

Nora Almeida is a writer and librarian. Her essays have appeared in Entropy, The Offing, Essay Daily, Ghost Proposal, The Normal School, and other places. She lives in Gowanus, Brooklyn.


What Happened on December 21, 2019

5:43 a.m.

The sound of my husband sleeping beside me blends with the sound of the Caribbean Sea. We’re on the island of Anguilla, visiting my in-laws for Christmas. There are fourteen of us spread out among three villas owned by my husband’s parents, who have lived here for forty-four years. I’ve been here once a year since I met my husband eight years ago, but I’ve never been here for Christmas.
     It’s still dark outside, but from our bed I can just make out the white outline of the villa in front of ours, and the shadows of palms swaying in what they call the Christmas winds. A bird right outside our window is waking up too, but it’s not the cock-a-doodle-doo I’m used to. My father-in-law has finally hired someone to trap the roosters and take them away. So now, for the first time, I wake up to the sound of crickets. And the song of this strange bird beckoning me with a trill that goes up, then down, then halfway up, and finishes with a warble-like flourish.
     The sky turns pink. Tall, puffy clouds float across the sea. Our view is a canvas. I lie there thinking about my seventy-nine-year-old mother alone in her cramped apartment in California, and about my brother who died on Christmas Eve more than forty years ago. I try not to feel guilty that I’m waking up in a paradise they will never see.

6:45 a.m.

I roll out of bed and make a bowl of muesli and a cup of coffee. We talk about my in-laws’ expectations about the villa we’re staying in, which now that his parents have moved to another villa in the compound, belongs to my husband and his siblings. Sort of. There are six villas in this compound, once a boutique resort, and the parents own three.  They live here half the year, but the kids live in the States and only visit for a week or two at a time each year. I stare out the window, spooning muesli into my mouth, wondering how this family timeshare arrangement is going to work. How will we communicate with each other our expectations, disappointments, and simmering resentments when lunch meat molds in the refrigerator for six months, or a chair has been broken but not repaired, or the water heater rusts out, leaks everywhere, and no one knows until one of us shows up for a long weekend? “This place is your responsibility now,” my father-in-law told us. “If something goes wrong, it’s up to you to fix it.” Fair enough. But none of us seems to be comfortable with direct communication. The unspoken rule is to avoid awkwardness at all costs. Even if it causes yet more awkwardness. So how will it work? What lessons in emotional IQ await us?

7:30 a.m.

I take two magnesium threonates, one folic acid, one Rhodiola rosea, and a microdose of psilocybin. I swallow the pills with a whole glass of water. In the flamboyant tree by the window a different bird goes tit, tit, tit.

7:40 a.m.

I check my email. Merriman Webster’s word of the day is “kowtow”:

     1: to show obsequious deference: fawn
     2: to kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in token of homage, worship, or deep respect

     When I first met my in-laws, I kowtowed to them. I was a puppy eager for the love and approval I didn’t get from my own parents growing up, but now I am learning how to see my own value, to speak up despite my fear of rejection or recrimination. When my husband and I came for a visit a few years ago, my father-in-law told me that he and his wife were still married after fifty-five years because they weren’t afraid of each other. I’m not sure whether this was meant as advice for me, or if it was entirely true. We’re all just a little afraid of my mother-in-law.
     The next email in my inbox is from The poem of the day is the prologue of “How I Became a Madman,” by Kahlil Gibran. He writes:
You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen, — the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives, — I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”
I’m sure I’ve worn seven masks in this lifetime, and not one of them has looked right on me. Now that I’ve turned fifty, I’m ready to meet the woman behind them—which I suspect is no woman at all. Just the Universe. Just consciousness waiting for me to wake up. Is consciousness a thief?
     I Google the poem and read it in its entirety, feeling the urge to kowtow (definition 2) to Kahlil and his timeless wisdom. When I come to the section titled “The Seven Selves” I think: Is this where the psychology theory of Internal Family Systems comes from? Are the Seven Selves the voices in our head that we have to figure out how to make friends with so we can live with ourselves peaceably?

8:20 a.m.

Another bird in the tree. It’s the same one I heard when I woke up. Finally I see him: brown and white with a yellow bill. His chirrup is so distinctive: high, low, not-as-high, and then that crazy warble. What kind of bird is this? Something else to Google. But why do I need to label these things? This bird doesn’t know his “name.” Why should he? That’s not who or what he really is.

8:25 a.m.

I start to ponder who any of us really is, but then I stop myself. I’m procrastinating. I should be typing in the handwritten first draft of my memoir. That’s my goal for this two-week vacation, in between daily walks on one of the nearby beaches, lunches at Blanchard’s Beach Shack, and dinners that we take turns cooking here at the family compound. I feel guilty writing these words. How is this my life? How did I fall into this fantasy after decades of hand-to-mouth living and countless bad choices when it came to men? One of the seven voices in my head, a cheeky cheerleader, answers, “When you fixed your broken picker, you really fixed it!”

9:07 a.m.

The lawn maintenance crew is back. They ruined my writing time yesterday. Not even sound-canceling headphones could block the nonstop combustion of leaf blowers and weed eaters. This morning they’re across the road, where the real Anguillans live. This irritates me even more than having them right outside my window, and I realize that I sometimes romanticize Anguillans, wanting them to be more enlightened than the rest of us when it comes to neurotic lawncare. But why should our neighbors be different than any other Homo sapien on this planet hell-bent on dominating their immediate environment, choking off nature’s peace and harmony in a cloud of grass clippings and fumes?
     Another one of the seven voices in my head, the Whip Cracker, snaps his whip and says: “OK, Little Miss Know-It-All, your self-righteousness is just another mask. Get off your soap box and get to work.”

9:15 a.m.

I key in two pages of my memoir from my notebook, complete my writing workshop assignment of defining the argument of my inchoate memoir—Sometimes you have to lose your identity to find your yourself (which I now think is true for the book itself)—and email it to my writing coach. Done. It’s a Festivus miracle. Time to celebrate!

1:00 p.m.

Lunch with my husband at Roy’s Bayside Grill at Sandy Ground. It’s eighty-eight degrees with a light breeze, partly cloudy. When we left New York City yesterday morning the “RealFeel” was nine degrees below zero. Why don’t all humans migrate for the winter?
     We take our seats in the open-air restaurant on the beach. The Anguillans are first-rate boatbuilders, and their colorful boats bob before us in impossibly clear turquoise waters. Even though Sandy Ground is the calmest bay of the island, two wrecked ships sit like beached whales on the shore in the distance. They’ve been there for decades, slowly melting into the sea. This is a working port, so there’s a concrete pier leading out to two freighters. One is big and red and belongs to the Tropical Shipping company. The other one, Mr. Ray, is small with a teal hull and yellow roof. It takes on just one twenty-foot shipping container before pulling up anchor and setting sail. Where’s it going with one little container?
     Our waitress delivers our lobster salads and mojitos as a small yacht crests the horizon. Who’s on it? Where are they coming from? Where are they going? How is it that there are so many yachts coming to this little island? What are their owners searching for? Are they happy? Do they know who they really are? Have they ever run maskless through the crowded streets yelling “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves”?
     Bob Marley’s voice fills the air. A neon-green iguana, just a few feet from my feet, races to the water and sits under the waves. Does he think he’s hiding in that clear water? After a while, he comes out and eyes us all. He’s two and a half feet, if you include the tail.
     Nearby, a bikinied woman emerges from the waves like a Sports Illustrated model. On shore, she stands with her legs apart, head back, and smooths her long wet hair. Someone from Roy’s delivers a burger and fries to her there on the beach. With every bite, her English Mastiff pants and watches the burger move from mouth to plate. The men at Roy’s suck on their Coronas and watch her the way the dog watches the burger.

2:30 p.m.

We return to the villa to read our books and take a nap. Tonight it’s our turn to host the family dinner at the in-laws’ villa, which sits at the back of the compound, high on a cliff overlooking the sea. My husband decided months ago that we would take the easy way out and hire Geraud, a caterer on the island, to prepare puffed pastry, fish, duck, roasted root veggies, wild rice, and berry pie for fourteen people. I feel guilty we won’t be working as hard as the other siblings have to feed so many mouths.

7:00 p.m.

Next to a narrow rectangular pool, the family spreads out between two long folding tables set with linen tablecloths and small candles. I sit next to my father-in-law, and over the course of the evening we leave the comfort of small talk to discuss real life, which leads to the inevitable question.
     “How’s your writing going?”
     “I’m about halfway through my manuscript,” I tell him. “But I’ve hit the doldrums. The whole thing is way more complicated than I thought it would be.”
     “What’s it about,” he asks.
     I laugh nervously, not wanting to tell him what it’s really about, yet feeling compelled to do it anyway. “Well, it’s about the time Chris and I lived in the yurt in Montana. But I think what it’s really about is how I learned how to love…. not just him, but me, I guess …” I leave the sentence unfinished. Why am I trying to explain this at the dinner table with all these people having loud, frothy conversations? My cheeks start to burn. I try to read his face. Does he think I’m a woo-woo wacko?
     “Hm.” He narrows his eyes. I can tell he’s searching for the appropriate response to my inappropriate oversharing. I wait. Finally, he says, “That’s a tough one, I would think.”
     I nod and focus on my fork cutting through my slice of mixed-berry pie. I push the bite across the plate, watching it like it’s the most important thing in the world, wishing I could swallow my whole self along with the pie and turn into pure energy, a pinprick of light in the night sky.
     “Are you going to tell the truth?” he asks.
     I look up, wondering what he means. Does he think I mean to lie?
     “I’m just asking,” he says, “because I think very few people are capable of telling themselves, let alone others, the truth about themselves.”
     My shoulders relax and I lift my gaze to meet his. “I don’t know, but I’m going to try.” I want to talk to him about Kahlil Gibran’s thieves and the seven selves, about my guilt and shame and confusion, about how in the world I could possibly tell the truth when I don’t know if I can trust my own impressions. I want him to be a wise father figure and explain the world to me in simple terms. I want him to reassure me that everything is going to be OK, that I’m OK, that I can do this thing that is harder than anything I’ve ever done in my life. Instead, I excuse myself so I can go inside and readjust the mask that’s sliding off my face.

Anonymous is…anonymous.

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will

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