“The Marble” by Claire Salinda
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. “The Marble” is essayist Claire Salinda’s reflection on an emotionally fraught period in her life when she was drawn to crystals and tarot readings, to magical thinking and startling impulses that even now occasionally haunt her.
By Claire Salinda
I once experienced a recurring desire to hold a marble in my mouth. This was a foreign sensation occurring at a foreign time. I’d never had an oral fixation before, and this new craving for a marble coincided with the end of my marriage, another novel event in my life. The separation was necessary but unwanted, but my longing for a marble was so visceral that once or twice, I even caught myself swirling my tongue around as if one was there between my cheeks. However, when I did eventually procure a marble, I only ever kept it in my pocket.
I bought my marble in a local crystal shop that I visited on the advice of a tarot reader. I had gone to her to learn if the separation from my husband would be permanent, if it would lead to a divorce. For reasons that are not unique to couples who meet when they’re very young, marry when they’re still young, and then suddenly, one day, are no longer young, we decided to be apart for a year. It was the mandated minimum amount of time you must be legally separated before you can file for divorce in North Carolina, where we were married and lived, and besides, we still loved one another. So no decisions would be made before the year was up, aside from the decision that I was moving to Brooklyn in a few weeks as an ostensibly, if temporarily, single woman.
Still, I wanted to know what my husband and I would decide, which is how I found myself in front of a stranger and her deck of cards, asking her for clarity. I am not a believer in the mystical power of people or rocks. But I am also not not a believer; there is too much room for it to go either way, and I would hate to miss out on salvation just as much as I’d hate to be made a fool. A separation is one of those events when both the possible and the impossible seem to exist in the same moment, and if there was ever a time to reap a benefit, even one of dubious origin, this was it.
The tarot reader looked at her spread of cards and then informed me, unequivocally, that this was the definitive end of my marriage. I don’t recall the specific cards that lay between us, just that they said there was no going back. I should have, and probably could have, taken a photo of the spread. It’s not uncommon for a querent to do so, and I’m sure the reader would have allowed me to document the cards. But I didn’t.
Yet I did take a picture when I arrived at the tarot reader’s studio. In the photo, two walls of wooden shiplap converge in a partly sunny corner of a room, both painted the same shade of cream but with planks of different widths and orientations. The greenery of the outside peeks through a four-paneled window on one of the walls. Besides that, there’s nothing else in the scene to suggest where I was: no furniture, no people, no tarot cards. Just the corner of an unidentified room. And while I don’t know why exactly I took that photo, I possess a vague memory of wanting to capture the essence of something in that moment, to mark the time just before the reading, as if I knew things would be irrevocably altered on the other side of it.
In her next breath following her proclamation about the end of my marriage, the reader warned that my mother-in-law was harboring bad energy toward me and then gave me a list of gemstones that could help shield me from the malice. This was no great surprise to me, my mother-in-law’s contempt. This, after all, was the woman who’d worn a bone-colored dress to my wedding. Even my husband once remarked that she didn’t know how to hug, always holding her body at arm’s distance, even from her son.
Shopping for rocks is easier than dealing with the prognostication of divorce, so I set off for the crystal store straight from the reading, list in hand. There were seven kinds of stones on the tarot reader’s list, each with its unique properties to hopefully bolster my energetic wherewithal. I circled the small store and added what I needed to my basket: iridescent labradorite and inky black obsidian for sound sleep and protection, respectively; a few pieces of jade to bring me success and wisdom; lapis lazuli and red jasper specimens to help me stay calm and grounded; a chunky rod of near-transparent selenite for clarity; an optimistic slice of rose quartz, the crystal of unconditional love, for good measure. According to the shop employee, I was supposed to touch the gems to feel which ones belonged to me, and although I was there among the rocks with only a half measure of earnestness, I can attest that the stones practically buzzed in my palm.
When I went to pay for my small galaxy of crystals, I noticed a bowl full of deliciously glossy marbles next to the register. Like a child encountering a gumball machine, I salivated. Even now, the better half of a decade later, typing the word marble over and over again brings a pleasant fullness to my tongue. As bizarre as it sounds, it makes sense, considering that I was desiring, with every cell in my body, to understand my own life at that time, and desire is just another form of hunger. I wanted to consume the knowledge because if I did, it would no longer be apart from me. I would have control over my life. I would know.
Perhaps because I was in a crystal store, these marbles were agate and jasper and other opaque gemstones rather than glass like the ones I remembered from my childhood. Setting aside my protective stones on the counter for a moment, I submerged the tips of my fingers in the bowl of marbles and savored their cool smoothness. I lingered over one or two that immediately caught my attention—bright and striped like scoops from some sort of extraterrestrial fruits. But I eventually chose a marble that, while not dazzling in appearance, was made all the more appetizing by its milky coloring. I didn’t dare touch it to my lips, though. I didn’t feel ready yet.
Retrospection is its own form of magical thinking, and considering the marble today, it’s clear to me that I wasn’t ready to devour an understanding. Or rather, I wasn’t able to admit to an understanding of my life because, before going to the tarot reader, I already knew that my marriage was ending. When I claimed to want to know what was on the other side of that year to come, what I meant was that I wanted someone else to say the truth aloud. The tarot reader wasn’t a psychic then, just an empath. I thought I could hold a marble in my mouth in place of the words I lacked. Because although I had been sad before in my life, devastated even, I had never spoken this language of loss before, and I didn’t possess the vocabulary to explain it to myself, let alone to others.
But perhaps it also felt too tender to even get close to the place where my words were formed, and that is why I kept the marble in my pocket, next to that solar system of protective crystals. My mouth was too powerful, with its ability to render a prophecy true if I spoke it aloud. If I opened my mouth for the marble, who knew what other words would tumble out and what havoc would be wreaked, whose heart would be broken? And yet what cannot be said must still be felt. The experience of separation was so overwhelming that it demanded a somatic, almost animalistic reckoning instead of a spoken one. Of course it did.
There were many other unfamiliar and immutable desires in my body around that time of heartbreak. My first ever IUD was inserted a few days before I left for Brooklyn. The searing procedure was a convenient and optimistic distraction, allowing me the grounding experience of scheduling and prepping for my appointment while also giving me the space to imagine a future of protected sex with someone new or possibly, just maybe, someones plural. But even more so, the resulting pain in my abdomen provided a corporeal analogue to the emotional anguish I could not express otherwise. I cramped and bled for months after, the pain eventually becoming an assumed condition of my daily existence. If you had asked my body then, it would’ve said exactly what I could not: This hurts.
There were other symbolic translations and signs, too, beyond the tarot reading. A few weeks before I moved out, the first ring given to me by my husband snapped in half while still on my finger. I was driving to a parking structure between work meetings so that I could cry alone in my car, and the silver band just seemed to dissolve into two. Like my marriage, I can assume there had been a weak point in its arc that I didn’t notice, the silver becoming thinner each day until it could no longer hold itself together. I had practically begged him for that ring after we encountered it by chance in a store. It was the perfect representation of how I wanted to feel in our relationship, with its chip of a diamond embedded next to its engraved sentiment: “Loved.”
On one of our last evenings together before I moved out, my husband ran the garbage disposal and it jammed against a hard object. He reached in and extracted one of my pieces of protective jade, left behind from when I was washing my stones of his mother’s bad energy. I didn’t tell him what it was or how it ended up there, and he didn’t ask.
I arrived in Brooklyn, and the coincidences followed. For a short time, I dated a guitarist who moonlighted as a bartender, or maybe it was the other way around. Late one night when I was killing time in Washington Square Park while waiting for him to finish his shift, I was approached by a boy. I knew he was a boy, only twenty, because he told me but also because I made him show me his ID. Elliott—the same name as my husband—was from Seattle, and he didn’t know why he was in New York City. He told me I looked scary but also that I was so pretty, like a beautiful twenty-three-year-old Puerto Rican from the Bronx. He told me he just wanted into my vibes, cracked himself up, and then gasped when I told him that I was not Puerto Rican but half-Filipina, originally from Los Angeles, and that I was thirty-one. He said he’d take the L train to Brooklyn for me anyway. He was staying at a Marriott on a stolen credit card, down from Boston University with “some dudes” he knew, who’d goaded him into talking to me. He promised he was not a skateboarder or date rapist like everyone else he knew at school. He was a sophomore at BU but knew all the senior soccer players at my alma mater in upstate New York, and, according to him, it was “a great school.” He wasn’t even that wasted, just stressed about the stolen credit card. If I wanted to have the best night ever, I should go with him and his friends.
I recognized this college boy’s manic brazenness in a previous version of myself, and for just a brief moment I was tempted to follow him. If I had in fact still been twenty-three and still lived off the L train—because those two things had once been true—and if I had actually believed that he wasn’t that drunk, I probably would’ve gone with him; adventure often trumped reason during that naively hedonistic period of my early twenties in New York. However, I was in my thirties and living off the F train in a less cool part of Brooklyn. And also, a few years before that night, I’d made the most audacious of all choices: I’d promised a man, in front of everyone who knew us, that I would love and stay with him forever, only to later learn that I was no longer a choice he would’ve made. I had since learned to be somewhat more reasonable in my decision-making.
“Goodnight, Elliott,” I called out to the retreating boy and, in doing so, repeated an exact sentiment I had uttered hundreds and maybe even thousands of times before, each time, including this one, intending it as a loving release into the dark. Then I turned back toward the arch in the park and continued to wait for the guitarist’s shift to end.
The guitarist was the opposite of my husband in almost every way imaginable. For this alone, but for many other reasons, he was another placeholder, his own form of translation for what I could not put words to. But it didn’t mean that it hurt any less when our fling ended. I still didn’t possess the language then to give shape to my pain, but I did start to think about using my words again in the future, drafting a list of things I should write about someday: “Bartenders I Have Fucked and Maybe Loved”; “Bathrooms I Have Shared”; “Rings I Have Worn.” Instead of writing about these things then, I sipped twelve-dollar smoothies delivered directly to my front door while I watched season after season of Frasier on my couch. Days later, when I did finally leave my apartment, I walked around the American Museum of Natural History by myself and cried when I read a display on the deaths of Theodore Roosevelt’s mother and wife within hours of each other. The plaque bore a photo of Roosevelt’s diary entry that day, just a large black “X” on lined paper with a single sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”
A few weeks after the museum sojourn, I took the A train alone to the beach with the intention of breaking an egg into the Atlantic. The night before, I’d attended a women’s-only energy healing circle at the urging of a sympathetic friend who knew the witch leading the ritual. If I’d had no qualms before about soliciting a tarot reader’s interpretation, I also did not see any reason to refuse a witch’s. So I sat among a handful of other afflicted women on a concrete floor, situated around a giant hand-painted eye, the eye witnessing us with its startling blue iris and we witnessing each other. No one spoke except the witch, but our pain required no translation. If love is a universal language, then so is pain—most especially so in a room full of aggrieved women.
The witch asked us all to embody our pain. I wish I could recall if this felt easy or difficult, if it was agonizing or cathartic to endure, but all I remember is that I did not cry like the others. After sufficient conjuring, when the trauma was closer to the surface of our skin, the witch instructed us to rub an egg all over our bodies so that we might transfer our pain to it. In my hand, the egg reminded me of the marble: cold, hard, unswallowable, necessary to possess. I dragged it lightly, thoughtfully, up and down my limbs, across my chest and abdomen, along my shoulders and back.
After the cleansing, we placed our eggs in plastic takeout containers filled with cornmeal so we could transport them to a large body of water for disposal without incurring further psychic harm. I took my sealed egg and went to the bar next door to have a drink with the witch. Round objects seemingly beget more round objects in my life, so we played a game of pool, I taking immense satisfaction with each hard thump of the cue stick against the ball. Of course, the guitarist walked in just then with his own intentions of having a pool game with friends. Part of the reason I had agreed to participate in the circle in the first place was because the space with the painted eye on the floor shared a wall with the guitarist’s favorite watering hole. The witch watched me as the guitarist approached. However, I was no longer waiting for him; I trusted the witch like I had trusted the tarot reader—not necessarily with my future but with my already existing present. So just as the cards had told me what I already knew, the egg lifted away what was ready to be cleansed. Now I had the egg in the cornmeal and the pool balls lined up, both waiting for me to dispatch them.
Looking out of the window of the A train the next morning on my way to the beach, the contained egg in my lap, I saw an old graveyard I’d never noticed before, which made me think of Teddy Roosevelt’s black “X.” It was overcast and already chilly when I got off the subway, despite it being just a week after Labor Day, but I appreciated the ambient moodiness and subsequently deserted shoreline. When I dug my bare feet into the clammy sand and plucked the egg from the container, I wasn’t moved to cradle it as I had the marble. I held it tentatively between my thumb and forefinger instead, aware of how delicate it was despite its heaviness. I didn’t want to crack its shell before I was ready, so I lay down on the sand instead. I closed my eyes against the glaring gray sky and, in an attempt to mimic the ritual with the witch, I concentrated hard on finding the heartache in my body, identifying it some moments later as a hollowness in my chest and stomach and as a tingly weakness in my fingers, still holding the egg. I might not have been able to grieve in words yet, but at least I could give the sorrow enough shape to locate it.
I stayed on my back for a long, long time, just breathing. When I finally did wade into the whitewash and throw the egg into the oncoming waves, I never actually saw the shell break. I knew it must have happened, though, because the subway train car I boarded back to the city was empty, and I sang along to the song in my headphones, out loud, at the top of my lungs. When I reached for the marble, still carried in my pocket, I only thought to lick it.
I stopped carrying the crystals and the marble around the time my divorce was final, but I returned to the water often. Sometimes it was the train to the beach, when it was warm enough; sometimes it was a stream on a weekend trip upstate. Most frequently, it was the lap pool at my local YMCA. I had never been a strong swimmer, but when I grieved the guitarist and started to grieve my marriage, when I finally had the room to make a new life with myself, one aspect I desired for my identity was to be a woman who swam laps in the morning. It didn’t pan out exactly as I wanted—I only had time to swim at night, for one. But I did swim. I even took lessons with other aspiring adults to perfect my freestyle and master my flip turn, building an awareness of my body with every stroke. And when I returned to my hometown of Los Angeles a few years later, I translated my laps to the local pool here.
Like all translations, though, the outcome is subjective. Last week, I did a flip turn, but the pool here is shallower than the one in Brooklyn by nearly five feet, so I smacked my forehead on the hard tiles lining the bottom of my lane. The goose egg that emerged was a convenient talisman of sorts, one that I found myself mindlessly caressing in the days following the botched flip turn. The touching bordered on compulsive, and if I was writing this a week ago, I’d be rubbing my forehead the whole time. Because even though it was tender and bruised, the echo of pain I felt when I gently stroked it wasn’t altogether unpleasant, calling to mind another egg in another body of water and, before that, a marble I used to want to hold in my mouth.
Claire Salinda is a writer from Los Angeles and New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Assay, Thrillist, and Pen and Ink, among others, and has been supported by the Prospect Street Writers House. She is an MFA candidate in literature and nonfiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars and is currently working on an essay collection that engages with the themes of identity, desire, sexuality, power, and place, through the lens of a mixed-race Asian woman in America. Sometimes she writes about surfing, too. Claire lives in LA, where she reads tarot and consults with companies on creative operations.
“On Raking Up the Dead” by Ben Reed
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “On Raking Up the Dead,” a nonfiction finalist in our 2022 Perkoff Prize contest for writing about health and medicine, Ben Reed considers some striking similarities between the plague years in Prussia and public response to COVID-19 in the United States.
On Raking Up the Dead
How the unusual afterlife of a Prussian servant sheds light on social-media comeuppance in the time of COVID-19.
Were it unlawful to speak ill of the dead, it would follow that no histories ought to be wrote.
–Andrew Le Mercier
A Treatise Against Detraction, 1733
In his fascinating 1905 chronicle, A History of the Plague in East Prussia*, German historian Wilhelm Sahm recounts a curious incident during an epidemic that ravaged the Baltic region in the early 1700s. In March 1710, a domestic worker named Barbara Thutin was found criminally responsible for fatally infecting both herself and her employer with plague. Following something akin to contact tracing, the civil and sanitary authorities in Königsberg determined that Thutin had stolen clothing from one of the many houses deserted through exodus or death and that she had taken in a sick relative without her employer’s consent. However, by the time the judiciary handed down its decision, Thutin was already dead and buried. What happened next is astonishing: Barbara Thutin’s body was exhumed from its burial place in the new churchyard, and on the following day, it was hanged, inside its coffin, from a gallows. After being left on display for three days, body and coffin were cut down and burned to ash. Dead or not, there was still a price to be paid, if only symbolically.
By the start of 1710, Prussian state and ecclesiastical authorities were already struggling to mitigate an unprecedented crisis. Central Europe had been wracked by outbreaks of plague since the Black Death in the late 1340s, but this latest epidemic, one of the very last plagues to afflict Europe, was the deadliest wave ever in some parts of Prussia, Estonia, and Lithuania. A consequence of the Great Northern War between the Swedish Empire and the Tsardom of Russia, infection spread across the region as far as Germany and Sweden, killing between one quarter and two thirds of the populace where it struck the hardest. Many died from hunger, as agricultural production was virtually halted. And because the farmlands in the worst-affected areas of Prussia were predominantly owned by the crown, the bottom fell out of the national economy. Attempts to throttle the spread of plague were insufficient or tragically delayed. Despite widespread understanding of the threat of epidemic, early cases were downplayed until the disease had taken root, after which news of the devastation was hyperbolically exaggerated, undermining trust in the state’s authority, particularly in the new sanitary ordinances. The missteps were many, leading to civil unrest. In the autumn of 1709, after the closure of the eastern capital city of Königsberg, the “fiery, irascible Pietist” and professor of theology Heinrich Lysius—later accused of being “a Cartesian and Copernican”—gave a sermon in which he rebuked threats by the authorities to hang citizens who might attempt to break through the plague barrier outside the city, suggesting instead that the people who deserved to be hanged were those who ordered the city to be closed, as they were the ones who had done the most to increase general misfortune. The sermon was later confiscated.
Writing almost two hundred years later, the historian and schoolteacher Wilhelm Sahm wistfully observes, “How should the epidemic be stopped under these circumstances! After all, it may be difficult to absolve the state authorities of individual mistakes, but it would mean misjudging the facts, if one were to unjustly attribute the whole severity of the problem to them.”
The difficulty of contending with early mistakes, disinformation, social disorder, and widespread distrust of government health officials are just the beginning of the similarities between the plague years in Prussia and the public response to coronavirus in the United States today. Sahm writes that unrestricted personal movement and simple carelessness contributed to the early spread of the disease across Prussia. Economic trade tapered off in numerous sectors, leading to high unemployment. The cost of goods spiked. Jews, foreigners, and the homeless were targets of suspicion. City streets were filled with turbulence and mayhem. Robbery and violent crime rose sharply, precipitating the formation of armed night watches. Citizen militias—or Bürgerwache—frequently clashed with police, who in turn were given enhanced latitude to battle mobs and quell riots. Agitators such as Professor Doktor Lysius were censored and punished for giving provocative speeches. Many Prussians sought bizarre folk remedies with no empirically observed history of efficacy, and some attempted to worsen the outbreak by decapitating plague corpses, in the belief that this would strew plague-causing poisons. One government doctor bemoaned the populace’s “foolish resistance” to the sanitary ordinances, and the “mindless defiance” of infected patients who stubbornly refused the prescribed remedies. He complained that the threat of the most common punishment—public lashing with a braided whip—was “not respected at all” and speculated “whether a harsher example should not be made.”
In the spring of 1710, officials in plague-beleaguered Königsberg must have thought that Barbara Thutin, owing partly to her social status as a servant and partly to her being dead, could provide an opportunity to make a sufficiently harsh example. Previously, violators of plague edicts were publicly whipped or put in a stockade, but state warnings that more serious penalties—life imprisonment, or execution—would be handed down were understood to be disingenuous, even by the Berlin Medical Council responsible for issuing them. State authorities and the citizenry were seemingly of the same mind that it would be an injustice to hang an individual just for trying to escape the daily miseries of urban quarantine or find food or do a little commerce, at least not while public morale was already so low. Such callous punishments would cause only more rioting, whereas Barbara Thutin was not only dead; she had done something that had reliably increased one’s chances of being executed for centuries in Prussia: she had contributed to the death of her employer. Her corpse could be hanged and burned, almost as an effigy, with little threat of backlash. Just as astonishing, this gambit seems to have elicited a promising response. Three months later, Prussian state authorities prompted the clergy to read a new edict from the pulpits, announcing, in effect, that Barbara Thutin’s posthumous punishment had been promulgated into law, with notable expansion. In June 1710, church leaders warned parishioners that anyone who died after violating the sanitary ordinances would be considered a suicide and that their body would be exhumed and publicly hanged by the judiciary. The clergy also proclaimed, “The same punishment would also apply to those who died after refusing to take the prescribed medications.”
Today, inflicting physical punishment on a dead body strikes one as both ludicrous and ghastly. In fact, postmortem punishment was commonplace in medieval and premodern Europe, and the castigation of those who died by suicide persisted much longer. Ignominies and abuses were inflicted upon suicide corpses in many parts of Western Europe until the early 1800s in a diverse range of rituals and state-sanctioned practices that all underscored a general repugnance toward the body of a person who had died by their own hand. What was exceptional about Barbara Thutin was not the calculated mistreatment of her remains but the postmortem administrative recategorization of her death by disease as a suicide and the development of this recategorization into policy. Once Thutin had been officially designated responsible for her own death, her remains became available for public humiliation.
In Europe, well into the 1700s, the bodies of those who committed suicide were frequently subjected to public indignity, such as being dragged through the streets or transported in the same cart that carried condemned criminals to the gallows before being left on public display. In England, stakes were sometimes hammered through the hearts of suicide corpses. Typically, across cultures and over centuries, the principal chastisement was the denial of proper burial. Bodies were burned and cast into a river or corpses were exposed and left to be ravaged by animals and the elements. In Ireland, suicide corpses were buried at the seashore. In southern Germany, these bodies were sometimes sent downriver in barrels in a practice called “running” or even used as bait for wolf hunts. Frequently the job of handling the body of a suicide was left to the hangman, the same local figure often tasked with killing rabid dogs, running lepers out of town, and cleaning out cesspits. Willful suicide committed by an outwardly sane person was a crime and a sin, widely understood to be the result of diabolical or supernatural intervention, rendering such bodies untouchable, out of a fear that physical contact might transmit demonic enchantment. As a consequence, the place of final interment was often adjacent to the gallows or in the same potter’s field where executed criminals were buried.
In 1710, faced with the difficult task of reducing criminality and mitigating the spread of disease within an unruly population, the Prussian state needed an opportunity to demonstrate natural authority. This was achieved not simply through the dreadful spectacle of exhuming, hanging, and burning Barbara Thutin’s body, but also by playing on a deeply seated cultural revulsion of suicide and the awful implications of being denied interment in hallowed ground—of being not simply unremembered by one’s own community, but deliberately ostracized from human society, even after death.
In Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany, 1600-1987, Richard J. Evans observes that suicide alone was not traditionally a cause for posthumous execution in medieval or early modern Europe. Despite the litany of degradations and physical insults commonly inflicted upon the corpses of suicides, the hanging or beheading of the dead was generally reserved for criminals who had killed themselves in order to escape capital punishment. Such was the case of Johann Lätsch of Erfurt in 1806, who was condemned to die on the wheel but committed suicide the night before. The local authorities decided to “execute” his corpse, as “the intention of the law is that the sentence shall be carried out on suicides of this kind, as far as is possible, to serve as an example for the deterrence of others.” In 1704, a Vienna newspaper reported on a man who was accused of murdering his wife but who had committed suicide before his sentence could be carried out. His body was dragged to the place of execution, where the executioner beheaded him with an ordinary shovel. In Upper Lusatia in 1647, a domestic worker strangled her employer’s young child before hanging herself, and afterward her body was similarly dragged to the gallows and beheaded by shovel. Perhaps the most famous example of posthumous execution in premodern Western Europe is the Utrecht statesman Gilles van Ledenberg, who was due to stand trial for treasonous activity against the Prince of Orange but preemptively cut his own throat with a bread knife. Like Barbara Thutin, van Ledenberg was later exhumed and hanged in his coffin. Again and again in premodern Europe, the bodies of criminals who attempted to elude justice by taking their own lives were subjected to postmortem or simulated execution, while “regular” suicides were not punished in the same way.
Of course, the public castigation of suicide corpses and the social spectacle of capital punishment are similar in obvious, meaningful ways. Both are elements of social control intended to terrify and shame; both implicitly intend to condemn and deter; and both are ritual performances concerned with the sanctification of the community. However, the capital punishment of criminals who commit suicide carries a specific additional meaning: namely, that the death of a transgressor will not frustrate the community’s entitlement to justice. If a murderer kills himself in the jail to avoid being bludgeoned to death in front of a crowd—well, there would still have to be a bludgeoning because there would still be an expectant crowd. To borrow a phrase, The show must go on.
Given the uncanny similarities between the Prussian epidemic of the early 1700s and the response to COVID-19 in the United States today, it should not be surprising that the practice of postmortem mortification has also been resurrected. This time, the posthumously flogged are social media users who employed their online platforms to stridently downplay the seriousness of coronavirus and to undermine trust in the mRNA vaccines, only to later die from COVID-19. While this reckoning against the transgressive dead involves rhetoric and ridicule, not literal disinterment and physical obliteration, the abuse remains retributive, grounded in a sense of cosmic justice, and very much intended for public consumption.
By midyear of 2021, after vaccines had become widely available, many in the U.S. were well past feeling alarm and frustration at the sizable number of unvaccinated Americans who disputed the deadliness of COVID-19, questioned the safety of the new vaccines, and casually undermined basic mitigation strategies. By September 2021, consternation at this mixture of impudence and fatalism had found an outlet in a mordantly entertaining genre of videos on TikTok. Content creators began making montages of social media posts by individuals who amplified vaccine disinformation and derided mask-wearing before dying—ironically but predictably—from causes secondary to COVID-19.
These TikTok montages follow a fairly rigid template. Act I consists of several screenshots of a social media user’s posts, often citing contrafactual research or promoting dubious COVID-19 remedies such as hydroxychloroquine and veterinary ivermectin. Act II has begun when the user shares that they’ve become infected. The posts then focus on their worsening condition. Act III is typically a single frame announcing the subject’s death, either a screenshot of an obituary or a social media post written in memoriam by a family member. Sometimes TikTok creators superimpose themselves over the montage to editorialize and pontificate, dryly or maliciously. Some accounts provide no narration. When music is present, a staple soundtrack is Heinz Kiessling’s “Blue Blood,” best known as the theme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Snark such as this can make the viewer uneasy, as it underscores the medium’s maximal impoliteness and how vigorously these videos breach the ancient social proscription against disparaging the recently deceased. It is not just our bodies that find sanctuary in the tomb.
TikTok creator @…secretlytiktoking has created many solid examples of the genre, such as when she focuses on social media posts made by a Colorado man named Scott Hilliard, whom she describes as an “anti-vaxxer.” In a series of Facebook posts, Hilliard makes statements like, “Take the mask off dumbass democrat,” and “If you get this vaccine your [sic] about a fucking idiot.” Hilliard promises that anyone who tries to forcefully vaccinate him “will die by my hands.” In ACT II, the posts detail Hilliard’s extreme illness: “I’m so dizzy… shit,” “I’m going down hill [sic] fast… my freaking lungs,” “My dear God this covid is kicking my ass,” “My heart feels like it’s going to explode, it hurts to move,” and “Not knowing what lies ahead of me for tonight Is giving me anxiety through the roof.” Then a post announces that an ambulance has been called. Then Hilliard asks for prayers. Act III is Hilliard’s profile picture, in which he is proudly displaying a fish he has just caught in open water. @…secretlytiktoking informs us that Halliard died on November 15, 2021, at the age of forty-two. There is no background music and throughout the video the creator’s tone is flat with occasional notes of wistfulness and melancholy, as if she has been numbed by the never-ending supply of similar stories she has tasked herself with recapitulating.
One of the more prolific and recognizable contributors to several varieties of COVID-related TikTok content is @crazymotherrunner, who shares and explicates public health information and contradicts disinformation. @crazymotherrunner has accrued over a half million followers and over 21 million likes because she is sharp but relatable, winsome even as she scolds. Unlike others, @crazymotherrunner tends to reserve her comeuppance content for public figures, such as South Carolina Republican Party chair Pressley Stutts, who used his Facebook account to voice resistance to lockdowns and what he saw as unwarranted panic in response to COVID-19. In Act II of a montage video made by @crazymotherrunner, Stutts shares updates on his month-long battle with the virus, much of it in the ICU, which ends with Stutts preparing to be ventilated. Viewers learn that Stutts died shortly after. This time Act III is followed by an encore, as @crazymotherrunner adds a coda on cognitive dissonance, displaying a memorial Facebook post by conservative activist and celebrity attorney L. Lin Wood, who theorizes that the pandemic is being used to partisan ends, because “Only republicans are dying of covid.” @crazymotherrunner also made a video of posts by conservative radio host Phil Valentine, who used social media to make false equivalencies about vaccine safety before dying from complications related to COVID-19. @crazymotherrunner’s closing line for that video: “Is it just me, or is there like, a theme here?”
In terms of antipathetic commentary, however, @crazymotherrunner is hardly extreme. In September 2021, Minnesota-based TikTokker @mikeypiv contributed several montage videos to the comeuppance genre, including a TikTok made with screencapped Facebook posts by a man named Doug Pothul, beginning with a post in which Pothul disputes media claims that COVID-19 is widespread by arguing, “I don’t know anybody that has it.” @mikeypiv offers a disdainfully sardonic narration for a series of slides in which Pothul chronicles his infection and symptoms, shares an image of an “Unvaccinated Lives Matter” T-shirt, and looks forward to overcoming the virus so he can enjoy his “natural immunity.” The last image in the montage is a screenshot from an online obituary reporting Pothul’s premature death at fifty-eight. @mikeypiv says, “Well, at least now you know someone who’s had it.”
The online ridicule of outspoken antivaxxers and pandemic deniers who subsequently died from COVID-19 is by no means limited to TikTok. The website sorryantivaxxer.com is a compendium of social-media reportage on the deaths of “anti-vaxxer [activists] who helped spread COVID-19 misinformation on social media.” There is a private Facebook group titled “My new kink is watching antivaxxers die of Covid.” Twitter is frequently a forum for freestyle comeuppance content, such as a January 2022 tweet by comedian Laurie Kilmartin, who shared the link to a Daily Beast article titled, “QAnon Star Who Said Only ‘Idiots’ Get Vax Dies of COVID,” commenting, “Would be great if these people could get deprogrammed instead of infected oh well.” And finally there is a popular subreddit dedicated to bestowing “Herman Cain Awards,” a reference to the Darwin Awards—sarcastic accolades posthumously conferred upon those “who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool”—as well as one-time presidential candidate Herman Cain, who became one of the first notable right-wing figures to succumb to COVID-19 shortly after downplaying the severity of the disease. (In a bizarre turn, Cain’s Twitter account continued to operate after his death, including a tweet that read, “It looks like the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be.”)
Almost everywhere that COVID comeuppance media appears online, commenters roundly indict the content-makers for their ghoulishness and toxicity, accusing them of reveling in the deaths of those to whom they feel intellectually and morally superior. Often at least one commenter will invoke the ancient mortuary aphorism, “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” Inevitably, the same question arises: Is content like this a public service, bolstering faith in a new form of vaccine—or is it just schadenfreude? In other words, is humorously highlighting the death of a vocal anti-vaxxer from coronavirus disease an attempt to demonstrate that anti-vaccine rhetoric and “planedemic” conspiracy theories are harmful to the public good, or is content like this no more meaningful than raking up dead dissidents for a few gratifying kicks?
In 2015, psychology researchers at Emory University postulated “a novel tripartite taxonomy” for schadenfreude, or the experience of pleasure or satisfaction at witnessing the failure and suffering of others, which they found is motivated by aggression, rivalry, and a sense of justice. Psychologist C. W. Leach, who was cited by the Emory researchers, connects schadenfreude with gloating and attributes the emotion to social and political polarization. Leach has said, “[It’s] not just taking a little pleasure in somebody’s misfortune […] In many ways, it’s seeing your enemies suffer because of what they believe. That is the sweetest justice, and that’s partly why it’s so satisfying.” Researchers in child psychology at the University of Haifa have suggested that this reflex arises in us as part of our resistance to unfairness and inequality. Schadenfreude isn’t wicked, it follows “the termination of an unequal situation.” The psychologist Norman Feather, who has studied schadenfreude for three decades, has repeatedly argued that the degree to which we enjoy schadenfreude depends on the “perceived deservingness” of the person or group to whom the central misfortune has befallen. For example: If we watch a Dallas Cowboys linebacker get knocked unconscious, we worry for his well-being. But if he gets knocked out two plays after taking a cheap shot at our team’s quarterback, well, that’s practically a morality play.
As robust as the clinical investigation into schadenfreude has been in recent years, the diagnostic terminology retains semantic problems, specifically when it comes to the putative relationship between satisfaction and suffering. It cannot be true that every TikTok user who clicks the little heart icon over a COVID comeuppance video is in fact savoring the real fear, pain, and distress a stranger endured as they approached an undignified and untimely death. More likely, what is most gratifying about these TikToks is how squarely the bad logic and junk science of the TikTok’s Act I are countermanded by the implacable truth of Acts II and III. A cause has met its anticipated effect.
TikTok comeuppance videos confirm the viewer’s assumptions about the world—in this case, that they did the right thing by trusting the science, by depriving themselves of social contact and small errands, by giving Anthony Fauci the benefit of the doubt. They seem to offer unimpeachable proof that we live in an ordered, knowable world of action and reaction. Such a perception of sense and stability in the face of naysayers can lead to faith in reason beyond reason and a level of self-congratulation almost narcotic in how well it satisfies our desire to be right, even as it suppresses our compassion for strangers and their predicaments. It’s also a kind of enchantment, fogging out the reality that vaccine status cannot fairly be correlated to justice or morality, at least not when one’s vaccine status is also correlated to their wealth, race, level of education, and nationality. These TikToks are proof that what ultimately matters to at least some of us, at least some of the time, is belief in a world where people get what they deserve. To reconsider these TikToks as a product of the same drives that once led to the ritualized erasure of the dead is to wonder if we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe it’s not whether this comeuppance content is public service or just schadenfreude. Maybe the schadenfreude is the public service. Maybe what the public wants is not necessarily the good of the public but moral clarity above all else.
When the anti-vaccine proselytizing and COVID denial of the deceased are recontextualized, certain liberal and progressive spaces on the putatively secular, science-loving Internet are ritualistically sanctified, the way medieval villages were once purified with violence after the sudden interruption of a suicide. Here again, it is not the trespasses of the dead in life that comprise the underlying offense, but their death itself. What good is being vindicated in a moral and ideological schism—a schism that calls into question the very epistemological framework of scientific rationalism—if one is denied the ultimate satisfaction: the biologically impossible situation in which an avid COVID-19 denier or anti-vaxxer gets sick and dies from COVID-19, yet also remains attendant and accountable, able to bear witness to their error? What is the common end of empirical and rationalist modes of thinking if not to change hearts by uncovering that which is indisputable? But the dead do not capitulate, and so justice will always feel elusive. And so some of us may find ourselves wending down the path to the graveyard, carrying shovels and rope.
*Title translated from the German Geschichte der Pest in Ostpreußen.
Ben Reed often writes about politeness, medicine, and dystopia. Find him on Twitter: @BenFromAustin. His essays have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Texas Review, and online at The Millions. His short stories have appeared in Pank, Seattle Review, West Branch, and online at Tin House. Ben teaches literature and creative writing at Texas State University and lives in East Austin. He is currently at work on both an essay collection and a novel.
“Sweet Feet” by Amy Shea
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “Sweet Feet,” essayist Amy Shea reflects on her discoveries during a summer spent volunteering as a foot-care assistant for Boston’s homeless population. The essay was a finalist in our 2022 Perkoff Prize contest for writing about health and medicine.
by Amy Shea
When I first met Rebecca, I was taken aback by her stature; she was thin, so thin, likely weighing no more than a hundred pounds. She was missing some teeth, and she kept her hair short, complaining of sometimes intense head pain. Her skin clung to her bones, and she walked with a cane. She was less than ten years older than I: in her late forties. Some days, she would come in spirited and energized, one time regaling us with a story of doing free sessions of goat yoga that had been offered near South Station. Other days, she’d come in more subdued and would sit quietly, not making eye contact.
It was 2018, and for the summer I was volunteering as a foot care assistant at a day shelter for homeless persons. Walking is a primary mode of transport for many homeless; therefore, foot health needs to be addressed with those experiencing homelessness. Problems can include athlete’s foot, foot pain, improperly fitting shoes, immersion foot, calluses, corns, blisters, and loss of toes due to untreated infection or frostbite. The most common ailments we saw in the clinic were blisters from ill-fitting shoes, as well as athlete’s foot and immersion foot from wet and dirty socks and from using shared showers in the shelters.
Dr. Jim O’Connell is the founder and president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), which opened in 1985. In its thirty-plus years, it has grown into a behemoth of safe spaces for those in need, its jewel being the Barbara McInnis House, the 104-bed medical respite unit on the main campus, plus additional sites around Greater Boston, including the foot care clinic inside St. Francis House, where I volunteered. The main campus, situated in downtown Boston across the street from Boston Medical Center, offers a plethora of services, including a dental clinic, a pharmacy, an eye clinic, an outpatient clinic for regular doctor visits for both adults and families, specialty care for those living with HIV, support for transgender people, a behavioral health unit, a substance use disorder unit, as well as a street team that meets a subgroup of homeless people (those sleeping the roughest of the rough) who can’t or won’t enter a shelter.
Dr. O’Connell wrote about his experience as a street doctor in the book Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor. The first chapter, “The Footsoak,” leads the reader through O’Connell’s entry into street medicine, where he first began tending to the feet (and other ailments) of homeless people in Boston’s oldest and largest shelter, Pine Street Inn. O’Connell writes:
In keeping with the obvious biblical allusion, the footsoak inverts the usual power structure and places the caregiver at the feet of each patient and far from the head…After wandering the city for hours, suffering exposure to the extremes of weather, and then standing in a series of queues awaiting entrance to the shelter, a bed ticket, and the evening meal, homeless persons relished the chance to sit and rest while someone cleansed and soothed their feet. (16)
Having read about Dr. O’Connell’s experience, I was compelled to apply as a foot-care assistant. Although I’d never been homeless, as a hiker and someone who didn’t own a car and therefore walked nearly everywhere, I understood the role that feet play in our health. Without healthy feet, so much of our autonomy can quickly be lost.
Leading up to my first day, I was given the foot-care assistant duties and responsibilities sheet that outlined the basics of what I’d be doing: setting up basins for foot soaks and working with nurses to assess the condition of patients’ feet, distributing socks and towels to patients, assisting patients with the application of creams and powder for the feet, engaging patients in conversation (to establish rapport, which can result in the identification of further medical issues), disinfecting and washing basins, and assisting with restocking medical supplies and other administrative tasks. Yet I was still unsure what it would actually be like. I was nervous about the unknown: what the place would look, feel, sound, and smell like. I was concerned about whether I’d do a good job and be able to follow procedures and processes. I worried about trying to remember when you needed gloves on versus when you needed to take them off. What if I was bad at handling someone’s feet? Or didn’t know how to talk to the patients? Or got in the way of the medical staff?
Ultimately, I understood that I couldn’t know it all and that my fears wouldn’t be assuaged until I got there and began putting my training into practice. But I hadn’t expected to be schooled on the importance of something as seemingly small as the sock and its power to heal, to comfort, to offer a small moment of feeling human—of feeling normal.
How often do you think about socks? Socks get dirty and wet. Of course, I knew that. But that knowledge was now placed in a new context. I had never thought about what might happen if you couldn’t clean or easily replace your socks, and it hadn’t occurred to me just how quickly they became unwearable.
Before volunteering in the clinic, my sock buying had always happened passively. I’d be in Target and know that my husband had more holey socks than not, so I’d throw a pack into the cart for him and then wind my way through to the women’s department, where I’d see some ankle socks and think, Yeah, I could use some new ones too. Those packs of socks would then get absorbed into the cost of all the other Target purchases. But when I started going to the store explicitly to buy socks for the shelter, I was taken aback. I’d think, What do you mean it’s fourteen dollars for a six-pack of men’s crew socks? ‘Expect More. Pay Less’ my ass.
Here’s the thing: not all socks are created equal. I could have bought cheaper socks, but they wouldn’t have had the same padding, softness, or weight to them. A better-quality sock will go further in keeping blisters at bay, something that all too often plagues those who are homeless, because if you can’t afford a home or food, you also probably can’t afford a taxi or an Uber. Even a bus ride is likely out of your means, which leaves you walking miles upon miles to pick up your Social Security check, meet your social workers, get to the doctor, go to the foot clinic, and then, finally, head to the shelter for the night, where you’ll leave your socks on after that long day of walking and sleep with your shoes under your head. But as they say, Boston is a walkable city—thank God for small favors.
Most of the socks in the clinic came from donations. Some socks were individual one-off donations. Sometimes people would coordinate sock drives among their friends and family and bring in a larger haul. The biggest donations the clinic received came from the annually coordinated effort between BHCHP and the Red Sox baseball team: Sox for Socks. In 2017, more than four thousand socks were collected.
Of course, I should have expected to have more than just my ignorance of socks eliminated. One day when I came in for my volunteer shift, I wore a T-shirt from the local REI store that had an image of evergreen trees and “Take It Outside” written beneath. It was the first time I’d worn a shirt with writing on it into the clinic. I generally figured it was better to avoid this so as not to offend someone: no sports teams or sayings that could be otherwise contentious. But going outside, being out of doors, what was offensive about that? But what happens when you take something and place it in a new context? What might be considered virtuous or admirable can become mocking and distancing. One man pointed at my shirt as he was bending down to scrub his feet with a small piece of pumice and said, “I’m outside all the time.”
Rebecca wasn’t the only patient who would stand out and hold a space in my memory. On my first day at the clinic, I found myself tickling the feet of a grown man. He plopped down in the chair and boisterously answered the requisite questions on the intake form: name, date of birth, did he have diabetes or any known allergies, had he received a flu shot, did he smoke (we always specified that we meant cigarettes), where his primary care physician was located (at this shelter or somewhere else), and where he spent most nights. He was jovial, and as I examined his feet, he confirmed that he was in fact quite high. Due to his size, he was unable to bend over to take his shoes and socks off and would need help with the process. I crouched down and untied his shoes, placing them to one side, and took each sock off. Then we filled two buckets, one for each foot, as he couldn’t place both in just one bucket. It was hard to miss the large ankle monitor adorning his left leg. He, like so many others, seemed to be in a perpetual state of liminality. While his feet soaked in the warm, soapy water, he regaled the room full of volunteers and other patients with soapbox banter about how certain local universities were known for their love of weed. After ten minutes or so, I took his feet out of the water, toweled them off, and began massaging cream into them. As I massaged, I heard giggling. I looked up at him, and he said, “Girl, that tickles!”
Then there was Mark, a man around my age, who came into the clinic regularly. He was fit and muscular. He looked like a bodybuilder and was someone I would refer to as the invisible homeless. If you saw this man walking down the street, you’d never know that he stayed in a shelter. He was clean-shaven and had no other visual indicators that he might be experiencing homelessness. As Nick Flynn writes in his memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, “Sometimes I point out that eighty percent of the homeless are invisible, like the proverbial iceberg, that when I walk through the city now every other person I see is someone I know from the shelter, but if you didn’t know you’d think they were on their lunch break, enjoying a little sun” (184).
One morning Mark came in deflated and tired and told us about his previous day, which had begun with him needing to do laundry. He’d thought he had money on his card, but when he got to the laundromat, he realized the card was empty, so he retraced the two miles he’d just walked with a forty-pound bag of laundry in tow to get money from someone he knew so that he could go back to the laundromat. First errand over; on to the next. He waited for the bus to take him to the Department of Transitional Assistance—the local social security offices—to pick up his check, but the bus never came. So, he walked there as well. A late-summer afternoon spent walking from errands to chores and back. It was a day to treat himself: McDonald’s. He’d saved enough money for a double cheeseburger—just enough for the burger. But thirst was getting the better of him on this hot and humid New England day. He asked for a free glass of ice water. The woman behind the counter looked at him like he was crazy and hesitated and mulled over his request. He asked again, unable to understand why his question was such a difficult one to answer. Finally, after him asking multiple times, she gave him the water but no ice.
Daniel came in regularly, yet he still struggled to maintain good foot health. Some days he was cheerfully belligerent, and other days he was borderline abusive, depending on how drunk or how sober he was. Whenever he was asked about allergies, his standard reply was, “Is alcohol an allergy?” This was accompanied by a toothless grin, which was not uncommon with homeless alcoholics. His immersion foot was so bad that the entire bottoms of his feet were covered in wet, ghostly white, pockmarked skin. Their condition was always too bad to let him soak, so we just had him apply a lot of powder to his skin and socks. We also gave him two pairs (against the one-sock policy, as stocks always ran low) that he could layer up in a feeble effort to stave off the damp. The first time I took care of his feet, they looked particularly bad, and when I told him, he shrugged. He’d spent the previous rainy night sleeping under a bridge and was soaked through by morning. What was to be expected? All the socks and foot powder in the world were no match for the streets.
Walter, a veteran who lived upstairs, came in one day with an injury to two of his toes. After one look, one of the nurses insisted that he go to the ER. Two of his toes were such a dark purple they were nearly black, and the concern was that he had an infection that could lead to him losing the toes or, worse, the whole foot. He used a cane but could barely walk a block to the pharmacy. The nurse reassured him that she’d put him in a taxi to make sure he got to the hospital. In another instance, I saw the results of infections neglected or hypothermia in the form of lost toes. When I asked one man, who was missing four toes, one of our routine questions about where he spent most nights, he replied, “Streets, sometimes the back of an abandoned car.”
As the end of my time as a volunteer drew new, I encountered a particularly striking patient. He had waited for so long to get into the clinic that day, and although we were technically past closing time, it wasn’t hard to understand why they’d let him in: he was in a bad way. He walked into the room, slowly and deliberately pushing a walker in front of him, which required all his effort and concentration to do so. Thin and frail, he grimaced as he lowered himself into the plastic chair. He winced as we helped him get his feet into the tubs, as they were in severe pain to the gentlest touch.
After soaking, he needed help applying lotion and getting his fresh pair of socks on. I pulled over the leg support stand to rest his foot on, to minimize his pain. I’d touched a lot of feet over my short time there, but as I rubbed the lotion into his legs, I felt scaly, gritty skin through my gloves, as though it would peel off just with my touch. I’d never felt anything like it before, and I had to swallow my shock, as I didn’t want him to see it on my face. To put his socks on, I rolled them down to the toe and maneuvered over his toes (where his pain was the worst), with as little contact as possible. This was so difficult that he had to brace himself to bear the pain.
One of the staff nurses explained that he likely had peripheral neuropathy—diabetic nerve damage leading to pain, numbness, and weakness, usually in the hands and feet. It’s an all-too-common occurrence among homeless people and was something we often saw at the clinic. Without regular access to healthy foods, diabetes rates are high, and for those who are homeless, this can lead to severe complications that might otherwise be avoided through proper management. When you don’t have a safe place to store your medications, your belongings are stolen all the time, you can’t afford to get to the doctor because the bus ride alone is too expensive, or you’re in too poor health to walk the miles you need to, it’s not surprising that something which would be manageable for the housed becomes.
Pain lived in the foot clinic. It came in all forms and intensities, and I dare think that if someone had had the nerve to show the happy-to-sad-face pain scale to some in there, they would have shoved it right up the person’s backside to illustrate what kind of pain they were in. For some, that pain was so limiting that they couldn’t do basic things on their own, such as removing their shoes and socks, placing their feet in a bucket of water, drying them off, then putting everything back on. I often wondered what they did when they weren’t in the clinic and needed to take their shoes or clothes off, use the restroom, or take a shower. Did they have friends who helped, or did they simply not remove their clothing or take showers?
Community is so important, especially in a setting such as the clinic. Staff and volunteers began each morning before opening the clinic with a team meeting, led by Cecilia, the director of nursing. We’d end our meeting by standing in a circle, each of us with a fist extended into the center. We’d pump our arms and chant, “One, two three: SWEET FEET! WOO, WOO, WOO, WOO!”
Our patients were no different. As with any group of people sharing a common experience, they created tight communities that looked out for one another. They shared food; they shared clothing; they shared worries about their friend who heard voices; they shared jokes. We humans need each other.
On my final day at the clinic, I saw Rebecca once more, and she seemed worse than normal. She sat angled on the chair, in evident pain. Every muscle in her face tensed as she winced. She had an abscess on her bottom. Sometimes it’s hard to understand the kind of physical pain someone is experiencing. But I could feel her pain, if only a little. Years earlier I’d had a year-long battle with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)—the scary staph that no one wants—from a tattoo that had become infected. Boils would pop up randomly on my body, the worst being a large one on my lower back, right beneath the waistline of my pants. Even wearing soft yoga pants, I remember hunching over and crying in pain the ten steps from the couch to the kitchen sink. But there’s where any similarity ended. I had a kitchen sink and a couch. I had a place to shelter in. I had doctors throwing every antibiotic at me they could. I was able to keep my wounds clean so that they healed with no subsequent issues.
I took extra care with her that day, cupping her calf—so small it barely filled my palm—in one hand and her heel in the other to lower each foot softly into the warm water and did the same to take them out. I wrapped the towel around her legs like a baby coming out of a bath, massaged the cream into her skin, moving my thumbs in soft circles. It’s such a small thing, but this contact creates a feeling of intimacy—to treat the body in a hands-on way creates a shared humanity between bodies.
Once her socks and shoes were back on, we helped her up, and the director of nursing took her into a room to look at the abscess. I wanted to give Rebecca a big bear hug to show I cared, but I was afraid I would break her. I settled for tucking her feet into a warm pair of socks, tying her shoes, and helping her to stand. Sometimes we need to feel useful, to help, as much as, or more than, we need help. In the beginning of Stories from the Shadows, Dr. O’Connell writes:
Remember that people have lived through hell and listen carefully to their stories…Each guest was invited into the clinic and addressed by name. Most homeless persons wander our urban landscapes for days without ever hearing someone call them by name, and the response was exuberant. Eyes opened, heads lifted, scowls became smiles. (15)
The motto of St. Francis shelter is Homelessness is an experience, not an identity. The clinic embodied this in practice. I’ve never been homeless. I can’t know what it’s like, but in the foot clinic, the physical and mental effects of not having a home are loud and visible. Foot care may not be the ultimate solution, but it does what it’s intended to do well by offering a brief sanctuary from that frenetic space, a sense of renewal and improving health. Dirty and wet socks came in, pained faces and broken bodies came in. A bucket of warm water and soap would be offered up, along with a choice of sock: gold-tipped, thick, thin, high, short, specialty diabetic socks. People soaked their feet, sat quietly, conversed with others, or even dozed off, leaving with clean feet and the comfort of a new pair of socks.
Amy Shea is an essayist with a PhD and MFA in creative writing from the University of Glasgow, where she wrote her doctoral dissertation, a creative nonfiction work titled Not All Deaths Are Created Equal. Her writing has appeared in Pangyrus, Portland Review, The Massachusetts Review, Spry Literary Journal, Fat City Review, From Glasgow to Saturn, End of Life Studies Group Blog, and the Journal of Sociology of Health & Illness. She works as the writing program coordinator for Mount Tamalpais College, a free community college for the incarcerated people of San Quentin.
“Jenny Dies by Jet Ski” by Anna B. Moore
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Anna B. Moore’s sentimental narrative “Jenny Dies by Jet Ski” is a delightful exploration at the intersection of memory, soap operas, and life.
Jenny Dies by Jet Ski
By Anna B. Moore
Two years after my mother left, I decided to use my savings for a nine-inch black-and-white Magnavox television. It cost seventy dollars and took up nearly half the space on the desk in my bedroom.
“She saved up her own money for it,” my father said to everyone: his colleagues at the college, his sister over the telephone, my older brother at the dinner table. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Third grade ended; the second custody hearing began. Dad drank bourbon, read The Mill on the Floss in his recliner or met with lawyers; my brother ran through the alleys of Grinnell, the town where we lived, with his friends. Iowa endlessness. An echo of tires on the street, a bark of neighbors’ dogs on their chains in backyards, a squeak in the hinge of the breadbox door.
I discovered the soap opera One Life to Live. I watched it from my bed, images muted by afternoon light and shadow from my windows—images mostly of Karen Woleck (played by Judith Light, her first role before her launch to fame on Who’s The Boss?). Karen was keeping a secret. She met men in hotel rooms and then drove home to wait for her husband Larry to get home from his job as a surgeon at Llanview Hospital. She was in a constant state of withheld tears, her voice quaking as she took illicit calls on their upstairs phone or told Larry she had to run to the store for a steak and instead drove to the Wallingford Hotel to turn a trick. Her hair was blond and combed back over her head like Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, held in place by what I thought might be scalp grease. Why didn’t Karen wash her hair? How could Larry be unaware that something was incredibly wrong with his wife? He saw patients at Llanview hospital in his white doctor’s coat, hair swooshed across his forehead like a wing. He came home ready for dinner and then some affection by the fire as Karen trembled or stared over his shoulder into their living room air.
During commercials, I shuffled my cards for a new game of solitaire. It was bright outside and very hot, the air in my room even hotter, my windows all open wide. We did not have air conditioning. It was 1979. Karen was on the witness stand, testifying against the twin brother of her pimp, and goaded by the prosecutor, she lost control and confessed to being a hooker. The whole town watched as she shrieked that she liked it, that she couldn’t help it, that she was so lonely. A feeble breeze blew; a lilac branch scraped against my window screen; a shadow swayed on my grungy, yellow rug. Her screams were the only sounds inside the house. I was transfixed.
When my mother had lived with us, she sometimes ordered me to play outside, even if it was winter. I never knew what to do, so I stood stunned and alone by our swing set, my arms tight against my body, my fingers cold and stiff inside my mittens. Sun gleamed on all that snow, and I squinted into the white. Our sandbox was crusted with ice. The glare hurt.
In summertime I still felt blank, but there were more options on a Saturday afternoon, when nothing was on TV. I might sit on the wooden swing, the chain warm in my hands, and pump my legs but then lock my knees so I could watch my feet sweep across the cornfield behind our backyard and into the sky. I might climb the weeping willow and wait on a branch, or crawl under the back porch and stare at the barn, or chip paint from the house with my finger and watch a line of ants move across the sidewalk. Time was eternal and relentless. I needed emphasis, benchmarks, beginnings and ends, starts and stops, conflicts and resolutions.
They began on Monday with Ryan’s Hope, but it was the longest half hour ever. It started at 11:30 AM and only prepared me for All My Children. I wondered about their mother. Who was she? I pictured a woman in the sky with a slender face and lots of lipstick, her delicate white hand reaching down to all those unrelated people in Pine Valley. She held them through corporate takeovers, dog attacks, abducted children, heart surgeries, imprisonments in dark wells, near-drownings in distant grottoes. Erica Kane, the show’s heroine (played for decades by Susan Lucci, star of the ABC TV movie French Silk), left me bewildered. She just wasn’t that pretty, with her sloped nose and tiny chin, her movements ungraceful and guarded. At a photo shoot in New York City (the photographers and crew on location), with an actual skyscraper and fountain behind her, Erica posed, her arm a stiff branch over her head, bejeweled evening cape draping from her body like a tablecloth.
The reflection of my bedroom door was bright on the screen of my Magnavox, washing out the starkness of blacks to whites. Passersby stopped at the fountain, whispered and nodded, beamed at Erica’s beauty. I sat on my bed and held my koala bear against my side, fiddled with his black felt claws. A crowd formed, applauding at the way she pretended. Fade to commercial.
Ten minutes before noon, ten minutes before one, ten minutes before two, and ten minutes before three, ABC showed a preview. It started with a chorus of “Love . . . in the afternoon,” to violins and harps. A beat and then a clip of usually a couple—a hero who grabbed a heroine or said heroine’s sister or best friend or cousin or mother—and declared his love or lust. These scenes occurred in a variety of settings, each of them spotless and free of clutter or dust or uniqueness. Living rooms lined with matching drapes, hotel hallways with polished end tables, entryways with wall-mounted coat racks. If the couple were outdoors, they made their declarations in parks with lots of brick retaining walls and iron fencing or on benches of boathouses, light shimmering to indicate a reflection of nearby water. They had sex everywhere, especially after a shipwreck or plane crash on an island. They might split a coconut and then kiss and fall to the sand below the view of the camera.
But previews might also cut to veiled widows in mourning, unshaven killers of children, suited businessmen wrongly found guilty of murder. A gun might fire from a dark corner; a body might drop. A tornado might cave a ceiling into a roomful of people, ballroom chandeliers crashing to the floor, women screaming. ABC played the same previews for several days, so after two or three had passed, I waited for a new Love in the Afternoon, watching my clock and counting each commercial as it ended, my hands poised over my solitaire game: One. Two. Three. Four. Then the screen turned to blue, the logo gleamed, the song began, the sun flashed through the circle in the letter b of abc to Jack and Lily or Tom and Erica or Asa and Olympia or Tina and Cord or Robert and Jackie Templeton (the role that skyrocketed Demi Moore to stardom). I flipped three cards from my stockpile. Why did they use the word love for kissing and invisible sex but also for death, crime, and natural disasters? I moved a King to a blank space. The preview ended. I felt in my chest the ache for the show to resume, that painful splinter between fade out and fade in. Not a sound in the house.
After the custody hearings ended, my brother and I moved to Iowa City to live with my mother. Ryan’s Hope was canceled and replaced by Loving. I watched it from the new, used bed my mother had bought for me, a single foam mattress atop a maple bed frame and a plywood board. My television sat on the desk that had belonged to my grandmother.
Loving was set in a town called Corinth and focused on Lily, an ill and sickly-looking piano virtuoso with pale skin and fragile limbs and stiff blond hair. She wore only white, mostly dresses layered in ruffles with long sleeves and Victorian necks. Her father Garth forced her to practice piano all the time and rarely let her leave the house to go out with the other kids. But then Jack came along, his chest wide as the sky. He was relentless and adoring, calling up to her like Romeo . . . they fell in love . . . Lily wanted to leave her father but couldn’t; she was too little and white, and for some reason Corinth was always so dark . . . Jack was running through an indoor street . . . and then Lily was gone. They sent her away to become less frail.
My mother had covered the surface of my grandmother’s desk with a pane of glass. It reflected the television itself, its white sides and screen; a tarnished silver cup that had belonged to my father’s mother, where I kept pencils and pens; a lamp whose base was a heavy bottle of Dom Perignon that my parents had shared decades before to celebrate my father’s doctorate.
As I got older, after Loving was canceled, my mother sometimes watched soaps with me on the nineteen-inch color Magnavox in our living room. We sat on the couch, my feet in her lap.
“Do you think she’s beautiful?” I asked about All My Children’s Jenny Gardner (the role that ignited Kim Delaney’s career). Jenny’s lips formed an overbite that gave her face a perfect pout. Beneath her slanted cheekbones, I saw her sadness, her tender desire. I felt it in her eyes when she was a working-class teenaged servant, when she was on the run in New York, when she became a model after Greg broke her heart because he became paralyzed. I was thirteen.
“Almost,” my mother would say. I sipped water from my plastic Iowa Hawkeye cup, the black logo faded. “But there’s something off with her nose.”
“Do you think she’s beautiful?” I asked about One Life to Live’s Tina Lord. Tina had mousy blond hair that feathered several inches out from her head, bulbous lips that looked slightly blistered, and glassy blue eyes. Her life was rich with suitors. She had sex with cowboy Cord Roberts, her true love, in the back of a pickup truck on a bed of hay, a few strands in her hair when they sat up afterward.
“No. I don’t even think she’s pretty.”
“Do you think she’s beautiful?” I asked about General Hospital’s Bobbie Spencer. Her smile was so wide it looked like it hurt her cheeks, and her breasts were enormous. She took a hospital patient’s blood pressure, grinning as she squeezed the inflation bulb.
“Not beautiful. Just pretty.” Didn’t anyone ever say anything about Bobbie’s breasts? How could everyone in Port Charles not notice them?
“Do you think she’s beautiful?” I asked about Erica Kane. Erica’s husband, Travis Montgomery, arrived home from political campaigning and saw her standing by the fireplace, waiting for him.
“No,” said my mother. “But she does have beautiful eyes. She’s very pretty.”
Travis breathed hard through his strangely large nose, removed his jacket, and said, “I have missed you beyond reason.” And then he swooped her up to the bedroom, one arm under her knees, the other around her back. Erica folded her legs into him and clasped her arms around his neck.
The only people who told me I was pretty were older women—mothers of friends, passengers on the Greyhounds I took to see my father on weekends, clerks who sold housewares at Younkers. Boys did not compete for me. Jealous girls did not plot my ruin. I owned no evening gowns. I had no confidence or ambition, only lavish longings. Travis held Erica’s face in his hands. The windows behind the television revealed a ground-level view of our street, our driveway, a square of our front lawn that my mother mowed herself despite our status as renters. They were in bed now, their bodies under gleaming soft sheets. Erica placed her slender palm in the center of his hairy chest. I bit a cuticle.
Viki Buchanan was not who I wanted to be—matronly and giving and proper to her core. I envied nothing about her. It was my day off from work. I was twenty-two, pulling bongs on the couch in my apartment, letting the soaps fall, one after the other. One Life to Live was all about Viki—her split personality, her heart transplant, her breast cancer, her unearthed brothers and sisters, her amnesia, her vast wealth and newspaper empire. But I did not want to transplant myself into her body or kiss men like she did, like a nun—self-consciously, with a closed mouth. If I use my tongue, Viki seemed to say, if I exhibit hints of desire—a hard exhalation, a shimmer of saliva—I might gross you out. I did not want her short, feathered hair or her business suits and frumpy turtlenecks or her unsculpted and middle-aged body. She had been middle-aged since I was seven years old, her dress and demeanor as far from sexy as the horizon line from my bedroom window in Iowa—that line I always felt but could never comprehend. No one ever explained it to me until I was in high school and took an art class, where a drawing teacher called it the vanishing point, where lines and planes merge only to disappear.
Pulling bongs to falling soap operas day after day when you are twenty-two or watching them fall without bongs when you are thirty-three, is to waste time, kill time, while away, hold off, sit around; to twiddle the thumbs, watch the clock tick, drag the feet; fritter, putter, dawdle, tarry, delay, dillydally, loiter, lollygag, piddle, trifle, idle, vegetate. It is longing, yearning, mooning, coveting. It holds everything still.
Summertime in Grinnell. I was old—about to start junior high. I was honoring the visitations in the custody agreement, but I no longer wanted to because there was nothing to do at my father’s house. My brother was back in Iowa City with my mom. The yellow rug was still on my bedroom floor—a deep yellow fuzz, the color of a chick that was far too dark—and I must have brought my television over from Iowa City because it was there on my desk, the windows behind it, the lilac bush scraping away.
Over the previous year, General Hospital had run the Ice Princess story line and invented Luke and Laura, the first supercouple, the pair who originated the term. Their nemesis, Helena Cassedine, was played in a few episodes by Elizabeth Taylor, whose movies I had never seen. She was my father’s favorite celebrity to complain about—beautiful, he said, but a dreadful actress and getting so fat. But General Hospital had given me so far the most exciting story of my life, one that did not and did not and did not end: Luke and Laura’s love, Robert Scorpio’s English accent, the World Security Bureau (like the FBI), an evil snow machine that the Cassadines were planning to fire at Port Charles from their secret island. Luke, Robert, and Laura were hiding in the giant plastic trees and leaves of the jungle, plotting overthrow. Laura was the wanted, the desired. She always had been, but her gums were large and her lower jaw inflated and her hair defied category, neither blond nor brown nor red. But she was the center of two men. She worked in a bar.
Luke and Laura’s wedding had happened in a November, so I never saw it because I was in school. Shortly afterward, Laura disappeared. But now she was back in Port Charles, following Luke, eavesdropping. I’m still alive! she would fantasize. I’m still alive! I love you and I never stopped! But she kept stalking instead. On a Friday, she hid around a corner or behind a shrub or inside a barrel or beneath a window, listening for a moment to reveal herself; on Monday, a few dockhands would walk past her barrel, or another woman would walk into the diner and throw herself at Luke, and Laura would change her mind. Devastated and confused, she would follow someone else—her mother or brother or father or cousin or former friend.
Time was running out, because Laura was about to leave Port Charles for good and allow Luke to think she was dead forever. But at the last moment, she decided to return to the scene of their wedding—the grounds of a mansion. A vast shady lawn, a giant hedge. She walks the grounds in a blouse and a tight skirt and heels. Luke has decided to return to the grounds at the very same time . . . they keep missing each other . . . around some trees . . . around some pillars . . . Luke stands on the balcony overlooking the sweep of lawn, downing champagne in his grief . . . he is about to leave . . . and then he sees a woman in the distance, walking toward the gazebo . . . he drops his glass, leans forward, cannot speak, spins around, runs through the mansion and onto the grass. . . .
“Laura!” He holds his hands out in front of him like a zombie, reaching for her. I am standing in the corner of my room, my hands on my chest, panting.
She spins around. Sees him. Takes him in, holding her tiny pocketbook in one hand.
They run and embrace. Laura is silent and Luke is hysterical, weeping with joy. Laura lets herself be held. I weep too—all that love, all that loss. The hot breeze through the windows is stifling. I had been waiting for that scene all week. I smile and cry, smile and cry, the sounds of my sniffles lost in the screams of Luke’s joy, ringing through the walls of the house. He holds her.
Oh, to be there instead of here.
For the last two decades, Anna B. Moore has been publishing creative nonfiction, essays, and short fiction in a variety of literary journals and magazines, including American Scholar and Smokelong Quarterly; work is forthcoming in Identity Theory and the Offing. Her first novel will be published by Unsolicited Press in 2024. She lives in Northern California.
“Facing It” by Sally Crossley
“Facing It,” a vivid, wise, and moving account of living with Bell’s palsy, was the inaugural nonfiction winner in our annual Perkoff Prize competition for writing about health and medicine. The essay was a first publication for author Sally Crossley and appeared in print in TMR 44:4.
by Sally Crossley
There will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
—T. S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
I’m six, seated at the old pine table in the kitchen, but instead of finishing my cereal I’m transfixed, mesmerized by the face caught in the gleaming metal of the two-slice toaster. Morning light streams through the windows on either side, hitting the curve of the toaster’s edges so my cheeks look fat, blurry, but there in the middle, that’s me; it’s true. I smile. Wrinkle my nose. Blink. Scrunch up my nose, my mouth, to make faces—happy, hopeful, sad—all of which annoy my younger sister.
“Mom, she’s looking at herself again,” she calls, so I stop, but then, after a few minutes, when I think no one is watching, I’m back at it.
Then seventeen, eighteen, gazing into the small makeup mirror on my vanity. Pretty? Plain? Ugly? Trace a dark outline along the arc where the eyelashes meet the lids. Rub in eye shadow. Twirl on mascara. Brush a bit of blush along the cheekbones. Smear gloss over the lips. Blot. Blink. Study the reflection again. My eyes too close together, though I’ve had a compliment or two about how, at the outer edges, they lift like a cat’s. But my teeth are too big, my nose really too small.
Catch a glimpse in a department-store mirror. In a window. In a rearview mirror. There I am. That’s me. That’s what I look like.
Until it’s not.
It’s October 1986, a few days before Halloween, at the end of a week when I’ve been busy sewing a clown costume for my four-year-old son. Half blue-and-white stripes, the other half white with blue polka dots, the costume is nearly finished. No mean feat for someone who, ever since home ec, has struggled with each sewing project she has begun, something the machine seemed to feel as I inched the material along the metal plate toward the needle, the thread catching, then snarling around the silver clip covering the bobbin instead of neatly locking each stitch. Yesterday, though, I managed to sew all the pieces together; just the elastic around the cuffs to go. That’s why today, my seven-month-old daughter asleep beside me, merits a few more minutes in bed.
Since my husband and I moved back to Binghamton—my hometown, a place where my husband found a better job and where I could go to grad school—I earned my MA and had our son, then our daughter, but right now I’m unemployed. All week I’ve been fighting a bad cold with a fever, my mouth full of canker sores. I’m trying to will myself back into a dream, just for a few more minutes, when my husband asks, “What’s wrong with your face?”
I open my eyes. He’s standing next to the bed, knotting his tie, studying me.
“What do you mean?”
“Go look at it,” he says.
I desperately want to stay where I am, but he looks worried, so I climb out of bed, imagining a pimple of enormous proportions. Instead, looking in the bathroom mirror, I see the problem: the right side of my mouth, along with my right eye and right cheek, droops, and no matter what expression I attempt, I can’t seem to fix it. I touch my cheeks, my mouth, my nose, all of which are sensitive—I’m pretty sure I have a sinus infection—but otherwise, everything feels normal.
I slide back in next to the baby and close my eyes. With just a little more sleep, I promise myself, I’ll be fine.
At the same time, I send part of my brain in search of an explanation. What would cause my face to droop like this? Have I ever had anything like this happen before?
Unable to sleep—it’s time I was up anyway—I look in the mirror again. The right side of my face still sags.
Usually, the only doctor I visit is for my kids, but I decide the lingering cold and fever justify a call. The fever is down, yes, I tell the nurse, but I’m also having trouble—I laugh a little, embarrassed; it sounds so ridiculous—with my face.
The doctor can see me at two.
Because I don’t want anyone else to see my face, my husband arranges to take a late lunch so he can watch the kids. The minute he walks in the door, I leave. The sooner I reach the doctor’s office, I figure, the sooner he’ll be able to fix this cold, this infection. This face. Usually, I walk; this afternoon, I drive.
He’s old-school, this doctor, his office in the basement of his house. The dark-paneled, half-filled waiting room holds half-a-dozen straight-backed chairs, and I choose one across from an older woman, keeping my hand on the right side of my face to hide it, pushing my cheek up.
But she comments anyway. “Someone’s just been to the dentist,” she smiles.
In the examining room, the doctor runs through the usual: blood pressure, heartbeat, temperature, which is a little over 100. Finally, he studies my face, then presses the skin around the right side of my mouth, my nose, my eye. “Does anything hurt?”
I tell him about the tenderness, about how my mouth is filled with canker sores.
He nods, puts away his stethoscope, then peers inside my mouth and gently feels around inside. “Does this hurt?”
I nod. “A little.”
Afterward, we sit across from each other at his desk while he makes a few notes in my file. Then he looks up and leans back in his chair. “You have a fairly severe case of Bell’s palsy,” he announces before explaining how sometimes the nerve on one side of the face dies, and doctors don’t completely understand why. “You should tape your eye shut at night to protect the eye.”
I’m trying to pay attention, but I’m waiting for the part where he tells me how’s he’s going to fix it.
He closes the file. “It could get better,” he says. “It could not.” He shrugs. “There’s not much to be done but wait and see.”
Even now, thirty-some years later, no one knows what, exactly, causes Bell’s palsy. Today, when I look it up, I see that it’s a virus, like a cold; in fact, it’s often triggered by a cold. Named after Sir Charles Bell, a Scottish surgeon who studied it in the nineteenth century, Bell’s is the same virus that causes cold sores and is related to the one that causes chicken pox, attacking what is known as the seventh cranial nerve, or the facial nerve. Once the nerve becomes swollen or compressed, one side of the face droops, making the afflicted person look like she’s had a stroke. Usually, Bell’s comes on suddenly, first becoming evident when the person tries to eat or drink. Or in the morning, when she first wakes up.
I didn’t learn any of this right away. Didn’t, in fact, research Bell’s at all. Maybe that’s because I contracted it in the 1980s, pre-Internet. And maybe, too, it’s because I was terrified of what I might find out. Instead, I clung to what my doctor had said: “It might get better. Wait and see.” Never mind that he’d also said, “It might not”; I held on to the first part of his sentence, determined to believe my face would someday return to the way it had been. But that could only work, I intuited, if no one talked about it.
Over the next few weeks, though, friends and relatives began sharing stories about people they knew who’d had Bell’s. The woman who lived in the apartment downstairs said her mother had had a bout, triggered by a draft of cold air coming in through a car window. My husband’s boss, my dentist’s brother-in-law, my aunt’s friend. But in every case, after a few weeks or months, the palsy disappeared.
That didn’t seem to be happening with me. One friend, very concerned, urged me to have an MRI, fearing a brain tumor, something I didn’t follow through with because, well, it seemed obvious. If I had a brain tumor, I would know. If other symptoms arose, maybe. But until then? I’d wait.
And I’d try not to see.
The right side of my mouth still sagged, along with my cheek; my right eye still drooped. When I smiled, I looked like those Greek masks of tragedy and comedy smooshed together: grotesque, at least in my eyes. As the days passed, I learned not to glance in a car window to catch my reflection, not to check my face in the mirror above the bathroom sink for any remaining dabs of toothpaste, not to grab a quick look in the mirror next to the door before I headed out. None of that.
By December, I was managing pretty well, I thought, avoiding mirrors, not dwelling on the fact that I had Bell’s. But then at Christmas, my brother-in-law asked if, after saying his traditional grace, we could pray for my face.
That winter, we bought our first house, a beautiful old stucco in need of repair, and as spring came on, our efforts expanded to the garden, where we dragged out broken limbs, took down trees, raked up years’ worth of decaying leaves. Between that and caring for the baby and the four-year-old, I had plenty of distractions. As for my face? I was all right as long as I didn’t look in the mirror. Who would see me anyway? My family. A couple of friends. Other moms at the park or at the preschool where I took my son. And I was gradually learning that if I jumped into a conversation, I could redirect it with a comment or question, and skip past any looks of concern about the disfigured part of my face. All I had to do was mention one of their kids.
Then one day, prompted by my mother, I made an appointment with a physical therapist who demonstrated a series of exercises that, he said, might strengthen the muscles in my face. I left with a couple of papers illustrating them, but I’d seen from his expression that he had some doubts. Going into his office, I’d steeled myself against hope. But on my way home, I decided I’d prove him wrong. I would learn to raise my eyebrow, to lift my right upper lip, to wrinkle my nose. Soon, I would make both sides of my face work together again and be able to smile.
I didn’t tell anyone about my plan, of course, in case it failed, so when a friend, visiting with her daughter for a playdate with my son, asked, “Have you thought about consulting another doctor?” the question threw me.
“Maybe,” I finally responded, reddening. “I need to think about it.”
A few weeks later, my sister asked the same question.
Both times my answer was the same, but I was furious. As with my brother-in-law’s request for a prayer at Christmas, randomly inserted into a conversation when we were talking about other things, the palsy was nothing I’d been thinking about, nothing I wanted to think about. Why bring it up?
Not that I said anything. I never said anything.
Later that spring, I went to a poetry reading at the university, and as I was leaving, I ran into a few former classmates and professors. Though it had been years since I’d been seen any of them and we’d never been close—I’d been a part-time student, married with kids, taking longer than most to earn my degree—they greeted me with warm smiles and bear hugs, anxious, it seemed, to talk to me, which was gratifying, but I couldn’t figure out why. Had we all been more connected than I’d realized?
Driving home, I replayed what had happened: the hugs, the kind words, the smiles, but those had been accompanied by, I suddenly remembered, looks of compassion, which was when it clicked: my face. They’d been offering sympathy for my face.
A prayer, a question, a sympathetic smile. Hardly reprehensible.
But I’d forgotten that while I’d adopted a plan that prevented me from seeing my face, I couldn’t change what other people saw. My friend, my sister, my brother-in-law, whomever I was in conversation with saw one half of my face move while the other half remained slack, inert. I couldn’t alter that. And yet I continued to try.
Looking back, I realize I was behaving like a very young child who, when first learning how to play hide-and-seek, puts her hands in front of her eyes and imagines no one can see her. She is hiding. And even though I had an increasing amount of evidence that my particular method was not working, I also sensed that what I was doing was the only way I, a thirty-one-year-old woman who’d simply had a bad cold, would be able to adjust to my radically altered appearance. That my face might not ever look the way it once had: What did that mean for other people? And what did it mean for me? I didn’t want to think about that.
In the many arguments I had with myself, my reasons for not seeking a second opinion varied. The doctor was a friend of my father’s; that might offend him. More, seeking a second opinion would cost additional money, which was hard to justify since I wasn’t earning any. My kids had wants and needs; they took precedence. Maybe I could no longer whistle and could only produce a lopsided smile, an ineffectual kiss, but, I told myself, I wasn’t in any pain.
What I did instead was equally instinctive. Since I hadn’t reconnected with friends I’d had when I’d lived in Binghamton before, I didn’t bother to now. Why would I want any of them to see my face disfigured like this? So, in addition to the couple of friends I’d made since moving back, I sought out other moms of kids my children’s ages who didn’t know how I’d looked before.
Now, when I reread entries from the journals I kept during those early years of having Bell’s, I find almost no mention of it.
As illnesses go, Bell’s is unusual because usually, little pain is involved. Lupus, MS, polio, now there’s pain for you. But Bell’s? For me, the only pain that occurred was when I encountered strangers and instead of smiling in response—because I still smiled automatically—they looked away. And when I looked in the mirror. Having a severe case of Bell’s is different from going gray or gaining or losing a hundred pounds or having a terrible case of acne, all of which affect how someone sees herself. Those differences come on gradually, and the image reflected in the mirror confirms that this is you.
Having Bell’s is more like being in an unexpected accident: no maiming, of course, but one’s appearance—one’s sense of self—has suddenly changed.
That’s why it’s perplexing for both the person who has Bell’s and for anyone who interacts with her. When I smile, the downward droop of my mouth suggests that I’m unhappy, even angry, because that’s how one half of my face looks. But then there’s the other half. Which is it? Happy? Sad? It’s difficult for someone looking at me to say. It’s instinctive, and far easier, for them to look away.
We marginalized people all know that it’s a fight to see ourselves clearly, to refuse to allow the way others see us to affect us too much and let that become how we see ourselves. For the unattractive or disfigured, there are the adages Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or Beauty is only skin deep or It’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Me? I secretly bought into the story of the ugly duckling. He, after all, is transformed. He turns into a swan.
“Have you thought about a chiropractor?” my grandmother, a former nurse, asked. “I read an article in Reader’s Digest about one who helped a woman with Bell’s palsy. She was completely cured!” It was three years later, and I was still continuing on just as before, but instead of taking offense, perhaps because the suggestion came from her, I latched on to the idea. Alternative medicine was nothing I’d considered, but it had a certain appeal. A miracle cure. Maybe. After flipping through the yellow pages and making a few calls, I found a chiropractor who said he’d worked with Bell’s patients before. Week after week for more than a year, he tried various approaches, but the heart of what he said was this: the paralysis was largely an issue of mind over matter. “Stay centered,” he said. “Seek balance.”
After I gave up on the chiropractor, I went back to convincing myself that as long as my face was at rest, the palsy was no longer noticeable. This bit of denial continued to work for me most of the time, but there was the occasional glitch. At the grocery store, one of the clerks, a friendly guy about my age who walked with a limp, never failed to ask, as I was checking out, “How are you?” His sympathy was palpable, but I chalked it up to what he remembered about the way I’d looked before. I was better now. “Good, good,” I responded, smiling, showing him. “And you?”
On another day, when I was pushing my cart down the baking aisle, there he was again, this time stocking the shelves with boxes of Jell-O. “How’s your eye?” he asked, touching his own.
“Fine,” I responded, and kept going. That was annoying, I thought. What was his problem? The drooping smile, that was the issue, not my eye. At home, I looked in the mirror just to be sure, facing myself head-on. Staring back at me, both eyes looked just the same, as far as I could see. There was nothing wrong with my eye.
Then one spring day, a salesclerk in a dress shop pulled me aside and in a low voice said, “I had it, too.”
I’d been looking through a rack of blouses and had no idea what she was talking about until I saw her face: one side drooped considerably lower than the other. Hers was much worse, I decided, than mine.
“Have you tried electrical stimulation?” she asked.
I nodded. I’d just finished a round, in fact, and had been convinced that finally—finally—my face looked better. I’d even asked a friend, and she’d said yes, she noticed a difference. But maybe I’d believed her because of the pain involved, the physical therapist turning up the dial in session after session, telling me to let her know when it began to hurt, something I put off doing until it became unbearable. No pain, no gain.
“Me, too,” the salesclerk said. “And then right after that, I got it on the other side.”
“I didn’t know that could happen!”
She nodded emphatically. “It happened to me.”
I nodded and quickly left, but the fact remained: she’d had the palsy. Had my friend been lying? And me, I’d been convinced it was better. Why couldn’t I see that it wasn’t?
I remained unemployed for years. I told myself this was because the economy in Binghamton was bad, which was true, but other than filling out applications at libraries, bookstores, publishers, and the local newspaper, I didn’t try all that hard to find a job. Instead, I volunteered at my kids’ school, at the church we attended, for Literacy Volunteers. At least, I told myself, I was contributing to society, and my husband’s salary was good enough that we could get by. Since I wasn’t earning any money, I kept clothes-buying to a minimum; jeans and sneakers were good enough for me. But I kept my weight down, applied a bit of makeup, still following the would-be attractive woman’s rule book so I could have the gratification of a look from somebody. Anybody.
I continued to practice the exercises I’d been given so long ago, but here and there, and always where no one would see. Not my husband, not my kids. Not even me. The best place? When I was alone driving somewhere. At red lights, I repeatedly squeezed my eyes shut, then pursed my lips, wrinkled my nose, strained to lift my right upper lip. I went at the exercises with a vengeance, determined to raise that eyebrow, to puff out both cheeks again and again as I cruised down the highway.
What I didn’t do, though, while doing the exercises, was look in the mirror. And so my thirties disappeared. For the 5 percent or so of Bell’s palsy patients who don’t recover, synkinesis often occurs, which means the nerve regenerates, but it grows back abnormally. For someone who doesn’t have Bell’s, that nerve helps bring the smile from the lips to the eyes; for a person with Bell’s, not only do the lips not turn up, but the abnormally regenerated nerve partially closes the eye whenever the person tries to enunciate or to smile. The medical term for this is ptosis.
I didn’t know this until years after I’d contracted Bell’s. Probably doctors had mentioned it, but it didn’t sink in, I was so studiously trying to ignore it. Not until many years later, after I become a high school English teacher, did I realize there were other problems.
One day, when I was teaching a colleague’s class, a student in the front row whispered something to a friend sitting next to her, then began laughing as, behind her cupped hand, she pointed at me. My face flushed. My right eye was twitching; I could feel it, and though I rubbed the skin below the eye, the twitch persisted.
I was in my fifties by then, and I had seen more than one teacher reduced to tears by something a student had said. Ignore her, I reprimanded myself. Plowing through the embarrassment, I massaged the right side of my face—discreetly, I hoped, willing whatever was going on to stop. I had a class full of students; I was in the middle of a lesson. But as the period drew to a close, I situated myself next to the desk of the one who’d been pointing and quietly told her, “I want you to stay for a few minutes after class.”
“I can’t,” she said, just as the bell rang.
“Just for a few minutes,” I insisted. My cheeks continued to burn, and my heart was beating wildly—I had no idea what I was going to say to her—but I was determined to see this through.
The student grabbed her friend by the wrist as the rest of the class filed out, leaving the two of them alone in the room with me. This girl, no doubt, expected rage or, at the very least, a lecture, which I’d considered. But at the last minute, I decided to try another tactic. As calmly as I could manage, I asked her what she had seen. Because, I told her, I couldn’t see it. “My eye was twitching, right?” I asked. “Anything else?”
Embarrassed, she looked first at her friend, then back at me. “Your mouth,” she touched her own lips, demonstrating. “It goes down.”
I nodded and then briefly explained a little about the palsy. “It doesn’t hurt,” I said. “But I woke up one day—I’d had a cold—and the nerve had died, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I just wanted you to understand.”
She apologized and left, while I, still trying to quiet my heart, knew I’d achieved something, though I couldn’t have said what.
Then came the stuttering. For anybody, this would be a problem, but it’s particularly tough for a literature teacher. Reading aloud passages to my IB juniors from Othello or from Huckleberry Finn, I found myself tripping over words I knew perfectly well: ts and ps, ds at the ends of words, were harder to enunciate, making it impossible to whip off a passage, let alone something like Rude am I in my speech / and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. What had happened? In conversation, friends increasingly had begun asking me to repeat myself, but it wasn’t only articulation that was a problem. The eye had begun sporadically tearing and closing at the same time, usually when I was trying my hardest to enunciate, further complicating any attempts to read aloud, since I needed to see the words on the page. And at night, when I was sleeping? The eye refused to remain shut. When I’d first contracted the palsy, I’d had to Scotch-tape the eye closed, and here I was doing it again.
I was seeing a new doctor now, the one who had first diagnosed my case of Bell’s having since retired, and she suggested that I see a speech pathologist. This young speech pathologist tried everything I’d tried before: more electrical stimulation, more face exercises, along with giving me a list of tongue twisters to practice—Peter Piper and alliterative phrases full of bs and ms—but slowly. In fact, I was to work on speaking slowly in general. Seek balance.
But then she urged me to consider surgery, specifically with a renowned surgeon at Johns Hopkins who specialized in something called a gracilis muscle transfer, where the doctor moves a useless muscle from the thigh to the face. That would correct problems with my smile and maybe, she hoped, with my speech.
Walking out of her office I considered what she’d said. While I couldn’t ignore the palsy’s effects on my speech and vision, I was afraid to hope too much. What if she were wrong? Yet she’d done the research. I had no more excuses. It was time.
A month later, I drove to Baltimore. I was the only patient in the waiting room, and a nurse handed me a survey to complete. How had Bell’s affected my mental health, my sexuality, my relationships: Seriously? Somewhat? Not at all? I read through the questions and then returned to the first one: my mental health. Years earlier, I’d come across a blog for people with Bell’s. A woman had written that her husband had left her because he told her he couldn’t stand to look at her anymore. That would be seriously. On the other hand, not at all wasn’t true, not if I was being honest.
I recalled the short story I’d read shortly after I had contracted Bell’s. It was about a woman who lost her face. She looks in the mirror for her reflection, and nothing looks back. Very Kafkaesque, but the story resonated especially for me because when I looked in the mirror, a face looked back, but it wasn’t mine. A little theater of the absurd, this whole thing.
So I checked somewhat, marking that answer for all the questions, and pretended to read a magazine while surreptitiously studying the faces of the people who had since come in. Just women, none of whom seemed to be disfigured. Were their issues simply cosmetic? Dissatisfaction with a nose? The lips?
What about me? Wasn’t I being equally self-indulgent, equally vain? Had I thought I was above that? I’d been coloring my hair for years. Growing up, I had been pretty. Not beautiful, not hold-the-horses stunning. Cute. So wasn’t I, at sixty-one, simply trying to look young and attractive again? Those years were gone.
I stood up to leave but at that point reminded myself that I’d taken a sick day and driven five hours after work the previous day to spend the night in a motel. I was here, after all. Before I could change my mind again, the doctor, appeared. Within a few minutes, this charming, clearly knowledgeable guy allayed every concern. He said he knew all about Bell’s and its long-term effects with the eye and the speech, and then he suggested a couple of things: Botox, to start with, then adding a weight to my eyelid, since, he noted, the fact that my right eye didn’t always close when I blinked was drying out the cornea.
Whether because of the drive or the fact that this hospital and the doctor were of a much higher caliber than anything I’d encountered before, I followed his suggestions. I had the Botox, which made my smile more symmetrical, but I’d have to keep up with the injections if I wanted that to continue. A few months later, I had the weight put in, which helped, though it wasn’t perfect.
The following winter, I switched to another doctor, this one equally talented, but in Boston, which was an easier trip since I knew the city and had relatives I could stay with. Her office was different. Nine floors up, the reception area was spacious, with a wall of windows offering a stunning view of the Charles, filling the room with light. Around the room sat other patients from who knew how far away, all of whom suffered from various kinds of facial nerve damage. Most, when I looked at them, refused to meet my gaze. These were my people.
A little girl in red-and-black leggings, a Swedish-looking design, came in with her mother. The child looked unhappy, but maybe the appearance of unhappiness was simply because one side of her face, like mine, drooped.
Then a guy about my age walked in, stopping at the receptionist’s desk to announce, “I’m here to get my smile back.” Heavyset, wearing a brown winter coat on this unusually cool day in May, he told her he had decided to have the two-part operation. “People don’t like it when you don’t smile,” he said.
The receptionist, a pretty, engaging young woman, smiled and said, “That’s not true.”
“Yes, it is,” he said congenially. “You know when people look at you, they want you to smile.”
“Let me see you smile,” she said.
He obliged, giving her a lopsided grin.
“There you go. You can smile,” she said enthusiastically.
“Yeah, but not like before. I’m on disability, so,” he said, and looked around, “you can schedule it anytime.”
It’s no small thing, the ability to smile. People take it for granted, offering a smile to someone sharing an elevator, to a passerby on the street, to a waiter in a restaurant, but a smile, apart from being an acknowledgment of someone else’s existence, also anticipates one in return. An exchange of smiles establishes a connection, maybe even trust. When this man tried to smile, I saw it: his face became that Greek mask, comedy and tragedy smooshed together. Try to read it and you’d err on the side of tragedy. Who was going to smile back at that?
The receptionist, a sweet young woman with whom I’d had several conversations on the phone, who’d greeted me by name when I’d walked in even though she’d never seen me before, had lied. The man could not smile, and he had rightly corrected her. He knew. Probably in her eyes, the lie was perfectly justified, told in order to not hurt him or any other patients who were listening. But for me, this distortion of the truth felt like a return to all the years of denial I was trying to put behind me. Because here was the other issue I’d carried with me: trust. Since contracting Bell’s, I had struggled to trust anyone.
Near the beginning of the play Julius Caesar, Cassius tells Brutus, “And since you know you cannot see yourself / as well as by reflection, I, your glass / will modestly discover you to yourself.” Like it or not, people are our mirrors. They respond to how we look, and that can’t help but affect how we see ourselves.
Each time I ask the people who love me whether my face looks better than it did when I was first afflicted with the palsy, they say, “I don’t even notice it anymore.” Since, for years, I rarely looked in the mirror, or when I did, I was able to convince myself that my face looked better than it did, who am I to judge? I used denial to protect me. But doing so became a curse.
For centuries (the palsy has been around for centuries, some art historians even postulating that the Mona Lisa’s half-smile is a result of Bell’s), there was nothing people with this disability could do but live with its effects. Ignoring them is possible, but the fact is, with age, they will get worse—not the palsy itself but the way it affects the face.
Today, four years after my last visit to the speech pathologist, following a mini-facelift, a series of Botox injections, PT appointments, and exercises, I’m still at it. I’ve now had Bell’s for more than half my life, but if continuing with all of this seems excessive, pointless, even, consider the alternative.
Because the palsy left me unable to use one half of my face to speak and to smile, over the years, particularly when I teach, I’ve become much more animated, trying to reassure whomever I’m speaking to that despite my sardonic expression, my words and humor are kindly meant. The downward turn of my lip, which undercuts whatever I say? It’s unintentional. But that can be a hard sell.
And recently, the physical therapist told me that way of compensating was not necessarily good for me. Instead, speaking slowly, training my brain to visualize a symmetrical face, a method known as neuroplasticity, should be my goal. To cultivate a kind of double vision enabling me to see the face as it really is while envisioning that both sides look the same. To see and yet to imagine, both at once. She even suggested that I videotape myself talking so I could isolate the better expressions and practice adopting those. “The affected eye,” as the doctor refers to it, remains slightly smaller than the other, the eyebrow above it, because of the synkinesis, immobile. But if I look head-on in a mirror and don’t smile, I can convince myself that the way I look is basically normal. Photographs, though, say otherwise. They catch the face, hold it still, freezing the disfigured expression.
In a class I sometimes teach on epistemology, I include a TED talk by a neuroscientist named Beau Lotte, who begins his talk with William James’s words: “We see what we see because it is useful to see that way.” Lotte’s focus is color and shape, and in example after example, he shows how our senses prove unreliable. Even though we think we can trust our senses to give us an accurate reading of the world, Lotte shows, that’s not always the case. Because we expect what we see to resemble what we saw before, we respond accordingly, even though what is before us may have changed.
Sometimes I tell myself that if I’d sought out a second opinion or if I had been prescribed antibiotics or steroids immediately, I might not continue to struggle with the palsy’s effects, yet I know there wasn’t— and still isn’t—a “right” path to follow. Some people, even now, who are afflicted with Bell’s, no matter what medicine they’re given, will never completely recover.
The goal, then, changes. These days, it’s primarily to prevent the effects from becoming worse. I now have to add drops to the palsy-affected eye several times a day because it’s red and constantly dry; the lid still does not completely close, so I pull the eyelid down multiple times a day and hold it for one minute, two. I don’t want to have a heavier weight added. I don’t want a doctor to stitch the eyelid partially closed to protect the little vision that eye has left. At night, I still tape the eye shut.
I eat with a napkin in one hand to catch any food or drink that might slide out, which happens, particularly on days when I’m tired and my cheek is more flaccid. It isn’t pretty.
My speech remains a problem, so every day, I practice saying tongue twisters.
I keep up with the Botox, the physical therapy, the face massages and exercises at least twice a day in front of a mirror, and while looking at both the disfigured half and the half that remains unaffected, I imagine both sides reconciled, aligned. I attempt to purse my lips, which works on one side but not so much on the other and half-closes the eye, no matter how much I try to hold it still. Next, I attempt to smile with my lips closed, one half stretched toward the cheek, the other stopping short; the eye, once again, half-closes, and the chin wrinkles, though I’m trying not to let it. And so on, continuing to imagine both sides the same while making sure I see that they’re not.
Not long ago, I moved to a different area, and when I meet new people, if I catch them looking, I slip in the fact that I have Bell’s. Just a sentence or two. A way to connect, to clear the air. We can move on.
When grieving a loss, people are supposed to arrive at acceptance, and maybe, finally, now, at sixty-six, that’s where I am. After years of not allowing anyone to take my picture, I’m eager to be included. Pictures, after all, are records capturing aspects of who we are at different times in our lives. But except for the occasional photo taken at my children’s graduations, my daughter’s wedding, I’m missing. My choice. I didn’t want to see. Recently, though, I discovered that if I part my lips slightly and open my eyes wide, the camera freezes that expression into a look that is less disfigured, more acceptable. Instead of a smile, surprise.
It’s a trick, but it allows me to see, to accept the face in the picture, in the mirror, in the toaster, in the department-store window, to confront both the disfigured half and the other, the two joined together in a kind of broken symmetry: that’s me.
“In 2018, I was sitting at the same pine table I mention in the opening of this piece. It was no longer the place where my family and I ate our meals but my desk. I wrote the line, “About two years ago I decided to do something about my face.” My original title? ‘Look Away.’
“In draft after draft, I kept the title and the line, liking the directness, the faintly humorous edge, the self-mockery—as if I could do anything about it! But as I continued to reshape this essay, I realized that more than making it a therapeutic exercise for me, I hoped to reach both those who have little or no knowledge of Bell’s and those who are similarly afflicted. To do that, I needed to focus on the difficulty and the necessity of “facing it”: looking head-on at this virus that so dramatically impacted my life and its aftereffects.”
Sally Crossley earned her MA in creative writing from Binghamton University after living in that city for most of her life. She also worked in bookstores and taught English in a public high school before retiring to a small town outside Portland, Maine, to write short stories and, more recently, essays. This is her first published piece.
“Years of Vanishing Completely” by JP Gritton
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In his essay “Years of Vanishing Completely,” JP Gritton recounts how anxiety over the success of his debut novel and a daily practice of googling himself led to him discovering an artist namesake from another place and time.
Years of Vanishing Completely
The beginning of this story is always a little hard to explain, so I’ll tell you the ending first. The story ends in my office, which is on the fifth floor of a Gothic revival building on the campus of a university where I’m an assistant professor of creative writing. I want to tell you that the trees stood naked and gray through the stonework of my office window. I want to tell you that it was a cold day, and threatening to rain, and that I had biked to campus in a faint drizzle, into the very teeth of the wind. But the truth is that all this is guff, window dressing, artifice. The only thing I can remember from that day is checking my email.
Like most teachers, maybe, I’m surprised when I get an email from anybody other than a student. I was pretty sure I’d never had any Stephans in my class, and certainly no “Stéphane,” with a little black beret over the first “e.” When I opened the email, I was more certain: “Cher Monsieur Gritton,” it read, “c’est avec plaisir que je réponds à votre demande.” I don’t teach French; I never have, and so for a moment I sat before my computer, my eyes sprinting over the sentences I only half understood.
And then, very dimly, it all came back to me.
I’ve put off telling you the beginning of this story because it’s embarrassing. About a year earlier, around the time galleys of my novel were going out, I’d heard from a friend of mine that a book has about a three-month window to become “a success.” This friend of mine is a writer, the kind of person who’d know. But if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure what counted as “a success” or how I would know if my own book were “successful.” When my novel came out, anyway, googling my name seemed as good a way as any to find out.
I’m embarrassed to tell you this. I’m embarrassed to explain that for about three months, I began each day by googling the words “JP Gritton”—my own name, that is. I’m embarrassed to explain how badly I needed the top hit to be a gushy review of my novel in the Times (LA, New York, London; I wasn’t picky), or the Chronicle or even the Globe. I’m embarrassed to admit that when I found no such review, I began googling unlikely variations of the spelling of my name: “J[space] P[space] Gritton,” for instance, or spelling Gritton without the second t that separates it from Gritón, which is Spanish for “he who yells.” I’m embarrassed to admit that within a couple months of my book’s publication, it had become my habit to perform a standard google search of my name, followed by a google news search, followed by a google image search. I’m embarrassed to admit all this, but that’s how the story starts. That’s how I found the goat.
This would’ve been about December of that year, maybe a month after my book dropped. Sandwiched between my toothy author photo and the graphic on the cover of my novel was this painting with my name on it. J [period] P[period] Gritton, plain as proverbial day, right there in the top right-hand corner of the canvas.
It was a pretty good painting, too. Do you know that way certain images can represent not a thing but a mood? Like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is not a portrait so much as a mysterious smile. Like Picasso’s Guernica isn’t a city in Spain but a horse screaming among flame and ruin. This goat was the same way: it was not a painting but an eeriness, an uncanniness, hair rising on the back of my neck. Dagger-sharp legs, Mephistophelean eyes, malignant horns curling from the head like smoke.
The insane thought occurred to me that it was my painting, that somehow I had done it, back in high school or something and then—I don’t know—forgotten about it? But when I enlarged the image, I saw the date next to my name.
The year before he painted that goat, in March of 1933, a dozen of J. P. Gritton’s charcoal and pencil sketches had appeared in La Grand’Goule, an arts-and-culture quarterly based in Poitiers. Of J. P. Gritton’s work, editor Raoul Jozereau gushed, “Here you will find a croquis in which there appears no evidence of naïve effort.” On the contrary, says the editor, only a supple vitality. From Jozereau, this was high praise: by the time he penned his first rave review of Gritton’s work, the critic had sat at the helm of La Grand’Goule for four years. Guest contributors to his magazine included Fernand Serreau and Henri Lejeune, instructors at the École des Beaux Arts de Poitiers and successful artists in their own right. In 1933, even as Poitevins would’ve felt the first great tremors of a global depression, a copy ran around twenty francs—seventeen bucks in today’s money.
That first feature on J. P. Gritton consisted of about a dozen charcoal and pencil sketches—a fencer thrusting, a dog pointing, a pair of soldiers grappling, tumbling to the ground—underscored by Jozereau’s breathless praise. At the article’s end, they ran a black-and-white photograph of the artist himself. In it, he’s this sad-eyed kid with black hair and a shy frown. He’s dressed in a poncey sailor outfit, like one of the Roosevelts. He looks young because, when the photograph was published, he was young: in March of 1933, J. P. Gritton was a nine-year-old schoolboy.
I’ve never been to Poitiers, but from Google image searches I have acquired a vague impression of castle keeps of white marble, downy clouds frolicking like sheep across fields of azure. A landscapist’s city, in other words, one of those idyllic French towns that seem conjured out of dream or hazy memory. And that’s what jumps out about the kid’s art, all these years later. A playfulness, an obvious pleasure in the labor itself.
“He works in complete freedom,” wrote Fernand Serreau, in the December of ’33 edition of La Grand’Goule, “for the sheer physical joy of it, without losing the calm of a child’s soul.” For Gritton, who was Serreau’s student at the École, art was a kind of game. And many years later, long after La Grand’Goule had folded, long after Serreau and Jozereau and LeJeune were gone and forgotten, I would find myself wondering if “talent” were even the right word—or anyway, the only one. Raoul Jozereau might’ve been right to call J. P. Gritton’s a “natural” ability for finding “the expressive trait,” and he might’ve been correct in asserting that his charcoals somehow capture “the attitude, the soul.” But I think he kind of missed the point. Gritton had something better than skill, something that I envied in him, now that my own art had blurred into my vocation. He had a total lack of self-consciousness. An ease in his work. A joy.
I’m not sure what J. P. Gritton would have made of Jozereau’s article, but I remember what it was like to be nine. I suspect that the novelty of seeing his drawings reproduced in a magazine soon wore off. I suspect his attention strayed to—who knows? Something else, anyway. A comic book, a serial playing on the radio, the math homework he had forgotten on the kitchen table.
It’s weird how youth, like age, can put a thing into perspective. As I read all those grand-sounding words, I detected something odd, even morbid, in all the praise, which is a word that comes from Old French, preisier, which also means “to appraise” or “to estimate.” Or else, the encomium just reminded me of a habit I’d formed at pandemic’s beginning, whenever I graded my students’ short stories: sometime in the spring of 2020, I’d begun to attach a letter to each minutely annotated draft. Some of these letters ran several pages in length, others among them included appendices and footnotes. And still I never managed to convey what I wished to. Keep going, I wanted to tell them. This thing you have, don’t lose it.
About J. P. Gritton’s paintings, Jozereau and Serreau were just as effusive. In the next edition of La Grand’Goule, Serreau wrote, “All on his own, the child is searching out new means of expression.” He had, in other words, taught himself how to paint. These paintings, Jozereau went on to suggest, “demonstrate the same stunning qualities as his sketches, but their effect is much more complete.”
What’s odd is that I’ve never been able to find the paintings reproduced in La Grand’Goule, the ones Serreau and Jozereau gushed about. In fact, the goat remains the only painting of Gritton’s I’ve ever seen. From a brief biographical sketch that appears in Les Peintres de Poitou, I know that J. P. Gritton began showing his oils at the Salon d’Orientine, the region’s most prestigious art show, in 1935. But nothing appears in the annals of La Grand’Goule about these landscapes (Cour de ferme, Marine) or the one he showed the following year (Bords de la Vienne) or the pair he showed the year after that (Intérieur d’étable, Bouefs couchés). As far as I know, after publishing Serreau’s feature in the December of ’33 edition of La Grand’Goule, Jozereau went nearly four years without so much as mentioning Gritton’s name.
I can’t help wondering what the wunderkind made of this fact. I can’t help wondering if maybe, almost in spite of himself, J. P. Gritton had grown hungry for Jozereau’s praise? Or else J. P. Gritton had suspected the truth all along: that he’d only appeared in the pages of La Grand’Goule as curiosity, as folderol—almost, as freak.
In the two-page obituary of J. P. Gritton that appeared in the December of 1937 edition of La Grand’Goule, Raoul Jozereau wrote with the usual grandeur:
In the cemetery I told the devastated parents, “All of the painters of the Orientine are gathered here today. The faithful among them suppose that a picture book must’ve been needed for the little children of heaven; as for the others, that his life was, alas, like the first light of a dawn so brilliant that it will forever brighten your days.
Or else the problem with this story is that it’s hard to remember the me I was back then. In December of 2019, I couldn’t have told you who Anthony Fauci was, for example, and I understood an N95 mask to be something worn in the vicinity of paint fumes. I would’ve guessed “social distancing” to be the name of an alt-punk group from Los Angeles. Which is by way of saying, I can’t really imagine a time in which the most urgent question on my mind was How many people are going to come to my book launch?
The answer, either way, was seven. Eight, if you count me. There was an accident a few miles down the interstate from the bookstore that hosted the event. But the truth is that eight people would prove to be one of my bigger audiences. By February of 2020, just as the three-month Window of Success was sliding shut, I’d begun to recognize a certain expression on the tired faces of bookstore managers: a narrow, slightly constipated look in their eyes, not quite pitying and not quite resentful. I felt bad for them. Here they’d gone to the trouble of setting out folding chairs and amuse-bouches, opened a bottle of wine—and nobody’d come to drink it. The publicist at my press told me not to worry about such things. People would find my work by other means, she said. I wanted badly to believe her, but by then I knew better: I knew that when you typed “J.P. Gritton” into a search bar, you found no gushy reviews in the Globe, Chronicle, or Times, and that a Google image search directed you to the online archive of the Musée Ste. Croix de Poitiers: a painting of a goat signed by me, dated ninety years ago.
On January 15, 2021, about a week after Congress reconvened to count the electoral votes of the previous presidential election, four days before what would have been J. P. Gritton’s ninety-sixth birthday, I received an email from Stéphane Semelier, an archivist at the Musée Ste. Croix.
“Dear Mr. Gritton,” read the email, “it is with pleasure that I respond to your inquiry. Jean-Pierre Gritton was a young Poitevin art student who died in the summer of 1937 in Fouras, Charente-Maritime, at the age of thirteen.” Included as attachments to Stéphane’s message were a few of Gritton’s charcoals—tigers, wolves, bears, a jai-alai player—and half a dozen rave reviews. Among the reviews of his art were the features Raoul Jozereau wrote for La Grand’Goule, a brief biography from a book about the painters of Poitou, and exactly half of J. P. Gritton’s two-page obituary spread.
I don’t know exactly what I felt, wading first through Stéphane’s email and then the twenty or so pages of archival material. Curiosity, sure, and something I might’ve mistaken for excitement. But more than that, I felt a weird kind of unbelief. This nine-year-old prodigy takes Poitou’s art world by storm and then he—dies? It was somehow too simple, too neat. And yet hadn’t it been a year of premature endings? Endings in intensive care units or in waiting rooms or on the side of the road in Georgia or on a sidewalk in Minnesota or in a bed in Kentucky.
As the weeks and then the months went by, I kept on thinking about a sentence I’d read in the three-paragraph-long biography from Les Peintres de Poitou: “All the extraordinary promise this young Poitevin might have realized in the course of a normal career was cut short by his sudden disappearance, aged thirteen.” I couldn’t make sense of this line. Jozereau’s obituary had mentioned a coffin, a hearse. Was the hearse empty? Had J. P. Gritton died, or simply vanished?
Back then, it seemed an important question—maybe even an urgent one. I should explain that the town where J. P. Gritton suddenly vanished is on the Atlantic Coast, that an image search yields a series of lush seascapes: white-capped waves crashing against a stone-walled fortress, the spire of a handsome church rising over a rocky beach. Probably, in some idiot corner of my mind, I was imagining J. P. Gritton in a little rowboat, rowing forever. It would take me many weeks to realize that the phrase “brusque disparition” has none of the sexy uncertainty of “sudden disappearance,” that it’s just a euphemism—like saying “sudden passing” when you mean something else.
I wrote Stéphane on a Friday in late March—Friday evening, in Poitiers—and he wrote me back first thing Monday morning. Included in his reply, he said, was the missing second page of Jozereau’s obituary. As for my question about the precise nature of the young artist’s demise, Stéphane explained that every source on the subject spoke of a premature death without specifying the means. Which makes sense, I guess: if you’re writing an obituary for a thirteen-year-old artistic prodigy, you’re not going to waste any ink on cause of death—especially if it’s something as banal as a case of pneumonia, a burst appendix, a touch of Spanish flu. In other words, I still don’t know how J. P. Gritton vanished, but I know for certain how he did not.
In the missing second page of Gritton’s obituary, Raoul Jozereau tells his readers with morbid relish that J.P. Gritton knew he was going to die but, for his mother’s sake, “he pretended to hold out hope.” When she briefly stepped out of the room, Gritton reportedly turned to the priest who would go on to deliver his last rites: “Mais je veux mourir en scoot,” he said. That is, But I want to die in a scooter accident.
Rest in peace, Jean-Pierre Gritton. May the picture books you illustrate for the children of heaven be met with breathless praise. May your paintings hang forever on the walls of the Musée Ste. Croix. And may we be forever grateful to know neither the hour nor the manner of our sudden vanishing.
From “Et… celui de demain” by Raoul Jozereau. From La Grand’Goule: March, 1933.
Un bouc, © Musée de Poitiers, photograph Christian Vignaud
From “Et… celui de demain” by Raoul Jozereau. From La Grand’Goule: March, 1933.
From “Et… celui de demain” by Raoul Jozereau. From La Grand’Goule: March, 1933.
From “Deux peintures de Pierre Gritton” by Fernand Serreau. From La Grand’Goule: December, 1933.
From “Les obsèques d’un jeune artiste poitevin: Pierre Gritton” by Raoul Jozereau.
From La Grand’Goule: December, 1937.
JP Gritton’s novel Wyoming, a Kirkus best debut of 2019, is out with Tin House. His awards include a Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellowship, the Meringoff Prize in fiction, and the Donald Barthelme Prize in fiction. He is an assistant professor of creative writing in the department of English at Duke University.
An Interview With Clare Needham
In the interview that follows, Clare Needham talks with TMR interns Persy Clark and Kim Potthast about her essay “Cover Up.” In that essay, the author describes her time spent living and working in Jerusalem. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read the essay here.
Kim Potthast: The title “Cover Up” is simple but effective. How did you choose it? Were there ever any other titles this essay went by?
Clare Needham: I chose “Cover Up” because it can be read as a verb or, hyphenated, as a noun: Cover-up. I intend both readings. I read the title as an imperative, as a command I gave myself to disguise my body as much as possible. As a noun, it functions as a secret note for me, with its suggestion of suppression and concealment. There’s so much I left out in this essay to tell this one particular story. It’s a reminder that the essay is itself a cover-up for a larger, longer story.
There weren’t any viable alternative titles, but I remember that while walking around Jerusalem I’d often think of writing a story I’d call “Who Do You Think You Are?”—without understanding what it would contain or how I’d begin. It’s a question that ricocheted around my head a lot, a question I directed at myself, and also one I wanted to ask constantly of everyone else. It’s a good question, in all its tonal possibilities and responses.
Persy Clark: If you had written this essay while still living in Jerusalem, how different do you think it would be?
CN: I would not have written this essay while living in Jerusalem. In those years, I was fixated on and defeated by trying to understand and explain the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In the years since my return to New York, I’ve drifted back to my usual self-contemplation. I still think constantly about Jerusalem, though. It was an education that went beyond the limits of what this essay conveys.
I didn’t intend to write this essay at all—it took me by surprise. I wrote it very quickly in early April 2020, a singular time to be living in New York City, then the epicenter of the pandemic. A couple of weeks before New York issued a mask mandate, I decided one afternoon that I’d tie a scarf around the lower half of my face and keep it on in the grocery store. On my walk over, a man saw me in my makeshift mask and crossed the street before I could pass him. I don’t know what he thought—did he think I was infected?–but his action catapulted me back to the times in Jerusalem, when I would have wanted nothing more than to have that power, to appear dangerous and repel everyone (meaning men) around me. In April 2020, it was as if I’d assumed this incredible power I’d needed and wanted so much in another city, in another time. When I reread “Cover Up” recently, I was surprised by how quickly I launch into a description of what I’m wearing, the uniform I develop and change. But then I’m reminded that I really did begin this as an essay about clothing, and the sometimes-magical thinking I’ve had around clothes: that the right clothes change everything and will protect me. That adding (or removing) clothing is an effective form of control.
KP: In your essay, you mention the death of the American activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer under contested circumstances. The story was told to you as a warning. Were there any other examples of violent or deadly incidents like this being used as warnings to resident aliens?
CN: An Israeli colleague mentioned Rachel Corrie to me not as a warning but as an example of how I was being perceived by authority—in specific, by Israeli airport security at Ben Gurion. Jerusalem is not a dangerous city. It’s safer than many American cities, if not most. But in any city, your safety depends on who you are, how you appear, how likely you are to be treated or mistreated by the police, or, in the case of Jerusalem, by the Israeli army, too. Jerusalem is safe for me in a way it’s not for a Palestinian living in Sheikh Jarrah. What happened to me, this kind of stranger vs. stranger violence, was an anomaly, something that shocked Palestinians and Israelis alike. I knew that some people back in the States assumed that I was contending daily with the specter of bus bombings, but I lived in Jerusalem in so-called quiet years. There wasn’t the kind of violence that makes international headlines. But there was, and still is, the everyday violence of the occupation, which Westerners can more easily ignore. In “Cover Up,” I describe limitations to my movement in a specific neighborhood, but in general, in retrospect, I was very free. Often, I’d walk through the Old City to get to West Jerusalem, and sometimes the Israeli army would create surprise checkpoints, say at Damascus Gate. One hot afternoon, I took my place at the end of a long line and prepared to show my ID. Within a minute, a soldier led me to the front, apologizing and explaining that the line was “for Arabs only.” Burning with shame, I continued on my way.
KP: How and why did you develop a desire to conform and not make waves, to be a “perfect stranger”?
CN: Sometimes I think of Jerusalem and New York as opposites. In New York, people dress to be seen. I love looking at what people wear. Also in New York, you can dress outrageously, and no one will look twice. I love New York for its gift of anonymity. It’s a kind of anonymity that is not possible in Jerusalem, and really, it’s hard to find this anonymity in other cities, too. In Jerusalem, there are large religious communities, Muslim, Jewish, also Christian. There’s an emphasis on modesty—which is not to say that modesty precludes style. But I knew even before I moved to Jerusalem that I would no longer be operating as I had in New York. I wanted not so much to conform as to pass as a respectful outsider. Is it possible to be a “perfect stranger”? Probably not. It gets back to this interesting question: Who do you think you are?
PC: Do you think conditions for women in America could ever become similar to those in Jerusalem, given the right circumstances?
CN: Women in Jerusalem lead all kinds of lives. There, as it is here, in America, or anywhere in the world, the status of women as people is never secure. It’s constantly being negotiated and is often undermined.
PC: Were there any parts in the final draft of this piece that you considered excluding? If so, why?
CN: I’d consider excluding the entire essay. I usually write fiction, and there’s freedom and power in not claiming anything I write as hewing too closely to my own experiences, thoughts, obvious shortcomings. In fiction, there’s freedom in parceling out bits of my life and observations to different characters.
Also, I’d exclude nothing. I’d leave everything in. But I’d interrogate every sentence, elaborate on it, make it lead to other places. I’d write a longer work that departs from the same material.
There is one small edit I’d actually like to make. In the final sentence, I write: “In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.” I’d like to exclude “In America.” I’m not sure why I qualified the sentence that way when it’s true for me elsewhere as well.
Clare Needham is a writer living in New York City. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, PEN America, MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During her second year living in Jerusalem, she worked for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and oversaw the English translation of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, published by Metropolitan Books in 2012.
“Cover Up” by Clare Needham
In Clare Needham’s memoir about her experience as a young woman living and working in Jerusalem, the author reflects on issues of women’s bodies, national identity, and physical safety. The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize competition and appeared in print in TMR 44:3. You can read our interview with Clare here.
I did not begin my time in Jerusalem with the desire to be dangerous. I arrived in that most intoxicating, infuriating, enervating, derelict, and sad of cities with a large black suitcase into which I’d folded a year’s wardrobe, plus books and toiletries. I had a postcollege fellowship at an Israeli civil rights and legal organization that soon came to feel too conservative for me. Its mission was laudable: it advocated for a greater separation of religion and state and for equal allocation of government funds for all minority groups within ’67 borders. But the organization relied on funding mostly from Jewish groups in the United States, Europe, and Australia, which were, as one colleague explained to me, “progressive except for Palestine.” In the fundraising materials I helped compose, I could not mention Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, which began about four hundred meters from our office, or its occupation of the West Bank, or its occupation and total blockade of Gaza, even as we approached the one-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. Granted, antioccupation work was not within the organization’s purview, and among the staff there was disagreement and a spectrum of political opinion. But I felt stifled nonetheless.
I was, however, free to wear whatever I liked to the office. I had two bosses, one an American who’d explained to me before I moved that I didn’t need to worry about packing a separate work wardrobe. Israelis dressed casually; they wore whatever—the organization’s press liaison liked to wear thigh-highs and little black dresses to work. My American boss now felt stuffy whenever she had to put on button-down Ann Taylor blouses to meet with potential donors. I adored my Israeli boss, the organization’s executive director, who had been a champion swimmer in a former life. She wore jeans and T-shirts, so I did the same.
My first day out in Jerusalem, before I had to report to work, I wore jean shorts. The temperature was in the mid-90s, and at noon there was a blinding white heat. Almost as soon as I left my apartment near the city center—where something like a secular atmosphere still prevailed—I began to feel my mistake. A man grabbed the backs of my thighs and parted my legs with his hand. I vowed never to wear shorts again.
I put on jeans that covered my ankles and then decided it was better to cover my shoulders as well, even if, for a little while longer, I left the rest of my arms bare. Within two weeks, I’d added a scarf to the ensemble. Often I wore a black one dotted with tiny blue and violet flowers that I adjusted each morning to hide my vulnerable neck and collarbones, then double-checked my work in the mirror—though mirrors were not necessary in Jerusalem. As soon as you stepped onto the street, your body was reflected back to you, and your body was understood as your essence. Jerusalem, reputed to be a spiritual place, was rooted in the physical, in the crudeness of surface appearance. I was a young white woman, secular, not obviously Jewish: everyone I passed reflected that image back to me.
My excessive paleness—red hair, blond eyebrows and eyelashes—made strangers often stop and demand where I was from. The first time I flew out of Ben Gurion Airport, I underwent extensive questioning— Why did I speak Hebrew? What was the origin of my last name? Was I really Jewish?—and my passport was slapped with a stickered number 5, the second most serious security rating. On my return from Istanbul, as I rode up an escalator with other passengers from my flight, airport security summoned me out of line before we reached passport control. They searched my luggage; they asked more questions. When I described the experience to an Israeli colleague, she didn’t miss a beat. “Oh,” she said, “you fit the Rachel Corrie profile. European-looking woman, traveling alone. They assume you have a Palestinian boyfriend, a blog where you write about the occupation.” (Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003 while defending Palestinian homes in Gaza from demolition.)
I did not have a blog, and my boyfriend was American, but he taught at a Palestinian university and lived in East Jerusalem, and soon I moved in with him. With the move, I became the one white lady in At-Tur, a neighborhood on the Mount of Olives, a part of East Jerusalem crowded with many histories and lives. It was a Palestinian village with an illegal Israeli settlement embedded in it, whose compound flew an Israeli flag large enough to be seen clearly from the Old City. Soldiers patrolled 24/7 outside. Christian tourists were bused in every day to visit the Garden of Gethsemane and the storied churches that spread up the slope. Our apartment was not far from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, on whose property the head of John the Baptist was rumored to have once been buried.
I would have been interested in many of these details if I’d had a different body, if I were not thinking so much about the uniform I needed to wear. Growing up, I spent time looking through a book my mother had, called How to Be a Perfect Stranger, an etiquette guide for every religion. What to bring to a Baptist wedding, what to wear to a Muslim funeral, what to avoid saying, whether to give gifts or take photographs. It was in this spirit of respect, of not giving offense, that I planned my dress. I was an outsider; I was no one’s sister or daughter; I had no family protection. I could not blend in, but I wanted to float through; I wanted to be safe.
This was not possible. One morning an old man pulled down his trousers and extracted his limp dick, holding it in his hand as he crossed the road toward me. I knew then that I’d have more problems. Still, I thought the right clothes might help minimize them. No matter the weather, though easier in colder months, when I could wear a coat, I kept on the jeans and the scarf and traded my T-shirts for long, loose shirts that fell at least midthigh. I’d learned that any part of a woman could tempt—a man once grabbed my naked left elbow and imprisoned it between his hands, briefly, before I could pull away—so I tugged down the sleeves of my shirts to cover even the backs of my hands. Though I felt like a colonizer all the same, I wanted to make clear that I was not an Israeli settler: a long skirt was out of the question. Loose red hair was too suggestive, so I put mine in a braid. I wore Supergas or low-heeled boots; I didn’t want to show my feet, much less my occasionally painted toes: that was slutty. When I went outside, I pretended to be married and wore an opal ring on my left hand.
I repeated the lie of my marriage often to Samir, one of the taxi drivers who waited at the foot of the Mount of Olives every day to drive tourists and others up and down the slope. He introduced himself to me shortly after I arrived and it became clear that I was a more permanent resident, though I’d noticed him right away, in part because he was exceptionally well-dressed. Palestinian men, in general, dressed more formally than Israelis; they wore blazers and shoes with laces, while Israeli men wore shorts and Crocs. Samir’s daily uniform was impeccable, a triumph, almost a fuck-you to the occupation, a hint of whom he might have become had he not been born under a system of foreign military rule designed, among other things, to disrupt daily life and thwart ambition. He wore a fresh white button-down shirt tucked into dark denim Levi’s, a leather belt that matched his polished shoes. Nothing he wore ever showed dirt, dust, or sweat. His head was shaved, and he managed to sport Ray-Ban Aviators without looking like a tool. He seemed imperious until he removed the sunglasses and showed his gold-flecked eyes.
He began offering me free rides, and at first, I accepted. When I sat next to him in his clean cab, I felt ashamed of what I wore, designed to minimize everything about me that was desirable. I felt ashamed of my dress because I was attracted to him, as he was to me. We never spoke about it, though often he suggested that we drive to Jericho (we never did). But I had a boyfriend, and he had a wife and kids who lived in Silwan, a neighborhood next to the Mount of Olives, where settler violence against Palestinians was well documented. Around him, I was especially aware of my American passport: I could leave whenever I wanted. My citizenship, for which I’d done nothing other than possess the random good fortune of being born to American citizens, granted me powers he would never have. When one afternoon he leaned over and kissed me as I was getting out of the car, I decided I had to refuse his rides as often as I could. So I began treading carefully down and up the steep slope each day on my way to and from work in West Jerusalem. If Samir was there, I would make small talk, then move on.
But I was far from slipping into the crowd. Often I was the only woman walking outside, or the only one unaccompanied by a man.
Late one morning, when I was on the slope and almost in sight of the taxi drivers, a man came running from behind. He slammed his body into mine and put me in a chokehold. One arm gripped my neck and the other belted my waist. In memory, it feels as if he had his pants down, though I might be confusing this time with other times, with other men who unzipped their flies as I walked past. I would like to say I fought off the man on my back, but he had the advantage of the slope, of gathering the energy of the hill before putting me in his grip. He must have chosen to let me go. He disappeared, and I ran the rest of the way down the hill, shooting past Samir and the others, propelled by fear. When something like this happened, I scrolled through my recent calls and talked to whoever was first to pick up. I screamed at my boyfriend or at a friend as I described the latest incident. Nothing they said was enough. I was outraged but stubborn, and stupid. I kept walking. Everywhere I wanted or had to go required my first getting down the hill.
Soon there was trouble every day. A good day meant only being called a slut or a Russian (i.e., a slut). A bad day meant I was touched, grabbed. And almost every evening, I would tell my boyfriend what had happened, and he’d suggest that I had a bad attitude: I just had to shrug it off. He did buy me pepper spray, which I knew I’d never use. I tried it out on our roof, and with comic predictability, a sudden gust sent it stinging into my eyes. Other people said I should move. Another friend told me to wear a hijab. I balked at the idea, in part because I knew that covering my hair would not work. I was from elsewhere, and it was visible in the way I moved; a piece of cloth could not change that. I had been in Jerusalem long enough to realize that actually I was my body: it was my essence; my body was my soul.
I decided I would become ugly, neglect my hair and skin and clothing. I would make myself repulsive, untouchable. Then I might be safe. I tried becoming more like a man: I started wearing my boyfriend’s clothes. He was disappointed; he wanted a sexy girlfriend. But the new uniform didn’t work, anyway. The incidents continued.
My boyfriend and I went on a short vacation to Greece, where I could wear whatever I wanted. I understood this conceptually, but my body did not. In Thessaloniki, we went for a walk along the promenade, looked out over the shining Aegean Sea. I had put on a dress I’d loved wearing in New York: horizontal black-and-white stripes, thin shoulder straps. We had not gone far when I insisted we turn around so I could change. I felt like a slut, I said. Someone could hurt me in the dress.
Things got worse when we got back. One evening at the end of February, I was returning from having a drink with a friend in the Old City. It wasn’t late—just after seven—but the sky was dark, and Samir and the others had all gone home for the day. I reached the base of the Mount of Olives and started walking up. The road I took was poorly paved, with no shoulder and no sidewalk, and was barely lit by streetlights, several of which had been extinguished for months—Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem paid municipal taxes, yet there was an appalling and unequal distribution of municipal services. But I had experience with this path, a sense of how to handle the road.
Five or so cars passed, a couple of drivers sounding a friendly beep of their horn to let me know to watch out. Generally when a car approached, I moved to the edge of the road and waited for it to go by. Since it was dark and the headlights were bright, I looked down at my feet each time the beams swept over my body and face. It had rained earlier that day, and it was cold. I wore black leather boots and an androgynous black raincoat that tumbled to my knees and hid my form.
Soon I was walking up the steepest section of road. My breath was heavy, and the sound of it filled my head. On one side of the road was a high stone wall that bordered private church property and on the other, directly to my left, a steep drop down to an open field, usually dusty and dry, though in late February, the start of Jerusalem’s brief spring, covered in vibrant poppies and wildflowers exuding their colors, even in the dark.
Someone flung himself at me sideways. I remember an expression, eyes and teeth—not a face. I began to wrestle with a body much stronger than mine, though both of our bodies were, in that moment, transformed by adrenaline. My mind was clear: I was an idiot, and I was going to die; it was my fault, because I’d insisted on being alone and walking. In seconds, this other body had slammed mine onto the ground. I had a gray leather bag slung diagonally across my chest; now he reached for its base and pulled it away, over my head, while I clung to the strap. He began to drag me, headfirst, back down the steep hill, pulling me behind him like a dog. I skidded along on my right side, scraping elbows and knees, but I managed to hold up my head, and that’s how I saw the idling car, the open door, and knew I’d be thrown inside. It did not occur to me to let go of the bag. I held on to the strap and tried to use all my weight to stop this trajectory: I would do all that I could not to be put into the car.
But he only wanted the bag. I was an available body lugging a bag of unknown treasure, there in the right place, the right time—for him. He dragged me until I could hold on no more. He tore the strap from my hands, and I rolled further down the road with the momentum and the slope’s decline, then stopped. I raised my face from the ground and saw the car’s taillights, its exhaust curling into the dark air, the silhouette of a man holding up my bag, then jumping into the passenger side, the car screeching down the slope. My instinct told me to pursue them. I was somehow on my feet, then running down the road; I can’t remember if I was screaming. For that moment, I was pure adrenaline. I wanted so badly to kill someone. I imagined turning superhuman, leaping in front of their moving car, smashing through the windshield, strangling them. Instead—there was never a chance to catch them; they were gone almost instantly—I turned and ran back up the hill, for once not noticing its steep pitch or my ragged breathing.
I reached our compound, stormed up the stairs, slammed open our apartment door, and greeted my boyfriend with an unsettled grin. At first, he thought I was laughing. I managed to explain what had happened, though not before backing him against a wall and knocking a glass from his hand. Then I went to my desk, took out a sheet of paper, and in a gesture I thought even then a bit grandiose, titled it “What I Have Lost.” It was meant to be a list of items from my bag—driver’s license, passport photocopy, a laminated card of the traveler’s prayer—so that I could sort out what needed to be canceled, replaced, what could not be retrieved. I tried to hold a pen and write down a few words, but I couldn’t control the shaking of my hand and kept stabbing the pen through the paper.
I went to bed with a stomachache. Lying awake, sleep impossible, I saw how things could have gone much worse. It was the first time that fear broke through my conditioned numbness, and I started to feel afraid for myself—a feeling that would become constant for the next few years. What might have happened if I hadn’t been able to pick myself up in time? Or what if I’d been taken into the car? I fell into a nightmare and woke vomiting over the sheets. For days after, I could not keep down food. My throat was raw, and my arms and ribs were sore from the pummeling on the road.
My boyfriend reversed his policy of telling me to chill: he said I couldn’t walk on my own up and down the hill, and this time, I agreed. The taxi drivers urged the same. They told me the men who’d mugged me were drug addicts, thieves from neighboring areas. The police wouldn’t do anything, as the men were also collaborators with the Israelis, and the police didn’t care about making a Palestinian neighborhood safe. Their explanation was plausible; regardless, the no-walk rule meant that after work in West Jerusalem, I walked to Damascus Gate and got a taxi or went further east, to Herod’s Gate, where I could pick up a ride in a shared car. I hated this new system; I felt trapped in the vehicles. I also hated what it confirmed. I wrote in my journal: “And then I was dropped off at the top of the hill, and the good little white girl ran all the way home.”
The mugging was an earthquake that went off only inside me, an event whose damage could never be fully shown. But its devastation was extensive. A colleague at work expressed concern that I had changed so much, even in the few months she had known me. She gave me the number of her therapist. And one day soon after, Samir found me sitting on a bench in the Dominus Flevit Garden, where sometimes I went because I was unlikely to be molested there. I was pretending to read and was listening instead to an American pastor describe for his congregants how on this very spot Jesus had wept for Jerusalem, how Christ’s tears were similar to those some of them must have shed when faced with a person who did not accept the Lord. Samir appeared during this sermon, his uniform intact as ever, and asked how I was. How was my life, my husband? I made up some lies; he nodded. He turned away, went back up some steps, where he joined the Americans and waited to provide them with rides down the hill. Then he came back down to me. He asked more questions. How was I really doing? “You don’t seem okay,” he continued. “You look bad.”
I was bad. In the aftermath of the attack emerged someone new, someone who wanted to do harm. Again and again, I had experienced how easy it was for someone to get too close, to cross a line, to touch me so it hurt. I saw now that it was easy to do. They did it because they could; they understood it was easy to do, so they did it. Most people didn’t see this, how easy it was, but now I did. I saw it, too.
I wanted to commit violence, to trespass into someone else’s life. I was given many chances. Wherever I’ve gone, people have asked me for directions, maybe because I’m often walking alone, at a good clip, so they assume I know the way. But also, likely, they stop me because I do not appear to pose a threat. In my previous life (and again, now, in a more recovered life), I thought of giving directions as a sacred duty. When someone asked which way to go, I did everything I could to direct them. I felt a failure if I didn’t know, and I’d take out a map or my phone. On a few occasions, I’d run after strangers, maybe slightly startling them, as I reappeared to say I’d gotten it wrong: they were to go right, right, then left.
In Jerusalem, after the mugging, these requests for directions presented an opportunity to abuse my power—no one would suspect me. I grew breathless with the potential. One time in particular: a pair of blond European tourists, both women, were heading toward the Mount of Olives. As I followed them, I wrestled with conflicting desires, the urge to help, the urge to hurt—or to do both, perhaps. I imagined a scenario. I’d tell them, do not walk up the hill; it’s not safe—and as they were thanking me, I’d find a way to take something from them. I imagined they’d be too distracted to notice my hand slipping into a coat pocket or purse. Or maybe I wouldn’t even attempt a cover-up: I’d approach with a smile, then take their stuff and run. I knew the city better than they, and they almost certainly did not possess my kind of fury, which gave me energy even as it exhausted me.
Instead, I called out to them from a distance and told them to take a taxi.
The fantasies made me dizzy. When I did get asked directions, I’d keep my sweating hands in my pockets, or I’d clasp them behind my back, fingers curling, just in case I couldn’t control the desire to do something more physical. I wanted especially for people who seemed protected to experience violence. I wished to trouble their lives. I would come down from these urges scared for my sanity. I fell into weird states. One day, I was late to meet a friend for coffee because a young man had asked me what time it was, and I assumed this was the prelude to an attack. So I screamed at him, and when he turned away, I followed him, galloping alongside and telling him never to fuck with me again. My friend thought this picture of my anger was funny. But I thought it was horrifying.
That year, a Christian radio host in California made a widely publicized prediction that the Rapture would begin in May and culminate with the end of the world five months later. I was unconcerned. The end of the world seemed fine by me. I welcomed an apocalypse—an uncovering, an unveiling.
I returned to the States in June. But anger and fear continued to warp the familiar. Walking one evening from the train station in my parents’ suburb to their quiet home close by, I glimpsed ahead on the sidewalk a tangle of dark shapes. My mind constructed a group of Satanists crouched close, ready to turn me into a sacrifice. I took a longer route home. As I walked, I reasoned that what I’d seen was unlikely to have been real— but I didn’t trust my body to register reality in time and avoid going into panic. The next day, I walked back in sunlight and saw that the menacing shapes from the night before were a bundle of tree branches. Every place, every person could cause a flare-up. Every landscape was strewn with traps. On a night typical of many, I abandoned a group of friends on Brighton Beach. Their chaotic energy, their eyes flickering bright as they shouted and ran into the shallow waves—suddenly I didn’t trust them. Alone, I found my way to the elevated subway platform. But there I experienced a fear of being thrown onto the tracks. The next subway station also troubled me, though I did not know why. A voice told me to go back into the night. I obeyed. I kept walking.
With time, and with the rescue of EMDR psychotherapy, I improved, and New York came to seem a safer city. While a shadow or something just outside my periphery would continue to suggest the mugger and I’d feel a surge of sick energy spike up my right side, mostly I no longer feared for my life. As my fear receded, I was granted the New Yorker’s wish, the writer’s wish, the solo walker’s wish, to feel invisible, anonymous, all the better to observe. Walking home at night in Brooklyn, I noted the regularity with which Black and Brown men were first to move to the edge of the sidewalk or cross the street as I came toward them; they knew how their bodies were perceived. I had to break the habit I’d learned in Jerusalem of walking straight toward a person if I thought they were going to fuck with me—though I knew I was not the one seen as dangerous. Still, I tried to give people space, the right of way. Here, you don’t know me. You don’t know the harm I wish I’d done; you don’t know how violent it’s been in my head. Let me move first.
I made these minimal gestures.
With time, I no longer felt the need to cover my neck or elbows or ankles. But I could not drop the urge to hide and disguise myself. For five years I wore a broad-brimmed men’s hat that turned me confident and made me mysterious. Mine was not the face people expected beneath; this discrepancy was doubtless part of its power. I wore the hat for style, and to block the sun, but also because it was slightly too big and sat low on my forehead, cast a shadow, concealed my eyes.
Late one spring evening, on a subway ride home, I noticed a young Black man wearing an incredible wool hat. It had about six inches of excess fabric that stood straight up and was stitched with a gold-sequined slightly smiley face that gave its wearer the power of having two expressions at once. We got off at the same stop, and at the corner, waiting for the light to change, he came up to ask for directions and to praise my own much-prized hat. He might even have used a phrase I was familiar with, that many people used when they described how I looked: “bandit chic.” Everyone who said those words did so with good humor: to them I didn’t look like a criminal. The young man and I were walking the same way, and we kept talking about style. He had an internship at Michael Kors and was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Within a block, a police car pulled up, and an officer leaned out to ask if I was okay. In America, I could be as dangerous or as harmless as I believed myself to be.
Clare Needham is a writer living in New York City. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, PEN America, MacDowell, Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During her second year living in Jerusalem, she worked for the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence and oversaw the English translation of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, published by Metropolitan Books in 2012. (Author photo by Bree Zucker)
“Kissing” by Ron Tanner
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, we bring you Ron Tanner’s meditation on kissing, which originally appeared in TMR 32:3. Ron’s most recent book is his new story collection, Far West (2022), winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Award .
Oh! let me live for ever on those lips!
The nectar of the gods to these
How the Trouble Starts
I was five going on six when I saw my parents kiss for the first time. Really kiss, I mean. Like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It was winter. My two brothers and I were sitting at the breakfast table, each of us before a bowl of steaming oatmeal.
Wearing his gray or brown suit, his briefcase in hand, my father always left the house first, while we were still eating. So he did on this morning. But when he and my mother came together for their usual good-bye peck, she cupped his neck with one hand and drew him down to her, then opened her mouth to his. And they went at it. I had never seen them like that, mouths locked as if exchanging the breath of life. The name for what they were doing I would learn years later: “French kiss.” “Tongue tango.” “Mouth hockey.”
We three boys gaped, our oatmeal cooling.
As Mom and Dad disengaged finally, I had the uneasy feeling that there was so much more to the world of grown-ups than I had imagined. Worse, it occurred to me that these two people on whom I relied for so much were strange, and that, really, I hardly knew them at all.
When I fell in love with Laura, a tall, blond girl in my kindergarten class, it seemed only natural that I should kiss her. For weeks I thought about doing this but couldn’t work up the nerve. The last day of class, I was as desperate as a six-year-old can get. I sat next to Laura in the back of the room as our classmates watched a cartoon about squirrels in spring. Then I leaned into her, inhaled her wondrous scent and whispered, “I love you.” She said, “I love you too, Ronald.” I kissed her on the cheek. I kissed her again. Laura reciprocated. Our childish pecks devolved into slobbery smooches. So much kissing left me breathless. But I couldn’t stop. I kissed Laura’s cheek, Laura’s chin, Laura’s nose, Laura’s forehead, Laura’s ear. I reveled in the sweet stink of our spit, strands of her hair in my mouth, her hot cheeks against mine. I didn’t stop until the lights came up.
“I saw what you did,” Deidre Watts accused me later. We were standing in the hallway waiting for our mothers to take us home. Laura was waiting outside.
I felt my face burn with vague shame. “What?” I stammered. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Kissing Laura in the dark—I saw, and I’m gonna tell.”
I wanted to protest, “What’s wrong with kissing?” But then I began to consider that anything so pleasurable couldn’t be without a cost.
“You kiss too hard,” one girlfriend told me when I was thirteen. I knew she was right. We kissed with closed mouths because we knew no better. She wore braces, and it must have hurt. I feared I was missing something. Why was kissing so thoroughly unsatisfying? My hard kisses were an insistent plea After my girlfriend and I broke up, I met Eleanor Wall.
She showed me that our lips could open. It was a revelation. Finally I realized what all the fuss was about. Eleanor and I spent most of the summer kissing until our lips were numb and swollen. Occasionally, to shake things up, we’d give each other a hickey. But the kissing—we couldn’t get enough of it. French kissing, yes, the exotic name fit because it was like learning another language or visiting a strange, beautiful land. Nothing this splendid could be home-grown.
Where the Trouble Leads
Katie, the woman who would become my first wife, had a theory about kissing. She said that when one person is attracted to another, pheromones rise to the lips. She called this “oyster breath” and claimed that it stirred in the other an irresistible appetite. True enough, when our mouths met, they smelled like tidal pools. We were not aware that scientists had proven Katie’s theory. Kissing excites and release hormones that create mild euphoria, leading to something akin to an addiction.
I was addicted to Katie. I bought her flowers and extravagant dinners, took her out every night, spent every free hour in her company, and still it wasn’t enough. When I wasn’t with her, I felt I was dying of dehydration. After a few months of this, I asked Katie to live with me. She balked. She said that if we were that serious we should get married. I had always claimed that I would live with my mate for at least a year before marrying her. It only made sense. But now nothing made sense except my need to be with this ravishing woman. Yes, of course we’ll get married! Never mind that we were just out of college and I was a musician without a gig.
Of all the kisses we shared, only one stays with me. The preacher had just pronounced us married. In the company of our immediate family, we were standing on a windy hill of the Marin headlands, a tourist lookout with a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay. We’d had no rehearsal, so the preacher was unprepared to orchestrate the reading of our vows, which we’d written ourselves. He read his part wrong and had to repeat it twice. Though a sunny day, it was cool enough to raise goose bumps on our exposed arms. Katie’s lavender dress stuttered and snapped in the wind.
I wasn’t ready for marriage. In the midst of the ceremony, I was suddenly convinced of this. Katie and I hardly knew one another. We had argued nearly every day for weeks before the wedding. It seemed we would agree on nothing. The only time it was good for us was when our mouths met and we forgot ourselves in our mutual lust. Lately that had occurred less and less.
When I kissed Katie at the close of our ceremony, it was closed-lipped and perfunctory for both of us, as if suddenly we were embarrassed. Panic was winging through me like a spooked sparrow in a cage. Katie was shivering from the cold. We embraced. Over her shoulder I saw a horde of tourists hiking toward us, a tour bus having just disgorged them at the bottom of our hill. It was remarkable that we’d had the lookout to ourselves for the ceremony. Suddenly we were surrounded by strangers: gleeful, middle-aged Germans, some of whom shook our hands. Had we been in Europe, I imagine people would have been kissing our cheeks.
Only a Kiss
In our fourth year of marriage, I began fantasizing about kissing other women. Women I’d see in passing. Women I’d see at my gigs. It was a bad sign, I knew. I tried to convince myself that it was nothing more than mental masturbation. But I was scared. I might as well have been carrying a loaded gun in my pocket.
I was working a club gig six nights a week that was an hour’s commute from our apartment. Though I loved music, I had grown to hate playing it to make a living. Five sets a night, six nights a week, the same songs performed the same way every night—it was no better than a factory job. I’d drive to work just as everyone was arriving home, the world opening up at the end of the day, couples walking hand-in-hand on the sidewalks at dusk, dining at candlelit tables in restaurants, stopping for wine at the gourmet grocer’s, laughing with their friends at the corner tavern. Every morning when I’d return at four, the traffic lights were blinking yellow and the world seemed abandoned.
Katie felt as trapped in her job as I in mine. She felt cheated too because I didn’t make much money, and we couldn’t afford the things she thought we deserved. We had separated briefly after our second year. She had moved east to stay with her parents for six months. Then I asked her back, determined to make a go of it. Now, most of the time we were together, we were arguing. To Katie I was a huge disappointment.
I longed for a kiss that would deliver me somehow from what I’d become or, rather, from the realization of all I had not become. And I found myself waxing nostalgic about how miraculous kisses had seemed when I was too young to know better, like the day my babysitter and neighborhood idol, Amanda Glass, had turned around at the baseball backstop just before she got up to bat and stooped to give me a wet one on my forehead. Oh, Lord, how the heavens opened at that moment, my forehead wet with Amanda’s mark!
One night after my gig, an ebullient, almond-eyed woman invited me to her place for breakfast. “We’ll be with my friends,” she said. “It’ll be fun.” At her apartment, she made breakfast as promised, but soon she pulled me to her, and our mouths met. Our kissing lasted a while. She tasted of cigarettes. So did Katie. And, like Katie, she was good with her tongue, taking it slowly, savoring me. Her kiss was a form of flattery.
My mouth open to this stranger, I felt like I was falling a long distance. I had never been a cheater or a liar. It was exhilarating, the way jumping through a plate-glass window might be exhilarating. At last I pulled myself back and, drawing a breath, told her I had to go. At my car, she kissed me again, then smiled knowingly. “See you tomorrow,” she said. This made the blood rush to my ears, and somewhere deep inside I heard a distant alarm: I hadn’t thought about tomorrow.
As I sped home on the freeway, I told myself that I had been lucky. I had done no more than kiss a stranger. It was cheating, sure, but not so bad that I couldn’t be forgiven. It wouldn’t happen again, I promised myself. Just then I heard the blaring of a car horn. Had I wandered into another lane? I focused on the road. The blaring continued. Someone’s headlights flashed at me from behind. I tried slowing down, then speeding up. This freeway was notoriously dangerous. The other car was now parallel with mine, on the passenger side. The driver was waving.
It was the almond-eyed woman. She grinned and blew me a kiss. Meekly I waved. Then she veered off to make the next exit. She lived a half-hour south of this exit—she’d been following me north. She might have followed me home.
I was so shaken I was tempted to pull to the shoulder to catch my breath. My heart was pulsing at the back of my tongue. The next night, upon returning to the bar where I gigged, I would have to tell this woman that I had made a mistake. I couldn’t begin to guess how she would react. She might bawl (she did), she might beg (she did), she might threaten (she did), she might make a scene (she did), but by the night’s end it would be over, and I’d be hating myself for a long time.
One Thing Leads to Another
My divorce from Katie—after ten painful years of marriage—made me feel like such a failure, I was desperate to prove myself. At thirty-five, I already felt old.
On the phone, my mother said, “I knew you two would never make it.”
“Are you kidding me?” I blurted.
“You were always bickering,” she said. “And then you forgot to pick up your good pants the day before your wedding. That told me it was over before it started.”
I had moved to another state and started a new job, having left music behind. Lonelier than I’d ever been, I befriended the secretary where I worked and told her my woes. She was a good listener. I tried to be a good listener in return, as she told me woes of her own. She wasn’t happy with her fiancé, who happened to be my supervisor.
Our department was rife with leavings and betrayals, and nobody could do anything without generating gossip, so maybe I was an object of gossip too. Recently somebody had left a handwritten note in my work mailbox. It said, “I’m watching you.” Was this meant to be flirtatious or threatening?
“Then why don’t you move out?” I asked.
“It gets complicated,” she said. She loved him, she said, and she didn’t want to hurt him, and there were finances to consider.
Oh, sure, I nodded. I was beginning to understand how complicated life could get.
We had lunch together and even a drink after work once or twice a week. I was spending so much time with her, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable whenever I saw her fiancé, my supervisor. It looked to be in a woman’s hand, but I couldn’t be sure.
One afternoon my friend took me to lunch at a place we’d never been. It was wood-paneled and dimly lit. We sat in one of the old wooden booths along the wall. My friend was wearing sunglasses. “Why don’t you take those off?” I asked.
“I don’t want to be seen,” she said.
“Then why are you here?”
“Because this is something I have to do.”
I nodded agreeably, though I wasn’t sure what she was saying. We ordered lunch. Then she stared across the table at me and said, “Come here.”
I leaned forward, thinking she was about to whisper a joke. But instead she kissed me, her mouth half opening as my Oh! of surprise met her welcoming lips. Then I fell back in my seat as if pushed.
She had very full, very soft lips.
She glanced to the bar to see if anyone was looking. I understood immediately that she would use me to get out of her relationship, and it would be a messy, horrible affair that would end badly all around, and I wondered how low I would go, now that I was already spiraling from a stake-in-the-heart divorce.
My answer came right away. “Come here,” my friend said again.
I leaned forward.
The History of Kissing
Second to my parents’ French-kissing, the most disturbing kiss I witnessed as a child was on television, when the comedian Jerry Lewis roughly cupped his grown son’s face in his hands and kissed the young man wetly on the mouth. I had never seen a father kiss a son so voraciously. It seemed almost violent. In 1837, a man sued a woman for biting off the tip of his nose after he forced a kiss upon her. The man lost his case. That same year, one researcher wrote,
The mutual touching of the lips and the mingling of the breath is one of the most natural expressions of affection. . . . Inferior creatures express tenderness in a similar manner, as the billing of doves; and many creatures touch objects of love with the mouth, or rather tongue. The faithful dog cannot show his affection to his master more clearly than by licking his hand.
Some who have researched kissing have speculated that its origins lie in our cave-dwelling past, when a mother would chew up meat, then put her mouth to her infant’s to pass the tasty mash—much the way a bird passes food to its chicks. Of all the kissing theories, I like this one best because what could be more sustaining than a kiss? That’s why we call sugared sweets “kisses.”
Sarah, the woman who became my second wife, didn’t like kissing. She never said this outright, but she made it plain every time our mouths met. Her tongue would jab through my lips, then poke around in my mouth—hard and fast. The first time we kissed, I thought she was teasing. I withdrew and looked at her in puzzlement. Her face registered no message. I let my mouth meet hers again. This time my tongue attempted to still hers, as a coach might wrap a protective arm around a riled athlete. But I met with no success. Her bullying tongue continued to pummel the interior of my mouth. I was confounded.
There are other forms of affection, I told myself. Sarah was an accomplished, beautiful person. Why would I hold her kissing against her? It didn’t occur to me that Sarah’s kissing might be a kind of warning or, even more disturbing, an honest expression of how she felt. Shamed by the failure of my first marriage and desperate to be a better man, I thought I owed it to myself to accept Sarah for who she was.
There was a time when the spectrum of kissing, and what each kiss signified, was as varied as the constellations in the Milky Way. Among strangers, acquaintances, merchants, maids, politicians, petitioners, friends and foes there was the kissing of hands, shoulders, wrists, knuckles, rings, shoes, rugs, coat cuffs, holy crosses, dress trains, cheeks, ankles, knees, books, contracts, flowers, swords and pens. How few things we kiss nowadays! We have diminished this act to simplistic categories: the familial kiss, the sexual kiss, the friendly kiss. As a result, none of us is well-versed in kissing. In part, that’s why I could not read Sarah’s. She left our marriage in its fourth year. We had stopped kissing altogether by that time. I realized that I could live without many things but not kissing.
Had you asked me years ago how I would look upon kissing in my middle years, I might have worried that I would be nostalgic or regretful, dwelling only on the romantic/sexual kiss. But memories of my history of kissing do not fill my head with romance or longing. Instead, they compel me to recall how vulnerable we are when we kiss, so little flesh between us and the other we would love. It is the most human act. Delivered with closed eyes and with great hope, no single gesture between two people takes more courage than opening one’s mouth to another.
I am not bold enough to kiss everyone I could or should. My brothers, for instance. I hug them but don’t kiss. There is more to learn, it seems. Still, I’m not convinced that the culture of our country will ever accommodate, much less understand, the variety of kisses it once did, though I do see fathers kissing their sons more freely now than I did as a child.
The kisses I most enjoy now—in my seventh year with Jill, my third wife—start simply, as pecks of greeting, but then these pecks give us pause, they are so enjoyable. After more pecking—I imagine we look like doves billing each other—our caressing grows until we are into some serious kissing. Sometimes we break off laughing. Other times we look at each other with satisfaction, as if to say, Mmm! In most cases, this bout of kissing sates us for the interim and we move on, each of us to our respective household task.
The other kiss I enjoy is the one I bestow on Jill’s sleeping face. This is the purest kind because it transcends desire and mirrors every kiss a parent bestows upon a sleeping child and every kiss a loved one imparts to a partner who must travel. It is the gentlest kiss because it’s meant to secure sleep, not interrupt it, and it is the most giving because it serves both as a benediction—“Farewell, my love, and God speed”—and a promise, as if whispering, “When you return, I will be here.” This is the kiss, I hope, that will send me from this world to the next.
Ron Tanner’s writing has been named “notable” in both Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories. His awards for fiction include the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize, the Jack Dyer Prize, the Charles Angoff Prize, the Faulkner Society gold medal, Pushcart Prize, New Letters Award, and many others, as well as fellowships from the Michener/Copernicus Society, Sewanee Writers Conference, and the National Park Service, to name a few. His novel Missile Paradise was named a “notable book of 2017” by the American Library Association. He lives on an historic farm in Maryland and directs the Good Contrivance Farm Writer’s Retreat, an educational nonprofit.
His most recent book, Far West, a story collection, won the Elixir Press book prize in 2020.
“Genesis” by Yael Hacohen
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her short essay “Genesis,” Yael Hacohen writes about her experience as a woman soldier in the Israeli army and challenging “the mechanisms of power.”
By Yael Hacohen
In June, the desert became even more of a desert. The dust settled on everything: between my toes, in my socks, in my cotton underwear, in my ponytail, inside every single fold of my olive-colored fatigues. Like how my mother used to tuck me into bed, the training base coated me with the thick layer of heat and sand. And I loved it.
Commander’s course was a no-bullshit environment. I shared a small corner room with five other women. We were the first women ever to be integrated into Bahad 1, the commander training base, and we were offered the best room on the floor. I was lucky; my cot was cool in the morning and warm at night. And don’t even get me started on the showers. The army had to build a whole new bathroom designated for just women, and we were the first to use the showers in it.
Every soldier I know can always remember a base by its showers, and the women’s showers at Bahad 1 were exceptional. Each stall had a blunt copper pipe and a single knob to turn the water on and off. There was no way to control the temperature, and the pipe gushed hot water. It may not sound like much, but let me tell you, after a long day of training, there was nothing like it. The pipe gave improbable pressure, Moses beating water from the stone. I would take an extra ten minutes just mulling the day over; the hot water beat down on my head, spilling over the daily occurrences, washing out the dust.
I would go over the everyday ant-like rolling aggressions. I would clean those away—as if they could be cleaned. In Israel, we have a particular word for making a woman feel like a girl: hamuda, roughly translated as “cutie,” “darling,” “sweetheart,” whatever. Hamuda was my commanding officer’s usual nickname for any woman he saw around the base, including our forty-three-year-old lieutenant colonel (even though he gritted that one out between his teeth). For me, it was the way he said it. Not as an insult, no. For him, it was almost deeper than that. Crueler.
Training started at 5 am, immediately followed by the morning 5k run, and my CO was a really, really, really great guy to run behind, if you know what I mean. He had one green eye and one blue. His ears pointed straight up toward the sky, like a puma’s. And like a puma, he had this goddamn beautiful run. His teeth sneered when he said my name, Yael, and I could see his slight, cat-like tongue curling inward. The mechanisms of power are complicated.
My CO always singled me out. During Krav Maga training, he explained to the group, “Always pick off the easiest target first,” and then he would point at me and polish it off by adding, “You’re up, hamuda.” Taking that step forward was the longest step I’d ever had to take. The whole group staring, nodding their heads in perfect acknowledgment.
I stood there, maybe twenty inches away from him, while my CO went on and on with his drawn-out intonations. And all this time, I was standing there in the middle of the training arena. It was quiet, and it was getting dark. He was going to demonstrate the most effective way to body-slam. He said it involved the element of surprise. Then he whipped around, grabbed the lapels of my uniform, and brought me so close to his body I could smell his lilac shampoo. He kicked my right shin and simultaneously knocked my shoulder to the ground. It was over so quickly I didn’t even get a chance to blink.
They tell me fight-or-flight takes only three seconds to initiate. But I didn’t fight. Instead, I dusted myself off and returned to my line. My shin was sore, my hair out of place. Like tangled seaweed, my hair stuck to my face in all the wrong places. Through the shock of it, sweat covered my eyes, my ears, the backs of my knees. But the worst was the way my group had looked at me: two parts pity, one part superiority.
Hamuda became my nickname throughout the base, and I started taking even longer in the shower— the lizards of my mind going over the event. I must have fallen a thousand times before that and a thousand times since, but I can still taste the specific dust from that one fall.
Till one Tuesday, my commanding officer was going to teach us how to pull the weakling out of an army line. He walked straight up to me and yanked my shield forward.
Don’t ask me what adrenaline tastes like—you’ll know it when it when you taste it in your mouth. There I was, standing right in the middle of the training arena. Again. He came close till I smelled lilac. I looked my commander right in the eyes, and I punched him in the face.
He fell like a plate falling off its shelf. It was regal. The look in his eyes shifted when he finally stood back up. And I remembered that I’d seen that look once before, in the Ramat Gan Zoo. A female gorilla had watched a khaki-clad worker shovel her shit to the far south corner of her pen. Her pen was jungle-themed, with large banana and monstera leaves painted crudely across the backing, an absurd painting of an overly large boa constrictor coiling itself around the painted branch. The zoo speakers continuously broadcast the deafening caws of rainbow-colored parrots, cassowaries, and cotingas. And the zoo worker had earphones in. He was just dancing to himself, out of sync with the music, shoveling. I watched the gorilla flare her nostrils. She stood up on her two back legs. Standing like that for a moment, Godlike. The gorilla didn’t even make the softest sound before she charged him. And as if on a swivel, the zoo worker twisted his head around to face her. He too had that look.
My CO stood up and straightened his uniform. He turned to the group and said, “If you are mistaken about the weakest link, just grab the next one.” He didn’t say anything more. And I returned to my place in the line.
The bible says that on the second day, God created a space between the waters to separate the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth. And while I wish I could say my CO never again called me hamuda, the truth of that one punch was this: I was never again singled out in training. Never. And that evening, that shower, the water was cleaner than it had ever been. The cool night air whispered in blue. And God called the waters of the heaven “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning of the second day.
Yael Hacohen is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. She has an MFA in poetry from New York University, where she was an NYU Veterans Writing Workshop fellow, international editor at Washington Square Literary Review, and editor-in-chief at Nine Lines Literary Review. Her poems appear in Praire Schooner, the Poetry Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Every Day Poets magazine, Nine Lines, and many more. She was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Very Short Story Competition, the Consequence Prize in Poetry, and the MSLexia Poetry Prize for Women.