Easier

When we were together, I sometimes imagined that she had died.  Maybe a long, painful illness. I’d be sitting up all night, soaking in her fear, rebuffing hospital staff when they tried to banish me at visiting hour’s last tick. 

     I would be the grieving widow, barer of tragedy, but would hold myself together for the sake of the girls. And in that groggy scenario, it was far easier than it actually has been, given that she merely divorced me, and lives just across town.

About the author: Rich Furman, PhD, is the author or editor of over 15 books, including a collection of flash nonfiction/prose poems, Compañero (Main Street Rag, 2007). Other books include Detaining the Immigrant Other: Global and Transnational Issues (Oxford University Press, 2016), Social Work Practice with Men at Risk (Columbia University Press, 2010), and Practical Tips for Publishing Scholarly Articles (Oxford University Press, 2012). His poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in Another Chicago Magazine, Chiron Review, Sweet, Hawai’i Review, Pearl, Coe Review, The Evergreen Review, Black Bear Review, Red Rock Review, Sierra Nevada Review, New Hampshire Review, Penn Review, and many others. He is professor of social work at University of Washington Tacoma. He is currently a student of creative nonfiction at Queens University’s MFA-Latin America program.

Diary of a Sixty-Year-Old Married Man—Part III

“A hundred and eighty-eight,” I read the blue LED scale numerals. 

       Passing the mirror toward the steaming shower, I smiled, admiring my shrinking belly and flanks. The short moment of joy vanished when I looked down and noticed my penis had shrunk too. 

       I try to eat away my emotions, but only indulge in health food. My favorites are stir-fry yam noodles, fried tofu, and fat-free Greek frozen yogurt. At least that stuff is supposed to be healthy. As it turns out, all my lite, lesser-caloried, vegetarian delicacies have rendered me pre-diabetic. When my bloodwork came back, Dr. Razinni sent me to a diabetes dietician, who put me on a new food regimen. 

       “Thirty grams of carbs per meal,” Dr. Woo mandated. That in itself felt like being on the end of another short stick. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she told me to keep a goddamn ruler in the kitchen. “Eat your meals off a nine-inch plate,” she said, “half non-starchy veggies.” She gave me a faded, mimeographed handout that read: “broccoli, cauliflower, green squash, yellow squash, carrots, onions; red, green, or yellow bell peppers; preferably steamed.”

       “The other half,” she instructed me, “is split equally between lean protein such as skinless, boneless white chicken and fish,” she said, “and whole grains.” She told me to refer to the items listed under the vegetables. 

       I looked back at the paper and read them to myself: “Brown rice, millet, quinoa, barley, couscous, buckwheat, cracked wheat, kamut, spelt, teff, farro, and bulgur.” 

       Yuck, and no pasta, I thought.

       My dad loved bulgur. I would have loved to take him to Canter’s before my new dietary development for breakfast. Order lox on a twice-toasted everything bagel with heavy cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes, and capers. Coffee with half-and-half, and a tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Dr. Woo says fruit juice, in terms of sugar content, is the dietary antichrist. Those weren’t her exact words, but you get the drift. While sipping that long, last cup of coffee, we could split a Danish, maybe some strudel or chocolate rugelach. Pops would have loved that, but he’s gone now. It’s been twelve years last May. I stopped going to his yahrzeit since my fallout with the canter and rabbi on Sukkot a few years back. My therapist suggested my short fuse was handed down by Dad. 

       Mom’s alcoholism fueled Dad’s rage. Flying chicken potpies were the dinnertime norm, metaphorically speaking, of course. We never ate chicken potpies, or anything from the frozen food section; Mom cooked everything from scratch, and if you forgot that, she’d miserably remind you.

       It wasn’t easy being the middle kid during those explosive meals, stuck between my two overeating siblings. Until my first semester at Hollywood High, my only escape was Hardy Boys books, firecrackers, basketball, and Boy Scouts. I loved blowing shit up, and almost made Eagle Scout, but around the third week of the tenth grade, I left the quad and found salvation in the bleachers. That’s where I learned the ways of self-medication. I started off easy with ten-dollar lids of commercial Mexican pot and malt liquor. I loved smoking joints and chugging forties of Colt 45 and Olde English 800.

       Sometime after Groundhog Day, I advanced to LSD, and the occasional barbiturate. 

       Soon thereafter, my sister Laura moved to Colorado, and whatever false semblance of a family life I thought I was included in vanished, leaving behind a willful, angry stoner dude, who unknowingly craved his father’s love. 

       I sought elsewhere what Dad couldn’t give me. But not without consequence. And on one hot summer night, in a house just off of Mulholland Highway, on a street named Macapa, I fell prey to the darker side of Hollywood. I wanted to say, “NO,” or maybe I didn’t, but either way, Cody wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

       By wintertime, angel dust and quaaludes became a staple. Thank God I didn’t get into speed, nor did I partake in any cocaine or heroin till well after graduation. 

       Dad died in 2006. 

       I was just south of turning twenty years sober. I devoted myself to him during those last several months of his life, taking him to doctor’s appointments and doing his house chores on Saturdays. Changing his diapers and washing his genitals, which I later realized completed an unspoken father-and-son circle-of-life ritual. 

       We never did make it to Canter’s. 

       Dad complained about the meters on Fairfax, and parking in a pay lot or using a valet may as well have been one of the Thou Shalt Not’s.

       On our last drive to St. Joseph’s Oncology Center, Dad told me he was curious what it would be like on the “other side.” 

       Two days later came the phone call from Jerry, the Meals on Wheels dude. “Your father had a fall,” he said. “I found him about an hour ago.” Jerry paused and I worried what words might come next. “The ambulance just left for the hospital. Sorry I didn’t call sooner; I just found his phone with your number. The paramedic thinks he may have broken his hip.” 

       Dad caught pneumonia during his hospital stay. I remember what I feared was one of his last days, sitting on the edge of his bed, stroking his thin, white, oily hair, watching him while he slept. His face was pale, gaunt, and covered in coarse, three-day gray stubble. His sleep appeared deep until his eyeballs began twitching beneath his closed lids. Then his face contorted as though he was having a bad dream. His milky morphine eyes opened, and he looked up at me and said, “You turned out all right, boy.” He reached for my hand and held it tight. His fingernails were in need of trimming, and his knuckles were cracked and dry. “I could sure go for one of those Wienerschnitzel dogs with onions.” He’d forgotten the nurses had him on soft foods only.

       I regret not making that hot dog run. Dad died the next day.


About the Author Jon Epstein: My work can be found in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, The Coachella Review, New Mexico Writers Project, Poeticdiversity, Foliate Oak, Forge Journal, Sanskrit, Pilcrow & Dagger, and Poetry Super Highway. I am a member of The Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective.

Decisive Moments

“Your first 100,000 photos are your worst.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson

New York—June 1961

       A farewell lunch in our back garden. The usual cold cuts and salad. I had been accepted as a set design assistant in the student program of the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. It was the fourth year of the festival. I was to fly to Rome that evening. Suddenly, mid-mouthful, my stepfather decided that I needed an instant introduction to the art of photography and a proper camera to record the adventure on which I was about to embark. He excused himself and raced upstairs. My aunt had had an old Leica, which was sleek and more compact than any camera I’d ever seen. I was hoping something like her Leica would be coming my way. 

       Hans returned carrying a worn leather case with a broken strap, out of which he extracted a large, black, metal box about 3.5"x3.5"x7" with two big apertures, one on top of the other on the front and a lot of cranks and dials on the sides.

       “This should do you fine.” And he passed it across the table to me. “It is the Contaflex TLR that I used to shoot in Iceland before I went to medical school.” 

       “Contaflex TLR?” 

       “Yep, it is a beautiful little machine, designed in the mid-thirties by Zeiss.”

       “That’s great, Hans,” I said, balking at its obvious age and weight and daunted by its complexity, “but I’ve never used anything other than a Brownie. I have no idea how to—”

       “This baby will do it all for you. It is the first camera ever to have a built-in light meter. And it’s a single lens reflex, meaning that when you look into the viewfinder from the top, that’s what you get. You’re seeing what the lens will see.” 

       “Single lens reflex?”

       “All you need to learn now is the relationship between shutter speed and f-stop.”

       “F-stop?”

       “The diameter of the opening of the lens. It will only take a minute.” When Hans decided something was going to happen, such as my carrying this monster box with me to Italy and learning to use it, it was going to happen. 

       In the hour-plus before we took off for the airport, I watched him work the dials and cranks: the one on the left rewound the film, the one on the right wound the shutter and set the shutter speed. I learned to open and close the viewfinder, to respond to the light meter indicator, and to focus by adjusting the lever around the viewing lens. I took careful notes on the relationship between shutter speeds and f-stops, and thereby acquired a superficial understanding of the workings of this extraordinary object. On the way out the door, Hans pressed into my hands some old rolls of black-and-white 35-mm film while my mother and I piled into the car. On the way to the airport, Hans delivered a short lecture on ASA ratings and film speeds, thus completing my crash course in photography.

       Eddie Williams and I met at the gate for our Alitalia flight to Rome. Eddie was a college friend and a super-talented pianist in musical theater. He had been accepted into the same student program but as a musician. As soon as we boarded, we turned our attention to drinking all the free booze that Alitalia would give us during our overnight flight. We landed at Fiumicino the next morning, hung over and clutching our instructions from the New York office of the festival. We camped out in the Piazza Navona, sipping wine and watching people until it was time to board the train to Spoleto. Once on board we fell into a deep sleep and awoke to the conductor announcing our arrival in Spoleto with barely enough time to disembark.

       At the train station we went to the head of the rank of matchbox-sized taxies and mumbled, “Spoleto, Officio di Festival?” to the driver who nodded, stuffed our bags in his boot, and took our lives in his hands. Off we zoomed to the foot of the mountain, where the straightaway died into a sequence of narrow streets with almost no sidewalks and hairpin turns that took us up, up, up and into the Piazza della Libertà, where the outlook opened and our taxi screeched to a halt. 

       “Eccolo! L’ufficio del Festival,” said our driver, pointing to a row of windows on the second floor of a large building occupying the entire south side of the square. We tumbled out into the cold afternoon and gathered our belongings. I was to find the festival office, and Eddie was to stay with our bags. An efficient woman, speaking perfect English and later identified as (Countess) Camilla Pecci-Blunt, head of the student program, descended from the windowed façade, checked us off on a list (very reassuring), and assigned a young man, an Italian fellow student, to walk us to our respective digs further up the hill and into the heart of the town. 

       I and several other students were to board with Signora Luna, who lived on the east side of the Piazza Mercato. Sig. Luna, a short, square woman of stern countenance and greasy hair, and her husband and children, whom we rarely saw, had been squeezed into two rooms at the back of the flat so that six of us could be accommodated in double rooms along the square. Sig. Pecci-Blunt instructed us to appear at the Teatro Nuovo, the larger of Spoleto’s two main theaters, in the evening, where Menotti would be rehearsing Vanessa—his lyrics, Samuel Barber’s music. Vanessa was to be the season’s opening production. 

       It was as cold inside Signora Luna’s as it was outside. After a light supper I put on as many layers of light summer clothes as I could and set out into the dank chill of early evening in hopes of meeting up with a familiar face on my way back down the hill to the theater. Whereas it had been warm and sunny in Rome, here on this Umbrian hilltop it was bitingly cold, damp, and gray. 

       Inside of the mid-nineteenth-century Teatro Nuovo, five tiers of boxes were piled up in a typical horseshoe shape around the gently sloped orchestra level. The tiers of boxes died elegantly into proscenium boxes at each end, which defined the stage opening. The faces of the boxes were slightly convex and encrusted with gold and white garlands and putti. The Teatro Nuovo had languished for many years before Gian Carlo Menotti, the festival’s founder and artistic director, and his benefactors had it fully restored some five years before. 

       Most of the people who showed up for this briefing were unfamiliar, other than Eddie and the Italian fellow student whom I spotted across the rows of deep-red, upholstered theater seats. Once assembled, Sig. Pecci-Blunt rose from her seat at the front of the orchestra, greeted us formally, and introduced other staff members from the festival office. She spelled out a few general rules and regulations, then some specifics relating to perks of the festival that were off-limits to us students—none of which I chose to remember. Then Menotti himself rose to welcome us. He was slim, with dark, wiry hair, a long, patrician face complete with Roman nose, and a winning smile. He spoke perfect but heavily accented English. Charisma and creativity exuded from his every pore. He was surrounded by a bevy of young, beautiful people, mainly men but some women: Tommy Schippers, his former protégé and now a well-known conductor; Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Tomas Milan, all actors; and a whole clique of gorgeous Germans whom I later learned were bound to the German photographer Herbert List, a regular at the festival who had not yet arrived on the scene. 

       Because there were only a few functioning restaurants, we all ate in the same Trattoria del Teatro at lunch and the more upscale Il Pentegramma for dinner. Once introduced, we stuck close to one another as much for bodily warmth as for company. We soon became acquainted with the beautiful Germans. As friends and disciples of the legendary Herbert List, most were aspiring photographers. One who was especially handsome, Roger Fritz, was taking pictures all over town. He had both his Nikon and his light meter around his neck day and night. I had never seen a light meter in action and was glad that my Contaflex had automated this function. The Germans had a whole apartment to themselves uphill from where I lived. The apartment had a fireplace and firewood, so after dinner several of us repaired to their apartment for more wine and warmth. In the absence of Fritz’s regular girlfriend, Crista, who would be arriving later with Herr List, I was invited to his bed, first for play and then for the first warm night of sleep since my arrival.

       On day four I was fetched by a feisty young Italian woman with wavy, strawberry-blonde hair and a profile any Greek goddess would kill for. I had seen her that first night at the Teatro Nuovo but she hadn’t been introduced. She was Giada Franchi and had come in her Fiat 600 to take me down to the scenografia, a large, mid-nineteenth-century warehouse on the side of the mountain, where the scenery for each production was made. Giada was slightly older than I, spoke flawless English, and had an axe to grind about how young Americans come to Italy but never make an effort to learn either the language or the way things are done in Italy. Instead they stick to their own smug ways and go home none the wiser. 

       That was not going to be me. 

       At the scenografia I was introduced to Fiorella, an androgynous young set designer clad in trousers and a loose shirt, sporting a beatific smile. She was the assistant to Lila di Nobili, a distinguished Italian scenic and costume designer with many productions at La Scala under her belt. Di Nobili was far off in the distance, bending over as if to study something on the floor. Her posture, her concentration, the shape of her graying hair, and the bend of her neck and shoulders brought to mind the images of Wanda Landowska that I remembered from the covers of my recordings of the “Well-Tempered Clavier.” 

       Fiorella was to be my boss. I was to assist in the painting of a backdrop designed by Lila di Nobili and was turned over to Renato, the head of the scene shop, a skinny, gruff, grizzle-haired guy who spoke no English and had little time for anyone who broke up the routine of his work. There was a heated exchange in Italian with Renato shouting, Fiorella holding her own calmly but insistently, and a lot of large-scale hand gestures. Renato stomped off.

       “It’s going to be fine. Renato is really a pussycat,” said Fiorella.

       Renato returned with a cigarette in one hand, another behind his ear, and a long stick with a paintbrush at its end in the other hand. He gestured way across the open floor to a music stand with a colored sketch on it. Fiorella beckoned to me to walk across the huge piece of canvas that had been laid out on the floor and over toward the music stand. A grid had been laid over the sketch and numbered in both directions. 

       “The grid on the sketch,” she explained, “corresponds to the grid that you see drawn on the canvas that we are standing on.” It came to me that the canvas on the floor was the backdrop itself! Here, and maybe everywhere in Italy for all I knew, scenery was painted on the flat, not vertically from scaffolding as we did it in college.

       “Your job,” Fiorella continued, “is to paint what you see in each square of the sketch onto the corresponding square on the canvas. You try to work with one color at a time in each square. When you’ve done all you can with one color, wash your brush and start with another. You’ll have to mix colors as you go. Clean as you go. The paints are over there.”

       You gotta be kidding, I thought. Painting by numbers! I remember doing something like that as a kid. But this wasn’t quite the same. The scale was daunting.

       “Let me show you.” And she grabbed a brush and began. “You work beside me. Take the brush Renato gave you and get started.”

       Way down at the far end of the same space was Lila di Nobili, painting her own scenery with her own long-handled brush, just I was about to do. We started at 9 a.m., broke for a short lunch of bread, salami, and cheese, which we had to bring with us as there were no cafes in this part of town, and went on through the afternoon. It was hard work but I was good at detail and gave it my all.

       Evenings, everyone involved in the festival, including pre-season guests and visitors, congregated at the Teatro Nuovo to observe the progress of the rehearsals for Vanessa. My mother had taken me to Vanessa in 1958, shortly after it premiered at the old Met in New York. I didn’t much like opera, and I hadn’t liked Vanessa at all. But in Spoleto it was different. Menotti had translated his own libretto into Italian, and all of a sudden Vanessa became a quasi-lyric opera. Hearing the same passages rehearsed night after night, the displeasure of dissonant harmonies combined with a dysfunctional and unsatisfactory narrative were replaced by the comfort of familiarity. In less than a week, I had become a fan.

       One evening after rehearsal Menotti hosted a gathering for us students. My mother had told me that festivals like this were largely funded by private donors, many of whom might be local gentry. She said to look out for these people, to be super-polite and appreciative, and not to be my usual smart-ass self. When we students arrived, all the beautiful Germans were hovering around a large, once handsome but now sinister and debauched-looking older man, in a crumpled suit and loosened tie, who was wedged into the corner of a large, plush sofa. His thinning hair was slicked back, and his eyebrows seemed permanently knitted together. A lit cigarette hung from the right corner of his narrow, downturned mouth. He could definitely pass as local gentry. Those acolytes who weren’t seated next to him leaned over the back of the sofa or sat on the floor at his feet, each desiring maximum proximity to his noble personage. Roger Fritz waved me over. 

       They were playing a variation on the Marienbad game in which ten matchsticks are laid out in four rows with four, three, two, and one matchsticks per row. Each player in turn takes as many sticks off each row as he or she wants. The loser is the one left with the last stick. Play was interrupted long enough for us students to be introduced. The noble personage seemed to be a viscount. (I thought Italy had only counts and the odd prince.) When my turn came, I laid on my most obsequious smile, extended my hand, and did my stuff:

       “I am very pleased to meet you, sir. We all want to thank you for all you are doing for the festival.” 

       Without offering his hand in return, he threw me a scowl, then removed the dangling cigarette from his lips and, turning to Roger, said in accented English, “Who the hell is she? And what the fuck is she talking about?” 

       No reply. 

       “Come here,” the viscount called to me. “You think you’re so smart? Come play this game and see if you can win. Crista,” he said to Roger’s newly arrived girlfriend, seated at the other end of the sofa, “get up so she can sit here and play,” beckoning to me. And so, fortified by crude Spoletino wine, I played Marienbad with this strange group well into the night, never figuring out the combination of moves that would result in my not being left with the last matchstick. 

       Once outside and on the way back down to my room at Sig. Luna’s, I said to Eddie, “Who was that guy?”

       “Luchino Visconti.”

       “Who is Luchino Visconti?” I asked.

       “Haven’t you heard of Rocco and his Brothers?”

       “Yeah, but…” I had seen Rocco and his Brothers in New York and had been terrified by its violence. 

       “Stupida, he was the director! He’s a genius and he’s here now to direct Salome, the next opera after Vanessa!”

       Luchino Visconti, Count of Lonato Pozzolo, rich as Croesus and a registered Communist, I later discovered. 

       What did I know from Italian nobility?

       A few nights after the Visconti gaffe, I decided the time had come to bring out the Contaflex and try to take some pictures of the Teatro Nuovo’s spectacular interior and the proceedings. I was beginning to enjoy looking into the single lens reflex viewfinder, setting the dials and knobs, running up and down the center aisle of the orchestra snapping this and that when my foot caught on the hem of a coat that was hanging off one of the aisle seats. I tripped and, in catching myself on the back of the chair ahead, I dropped the Contaflex onto the wooden floor.  

       The built-in light meter… 

       When I picked the camera up, pointed it toward the illuminated stage, and looked into the single reflex lens, the light meter indicator was stationary. I collapsed into the nearest aisle seat, put the camera between my legs and my head between my hands, and all but wept. How could I ever explain what I had done to my stepfather? 

       I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and turned around. Seated directly behind me was a slight, middle-aged man with short, white hair, a high forehead defined by a receding hairline, a finely chiseled face, large, not quite circular wire-rimmed glasses set on a narrow nose, and a gentle smile. 

       “I saw you taking pictures and wondered if you might have been using a Contaflex?” he asked in lightly accented English.

       “Yes, it was my stepfather’s. He used it when he was a photographer for Look magazine before the war and now I’ve broken it. It’s finished.” 

       “I am not sure it is broken,” he said. “Would you let me see it?”

       “Of course.” I handed it to him, still enclosed in its beat-up leather case. He took it out of the case, turned it over, and fiddled with its various parts.

       “This is a lovely camera. It is in excellent condition,” he said.

       “Yes, but I’ve broken it,” I insisted.

       “Yes, the light meter is broken and is probably irreparable. But the rest of the camera is fine. You can learn to take photographs without a light meter.”  

       How can that be when Roger Fritz does nothing without consulting his light meter? He practically wears to bed, I thought.

       “I take a lot of pictures, and I never use a light meter. You will soon get the feel of it, and you will do it by instinct.”

       “Really?” I said.

       He went on to tell me that some things must be absolutely precise to be valid. Others do not. He said that his wife was Javanese and pointed to a gorgeous Asian woman deep in conversation a few rows behind us. She had been a dancer. But she broke a finger on her right hand, and when it healed it had remained out of alignment. Because Javanese dance is narrative and told through the very specific gestures and positions of the body, its limbs and their extremities, she had to give up her art because of her one crooked finger. 

       “Taking pictures isn’t like that. It is not so precise,” he went on to say. “The smallest thing can be a great subject. You should give yourself some time with that lovely camera. It will come to you.”

       “Thank you so much, sir,” I said. “You have made me feel so much better.” 

       “I am glad,” he said, this time smiling broadly. “I hope we’ll meet again.”

       “Oh yes, I hope so,” I said and added, as if as an afterthought, “I am a student here in set design. My name is Leslie Armstrong,” and once again I held out my hand.

       He shook it warmly and said, “And I am Henri Cartier-Bresson.” 

       I’ve never used a light meter since.


About the Author, Leslie Armstrong: I have audited the biannual Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA, for the past eight years. I graduated with Honors in Art History from Brown University and obtained a master’s degree in architecture from the Columbia School of Architecture. I enjoy classical music and theater, and continue to work as an architect and as a writer.

Oma

       I stared into the murky gloom outside my kitchen window while sipping on a cup of coffee. The milky fog partially obscured the dark shapes of trees and buildings across the street, but the weather report said it was going to clear up later in the morning – another typical San Francisco day.  Headlights from passing cars going up and down a steep Telegraph Hill street cast luminous beams into the haze.  A lone, hunched figure shuffled along the sidewalk in front of my place, stopped for a moment as if lost, and then continued walking on into the mist.   

       I usually wasn’t up so early, but woke up from a rather pleasant and poignant dream and couldn’t get back to sleep. The dream was about a time in my youth when I took train trips from a Munich suburb to the city with my mother and sister.  During these trips, I always sat in a window seat so I could wave goodbye to my grandmother as the train slowly pulled away from the station; except in this dream, she was the one in the train and was waving goodbye to me from an open window.

       I rustled up an omelet, listened to the news on the radio, and ate at the dining room table.  Soon I had a notion to take the day off work from the newspaper, especially since it was a Friday and I could wrap the day around the weekend.  A minute later, I decided to do it.  I’d grown to dislike working there anyway and didn’t care what my bosses thought.  

       After breakfast, I topped off my cup, flopped down on the easy chair, and started to plan the day.  First, I’d walk up Columbus Ave to City Light Books, maybe buy a book or two there, have lunch in Chinatown, pick up the Bay Meadows Racing Form, and handicap the Saturday card in a Grant Street Coffeehouse.  

       In the meantime, I started reading a book but set it down after a few pages.  I couldn’t help thinking about my grandmother, and now felt compelled to go down to the apartment’s storage area and open a box of childhood photos that I was meaning to put into an album.  I set aside the photos from my last time in Germany and gazed at them, one by one.  There was the picture of me climbing an apple tree in my grandparent’s yard, and another one where I was sitting at the dinner table next to my uncles and grandfather.  I chuckled at the photo of me in the driver’s seat of my uncle’s Mercedes sedan with my hands on the steering wheel, pretending as if I was driving and with such a wild and goofy grin.  And most precious of all; sitting in my grandmother’s lap as she read me a story from a big book.  

       Now, more memories burst forth about my grandmother – or Oma, as my sister, Aline, and I lovingly called her – and the last summer I spent in Germany when I was ten years old.  The first thing I recalled were the times we all walked together along the dirt roads of the rustic Obermenzing neighborhood in the mornings, passing by old houses with spacious yards sheltered by shrubs and trees - some with chickens, roosters, goats, or pigs - until we arrived at the train station.

***

       “Hey look, Oma!”  I said, pointing up the tracks.  “Here comes the train!”   

       “Ja Ja,” she said.  “Ich sehe es.”  

       “Do you see it too, Mom?”  I asked. 

       “Oh yes, there it is,” she answered.

       “What’s the big deal?”  Aline said.  “It’s just the same old train.”

       “I wish you were going with us this time,” I said to Oma.

       Oma shook her head because she didn’t understand, so mother translated my words to her.  Afterwards, she nodded to me with a smile.  

       I stared at the dark shape of the locomotive as it rounded a curve in the far distance, and couldn’t take my eyes off the single glimmering headlight.  Soon, I began to feel lightheaded as the locomotive got closer, and only snapped out of it when the platform shook a little as the train shuddered to a stop.   

       Today we were going to the Zoo; that was going to be fun.  I jumped onto the train and sat down in one of the window seats facing the platform so I could see Oma.  We were off on another adventure!  Even though we’d taken the same ride many times before, I always liked looking at the scenery as we passed the farms and countryside, the roads and autobahn, the villages and small towns, and then the larger towns, the outskirts of Munchen, and finally the bustling railway station.  There was always something new and different to see each time.  

       Aline and I waved to Oma from the window, and as soon as the train started to move out, I lifted up the window and waved to her again.  She waved back with that same warm smile, and with eyes that looked like they were crying.  I looked back and watched her standing on the platform for as long as I could, until the train rounded a bend and she disappeared from view.    

***

       I watched Oma chop vegetables while I cracked and ate nuts on the kitchen table.  As usual, she wore the same black floral dress, covered in the front with an apron, with buckled shoes and thick leg stockings.  It seemed like she was always in the kitchen preparing food for the midday and evening meals; the kitchen was her kingdom.  I noted the concentration on her face as she cut the carrots and potatoes and other vegetables with such precision.    

       “Oma, can I help?”   

       She looked back to me with a surprised smile.  I knew she understood English a little but could barely speak it at all.

       “Helfen?  Sie mochten uns helfen?  Selbstverständlich, kleine Bertie.  Selbstverständlich.”  

       She handed me some already-peeled potatoes and carrots and then gave me a large knife, while saying something in German to me, only a little of which I understood.  I tried to cut the first potato with the same care that she did.

       That evening, we all sat in the dining room for the evening meal.  As usual, my grandfather – or Opa, as Aline and I called him – sat at the head of the table.  The main course was the oxtail soup full of the vegetables that I helped cut.  

       “Mmm sehr gut, Mutti,” Rolf remarked as he ate.

       “Ja. Das Fleisch ist zart,” Wolfgang said.

       “Mmm, you’re right, uncle,” Bert said.  “The meat almost melts in my mouth.”    

       “Kleine Bertie half mir heute, Sie wissen,” Oma said

       “Wirklich? Wie?”  Opa asked            

        I remembered some German from the time I was there two summers before and was beginning to understand the language better each day.  “I cut some vegetables, that’s all,” I answered. 

       “Good for you,” mother said.

       “Probably the ugly mushy ones,” Aline retorted.

       “Oh shut up.  I did better than you could.” 

       “You two stop fighting or else no dessert for either of you,” mother said.

       I listened to my uncles and Opa chat during the rest of the meal.  Today, my uncles casually discussed their jobs in a bank.  Other days, they talked much more animatedly about how the Bayern Munchen soccer team was doing.  As they talked, I noticed my uncles and Opa soak up the last of their oxtail soup with pieces of bread, and so I did the same  

        “Aussehen,” Wolfgang said, as he watched me soak up the soup with my bread.  “Bert ist essen wie ein Mensch, nicht ein Junge.”  

       “Ja, Ich bin ein Mensch!”  I answered, holding both arms up to show my muscles, “nicht ein Junge!”   

       “Und er ist auch ein komisch!”  Opa said, with a laugh.

       “And smart,” Rolf said, who liked to speak English more whenever he could.  “Your German is good,” he said to me.

       “Nicht so gut,” I answered.

       “Do you give them lessons?”  Rolf asked mother.

       “No, he just listens well,” she said.

       “Ja, er ist sehr klug,” Opa said to Oma, “wie ihre Bruder.”    

       “Hast du ein Bruder?”  I asked Oma. 

       “Ja, aber ich habe noch vier Bruder.”   

       “Wow, you have four brothers,” I said.  “Hast du Schwesters?”  

       “Nein, ich habe keine Schwestern,” Oma answered.

       Oh, no sisters,” I replied.  “Wo wohnst deine Bruders?”  

       “Drei in Stuttgart and eins in Ulm.”  

       “We’re going to visit her brothers in Stuttgart soon, you know,” mother said.

       “When?”

       “Wann haben Sie sagen, wir werden sie besuchen?” mother asked Oma.

       “Am nächsten Wochenende,” Oma answered.

       “Next weekend?  Are we going by car or train?”

       “By car,” Rolf answered.

       “Yay!  On the autobahn!” 


       I was so glad to ride in Rolf’s fast Mercedes with Wolfgang on the way to Stuttgart.  The rest of the family rode in Opa’s Opel sedan.  We left in the morning and both cars rode together until we got on the autobahn, and then Rolf sped off and left the Opel behind.  The plan was that Rolf would pick up Gerhard, one of Oma’s brothers, in Ulm and then drive to Stuttgart later in the afternoon.

       Rolf had taken me on short trips on the autobahn before, so I knew he liked to drive fast.  I sat in the back seat and watched with glee as Rolf passed almost every car on the autobahn.  The only time he ducked into the right lane was when those funny-looking Porsches roared past us.  

       Around noon, we arrived in Ulm and picked up Gerhard, a distinguished-looking man with a well-trimmed white beard who walked with a cane and wore a long black coat and a round black hat.  On the way to Stuttgart, Gerhard spoke in rapid German to Rolf and Wolfgang, but said nothing to me after a brief introduction.  

       We arrived in Stuttgart in the early afternoon, but stayed in the residential areas.  Rolf maneuvered his way into a woodsy neighborhood with large and stately homes and eventually turned into a long a driveway that led to one of those homes.  After he parked the car, I got out and gazed at the house in awe, which looked as big as a castle. 

       A butler greeted us at the door and led us through the house.  All the rooms we passed had rich woodwork and high, beamed ceilings, and there were many old paintings of landscapes and portraits hanging on the walls.  After we passed the busy kitchen and a room full of many books, we emerged into a spacious backyard where groups of adults and children were socializing.

       Most of the men were gathered in the partially shaded patio holding large mugs of beer.  Rolf and Wolfgang quickly headed toward them, leaving me by myself.  The yard was interspersed with fruit trees and bordered by pruned shrubs.  Aline played on a swing with two other girls.  A group of women sat on a table with mother and Oma in the shade under a large tree.  On the other side of the yard, three boys about my age kicked a soccer ball around.  I was about to join them until I saw Oma walking, with a slight limp, towards me.

        “Ah es gibt sie Bertie,” she said.  “Sie können sich meine Brüder jetzt - deine grosse Onkle.”   

       She led me to a festive group of men.  One of the men broke off his conversation when he saw Oma and me approaching.   

       “Auch Schwester,” the man said to Oma.  “Wer ist dieser hübsche junge Mann mit ihnen?  

       “Das ist Albert, Doris' Sohn,” Oma answered, “aber wir nennen ihn Bert.”  

       “Ach ja,” the man said, with a smile to me.  “So you are my nephew - no, my grand- nephew.”

       “Bert, das ist Eckhard, einer von meinen Brüdern,” Oma said.

       “Gutentag, Eckhard,” I said. 

       “Gutentag, Bert.  Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”  

       “Nur ein bischen.”   

       “That is good enough,” Eckhard said, with a hearty laugh.

       Just then, a few other men gathered around Eckhard. 

       “These are my other brothers,” Eckhard said, pointing to two men behind him,   “Friedrich and Werner.” 

       Both of the men nodded and gazed at me with fixed grins. 

       “How do like Germany?”  Friedrich asked. 

       “I like Germany very much,” I answered.  “I also like this house very much too.  It’s so big”

       “Yes, it’s been in our family many years,” Eckhard said.

       As we talked, I noticed one of the girls on the swing race across the yard and stand next to the men on the patio.  She had blonde hair with long braids and stared intently at me as I spoke to my granduncles. 

       “Would you like to see more of the house?”  Werner asked.

       “Jawohl, grossonkel.”

       Friedrich then interjected something in German to Eckhard and Werner that I didn’t understand.  Friedrich punctuated what he said with a wink to both of them.

       Eckhard put his hand on my shoulder and led me into the house.  The granduncles and others followed, including Oma.  After we passed a large, open stairway that led to the upper rooms, they stopped in front of the dining hall.  

       “This is where we will all eat soon,” Eckhard said.  “I hope you are hungry.”

       “Ya”, Ich bin sehr hungrig.”

       Next, we went into the library, which had a large globe in the middle of the room.  Most of the books were behind beveled glass doors, and a few of them looked very old, judging by their well-worn covers.  Some weaponry hung on another wall opposite the books: swords, bows, and long, sharp instruments I’d never seen before.  

       “Come now, Bert,” Eckhard said.  “There is one more painting I want you to see.”

       When we emerged from the library, I saw a few more people milling around the main room, including the girl with braids.  Eckhard led us to this room, which had a huge fireplace that looked ten times bigger than the one we had in Seattle.  We stopped in an alcove along the main room and in front of a large portrait of a man with dark features, a stern expression, and long sideburns that connected to his mustache.   

       “This is Reinhold,” Eckhart said, pointing up to the portrait.  ”He’s the one who had this house built over three hundred years ago.”

       “Some say this painting has magical powers,” Friedrich whispered into my ear. 

       “What do you mean?”  

       “If you stare into his eyes and walk back and forth, you might see them following you,”   

       “Just to some people,” Werner said.  “Try walking back and forth to see.”

       I stared up at the portrait and into Reinhold’s eyes.  First, I walked a little to the right and then to the left; Reinhold’s eyes followed me both times.  I walked a little faster across the painting, but Reinhold’s eyes followed me again, as if he was alive in the painting.  

       I stopped in front of the painting while staring up at Reinhold and began to feel a tingly sensation on the back of my neck.  Everything else around the painting seemed to be a blur.  I was barely aware of the subdued laughter of others in the room, which sounded distant and like an echo.  

       The spell was broken when I felt an arm on my shoulder.  I looked up and saw it was Oma.

       “Es ist in Ordnung, Bert.  Alles ist jetzt gut,” she said.

       “You’re part of the family now,” Eckhart said to me, with a smile.  

       The rest of the group followed Eckhart into the Dining Hall. 

       “It’s just a trick they play on kids,” I heard a girls voice say behind me say.  I turned and saw it was the girl with braids.  “They did it to me last year. My name is Gretchen.”

       “Hi. My name is Bert.”

       “I hear you’re from the United States,” she said

       “Yeah. We’re just visiting our relatives in Munchen. Are you from the U.S. too?”

       “No. My family lives in Heidelberg.”

       “It’s just that you speak English so well.’ 

       “My brother, Dieter, and I go to a school here that teaches it.  Come, everyone is going to the dining hall.  We can sit together and talk some more.” 

       The grownups all sat on the main table, while I sat in the middle of the smaller table next to Gretchen and three other boys.  Aline sat with four other girls on the other side of the table.   

       “Dieter, this is Bert, from the United States,” she said to a boy across from them.  “He’s visiting our relatives in Munchen.

       “Hi, Bert,” Dieter said.

       “I saw you playing soccer when I came here,” I said.

       “Soccer?”  Dieter asked.  “Oh, we call it fussball here.”

       “Football?  We have another sport called football in the U.S.”

       “Was sagts er?” a boy next to Dieter asked.

       Dieter muttered something in German to the boy, who responded with a laugh.

       “Do you play soccer, Bert?”  Dieter asked.

       “I play with some boys in Munchen.”

       “Good.  Next time you come here you can join us.”

       I spent the rest of the meal talking mostly to Gretchen while the others spoke amongst themselves in German.  As we all feasted on roast chicken, potato pancakes with gravy and a cabbage salad, we exchanged many little stories about what life was like in each other’s countries.  I liked Gretchen.  Even though she was a girl, she wasn’t too girlish.  


       The next morning, I sat on the kitchen table with mother and Aline eating sausages and eggs and fresh bread, thinking about the fun I had after the dinner with the other kids when we all went down to play in the large cellar of the house.  To get there, we went down a long, narrow flight of stairs that ended in a large room that stored many racks of wine and barrels of beer against the wall.  We also explored the dimly lit passageways that branched out from the main room, and later devised a little game of hide-and-seek.  Gretchen and I hid together behind a trunk near the end of a long passageway and whispered to each other about what was in one of those locked doors behind us: ghosts, skeletons, monsters, and other scary things.  Gretchen clutched my arm tightly as we whispered in the semi-darkness, and then I felt a peck on my cheek – a kiss.  

       I stared at her with a wide-eyed grin in the semi-darkness and kissed her back on the cheek.  Afterwards, we both tried to suppress a laugh.  Right after that, one of Dieter’s friends heard us and discovered our hiding place.      

       “What are you thinking about, Bert?” mother asked.  “You’re so quiet this morning.”

       “Oh, just all the fun I had here last night, especially in the basement.”

       “You know, Bert,” mother said, “Werner told me after the dinner that you remind him of one of his brothers, in the way you look, and even in the way you speak and act.”

       “Which brother?”

       “One that is not alive anymore.  His name was Herman.  I remember a little about him, but not too much.”  

       “So Oma had another brother?  What happened to him?”

       “He died during the War.”

       “Was he a soldier?”

       “No.  He worked on a newspaper.  Sometimes he wrote things that certain people didn’t like so —”    

       She let the words hang, then went back to eating her breakfast.  I noticed that she had the same troubled expression and tone of voice as when she talked about the war at other times. 

        “Do you think we can come here again before we leave?”  I asked her after a long silence.

       “We’ll see.”

       Both of us knew that was unlikely because it was already the middle of August and we had to fly back to the States in less than three weeks.   

       After breakfast, we all said goodbye to Eckhart and his brothers and headed outside toward our cars for the drive back to Munchen.  I looked back to the house before I got back in the car and held my gaze on the second-floor balcony where I stood watching the sunrise over the rolling, woodsy hills surrounding the neighborhood.  I wished we could’ve stayed in the house another day or two because I felt so good just being inside it.  It was similar to a feeling I had in the Munchen house, but even more so.  I stood there for some time and couldn’t take my eyes off of the house because I felt that if I did, something important would be lost to me forever.

       “Let’s go, Bert,” Rolf said, from inside the Mercedes.  “It’s a long drive back.” 

       Reluctantly, I got in the car and said little during the drive home, torn by confusing emotions I didn’t understand.  It seemed to have something to do with what Eckhart said about being part of his family.  Maybe that’s why I wanted to stay so much; we were leaving too soon!

***

       I tried to get to sleep but my mind was on other things, mostly the fact that we were going back to the States in a few days.  In a way, I looked forward to the exciting plane trip, but the strongest feelings I had were ones of disappointment and sadness because of all the new friends I was going to leave behind.  Gretchen was the first girl that I really liked, and I was also going to miss Dieter and his friends too.  Another was Rovie, the boy next door, who I played with the most.  We explored the trails in the nearby woods, and played soccer together with the other neighborhood boys.    

       In fact, I was going to miss everything about Germany: the countryside and farms, the old and stately building in the city, the different kinds of cars, riding on the trains, and just the way all the people talked and acted.  Germany seemed like a place that I just felt more comfortable and at home in - so much more than in Seattle.  Of course, I was going to miss my uncles and Opa and Oma most of all.

       I tossed and turned but still couldn’t get to sleep so I finally crept downstairs to see if anyone was still up.  Wolfgang was reading a book by the fireplace and Oma sat in the other side of the room knitting something that looked like scarf.

       “Bertie,” she said.  “Was ist los?  Kannst du nicht schlafen?”  

       “Nein Oma,” 

       “Hier kommen dann,” she said, patting the chair, “Ich lese Ihnen jetzt ein Buch.”  

       I went to a nearby shelf and pulled out a familiar book: a large hardbound collection of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales.  It was my favorite book and she had read stories to me from it several times before. 

       “Welche soll ich Ihnen vorlesen am Abend?” she asked.

       “Ich weiß es nicht, Oma.”  A new story.

       I sat down on the chair next to her and settled my head on her shoulder, soft as a pillow, after she opened the book.  The pungent, musty aroma of her dress and the odor of her body seemed to transform my imagination even deeper into the book as she turned the pages.  I’d seen and read many of the stories and their corresponding sketches before: The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, The Enchanted Stag, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Clever Elf, Rumpelstiltskin, and others.  Finally, she came upon a new story that I guessed was titled: The Young Traveller. 

       “This one,” I said, pointing to the page.

        “Ah, Der Junge Riese.”  

       I could only understand a few words as she read to me in German, but it almost didn’t matter.  I gazed upon the sketches on each page and simply imagined what those words could be and what they meant.  In a way, that was almost better than reading it in English.  Soon, she finished the story and paged through a few more stories until she came upon one that had another good sketch.  I pointed to it.

       “Dieser?” she asked.

       “Ja Oma, das ist gut.”  

       As she read Der Verlorene Sohn, I felt myself starting to nod off.  I tried to stay awake because it felt so good being in her comforting presence and in the fantasy world of the book; however, near the end of the story I couldn’t fight it off anymore and drifted off to sleep.

***

       I sat in his easy chair for some time thinking about this, and the other memories of my last time Germany.  I walked toward my bookshelves, picked out a version of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales that I bought many years before, and browsed though it until I came upon the last story that Oma read to me: The Lost Son.  

       I set the book down and chuckled to myself with a new realization.  So maybe that’s where it began; Oma reading this book to me.

       When I returned to school that year, I started going to the local library a lot more.  The first books I read were the ones from Robert Louis Stevenson, and then Jules Verne.  In high school, I liked the stories from Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Victor Hugo and many others.  In college, I developed an interest in creative writing and graduated with degrees in English Lit and Journalism.  


       The next Monday, I was back at work on the newspaper, banging on the typewriter as fast as I could.  The piece I was rushing through was an extraction from the police blotter that came in on the wire over an hour late.  

       “Hey Bert!”  I heard Gus shout from the other side of the office

       “Pick up line four.  It’s your mother from Seattle.”

       “Hello, mom?”

       “Oh Bert,” she said, in a distraught voice.  “I’m sorry to call you at work, but it just couldn’t wait, and sometimes you don’t answer your home phone.”

       “Is everything alright?”

       “No.  I just got a call from your Uncle Rolf in Germany.  It’s my mother – your Oma,” she said between sobs.  “She passed away.” 

       “Oh, no, I’m so sorry.”

       “He tried to call earlier but a storm disrupted the phone service there, so I just found out about it today.  It’s just that there’s no one around here in the family.  I feel so alone.  

       “Did you call Aline?”

       “Yes, she’s driving up from Portland today.  That will help.”

       “I’ll see if I can take a few days off to drive up there.”    

       “That’s very thoughtful of you but there won’t be enough time.  I have to catch a flight to Germany Wednesday for the funeral later this week.  Oh, this is so unexpected.  I just got a letter from her earlier this month,” she said, breaking into sobs again.  “Everything seemed alright with her.”

       “Gosh, mother, I wish I could join you.  You know, I was just thinking about her too the other day.  In fact —”   I was going to tell her about the dream when I felt a strange emotion begin to stir within me.  “When did it happen?”

       “Just last week.”

       I was about to ask which day, but then it hit me; I knew exactly which day it was.  


About the Author: A.R. Bender is a somewhat peripatetic writer of German heritage now living in Tacoma, Washington, USA. He's completed two short story collections, a few of which have been published individually, multiple flash fiction pieces, and a smattering of poetry. He's also seeking representation for his completed historical novel. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking off the grid and coaching youth soccer.

Ace & Cyborg

I think he’s not going to work because his sugar is low. I think he’s not going to work because his sugar is low because his pump is giving him too much insulin. I think he’s not going to work because his sugar is low because his pump is giving him too much insulin because he ate too many carbs. I think he’s not going to work not because he’s depressed.

--

Once, my friend asked you if you carried a beeper. A lighthearted, but unknowingly malicious comment directed at the brown case attached to your belt. Always off to the side, always in that luscious space right before where the hip bone protrudes. You tuck in your shirt, a relic leftover from the cornfields in Indiana, barefoot days after Sunday-morning church. I wish you wouldn’t. I wish you wouldn’t not because of the pocket-sized machine that dangles, not because of the wire tubing that connects the machine to your stomach or ass, not because of the insulin I hear pumping through the tube at odd times during the night before you wake up from low blood sugar and eat a few fistfuls of candy in the backlight of our pantry – you, slumped over; you, tired from the lack of sleep every night; you, exhausted in your physical body, the body that is always trying, but never quite can. I wish you wouldn’t tuck in your shirt because it makes you look like middle-management from the mid-90s.

The pump whirrs again. This time the tubing rests between us on the couch as we sit on opposite ends, both of us clinging to the oversized arms. You aren’t guarding it from my cat like you should be. She’s on the coffee table and her eyes haven’t moved as she plans when to pounce. Her ears twitch and lay back against her head, disrupting her concentration. Her tail flicks. You don’t notice any of this because, as I stare at my cat, you stare at me. And when she does finally pounce, you laugh and say, “She’s trying to kill me!”

I’m string out by all the needles under the sink in the bathroom. Used and unused, air bubbles are flicked out while the orange cap rests between your lips and fill your pump. Remember that time we kept a spilled bag of used needles in our car’s trunk for months? Grocery shopping without you was never, really, without you. I had the needles to remind me to cut back on the pasta, rice, potatoes. Now that the trunk is clean, I make you get groceries with me, but not because I need the reminder anymore. It’s to make sure you get some tiny bit of exercise after sitting inside all day.

I know you know this, but someone else needs to say it.

I hear you from the bedroom, the lazy Sunday mornings when I try to stay in bed too late and you try to match my sleeping patterns but can’t. I hear the plastic tearing, the flicking of the syringe. I hear the sharp inhale, the click that happens when you reopen an injection site that was trying to heal and I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be constantly attached to something. Maybe that that’s why you’ve never had commitment issues. I wonder what it’s like to have your body fail you over and over, like potential lovers do.

You always have residue of medical tape left on your abdomen, remnants of the most recent site of intrusion. Sometimes, if I wake up first and the blankets are flung just-so, I’ll stare at the dark bits of glue. “Does it hurt? Is it annoying?” I asked when we first met. You replied, “Not as annoying as having to inject myself with insulin three to five times a day.” The lesser of two evils, a settling and acceptance.

You’re cheating and you know it. I know you see the look I give you when you order a sandwich or pizza over salad. My skin wrinkles, concerned when you tell the pump how many carbs you’ve eaten for a single meal. You like to keep that secret from me.

I never know what to do to at security checkpoints in airports. Do I, can I stand next to you while you try to tell the TSA officer the body scanner will go off because you have a pump at the same time you’re trying to tell them you have needles in your carry-on? Do I, can I stand next to you when the new guy has never dealt with this before and has to bring over a second person? Do I, can I take your items from the conveyer belt for you as you stress about holding up the line. I don’t. I sit down on the bench and put my shoes back on while they swab the little machine and the rim on your pants in front of everyone. I keep watch from my space 15 feet away – a stare that feels more maternal than romantic.

My purse is weighed down from the candy and protein bars that layer its bottom. My shoulder aches wherever I go, whether you’re with me or not. It’s habit now, learned from your own mother, for when your pump fails or you miscalculate the amount of carbs you’ve eaten. “One piece of bread is about 15 carbs,” you told me once as you inputted 30 into the little machine from the sandwich you just ate. I went with you to the nutritionist after you got the new pump, part of the requirement. I still don’t measure out your pasta, but I do leave the box on the counter for you to estimate.

You’re gentle with me when you’re low, but rough with yourself. And when you’re high, the pump keeps you tethered like a Xanax to an anxiety attack. We both have our things, now don’t we? Thinks that are inaccessible to each other. I don’t touch your pump, just as you know not to touch my skin in moments of vulnerability.

Cyborg updates: your CGM lessens your body’s ability to heal itself. Now, two attachments. One injects, the other monitors, and both keep me up at night. You don’t notice the CGM buzzing at 2:17 AM, but I do. You don’t notice the whirring after the pump pushes more insulin once you’ve pressed a few buttons, but I do. I notice it all. I notice your shyness when undressing in the same room as me. I notice you keeping your shirt on at the pool or beach. I notice the sigh of reluctance of giving yourself insulin when we go out to eat or in the movie theater after popcorn.

You won’t talk about death with me. You won’t acknowledge you’ll most likely die before me. You won’t entertain my ideations of dying just as much as you disengage from my joys of living. You’re weighed down by the unrelenting reminder that are now a part of body, anchored and unable to move in either direction. In the dichotomy of life and death, I feel you floating beneath that spectrum in a third world, your face lit by a screen in the dark limbo.

I worry about getting tangled up in your tubing at night. Tangled in the same ways our legs get lost together. Tangled in the same way my hair tangles when you play with it, your palms always slightly sweaty. I dreamt of something pulling at my ankle, an octopus maybe, and woke up to find your tube there, delicate. I saw the movement after I heard the whirr, the liquid dancing down and around my boney ankles, and back up into your stomach.

I ask you to ask your doctor for a referral to a nutritionist again on the day of your appointment. That morning, you left your pump in the bathroom when I went to shower. I asked you to ask for the referral as I came back out and placed the machine in your palm. I see you beat yourself up about forgetting, but your movements are so automatic – a mechanical muscle memory. Untuck the shirt, unclasp the belt. Button. Zipper. Pants down to mid-thigh. A twist, pull the edge of your boxer-briefs down and hook until you hear the click. Pull pants back up. Tuck the shirt. Tuck the tubing. Button. Zipper. Clasp belt. Hook pump. This dance, the most elegant thing you’ve ever done. But you’re beautiful, always. And you’re most beautiful to me in those rare moments of presence when you forget about your body, its attachments. Those moments when our blues and our yellows mix. Hen we’re both equal parts of a vibrant green, pulsing to the beat of our star; the rhythm of injection, an accent of my heart. You forgot to ask for the referral.

--

He thinks he’s unattractive because we don’t have sex. He thinks he’s unattractive because we don’t have sex because of the tube hanging from his stomach. He thinks he’s unattractive because we don’t have sex because of the tube hanging from his stomach because it leaves pockmarks on his body. He thinks he’s unattractive not because I’m asexual.

About the Author: Jenn Storey is a hybrid writer and artist generally, and genuinely, out of touch in the American Midwest. She holds a BA in Computing and Information Technology and an MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Spry Literary Journal, Peach Fuzz Magazine, Origami Journal, Clockwise Cat, and elsewhere.

Touched

In my high school days I spent uncounted hours in a Providence bookstore, gone these dozen years, browsing the stacks with intent to buy, and, until I understood the odds, hoping to meet like-minded girl-nerds. I had no idea that the more you strive and search for happiness outside of yourself, the more elusive it grows. And I overestimated—we're talking orders of magnitude here—the attractiveness of an aura of cool intellectuality, and, more crucially, my capacity at 17 to deliver it. Needless to say, my library grew faster than my social circle, not that that was a bad thing.

Though battered by Amazon, my affinity for bookstores endures. They are on my short list of places in which I can stomach shopping, right there next to hardware emporia and wine shops. Even so it gave me pause last year when Cheryl suggested we spend Black Friday afternoon at the newly-opened establishment two towns north. First, only a damn fool goes shopping on Black Friday; second, my impression without actually having seen it was that this bright, shiny, brand spanking new bookstore might be a little too trendy for me.

Its orientation toward the modern, away from the antiquarian, jibes with its physical newness. I'm uneasy that I'm not quite young enough to be in the target demographic, but it's liberating not to be subjected to ads for back braces and catheters. The place is overtly cheerful and laid back. I'm glad to see a local business well-attended, and I can still navigate the aisles, relieved that there's no gridlock, no subway-packed hell. I see smart phones—where do you not?—though also people wedged against shelf ends engrossed in actual books. I try to cling to my misgivings, but the place wins me over.

It's a bookstore cum café, with a compact and well-crafted menu of soups, salads, and wraps. Cheryl and I decide to make it a day on the town, opt for salads, and find the last seat in the house. They rack up points by not deprecating meat, and their espresso claims your attention. We fortify ourselves for a serious expedition.

Now that I've deemed the place worthy, I'm dying to apply my bookstore litmus test. It's simple: how much Balzac do they have? My teenage nirvana had a good foot of Penguin Balzacs. Here, I'm disappointed to find only a single volume of stories from the Comédie Humaine, but in compensation there are a half dozen volumes of Dickens, plus Tracy Kidder and Paul Theroux to boot. A bookstore I went to a week later had neither Balzac nor Dickens, but several Jane Austens. My test is subjective, yet flexible; hardly any bookstore fails. It's hard not to start a virtuous circle: the more you read, the more attractive all bookstores become.

Cheryl and I wander as our separate whims take us. My neck, knees, and eyes are not as flexible as they used to be, so fighting gravity along row after row of tall shelves is not an unalloyed pleasure. An unoccupied comfy chair beckons—you might know it's that kind of bookstore. I heed the call, sit, tell my feet they're welcome, and close my eyes to throttle back the brain inputs a bit.

For a scant second I feel a hand on my knee, and a woman tells me, “Don't fall asleep.” I do not know her, and she has touched me. My aura of cool intellectuality dissolves, failing me yet again. I think I replied along the lines that I was tempted but would resist. The exchange may have continued for one or two more rounds, but I don't remember. If I did, I would certainly still be going over the words, again and again, testing meanings, inflections, nuances, and especially insinuations.

Seldom do I need to ask if I'm the target of a seduction attempt. “Never” is more accurate, but I'm as vain as any man. Is “Don't fall asleep” a pickup line? There's a good argument that it's clearly not, but we hear what we want to hear. The thing for me with pickup lines is that if they're obvious enough to be unambiguous, then they're unattractive. The proper level of ambiguity must be calibrated with care, and there are so many variables to consider.

The touch is the crux. I am aware of every touch. I take every deliberate touch personally. Does a touch on the knee signify more than a touch on the shoulder? Touch complicates things for me. I can dismiss words, but not a touch. Touch catalyzes meaning from words that signify nothing.

I've never had a problem with medical contact—a special case of deliberate touching—in its gamut from immodest to uncomfortable to distasteful, but touchy-feely alienates me. Yet I've gotten better about that; I've mellowed, and I actually notice. Though I no longer take my personal space quite so seriously, I still do not willingly choose to make myself emotionally accessible to the random stranger. People whom I've known since puberty or before are now free to hug me without repercussions.

I've eked a year of idle speculation out of this incident—no one I know is so frugal he can wring as much mileage from a fantasy. It's time to lay it to rest without regrets, and I'm pleased that it had no chance to mushroom into a sterner test of character. If I'd interpreted “Don't fall asleep” in my usual bloody-minded literal fashion, I'd have recognized it as a selfless public service and no word of a come-on, an assertion of connection and belonging. Had I nodded off, the bookstore zone of hipness would have been rent by the gaucherie of an old guy snoring and drooling. Sometimes it's a moment of grace when a thing doesn't happen.

 

About the Author: Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Lucky to be above ground, lucky to have grandchildren. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.

Latchkey Kid

by Nina Lichtenstein

     As a kid, the key to our apartment dangled on a string around my neck. I guess my working parents felt confident I would manage on my own in the afternoons until they came home at dinnertime. If I had any spare time on my hands I did not spend it inside reading, keeping a diary or doing puzzles, but instead, I roamed the neighborhood looking for nooks and crannies to explore, for people to talk to. Sometimes that meant getting into trouble. I was a crafty, devious and curious youngster, who loved sneaking around doing my share of shoplifting candy and comic books from the corner store. I loved to befriend my older neighbors, who were looking for company and someone who would listen to their stories. These were the adults who were around and also had time to pay attention to me. Visiting with them, I did not feel awkward as I did around my peers, and the older folks would welcome me into their apartments, smiling and offering a snack or two. No need to act cool or prove my belonging here. Although their homes would often smell funny and the foods they offered seemed old fashioned compared to what I was served at home, I loved having places to go where I was welcomed, accepted and made to feel as though I mattered. My parents never worried about my safety. It might have been the times. It might have been my parents. My dad would later tell me I was raised with “freedom under responsibility.” It’s possible I might have preferred less freedom and less responsibility. 

***

     Emilie Fleischer, or Mille, as was her nickname, was in her early eighties, and had I known the word when I was a child, I would have said she looked bohemian. In her floor-length pleated black skirts and black velvet headband dramatically accenting her thinning pageboy-shaped white hair, she fancied herself an artist, or at least a connoisseur of art. Mille was a spinster like her sister Helene, and they lived together in the apartment above us in Oslo, Norway, where I grew up. Somber paintings lined the walls of their dark apartment that smelled musty and faintly like old bodies that needed to bathe. The long, deep-red velvet curtains in the archways between the large, high-ceiling rooms made their home feel dramatic, as the fabric hung heavy from massive dark wooden rods with rounded, carved finials, the drapery forming pools of red on the floor like on a theater stage. I was happy here in this unconventional and mysterious place, where my arrival was anticipated with food and companionship. 

     I often went upstairs and rang their doorbell right after I came home from school. Mille wore dentures, and sometimes she would open the door without them. I was enthralled and a little scared by the cavernous hole of her mouth, her tongue prominently visible as she lisped her greeting past lips that turned inward, wrapped over her pink gums. When Mille offered me a snack she might fish out an overripe banana from their pantry and hand me half while mashing the other half for herself, like baby food. Sometimes she would let me mash it for her, making me feel conscientious and competent. We took turns cutting up fruits on a wooden retractable cutting board hidden directly under the kitchen counter, above the top drawer. Pulling it out, she would grasp the small white porcelain knob with a silver center that had gray dirt encrusted into its circular ridge. The board was usually moist looking or full of breadcrumbs, and the middle section of the wooden surface was worn down, creating a slight dip from years of slicing bread in the same spot.  

     Sometimes when I visited, the sisters would say they wanted to celebrate—I never knew or understood what the occasion might be other than it was something special. I would help them whip up three raw eggs and several tablespoons of sugar until the foamy blend became stiff enough to hold a shape when we pulled a spoon through it to check if it was ready. The egg cream or eggedosis is a traditional Norwegian treat loved by children and is usually served on holidays. The sisters would let me portion out the sweet, creamy froth into three identical cut crystal goblets. The fancy glasses stood gleaming, lined up on the kitchen counter where I was meticulously at work making sure I achieved an equal division of the smooth, yellow blend, licking the spills from my fingers. Helene would leave the kitchen and I could hear her rummage with bottles in their antique curio cabinet in the dining room. Taking up an entire wall, the massive piece of furniture was dark and ornate with beveled glass doors and a carved wooden front, and sat heavy in the brightest but least utilized room in the apartment. Helene would return with a fancy bottle of golden brown liquid, its gilded label inscribed with foreign words I didn’t understand. Using an old, large and dented silver spoon—so tarnished even I noticed that it needed polishing—Mille would carefully measure three spoonfuls into two of the three glasses. 

     In the living room, the deep and plush, moss-colored velvet couch was supported by clawed wooden feet and adorned with a carved top rail. Sitting between them, we slowly nursed the egg cream with teaspoons while looking through their family albums of black and white photographs. The sisters had many such books—big, heavy guardians of memories, and they would share a little story for each photograph as they took turns pointing out this one or that one. Small, square or rectangular images with white zigzag borders, attached to heavyweight, matte black pages, were held in place by tiny triangular white corner pockets. Beneath the photos, most of them faded, captions were written carefully in beautiful cursive handwriting with a thick white pencil; names of people, places and dates going back to the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when everything looked glamorous and romantic. In some of the photos I recognized a younger Helene or Mille, their dresses long, elegant, white and full of lace. Some of the faces were blurry, and many of the people seemed serious. There were photos of the sisters as girls, posing in sailor dresses with matching hats, somberly looking at the camera from the top of the front steps of their summer home, or in front of a blooming fruit tree. 

     Time would fly like this; me, squeezed comfortably in between the sisters, the heat from their soft bodies surrounding me. I looked up toward the tall windows facing the street, only partly visible through the archway connecting their two spacious living rooms, and I noticed, but did not care, that it was growing dark outside. 

     Sometimes my mother would ring the doorbell to fetch me for dinner, but it remained my little shared secret with the sisters that we had indulged in such a decadent afternoon snack.

***

     My family never knew much about their quiet, enigmatic lives, and one day when I was about thirteen, Helene died and Mille was alone for the first time in her life. She became a recluse, and when my mother would ring her doorbell to see if we could help with food-shopping or other practical things, she would peer through the crack with the safety chain still attached, trying to discern if she could trust the caller. Sometimes she would reluctantly let my mother help, but often scrutinized the receipt and claim that she had been cheated—blaming the grocer, other times my mother. My parents bought a townhouse in the suburbs around this time, and we moved away. I missed my old neighborhood and all the connections I had made there, and although we were just a short bus-ride away, it wasn't the same. The daily-ness of it was gone. Soon we learned from other neighbors in our old building that Mille had been moved to a nursing home. I took the bus to the other side of town and visited her once or twice, and while she seemed to remember me, she had what seemed like an imaginary, confusing story to tell about the thieves in the nursing home and her many lost and stolen personal items. She kept a stash of toilet paper rolls in the basket attached to her walker. I followed Millie down the hallways of her new residence so she could show me her room. Her body hunched over the handles of her walker, she mumbled, “they sure do steal around here.” 

     I don’t remember when Mille died, or the last time I saw her. I recall my mother mention the sisters’ niece, who was making all the “arrangement.” As the next of kin, she would inherit their apartment. 

     Whenever I go back to Oslo to visit family and friends, I detour through the streets of my childhood. Passing the pre-war brick apartment building where I used to live, I look up at the windows of our old living room and my parents’ bedroom above the gateway to the inner courtyard, and above them, the windows of the Fleischer sisters’ apartment. In the place of their heavy drapes are fashionable Marimekko curtains with bold, orange flowers with black eyes, and a set of glass Ikea vases, purposefully arranged.  

     I resist ringing the doorbell. I know that seeing the inside of the apartment will alter forever my ability to vividly recall the afternoons spent in their company. How I would nestle on the couch between two warm, generous women’s bodies, and sense that I belonged. They made me feel welcome and important. Their wrinkled faces beamed as they spoke, and their hands—with paper-thin almost translucent skin—gestured with generosity, offering food and stories. Our souls were kindred and in need of one another. Their door was always open. I didn't need a key.

 

 

About Nina Lichtenstein: 
Nina is a native of Oslo, Norway, and has a PHD in French literature. She has lived in CT for nearly 30 years, where she kept busy studying, teaching and raising her three sons. An empty nester, she recently migrated north to Maine to pursue a quiet writing life, which is constantly interrupted. Her first book, on Jewish women writers from North Africa, just came out. Some of Nina's writing lives on her blogs https://vikingjewess.com/ and https://thatsfunnyyoudontlookjewish.wordpress.com/, and other essays have been published on the Brevity Blog, in The Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, Literary Mama, and Hevria, among other places. You can learn more about Nina and her work at her website: https://www.ninalichtenstein.com/