Wednesday, January 1, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Margo Steines, Ethan Weinstein, Randy Osborne, Roland LeMay, Cymelle Leah Edwards

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.





MARGO STEINES


Morningtime: I wake up in the jungle at the foot of the Ko‘olau mountains on windward O‘ahu. I find two fat racks of bananas hanging off two intertwined trees next to the built-out school bus I slept in.

I slip my hand inside the deep v neck of my shirt to measure the weight of my breasts. First the right, then the left. Heavy, both, full like small bags of liquid, and sore like bruises.

I piss in a jar, dump it out the window of the bus, and slip back through the seam in the mosquito netting cocooning my bed. I try to listen to the sounds of the jungle before I look at my phone: bird, pig, waterfall, more bird.

I pour boiled water over coarse ground coffee beans and watch it trickle brown into my glass jar.

***

My friend Elko, the owner of my Air BnBus, is a fish farmer. In his kitchen, at the top of his jungly farm,  he has orange capped syringes and vials of chorionic gonadotropin. Tomorrow he will inject his female catfish with this hormone, which he purchases at the feed store for less than the price of a nice lunch. If you want them to ovulate at 3pm, you can make that happen, he tells me, and my eyes gleam. We are old friends, and mutually distrustful of the systems we refer to as “Big ___” (Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Science, Big State, etc). Catfish won’t ovulate in captivity. They sense, somehow, that they are not safe, that they are not wild, and they hold their eggs tight. With the injections, they let them down, made fecund against the wills of their bodies. We talk about biohacking and Big Pharma and fertility as he prepares the vials for his fish. We have had all these conversations before, except this time I am biting my tongue to stop myself from asking him to inject me with his catfish drugs, because I know if I ask sincerely enough, he will do it for me.

***

Afternoontime:  I drive the twisty highway that cuts O‘ahu diagonally in half, the wind so high and rough that my small truck keeps getting buffeted from either edge of my lane, bigger trucks with better suspension whizzing close and fast. I am grateful that I took the time to lash my surfboard to the tailgate.

I stand at the shoreline and watch the angry soup ocean bustle and froth. I feel the wind blow kernels of coarse West Side sand into the folds of my ears. I have so few days to surf that I almost say fuck it and paddle out into the windstorm, but common sense takes over and I sit, read my book, scroll Instagram looking at livefeed videos of other waves.

I squat over the public toilet at the surf spot to pee and when I wipe, front to back, I think I see some blood. Not blood blood, just, like, a tinge of something pink, but I have already reflexively tossed the little wad of toilet paper by the time the thought registers, and before I can take a moment to understand or double check anything, the words OH NO have escaped my lips, low and honest.

***

One of Elko’s friends, also a friend of mine, just delivered her seventh baby. She is a birth worker and an activist and is raising a magnificent tribe of remarkably sweet, happy, well adjusted children. It feels like if you have seven of them you’d hardly notice one more or one less. It feels like there is no fairness to a world that deals cards like a Vegas dealer, seven for you, none for you, no odds, bad odds, the house always sweeping the table.

***

Eveningtime: I meet an old acquaintance-friend and she tells me she is pregnant, twenty weeks, and that her work is letting her work remotely and she and her husband are buying a house. I understand this woman to be someone incapable of navigating basic daily life so it is odd to see her, feeling very settled and sane, in one of those neck-and-arms-plus-shawl sweaters gently pregnant women like to wear, sipping a green smoothie and talking about how well she feels and that she has been swimming a lot.

I eat one kalo and vegetable patty, made by one of Elko’s workers, crisped in a cast iron pan, and begin cultivating anxiety about tomorrow morning’s workout, whether I should do it to full capacity or whether I should go easy on my body right now, spare it anything that jars or shocks.

I miss a video call from my boyfriend and I call him back two minutes later and he doesn’t answer and I realize that I miss him so much that I feel ill, my hands restlessly picking at their cuticles for want of touching his big shoulders and wild curly hair.

I want to go to sleep on the soft queen sized bed in the bus without a shower but I force myself to strip and stumble in the jungle dark to the outdoor shower, which has hot water and a marvelously hinged door made of pallet wood thanks to Elko, mastermind and builder of my Hawaiian farm home.

***

Something twinges deep in my side belly as I am falling asleep, hot and loud. I have been vaguely hypochondriac for my entire life, and much of my considerable anxiety is funneled into obsessions about if and how my various organs are functioning. From this, I assume that I know which parts feel like what, and that I can identify sensation, but this one is both acute and diffuse, a shadow dancing pinpoint, and I am like a cat chasing a laser as I nervously palpate my abdomen. I fall asleep curled around my pain, full of worries known and unnamable, here in my favorite place, nestled in the jungle that I think about every day that I cannot be in it. It strikes me that this body is a vehicle and a prison, both.

Margo Steines is a native New Yorker and journeyman ironworker. She lives and writes in Tucson, Arizona.






ETHAN WEINSTEIN


(Me, age 21, traveling for the first time without my family, inside the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Austria)

The day got stuck around 3 in the afternoon.

I found Carson waiting for me in the museum lobby hunched with elbows on knees, her mouth frozen agape, eyebrows raised, a shocked face she deferred until I was there to see it.

She relayed to me the phone call from her mother minutes prior that began, “You want to hear a crazy, karmic story?” The man she hated most in the world had burned alive inside his home.

I knew who she referred to. He was the man who had shimmied into the gap between Carson and her mother created by a first semester at college, which grew like a hole in a sweater until she couldn’t tell which hole to put her head through. A man, now dead, who used a fa├žade of authority and stability to claim victory in every he-said-she-said until he’d permanently tarnished her home.

I sat silently. Carson showed no sign of relief, let alone celebration, which had been my predicted emotional responses. I had no precedents for reacting to this situation. This brand of craziness had never entered my life, and I reminded myself that it still hadn’t, it had entered hers, her life adjacent to mine, or more like overlapping.

Carson has trained her brain to find silver linings in death. When brought into the light of consciousness, this mechanism casts its violent shadow. Carson’s dad died when she was seven.

The well-trained mind runs its algorithms always, and in this man’s death, Carson’s found an error. His death was all silver—at least at first glance. But Carson knows the feeling of losing a father and wouldn’t wish it on anyone. She tried to illustrate the inside of her head—his blackened body in the burnt down home, his children receiving the news, their lack of closure. She paced between me and the museum gift shop. I watched her thoughts sync with her steps, their emotional waves overlapping until the combined force amplified exponentially.

Carson says death follows her and her family, or at least she feels like it does. I don’t consider myself superstitious, but I got stuck wondering if death would follow her to me. I pushed this thought into a corner in favor of an equally absurd, anxious narrative. I have never experienced death, and I often worry that any attempt to offer advice or condolences will betray some emotional immaturity. I know I can’t get stuck with this feeling, how unfair that would be to make myself the center of attention as someone grieves. I’m sorry, I just feel worthless because I’ve never experienced the horrible thing you’re experiencing, and I worry you’ll find me insufficient and immature because I don’t know what it feels like. To voice this would’ve been self-fulfilling, but holding onto it only made me frustrated with the both of us.

Our loops persisted, never intersecting. 

Ethan Weinstein is thankful that the days are getting longer. His nonfiction has been published by 3:AM Magazine, Junction Magazine, and is forthcoming in Lunch Review. Twitter: EA_Weinstein





RANDY OSBORNE


It’s our wedding anniversary—two kids, three grandchildren—and the solstice jokes still echo from that day 40 years ago. “He chose the date on purpose, longest night of the year, haha!” “Yeah, longest night for her, haha!”

We have nothing special planned to celebrate, as we've been divorced for three decades and can’t stand being in the same room with each other.

To start again: Dec. 21, 2019, dawns cool, gray and wet. Rare for Atlanta, ideal for me. Thus it will stay through the farmer's market load-up, and the Trader Joe's run, and to the end of the seasonally evanescent afternoon.

Moe-ming time! Leela chirps. Her mother, Joyce, rolls over. Her father, me, sits up and blinks at Saturday.

Leela shifts from foot to foot. Her diaper sags. She’s finishing her third year of existence with aplomb and, increasingly, words.

She asks for and I toast her a frozen “foffle.” Pour on the pecan oil first—she dips a finger—then maple syrup. Hoist her into the high chair.

“You watch me?”

I watch her eat as I gulp my ritual, first-thing liter of electrolyte water. “Do airplane! Do firetruck!” I do them one after the other, each delivering its foffle payload into the hangar, the garage of her wee mouth.

She likes cars, airplanes, trains, conveyances of any kind. Also construction equipment, among which her favorite is the “ossibater.” Excavator.

Leela’s my kid and she’s not my kid. I had no real interest in more children. Joyce also turned away from parenthood, though long ago when we started dating I sensed—and eventually confirmed—that refusing to leave open the possibility would have been a deal-breaker.

So in the moment I said OK, maybe, and then somewhere along the line we mutually nixed the idea, and then Leela showed up.

That one-line account won’t do. Leela showed up, rings brisk. It fails to represent the actual pace of events, slower if tumultuous and utterly without agency on the girl’s part.

To start again: Leela was born about four years ago to people with drug problems on Joyce's side—a methadone baby. Rather than let the foster system take over, Joyce’s parents acted fast and adopted her. But they're getting up in years, as people in north Georgia say. Nobody else in the family could bring aboard Leela.

So here we are. 

The goat-cheese vendor at the farmer’s market has brought three goats in a show of holiday spirit and hopes to sell more feta. Clad in ridiculous red-and-green holiday getups, the goats circle each other. They stick out their noses from the roped-off tent to invite rubs on their knobby heads. Leela’s delighted and wary. Those eyes.

TJ’s is packed, of course. Leela insists on walking (big girls don't ride in the cart) and thankfully has forgotten about the stuffed dog which if found on the shelves—this could take weeks—means a lollipop. She wants to play catch with the avocadoes. She wants to buy “kee-weeds” (kiwis).

Home, and brunch at the Mexican joint downstairs. Kids’ plate for Leela. Joyce and I order our usuals: sopes with a side of chorizo for me, shrimp tacos for her. I slather my food with extra salsa, knowing the heavy meal will make me drowsy later and even less dad-efficient than usual.

It does. We play on the floor with Paw Patrol action figures. Leela’s appalled when I confuse Tracker with Skye. Marshall is easy. My back hurts. On the matter of “getting up in years,” reader, you may by this point have tried some piecemeal arithmetic regarding your narrator’s age, which next will be disclosed. I’m almost 64.     

Leela joins us on the sofa. Sleepy, she riffles my chest hair, sifting absently with her worm fingers. We’re bound for naps. I’m tired often. Joyce, too, though she's 20 years younger.

But some days I wake with more energy than seemed possible even as a teenager, before my history lay in ruins around me.

Time, it turns out, does not bring ultimate wisdom. One night I find myself searching the pattern of Leela’s toys in the drained bathtub for big answers. Any answers.

Leela howls in pajama protest. She wants a story. I read to her with as much theatrical dash as I can muster. The wafer-thin book finishes quickly.

I’m ready for what she’s going to demand next—the same that most of us want at the end of a good story, or even an average narrative, if only as a way of delaying the night.

To start again.

Randy Osborne's essay collection, Over the River and Stabbed to Death, recently won the Beverly Prize for literature and will be published by Eyewear/Black Spring in the U.K. His work, widely published in small magazines, has appeared in four print anthologies and mentioned several times in the Notables section of Best American Essays.






ROLAND LEMAY


Roland LeMay is a multimedia artist. His work has been featured in Territory, Terrain, and on the walls and refrigerator of his parents' house.






CYMELLE LEAH EDWARDS

The buying and selling of legs

It has been three days since my last shower and those days are here somewhere. I drive from the forest, three hours down the mountain to the grande, grandpa needs help moving from the sofa into his wheel chair and I wash some dishes in the sink. Mom insists I get a new phone, I think the one I have is just fine, I like it better than the new ones anyway. An upgrade would mean an adapter for my headphones, no charging and listening to music privately at the same time, I rage into my front seat and drive us both to AT&T. She looks over from the passenger side, “I wouldn’t care as much if you weren’t traveling the way you do, up and down that mountain all the time, I need to be able to connect with you, don’t you agree?”

Yes.

New phone in hand I walk through Walmart with my sister’s boyfriend so he can buy her a gift. It’s the Saturday before Christmas: men stand with yellow legal paper in their hands and white streaks down their faces; aunties and uncles fight over the last Patti LaBelle sweet potato pie on display; Ken asks if I think my sis wants a large body mirror or new pots and pans; we checkout of the garden center with an 18-piece non-stick cookware set and two pacifiers for their daughter. I dodge friends from high school on the way out, one of whom was my roommate in undergrad, she’s filling the display case with faux eyelashes and laughing with a coworker.

Grandma’s knee is nearly gone, they worry about the meniscus but conclude it’s arthritis, still, she wants freshly cut potatoes and homemade biscuits for breakfast. I catch her kneeling to grab a pot from underneath the oven and then convince her to let me do it. She sticks around to make sure I peel the potatoes correctly, and then watches how I slice them, curved fingers tucked thumb over-the-top, index finger flattened on spine while the blade cuts through to the board. She doesn’t like this. She shows me how to hold the potato in my left hand, start the knife at the tip and follow it through to the palm of my right. This is how her mother and grandmother did it. I prove I can do it once and she goes to lay down, and I return to what I think is the safest way.

Felix is the chaplain from hospice, a job my grandpa had when he could still walk. Felix asks if he can pray, I stay chopping in the kitchen, hear him say amen. He sticks his head in to see me, tells me to keep up the good work in school then leaves, and I wonder what school he thinks I’m in. I think about the two French braids I am wearing, the stepstool I’m standing on, and the colorfully stripped socks warming my shins. I am always curious about how young people must think I am.

That morning I drop my car at Giddens to get my oil changed, something I do whenever I come back home. Dal, the owner, asks how my grandfather is doing, he is the one, after all, who used to do this for all of his grandchildren, drive their cars to Giddens for an oil change, exchange stories with Dal, and walk next door to Fry’s to grab a gallon of milk and a 2-pack of Hostess SnoBalls for grandma. His name is still on my account, I tell them “2012 Ford Fusion, under Clarence” when I drop it off, then jog back home. It is early but not so early that the lights strung on Florence Blvd. have completely fluttered off. And that’s when I help grandpa from the sofa.

“Take me to see the tree,” he says with a mouthful of biscuit moistened by orange juice. I stand to his right, count to three, heave him up. “Twist, twist, twist,” I say until his hips are parallel to the chair and he sits back into it. I de-brake the wheels, move his feet onto the plates, grab his black and white checkered blanket and cover him neck to shoe. We roll backwards from the den into the living room and I turn him around to face the tree. I ask if he wants me to plug it in and he nods yes. The tree is lit and he is sitting numbfull of pancreatic cancer. He no longer shares a bed with my grandmother, we give her a twin and place it next to the insurance-provided hospice bed. I stand behind him, also looking at the tree, also looking out the window past the tree, right outside where my car is parked and a translucent Giddens sticker is reversed onto the windshield reminding me to return in 5,000 miles. “Alright” he says, “take me back.” And I want to.

We undo the steps from before, roll back / blanket / up-2-3 / twist twist twist / down / easy / rest.
I grab two towels from the hall closet and ask my grandmother if I can use their shower. 

Cymelle Leah Edwards is an MFA Candidate at Northern Arizona University. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Glassworks Magazine, Contra Viento, Elm Leaves Journal, WKTLO, and elsewhere. She currently works as a freelance research assistant in the Special Collections department at Cline Library and helps turn out horses in her free time.






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

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