Long Beach, California.

Out on the ocean on a small boat that can only hold twelve of us, we put my grandmother’s ashes in the ocean.

Speakers on the boat play music.

Cat Stevens, “Don’t Be Shy”.

It’s strange to see my grandmother in this new form.

She’s scattered.

And there are flower petals that float around her.

And the waves created by the boat spread the petals farther and farther away but there are some petals that cling to the ash.

And then Tom Jones sings “She’s a Lady”.

And my grandfather almost falls out of the boat and when he regains his balance he says, “We almost had a double feature.”

And then a few hours later, my parents and my sister and Ashleigh drive me from Long Beach to Los Angeles so that I can be interviewed by a man named Brad who interviews writers in a nice garage.

I’m going to talk about a book of poems I wrote a year ago when I was suicidal and heartbroken.

I’m fine now, but no one is fine forever, so I’ll be sad again.

I’ll be suicidal again.

And then I’ll be happy again.

And one day I’ll die.

And maybe I’ll be happy when I die.

Or maybe I’ll be sad.

But either way, I’ll die.

I won’t live forever.

And then I’ll be dead.

And that’s okay.

I saw my mother for her birthday. I was with my aunt, her sister, and we worriedly drove to her care facility because the on-site nurse had called saying that my mother has been complaining about her mouth and doesn’t look good and Mom refuses to get medical attention.

I was driving, talking to my aunt about what we might say, how best to handle my mother’s fears about dentists, their scrapers, their metal hooks, their drills. My mother doesn’t want to go to the dentist because she doesn’t want false teeth. But she never brushes.

If she is suffering from an infection in her mouth, my aunt says, the infection can get into her bloodstream and kill her. I do not say, “Good, this is what she wants; to die,” but I think my aunt and I are both choosing not to say it out loud. I think about how if my mother was a dog, I could have said goodbye to her years ago, the vets agreeing she was in pain, ready to go, and that this was for the best.

Maybe if I talk about how pain meds numb you completely, how you don’t even feel the tooth being pulled, maybe she’ll believe me and go.

The facts are as they are. They are in black and white; they can’t be changed. As a baby, I lived with my mother and father in Sunrise, a suburban city just east of Fort Lauderdale. The romance of the city’s name is not lost on me.

When it happened, blue and white Hanukkah lights were strung in windows all around our neighborhood and plastic Santas on sleighs sat on the roofs. It was December, 1978. While I was toddling around the family home in diapers, my father, Paul, died in circumstances that can best be described as tragic: he took his own life.

Tragedy begets change, sometimes reinvention. My mother and I left Florida for England when I was 9 and she remarried when I was 11. A few years later, I was legally adopted by her new husband, Steve, who raised me as his own. While I love my stepfather deeply, the biology of paternity is a halachic matter when you are planning a Jewish wedding, as I was, a couple of years ago. In the process of preparing to marry in the faith, I had to dig into some family history.

Nothing bad has ever happened to me but it will and I have that to look forward to.

Bad things have happened to Ashleigh but those things are not my things to tell.

It’s Friday and I pick her up from work and we drive to Weldon because Ashleigh wants to get me out of the house and there’s a trail in Weldon.

It’s called the Canal Trail and we can walk on it.

We park the car and we walk on the trail.

I’m wearing shorts and Ashleigh is wearing shorts and there are these little black insects and I think they are biting me.

“Those are called no see ums,” Ashleigh says.

They keep biting us and we keep walking.

We sit on a bench and look at a pond or a lake or I don’t know what it is.

Some small body of water.

Behind us, two men meet on the trail and discuss things that we don’t care about, and then they are gone and it’s just us and the water and the no see ums.

We look at the water and then we’ve had enough and we’re hungry so we get back on the trail and head back toward the parking lot.

We see an old condom wrapper embedded in the dirt.

A long time ago someone had sex out here in the woods.

It’s hard to tell what day it is.

Wednesday feels like Monday.

Monday feels like Thursday.

I drive Ashleigh to work.

I take Ashleigh to work.

I drop off Ashleigh at work.

It’s a two-lane road.

The speed limit seems to change every half mile.

It’s 35 and then it’s 55 and then it’s 25 and then it’s back to 55.

I drive about 70 the whole way there.

I still don’t have a job.

And Jay Leno collects cars.

He has about 150 of them.

I know this because I listened to an interview with him yesterday.

I don’t even like Jay Leno.

But I have a lot of free time.

Before I drop off Ashleigh at her office I tell her that I’m going to go on an adventure today.

I say, “I’m going to Greenville, North Carolina today.”

I say, “I’ll eat some good food.”

She says, “Good. Go to B’s Barbecue. That’s the spot. But get there early because once they run out of the hog, that’s it.”

I think she worries about me.

Here’s the start of the story and it’s a good story and this one is true.

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is from North Carolina and we met on the internet because she went on a book tour with my friend Bud Smith and Bud told her some stories about me and then Bud told me some stories about her.

We exchanged numbers and texted and talked on the phone and I told her to listen to the song ‘House Cat’ by Mark Kozelek and she sent me a video of a hooting owl.

And then she sent me a postcard.

 

Language needs a few new relationship words. Particularly boyfriend.

I’ll allow the issue of boy having a troubled history to speak for itself. Except to add that Black jazz musicians in the 40s began calling each other man because of the Jim Crow practice of referring to them as boys. This then is the root of the all-encompassing pronoun-slash-exclamation man used by most musicians, then bleeding into beatniks and out to many other bonded male groups: athletes, actors, (poets?).

But also, while women don’t mind (even, in my case, prefer) to be called girls, men don’t usually refer to themselves, individually, as boys. As in I’m a boy who likes ___. Yes, there’s the old standard one of the boys. Or boys’ night out. Or even my boys (although that could mean the male anatomy that comes in a pair, but I’ve never heard a woman refer to her breasts or ovaries as “my girls.”)

 

 

As I drove further away from downtown, the houses and sidewalks became progressively neglected. Like forgotten memories in an old attic. Like the unloved pages of an old dusty photo album, some complete, yet frayed–overflowing with used-up cheer. Others, abandoned, with only the peculiar unblinking gaze of an unnamed child–questioning and accusing all at once—staring out from among dubious, brown, square-shaped stains, the only proof that there was more to the story; that more had once existed. Proof that here was once a happy, bustling, productive community. A thoroughfare of dreams, once cherished and kept tidy and neat, to proudly display the depth of love, the fullness of life, of one family. One community. With its empty lots between every other house and its broken sidewalks and time-tested aluminum fences dislocated by century-old oak trees, Columbia’s North Main Street was such a forgotten piece of history.

 

In the winter of 1992, my sister got married.  A year before the wedding, she asked me if I would grow my hair shoulder length for the occasion. At the time, I was twenty years old and just beginning to come to terms with owning a transgender identity (though I didn’t yet have words for it). But the dynamics of my gender “situation” had been playing out in my family life since my earliest memories. Stuffed into dresses for synagogue despite putting up a fight  (always a losing battle), or hiding in the dining room so as not to be stuffed into a dress (laying on the chairs tucked under the table) until I (quickly) got too bored to stay there, and then was summarily stuffed into a dress and off we went. I hated dresses, but I actually liked synagogue. The rabbi had a thick New York accent. He was a teller of fables, the kinds with foxes in them, and grapes, and though there was a moral at the end of each story, his stories were about the journey as much as the destination, and he always had a playful lilt to his voice and a twinkle in his eye.

 

A month after the shooting, I held a yard sale. Out with the self-help books, the roller skates, the painting of the fortune-telling cat. Have to make enough money to get out of Orlando.

A pink woman crisscrossed my lawn, a Margaritaville visor shielding her broad face from the sun as she connected the dots: The Judy Garland vinyl, the stack of old Vogues, me in my denim cutoffs sipping a mimosa at 9AM. She tilted her head my way, and maybe in that moment put it all together. He’s gay. He’s available. He must have something to say about Pulse.

Was I friends with anyone who was murdered that night, the visor was curious. I smiled so I wouldn’t lose her. It was too early to talk about dead bodies, however, was she interested in a drink or perhaps a gently-used cocktail shaker I can’t figure out how to open, though I’m sure if you just run it under hot water…

She was proud of me, she said.

So no to the shaker?

Proud of us.

I had to make enough money to get out of Orlando.

Pulse, the bar with the watered down drinks and the impossible parking and the annoying chain-mail curtain you had to push through to enter, was gone. People like us were wanted gone.

So what was it that she was proud of? That I didn’t die? Or that I found a way to keep living? I know what she wanted, it’s what everyone wanted when they gave me their sad looks.

Tell me about it you poor, poor boy.

Gaze

By Tamara Sellman

Essay

 

It’s a perfect night for sleeping outside. I told my husband so, but he said I was crazy.

Why would you want to do that?

I dunno. Fresh air? A chance to be swallowed by the night sky? To watch the Perseids?

I spend all day at work on a computer. Craving the aboriginal—dreamtime in suburbia—is nothing if not an act of psychic survival.

Whatever.

I flatten a sleeping bag on the sun chair, plump a buckwheat pillow. I hear my husband now, snoring through the open window above me. I unzip my down wrapping, find carbon-free climate control by slipping my foot into the cool August night.

 

My aunt died in a car accident when I was six. We buried her, a fetus in her belly. She was only 26.

I try not to hear my own biological clock ticking. I came across a chart. It was labeled, “The Age Factor.” There’s a picture of a healthy pregnant woman. Above her, the caption: “Likelihood of a woman conceiving after trying for a year.” To the right of her belly are percentages broken down by age group. My group, 40-44 is 36%, not bad, but the one after it, the one I’ll be in soon, 45-49, is only 5%.

Sunday morning, in my twenties, a baby is crying somewhere in the apartment complex. I lie in bed amazed at its fierce demand. I want not to cry. My father always said, Don’t cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about. I learned to cry softly so no one would be bothered by it, to do it with muffled sniffles and the silent roll of hot tears, not like this baby, crying with all its might. After a few hours, I wonder if I’m hearing things. Is that a baby or just my own sorrow? Finally, another neighbor yells, “Shut that fucking baby up. I’m trying to sleep.” The baby stops so suddenly I wonder if they’ve put a pillow over her face.

Dreams

By Joyanna Priest

Essay

 

Sixteen says indignantly that she hasn’t taken pills in a month.

Since she got caught, she means.

Oxy was her favorite. I never tried Oxy, but I used to love heroin more than my own dreams.

 

***

 

There’s darkness beneath the glamour, I warn her, but her ears are closed.

 

***

 

What I point out: addiction dulls brightness, makes ideas go nowhere, splices generosity with blinding selfishness, makes a person betray themselves so they’re left with no one to trust.

What I say: “I’ve never seen anybody get out whole.”

“Not you, though,” she shakes her head like it’s the only true thing in the world. “You’re the best person I know. You kept your brightness.”

No, daughter. No.

 

 

I’m thinking about dislocation. About place. Wondering how to set myself in it, like Wallace Stevens’s jar in Tennessee, so I can change the place and the place can change me. An exchange. A connection. But then again, I just reread his poem and the jar gives nothing back to its surroundings. This wasn’t the story I remembered from school. I remembered a more generous jar.

I’m wondering how to make a scene that another person can enter into through words on the page and feel welcome in this story of displacement. I want you to feel out of it while you’re here, like I tend to feel, but in a nice way, so you might want to come back.

Y’all come back now, ya hear!