by Melissa Louise Kuhn
two islands trying
waves pound waves push
plates below slide
are they smashing us up
or just wearing our edges
wearing us down
salt water eating
waves echo out
feel it in
mixed with mine
it pulls us apart
you’ll be all
across these shores
treasure every scrape
filled with you
filled with what
what you left
it pulls us apart
i’ll send fish
from my coast
to tell yours
ships will travel
and bring you news
of every other
want to be one
still its own
but bridges built
at our sides
not a choice
not a choice but
i’d make it
if it were one
my second shore
Melissa Louise Kuhn is a recent MFA graduate from California College of the Arts. She makes monsters.
photo by NASA Goddard
by Gloria Frym
She wasn’t his type at all. Heavy set, spiky hair, black lace-up boots with thick high soles, and dark purple lipstick that made her mouth overtake a plain, small face which didn’t seem to fit her frame.
“These are delicious,” she said, as they stood, unintroduced, at the buffet table, sampling fresh strawberry waffles their host had just stacked on a platter.
“Oh,” he said, “you’re using your hands. I was wondering how to negotiate a fork and knife like this.”
“They fall into the same Miss Manners category as fried chicken,” she said. “You don’t need silverware.”
He bit into the waffle, melted butter sliding into his beard.
“Mmmm….you’re right. But I’m making a mess.”
“No problem. Faces wash,” she said.
He barely cared. She was no one he planned to impress, and there was no one else to talk to at this brunch. A client he’d worked on for years had cajoled him into coming. Normally, he didn’t socialize with clients. Breach of professional ethics, he thought. In fact, he wasn’t socializing much with anyone for the last few months, having slipped into his annual commemorative depression just after his birthday.
Every year, something to count on.
For days he’d been anxious about the party, being around new people, sleepless and tormented by his inability, at age fifty-eight, to earn a decent living.
His body and his bodywork were simultaneously slipping out of middle age and perilously edging towards the poverty level. Fatigue from a bad heart–for which some friggin’ allopathic surgeon advised surgery, and thank you very much, herbs and diet would do– had recently caused him to cut back on massaging men whose large bodies and inevitably closed chakras forced him to work too hard. He was often so exhausted after a session he couldn’t walk around the block without panting.
And the large canvases he had painstakingly stretched three years ago sat blank against the dingy walls of his little house in the flats. Here he was in the hills–fabulous view of the bay from the deck, hot tub, blue tiled walls and an oak island in the middle of the kitchen, French doors flung open onto a flower garden with a fountain bubbling in the center–the California equivalent of some damn Moorish palace.
What was his life for if he couldn’t paint? And why had he dropped out so long ago to heal others if he couldn’t heal himself?
These thirty years of using his hands in the service of other people’s bodies, bodies that held such fears that their muscles froze. A life of essential oils, jumbo heating pads, hot lamps, catalogs filled with massage tables, blankets, energy juices, high potency vitamins yielded nothing more than a battered sedan parked next to an overgrown lawn and vegetable beds gone to seed. This year, he was too tired to even plant radishes.
“So what do you do?” she asked, helping herself to another waffle. Not one of those women afraid of carbohydrates, he thought. Her lipstick was smudged and fading, but he was too busy eating to notice the soft girlish expression now visible on her pale face.
“Body work. I’m a body worker,” he said with his mouth full. “I need to sit down. Really.”
She followed him into the living room, which was bare except for a large Persian rug and several folding chairs shoved up against the wall.
“What’s this?” she said. “Looks like they’re set up for a sock hop.”
“I need a table, something to lean on,” he said. He felt bewildered even holding a plate in his hands, as if he might drop it onto the expensive carpet and make a total fool of himself.
“Say, why don’t we just sit on the rug and have our own little picnic?” she said.
He consented, in spite of his back, which really needed a chair.
“Here,” she said, “I’ve got an extra napkin. You haven’t asked me what I do.”
“Why is it whenever you go to a party, the minute after you get a person’s name, it’s followed by a comma, and fill in the blank–what they do. Or what they are. I mean, it would be a lot better to just let it flow into the conversation.”
“We’re sort of past that age, don’t you think? I mean, don’t you want to know what a person does so you can assess whether you have any common ground?”
“I guess. But it seems like “networking” to me,” his fingers making quotes.
“Nothing wrong with that. It’s how the world works. You meet someone and you connect or you don’t connect. It’s nice to know where to begin.”
“I guess I’m more into vibes. Correction: intuition. Instincts, you know. So, what do you do?” he heard himself saying.
“I’m a consultant. For a high tech biomedical company. I tell them how to use their databases.”
“Sounds fascinating. You see, we have nothing in common. You might as well go back into the dining room and mingle among the other scrambled eggs.”
“But I love massages. I’m under a lot of stress and since I got back from India, I’ve really needed some body work.”
“Well, I don’t work that much,” he paused, not wanting to insult her. “I’ve had to cut back working on large people recently.”
“Would you like another waffle? I’m going to get more orange juice.”
He sat cross-legged in the middle of the empty room. Nothing on the walls but fresh paint. Where’s the couch? he wondered. A guy with this much money ought to have a couch. But maybe a new one was on order, maybe he’d had a couch and gotten rid of it, put it out on the street so that somebody like me could borrow a truck and take it home to live among the rest of the mismatched, flea market crap he’d collected all these years.
She returned with more waffles and stood towering in front of him like an Amazon in an R. Crumb comic. Now he noticed her all right, and stared at the ample breasts bulging out of her black Lycra top. She pulled a chair towards him and sat down on the floor across from him.
“Yeah, so as I was saying. What was I saying?”
“You were saying you were a corporate type under a lot of stress. You must have stock options and all the trimmings, huh? Condo somewhere south of Market?”
“How’d you guess?”
“It fits the profile. I read the newspapers sometimes.”
“Sure, I make a lot of money. I work hard for a few months and then take off traveling or backpacking. I’ve got a good life. I’m studying Sanskrit.”
“Planning on joining a cult?”
“Boy, you sure have a scissor tongue. I’m really not dangerous!”
He apologized and then shut up. He wished she would go away. He wanted to leave after he finished this waffle. She was certainly nice, probably more interesting than he was giving her credit for, but not his type. Too young, anyway. Probably listened to terrible music. Barely alive when Kennedy was assassinated. No idea of Vietnam. An idea of Vietnam was critical to any relationship he was going to strike up.
“Did you drop out in the 60s?” she suddenly asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I never dropped back in. I have nothing but contempt for multi-nationals like the one you work for.”
“I was in Seattle for the WTO protest.”
“What were you doing? Throwing rocks at the protesters?”
“No way! I was out there on the streets. See, we have some common ground.”
“I guess. But how can you work for a corporation?”
“There aren’t any other places to work. Anyway, there’s no Vietnam for us. Just perpetual war and we’re the soldiers and the civilians all rolled into one.”
He got up, exhausted by her perky analysis, envious of her energy.
“It was nice meeting you. I’ve got to go.”
“We just had a conversation about the most important issue facing the globe, and we don’t even know one another’s names.”
“Yeah, you see how faceless corporatism makes us.”
He drove home thinking about the woman whose name he didn’t bother to get. His thoughts were vague, but he kept seeing tits and platform boots and the inconsistency of a generation that could revile the very hand that fed it. She was probably a feminist too, with a good rap on S & M or the dignity of sex workers or Playboy bunnies or Hilary Clinton. He might be bummed out, but he didn’t hurt anyone and he tried to keep his principles. Oh he knew the world had changed. He just didn’t feel like changing to accommodate it. He didn’t even own a computer.
He was surprised when she called a few weeks later.
“Harris, this is Jen, Jennifer Oliver. We met at that brunch at Philip’s? Do you remember me?”
“Oh yeah, hi.” Figures she’d have a name like Jennifer, he thought. Her name didn’t even cross his mind. If he imagined she had a name it might be Natasha or god forbid, Tiffany.
“Listen, I’m really in pain, I mean, my neck is killing me. And my masseuse went off to Japan. I’d like to make an appointment to see you.”
He let the silence fill with street sounds coming from her end. Probably on a cell phone. She wouldn’t be the type to use a public phone.
“Can you hear me? I’m sorry, the connection isn’t too good. The battery in my cell is running low. We might be cut off.”
And they were. The dead, clickless nothing.
She phoned back.
“So I’m standing here with my butt practically grazed by traffic. Harris, I asked Philip for your name and number. I could come over to Berkeley tomorrow. Do you have any time?”
“You know,” he thought for a few seconds, the words just came out. “I guess I’d rather go for a walk with you than give you a massage. I just don’t want to mix the two.”
“I’d go for a walk with you! Really, you really want to go for a walk with me?”
“Sure. I generally don’t like to work both ends of the candle, you know. But if you’re really in pain, I’ll give you a massage as a present, as a friend.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I really couldn’t have a massage without paying for it. I mean, you’re a professional. It’s not fair.”
“Well, can you come over around 2?” Again, the words just tumbled out with no ostensible premeditation, surprising him.
He gave her directions and they hung up.
She drove them up to Tilden Park in her Miata, not commenting on his house, his car parked in a driveway overgrown by crabgrass. They parked at Inspiration Point and walked for an hour, not noticing the time. They reached the cattle guard where the pavement turns to dirt trail, and kept walking into the greeny hills. When dusk fell, they walked back in the gray mist, debated over Japanese or Thai food, went for the latter. They talked until the lights of the restaurant dimmed and the impatient waiter stood by the table with the bill on a tray. Harris excused himself to go to the bathroom; she paid the check with an American Express card. When he returned, he put a $20 bill on the table. She put it in her wallet.
“I still need that massage,” she said.
“Oh, I forgot.”
“Sure, but some other time. It’s late. Okay?”
“Okay. But no charge.”
“No, I couldn’t do that.”
He slept badly, his mind filled with voices, images of her pert, jelled hair, her dark jean jacket and clean Nikes mixed with his own baggy drawstring pants and scuffed hiking boots and stringy, gray curls. It had been a wonderful, early spring day, the air filled with the fragrance of cut alfalfa and pine needles. They talked about her love of India, her spiritual guru, a peasant cooperative she had visited near New Delhi where the women made quilts for foreign export and revived the failing economy of their village.
He hoped she never called again.
She called, and he was drawn into seeing her a few nights a week. In between, she would take off for days on small trips, and weeks on longer ones, always sending him funny postcards. They hadn’t even kissed yet, but their conversations were rich, and he laughed with her. He drove to her condo in the city a couple of times where they watched movies and drank martinis. She picked up some take-out sushi after work; he brought tofu burgers. They popped popcorn and had Milk Duds for dessert. He continued to limp along with his work, limiting his sessions to small women. His energy was flagging badly.
Something would have to be done about his heart, the doctor advised. He couldn’t just let it wear down. He really needed an operation. He really needed that valve replacement. Did he think he’d live forever? It was a tried and true procedure. Back to work in a couple of months. But he didn’t have a couple of months. Where would he get the income he was scratching out if he couldn’t work for two months? He had no savings. Couldn’t he borrow some money on his credit card? He had no credit card. The little house was all he had. You could take out a home equity loan, the doctor said, you could use it to live on.
“Now I want that massage, Harris,” she said one afternoon rubbing her neck. She sat on the Mexican blanket that covered his couch, picking off cat hairs. “It’s all locked up. You promised!”
He escorted her, as he would any client, into his massage room and instructed her to take off her clothes. She could keep her panties on if she wanted to. He’d be back in a few moments.
She slipped onto the table underneath the blanket and lay on her stomach with her face in the donut pillow, as he had told her to do. He knocked and entered.
“I’m going to use some aromatherapy. So first you’ll feel the oil.”
“Mmm…it smells great. What is it?”
“Essence of Joy. I order it specially.”
He carefully folded the blanket down to her waist, and rubbed the oil over her broad shoulders, along her spine, up her neck. Her body flattened seemed even larger on the table than it did when she was sitting, but now it was just a body in pain to him, not a body he judged by its girth. His hands went deep into her muscles, pressing on the pressure points and releasing. She moaned.
“I hope I’m not pressing too hard,” he said.
“Oh no, it’s perfect, it’s a good feeling.”
He worked silently, pulling each finger out with a pop, each hand, each arm. He asked her to turn over. Her breasts spread wide. He dimmed the lights so he wouldn’t see but feel. It was his business to feel the knots buried in her muscles. He was an expert at feeling a body’s pain. He could almost tell what was held in its tightness, though the specifics were irrelevant to him.
He applied an oversized heating pad to parts of her body to loosen her up. Then he kneaded the knotted spots, he pressed the flesh of her lower back, he moved to her gluteals. If he thought of her as Jennifer, they would be her ass, but he didn’t think of her with a name, only a body, a being with a body in spasm.
After an hour he slowed down. Her eyes closed, she could feel his fingers moving over her face. They pressed in on the center of her forehead, and pulled the skin towards her ears to release the tension between her eyes. He stopped and picked up a small bell and mallet and gonged the bell lightly three times.
“Whenever you’re ready, get dressed. No hurry. Relax and breathe. Get up slowly. Do you want some water? I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
They argued slightly about payment. He didn’t want money from her. He told her to leave, he had a client coming soon. She wrote out a check and slipped it under the phone, hugged him and said she’d call.
His appetite was bad. He could feel his anxiety deepening and perhaps it would never leave him. Perhaps she was the sort of woman who liked depressed men so she could boss them around. Why did she keep calling? Of course he knew. They had fun together. Or as much fun as he could muster. But they were so different. She liked money. She liked expensive things. She had stock in Microsoft!
“I’ve been laid off,” she announced right after he answered the phone. No greeting, just that.
“Jen? You? What do you mean? You’re not even an employee.”
“It’s all the same. The company’s going bust. Just like the dot coms.”
“But they hire you as a consultant, don’t they?”
“They’re dissolving. They’re caput. No need for consultants. They’re already in Chapter 13.”
“I’m sorry. I mean, I’m sorry for you. It’s your livelihood.”
“Yeah, I guess I’ll just have to sell my wares elsewhere. I’m okay, I’m not broke. Yet.”
“What about the mortgage?”
“Yeah, a little detail. But I’ll worry about it later. They owe me a good chunk and I think they’ll pay. I can unload the car, and I’ll be fine for a while. And you know, I think I’ll go to India for a month. I’d really like to see my guru again. Now is the right time.”
“A little spendthrift, don’t you think. I mean, shouldn’t you be economizing?”
“Easy come, easy go. But meantime, why not come over? Late dinner and video? Then the traffic won’t be bad. Or I’ll come to you. I’ll rent the video, you scrounge up food.”
He bought some organic pesto and fresh fettuccini. They fixed a salad together in his tiny kitchen, and sat down with a bottle of wine on the couch. He got up to put on some music.
“Opera okay with you? I mean, you’re not going to plug your ears if you have to listen to Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti, are you?”
“No, I don’t usually listen to opera. But I know they’re the tops.”
“Oh, this one, this is a rare recording of them doing Bellini’s I Puritani at the height of their powers. His voice, especially in the early 70s, no tenor can match. There is absolutely no one like him. You’ll see.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have any one else to compare him to. My personal repertoire is limited to Andrea Bocelli for a half hour on KQED.”
“He’s a fraud. He’s a blind, simpering gusher. He’s no good! Only old ladies like him. Bel Canto is not supposed to be sentimental, it’s supposed to be beautiful. It’s the poetry of music. It’s supposed to move you to tears.”
“He moved me to tears, but I don’t know why.”
“Well, just listen to this.”
They ate but did not weep. Somehow what was a private pleasure for Harris didn’t translate in another person’s presence. He noted this, kept it with their other differences on a list in his head. He didn’t feel like talking about it when the aria was over.
“Hey, I brought a movie,” she reached into her purse. “The Three Faces of Eve.” An old Joanne Woodward film. I just love her. She doesn’t look like she should be married to someone as handsome as Paul Newman, but there you have it. They’ve been together for ages. You wanna watch it?”
“I guess,” he said, feeling withdrawn and lonely in her presence.
In the movie, Joanne Woodward is young and thin and beautiful. She plays a soft- spoken, working class wife and mother who suddenly begins to have amnesiac spells where she goes out and buys expensive clothes. The clothes are delivered in boxes by the department stores. Her husband is shocked. When did you buy this? he interrogates her. We can’t afford it! She says she thinks he’d like looking at her in these lovely clothes. She suddenly terrorizes her daughter. But she never remembers slipping into this other persona. Her husband takes her to a psychiatrist, and he makes the diagnosis: multiple personalities. At first, the character Eve has only two personalities–one passive and meek, the other licentious and sassy. Her husband is an ignorant man. He leaves her because he thinks she’s faking it. Then as her therapy continues, a third personality emerges–a perfectly ordinary, balanced woman who finds a man who loves her. She confesses to him that she’s ill. He wants to marry her anyway.
Harris began to doze just before Eve’s third personality emerged. He wanted to turn off the VCR, and he wanted to go to bed. He hit the Pause button.
“You can just stick around and finish the movie, if you want. I’m beat.”
“Oh Harris, it’s just getting good. Don’t you want to see how it turns out? She’s even got names for her different alters.”
He kept watching, compelled, not by Jen, but the movie. I am a different person, he thought, when I am depressed. Here I am sitting next to a woman I’m not sleeping with. Why am I not sleeping with her? Even my voice seems different to me.
Harris felt himself becoming acutely uncomfortable. It wasn’t Jen’s presence or the fact that he would rather be listening to I Puritani. He watched as Eve’s third personality struggled to recall her childhood, a specific event that somehow triggered her illness. When she remembered it, she was cured. Simplistic Hollywood resolution of a serious pathology! He grabbed the wand and pressed the Off button.
“Harris, are you okay?”
“Am I okay? You’re the one who was laid off today. How can you be so cheerful all the time?”
“Harris, that’s like asking me, How can your eyes be blue? It’s easy for me to be cheerful. I am cheerful. I’m an optimist.”
“Well, I’m not. The world is shit.”
“Harris, you know what I think? I think you’re depressed. I’ve been watching you for three months. You don’t sleep, you barely eat, you’re the most negative person I’ve ever met.”
“So glad you noticed. Now you have an excuse to stop calling.”
“And you don’t want to sleep with me. I can understand that. I know I’m fat. But we’re crazy about one another, aren’t we?”
“Are we? Maybe I’m gay. . . .”
“You’re not gay, stop joking. You’re miserable. Have you ever tried to get help?”
“You think this is the first time I’ve been depressed! You can’t imagine. I’ve been struggling half my life.”
“What a waste. You could get help. There’s therapy. There are pharmaceuticals. ”
“That’s exactly what I don’t want to buy into. Pop a pill, forget about the world.”
“This is ridiculous. You haven’t even tried!”
“They take your sex drive away. Why would I want to take a drug that killed my sex drive?”
“Doesn’t seem to me you have any.”
“How would you know? What do you know? You really ought to go. Just leave. Okay?”
She took out the DVD and glared at him for the first time.
“Okay. I didn’t plan for that movie to make you feel bad. I didn’t even know exactly what it was about. Don’t think I set you up. But you know, I’ve blown your cover. You can’t deny it anymore. You can stop seeing me, but you’ll still be depressed.”
She slammed the front door; the living room shook with aftershock.
He always recovered from these spells. It was anxiety. Seventy percent, at least, he reasoned. Nerves. Nervous prostration. Nervous breakdown. He never broke down. He limped along, hiding. And only the body, bodywork healed him. Only through the body, through other people’s bodies could he lose his pain. But this time it wasn’t working. He was waking in the middle of the night breathless. And not going back to sleep.
Why was this time different? Why did the weight of it hold him in his heart? In his real and metaphorical heart. His weak heart murmuring along like a little old engine all worn out. Can I? I think I can’t, he chugged. I think I can’t. Therefore, I think I can’t. A charming tautology, he thought. If I thought I could, then I could. I might.
He dozed off dreaming that Jen looked liked his ex-wife, with a waist he could put his hands around, his fingers touching. Her young beauty deepening, without his noticing, into middle age. Her still active desire, his inability or his anxiety ridden prematureness. Her leaving him. Taking up with a young martial arts master.
They owned nothing in common but the house. She gave it to him, pitying him in the end. The worst emotion, he thought, the worst. To pity another human being who had been inside you for years.
For days after, he worked badly.
“Harris, hey, man. How you doing?” yelled a neighbor who practiced Tai Chi on his lawn every morning.
“I don’t know.”
“Not really. Been better. A bit, ah, down,” he retorted.
He got the name of a shrink from one of his clients who was always mixing and matching remedies. He paid enough to Kaiser, they ought to do something for him besides want to cut out his organs.
He took the pills and swallowed the talk. Too much talk. Too much childhood, all over again. A grown man going backwards when what he wanted was to move on.
He talked about his wife, and then Jen. Any fool could see what she’d done. He already knew. Had he thrown it away?
Not much happened. She let him alone, and after a couple of weeks, he missed her enough to call. They got together, they talked and laughed as much as before, and one night, she slept over. The big buildup turned out fine. Better than fine. She was all over him. And he was all over her. Her big body. All over his body, her hands touching him. His strong hands sliding along her ankles, moving upwards. She held him so tightly, he was afraid again.
She was going off to India, as planned. She’d see him in a month. Maybe he’d feel better by then. She wished he’d get email. But she’d write.
“–ris,” she said, calling him from the airport. The static on her cell cut off part of his name.
“Hi. Oh, I thought your plane took off already.”
“It’s –ayed. They’re –ust boarding. I –alled to –ay I –ove –ou.”
“What? I can’t hear you very well.”
“I called to say I love you,” she spit out fast. She adjusted the antenna.
“Those are fighting words.”
“Ok, so let’s have our first fight. It’s not real until you can fight.”
“You’re picking a great time, you want to get on a plane after a fight? That’s bad karma, I think. You’ll regret it at 35,000 feet above the Pacific.”
“Ok. I un-love you. Can you hear me? I un-love you.”
“So,” he paused. “So, see you. Be well.”
Some more of not much continued. Except that in the mornings, after a while, he started to wake up without dread. Without that particular screw-driving pain. Is happiness the absence of pain? That’s what one of his clients said.
His 11 o’clock arrived a little early. She rang the bell in the service porch, and he opened the door with the same grimace that was etched around his lips and mouth.
“You look different,” she said. “Different from when I was last here. I mean, like a totally new man. Did you cut your hair or something?”
“Me? Nah. I’m just the same. Of course our cells change completely every few years. But you, hey you look miserable. What’s going on with you? Lower back again? Come on in,” he escorted her to the massage room. “I’ll be right back.”
Gloria Frym is a poet and fiction writer. Her most recent book is Mind Over Matter (BlazeVOX books, 2011) and prior to that she published the chapbook Any Time Soon (Little Red Leaves, 2010). Other works by Frym include The Lost Poems of Sappho (Effing Press, 2007) and Solution Simulacra (United Artists Books, 2006). A previous book of poems, Homeless at Home, won an American Book Award. She is the author of several other volumes of poetry and two critically acclaimed short story collections: Distance No Object (City Lights Books) and How I Learned (Coffee House Press).
photo by Victor1558
by Susan Scarlata
Our gross domestic pipelines.
The gross domestic space.
The gross domestic tree planted in memory.
The gross domesticity of plants. Their continuity.
Gross domestic doppelgangers.
Gross domestic candle-lit ends of things.
Gross domestic wax on the stove.
Gross domestic lists of edibles.
Gross domestic lists of lists.
Gross domestic allergic swellings.
Gross domestic houses.
Gross domestic houses within houses with tiny people living miniature lives.
Gross domestic attributes responsible for aprons.
Gross domestic alcohol on the sideboard.
Gross domestic shared vocabulary.
Gross domestic cuddling puppies.
Their gross domestic entropy.
The gross domestic coiling of phone cords.
Gross domestic hallelujahs.
Gross domestic pass-codes.
Gross domestic motion.
Gross domestic infestations.
Gross domestic gluten.
Gross domestic Fatwa.
Gross domestic exits.
Susan Scarlata is a writer, editor and professor who recently returned to the U.S. after working in Hong Kong for two years. She lives, works, and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
photo by CobraVerde
by Jenn Virškus
It isn’t too crowded on the bus this morning. I grab a seat under the window in between an aging woman and a young girl. The woman is picking her nose, really digging in there, working that rubbery cartilage like a sculptor works clay. I turn to the girl.
She looks young, can’t have been more than seven or eight. She sits quietly hugging her backpack, her tiny, wire-framed glasses sliding down her nose, long, curly pony-tail hanging over her shoulder. She wears a plaid skirt and blue blazer. Catholic school. Nice.
“You ride this bus every day alone?” She nods her head. “You know not to talk to strangers, right?” Another nod. I take out a stick of gum, offer her one. “Piece of gum?” A head shake, no. Good girl. “This your bus to school?” A nod. “How old are you?”
Ha ha. “You like school?” Head nod again. Okay. Questions that require answers. “What’s your favorite subject?”
“You guys doing algebra yet?”
She rolls her eyes. “I’m in fourth grade.” Snot.
Hmm. Fourth grade. What do they study? “Multiplication tables then?” A nod. “How high can you go? Ten times ten?”
“Uh, yea. I’m not in kindergarten. I can do up to twenty-five times twenty-five. Now we’re doing decimals.”
Well excuse me. I don’t have kids. Do I look like a guy who has kids? I’m wearing a blue hoody, a backwards baseball cap (to hide my receding hairline), and a cigarette behind my ear. I smoked a fat joint for breakfast and am now drinking a large cup of cheap coffee at 7:45 in the morning on the bus. She gets off at the next stop. Doesn’t even say good-bye. Brat. Kids these days. No manners.
I wish my mom had a car. Then I wouldn’t have to ride the bus to school every day. People always want to talk to me, I don’t know why. My mom says never to talk to strangers on the bus, but sometimes you have to, or people get weird. Aggressive. That’s worse. I try to sit in the corner, but today I have to sit under the window, in the seats reserved for seniors and the elderly. There are two seats open, one next to an old lady picking her nose, the other next to a fat man. He looks like Santa Claus. I sit next to him. At the next stop, a man in a blue hoody sits down next to me. He has a goatee; his clothes are clean enough, but he smells funny anyway. I think it’s marijuana—my mom told me what it smelled like one time so I would know. Know to stay away. I try.
This man is a talker. I hug my backpack, and stare straight in front of me.
“You ride this bus every day?”
Here we go. I wish I had headphones, then I could ignore him, but my mom says I have to have all my senses to protect myself. So I glance his way and just nod my head.
“You know not to talk to strangers, right?” Yeah buddy I do. So why do you keep talking to me? He offers me a piece of gum. “Piece of gum?” Are you kidding me? I shake my head no. “This your bus to school?” Duh. Why do you think I’m dressed like this? Britney Spears video? “How old are you?”
Ugh. Okay fine. “I’m nine.”
“You like school?” Will he ever stop? “What’s your favorite subject in school?” Nope.
He looks stupid. I try to sound smart. “Math.”
“You guys doing algebra yet?” How does this guy even know what algebra is?
“I’m in fourth grade.” Obviously.
“Multiplication tables then?” Yea. “How high can you go? Ten times ten?” I guess he’s not getting the smart vibe.
“Uh, yeah. I’m not in kindergarten. I can do up to twenty-five times twenty-five. Now we’re doing decimals.” Jerk.
Before he can ask any more questions, we get to my stop. I get off the bus as fast as I can, and walk straight into school. I put my backpack in my cubby and take my place in the second row. I hope my mom gets a car soon.
Jenn Virškus is a multilingual adventurer, sailboat racer, ski instructor and freelance artist of Lithuanian descent. Visit her on the web.
photo by Alex Nowik
by Melissa Louise Kuhn
want hair to fill
want to be
cupped in bubbles
want to sit
at the bottom
open my eyes
want to see
to the world
want to be
slick and softened
of all this land
Melissa Louise Kuhn is a recent MFA graduate from California College of the Arts. She makes monsters.
photo by A. Sparrow