War Prayer

God grant me the serenity
In the mirror,
I caught sight of my own reflection,
diaphanous and thinning despite
my best attempts to wear the world
across my face:

smokescreen eyes,
moon-cratered cheeks, in my mouth
the macabre procession of men
towards the back of my throat.

to accept the things
I trained my ear to hear
the drip of yesterday ring like
what if, what if, what if, I can
not breach the walls of high history.
Three drips. Three seconds of silent
reflection. Three seconds to a story.

They say the brain takes three seconds
to remember or to
forget.

I cannot change
When I sought hieroglyphics amongst
the fervid eloquence, they pounced at me
with righteous glances and sharpened dreams
so I ran,
and I was afraid;

I am afraid that sunlight will rust over, and
the mildewed spires of Time will erupt in flames.

Pat YW is an emerging writer from Georgia. His writing has been published by the Live Poets Society of New Jersey, and Canvas Teen Literary Magazine, among others. He spends much of his time tending to his fern named Copernicus Fernicus.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment

We Grow Shadows

Several trees surround the field of overgrown grass, a land of uneven patches trampled by rain and colored in mud. Each tree stands ancient and sturdy with branches like ladder rungs; the protrusions begin at the very bottom of the trunk, where a child could ascend its body and lose himself in the growing options and lengths of rungs the higher he climbs. The tree at the intersection of the field and road stands as the greeter, the beckoner of things to cross over into its guarded domain, in plain sight yet inexplicably removed from the present. When the sun emerges from behind a cloud and casts shadows on all it oversees, the trees and the field, though bathing under the same light, fail to draw shadows on the ground—rather, fully elucidated, they withstand the darkness in hues of brown, green, red and yellow.

Surely some kind of equilibrium must be maintained. The tree that beckons does not beckon for wanderers. Only those too desperate to perceive that the step they’ve now taken into grass growing up to their thighs has crossed a forbidden, unnatural boundary—one dividing streets and gasoline and smoke from a pine-scented microcosm so silent that you cannot hear your own thoughts—can listen to the calls of the swaying branches. Only those so tortured by their demons would grasp a hand onto the second-lowest rung, lift a foot onto the lowest, and pull their body upward, oblivious to the trunk’s cracks and shallow crevasses that draw blood from unprotected skin—and in their act, tension gone from their brows and lips no longer pursed, their minds depart from the decades-long cacophony of life and its constant wearing and tearing, and only the wind’s rustling of leaves and the tree’s greeting flow through.

The desperate climb and climb. Then, when they reach a branch they find sturdy enough—where the tree whispers to you that your toil may now be your respite, where you can see that the field extends into the horizon in all directions but the one you came from, where you look down and find only dried leaves crumbling into the dirt and the trunk testing time—but no shadow, you can only think that such a place requires balance.

Swing an old rope across the branch above your head, near the top of the tree where you imagine the view is beautiful, and tie it in a well-rehearsed loop. You straighten your legs on your branch and balance your weight as you sidestep further from the trunk. You place your head in the loop and your feet push away so that they dangle above the earth like the supple and young leaves clinging to their stems, hard at work producing chlorophyll for sustenance. Few make it past the tree. Most find a home at the intersection, between where they escape from and where they escape to—the limbo sweetened by fresh pine sap and the tree’s soothing. These bodies cast shadows.

Lucy Zhang is a software engineer and holds a B.S. in electrical engineering and computer science. She watches anime, writes poetry and fiction (when patient enough), and sleeps in on weekends like a normal human being. She can be found at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com or on Twitter (@Dango_Ramen).

Posted in Fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment

Hotel Z

For a separated couple, she and Eric spent a good deal of time together, Jaye mused, as she and her son Chandler unstuck clammy legs from an Uber seat. Amid the commotion of thanking the driver, however, plus retrieving overnight bags and landing on the sidewalk, that notion withered. After all, Chandler was still capable, when tumbling into a reverie, of tumbling into the street as well. So when he tilted his neck back, perilously near cars and trucks blasting exhaust and an occasional lyric his way, she perused his blue high-tops before tilting her neck too.

“We’re staying HERE?” he asked.

Quickly, she checked his feet, then located the crest of the hotel skimming the sky. “Well, for two days, during Mac’s conference.” Tired of arching their necks, they looked at each other, in the way people do who see each other constantly. Sometimes Chandler’s lively eyes yielded clues that his baggy shorts and lengthening calves didn’t. And beholding Jaye’s near-uniform of athletic tights, T-shirt, and shorts, Chandler often discerned a superhero, despite her graying hair, fidgety manner, and other mortal flaws. For his part, Chandler’s father, Eric, though devoted in his way, advocated lightness about family matters.

“Is Mac inside?” Chandler asked, gesturing toward the hotel.

Although he was eight now, he still called his dad “Mac,” a scrap of primordial language from his toddler days, like starlight oscillating from the Big Bang into an astronomer’s telescope. But that was Jaye’s perspective. For her, his earlier efforts lit up his syntax: an early neenga-neenga inhabited his rhythms. Yet, not unlike the white buds dappling the city, auguring a lushness to come, in dialogues with friends he was efflorescing. In fact, whenever she listened, their nuances startled her. Just yesterday in the park, for example, as drizzle moistened the high bars, when his friend Kyle said, “It’s mist,” Chandler brightened even as the afternoon was drawing to a close.

“Mist, mystery,” he chanted, before he dangled then fell to the ground, which practically reverberated with traffic and other street clatter nearby.

“Same thing,” Kyle said.

“Nuh-uh.”

“A mystery is like a book. Or a video game!”

“Nope.”

“What?”

“Mister mystical mystery.”

“Mister mistral.”

“What’s that?” Chandler asked.

“I dunno, maybe wind.”

Thus pursuing semantics, or the thing itself, they peered behind maple trees, shook droplets from wilted hydrangeas, and landed near a trickle, which widened into a creek popping with mosquitoes. Neither the pursuit nor their badinage ceased, however, until Kyle’s mom arrived, looking stylish in office clothes, her fist clutching keys, to collect her son. “Look at that mud!” she said to Kyle’s feet, and then to Jaye, “I don’t know how you stay out here, with no intellectual challenge to speak of.”

She had a point. Jaye had taken longer than most to meander from childbirth back to the known world, in her case editing for a university press, and the phrase—”intellectual challenge” indeed—was jarring, like the hotel that loomed before her now.

“Hotel Z,” Chandler read aloud. Wasn’t the place once bedecked with striped awnings? In this restless city, where buildings were torn down routinely to construct new ones, it was difficult to recall.

Last time they had stayed in an expensive hotel with Eric, she discerned a horse motif, dressage rather than hunter jumper, and before that, in Hawaii, waterfalls, tikis, and turquoise waves from the balcony. Today she’d expected something quaint. But this hotel, in their own city, two hundred and thirty miles from the ocean with a river winding near its periphery and a vigorous Chamber of Commerce at its core, now featured black lacquer, infinitely reflective, like nothingness translated into tiles. Rather giddily, they whirled through its revolving doors, where, inside the lobby, purple lights flashed the name of Eric’s law firm onto the wall. “WELCOME UPTON BIGELOW,” the message said.

Otherwise, it was dark inside, tenebrous, especially in contrast with the bright twinkle outside. Penciling the shadowy shapes of passersby into an outline, Jaye’s eyes adjusted accordingly. After a few moments, she focused on the registration desk, where three overhead spotlights projected circles onto employees’ skullcaps and illuminated fingertips tapping keyboards.

Jaye shivered, then grabbed Chandler’s hand to protect him from the miasma. As usual, his warm grip soothed, until he said, “This is awesome!!!!!”

Which rankled. Now that Chandler was getting older, did only Eric’s blinking, pulsating world matter? As they shot up in the glass elevator, the world appeared to say yes. Outside, automobiles scooted in every direction, accentuated by trucks, an art museum, and a swath of blue sky. Over the museum grounds a giant rusty mobile swayed, casting its shadow with mesmerizing rhythm, almost swatting pedestrians who ventured too close. After the elevator stopped and ascended again, vehicles and artwork shrank to bits; the pedestrians shriveled. By the time they reached the fourteenth floor, not even the BLAMCO acronym publicizing an exhibit sponsorship was legible. As sunlight dappled a green expanse, the river swirled around its edges, and a blue sky made the region’s weather pattern—its rising temperatures and intermittent droughts—appear manageable after all.

“I got a tummy feeling!” Chandler said, his eyes scanning the hallway, lit mostly, for Jaye anyway, by the wonder pouring from his eyes.

When they turned a corner, they spotted Eric fingering his gadget. “Tommy didn’t get into Yale. I’m just finishing a text from Megan.”

Quickly, he bowed his head. With her suitcase and Chandler’s fan bashing her knee, Jaye didn’t respond. Wasn’t that a non-event? Perhaps more than Tommy, who seemed ambivalent, Eric’s sister Megan hoped her son would attend Yale as she and her husband had. More prosaically, Jaye hoped Eric would scurry ahead to open the door, given his stated intent to “reconcile.” It would happen this weekend, he’d predicted. Plus it was the outcome she’d hoped for when they separated, yes?

As usual, Eric was looking tall and casually resplendent, if adjectives were necessary. Yet the words spewing across his screen seemed to paralyze him. In the dark hall, with his face aglow, thick eyebrows twitching, he resembled a child holding a flashlight beneath his chin to imitate a monster; though granted, unlike their friends, they hadn’t banned gadgets during family time.

In regard to gadgets per se, Jaye wasn’t in the good or the bad camp. Hadn’t people in the Middle East tried to employ them to create a new order? Which was deteriorating into a wrenching spectacle, or, less euphemistically, a patchwork of brutality, sporadic heroism, and dictatorships, possibly yet another consequence of arbitrary lines drawn by colonial powers in 1921. But, she pedantically corrected herself, news-hour style, there were other causes too: like the Camp David Peace Accords of 1978, the Iraq War, droughts, upheavals and horrors in Libya, Yemen, Syria. Whichever was accurate, that was how she and Eric once talked, until fissures occurred, like his quasi-relationship with a woman at work. Yet such fissures were minuscule compared to the turmoil citizens of imploding countries endured, so what, in contrast, did her petty tribulations mean?

Thrilled when Eric offered, Chandler slid the card key into an aperture. An incandescent green dot flashed, he pushed the handle, and the door swung open, as if they’d received affirmation from the cosmos. Jaye, who had clung to a skein of words, sentences, and other penumbrae throughout her life, rather than pulleys and machines, gazed at her son, bemused by his mechanical competence. Their three pairs of eyes beheld a palace.

“Awesome!!!!” Chandler said again, his noise vanquishing the absences, the silences, that lay between her and Eric.

Not that Jaye credited those absences, necessarily. Though half-dormant, their conversations from long ago, before they switched to foreign policy, hadn’t slipped her consciousness. Back then, he’d read to her from Plato, specifically the Symposium, wedging a vision into her soul of a place she’d never seen, filled not with objects, but talk, art, and candlelit dinners featuring articulate guests. “Romance is anachronistic,” she’d say aloud, testing him perhaps. Yet Eric’s green eyes shining like lanterns in a faraway place on a hill, his yellow Oxford cloth shirt fraying at the cuffs dazzled her. His lanky body sprawling her way, words spilling like jewels from his battered undergraduate paperback, he sought her views. And listened to the answers.

In contrast, Hotel Z’s suite seemed mute, featuring swaths of black and white, a smattering of geometric shapes, which quickly wearied the eyes, and a Warhol-ish painting of Marilyn Monroe bestriding a cavernous sofa. Thrice. (Surely the trio longed to escape?) Understated notices about minibar snacks, opulent towels, and masseurs who would visit like sprites were ubiquitous, the price tags more understated.

Chandler selected an enormous lollipop, whose golden wrapper he removed, and lodging it in his cheek, appeared to be swallowing a globe. “You want the other one, Wammy?” He unwrapped a silver version, which he offered to Jaye, while Eric, humoring them, awaiting the formation of a trio, read internet jabber on the sofa.

Around the lollipop Jaye rolled her tongue, detecting creamy chocolate, then salty caramel, while Chandler found nooks for his snow globe, toy cars, dump trucks—on armrests, the coffee tray, inside a drawer. Soon enough, Eric had the television blaring. A show about kids being famous popped on the screen.

“Why don’t you like this show, Wammy?” Chandler asked, standing beside Eric now with the remote in his hands, his physique a miniature of his dad’s.

She tossed the cloying lollipop into the trash, which caught the plastic on its way down. “How’d you know?”

“I’m a ninja: I see things.”

“Maybe it feels banal—”

“What does banal mean? Look! Julio and Sam are cool.” He plopped down and offered himself to the screen.

“Banal means hackneyed, sort of. But that’s just my dopey opinion.”

“Hack-knee?”

“Trite.”

Because they didn’t subscribe to Netflix or cable at home, Jaye’s approach to TV was non-proscriptive. This strategy—and usually she avoided strategies, especially in regard to child-rearing—was only half-working. Presently, for example, Chandler was beholding images like he was the first man to behold fire. His fingers tapping Eric’s iTouch, he pulled up the show’s tie-in, which obliged with a song called “Fame Game.”

“Are you angered, Mother?” he asked in his mock-formal voice.

“No, you asked what I thought, so I told you.”

“That’s not your happy voice.”

“Yes it is.”

“Is not.”

“It’s my calm voice.”

“You wish you never had me!!!” he mock-screamed, but only when a commercial came on.

“Oh NO!!! You’ve discovered my nefarious secret,” she growled like a cartoonish monster, throwing her arms around his, touching soft skin incrementally tightening, lengthening, into sinew. The hint of change reminded her to hug him again.

Not that reminders were needed. For her, the real monster was a miscarriage she’d had when Chandler was two. Consequently, not one day passed without her expressing gratitude for Chandler’s existence. How she longed to pull him off the sofa and haul him outside as at Eric’s last conference, where instead of sofa dwelling, and high-definition colors blasting his synapses, they’d traversed the marsh, a brisk wind tousling their hair and the Spartina grass, bending into the horizon like a dream.

Not the scenery but a congregation of dump trucks and cement mixers beside the gate bordering a dirt heap— the resort’s construction site—had lured him there. If a bevy of perspiring workers, their faces obscured by pinkish haze, bodies prostrate against a stucco edifice besieging the marsh, marred the aesthetics for her, she didn’t comment. Especially since she’d had a child, suffering horrified her, so her fastidiousness may well have been on Chandler’s behalf, not the planet’s billions. Either way, to shed her cumbrous load of images, including those presently flickering on Chandler’s screens, she strolled into the suite’s bedroom, featuring two beds, and perpendicular to one, a glass shower box: spare, even affectless decor, except for the soft pillows. Did the design reflect a decorator’s cosmology? Eric’s firm?

Or was it Eric’s taste now? Given his love for Plato and Attic Greek, or his youth spent studying them, she’d once believed she was the more modern one. When they’d traveled in France, he attended a Latin mass each day, though he wasn’t religious. Gradually, however, as he’d ascended in his career, she’d noticed that above all—as with the corporations he defended—a limited liability doctrine applied; and one could go nuts waiting for elucidation. Upon jiggling the shower door, moreover, she conjured an image of a woman, his office flirtation, or whatever it was, as a drop of water fell upon her nose.

The day he’d first told her about Beverly, he departed soon afterward for the pet store with Chandler. Not an hour later, they’d returned bearing a nondescript container, which housed a lizard, whom Jaye—perhaps uncharitably—christened “Bev.” Twice daily, as it turned out, Jaye was obliged to dip tweezers into its cage and offer a cricket to the svelte and smiling Bev. Most unforgivable, perhaps, was Jaye’s segue from editing science journals intermittently, to—yikes!—reading self-help websites, stuffed with platitudes and bromides. Then there was her sobbing phase, or vapid radio-listening phase, depending on her mood, carried on for weeks while Chandler was at school.

Once she pulled herself together, she’d told acquaintances, in a prissy voice she thought sounded dignified, that she and Eric were separating. Oh, well, several had nodded knowingly; didn’t he travel? Work a lot? Others anticipated her “settlement,” as if love was a transaction, whose measure could be taken in dollars. Finally, just as she’d begun weaning herself from such remarks, thanks partly to an old friend who advised her in an email to “wed yourself anew to life’s color, manifestations concealing other manifestations, serial jokes, and horrors,” Eric announced he’d made a “regrettable mistake.”

They were out on the golf course, where his shoulders sparkled and twisted in the light, which in turn bent as he swung into an arc. Whereas once upon a time she’d have swooned, no swoon transpired. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a riot of pinks and oranges, a finger painting that flared beyond, she’d have been indifferent to the man—her spouse—most comfortable now, apparently, striding over chemically treated grass.

“Perfect shot,” another man said, as she and Chandler wobbled their cart toward the enchanted sky, which suddenly looked better than any man ever could.

Still, ever the graceful athlete, Eric now poked his elbow against the doorframe, while, determined to ignore his emotional bouquets, she perused a list of international phone codes. Along with his pose, the codes evoked his firm’s marble entryway, featuring a chiseled globe studded with its office locations—Paris, London, Shanghai, et cetera—and a lawyer perpetually en route, carrying a briefcase. Indeed, like the bronze version, Eric was ubiquitous. So if this weekend they generated sparks, how could that matter, when he’d be at a meeting in an hour, in Dubai next week? “I think I recognize half these cities from your calls over the years,” she said petulantly. But peering around the corner to see if Chandler was in earshot, she glimpsed his head near the doorway, bent over a half-built Eiffel Tower, his legs surrounding it protectively. Plus, the TV was off. Instantly a magnanimous, self-effacing, fairy tale mom, she beamed. Maybe she could just listen to Eric?

Better yet, Eric dove onto the floor to wrestle Chandler, who twisted, turned, and shoveled his body under his dad’s, before they landed in a heap on the floor. Happily, Jaye took in Chandler’s bright eyes and tangled hair, as Eric, his pants disheveled, shirttail hanging out, sat upright, kneeled, and scanned his iPhone. “Megan has been named managing partner at Dudley Spears.” Which reminded Jaye that she and Chandler would be skipping Megan’s birthday party that night. “AND she won her tennis tournament. Here’s Tommy at Superstars baseball.” Like a man in a phone commercial, he flashed a jumble of ersatz colors their way.

Then turned the TV back on. In under two minutes, per the headline, a series of rushing numbers and another globe—this one revolving—flanked a woman covering tech stocks and “ordinary Americans.” (If such media banalities annoyed her, Eric was prone to use information more shrewdly.) Before anyone, ordinary or no, might experience ennui, the camera whisked over to a man in purple frippery, analyzing a ten-year zigzag in oil prices.

“Is that sort of like blood flowing through the body?” Chandler asked.

“Excellent analogy,” Eric replied, appraising Chandler’s square shoulders, calm eyes, and hair going everywhere, anew. But his explanation of oil prices and the economy sent Chandler back to his Legos. To Jaye, Eric said, “I’m watching this stock PERK-Y: Their scientists are developing a blood test that diagnoses several cancers early on.” Which was so like him—to transcend the heartless lawyer stereotype, to focus on something half-profitable but life-saving. He’d probably read a stack of FDA reports. “One panel tomorrow will feature their research team; you might stop by when the babysitter comes,” he added, tossing his mane in her direction.

“Her name’s Billie,” Jaye and Chandler said together.

“Billie,” he nodded seductively, as if he now treasured every detail about their lives. Once again he sprawled on the floor, to assist Chandler with the Eiffel Tower.

A half-hour later, however, once Jaye was growing accustomed to this new level of concern, Eric riffled through his briefcase, reminding her he was beholden not only to her but to innumerable helpers, gadgets, hotel rooms, and facts, not to mention a settled manner of assessing those facts. “Anywa-a-a-y, I’ll be back later.” He straightened his lopsided shirt, buttoned it, and gazed at them again before dashing out of the room, probably late for a meeting, and afterward was Megan’s party. Chandler rushed to the door, and asked for his iTouch. Eric tossed it to him.

“Someday I’ll take you to Shanghai. The buildings have lights rushing all over them, ad messages.”

“Like Times Square?”

“Better than Times Square.”

After Eric pirouetted around a vacuum cleaner’s orange wire, after the door slammed with an institutional bang, Jaye and Chandler settled in, he caressing the iTouch like it was a sacred relic, she the newspaper. An editorial about Tokyo’s superior airport, written in prose that rotated as efficiently as its subject, barely sank in. No doubt Eric had whizzed through its bright corridors many times. Didn’t their lives already resemble a conveyor belt? And now Chandler was on the cusp of seeking gadgets of his own. Especially, Jaye worried, frowning at the Tokyo airport, if he felt forlorn in Eric’s absence.

So, mindfulness! One sleepless night after self-help had grown tiresome, a Buddhist monk’s essay had captivated her, even as the website flickered its lonely midnight-internet shapes on the wall. Recalling the monk’s precepts now, she envisioned filaments running between her and Chandler, the exquisiteness of the moment, whatever might counter the room’s garish promises. Exuding conviviality, she pointed at Chandler’s screen. “Who’s that?”

“Mario. You’re too much of a loser to know who he is—”

“A loser??”

Upon overhearing their banter in the parking lot once, his second-grade teacher dismally had predicted “boundary issues” for their future. Many parents subscribed to Mitzie’s cosmology, certain that any infraction of parenting rules would lead to disaster. Various collective judgments, pertaining to lunchboxes, a mom who exaggerated her accomplishments, vacation spots, and so on, half-instigated by Mitzie, then dramatized by parents on the playground and in emails, only magnified the fears. After she left Eric, group emails nudged Jaye into a chasm, playground gossip into an abyss. Nonetheless, when alone with Chandler, she’d learned to initiate a rich dialogue, which he embellished, until they had concocted a fun, preposterous universe to visit whenever script-followers weren’t listening.

“Mommy, Mommy. Can you hear me?” Chandler asked now, ever conscious of her attention straying. “I still love you, even if you don’t know anything.”

“You want to go to that park down there?” She pointed at a tiny green patch down below, her fingertip touching cool glass that afforded no access, not even a crack of air.

“Let’s order room service!”

Forsaking a pinkish sprig far below, maybe a dogwood, Jaye picked up the menu. Not twenty minutes after they touched a button and ordered, a tray of green beans, lasagna, and strawberry cake appeared, which, after a period of silence, vanished from their plates. Upon cramming a few final strawberries into his mouth, Chandler pressed his face against the window. “What next?” she asked. Although she was robust, motherhood had nudged her toward selflessness, which might have rankled had her love not been as tenacious as a gristly piece of meat.

With equanimity oozing from his soft eyes and resolute lips, Chandler turned back and sketched the downtown buildings, twinkling magically in crepuscular light. Then added a man atop a penthouse, which made her look twice. If the man was preparing to jump off a building, did that vindicate Mitzie’s dire predictions? With a leftover napkin, she nervously wiped a bit of strawberry juice from Chandler’s mouth, while savoring her proximity to his nose, cool childish breath, and busy eyes.

“The other day, Clay drew me a picture of a guy falling off the Empire State Building; I think we’re gonna be friends soon,” he said. Upon learning that the precarious man was Clay’s idea, Jaye exhaled: Clay was Mitzie’s favorite, especially after his parents donated money for a new school playground. But she withheld that cynical notion from Chandler, blithely pressing his fingertips into the crayons, alternating among yellow, red, and blue, as he sent the foolish man tumbling off the building and into the ether.

“At Julio’s ninth birthday party, know what we’re gonna do?” he asked, wandering into the bedroom to pull origami paper from his backpack.

“Skateboard?” she asked, following close behind.

“We’re going to a park and his mom is gonna bring us pies to throw at each other.” They both laughed. As his fingers spun paper, she roamed through the suite looking for his truck pajamas, returning vaguely to herself, a mishmash at best. Then returning to the bedroom, she remembered to toss the jammies as if she were completing a touchdown pass. “Good toss,” he said. “We better start planning my birthday.”

“Yep, it’s only nine months away.” She pulled the covers, unprepared for the surprise that popped out: four tiny origami cranes.

“They’re for you,” Chandler said, rising with a final burst of energy to jump on the bed, which throbbed with each strike, sort of like her heart. In her palms she cradled the birds, vaguely hoping their neighbors wouldn’t complain like they had at the last hotel.

Thank you,” she said, wondering what on Earth she might give in return. Nothing seemed suitable, and anyway, objects weren’t what she cared to give. Dreamily, she perused the dresser’s solidity, a painting’s stark, horizontal lines, the framed duo of nighttime and crickets outside. Hints of a vast expanse, her son’s kindness, made her heart soar. If only she were an astronaut! Then she’d be privy not just to dazzle through a hotel window, but a twinkling globe; or if she were a physicist, infinitesimal particles, which could be sprinkled into a bedtime story. Instead, she pointed at a fitful bug on the ledge, frustrated by the obstacle to flight.

But Chandler, aside from dragonflies not much of a bug fan, only nodded and slid back and forth over the glossy sheets ice skater-style. “Look at the headlights!” he exclaimed. Together, they looked down at the street below, where a concert had ended. Coming up and out in a staccato rhythm, a succession of cars emerging from a garage turned left or right, like incandescent polka dots shifting. Even after he lay down, the dots seemed to pulsate through Chandler’s head as they pulsated through Jaye’s.

Still, as his breath became steady, worries resurfaced. Watching his placid face, his chest undulating in the darkness, Jaye fretted, as her experiments in living began replaying in her mind like a movie she couldn’t turn off. As always, the movie opened with her leaving Eric and consulting a psychologist, who required a parental legal agreement before she would proceed. Then a reverend Jaye contacted didn’t respond for days, finally leaving a tepid, businesslike message that didn’t encourage any follow-up.

Bereft without any psychological or religious imprimatur, she invited Chandler’s classmate to dinner, plus his mother and sister. She’d envisioned two dynamic single mothers: inspiring creativity and playfulness in their children! Until the mom, Kara, between bites of pasta, impugned classmates and parents alike, and by dessert, knifing the air, characterized several as “mentally ill.” Mercifully, the check arrived, as she was saying, “Oh—almost forgot—I’m training to be a life coach. Did I tell you?” And ransacked her bag for her business card, while her daughter frowned at its contents.

Inexplicably worn out the following afternoon, especially after Chandler inquired about “mentally ill” classmates, Jaye had kept to herself on the playground. Perhaps socializing wasn’t a good idea just yet?

But the mom tapping her shoulder couldn’t have presented more of a contrast with Kara. Margaret was gracious, productive—at work and with her children. At her son’s recent birthday party, the kids had enjoyed a treasure hunt, featuring Margaret’s own ingenious clues, after devouring her spinach dip. “We’re having a dinner on our ‘piazza’ Saturday—just couples, no kids,” she said now. Cognizant of Margaret’s shiny wedding ring, her organized mind, Jaye listened gratefully. Vibrant in manner, self-deprecating enough to enclose “piazza” in air quotations, Margaret made the world seem sane, even elegant, once again.

Twice Jaye uttered “couples” aloud, however, perplexed by the term’s quaintness, its connotations of symmetry. “You haven’t heard about my—separation?” Like a pantomime, she flailed her arms. “How honorable of you—to avoid gossip.”

“No time,” Margaret shrugged, as her son, rather than slide down the firemen’s pole, leapt off the four-foot-high platform, giving the impression of flight until he crash-landed, thus sending Margaret striding over to inspect his tough legs for bruises. At her behest, he whisked his shorts before waving her away, and back she came, this time sitting beside an energy bar wrapper, which she tossed in the garbage, her phone on the bench filling up with texts. Ignoring those, staring ahead, her curly hair framing her mien, she unspooled a list of insults her husband had delivered over fourteen years of marriage. Which was bewildering, to reconcile the banal put-downs with the popular image of Ted and Margaret: he the gorgeous professor, who juggled in the park and taught Russian, and she an internist, now stuck in a clinical monotone.

Not until ants were circulating in the dirt near their sandals, and the most impacted phrases fell out did she sputter. “I almost left—when I was pregnant with our second.” As an ant stung Jaye’s arch, she tried to be subtle, wiggling her foot free. “But instead I told him to stop.” Tightening her lips, she stood up and yanked a dangling strap on her yellow bike helmet until the plastic hooks clicked. “AND I don’t listen anymore, when he says I’ll screw up my project, or I should lose six pounds. His father was the same way.”

A little crestfallen that there was no denouement, a final banging door, something, Jaye remained silent while their kids followed them out of the park, shoulders slumped, burdened by the end of playtime and the grown-ups’ melancholy. “Did you see that chickadee?” Jaye asked, covering for Margaret, obviously enmeshed in memories, alienated from her usual hardy self. But the chickadee flitted away.

Whether Ted changed or she stopped caring Margaret didn’t explain, and, mysteriously, in the ensuing weeks, they didn’t chat. In fact, everything remained the same, with Margaret presiding as half the stellar couple in their group. Presumably the dinner went on as expected, although Jaye wasn’t apprised.

Yet possibly because she wasn’t part of a couple, other clues surfaced. At Chandler’s birthday party, another mom, as vigilant about gossip as Margaret was dilatory, arrived to collect her daughter wearing tight jeans, spike heels, and a leather jacket tossed over a lacy camisole. As the youngest mom, her spouse at work, surely she was entitled? Swishing around the other parents, she strutted toward Eric, who was tossing a football with a gaggle of kids. When in the midst of suspending his right elbow, with all the kids’ eyes fixed on him, he saw her and paused, her face turned triumphant, sending a frisson of excitement through the yard to mingle with the fresh smell of the grass. Or so Jaye, who sat exhausted on the porch steps, surmised, knowing that tight jeans wouldn’t entice him like badinage would. And indeed, the ball’s trajectory was delayed only slightly. But didn’t the episode refute the women’s studies tableaux she’d cherished in college?

Maybe, but to Kyle’s mom, Sue, nothing ever would. Her purity of vision rarely faltered. Because her son was among the football players, gamboling over the yard after the ball’s flight path, Sue was among the remaining guests clutching wilted paper cups and talking, while Jaye, ever conscious of her own ragged situation, basked in the picturesque scene. Until, that is, exuding professionalism, fully upholstered in office wear, Sue leaned over to whisper, “You could use a little confidence, all right?” As if Sue’s online company, positing self-aggrandizement, political bromides, and noisy flattery in lieu of a more nuanced cosmology offered airtight answers to life’s biggest quandaries.

Much as she wished to acquiesce, Jaye was skeptical. Moreover, reviewing her impressions yielded no singular truth any more than they originally had, except for an intimation that the existentialists she’d studied in college might’ve been on to something. Fortunately, her irresolution led to sleep, until later when the door moaned and Eric tiptoed inside. The indigo haze, mirrors, showerhead, a trio of telephones, all looked alien, before she turned over, remembering where she was. But sleep didn’t resume.

“How was it?” she finally asked, poking a leg out of the sheets to keep cool.

“Good. Megan’s new house is a great set-up.”

“Did Eunice show?” His mom, getting older now.

“Eunice didn’t say much. Oh, Megan’s advising the mayor now.”

For Eric, the world’s chaos scattered when Megan was around, like a fleeting substitute for his lapsed Catholicism, Jaye grasped in a cogent though groggy instant. Whenever Megan was appointed to yet another board of directors, or appeared on a business show, Eric glowed. Hence his fascination with her messages: For him they resembled Lives of the Saints, with Megan in the starring role.

Jaye, a desultory Presbyterian, had no such eschatological fanfare to offer. If she occasionally borrowed from his Catholicism, she also sampled other creeds. “On what?” she asked, perusing the minibar treats glistening beside his left hip.

“Business, education. And she’s organizing a world peace conference. She had a couple of old friends there. They used to be reasonably cute,” he mused, as if his assessment was earth-shaking, “and now they’re—moms.”

“Isn’t that sexist?”

“Yes, dear; very sexist. I missed you.”

“You fall into a trance around your family.”

“We need to, you know, reconcile. Why’re you so hard to get?” A pleasant aroma of red wine wafting from his breath, he leaned over, causing images of rolling terraces, green vines, Chandler running on grass to swirl in her head. Warmth emanating from his wrists hovering near her shoulders comforted her, as did his face close to hers.

But a shaving of moon and its bright companion Saturn gracing the night sky cast a thread of silvery light across the bed and diverted her. Maybe Eric was so jejune he needed to believe she was “hard to get.” Then he could idealize her, like he idealized Megan. Tangled in her nightgown, she flopped around, yanking cotton from her hips and thighs. “What’s that word for observational discrepancy? When two people see something, like the moon’s position, differently?”

“Parallax. But we don’t see things differently. We express them differently.”

Sleight of hand like that from Eric was unremarkable. The break he offered from the usual platitudes could be refreshing. Rather than dwell on his remarks, she watched butter pool on pancakes the next morning as clouds bore against the window. Yet even after clearing distractions from her mind, she wasn’t sure watching butter led to a pellucid vision. On a whim, after slurping her cappuccino, hoping to engage Chandler, she Googled “DRAGONFLIES.”

As he soaked his pancakes in syrup, Chandler said, “MOM, guess what, a bird just crashed into our window.” He squinted. “I think he flew away.” So she typed in “MIGRATORY BIRDS.” Hopefully, the bird hadn’t been killed on impact; but at least they were noticing. For too long, her sensibility, her synapses had flared, flapped, and sailed on the currents of Eric’s approval, then Chandler’s social group. Hadn’t she once taught “Women, Science, and Society” to undergraduates?

But a knock interrupted this minor revelation. Gently shutting the computer, she flung open the door and hugged Billie, rejoicing in their quasi-sisterhood, but collecting only a slack fringe of skin. Whether she’d touched Billie’s core at all was unclear. “How’re you?” she and Billie both chortled at once.

“How’s my dauphin?” Billie asked. Chandler grunted affectionately.

“How’s the dauphin around your place?”

“He’s sick. Got eczema, and I am so broke—what are we gonna do about the price of milk, Jaye? Anyway, he scratches his eczema, and gets it under his nails—”

Jaye knew this was a request for extra funding, which she always honored, but it twisted their sisterhood, and her effort to separate herself from Eric and his income, into a knot. Dollars nonetheless dropped from her wallet like confetti. “In case y’all go anywhere,” she explained. While she hadn’t noticed the price of milk, this wasn’t the first time she and Billie had veered from quasi-friendship into mutual expedience.

Which was a pity, given Billie’s charm. She was a large woman, with intelligence and survival in her eyes, who moved with a winsome grace, and sat down amiably. “I need to rest for a minute. Been riding on the expressway with Mr. and Mrs. Paulding. And nobody remarked that he was STRADDLING two lanes, at twenty-five miles per hour. So I was about to remark that perhaps he should quit driving, when Mrs. P. SHUSHED me.”

“Why?”

“Nobody says a word. Mrs. Paulding sat there like she was Mardi Gras queen. Just—la-dee-da!” She excavated her ringing phone from her purse. “It’s just my sister,” she said, tossing it back. “So what are we doing today, mister?” Looking around, she blinked. “What a jazzy room!”

“Did you know that dragonflies used to be dinosaurs?” Chandler asked Billie. “No, wait, that’s birds. But dragonflies were huge back then. Look!”

Jaye tiptoed away, slightly curious, but not enough to look. For one thing, she was deflated. Unlike herself, Billie didn’t need hugs or sisterhood; she needed money. More frivolously, Jaye needed time to drop by Eric’s symposium before she was due at the museum café—for coffee, with an environmental activist. An environmental activist interested in her romantically.

How she’d enjoyed his flirty emails, when Eric began discussing foreign policy with Beverly! In the hallway mirror, she checked her reflection, then twirled in response to a ding. With a slight bounce, the elevator deposited her into the lobby, where from a marquee she gleaned that an echoing voice belonged to the local power company’s CEO. The pharmaceutical researchers had finished. From a tray of mini-muffins she chose cranberry-nut.

“I’m a biologist, folks,” said the CEO. “And guess what? Solar power, wind power, they won’t solve things, not on any large scale. Whatever can be done with solar and wind, we’ll support, as long as users pay a fee to the grid. Incidentally, for my fellow geeks out there, wind power obstructs the dynamic between ground and atmosphere, meaning it heats up the Earth’s surface. Our most viable option, then, is to harness atomic power: We’re projecting in three years, nine of every ten homes in the state will be powered by SunCO nuclear!”

Whatever came afterward, she didn’t hear. From news reports, she was dimly aware of an over-budget project ambushing power bills. Throughout the viscous hallway, his cadences echoed even as she left, like voices after Chandler was born. But only after she’d spiraled through a cataclysm: At first her labor pains were normal, even underwhelming, but overnight she was abducted by an octopus that swung her around in brine, introducing her to ocean microbes, lanternfish, and dead zones. Not until the wee hours did her doctor arrive, summoned by an energetic nurse, whom several others joined, all of them milling about until the doctor sawed Chandler out before dawn. If afterward the usual accoutrements of daybreak appeared—pastel dawn, craggy branches through the window, scrambled eggs on a tray—she’d felt like a carcass left on the sand. But elated.

Three days later, she and the baby were home, he tugging sweetly, even cosmically, at her nipple. Yet by late afternoon, with the windows darkening, a comforter enswathing her shrunken physique, she surveyed its lavender print, the bamboo shades across the room, in bewilderment. Both comforter and shades appeared hopelessly solid, even illusory. While television and company voices roared and echoed, trailing eerily upstairs not unlike the CEO’s, they reached her circuitously, after plunging to the ocean floor, where she lay curled near the vents. Joining the soiree was unthinkable.

Over the next few months, her otherworldliness had receded. Perhaps wisely, she avoided sharing octopus stories with acquaintances. And now, with Eric’s number jingling on her phone, no echo ensued. Using one hand to push the revolving doors, through which Chandler, had he been present, would’ve whirled like a dervish, she glided outside and with the other pressed “talk.”

“I miss you,” Eric said, in a romantic, self-lacerating voice that quavered at the edges like a flute solo. Despite the crush of traffic nearby, the music trembled in her heart. But if at one time that was enough, now she heard someone whose every inflection was catered to.

“Is that SunCO guy your client?” she asked. Bickering, after all, was easier than parsing the pros and cons of nuclear energy. “He forgot to mention that SunCO violated the Clean Air Act for years.”

Eric shifted to his lawyer’s voice. “We’re advising them on nuclear power.”

“‘Advising them?’ You’re for nuclear power now?”

“I’m their lawyer; I’m not for anything.”

“Of course.”

“Look, Jaye, you can’t just stick your head in the sand.”

“Stick my head—?”

“Everyone’s entitled to counsel. The world won’t stop spinning if you disagree.”

It was the sort of comment he’d hurled at her while dating Bev. “I want my partner to have confidence,” he’d declared one time, his statements sounding ever more like fiats than half of a dialogue.

“What you want,” she’d roared, “is flattery, not someone with her own inner necessity.”

Unsurprisingly, that pompous rejoinder had fizzled. In Eric’s mind, she’d shriveled into a cartoon. So she’d taken Chandler and left. Yet aside from leaving, what had become of her “inner necessity,” as it were? Not to mention, she’d pilfered the phrase from Kandinsky back in college.

And now—over two decades after graduation—the world as she found it in Midtown was inscrutable, corporeal, and indifferent to her sensibility. Everywhere, ambiguity and flux rose up from the concrete, or drifted out of people’s suit jackets. Maybe this was mindfulness at last? Though the air was warm, she shivered at quotidian life. “Whatever happened to your— metaphysical residue?”

“‘Metaphysical residue’? Meaning my Catholic education, which you used to mock?”

“No I didn’t.” Her voice rose. “I like Mendel, and that Anselm guy. Erasmus—”

“Everyone likes Erasmus, dear.”

“Really? Lotta folks at Hotel Z discussing Erasmus today?”

“It’s a hotel, for God’s sake. Why does it vex you so?”

“Because it’s about self-gratification. And the commodification of—everything.”

“Maybe it’s about sleep! I mean, next time we can camp out—”

You—without a phone outlet?”

“You misinterpret me.”

“You misinterpret me. Maybe I’m demurring, not ‘sticking my head in the sand.'”

He laughed. “Why demur about a hotel?”

“Because it’s about,” she shook her head dolefully, “conformity masquerading as sophistication.” Ever since she’d left Eric, she often spoke as if she were privy to truly sophisticated people, somewhere far away, who endorsed her every notion. Which unfortunately was a fraud.

“What the hell does that mean? Why don’t we just get back together?”

“I’m not sure we can.”

“Why can’t we?”

“You don’t even comprehend your raft of blessings, your flatterers and sycophants, do you? But I do, because nobody’s interested in me without them.”

For a moment, he was quiet. “You mean money? Half is yours.”

“Not money. See? Talking to you—really, most people now—is like watching everybody pass mirrors in a claustrophobic hotel: there’s gilt, full-length, sliding door, bathroom oval—”

“Whereas to me it seems we’re finally heading onto the terrace,” he said serenely.

“Oh, jeez.”

“Except you’re making me beg.”

Even if feigned, his innocent tone made her pause. Maybe his persona concealed layers heretofore unnoticed by her? On the other hand, he might be goading her through a dialectic incomprehensible even to himself. When they were separating, he’d been harsher. “You put me on edge,” he’d say, adding that Bev didn’t. Too lonely—or weak-willed—to be circumspect, she jabbered without restraint anyway. “Well, I’ve been trying to exit our so-called terrace, until that led to another kind of claustrophobia, with people advising me to procure a ‘settlement.’ Or color my hair.”

“Don’t cut your hair,” he said, suddenly colluding with her against the world’s pressure to concern herself with appearances. Which endeared him to her further. Like a haze, her midnight reminiscences—pertaining to her group and its ways, that weren’t always “supportive,” to use Sue’s word—hadn’t faded. “Color, I said color.”

“Why would you color your hair?”

“I’m not. Never mind. I’m just saying—”

“What?”

“What everyone else cares about is your scaffolding, your money; it’s all they want from me. So maybe the exit I need doesn’t pertain to you.” After she spoke, Eric was quiet again. Random voices, buildings, noisy cars, fast and stark in the noonday light, seemed poised to crush her meager words, inducing her for once to try and hang on to them, no matter their apparent futility.

“Very clever, dear, but if you stay, I think in five years, you’ll be glad you did.”

“You sound like an annual report,” she said tartly. Now that she’d shared a bit of herself, had relief crept into his voice? Either way, once they hung up, it wasn’t his commentary but her insight about exits that lingered, even if, unlike a proper epiphany, it was inchoate. And if a proper epiphany was difficult to take seriously, how to gauge an inchoate one?

Per a neon stick figure’s instructions, she wandered into the shade, then across the street with a group of men trading sports statistics—about “Mahomes,” “Newton,” and “Philip Rivers,” as automobiles plunged their way without hesitation. Dying here was not an option, she informed a Chevy Suburban, whose snout exhaled into her face. Did the snout know she was Chandler’s mother? With supreme indifference, the Suburban tilted and loomed above her, careening around the bend, to reveal Owen waiting on a curb.

“Jaye!”

“Hi, Owen.” Quickly, she patted her hair. Rather clumsily they patted each other, before they headed over to the café. But how pleasant it was, strolling with someone unfamiliar: He had a college-aged daughter and played squash—were all the facts she knew. She was late, she explained companionably, if not quite honestly, because she’d been listening to the head of SunCO. Up close, Owen’s physique, though rugged like Eric’s, hovered closer to the ground. She liked the way his unkempt, brown hair stuck out heedlessly and his calves tensed like a dancer’s as he walked.

“Totally fine—I just got out of a City Council meeting—sewer pipes. It’s great to see you,” he said warmly, but gazed around impatiently as they sat down. While the bureaucratic ease with which he described telemetry panels and pump stations beguiled, it would’ve been nice if he’d pulled her chair. “What a tiresome parade of egos,” he added, with a worldly shake of the head.

Had a political scandal ruined the city’s sewer system, or decay? Like a game show contestant, she plundered her neurons, hoping as he elaborated to say something incisive. She didn’t want to sound like a benighted city council member, or a mum who would loll in a bedroom, fancying herself on an ocean floor. As a waiter bent down to offer tea sandwiches, she remembered an article she’d edited once about the Industrial Revolution.

“Weren’t modern sewers first built in London after a nineteenth-century cholera outbreak, so untreated waste wouldn’t be tossed in the Thames?” she blurted. “Although sophisticated sewers existed long before that, in the Indus Valley during the Bronze Age.” She omitted scientists’ disputes about the origins of Earth’s water: asteroids, starry oxygen, or Earth’s interior, detailed in the article’s footnote, which she’d slashed. “Fanciful, irrelevant,” were the terms she’d used. It made her feel office-competent, remembering that.

“Sure, but when there’s major industrial run-off—the arsenic and mercury your SunCO pals dump in the river—broken pipes are more consequential.” He leaned back, folding his arms.

“They’re not my pals.”

“Well, aside from industrial polluters—you got pesticides; then when there’s excessive rain, pipes overflow and send raw sewage into the river.”

While it was heady listening to an environmental activist, her throat felt dry as a rusty pipe, her pleasing demeanor ludicrous. It was difficult to keep track. If moments ago with Eric she’d impugned the Industrial Revolution, now she was venerating its sewers. Already Owen was moving on, to watershed management, plus all the dynamic people involved, including a woman from Philadelphia he’d escorted around town yesterday. He shifted his calves, thick from playing squash, under the table.

“She was brilliant, truly dynamic.” He shook his head, and Jaye emitted a “hmmm.” Like she might have at sixteen, she flipped her hair to a flattering, windblown position, while admiring a row of sunlit bottles refracting celestial hues at the bar.

“Which community meetings do you recommend—for a neophyte?” Jaye asked, nibbling a tomato sandwich.

“Probably River Watch; I could pick you up.”

“Sure, I guess I should learn how water squeezes itself into pipes.” Her tone sounded coquettish, which was mortifying; this time she glared at the bottles.

“Well, sometime look at a water tower. Or hike the Chattahoochee: Most of us get our water from there.” Glancing at passersby, he ran his fingers through his hair, several strands catching speckled light. “I’ve seen people who glaze over when they study hydroelectric dams become reform advocates after seeing one.”

“After the river joins the Flint, it becomes the Apalachicola, then opens into the Gulf of Mexico at the estuary, right?” If this didn’t follow, at least it was geography, something Chandler had mastered in school, except no one bothered with his own state’s terrain.

“Before Apalachicola, it flows into Lake Seminole,” Owen said, like she hadn’t said anything startling. And maybe she hadn’t. Maybe she didn’t want to jump higher than the woman from Philadelphia, toss her hair, or perform any feat in the romantic marketplace.

“Doesn’t it all go on for about four hundred miles?” she asked, just to enjoy using her synapses. Happily she savored a tomato sliver, squirting juice into the back of her throat.

“Yep, it’s one long system; you’ve heard of the ongoing lawsuit about freshwater flows and oysters declining in the bay? All because of our water needs up here. Oh—that reminds me.” He lit up.

“What?” She leaned closer, her forearm cooling on the marble table, eager to learn more.

“A few days ago I was in DC—at a river! eco-protest, and guess who popped his head out of a limo?” So busy rattling off the names of a singer and a famous politician’s famous son who invited him inside their limo, he didn’t notice her interest fading. Rather quickly, she extricated her gaze from his hair. It wasn’t unlike the time when she and Eric were strolling around their block after he returned wearing aviator shades from Beverly Hills, Indonesia, and Shanghai, and a neighbor said reverently, “Well, hey there, world traveler.” Or the time Eric cited the Nobel prizewinners Bev knew during her fellowship. As if the sparkle and timbre of regular life didn’t matter. Only world travelers and famous people did.

But presently Owen excused himself to take a call. Down, up, and over a river of cadences her thoughts tumbled as people nearby chatted and gestured, queuing up for a blockbuster exhibit. A banner soared above them all, of a Chinese watercolor, which she strained to see, but her chair was at the wrong angle and she didn’t want to back up and collide with the red polo-shirted man behind her.

Somehow, not unlike the celebrity seekers, she’d mistaken a succession of perspectives—other moms’ voices, Billie’s humor, Owen’s emails, even her loneliness—for reality, a banner, to replace whatever she’d lost with Eric, or something deeper, like an aquifer beneath the soil. But meaning had to be earned, so as not to be facile. “All right?” as Sue might say. Whether she’d once known this, or hadn’t, or buried her own impressions, mistaking them for trifles, she wasn’t sure. Anxiously, she touched her eyelashes, feeling heavy from the mascara she rarely wore, causing a globule to sting her right eye. Painfully, she blinked until the moistness subsided.

Gradually, her vision went from bleary to focused. Very politely, even gallantly, a waiter asked if she needed anything. Before she finished saying, “No thanks,” he said he was from Venezuela. With two pigeons bobbing underfoot, he quoted Neruda. Not in eons had she seen any grown-up’s eyes shimmer like his. Although when he turned sideways his eyes vanished behind his angular nose, they reappeared in the silver scraper as, with a few, quick movements of his shoulders, the tablecloth was revived into fresh linen.

He circled the table, causing the linen’s edges to sway, and her gut swayed too. So much that when he was summoned elsewhere, the scene appeared static as the scene in Chandler’s snow globe. From across the street, Hotel Z’s panels whispered that with funds, one could procure whatever one fancied inside: lollipops, massages, forgiveness, room service— pronto. Yet no one else—diners, passersby—drinking cappuccinos, heading out to lunch, seemed perturbed. Along with a cluster of trees shaped like Hotel Z’s lollipops, they were reflected, writ large in an adjacent office building’s shiny panels, which neither confirmed nor denied anything. A lone oak tree—her last resort—simply complied with them all.

When the waiter returned to fill her glass, he gestured excitedly. “I love all the buildings, the hubbub. In my country, hubbub means people are starving. Yesterday because he hadn’t any tools, my father couldn’t do surgery.”

His eyes were opaque now. She knew Eric, if he were present, would sympathize; she even knew what he’d say. Better a snow globe than the thuggish order that’ll prevail in its absence. Or that glorifies river otters and debases human consciousness like your friend Owen, he’d smirk.

Then why did “human consciousness” go from In Praise of Folly in one era to wrecking habitats in ours? she’d retort, because she always retorted.

But it was getting hot. Possibly startled by the heat or the waiter scooting between tables, a chickadee alighted from a low branch, reminding her of the time Chandler came home after school and said chickadees could see better than humans. Only now, pulling her chair into the shade, did she cobble together a response, something about paying attention, the effort, practice required, the clues that abounded: pedestrians, azaleas, her remaining tea sandwich, a security guard, Rodin’s Thinker; plus those she recollected—an indigo bunting she’d seen once, tomato plants, Chandler’s inflections, river-basin hickories, stray footnotes, even—she might as well be grandiose, being dumped temporarily for a phone call—the ocean from whence they all came. Strung together arbitrarily, they were non-sequiturs, an incoherent philosophy at best, rendering her humble as a minnow, not a superhero at all. Yet neither they nor whatever mysterious gossamer connected them could be dumped on the ocean floor.

Cowed by Eric’s world, imagining she hadn’t much to give Chandler, she’d lost her way. Her life, she’d believed, involving children’s talk and magical hours, was trifling. And yet not unlike Eric going to work every day, she showed up. Later, she and Chandler could look up what chickadees eat; or starting with basics, Google “SOIL CHEMISTRY” or “MICROBES.” Given Chandler’s gift for badinage, manual dexterity, and pas de deux with life, he no doubt was enjoying Billie’s spontaneity, but after stopping by the ATM she intended to return ASAP.

Maybe only pretending to bemoan how cosseted she was, she placed a worn twenty-dollar bill on the table for the waiter. Warily, she considered how Eric shared his largesse with a man in his firm’s mailroom with mortgage troubles, the bargain suits he wore in contrast with his nattily dressed colleagues, plus the time he drove a hundred miles in snow to get her. Watching a boatful of immigrants on the bar TV land on a craggy shore in Greece, she even abided Hotel Z.

If her own world imploded, she didn’t know how she’d fare. During her recent, minor ordeal, aside from Margaret, she’d noticed few grown-ups—herself included—exhibiting traits needed in a real crisis. Like her, most burnished the snow globe, while imagining themselves enlightened. But she didn’t want Chandler to become yet another reflection in an office building panel someday. Tomorrow they would visit places accessible by dirt paths rather than elevators. Through tree branches at the river’s edge, they’d glimpse patches of sky, while tracing air droplets, plant moisture, or to enter the realm of banished footnotes, a bronzed riddle, half-concealing some watery preamble whose final meaning was unfathomable.

Why she’d acted as if Eric’s milieu composed the preamble, she didn’t know. From her wrought-iron chair, she spotted a sewer where one rainy day, after a museum visit, she, Chandler, and Kyle had splashed through a puddle. Opening her fist, she released a wadded-up napkin streaked with tomato stains onto her lap. Possibly she and Eric had folded and refolded metaphorical paper so many times, only creases remained. So why not pursue other details for now?

Droplets made her glass cool and slippery as she took a final swallow. Nearby, a woman said to another, crushing forward to buy tickets, “You tell me one word for her.” Didn’t life involve more than gossip, self-promotion, and getting ahead? Absentmindedly, she slid the napkin into her pocket. As if galvanized by a coil she’d forgotten existed, she stood up. Against the museum’s façade the banner rippled, positing a painting’s intricacy, not a banner’s message at all: Like a speck, a fisherman spiraled out to sea, through mists and microbes, possibly on his way to greet an octopus.

A lawyer who lived for several years in Washington, DC, Tricia Warren eventually moved back to Atlanta, where she tries to stay out of her car. In the meantime, she has attended writing conferences hosted by One Story, Tin House, and Bread Loaf in Sicily. Her work has appeared in The Furious Gazelle, Umbrella Factory Magazine, SNReview, The Tower Journal, and Litbreak Magazine. Her story, “Hurricane Me” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, but alas, didn’t win.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged | Leave a comment

What My Mother Told Me

I wish she’d never told me about the hole in the floorboards where our veins were kept, the rancid ground squalling like a belly of slaughter, the rest of the family limp noodles glued to the walls, wondering why the neighbors never complained about all that noise.

Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and the author of four books, most recently the story collection, This is Why I Need You, out now from Ravenna Press. You can find more of his writing at https://lenkuntz.blogspot.com.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged | 1 Comment

Tide Pool

This is how it’s done,
you floating like light
inside the cool swirl
of an aimless tide pool,
you a girl again,
giddy and reckless,
thirteen or thirty
it doesn’t matter,
your hair coiled from salt,
thoughts untangled for once,
feeling as weightless
as breath
as wishes
as secrets
sewn into the loose strips of wind.
You kick at nothing
because it’s easy
and fun
because you can
because why not,
the fish don’t care.
In fact, they swing around now,
mere school kids themselves,
standing on fins,
rapt like voyeurs
before a stage play
when the field trip
is just beginning.
This is how you
crush summer
in your chest
ears
mind
mouth
like so-sweet fruit,
its colors jewel-bright
and radioactive,
shooting through your toes
like bolts of pleasure,
bouncing off underwater boulders,
pinging off the curled arms
of a wave that
holds you buoyant,
body to body,
a dance aquatic,
the two of you
whispering what only
the sea can hear.

Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and the author of four books, most recently the story collection, This is Why I Need You, out now from Ravenna Press. You can find more of his writing at https://lenkuntz.blogspot.com.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment

Flotsam

You are busy
polishing cabochons
that don’t need it,
busy rewriting the broken
music of sea shells
cracked underfoot.
Skyward, gulls scream
for pity while the sun
shimmies behind cloth clouds
no different than a magician
making fortune disappear.
The sand dunes buckle decisively,
their skin peeling free and sticking
to your soles like cake batter,
each grain a speck
of unplucked infinity.
On these very beaches,
which the waves have trampled for eons,
life stirs in the flotsam,
driftwood breastbones buried
at half-mast under each breached swell,
awaiting rescue and release
much like trapped breath or a muffled sigh.
Can you hear it?
Did you even notice?

Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and the author of four books, most recently the story collection, This is Why I Need You, out now from Ravenna Press. You can find more of his writing at https://lenkuntz.blogspot.com.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged | 1 Comment

On Cisco Beach

This house,
still a stranger,
whispers, Relax
whispers, Trust me
though you’ve never
thought to question
a building before.
You press your fingers
against the window
like a lover testing the heat of
a pillowcase or stubbled cheek
and watch the glass pucker coyly.
Outside the waves have
their own conch shell song,
eternity swirling inside the
burnished curl of a horn,
nothing you haven’t heard before,
but nothing you’ve ever
been able to understand either.
Across the road,
sea grass stumbles and re-crosses itself,
drunk in the gusts,
slurring, I’m a little unsteady.
slurring, Walk with me please.
And you want to,
walk, that is,
but this coffee has never tasted
so honest or blunt,
the way solitude can make a person
reassemble their skins and motives.
Against skeins of sepia-colored sand,
the tide thrashes soundlessly
as you did only days ago,
punctual and professorial,
gathering your ugly stitches in a pouch
you primly synched.
But no one’s here now,
or if they are,
they’re not watching.
No one cares,
not even you for once,
so you shed yourself where you stand,
cross the dirt road barefoot,
walk through stalks that clutch your calves,
breezes that tease each hard-earned scar.
You meet the shore halfway,
beaming and sure,
open for anything,
ready to go all the way.

Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and the author of four books, most recently the story collection, This is Why I Need You, out now from Ravenna Press. You can find more of his writing at https://lenkuntz.blogspot.com.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged | 1 Comment