Graphê: Journal of Undergraduate Writing
Welcome to Graphê, the UIC Department of English's Office of Undergraduate Studies' annual journal of undergraduate writing.
In Ancient Greek, the term graphê referred to making marks, either in writing or visual art and drawing. It reminds us that, whenever we write, we're creating something that's meant to be seen by others.
We hope you enjoy "seeing" this year's contributions in poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.
If you would like to have your written work featured in Graphê, keep an eye out for the Spring submissions call in the undergraduate newsletter, Major News!.
Poetry Heading link
Jon Fonseca is from Elgin, IL. He performs improv theatre in Chicago and neighboring suburbs and is an actor at UIC.
Mi madre (My mom) said, “Ponte a rezar.” (Go pray)
She’s taught me just about every prayer.
She said, “Antes de que te vayas a dormir, (Before you go to sleep,)
Ponte a rezar.” (Pray)
And I do. Every night before bed
She doesn’t tell me to pray anymore,
and I don’t really think she can.
She’s spent the last weeks in the living room,
on her knees with a rosary in hand,
crying and begging god for help.
I leave her be, looking out the window,
waiting for my dad to pull up in his camioneta de trabajar. (work truck)
Mi tía (My aunt) says he’s not coming home,
I heard her talking about immigración
(the ICE trucks that park at the corner of my neighborhood and outside convenience stores)
and words my mom would ground me for saying.
My tíadoes not tell me to pray, she says
“Cuidate mijo, (be careful son)
If you come home and no one’s here, call me.”
She thinks whoever arrested my dad will come to get us next.
We lock the doors every night, and right before bed
I think about my dad;
Y me pongo a rezar. (I begin to pray.)
earth to earth
Little pebbles nuzzle in between the ridges
of my sole, hitching a ride down the side of the train tracks. Jagged-edged stones prick a slight
cushiony plastic. Scuffs, scars, colors: will wash away years later; when I scrub gum soles with dish
soap and lukewarm tap water; softly, as to revere but scrub legacies of productive day cycles.
Sometimes I don’t bother. I might let the sneakers sit in the back of my closet and think of them as too
rugged for the impressionable eye of friends I’ve yet to make.
The tracks. I wonder when they needed the steel and wood so bad to then travel cartfulls down a rail. I
wonder when people became the supply of coal that tracks once travelled from one city to another. I
am not needed today. I can freely walk along my thoughts, along the tracks, and think about the work
I’ve fulfilled. A coal stone wandering off a cart, mixed with the pebbles laid in the railyard.
Coal. Millions of years ago a plant vanquished atreacherous environment to survive against
evolutionary perils. Today, it burns to power a city. Did it survive/live ‘till now then? What awaits me
when I burn up into smithereens? Afterlife of work? Everytime you say my name I will be down the
tracks riding to another coal plant.
You could walk alongside me for now. Scratching up your soles, discoloring your whites. Fighting
like hell to not step on the tracks and lay to rest.
I forgot the lyrics to my favorite song
On a late morning having slept in
through alarms from 7 to 8 to 9
to laying awake in bed heavy with
regret? sadness? exhaustion!
—was that it?
The window was open luring
the cold into my room my body
too tired to conceal itself under
a thick redblack flannel-print cover
Any other day I would find
my legs melt into the underside
soft fabric of the cover smiling
at the ease of comfort a blanket
can give me so quickly so soon
I forgot the lyrics to my favorite song
Today my head is light like an
untied balloon flying spitting air
out into a crowded room the
furniture are pillars of unspoken
debt to a charitable world
and when I get the means
I swear to God I will repay
but for now I need the most
help I can get and it doesn’t
get easier to need it gets
harderto speak it gets
dire to write it gets tiring
to me it gets tiring to me
Today I forgot the lyrics to my favorite song
so I wrote my own.
Midwestern Life Lessons
sniffles, coughing, fever
the cost of a good coat.
to be warm on a cool day,
stay dry on a rainy one
my mom would say,
“bundle up, or
you’ll catch a cold”
I would bundle up
I’d get a cold
she’d respond with,
“you didn’t bundle up
now in a millisecond
I learned what we’ve studied
over a millenia
about immune systems
bacteria, antibodies, white
blood cells, red blood cells
sleep strengthens the immune system
stress, worry, anxiety will weaken it
It’s not about having a good coat
as much as it is about affording one
Ivan Gomez is a 2021 UIC graduate who works for Chicago Public Schools as a special education classroom assistant. While he is pursues a master’s in clinical psychology at Roosevelt University, he is working on a blog and pursuing his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
The yellow brick road still shines like gold but this place is not the same as before. I’m no longer the kid searching for home I’m an adult lost in the world.
While everyone else has moved on in life Getting diplomas and finding love, making courageous discoveries on life– I’m still here with my ruby reds. I’m lost. I’m abandoned–
Where is the golden path?
I lay awake eyes open wide
Mr. Sandman owes me and
I’m tired of being left unseen.
Why did you change? We were a great team.
Tick Tock… I’m left to wait for what never shows.
Once a bond of blissful sensations.
1,2, no ones coming for me …
Time begins to speed up as my clock strikes three
And here I lay with a lucid mind
still waiting on my dream.
The Light in My Lantern
The lonely road shivers,
The suffocating darkness surrounds.
My road home grows dim,
Anxiety rises and I struggle to lite the match.
An upsetting breeze,
Continues to distinguish the flame,
My lantern desperately needs.
Fwoosh fwoosh hiss— Success
The bursting flame kisses
wick of my candle.
Crackling in excitement,
The light grows.
The darkness falls to light,
As my fears begin to die.
The path is lit, and
My light guides me home.
Drowning with Disney
For a brief moment
life was truly good.
A game of catch
with a brother-sister team.
A ten year olds dream
with characters of childhood.
Donald Duck is an annoyed mood.
Mickey Mouse rides the tide.
Goofy holds up the line ordering food.
The neon colors electrify the pool.
The ball is tossed
It goes above his head.
He runs for it–
leaps to make the catch.
The pool opens up
its arms are spread.
Sinking to the bottom
he realizes this is a bad match.
Scratching and clawing
to the top fails.
The water is six feet tall
His four foot body turning pale
The pigskin ball falls
from his limp fingers.
His breathe lets go as
bubbles race their way
to the surface.
His lungs fill
a stocking on christmas morning.
His toes hit the floor
and he leaps his way to the top–
Barely grazes it.
A battleship sinking
Unable to move- vision blurring
The welcoming floor devours him
as life fades away.
Eyes open wide
Blinding lights shine
Unaware, laying down
His vision clears
He sees a grinning Mickey mouse
beside the bed.
Aloud he says–
“Fuck, I’m dead”.
Jessica Schueman is 33 years old and a full time student at UIC who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. She is a writer and a mom who loves to sing and travel to see live music. She intends to teach English at a secondary level and gain her ESL in order to teach English in a Latin American country in the future. Teaching with a focus on equity through social justice, mental health, and healing through music and artistic expression is what drives her passion to teach.
Where I'm From
I am from Greek women,
And single moms
Hiding under thanksgiving tables
Smuggled olives on fingertips
And sibling fights,
Skinny dipping by alley light
TGIF on ABC
Smoking cigarettes with kids in cars
I’m from sinking to the bottom of the pool
Floating hair and quiet;
Filtered trees look like paintings
When the sun left the backyard
I’d chase it to the front
And lie on the gravel,
Surrendering until it sets
I’m from music
And Kostner Lane
“Pulaski at night’
And big tee-shirts
Red star-studded shoulders
4 in a row
Mom’s work shirts hanging in the shower
A cop for a ma
And a dad in prison
“This too shall pass”
Cold feet under the covers.
A tea kettle whistles
Mothers raising mothers
Patryk Szczepaniak is from the northwest suburbs of Chicago. A sophomore at UIC, he will graduate in 2024. In his spare time (besides writing!), he enjoys watching films and working at a music venue.
Maybe after Midnight
Criss-crossed with Rand
(Lone chemtrail, lone boat wake- I’ll write about you too some day, One day soon,
That’s a promise.
I pray that you hold me to it.)
Do you remember when I ran along your arms,
Picking seeds out of sidewalk samaras
To toss them behind my back
Like wedding-day rice
Or breadcrumbs in the palms of lost twins?
Because I do.
And I regret the passing of time
From when I would pass over your acreage
With precision, with decision
When I pass you over like uninterested fingertips
I hate that I can’t care any less about clovers sprouting from pavement clefts
And that the sole occupant of my mind is the hand-shaking anxiousness
Of a merge on a cloverleaf interchange on IL-53.
Maybe after midnight-
When the sun gets restless and closes her eyes,
Meet me where my rubber soles would kiss your cracking (but not breaking) asphalt
Under cars going too fast.
Hear the katydid screams piercing the nighthawkian stillness,
Smell the pollen bestowing April allergies,
And think of me before I arrive.
Maybe after midnight-
You’ll make note of the seeds in my pocket,
Semi-severed, lavender sprouting meekly from the clefts;
I’ll tell you that I took them, and I know that they’ll die,
But it’s a more merciful fate than growing old
And ending up pressed inside dictionary pages between the words static and still.
Maybe after midnight-
We can meet again, and I’ll be careless no more.
Like the coastline to a sailor straying too far,
We’ll bid farewell to those who draw constellations simply to trap the stars,
And know that we’ll be okay.
I’ll see you how I used to see you and how you used to see me:
Little more than seed-scatterers
With beautiful minds and dainty daydreams.
What is your first and last name?
Is that it?
Yes (did I forget to add a letter to my own last name)
Okay, so your last name is w-A-n, right?
No no(I’m not what you want me to be), it’s
Alright so it’s y-i-n.
“M” as in mary
Jess (she/her), having lived mostly on the East Coast, commutes from the Northwest Suburbs. Expecting to graduate in Spring ’23, she enjoys watercoloring and meaningful conversations over food.
BioMadeline Zuzevich is a poet and photographer who studies English with a concentration in creative writing. After graduating this spring, she plans to spend a year in Europe before returning to the U.S to complete her master’s and PhD.
To watch the sky
blues deep &
I want to be
like the uncut cloud,
wrapped in blue
like sleep & breathless, I won’t look
you in the eyes if it kills me.
Winter is nothing and I am
something like water,
always inside itself
running circles and
turning cold. Horse
cut the corners
clouds. I think I’ll
let you haunt me.
your legs and arms
crossed like a love
bow. I watched the
ghosts walk across
the ceiling, upside
down smile saying
you wanted it, and
for what happened
inside the walls.
Creative Non-fiction Heading link
Joey is from Chicago, Illinois and she graduated Summa Cum Laude in May 2022 with a BA in English with concentrations in Professional Writing and Creative Writing and a minor in Chinese. Besides writing, she enjoys binge-watching Korean and historical Chinese dramas, playing sports, and visiting museums. She plans to continue writing her book after graduation.
Dad said I was born wrong, that I acted too much like a man.
“Didn’t you want a son in the first place?” I asked sharply. Mom told me when she gave birth to me, the first thing she did was to check Dad’s expression. It was only after Dad had looked happy to see me did she relax because while Dad had always wanted a son, Mom wanted a daughter.
“Yeah, but you aren’t a boy. You are a girl so you should act like one,” he said in Cantonese. Dad did not speak English and he could not understand it. He never felt the need to learn even after staying in America for twenty-plus years. “You talk back too much.”
“By acting tough, nobody can bully me,” I said.
“Who would dare bully my children? I would protect you.”
But who would protect me from him?
Dad seemed to have his pride hurt coming to America. He often said if it wasn’t for the family, he wouldn’t have let people walk over him because he didn’t have money and couldn’t speak English.
No matter how much Dad verbally abused me and put me down, I tried to be understanding. I justified it with how he grew up poor in rural China with only elementary education, having to support his mother as a teenage immigrant in America. All the sacrifices he said he made. Dad always loved to compare my life with his life back home.
“When I was your age, I was taking care of my parents,” Dad always said. He had told me this ever since I was 12. “You ngau zuk xings will never understand.” “Zuk xing” is a slur used on someone that is Chinese but born somewhere other than China. “Ngau” means stupid.
“You have kids to love them, not to make them your slave,” I retorted.
“It would have been much better to give birth to a barbecue than you,” he spat. “Because, with a pig, you can at least eat it.”
Dad liked to save money. When he collected money from Mom and me, he said it was to pay bills and debt. He has been saying this for a decade. If he had really set his mind to it, we would probably be debt-free by now.
Mom spent money on whatever she wanted, whether it was food, clothes, jewelry, or expensive brand-name handbags; Louis Vuitton was among her favorites. She believed in living in the moment.
When it came to jewelry, it had to be real gold or silver. It made purchasing gifts for Mom difficult as nothing could please her. When I got my first scholarship refund money from college, the first thing I did was purchase earrings, a necklace, and rings for Mom from Swarovski in the Water Tower. It was my first time buying something from an expensive store. When I presented the valuables to Mom, she made me go return them the next day because they weren’t gold or silver.
“But I remember you wearing this brand and buying stuff from here when I was younger,” I said.
“That was when we were poor,” Mom responded in Cantonese. Her English was better than Dad’s but I always spoke in Cantonese to my parents.
Weren’t we still poor, though?
Dad was frugal with his money while Mom was generous. I am a combination of both: frugal to myself but generous with others. When my parents worked together for almost ten years at their Chinese restaurant between Chinatown and downtown Chicago, Mom never got a paycheck since all the money, Dad controlled. He wouldn’t even give her allowance. My siblings and I also never received allowance growing up; the concept always felt foreign to me. When Mom started working at the massage spa up North, she instead had to give allowance to my father.
Mom wanted freedom, she wanted to be able to do whatever she wanted: to be able to spend money on what she wanted and to go where she wanted. But Dad did not like that. He wanted her to be a family woman and always be home at a certain time.
They argued in the hallway in front of my room loudly back and forth, yelling over each other, and neither side would give in. Dad wasn’t willing to accommodate and change his commanding nature, and Mom wasn’t willing to put up with it anymore.
Mom and Dad had stopped sleeping in the same room years ago. Mom had said it was because he snored too loudly.
Dad kicked Mom out of the house in May of 2021. Dad said she couldn’t take anything: the car, the money, the kids.
Dad had quit his restaurant job a few days ago and told Mom that he was investing in a new business that would finally make us rich. This was very strange as Dad had only worked at restaurants all his life. But he never actually loved cooking, and when the pandemic temporarily shut down restaurants, he got ideas.
“You do you, and I’ll do me,” Mom said.
That got Dad mad. Dad wanted Mom to support him and be interested in what he was doing.
They had frequent arguments and couldn’t see eye to eye. This wasn’t the first time that divorce was brought up. Mom had wanted to leave Dad ever since I was in elementary school and every time she mentioned it, I would cry. It was strange that when it really happened, I was calm. I thought it was because I was dissociating and reality hadn’t hit me, or maybe it was because I cried about it so many times that I had become numb to the news. Mom had always told us and Dad that if it wasn’t for the kids, she would have left long ago. Now that her two eldest were old enough to take care of themselves, she didn’t need to stay.
Mom paid Dad child support money even though Mom was the only one that took us out to dinner or bought us clothes.
Since Little Sister was only ten years old, I became her primary caretaker. This was the summer before my senior year of college.
One day in June 2021, Dad suddenly called me on the phone instructing me to bring my I.D. and debit card because we were going to the bank.
“Why do I have to bring my I.D. and debit card?” I asked in Cantonese. “Why do I have to go to the bank too?”
“If I am telling you to bring it, then bring it!”
When I got in the car, the heavy smell of tobacco and his bad vibes smothered me.
“Why ask me so many questions? It’s not like I’m going to hurt you.”
“It’s my I.D. and debit card. I should have the right to know why,” I said.
“You and your mom are just alike. You women are so ma fan.” “Ma fan” meant troublesome in Cantonese.
It took less than five minutes to get to Citibank in Chinatown. It was Dad’s preferred location as the workers there spoke Cantonese. When we walked into the bank, Dad immediately walked to a table where a lady was sitting. It seemed like he was already working with her before he came to pick me up. I was still confused about why I needed to be there until the lady spoke to me.
“Hello, are you his daughter?” the lady asked in English. I nodded.
“Your dad’s bank account is locked because your tax refund was coming in, but it wasn’t your account. You would need to add your name onto your dad’s bank account for your tax refund to successfully process through,” she said. “Do I have your permission to add your name to his account?”
I turned to look at Dad. He did not make eye contact with me. He kept his gaze fixed on the lady, on my money.
Feelings of bewilderment, shock, and anger rose in me. How dare he yell and insult me when he was the one that wanted my money? If he had asked, I would have gladly given it to him.
I hated him at that moment.
When I was younger, Dad always took my crisp twenty-dollar bills in red envelopes given by my relatives on Lunar New Year and my birthday. He said he put it in a savings account for me to use for college, but I never needed a cent from him for college as I went solely on scholarships and financial aid. I never saw that savings account. Rather than me receiving money from Dad, he received money from me. All my paychecks, my tax returns, my stimulus checks, the extra scholarship money I received, the money I earned from my jobs at the restaurant, as a tutor, and even the money I received when I got hit by the car when I was sixteen on my way to my teacher’s assistant internship—all went to him.
“What do you want to do with the settlement?” the kind-looking attorney had asked me. “You could buy yourself an expensive gift or go on a vacation with this money.”
Dad gave me his signature judging look: cold brown eyes with matching furrowed thick black eyebrows.
“I’ll give it to my dad,” I said. I was never intimidated by him. I just didn’t want to hear the stream of insults that would guarantee my day was ruined.
“Wow, what a wonderful daughter you are, giving it to your dad,” the attorney said. Dad smiled along with the attorney. He was smiling not because I was a wonderful daughter, but because he got himself thousands of dollars at the expense of my near-death experience.
Grandma joked that if I kept all the money that I had given to my parents for myself, I would have enough to buy a house.
Being home alone is good
I get to walk around
like I own the place
I do not have to care about
blasting my music or my shows
I do not have to fight with
anyone for the bathroom
My ears are hypersensitive
I no longer hear the footsteps of family
members but the rustling of rats as they dig
through the trashcans for food outside
You walk into your house and instantly lock the door behind you.
It’s about to slither in. Don’t let it slither in. You worry if the door is truly locked so you unlock it and struggle to lock the hatch again as your hands shake.
Don’t let it slither in.
But you can’t stop it.
Yes you can.
You can’t be too sure. You unlock the door and lock it again. You walk to the kitchen and turn on the faucet and grab a cup from the drying rack on the left side of the sink. You let the water run and wait. Wait for it to slither in.
You fill your glass with water and drink. Your chest begins to tighten as you feel it slithering in. You drink more water in hopes that it’ll leave. You are willing to do anything to make sure it leaves. But,
It slithers in. Do you feel it? Do you feel the way it crawls up your skin and wraps around your neck? You stop breathing. Or do you? You feel the air around you escaping as you try to hold it hostage.
You can’t breathe.
You sit back on the kitchen chair and struggle.
You can’t breathe.
Your vision blurs and the hold around your neck tightens. The tip of your fingers tingle as if they were ready to fall off.
Are you still breathing?
Of course you’re breathing.
But are you sure?
You’re not sure. Your brain starts to panic and it slithers into your chest.
Are you having a heart attack?
You place your hand on your chest and feel the drumming of your heart. Why is it beating so fast?
Are you going to die?
Of course you’re not.
But are you sure?
You stand up, struggling to walk as it slithers into your ears. There’s a slight ringing on your left ear and it doesn’t go away. You cover your ears as you walk into the bathroom, determined to make it stop.
You walk into the cold bathroom, barefoot on the cold white square tiles. Is the bathroom smaller? The 36 by 40 bathroom suddenly feels like a 4 by 4. You place both hands on the small white sink and look up. The white pale face is staring back at you. Dark circles under your eyes and dry lips.
Are you dying?
Of course you’re not, how could you you’re so young and healthy.
Or are you?
You turn on the sink tap and wait for the water to turn cold. Your arms shake as you wait for the cure to appear. Cold water on your forehead, behind your neck, and on your hands. Your shaking hands cup the water and cover your face. A shock of cold rushes through your spine as the water penetrates your pores, into your body. You run your fingers through the cold water and place them behind your neck. Your body instantly reacts as the cold water separates your body and mind.
You look back up into the mirror and wait.
The water didn’t do anything. You grunt and angrily turn off the water. Years of tips and nothing works.
Is it something else? Is there something else way worse happening?
Of course not, it’s just
But what if it’s something worse?
It slithers down into your stomach and you panic.
Is it your appendix? Did it burst? Do you need to go to the hospital?
Don’t be crazy, you don’t even have the symptoms.
But what if you just never noticed them and it’s happening now?
You open the bathroom door and walk back into your room.
It slithers back up your spine and into your eyes. You can’t help but cry. You cry because you’re not sure what’s happening.
You cry because your heart is beating so fast you think it might jump out of your chest. You cry because you’re having a heart attack and because your appendix burst.
It slithers into your arms and makes your arms go jello. It slithers into your legs and you fall. Fall onto the floor because your body is finally giving out.
Or is it?
Do you sit and wait? Do you wait and sit until it slithers back out and back into its dark hole? Do you help get it out of you?
You decide to leave your 4 by 6 bedroom and squeeze into the kitchen. You open the cabinet on the far upper left and take out a ziplock bag. Your legs feel heavy as you walk to the freezer. You open the ziplock bag and place 6 ice cubes inside. Your breathing comes in short spurts as your lungs fail you.
You sit back on the kitchen chair and place both hands on the ziplock bag. The cold penetrates into your palms, fighting the urge inside. Your hands soon start to freeze up as your mind continues to burn.
You continue to let your palms warm up and continue the cycle.
You don’t notice the melting of the cubes as you’re still struggling with your breathing. Should you go to the hospital?
What if you go and they tell you you’re dying?
No, you’re not dying, don’t be ridiculous.
Are you being ridiculous? People die every day, why wouldn’t you?
Wait, are you actually dying?
Your breathing shortens with the thought.
Help you’re dying.
How long will it take for you to die? You lay there as your heart threatens to jump out of your chest. Tears roll down your cheeks as you accept your fate.
Your breathing begins to go back to normal.
You feel your face go back to its normal color and your mind and body finally become one. You sit on the kitchen chair and feel your body relax, slowly sinking into the frame of the chair.
You let out a breath.
It finally left. After what seemed like endless hours, it finally left.
You’re okay. You’re safe. Or
Fiction Heading link
BioMichael Castañeda Ruvalcaba is a junior (’23) at UIC, majoring in Teaching of English. Originally from Cicero, IL, when Mike is not writing, he’s drawing.
Ni Tú Ni Nadie
It hurts to watch. You’re at a show; it happens here more than anywhere.
The dread sinks in. You stand within a group of men. They don’t always have to be your age, but it’s worse when they are. Gazing at their dazed expressions, you realize something: that could have been you. You look them up and down, biting the inside of your cheek as you observe. Unkempt beards, smudged glasses, poor posture. They’re not well-dressed, donning pleather jackets and ladder-laced Doc Martens to match. Hair ranges from buzzed to waist long, jet black and oily. You even go as far to note their smell. The guys at these shows always smell funny, but you don’t care. Your jealousy knows no bounds.
What is it about these men? The average man is not meant to be idolized, to be put on a pedestal. Every single one…he’s just some guy. He’s somebody’s son. Husband. Boyfriend. Co-worker. He’s no James Dean. To you, he should be another face in the crowd. So, why do you care?
Because, you think stubbornly. That should have been you. There’s no name for your grief. You don’t dare call it loss because what was there to lose? Your boyhood was nonexistent. Growing up, there was no time to make meaningful male bonds; no time to learn their sacred rituals. Upon trying, you would only humiliate yourself. You were too sensitive, even then. Boys could be so cruel.
When you look at yourself in the mirror, you feel as though you’ve got it down pat— for the most part, anyway. When you sit down, you make sure to hold your legs a respectable distance apart, leaving room for an organ you lack. Your dark clothes create a masculine silhouette. The six facial piercings decorating your cheeks, eyebrows, nose, and lips help you, assuring passerby that you’re not as young as you otherwise look. Thankfully, the weekly injection has deepened your voice. Customers at work tell you to have a nice one, man.
There have been times where you feigned an interest, just to be more like other men. In high school, you pretended to play card games. Truth was, you sped-read Wikipedia pages until your eyes burned. That’s your mother’s fault. She never let you do anything fun, and your sister’s hand-me-down dolls hardly kept you busy.
You do share actual interests with the majority of these men. These are supposed to be your people. If you tried harder, they could be your friends. You know just as much, if not more, about this next band than any pick from the crowd. You’ve undoubtedly admired the same kind of girls as them. In your dreams, you fantasized about the same smooth skin, shapely legs, and soft facial features. Similarly, you’d been rejected by these women more times than you can count on one hand. Isn’t that part of growing up?
You’re just as good as any one of them. You’re such a natural, throwing your head back to laugh at their bodily humor. They laugh at just about anything if the punchline involves a penis. You’ve grown accustomed to silently copying their every move, hoping they don’t smell your fear. Your feet stick to the ground when you’re around them. You clench your hands, eyes flickering towards the protruding veins on their hands. When your face glows red-hot, the ghost of a mustache drips with sweat on your face. The nick on your upper lip stings; you’re not very good at shaving yet. God, what are you? Fourteen years old? You swallow, the Adam’s apple on your throat bobs unfamiliarly.
The next band starts their set. Sweat runs down your chest, pooling underneath your tightly bound breasts. Your ribs ache from the compression, but the pain has long since dulled. Part of you wonders whether they know. You’ve read on the internet that there are defining characteristics in men like you. Superficial things like a man’s eyebrow arch, his mannerisms, the cadence of his voice. Is there something obvious you haven’t noticed? Could it be your face shape? Your nail beds? Maybe it’s the way you cock your head when you listen. Hell, it’s probably the length of your eyelashes.
It’s enough to dissuade you from staying out. Doubt creeps in. Music blares in your ears, and you see your reflection against a puddle of spilled beer on the ground. It twists into that of a little girl playing dress-up with her father’s clothes. The thought makes you sick to your stomach.
Anxiety rushes through your body. You shove past the men, right out of the venue. In your heart of hearts, you’re still not one of them. Year after year, nothing changes. When your eyes threaten to water, you blink hard and inhale shakily. The neon lights of the marquee are getting blurry. If you cry now, you’re a dead giveaway. Don’t be such a fucking girl.
It could have been you. It should have been you. But, you know the truth.
It was never going to be you.
Your name is Judas Zavala. Your father died last week, but you’re finding out today.
The information reaches you at your day job, via text at 3:47pm, on December 10th, 2018. When you read the message from your sister, you rush out from behind the cash register. Through the automated plexiglass doors, your boss asks where you’re going. There’s no time to explain what’s wrong, so you don’t bother. As soon as you’re alone, your knees buckle. Your fingers move on their own, calling your sister without a second thought. It doesn’t occur to you that this is the first time you’ve spoken to her in a long time.
It rings for a while. When she doesn’t pick up, you try again.
“Hello?” Her voice sounds older.
“Paloma,” you say, skipping formalities. “Are you serious?”
“Why would I joke about something like that?” You can almost hear the crease between her eyebrows through the phone.
“Why didn’t anybody tell me sooner?”
Paloma sighs. She sounds exhausted, and you doubt this conversation is helping. “You’re not exactly easy to reach.”
Guilt blooms in your chest at her words. It’s true that you barely answer your phone, especially if you see her or your mother’s names on the screen. You don’t remember the last time you even checked their voicemails, let alone picked up a call. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” her voice cracks. There are a million things you want to say to her, but none of them feel right. “You have to come home.”
“You heard me,” she says firmly. “You’re not skipping out on this. Not this time, Citlali.”
“That’s not my name.”
“Judas,” she corrects herself. “Sorry. It’s been a while.”
A beat of silence passes between you two. You can hear her daughter crying through the line, calling for her mother’s attention. “The funeral is on the 20th. You’re coming.”
You don’t argue with her. Paloma is a force to be reckoned with at times like these. “When do you want me to be there?”
“I don’t care. As soon as possible,” Paloma says. “Just… show up, okay? Please. Not for him. For mami.”
“Okay,” you breathe out. “I’ll see you soon.”
Paloma mumbles a goodbye. With that, you’re alone again.
The air around you has chilled significantly since you ran outside. You realize you’re shivering, sitting on the curb without a jacket on. Your body shakes hard, but not hard enough for you to head back indoors. Half of you wants to run. You want to get up and sprint into ongoing traffic. The other half wants you to cry, but you’ve never been good at faking your emotions.
On your thirteenth birthday, you get your first period.
When your older sister got hers, she was only eleven. You remember the fuss your mother made all too well, she cried like a baby over her “little girl” becoming a woman. The thought that this would happen to you scared you beyond belief. Every night, you prayed to God in hopes of postponing your coming of age. If you could stray away from the curse of blood, maybe you wouldn’t have to become a woman. You could stagnate, a perpetual girl-child for the rest of your life, avoiding the matronly duties Paloma assigned herself once she began to bleed. All of a sudden, Paloma began following your mother around like a lost dog, searching for things to help her with. Maybe if you were good enough, you would get lucky.
There was no such luck, not this time. Upon waking, there’s a wetness between your legs. You had a stomach ache, which you now recognize as menstrual cramps. Looking at your sheets, you find a large red stain, like somebody’s hacked at your body with a knife. The pain that floods your lower half isn’t excruciating, but it makes you panic, nonetheless. Blood trickles down your thigh as you wake Paloma, shaking her shoulder as she comes back to life.
“What is it?” She mutters, eyes half open. Her black hair is glued to her cheek with drool. You’d laugh if you weren’t so scared. “Are you alright?”
“No,” you sniffle. “I’m bleeding.”
“Huh?” Paloma props herself up on her elbows. She blinks hard before looking at your bloodied pajama bottoms. “Oh. You got your period.”
Your tears are hot, running down your cheeks without abandon. You don’t remember when you started crying.
“Stop it,” she groans, dragging herself out of bed, and you to the bathroom. “You’re fine.”
Paloma teaches you how to put on a menstrual pad. You remember these from health class, where you didn’t pay very close attention. The girls around you had blown off the lecture, too, saying they’d already had their periods since fifth grade. When Paloma mentions tampons, you recall what your mom said to her when she got her period. Something about tampons taking your virginity, which you didn’t understand at the time.
Paloma grabs her shirt and wipes your snot. “Can you cut it out? It’s natural. It happens to every woman.”
That’s exactly what you were afraid of. The word feels like a contagion, and you’ve been infected. “Don’t tell mami.”
Paloma sighs. “Take a shower. You reek of blood.”
Your legs shake when you turn the faucet on. Paloma tosses you a towel. “Citlali?”
Cake for breakfast. You stare at your family as they sing you las mañanitas, unsure of what to do with your hands. When the song is over, your face meets the cake, as it does every year. Paloma laughs, swiping frosting off your forehead and licking her finger clean. Your mother cuts it into pieces, and your father says nothing, opting to go back to the living room to watch TV with his slice.
“So, what do you want for your birthday?” Paloma asks, poking at her plate.
“I don’t know,” you shrug dishonestly. You know exactly what you want, but you’re too embarrassed to say so. Paloma would laugh at you. After all, you’ve never touched a guitar in your life. “I’m okay with anything.”
She scoffs. “I doubt that.”
“Citlali. Peinate, por favor. Ni que fueras huérfana,” your mom says. Your mother, Lorena Zavala, was never one for comotion before ten in the morning. That’s when she’s her snippiest, so you avoid eye contact with her until after school.
“Sorry.” You smooth down your hair, fingers getting caught in the knots. “I’m bad at it.”
“Obviously,” Paloma smirks, twirling the end of her neatly plaited ponytail around her finger. It’s a long braid, ending at her tailbone. It’s silky, pin straight, and complimentary to her brown skin. Your lack of reaction makes Paloma pout, so she offers to do your hair for you.
On the bus, she detangles and pulls your hair back into a style matching her own.
“You know, you’d look pretty if you actually tried.”
Megan was born and raised in Chicago! She is a sophomore, majoring to become an English teacher. Megan loves Spongebob Squarepants and whenever she is not reading or writing, she can be found…reading more books (haha) and socializing with friends and family.
A Little Party Never Killed Nobody
There was nothing more tragic than the lies men tell to themselves.
I heard Nick’s last words and watched him leave, clenching the glass of wine once he left. I poured some more, thinking of those eyes, angry and still glazed. Love. Something so fickle, but it was still there. Damn fool. I said I was getting married, but I had no ring. He didn’t even try to fight, beg or plead for another chance.
Of course, he wouldn’t, why would he? His beloved Gatsby was dead and the party was over, ﬁnally over. The gloss of those days had finally turned dull, the days incandescent with the memories we left behind. I could spin around this room, drunk at the glistening chandeliers, and remember the flurry of the chaos, the parties, the dresses, him. I could remember him as clearly as my own face. I remembered his brief touch, that voice haunting me forever.
He fooled me and called it off. He never loved me, for how could he love someone like me when his eyes were always on Gatsby? The man followed him around like a dog being fed treats. Was that why our world seemed to revolve around Gatsby? His parties pulled us together, orbiting around him as if he were our universe. It pulled Daisy into his orbit, reaching for the stars he’d never reach because she was never his.
But Nick was always his.
I had never seen someone so dedicated to arranging the funeral of a lost cause, but words were whispered of a Nick Carroway that attended a funeral for the “great” Gatsby with only three or so people attending. He never cared. He was a liar. Nothing but a liar, but wasn’t I too?
For the glory, for the fame, for the luxury and the opulence, I had done it all to fit in society. The big parties, the elegant dresses, the alcohol, the money, the sex. It was glorious while it lasted, but I had fooled myself for too long. Nick. Nick Carroway and his mysterious nature.
Nick Carroway, the man who fooled me more than Daisy herself with Gatsby.
Was their love even worth it? He seemed like he would go to the ends of the world for her…and Daisy
She left him behind in the dust,
letting him take the blame for all the shit she created. He loved her… or at least I think he did, but she had the same issue I did.
We wanted the safety and comfort of money, our shield, our everlasting lover caressing us with opulent fabrics, lavish parties, and fine alcohol that burned our throats and pruned our lips like the time with Nick. I stared at the chandelier as I left for my bedroom, opening the door to my closet and spotting all the fancy ball gowns. I smiled wistfully before reaching for the pair of shears I had nearby. As I put down my cup of wine on my nightstand, I began to cut through the fabric, watching it tear
Slowly, oh so slowly.
I watched what once existed perish into nothing but broken pieces. I smiled, tilting my head back as I chuckled, clutching onto the ripped fabric, silk, cotton, taffeta, tulle, all wrapped up around my shoulders like a scarf. I stared at my reflection and for a second, there was something beautiful about how incomplete I looked.
My eyes were glassy, the ripped fabric like a reminder of the past, torn pieces of those dresses crowning me the victor of this tragedy. I added a little skip to my step as I walked over to my golfing equipment. I spotted the golf club and a flower vase nearby.
I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.
What the hell did honor have to do with leaving me behind to mope around for the death of somebody just as shallow as we all were? He was calling me a cheater again, wasn’t he? I considered breaking the golf club, but instead, I spun it around, watching the torn fabric fly by as the golf club hit the vase, causing it to shatter. The satisfying sound of breaking glass, the torn fabric, and the reflection of myself staring back nearly made me scream.
There was nothing sadder than knowing that a woman who had seen the stars had nothing left, her heart turned into a million pieces. I was an illusion of the beauty I never was, the beauty of my disaster visible and bursting at the seams. Rich girls don’t cry. They just laugh it off, their lips kissing the cup of their alcohol, letting it burn them like the love never did. They dance it off, showing the graceful curve of their hips, swinging along to the music. They pulled men with their tantalizing glances, pulling them into their bedroom and becoming lovers for a night, bragging of their riches, their shallowness, and their so-called talents to look more beautiful, more ethereal.
Golf was what rich girls did. It was a sport of delicacy, of gracefulness and that was the image I had to channel. It was the vision of who I was supposed to be, who I needed to be, who I… wanted to be? I could never tell anymore. I was a poster girl. I was a material girl, with money and fancy dresses and a face that made men bow down to me. I should be happy. I should be satisﬁed. But I only found myself staring at my reflection, unable to see who I was anymore.
Shallow. A liar. A cheater, a fake, a woman called a flapper with a scandalous life, but in reality, I was only in the drama for the sake of being there. I wanted the attention, the praise, the beauty of the blinding lights, and the parties we used to call a part of life. And then Nick Carroway came and made what seemed so clear so much blurrier than it was before. Why had I lied to him when I should have let him know how much it hurt that he broke up with me?
I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.
He didn’t want to admit the truth he was so blind and would be forever blind to see.
He loved Gatsby, more than Daisy or even any of the people who claimed to love him. He was so lost in his grief over Gatsby, over the lackluster funeral that was nothing more than a pity party. The party was over for all of us. Daisy and Tom left me without even a goodbye.
I heard from her occasionally, the same shallow words exchanged between us, those words with no feeling, no emotion. I don’t think she ever loved him truly as he did. I don’t think she even cared about him, she just wanted the money. Well, she would be flooded with that money drowning her, suffocating her so she could be happy.
So she could be as happy as I was.
About the piece:
The title was inspired by “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” from the Great Gatsby soundtrack because, ironically, it eventually killed Gatsby. I wanted to explore Jordan’s character and the aftermath of that last meeting with Nick and in a way, dive deeper into the image she was always trying to maintain. There is always a bit of an enigma present in her character and how she presents herself and this piece aims to see it from the lens of the woman whose bubble of utopia finally bursts.
Emma Mathews was born and raised in the Sacramento area of California. She loves to travel, spend time with her dog and cats, and try new foods. Emma plans on moving to Los Angeles and pursuing a career in screenwriting. “The Sun” is her first short story.
All my life, how much time have I spent staring at my feet? Bare soles cracking and dragging on the pavement. Red and burning in the summer, blue and numb in the winter. How much have I missed? Always making sure no one else wants to step where I’m stepping, because of course, go ahead, I’ll move right aside. But there’s no time to get into that. There’s not any time at all. I feel the door swing open and out I am ushered. Little twigs lie around waiting for someone to stomp on them and I oblige. Tiny sprouts spring up from the cobblestone, gasping for air. I mash them back down. I pad along, staring down, down, down until I reach the asphalt. My feet stop. I raise my eyes, perhaps for the first time. The air around me is still. I can feel my breath wriggle out of my throat and waver there, unsure of where next to go. But I know. I take my first step.
Places pass me by. Our preschool on the right. Do you remember the day we met? I’ll never forget it as long as I live, even if that would be a long time.
I had crunched through the fallen leaves and shredded bark that filled the playground, staring down at my feet, heart pounding and skipping and pounding again. I could hear the others running around, giggling and free. I could feel my throat tighten. A boy ran over and I smiled weakly, grateful for the chance at a friend.
“Why aren’t you wearing shoes?” he asked, pointing at my bare feet, his nose wrinkling. I swear I had an answer on my lips, but when I opened my mouth no sound escaped. Other kids trickled around us, snickering at my dirt-caked soles. I felt my pulse behind my eyes, but then you stepped forward, took off your shoes, and threw them at the boy’s head. After that, everyone laughed at him.
My foot lands in something and sticks. Something warm and slimy and spreading fast. I don’t need to look down. Who was it? Someone I’d met? A stranger? A shadow like me? Does it matter? Now they are nothing more than red ink pressing into the man-made earth beneath my feet, imprinting my final moments.
After the first, they fall faster. Some all at once, blown out into the street by something or struck by a car. Some wither and writhe, shredded and torn apart or else pummeled and ground down somehow. Such is life, I suppose. Most of them run, pounding their feet into the ground desperately. Frantically. Some of them fall, toppling over a lump of man on the sidewalk. Some are pulled down by a fallen, frenzied hand. Some reach for me, cling to my ankles, beg and plead. For what, I couldn’t say. Out there they are noise and all sound the same.
I don’t stop. I can’t. Broken shards of convenience stores and Pilates studios rain down upon me, carving up my cheeks which weep. I don’t flinch.
There’s the library, on the left. Remember how we used to spend every Christmas break in there? Now it’s smoking from a car that veered off the road, shattered a window, and crumpled like paper against its stone. But it used to be a happy place. You devoured everything fantasy and mythology, where people were great and beautiful and important. I picked through plant identification and constellation charts, where things were real and I could touch and see them. I felt boring in your wake. But when we walked outside, you pointed to each different flower or weed or shrub and asked,
And when I answered desert willow or bull thistle or buckwheat, you looked at me with wide, adoring eyes, like I was the center of the universe. Like I was the beginning and the end and the planets circled me in awe. I knew the truth, but I wanted to be, for you.
People thought we were in love. And we were, in our own way. I used to spend a lot of time asking myself if I was in love with you, but does it really matter? I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in your company. And I knew, at the end, I could melt away in your arms. Isn’t that everything? Isn’t that enough?
In the parking lot of the grocery store, the one next to the good IHop which is now riddled with bullets, I see a father furiously loading supplies into his car. He’s ripped the towels and sunscreen and all the tools for the perfect lake day out to make room. I see the backs of his children’s heads through the window as he piles jugs of water and cans of food and first aid kits in. Like it will make a difference. But it’s not his fault he has something to fight for.
Remember when we went to the lake? I should be more specific, that doesn’t really narrow it down. Remember when we went to the lake a few years ago on my birthday? You were stretched out, golden even in the weak rays that fought tooth and nail against the lingering strands of winter. I knelt beside you, examining the stones. I spent a few minutes on each rock. It had to be smooth, round. I turned them over in my palm and brushed the pad of my thumb across their surfaces. If one was good, I pulled my wrist back and snapped it towards the lake. They plunked into the water and sunk without skipping every time.
“L’appel du vide,” you said.
“The call of the void,” I repeated in English. You were prone to bursts of the philosophical, so I knew the terms well.
“Thoughts about the void?”
“About the call,” you specified. “Like when you look down from a tall building or out into an endless water and you just wanna…succumb.”
You landed on the word with finality, and I knew it was my turn. I looked out at the lake which, even after the winter rains, looked shriveled and lifeless.
“I think this is not a big enough void to call me,” I said at last.
You thought about this, as you always did when I said something you felt was wise and I felt was worthless. There were several minutes of silence, with only the occasional plunk of one of my failed stones. Finally, you spoke.
“You wanna get high?”
I raised an eyebrow, pursed my lips, and gave a slight nod. Your face erupted in light.
Some ways up, by the post office, you know, the one that has a giant statue of Columbus for no reason, I see lovers embrace. They hold each other like there is no tomorrow and, in fact, there isn’t. It makes me pause for a moment. They are truly happy. Even here. Even today. Have they found the answer? Is it the same as mine? Would they tell me if I asked? Would they even know I was there? I might as well try. I start towards them. Two trucks barrel down, fighting for the road. One is forced off, slamming into the statue’s pedestal. A crack cleaves through and Columbus splits in two. He crashes down, taking the lovers out with him. A final act of cruelty.
If I kept going down that street, I’d come to where you live. Where you used to live. Remember the last last-day of school? We sat on your bedroom floor, knee-to-knee, forehead-to forehead, holding each other’s faces. You had a disco ball overhead, strung up precariously, and
a dozen more spread around. The air was heavy with that burning skunk smell that California kids know all too well.
“What about the simulation hypothesis?” you breathed.
“Like the Matrix?”
You laughed that boorish laugh that always ended up in snorts. You stopped as suddenly as you started.
“I’m serious,” you said, and you tried your best to be. You gestured to everything: yourself, the lights, me. “If this all was fake, would you wanna know?”
I looked into your eyes, and I knew sunlight Icarus could only dream of. It was an easy answer.
“How can you not wanna know?” you asked, your voice light and airy. “I would wanna know.”
“I mean… would it change anything? This is still my life. I still want what I want and hate what I hate, even if it’s all just in my head.”
You nodded, your thumb smoothing over my cheek.
“I guess,” I continued, “I would just wanna ask whoever’s controlling me whether they’re tryna do right by me.”
“I’m obsessed with you.”
I know where I’m going, because your voice plays in my head: down Douglas, away from the lake, turn right at the gas station, up Sierra, and it’s right there on the left. That’s what
you said when I needed directions. You couldn’t pick me up because you never learned to drive. Why didn’t you? I offered to teach you a hundred times. I guess you never needed to, you always had me.
Remember when I met you there? Back in September? I repeated your directions over and over in my head so I couldn’t forget. I turned over every syllable and felt the texture of every word hit my ear like it was straight out of your mouth. Like you were in the car with me. I pulled into the parking lot and saw you sitting there, all gangly limbs and wild hair. It was your favorite weather: hot. You always loved the heat that beats down on you, like you step outside and into an oven. The kind where you can hear your skin sizzle and feel the weight of your own body dragging through the air. I never told you, but that’s something like how it feels to love you. Scorching, scalding, slightly suffocating. Not because you meant it to be, but because I was just a girl and you were the sun.
You jumped up and showed me your prize: a bottle of wine you had stolen from who knows where. We walked the trail that wound through the parched hills, trading the bottle back and forth. The great oak trees loomed above us and the waves of heat danced above the asphalt. “What do you think about God?” you asked.
“I don’t, really.”
You nodded, like this was a serious answer you had to consider.
“What do you think?” I asked, because honestly that’s all that really mattered. “I think… He made a mistake putting us together,” you said, taking a swig of wine. I felt a lump press into my throat and swallowed it back.
You looked at me and grinned.
“We’re just too fucking powerful.”
We made it to the top of the highest hill, although I stumbled a bit on the way, slipping in the crumbly dirt. I could never handle my drink as well as you, but my missteps made you laugh, so who was I to complain?
We sat there, dry grass poking our legs. You nursed the last drops of wine. “I’m getting out of here,” you said, and made a bursting motion with your hand. “I’m gone.”
“Where?” I asked, pulling apart a blade of grass into long strings.
“Anywhere,” you said, flopping backwards, just missing a rock.
“Can I come with you?”
I turn down Sierra. On the left is the Dairy Queen. I remember when we came… God, how long ago was it? Over five years, it’s gotta be. Half a decade. Anyways, you wanted ice cream, even though you were cold. To be fair, it never took much to make you cold. But your love for ice cream trumped all. Almost all. You were all bundled up, even had your hoodie synched. I didn’t need to, not when I was with you. We walked through the drive through, because, according to you, it’s more fun, and you rapped on the voice box. “What can I get you?” came the voice on the other end.
“We should have thought about it before we knocked,” I whispered.
“Ice cream?” you said. Asked, more like.
I giggled because we were at that age where everything your best friend does is funny.
We got them, two ice creams, and walked down the sidewalk. Well, I walked down the sidewalk. You teetered and tottered on the stone wall that ran alongside.
“How do you think the world will end?” you asked.
It took me aback. It was the first time you asked me something like that.
“Black hole?” I answered.
You nodded and took a bite out of the cone. You hadn’t finished the ice cream up top, so it smushed against your nose.
“How do you think the world will end?” I asked.
Up further on the right is the church that we always saw, but never belonged in. Not that we wanted to. You went to a synagogue, and I went to your house. The church, which once stood unyielding, is demolished. Annihilated. Struck down. Bricks pile up to the clouds in heaps and smoke swells in the air. A woman kneels outside, her hands clasped together as she looks to the sky. I want to tell her that God is already dead, she just doesn’t know it yet. That she should try not to worry, because it won’t change anything. But a group of people reveling in the chaos of the end, whooping and screaming by their expressions, swarm her, and she is engulfed in flames. They know that God is dead. Maybe they wished they had been the ones to kill Him.
A woman flies out from my left and grabs me, her cheeks blotched and her hair in feral strings. The raging fury of the world drowns out her voice, but I read her lips: what’s happening? I give her the only honest answer left.
“I don’t care.”
And then I am gone, and if not for the smeared red handprints on my shirt I wouldn’t be sure if she was ever even there.
I turn and start down the winding path through the hills. I wonder what you would say. “The world is ending,” I would whisper, my eyes working their hardest to imprint you into my mind so I might take you with me to whatever lies beyond.
“Good fuckin’ riddance,” you would– no, you wouldn’t say that. That’s not quite right. “At least we’re together.”
No, that’s what I would want you to say. No, you probably would say something in between.
Remember the first time we came here? We ran down that path right there, the one overgrown and forgotten by everyone else. Well, you ran. I followed behind, stumbling over the loose rocks like I hadn’t seen them even though I knew I was in their way. The wildflowers were just poking through, holding their arms out to the sun’s embrace. You took me past the oaks, past the turkeys lolling about, past the beaver dam. Suddenly you stopped.
“See?” you said.
“What?” I asked, although I hadn’t actually looked.
You pushed your hand up under my chin and I saw them. A cluster of three rocks, not big enough to be boulders, not small enough to be knocked around without a fight. You looked at me expectantly.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Our house,” you said matter of factly.
You hoisted yourself onto the first rock.
“This is the kitchen,” you said and jumped to the next rock. “This is the living room,” you jumped to the third rock. “This is the bedroom.”
I pressed my palm against the kitchen. It was cold, damp a little, with bits of moss. “Where’s the bathroom?” I asked.
You thought, stroking your chin in a way that would’ve been an exaggeration on anyone else. Finally, you pointed at a stump. I nodded because you were right, of course. You hopped back onto the kitchen, grabbed my hand, and pulled me up.
I reach the bottom of the highest hill. Face split a hundred little ways, shirt torn, feet caked in blood and dirt. And there you are. Smiling.
I hear sirens in the distance. There’s crying if you listen hard. Screaming if you don’t. You hold out your hand.
We walk in silence and eventually come to the highest hill. As we climb, you hold my hand firmly to steady me, but I am sure-footed. We sink down where we always had since we outgrew our house, hands locked together. Overhead, a plane falls from the sky, sending bits of metal raining down.
Smoke billows into the air beyond the trees. I pull out a piece of grass and twist it around my finger. It’s nice, now that the sun is setting, and the heat is not so stifling. I must know, so I turn to you.
“The world is ending,” I say.
You press your forehead to mine and give me the only answer left.
“I don’t care.”
Bio Vanessa Murillo
Vanessa Murillo is an undergraduate student at
UIC Chicago. Vanessa is working towards
obtaining her bachelor’s degree in English
literature, with the hopes of ultimately earning
her master’s degree in library science. Her dream
is to have a career as a research librarian at a
public University. Her passions are: creative
writing, reading gothic literature, teaching yoga,
and spending time with her two cats.
The Bookstore on 1564 Milwaukee Ave
Myopic Bookstore on 1564 N. Milwaukee Avenue is a magical place. I feel at home in this bookstore’s comforting and protective cover. Memories of my childhood come flooding in with every step I take on the chipped floorboards. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, shakes my hand and whispers in my ear “Remember when you read about Edmund’s Turkish delight, and you decided to learn how to make it yourself?” What a sweet memory, I whisper back. I walk passed The Neverending Story and hear Bastian call “Remember all of the adventures we went on with Atreyu on his quest to save the Empress?” What an epic adventure! I call back. These two books have been my comfort since I was a child. From a young age these childhood books allowed me to see that we hold magic within us. In worlds where a wardrobe can hold a secret world and a luck dragon appears when you need him I was convinced that anything was possible.
I sit in the worn emerald green chair by the large windows. As I look down at the world below me, like a bird on its perch, I am reminded why I love this bookstore, this familiar unfamiliar place. From a tiny one-stoplight town in California, to New York, Los Angeles, and now Chicago, I have moved around alone for most of my adult life. I have lived in Chicago for seven months now, and still everything is new. The tall buildings tower over me. I feel small and timid. There is too much stimulation. A sensory overload. The endless sound of honking cars, piercing sirens, voices blending into each other. There is no escape, except for the bookstore. This is my place of retreat, a place of quiet, of peace.
The bookstore is a place of new possibilities waiting to be chosen. Bookstores are always the same, but different. They all hold books with many stories, books that have many purposes. Though every bookstore is unique in the way that a bookstore presents itself. There are large corporate bookstore’s with many floors and all of the books are stacked straight and neat. There are family-owned bookstore’s with books disheveled everywhere. I gravitate towards independent bookstores. The bookstores that make you search for what you think you want, but instead you end up finding something that you didn’t know you needed.
This bookstore in particular has a different feel to it than others. Like a book in itself, there is a history here that has not yet been opened. This place is special; its comfortable. I watch others browse the shelves wondering what their interests are. Why do they choose the books they do? Is it for their child, themselves, a lover, a friend? Which eager book will they choose to give a new home to. I am like these books. I am seeking a home as well. I am looking for my place on the shelf where I fit perfectly, somewhere that I feel secure.
The old man that works here, with his long white beard and tiny spectacles, comes into the fiction section to place new books where the empty spaces lay. He asks me if I’m a student. I tell him I am. He asks “What do you want to be?” I tell him I want to be a librarian. “There will always be work for librarians” he beams. He reminds me of a magical wizard foreseeing my future. I feel comforted by his words. Then I smell that old book smell, that unfamiliar familiar smell. That worn book smell; the smell of my mother and father reading to me when I was a child wafts in the air, and nostalgia sinks into my nostrils.
My parents have been divorced for quite some time now. Our relationship has been fading away. Our relationship feels like a story that was never fully completed. One of my fondest memories of being a child was taking a drive to the bookstore. It was something we did very often, just me, dad and mom. Dad would let me choose one book. He would sit on the big brown leather chair in the bookstore; while I got lost in the rows and rows of children’s books. It took me forever to choose a book, but mom and dad were always patient. Their patience didn’t last long. Things became dark quickly. I was eleven and I would hide in the bathroom with my sister and my copy of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. While the yelling of my parents outside the bathroom wall grew, I would pretend I was in the wardrobe waiting for the scream of the snow storm to cease and the calmness of spring to ensue.
Staring down at the hushed world below, sitting in this creaking worn green chair, I close my eyes and try to scrape the storm of the past from my mind. The used book I hold in my hand, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë, carries the faint sweet smell of coffee stains from its previous owner. The old floor boards moan with every step. The smell of the musky basement is intoxicating. I can’t help but wonder about the history of this building; buildings always have such exciting stories to tell. I hear the woman across from me flipping through a book, the sound of the pages singing in my ears. I get up and walk over to the nearest bookshelf as I feel all of the different spines. Like an old man’s bones cracked and worn. Just like I feel right now. I feel worn and fragile. Like a book that has been lugged around from one city to the next. My dust cover is about to break.
This bookstore is a feast for the senses. I can concentrate on all my senses easier in a bookstore. This has helped my tormented brain. Struggling with anxiety and exhaustion. Sometimes it feels like I’m not even fully here. But in a bookstore, I know I’m alive. I can feel the glossy pages of the picture books, smooth like untainted glass. I can smell the old wood and the spilled ink behind the counter. I can hear everything so much more clearly in a bookstore. The books being disheveled; the ringing of the old cash register; the loud whispers. I see the faded colors of books blending into each other. Mesmerizing like a watercolor painting. I can almost taste the old leather-bound books as I glide by them.
The bookstore is a place that holds other little worlds inside of it. Worlds of monsters, fairies, magic, love, horror, of bravery and hope. A place where magic comes alive again for those who have lost it. It whispers “Who do you want to be; you can choose.” I choose to move forward and see every day as an adventure. As J.R.R Tolkien says in his book The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring “It’s a dangerous business going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Of course, I will always make time for a stop at the book store on my adventures because there is nothing like an old unfamiliar familiar bookstore.
Victoria is originally from the South Suburbs of Chicago. She will be graduating at the end of this semester and plans to attend medical school in the fall. In addition to writing, she enjoys finding new music artists, binge watching new TV series, and learning new things about the world.
The Train Man's Aria
The darkness outside the windows grew deeper as the train inched closer to its final stop; the blinding lights fixed to the walls of the tunnels cut through with unexpected bursts of yellow warmth. This cycle continued with each stop: a bright plunge to the next destination, followed by the suffocating blackness imposed by the Chicago skyline, which itself was dotted with tiny, distant lights. It was five in the afternoon — rush hour — and the train man steadied himself, taking in the details of the set for his performance: the stuffiness of the car, the moist scuffle of feet leaving behind prints of snow and mud, the scratchy sound of the wheels scraping against the tracks. His own rugged body lay sprawled along a row of two plastic seats, a makeshift bed. He covered himself haphazardly with a tattered tan blanket that draped over most of his dark face. Only his forehead and hair were visible, fuzzy salt-and-pepper dreadlocks hanging over the edge of one of the seats.
Those who entered his train car — for it had, at least up until the last stop was reached, truly belonged to no one but him, not the city nor the conductor nor any other passenger who entered — noticed him immediately. Many grimaced. An equal number shot the wiggling, half-hidden lump disapproving side-eyes. As the train filled with tightly-packed bodies, the silent groans from the chorus were amplified in the quiet of the car: unsaid accusations heard all the same. The train man groaned beneath the cover, impatient, fighting the urge to stir in his seat prematurely; to the other passengers, to the untrained eye, he was a passive nuisance, a failure, an “other” that threatened the sanctity of the train.
After waiting for the next automated announcement of the current stop — Grand — the train man lifted the worn cloth off of his body, finally revealing his face to his audience. To his annoyance, the crowd failed to properly acknowledge this revelation. It was him — train man— but no one understood. He swallowed down the painful, heavy feeling building up in the pit of
his stomach — whether it was grief or hunger, he was never too sure these days — and waited for the automated announcement, the overture, to finish: “This is a Blue Line train to O’Hare.” Tugging at the collar of his oversized blue sweater, he babbled out an incoherent tune in a thick Jamaican accent, his bass voice gruff. In his mind, though, he sang clearly, resoundingly: “Who should I pray to? Jehovah, who should I pray to?”
Some of the other passengers were startled by his outburst, involuntarily craning their necks to sneak another peek at him. Others made a point of not looking, pressing their faces closer to the books tightly clutched in their hands, or to their phones, on which they furiously typed. The train man smiled, subtly, meaning to laugh, but losing the mental command in the flurry of thoughts battling it out in his head. All the same, a look of satisfaction washed over his round face, though his eyes quickly returned to their previously wild state, and he again sang, his delivery strained: “Prospering. Is it God? Wounded god, oh? No!”
The old woman three rows down scowled, thinking about how many drug addicts she had already encountered on her way home from work, angered, disgusted. But the train man thought of nothing but Jamaica, of his childhood. It had been thirty-something years — or maybe forty? fifty? — since he had been in his home country. Unlike with all his other fleeting trains of thought, he paused, struggling to hold the burning image still in his mind, afraid that it would run away from him again and get trapped somewhere he couldn’t reach. Piece by piece, he forced the memory back into being, mentally taping together the weathered connections. What came from the chapped lips of his pink mouth was a confusing mosaic of words, a slobbery a cappella, his inflection sounding more aggressive: “I was hungry that day. That’s all you get! Mommy, ya mommy cook food.”
The train man paused, stumbling over his own made-up melody, before yelling a brief recitative: “You gotta be ashamed. Fuck!” But no one else saw the irony. He tried to think of them then, of his mother, his grandmother, of their long-gone faces, but all he saw were disjointed Picassoesque shapes: floating brown orbs; sharp triangular nose bridges; prominent semi-circle cheekbones — just like his own, scattered, disembodied.
The train plunged on, reaching every stop, switching out audience members, doubling, halving them. Before the train man realized it, they were at Jefferson Park — five stops left. His anxiety surged. By then, the car was mostly unfilled; those who did enter at this point came onto the train dragging along their luggage, strolling in with their scarves and winter coats, their thoughts as equally erratic as his: worrying about catching their flights on time, groaning at the notifications of boarding delays — the Embraer 175 was taking longer than expected to land, tensing up from the visions of the long security lines that awaited. In the background, the train man crooned: “Pray to Jehovah. He get mad.”
They entered the final tunnel. The train man’s face was illuminated by the hanging LED lights, the wavering spotlight; he basked in it. The couple from two stops back that had taken a seat on the opposite side of the train car whispered to one another, casting glances at the back of his head. Another woman across from them frowned.
The train was arriving at its final stop. In his final act, the train man — the battered artist, the crashing time machine — then fully sitting up at this point in his seat, readied himself for the end of his song, dreading it, though this was neither his first nor his last. The other passengers stood and bunched up near the doors, restless to exit. The train man sang, or more so snarled, out his last lines, hoping, desperate for the listeners to understand, to hear not the cracking of his voice, nor the wheeze in his lungs, nor the train grinding to a halt on the tracks, nor the doors sliding open, nor the automated announcement, but him: “Where did time go? I’ll be. She grows. He grows. Where will I be?”
And as everyone filed out the train, some hurrying, all avoiding eye-contact, he remained quiet, looking around, finding no one, his audience fleeing. The conductor repeated their warning: “This is the last stop, as far as this train goes. All passengers must exit.” Yet, the train man was deathly still.
Some minutes later, the conductor found him there, seated by himself, an audience of one, his once passionate eyes extinguished, relaxed, emptied, watching nothing, remembering everything.
Sheri Tarrer is a third year English major with minors in Theater and Moving Image Arts at UIC. She’s a proud member of UIC Radio and likes to read, watch movies, and hang out with her cats in her free time.
I Feel Like I'm Losing You
Nothing melts into something. Something bright and warm. Something familiar and welcoming. Something inviting and reassuring.
A little girl stands at the edge of a playground. She holds a book in one hand and an infinity in the other. A great expanse of concrete and adolescence stretches far and wide around her. She is alone. But not for long, because out of the ground grows a beautiful, yellow flower. Impossible and warm, delicate and special, rare and precious. The flower’s eyes are bright like the sun. Her petals are soft and shapely. Her countenance is wise and trustful. She stares down at the little girl, “Do you want to come play with me?”
The little girl stares back but doesn’t answer. She doesn’t know what to say. Does she want to go play with the flower? The flower is certainly pretty, she’s very nice, but the little girl could get hurt. She could trip while running and split her knee open. She could fall off the highest tower of the playground and get a concussion. She could get thrown off the swing set and not be able to get up. The little girl doesn’t know what to do, so she just stares back.
“Do you want to come play with me?” the flower asks again, slightly taller, with slightly more petals, slightly less warm, slightly less nice, slightly less inviting. “Do you want to come play with us?” She asks, her face level with the little girl’s.
“Us?” the little girl asks, looking into the flower’s big golden eyes.
“Yes Us.” The flower looks at her as if she’s speaking in tongues. Don’t you see all my friends? The girl looks around and she does. Where there was only a concrete abyss, suddenly dozens of children roam around. Some swing on freshly mounted swing sets. Some slide down impossibly smooth slides. Some play ball games, kicking and bouncing and playfully yelling. Some run around the playground, screaming and chasing each other. There’s not a frowning face in the crowd. No one sits alone. No one is left out.
This is what the little girl has been waiting for, but she can’t bring herself to say yes to the flower. She feels tugs on the back of her shirt, but when she looks back there’s no one there. She hears voices in her ear telling her to run away, but when she glances over her shoulders, there aren’t any devils telling her what decisions to make. She wants to will herself forward, her feet to move, her heart to say yes, but she can’t. So just stares at the flower as it grows, increasingly taller and increasingly more impatient.
“Do you want to play with Us? You know you want to play with Us.” The flower insists but is just met with silent stares from the girl. “Come on.” She looks down at the little girl, looming up above, her petals larger than the little girl’s body. “Come on. You know you want to.”
The little girl looks up, no longer blank, her gaze now tinged with a dash of fear. She goes to step back but can’t. She looks down and see’s green stems wrapped around her ankles. The little girl looks back up at the flower and finds her eyes, now dark with shadows looming somewhere deep beneath, merely a nose’s width from her own. “I told you you wanted to play with us, so come on and play with us.”
The stems around the little girl’s feet begin to twist and tighten and they pull her forward, one step at a time. The kids run and scream around her as if she’s the playground, as if she’s the center of their universe. Balls are launched at her, feet come swinging, screams terrorize her ears, she ducks and dodges as best she can. “Aren’t you happy that we’re all playing together?” the flower pulls her in, enveloping her, surrounding her, suffocating her. “With Us here you’ll never be left behind. We’ll never leave you.”
The girl wants to trust her, but she can’t. The little girl wants the flower to love her, to protect her, to want her, but she knows that she’s lying. The little girl will never be safe, she can’t trust anyone, not the flower, not the children, not anyone or anything. The flower freezes in its wake, the children follow suit. Silence swallows screams, breaths pause halfway through, the little girl stares shocked at the figure before her. It’s another flower. This one red instead of yellow. This one smells sweet instead of scary. This one precious and beautiful. This one perfect.
“I’ve been waiting for you little girl.” The red flower’s voice is sugary sweet, zero traces of the monolithic titan the yellow flower has become. The little girl looks up at the yellow flower expectantly, hopeful. The yellow flower with its dark eyes, giant petals, and suffocating steams, just smiles down at the little girl and nods. The stems loosen around the little girls’ ankles and she takes a step towards the red flower. “Come here sweet one.”
The little girl can’t help but run towards the red flower, away from the yellow flower and the screaming and the children. The little girl buries her face in the small, thin stem of the red flower. She feels leaves close around her back and warmth seep through her. The red flower is soft and nice, comforting and consoling, she whispers niceties into the little girl’s ears with her non-existent mouth. The little girl feels something she’s never felt before. She feels understood, like she’s at home, she feels …safe. Impossibly safe.
The red flower asks, “Do you want to play with me?” and without a second thought the little girl replies, “Yes.” In an instant the red flower’s warm eyes go the same shadowy black as the yellow flowers did. The red flower is gigantic, her petals larger than life. The leaves that once shielded the little girl turn into sharp, red-hot thorns. The little girl finds stems once again wrapped around her ankles, and even more begin to wind their way up her torso and arms until her whole body is bound and dangling before the red flower. The yellow flower joins the red and they laugh at the little girl, helpless and swinging in their grasp. All by herself.
The little girl tries to wiggle free, but it’s no use, the stems squeeze tighter, threatening to take her breath away. “I told you you wanted to play with Us.” the yellow flowers sings.
“She can’t stand being alone.” The red flower replies.
“She’s nothing without Us.” Yellow continues.
“She can’t even walk.”
“She can barely talk.”
“Her thoughts aren’t her own.”
“She bows to our word.”
“She’s nothing without us.”
“We’re everything without her.”
“I feel sorry for her.”
“She’s so dumb.”
“She’s so lazy.”