Tuesday, January 7, 2020

What Happened on 12/21/19: Zoë Bossiere, Verity Sayles, Amy Roper, Anna Chotlos, Denry Winter Willson

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 begin the morning in bed, the same one the bugs inhabited 18 months ago on June 21st, 2018. The mattress was treated with heat, then sealed in a white, zippable cover. My partner, Jason, and I threw out the wooden bedframe after the heat treatment, exchanging it for a metal one that can’t be gnawed through or otherwise lived inside of. The new frame now rests on seven traps—concave shoes with multiple rings where bugs can crawl in but not out. I check them occasionally, though much less than I did when they were new. We’ve never caught a bedbug in them, but once I found a house spider. Another time, an earwig. The traps are dusted in a fine layer of diatomaceous earth, ensuring that even in the unlikely event a bug did manage to crawl up the legs and onto the frame, its little body would be shredded in the process. The traps make breeding (blood sucking, egg-laying, etc.) impossible; they ensure we can sleep through the night without inadvertently feeding a new generation of nits.

In reality, though, we have not seen a trace of a bedbug in 18 months—the maximum lifespan for any potential lingerers. The traps are now the only visible reminders of the problem we once had. But even if we got rid of them and moved far, far away from this place I don’t think I’d ever really forget. Whenever I feel an itch on my arm, every night before I go to sleep, I can see them: their rust-colored bodies and black, beady eyes. Their short, yet somehow spindly legs. A dab of blood visible in each of their translucent abdomens. During the worst of it, when we were in the chaotic midst of bedbug panic, I resigned myself to thinking I might never feel safe in my own bed again. I do feel safe here, now. There is a comfort and a pleasure in laying against the white flannel sheets (all the bedding we own, since the bugs, is white), warm in contrast to the chilly morning darkness outside.

As this is a day of paying attention, I have elected to spend it in bed, drinking cup after cup of black tea and mentally willing my menstrual cramps to abate. Despite this pain, I am in good spirits. I pull open the blinds to a surprisingly bright winter day in our little Appalachian town. The semester is over. Grades are in. Christmas is coming. The day is still fresh enough to contain multitudes of possibility. There is plenty of time ahead to study, to write—to read, if I wanted. Maybe even go outside for a walk. After an hour (okay, two) of drinking tea, taking ibuprofen, and reading the news on my phone (impeachment, democratic debates, environmental ruin), I decide to open my planner, which is a mistake.

Today is Saturday. On Monday we will drive to my sister’s house in a state some 400 miles away and spend the holiday with her family—time away I am looking forward to but feel guilty about. There is so much to do here at home. I have comprehensive exams to finish, which are due the first day of the Spring semester. I have an essay to write for the March Badness Tournament about Charlene’s perennially terrible “I’ve Never Been To Me.” I have a workshop to plan and a syllabus to revise. A proposal to complete. I also have to mail all these save the dates, which are currently spread out on the couch in a bunch of little piles only I understand. I started this process last summer at my soon-to-be mother-in-law’s house but got distracted by the beginning of the Fall semester and never finished. I fucked up a lot of names and addresses on the envelopes the first time around, so now I have to go over them with white-out. My partner and I have been trying to get married for the better part of two years. After our previous venue fell through, we finally got around to setting a new date, which means the time to send the cards is now. On top of the writing and wedding stuff, I have to mail the rent check, pay the bills, make a credit card payment, straighten the house, do the laundry, pack a suitcase, and send a drifting controller to Nintendo for repair. The thought of it all makes me want to slip deeper under the duvet and never emerge. I close the planner and sigh into my pillow.

I had originally hoped to start my day in bed reading more of Charlene’s memoir (also titled I’ve Never Been To Me) and maybe listening to the 1982 version of her song a couple dozen or so times out loud, but my body has other plans. Around mid-morning, after finishing an entire pot of tea and taking lot of medicine, I fall asleep. When I wake up again it’s almost 2 PM and the pains are largely gone but now I’m feeling anxious because I’ve already wasted most of the day and there’s still so much reading and writing and planning and cleaning to be done. I stare at the ceiling and worry about passing my comprehensive exams. I worry about completing my March Badness essay in time. About revising the syllabus for my upcoming class. The wedding invitations. How Christmas would go. The future of this very essay. I spend the next hour largely incapacitated by worries of various magnitudes—too tired to get any real work done, yet too anxious about the work I need to do that I can’t relax, either.

I force myself, eventually, to get up and at least clean the bathroom. I play David Bowie’s “Starman” on my phone and sing along while working from top to bottom, with glass spray and newspaper on the mirror, then vinegar spray and a rag on everything else. I scrub spots from the ceiling and blow dust from the walls. I spray down the counter and the toilet before starting in on scouring the shower. Our little house has been on the rental market for the better part of two decades, maybe more. I don’t know whose decision it was to tile the shower with all these tiny one-inch squares, spaced apart by grout so narrow that it’s impossible to really clean, but every month or so I put on the yellow gloves and make a ritual of trying. I grab the hard-bristle brush and scrub until I can see black crud streaking down the walls of the tub. There is something satisfying in this work, though the shower walls and the tub itself never really shine. They are both heavily stained from thousands of morning showers. From dozens of pairs of feet standing exactly where I am now. From gallons of clear bleach and green Comet powder. The vinegar hanging in the air stings my eyes a little. The grout, despite my efforts, looks more or less as it did when I began. But overall, the bathroom looks fantastic. I pull Jason away from working on his laptop for a minute to admire my work, which he humors me in doing.

I want to do more than just the bathroom—maybe vacuuming the bedroom carpet or sweeping the living room floor, but after all the scouring I am exhausted and my cramps are coming back. I heat up more water for a second pot of tea and pop another ibuprofen. I take a hot shower in the now clean bathtub. With a fresh cup of tea in hand, I fold some laundry. Then, after thirty minutes (okay, an hour) of video games, I begin correcting a few save the date envelopes, painting on thick layers of white-out and blowing them dry. I attach stamps to the finished ones and put them aside to be mailed out tomorrow. Slowly, the day begins to feel a little more productive. I pull out the laptop to peck around on my comprehensive exam essay and read over a few more articles. I compose an email to the Assistant Editors of Brevity, thanking them for their hard work and reminding them about the holiday reading break next week. I take care of the utilities, the rent check, and the credit card for the month. Suddenly it’s 7 PM, and Jason is in the kitchen, making an elaborate egg drop soup dish for us to share. He wants to watch It’s a Wonderful Life on VHS and drink hot chocolate topped with whipped cream in the dark with nothing but the Christmas tree lights on in the background. It is time to stop working.

I push the remainder of my list over to Sunday, knowing I won’t get to finish even half of it before we return home from my sister’s. I force myself to be at peace with this fact as we watch George Bailey grow from a boy into a man, always so focused on his vision of the future that he never stops to appreciate the life he has, or the many loving people in it. There’s a grand lesson in all of this for George—and by extension for us, the viewers. I recognize the virtues the film espouses about the importance of paying attention, of living life in the moment. I recognize, too, the irony of my own failure to pay attention, especially on a day devoted to examining each moment as it unfolds. And still, as the long-dead people on our television screen belt out the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” and the credits begin to roll, I can’t help but wonder how achievable this kind of enlightenment really is, at Christmas or any other time. Is it possible to live one’s life entirely for the present moment, free from anxieties of the future and regrets of the past? To have genuine appreciation, at all times, for the people and things, both good and bad, that make up the daily minutiae of our lives? Or is it enough, from time to time, to simply look around and acknowledge where we are and who we’re with, what we’re doing and who we have become? As usual, I don’t have the answers. What I do have is a bed I am happy to return to. A family I am looking forward to seeing. Another morning to finish my list.

Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and the co-editor of its forthcoming anthology, entitled The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). She is also a podcast host for the New Books Network's Literature channel. Find her online at zoebossiere.com


Yoga Church 

I belong to a yoga studio a mile from my house. Here, large engagement rings and Apple watches glint on the wrists of women as they stretch into warrior two. On the blue mat which I paid too much money for, I wonder if I’m the only one here who has never bought anything from LuluLemon. But I like the turquoise and orange mandala on the wall, the smell of incense, the flickering candles, and the ample parking—a luxury in Seattle. Only once has an instructor led the class in “ohm” at the end, which I also like because I always feel phony chanting a word which doesn’t mean anything to me but means so much to others.

Yoga is just exercise. Though I wonder if it could be more to me. I’m not particularly good, so in a way even writing about yoga seems disingenuous. I’m not like the sweaty, sinewy few in class who bend and wrap their arms around their legs in impossible shapes. I like yoga classes because I like being told exactly what to do. I like clear, single word instructions. I like that I can just show up with my mat without having to create a lesson plan or be responsible for the tone of the classroom. I like the heat, the warm enclosure, the escape from the endless damp Seattle winters.

Today, December 21, the instructor wishes us, “Happy Solstice.” There are some murmurs from the room—both those who forgot it is the solstice and those who seem celebratory. “The true solstice today is at 8:24 PM,” she tells us. “That is when we will be the furthest point from the sun all year.” Even though the sun rose today at 7:54AM, and sets at 4:19 PM. Even though the grey skies bathe the whole day in dimness. Somehow, we are still not as far from the sun as we could be. Somehow, we are still spinning away from the light. The only good thing about the darkness at this time of year is the proliferation of twinkle lights on the cranes hovering over construction pits, and the easy cocktail party conversation about coping mechanisms.

Tomorrow I will go to the “Sunday Church,” yoga class. Church, as a reference to yoga rather than the familiar pews and pastor of my home, is another way I’ve taken my east-coast-puritanical-Protestant routines and reshaped them to fit a contemporary-west-coast atheism.

Today, I close my eyes and I take an inhale when instructed.

I try to focus on the now, but my mind drifts to yesterday. It was already dark at school when I held my classroom door open for the custodian who carried a full bucket of soapy water to wash the sugar-smudged tables before the winter break. He asked me what my name, Verity, means.

“The truth.” I told him.

“What is the truth?”

I couldn’t muster a response. My eyes and attention were already on the upcoming break, the relief from waking up early, a temporary respite from planning lessons and grading papers. I said something like, “The truth is what you believe in your heart, what is right.”

“God is the truth.” He told me. “Are you a Christian?”

“I used to be.” I said before I could think of a response which would extract me sooner. “My mother would like me to be.” I mean this to be a joke but he just looked at me, brimming with born-again warmth and earnestness.

“God loves you. He loves you, just the way you are.” He looked at me so deeply I couldn’t leave. He took my hands in his and before I could pull away, he closed his eyes and started praying. Praying for me. Praying for me in the middle of the hallway. Praying for me in the hallway of the techy high school, among the gleaming white walls and TVs projecting images of the robotics team. Praying I would know the love of Jesus. I wanted to close my eyes, I wanted to feel something, but I felt the same pangs I always did when I tried to pray years ago—of being watched, of drifting attention, of discomfort.

On the mat I rise, extend, forward fold, halfway lift, chaturanga dandasana, lower, lunge, rise, extend, enacting motions to words I’ve only recently learned. I wanted to say this is like praying, but it’s not. I haven’t prayed in so long. It’s like growing up in a foreign country but leaving at a young age, so now I say, “I can understand some of the language, but I can’t speak it.” Yoga is close to spirituality, but I don’t think I am ready to pitch headfirst into those depths.

I’m getting better at lying in shavasansa, feeling the stillness of corpse pose and the reassuring beat of my heart against the mat. After, I rise up from the mat into a seated position. I bring my palms together and raise them to my forehead.

“On this Solstice, the light and teacher in me, honors the light and teacher in every one of you. Namaste.” The instructor says.

Amidst the flicker of the candles, I feel fatigue in my arms, and a twinge of superiority or exhaustion, a sarcastic voice in my head muttering, “Well, some of us are more teachers than others…” But I repeat back, “Namaste” and bow over my crossed legs, as if by enacting earnestness I am becoming closer to something greater than myself.

I exhale long and slow. I imagine the spinning of the earth. I imagine a slow equalizing of the Solstice. I imagine the sun getting closer. I imagine the longer days and feel something, almost like hope.

Verity Sayles is a writer and teacher based in Seattle. She earned her MFA in nonfiction from Oregon State in 2016. Catch her on twitter @saylestem or on her website veritysayles.com


December 21

I wake at seven to feet in my face. No, I woke five hours before that, a small presence whispering at my bedside, thrusting an armful of stuffed animals toward me, demanding that I take each animal in turn and tuck it in before I helped my three-year-old onto the bed, where she whispered loudly that I didn’t do it [arrange the animals] right, and I whispered back in sleepy irritation “it’s fine!” with no evidence to support the claim, but amazingly she was convinced and settled crookedly between me and my husband, worming her cold toes beneath my shirt and against my back.
     When I wake the second time to my daughter kicking me in the face and announcing her readiness for breakfast, I see that our most recent animal company is a bunny, turtle, snake, and two bears. I step on a third bear as I exit the warm bed (arming myself with sweatshirt and socks) and notice a giraffe in the corner that we never cleared from a previous night. Kate refers to the bed (mine and my husband’s) as “our bed” (mine and my husband’s and Kate’s). We were adamant about never allowing our oldest, now six, into our bed. Now we’re older and tireder and softer, I guess. She’s joined us in bed every early morning since late summer.
     In the kitchen I survey my recent baking projects. Stacks of covered, unfrosted sugar cookies fraternize with domed chocolate chip cookies. I am on day 1, 2, and 3 of separate batches of three-day-long sourdough bread. I pull Day 3’s dough out of the fridge, weigh and shape four loaves into pans, then heat the oven to 120, turn it off, and place the loaves in to rise. Just two days ago I did this with a second-day batch, forgot I had dough rising in the oven, and preheated the oven for something else, resulting in a melted bowl and ruined dough. I risk the oven again, convinced that I would never forget a second time. It would take ten seconds to scribble a reminder on a Post-it note to stick over the oven controls, but I’m sure I’ll remember.
     Yesterday, I ruined two out of two batches of toffee. The recipe that had never failed me (in a different house, state, and climate) met the same oily, separated, unusable end twice, even though I researched between batches and did several things differently the second time. This weighs on me today. I don’t know what went wrong. I don’t know what to change to make it work, and I can’t keep throwing butter at the problem until I figure it out because, well, money and time. I hate that I don’t know what went wrong.
     I get cereal out for the kids, make a smoothie for myself, and start the sour cream frosting for the sugar cookies. I’m making Christmas treats for the neighbors, even though we’ve only lived in this neighborhood less than four months and I don’t know well several of the people I’m planning to gift food to. It seems like a good enough way to become friends with them, as long as they actually eat the food instead of distrustfully throwing it away, and as long as they aren’t avoiding carbs or sugar, or at least not until January. If I’m going to make a cookie, it’s going to be amazing. My bread is the best. At least that’s what my recipients tell me, and almost entirely what I base my own judgment of my creations on, which is shallow and unstable, but so far the compliments continue, and I accept them modestly, but I would give up baking if they stopped and society decreed my offerings of no value. I love to feed people—teenaged me would have been horrified at admitting to such a domestic hobby, but it completely delights me to make food that people love. “You should sell this!” or “I would buy this from you!” seem to be the highest compliments, and I love these compliments, but so far I have no desire to turn baking into a monetary exchange. Part of it is that much of my joy is in the actual service of giving. The other part is that giving away rather than selling gives me license for imperfection. One of my biggest anxieties when it comes to baking is hair. I always pull back my hair, then triple check my sleeves that nothing is clinging. I avoid touching the cat while I bake, but her fur seems to circulate with the air, or I’ll find it stuck to my freshly washed fingers from the supposedly clean dish towel I just used. My head discards hair more than most people, I think, and science (*cough*theinternet) agrees that blondes lose around 100 strands of hair a day, as opposed to a brunette who might lose 60, so my hair paranoia may be justified. My cat is also a blond long-hair, but I haven’t made much progress in discovering if blond cats lose more hair than any other color. Researching that would certainly take more time than writing myself a sticky note reminder to not prematurely bake my dough.
     Perhaps I am so unsettled about the toffee because yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of my dad’s death, and the most significant emotion I felt on that day was frustration over spoiled toffee. I’m not sure what I expected to feel. Do I owe him annual reverence, a day of dwelling in regret and melancholy—or is it a selfish desire, an excuse to wallow in self-pity? Poor, sad, me, fatherless every Christmas for fourteen years. Yesterday, instead of wallowing, I baked. Shortly after his death, I congratulated myself on times of numbness. It was easier. After all, death is so common, such a certainty—why all the fuss? People go through worse things all the time. But that’s the numbness talking. Since then I’ve lost all four grandparents, two of those also in December, and a few friends and acquaintances whose deaths are tragic and untimely, but I don’t feel that compulsion to linger on their death anniversaries, and probably won’t remember the individual dates as time passes. Is December 20th different because of the closeness of our relationship—my father? Because his was the first death I experienced? Because I was 19, and because I mourned the decades I would never have with him, the adult relationship we could never cultivate? Certainly I have changed since age 19—would he even like me now? How much would he have changed himself? In five years, he will have been gone from my life for as long as he was in it. As the scales tip toward years without him, I worry what memories I will forget, that I will forget, perhaps, to feel.
     Here we pause to acquiesce to the “Look, Mommy!” “Look at this!” “Watch me!” “Watch this!” “Watch this big noise!” that have been pelting my distracted self all morning, and I give my 96%-attention to the kids’ upside down tricks, Domino stacks, ninja kicks, and slurping through straws.
     I eventually make it to Day 2’s sourdough, mixing last night’s leaven with 1000 g water, 1640 g flour, and 1.5 Tbsp oil. I dump the sticky dough in bowls for its first all-day rise. I’ll add salt later. I frost the cookies and let the kids help with sprinkles. At least, I let them put sprinkles on one cookie each that they get to decorate and eat. I am protective of food I’m giving away. Everyone knows kids continuously lick their fingers and pick their noses, plus they probably have cat hair all over their sleeves.
     It’s already eleven and I quickly shower and take the kids to the library. Except the library is closed, so we stop at the park for five minutes, only because Will really wants to play and the snow-dusted hills of the park look inviting. Since we are dressed for the library, not for 37 degrees, I tell the kids I’m staying in the car while they play (where I can see most of the park anyway). I ask Will to keep an eye on his sister. After a minute, Kate joins me in the car. Will comes back after the allotted five minutes, crying and upset, demanding to know of Kate why she didn’t tell him she had come back. I feel sudden tenderness at his unexpected display of care for his sister, of vulnerability. I tell him I completely understand why he’s upset, it’s really scary when someone disappears like that, I’ve felt that before when—“No, it’s because I had to look for her instead of playing, and now my time is gone!” he interrupts with an angry sob, scrubbing his face with the neck of his T-shirt. “Oh,” I say. We drive home.
     In the afternoon I drift between arranging plates of cookies, baking Day 3’s loaves, picking things up off the floor, dealing with dishes, folding laundry, a power nap. Saturdays have become predictably strange, off-schedule. I avoid overscheduling them as a nod toward weekend relaxation, but there’s always plenty that needs doing. My husband has been burdened with various household projects every Saturday since we bought this house, and I try to let him work uninterrupted by taking the kids places. At the end of the day I usually end up feeling unsatisfied, not having met either goal of family time/relaxation or accomplishment/productivity.
As I pull hot bread from the oven, admiring the crackling, browned surface and breathing in that smell of ultimate comfort, a memory leaps for attention. I was fourteenish, it was early summer, the sky finally settling into darkness for the night, when Dad, walking out of the kitchen from the living room, suddenly threw up, spattering the light brown carpet with red. I had made strawberry shortcake for dessert that night, and he loved it, and ate a lot, and in that moment when he threw up, I felt intense guilt and rejection. He was chronically ill, and vomiting likely had nothing to do with strawberry shortcake, but this logic even now doesn’t change the confusion of emotions, a lumpy batter of rejection, regret, and shame. This isn’t the first time the memory has resurrected—I imagine it’s stronger each time it fights its way to the front of my mind, securing its position to never be forgotten, the same way that it’s harder for me to get rid of objects each time they survive a cleaning purge, just for the merit that they’ve survived so many previous purges. It’s hard work dissecting this memory, and I resist it, wanting to neatly tie it up so I can stop—something like, and then I also felt joy, because I finally felt something about my dad! The end! But I know there’s something more here. Is the shame I feel pity and embarrassment for his condition? Certainly, but there is something personal in this memory, something that ties those vibrant red splatters to me and the strawberry shortcake I baked for him. That he ate two helpings of, but couldn’t keep, and it all sprayed back at my feet. I physically pause in the kitchen, staring at my bread on the cooling racks as if they are crystal balls that will decode my feelings for me when Will careens into the kitchen, bored and looking for something to do.
I send him to deliver most of the plates to the neighbors since he’s eager and I don’t actually like the handing off part much. I feel awkward in face-to-face emotional situations, even one as straightforward as a “here ya go, Merry Christmas” and some surprised gratitude from the recipient. That means I feel awkward a good deal of the time. After Will returns from his deliveries, two neighbor boys knock on our door and ask if he can come out and play, and I feel a gush of parental happiness—he has friends! He has always been social enough, but bounces between groups of people, never consistently playing with the same kids; quite different from both my own and my husband’s history of small, tight-knit friendships—always a best friend. As Will runs out to play I hunt down my husband, currently fastening shelves to the wall, and relay the exciting news. He’s as happy about it as I am.
     We have plans tonight with my in-laws in Salt Lake City, dinner and walking around Temple Square to look at the lights. Stress prevails as we hunt down enough warm layers for the kids, pack them sandwiches in case they won’t eat Chinese, navigate the tense stop-and-go traffic in the hour drive downtown. We are late, and food is eaten quickly and unremarkably, and Temple Square is so crowded that I fix my eyes on family members’ backs, trying not to lose anyone, with only occasional glances at the beautiful light displays. Humans are packed so tightly in shuffling lanes that the Velcro on Will’s coat nabs a girl’s pink and white owl hat. Fortunately, the hat’s owner follows us and catches up when we finally pull out of the crowd for a moment to figure out where the hat came from. I love spending time with my in-laws, but I’m thoroughly relieved when it’s time to go. I feel bad about this, as I know it was my mother-in-law’s intention to make a nice Christmas memory where we could enjoy each other’s company and feel the joy of Christ’s birth—but I’ve never felt anything but stress in crowded, contrived settings. One exception—Kate wasn’t bothered by cold or crowds, but was enthralled by the lights. She exclaimed over each new display, her little upturned face glowing with reflected color. Witnessing her joy cracked through my anxiety, and made the night less of something taxing to be endured.
     We don’t get home until half past nine, quite late for our kids, and rush them to bed. I feel that deep bodily exhaustion that makes it easy to fall asleep, a really pleasant feeling if you’re able to turn in for the night, curling into comfort beneath the covers. However, I remember that I haven’t started my Day 1 sourdough, and have to pull myself to the kitchen to mix my starter (70 g) with flour (150 g) and water (150 g) to make the leaven, and after that I’m feeling awake so I put away laundry and talk with my husband before turning out lights by 11.
     My thoughts turn to toffee as I relax toward sleep, though I’m not really aware I’m trying to problem-solve until I’ve rejected several ideas and arrived at the next thing I will try—add water to the recipe. I think it will work, and I’m impressed by this tiny, cheerful thought’s ability to eclipse prior toffee-related despair, swallowing the memory of grief.
Amy Roper has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Brigham Young University.


On December 21, I drive north from Athens, Ohio to Kirtland, Ohio, a trip which would have taken three hours and thirty minutes if I had driven straight through. But I stop a lot.
     I had intended to leave at 8 am, but I wake up at 8:34 with a jolt of late-for-my-nine-am-class panic before I remember that today is Saturday, it is winter break, and I do not need to be anyplace at a particular time. I don’t remember doing it, but I must have reached out from under my comforter and slapped off my 6:30 am alarm in my sleep. I peel back the covers and get out of bed. I put on socks and then I make a cup of green tea and answer a couple emails. At 9:03, I change into jeans and a flannel shirt and haul my suitcase and a box of Christmas gifts out to my car. I fling my tea bag over the fence into the backyard compost pile and empty my recycling basket into the blue bin beside the garage. Since I won’t be home again for two and a half weeks, I unplug the lamps, the tea kettle, the toaster and the microwave. I water my hoard of plants and move the ones that live on top of my bookshelf to my desk, the brightest spot in my apartment. As I lock the door, I notice that I probably should have vacuumed. Before I get in my car, I glance between the wheels to make sure none of the stray cats my landlady feeds have crawled underneath in search of a warm spot to nap. No cats to shoo away today. My plan is to drive to my aunt’s house, where my whole family is gathering for the holidays, and on the way, stop to visit a friend who happens to live nearby. I type the address into Google Maps on my phone and back out of the driveway.
     On my way out of Athens, I stop at Kroger, where I buy peanut butter cups, my grandmother’s favorite. She is 90 years old and sometimes forgets that she loves peanut butter cups, so whenever I bring her a bag, she takes a bite and grins like she’s tasting a peanut butter cup for the first time. I also buy a stuffed llama squeaky toy, even though I know my friend’s dog, a boisterous pit bull/Lab/Great Dane mix, will shred it. All of the “heavy duty” chew toys on the shelf seem too small, like they might pose a choking hazard for a big dog with a big mouth. The llama is cute, with curly brown fur, pink polka dot cheeks and a blissed-out cartoon smile.
     As I prop my reusable canvas bag between the prongs in the self-checkout booth, I think about all the packaging on the individually-wrapped peanut butter cups, which reminds me how only about 8% of items placed in recycling bins actually end up being recycled and the incalculable damage plastics are doing to marine life and how I am making an environmentally irrational choice to buy a flimsy llama because I haven’t seen my friend’s dog since they moved in August and I really hope the dog remembers me. My composition students last semester informed me that this spiraling hopelessness in the face of our global climate apocalypse is called environmental depression. They diagnosed me with a very bad case.
     I set the llama in the passenger seat of my car. I also feel a little bit bad that I am bringing an object with such a sweet embroidered-on smile to a horrible slobbery fate. While I am at Kroger, I fill up my car’s gas tank and record the date and mileage in the maroon notebook I keep in my glove compartment. It is 10:07 by the time I accelerate up the ramp and merge onto the highway.
     Guilt about my environmental impact notwithstanding, I really like driving alone. I like traveling at my own pace and getting to pick the music. I like stopping to get coffee when I want coffee and not stopping when I don’t need to stop. The sky is bright and clear, the hills in Southeastern Ohio are dappled shades of rutabaga, ginger and toasted almond, and I’m singing along to a playlist of music Spotify has predicted I will love, populated by Liz Phair, Brandi Carlisle, Pete Seeger, ABBA, and The Cranberries. The playlist includes some jarring transitions, but overall, remains enjoyable.
     I realize that this drive is the last time I will be alone for two and a half weeks. I live by myself, which means I spend a lot of time alone and mostly get to arrange my time to suit my own preferences. Staying with my family for Christmas and New Year’s is wonderful for lots of reasons: kitchen dance parties with my brothers, hiking or cross country skiing if there’s snow, board games, having someone to talk to in the morning over coffee. Even so, when I come home, more often than I’d like to admit, I catch myself rolling my eyes, reverting to the sulky, impatient teenage version of myself who bristles at small impositions: arriving late to everything, running out of hot water after two minutes in the shower, eating food I don’t like just to be polite, being interrupted whenever I try to sneak away from the hubbub to write. As I relish driving alone, I worry that I have fallen out of practice at living with other people.
     I pull into a rest area in West Virginia. I think it is a little bit strange that the fastest route between two towns in the same state involves driving through a small piece of a different state. I eat some trail mix. It seems particularly poetic to be in the liminal state of travel on the shortest day and longest night of the year. I make a note of this (upon further reflection, rather cheesy) thought on my phone so that I will remember to include it in my essay.
     The farther north I drive, the more snow clings to the hills beside the highway. At 12:16, my friend calls to give me the kind of directions for finding her house that Google Maps cannot provide. Her driveway is so long and thickly wooded that I will not be able to see the house from the road. The mailbox will be decorated with a pine bough and when I reach the curve halfway down the driveway, I will know I am approaching the right house if I can see an orange tractor.
     Where there is about three inches of snow, I turn off the highway to visit my friend Leah and her dog. As I meander down her driveway, I find the mailbox and the orange tractor exactly as she described.
     Snow crunches beneath my shoes as I step out of my car. Leah waves and Lori the dog bursts out of her kennel, snatches the llama out of my hand and races around in circles, whapping me with her heavy tail. The seam along the llama’s back rips and a white puff of stuffing emerges. (Rest in peace, llama.) Last summer, I walked Lori a few times a week, in the middle of the day while Leah was at work. My lease doesn’t allow me have a dog. For a time, Lori was the next best thing.
     Leah and I go for a walk in the woods behind her house. Lori bounds ahead, stopping every so often to look back at us. The trail takes us down into a gorge. A half-frozen stream gurgles over layers of rock shelves. At the bottom, we startle a doe that has been carefully picking her way between fallen branches. She bolts up the steep slope, and Lori charges after, both animals scrambling up to the edge and disappearing over the rim into a stand of hemlock trees. Lori’s fur is almost the same color as the deer’s fur. Two tan blurs. Leah whistles to call her back. A few minutes later, Lori barrels back down through the hemlocks, pink tongue waving, tail held high. She leans against my leg while I scratch her shoulders.
     At 4:39, I hug Leah goodbye and begin the final leg of my road trip. I decide to stick to the back roads, winding my way through a gray patchwork of thin, bare trees. I arrive at my aunt’s house at 4:56. It’s getting dark. As I turn into the driveway, the outdoor Christmas lights—a string of rainbow bulbs draped from the gutters, a pair of twinkly reindeer and a tubby plastic Santa—flick on. My parents’ minivan is already parked outside the garage. In the living room window, I see a blur of white, my grandmother’s hair. She is sitting in her chair, watching for me.

Anna Chotlos is a MA candidate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. Her writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Atticus Review, and Sonora Review Online. She lives in Athens, Ohio with 19 houseplants.


I was in my living room with an undecorated Christmas tree, a record player, and my 1947 Batmobile typewriter, waiting for midnight. I was listening to J Dilla’s “Donuts” and had been home from work for about an hour.

My goal was to captain’s log December 21, which I did.

I began with the weather and the music I was listening to, moved on with some broad thoughts about how my focus on attention itself was paralyzing me, and quickly fell into a game of peek-a-boo with the imagined reader in which I was constantly going on smoke break only to come back and begin the next entry with something about not having smoked yet. Then, I would realize that I hadn’t smoked and have to sign out from the log immediately again to finally go on smoke break. It was hilarious at the time but is garbage to read now even for me.

The best part from the early goings of the log was a reminder to think of “What Happened” as a kind of portraiture. As in, regardless of how I formatted it, what my circumstances were, or what I ended up thinking about, a portrait of me would emerge, and in the wee hours of December 21, 2019, one did: a tired, scatter-brained, chain-smoking jokester lamenting his undecorated Xmas tree, staying up late and trying to write.

I woke up in the afternoon and engaged in some serious futzing: aimlessly walking around, dawdling, texts, cigarettes, the audiobook for Infinite Jest (my comfort TV), laundry, thoughts about how I fuss over my laundry in the exact manner that I used to make fun of my father for fussing over his, and the thought that I would soon be going to work.

There was a brief entry in my captain’s log about how, I, to the best of my recall, have never foisted a copy of Infinite Jest on anyone other than my friend who had been recently released from lockup and who was in a state of do-or-die recovery from chemical dependence, who was largely encouraged to stay home, and who had large swaths of free and sober time on his hands.

I don’t think he read it because he went back to prison but is out again and is super into Jesus and doing quite well.

I did kind of foist a copy of Consider the Lobster on Nicole, but she does have a reading group and I think they were looking for widely available popular non fiction at the time.

I’m a server and a bartender at a restaurant in downtown Tucson. A couple of my colleagues wear pedometers at work. Emily told me she walks 5 miles on a busy night. Lynn worked a double recently and told me she’d walked 10. It’s a mentally jogging job as well. There is no time to write everything down, you just have to remember things for a couple of minutes and then forget them in order to make room for new things to remember. I’ve been making taxable restaurant income since I was 15. I’ve been wondering a lot lately about what being in this mindset for so much of my life has cost me, and about possible gains.

I don’t think I need to go over the whole shift, but here is what table 10 looked like:

Back in my living room, the best part about the end of the official time-stamp day was that around 11:50pm I realized I had a 10 minutes to pick an exit song from my stack of records. I initially thought that I’d pick one deliberately, but quickly realized that I should randomize the selection, which I did.

I decided to close my eyes and choose a record from the largest and least familiar stack of records. As I was flipping (no peeking!), I came across a record whose shrink wrap was tight and taut and I paused on it long enough that I felt like I had to pick it. My records are all facing out so I flipped the record and dropped my finger towards its lower left-hand side. The track my finger was closest to was “Dancing with the Big Boys” by David Bowie from his 1984 album Tonight.

The really funny thing that happened though was that in my rush to put the song on before midnight, I ended up accidentally playing the record’s A side rather than its B, and so my actual real-time exit song ended up being “Tonight.”

There was probably about a month of my life where that album meant something important to me and so it seems clumsy not to have realized my mistake while I was making it. I haven’t listened to Tonight in years though, but I do remember thinking that it was odd that I hadn’t heard any mention of dancing with big boys.

What’s possibly even funnier is that I kind of, in the thrill of it all, missed the lyrics of the first verse, thought the song was a super happy song, and never realized that the song’s singer is presiding over the death of someone very special to them.

My biggest fear about randomizing the selection of my exit song had been that I would pick out some doomy tarot card of a track and in a way this fear was realized, although I was too distracted with time and attention to notice.

Denry Willson lives in Tucson, Arizona and has written for Territory, March Xness, Essay Daily, and Goodnight, Sweet Prince. Here is his typewriter and captain’s log of December 21, 2019.

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

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