HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

HerKind has had an exciting run, but has now been retired. Don’t fret! VIDA activity is now all centered on one site: VIDAweb.org! There, we’re hard at work bringing you the most relevant, insightful, and evocative articles and updates. All your favorite past articles and essays will still be archived here, as well, but make sure to visit the new VIDA site for all of our up-to-date content!

If you’re interested in writing for VIDAweb, check out our new content and contact us at VIDAweb.org!

HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!


by Quinn White

I began in my car. Summer. I was under few obligations and had time for sunshine, music, current events and my friends’ discussions of current events. More rancor than usual rang through their talk of social issues. On days of court decisions and death, days which were every day, I witnessed diatribes, litanies, incantations. Less than a week would pass when photos of cats, babies, and ornately plated dinners buried these passions. I knew people remained upset. I believed their dissent belonged to a space sturdier than that provided by social media. I began in my car, in the strong July light, wondering if an anthology of protest poetry could provide such a space.

I asked around to gauge interest in the anthology and was greeted with enthusiasm and offers of support. Now we’re building an artifact of diverse voices of dissent. We’re placing our words before the world as a marker to say we believe, we don’t accept, we speak against the noise of a rolling feed of commercials for bigger sandwiches, of gavels over gavels over gunfire, gunfire and bombs we’ve heard through our various radios, heard so often that war is played in restaurants and people continue eating and chatting about car parts. We write against the silence the noise presses us to assume.

What do we write? Protest poetry is aimed against an authority’s wrongs. It is written in a rhetoric whose intent is to excite readers to action. Protest poetry is a genre of wild indignation. Yet it can mourn simple as a lily. Protest poems are loud. Yet they whisper rage. Some shout like spotlights in interrogation rooms. Some tear language, slice tongues to rip issues. Many ask why without posing questions. The moves of protest poems are varied, surprising.

Working on the anthology has expanded my concept of protest poetry in ways I didn’t anticipate. In Martín Espada’s poem, “The Soldiers in the Garden,” a dying Pablo Neruda is interrogated by a lieutenant and Neruda says “There is only one danger for you here: poetry.” The soldiers, contrite, leave through the garden. Espada writes, “For thirty years / we have been searching / for another incantation / to make the soldiers / vanish from the garden.” The Neruda in Espada’s poem does not shout. The soldiers apologize. The lanterns in the trees dissolve. The poem is a wish against occupation. A wish for words. It does not shout. Yet it protests.

A rowdier protest poem comes from 2300 B.C. The writer is Enheduanna. In A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now (Schocken Books, 1980) Enheduanna’s work is described as “highly politicized.” Consider her poem, “Appeal to the Moongod Nanna-Suen to Throw Out Lugalanne, the New Conqueror of the City of Uruk”

O Suen, the usurper Lugalanne means nothing to me!
Tell An: “Have An release me!”
If you will only tell An
and An will release me.
This woman Inanna will carry off this young cock
Mountain and flood lie at her feet.
This woman is powerful as he.
She’ll make the city expel him.
Surely she will forget her rage against me.
Let me, Enheduanna, pray to her.
Like a sweet drunk let me cry freely for holy
Let me call to her!

Enheduanna’s poem shouts “NOW!” It demands the reader, specifically Inanna, to take action. Enheduanna writes in the midst of extreme circumstances. This is perhaps the earliest known protest poem.

Looking to the twenty first century, I see in Mazen Maarouf’s “S.O.S,” a speaker who does not shout, but says, “My voice / Is plain bread / I dream / of distributing it / among my exhausted enemies..” Empathy belongs to protest. Even as the poem later mentions violence: “a dog’s throat / whose soft barking / was run over by a tricycle.” “S.O.S” hurts. Yet what does it protest? In order to enter the political realm of a protest poem, one needs context, knowledge of the author and his or her circumstances. However, the best protest poems shake their readers with and without such context. From B.C. to A.D., the strongest protest poems share an ambidexterity.

Due to such shifts in manner and content, composing a definition of protest poetry is difficult. I searched for the right words and decided on wound and exhibit. In “Passport,” Mahmoud Darwish writes “my wound was an exhibit.” But if I stuck with wound and exhibit, I wondered how protest poetry would be represented as different from confessional poetry? The difference, I concluded, is that the protest poem inspires its readers to action against a wound. On purpose. The poem asks, however obliquely, for change. The poem needs its audience. Urgently. So three words belong to a definition of the protest poem: wound, exhibit, and call. The wounds are often political. The exhibits take many forms. The calls belong to different voices, different pitches, and different volumes.

I began in my car. I was listening to Stevie Wonder. Maybe the song was “Sir Duke” or “Higher Ground.” I don’t like telling this story. I wish I had a dramatic event to recount, that a comet’s tail set my house on fire and I believed then that I would die and that I must do something with my life. But, no. I was thinking of music. How albums protest. A book should exist, I thought, a mixed tape or a playlist of poems that make cases, a book that ensures voices are not forgotten among reels of donut innovation and purring squirrels*.

In her introduction to the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, Carolyn Forché writes that “monstrous acts have come to seem almost normal. It becomes easier to forget than to remember, and this forgetfulness becomes our defense against remembering—a rejection of unnecessary sentimentality, a hardheaded acceptance of ‘reality.’ […] These poems will not permit us diseased complacency. They come to us with claims that have yet to be filled, as attempts to mark us as they have themselves been marked.” The protest poem injures with its injuries. It is not the sound of marching. It is not, as Forché puts it, “an aerial attack […] One has to read or listen, one has to be willing to accept the trauma.”

For a long time, I did not read, listen, or write much about social issues. I felt helpless, small, and travesty was du jour. While working on the anthology, I wondered how I traveled here, how I became involved with protest poetry. I remember now. How simple. I began by listening.

*no offense is meant to donut innovation or purring squirrels.


A Care Package for Tiana

by Dr. Yaba Blay

DSC_5848 a TEXTPhoto Credit: Sabriya Simon

Black women’s hair has made the news again. In the same week that Sheryl Underwood, comedian and co-host of The Talk (CBS) referred to “afro hair” as “curly, nappy, beaded…nasty,” a 7-year-old girl in Tulsa, Oklahoma was sent home from her African-Amerian led charter school because according to school officials and school policy, her dreadlocks are “unacceptable.”

When I first heard this story (sans the video), I, like so many others, became angry. But when I watched the news story, and saw little Tiana in tears, head hung low, I became saddened. Had I not seen the story come to life in that way, I would have likely kept my focus on the school, its administrators, and its offensive, anti-Black policy. But seeing that precious little brown girl break down and cry in front of news cameras, seemingly a day or so at least after the incident occurred, I became instantly focused on her. And her spirit. And her self-reflection. And I wanted to do something for her.

Here is that something. A care package of sorts. A digital book of photos and messages from 111 women and girls from all over the country and all over the world, all of whom wear their hair in locs, all of whom want Tiana to know that she and her hair are PERFECT.

Of course, I will send this care package to Tiana’s father and ask that he give it to her on our behalf, but I’m also going to send it to administrators at Deborah Brown Community School, as well as administrators at Langston University, a historically Black university under which the school is chartered.

I also ask that you share this with your networks because as much as this is for Tiana, it is not just about Tiana. Tiana’s story is the one that made the news. Our girls are under attack everywhere. I want them all to know that they have an army of sisters, cousins, aunties, Mamas, GrandMamas, and elders all over the world who support them and at the drop of a dime (or a news story) will have their back.

UPDATE: So many women and girls have reached out to me since I shared the care package asking to be included. For now, the care package is all wrapped up. We’ll see what the Universe has in store for this project, but in the meantime, PLEASE share your photos and messages of love with the growing Facebook community We Love Tiana & her Hair. 

Our girls need constant affirmation. They need to know that even though there are people in this world that would have us believe that our natural hair is “ugly” and “nasty,” that it is they who have a problem – not our girls. Not us.

As I did back in December, as I do almost every day, I’m calling on EVERYONE to join me in “singing a Black girl’s song,” not only for Tiana, but for all the little girls who could benefit from the affirmation of their beauty and their value. An intimate weaving of past and present, memory and contemporary, their stories are our stories. Perhaps if they know that we truly understand, they can be encouraged to see themselves through our eyes; perhaps they will soon be able to see themselves for what they are – Pretty Brown Girls.

Not matter her hair texture, length, color, or style, please, in some way, tell a little Black girl that she is beautiful today. And every day.

A Care Package for Tiana


by Deborah Reeves

The night before we flew away, our dad sang “Moon River.” You know how it goes—“Two drifters, off to see the world. There’s such a lot of world to see”. I think now of a poem by Bill Knot, and of where and how my sister and I are bound:

“Hair is heaven’s water flowing easily over us.

Often a woman drifts off down her long hair and is lost.”


It is dark when he wakes us to take us to the airport. It’s December in Dublin, a couple of days after Christmas. Presents have been unwrapped and it is the New Year that glints now and begs to be opened. Though it is frosty, we dress in light cotton and jeans that will soon be too heavy. I hold on to a cup of tea, brush my teeth, and triple-check I have everything I need in my backpack. And my sister, she wraps a silk scarf around her smooth head, then carefully places her hair inside an old hatbox, closes the lid, and pushes it far under her bed with a flip-flopped foot. I look into her frightened eyes and she stares into mine. I want nothing more than to crawl back into my own bed, forget the whole thing—except the whole world. I want that more. And so, we step into the still dark and soon are sitting at the gate, waiting to board a flight to Rio de Janeiro.

I had planned to travel alone. I had not imagined things this way. But how can I tell my little sister that she can’t travel with me when she asks? What right have I to stand in her way? I have shared everything with her—from a room to a doll to the unfathomable urge to pull out the hairs on my head. She was carried along that path right behind me and there is no returning now.

Our dad is driving home in the dark and we are anxious in the airport’s interminable glow and the glare of so many strangers’ eyes. I keep up a steady chatter, trying to distract her from looking to see who is looking at her. She reminds me of a nervous bird, bright eyes red and brimming. But I am looking too and, in the harsh fluorescent light, I see her as those who do not know her might: an invalid, an oddity, an alien—a girl with no hair.

I see, too, all the years of our girl lives before this. My mother wrapping tape around my gloved hands before bedtime. A boy in school plucking wildly at the air above his head, mimicking me. I see bare patches of scalp and tufts of downy damaged hair. I see hairs on the floor, on the couch, on my desk, between the pages of books. Myself crying. Myself not knowing how to stop. I see my sister say, “Look,” and point to her eyes. And a sickly fear spreads through me: raw, smooth ridges where eyelashes should be. I see I turn to Now Her Too, to We.

We hid from experience, from our lives: dancing, swimming, running, the rain, the wind, and boys. But, though I suffered with my own hair-pulling, with shame and self-loathing, my compulsion was never as acute as hers or the consequences so drastic. When every effort to stop had failed through the years, I see the day she made the decision to shave it all off and wear a wig. So long ago now that it seems to be a part of her. Barely out of school, it was supposed to be a final fresh start but what was meant to be temporary had become a painful and perpetual solution. The decision, then, to leave her hair at home filled her with anxiety and trepidation. But Brazil would be hot and humid and her synthetic hair was so stifling already. She wanted to dance unchecked till dawn. She wanted to swim in the ocean.

And, suddenly, we are there. Copacabana, Ipanema—from winter to summer in half a day. On stamps and postcards on every corner, Carmen Miranda wears a tall crown of fruit and flowers, and Jesus floats too far above us with outstretched arms. Beach-bars pipe out samba and bossa nova calls us in. We drink straight from the coconut and wander in a dream world where, as far as I can see, the girls are all tall and tanned and young and lovely. Regardless of who they actually are, I cannot—me, of all people—see them any other way but through their bodies. Brazil is beauty.

And women pay small fortunes in salons for all forms of it. The illusory hairless female body. The “escova progressiva,” otherwise known as the Brazilian treatment—a carcinogenic hair masque that straightens kinks and frizz. In the lucrative wholesale of human hair, the temple-offerings of Hindu-women’s locks in India are sold and rebranded as Brazilian. All around the world it is customary for women to lie on their backs and pay someone else to rip the hair from their legs and faces. Beauty is the dissolution of reality and the Brazilian wax epitomizes this. I’ve had it done too and felt quite normal. But when I do it to myself, when I pull the hair from my body in my own ceaseless cycle of insecure anxiety, it is a disorder and I feel like a freak. What is the difference though? It is all anxiety, fear, and self-loathing: the belief that we’re not okay as we are.

The allure of travel is not only to see a new place but also to be seen newly in a place. People do not know your story or the things you carry. They see you with fresh and, often, more forgiving eyes. You realize that you are not tethered to the beliefs and meanings you have assigned yourself. There are different ways of looking at a thing—even the hairs on your head. In the backpacker hostel in Botafogo, difference is a boon. Here, my sister is not perceived as a freak as she feared; rather, her bare head signifies freedom and non-conformity, along with the natty dreadlocked chicks and the boy with a bone through his nose. I can barely make out the anxious, little thing inside. Instead, she seems to me a Gypsy girl, bright scarves and golden hoops in her ears, silver in the palm of her hand.

We are blank slates and on New Year’s Eve we follow the custom, dressing all in white along with the entire, feverish city. We pin ourselves with flowers and ribbons, the color of which represents a wish, a desire, for the year ahead: yellow for money, red for passion, pink for love, and green for hope. White is the symbol of peace. Jenny appears in a bright white sundress and a bob of hot-pink hair, a novelty wig she picked up some place. She has hair again but it is no secret that it is not real. She’s excited for the party on the beach that night. She is glowing from the inside out. She is extraordinary. People are looking at her, the women and the boys, but she doesn’t seem to notice or need it. She is just happy. The ribbons are working.

It is a holiday so there are no trains or buses. We join the crowds and walk with everyone in the hostel around the bay of Botafogo to Copacabana. We dance in the streets and mingle and wander. There are thousands of people dressed in white and ribbons; there are drinks and drugs. Someone stops to tie a shoe, to take a photograph, to pee behind a wall, and in a moment Jenny is gone, swallowed by the white city. There is nothing to be done but believe she is part of a happy group and not lost or on her own. Others assure me she is fine and I know that it’s true, but it’s hard for me to not be afraid for her and the night loses its glitter.

Still, another part of me acknowledges that this is what I wanted. What color ribbon signifies your wish to be free of your sister? Free of her pain and my guilt. For years I have been carrying the thought that I am the reason she began to pull her hair, that I was the catalyst and the cause of so many years of damage and hatred and hopelessness. I am the eldest, I pulled first and she followed. And though I still struggle with the disorder myself, I have not suffered as severely as she has. My load has been lighter and I have compensated by taking the blame. Research says that it is chemical, perhaps genetic. But when my eight-year-old sister said, “Look,” and I saw her naked eyes, my twelve-year-old self saw a link from my hair to hers. No matter where I go, I cannot leave it behind.

On Copacabana beach, at midnight, fireworks blaze the sky and we jump backwards over dark waves seven times for luck. We send tea-lights and wishes out to sea and pray they don’t return on the waves, unfulfilled, or sink to the bottom. We ask this of the orixá Iemanjá. The trail that moonlight leaves on water is thought to be her flowing hair but the moon is missing tonight. My sister is out there somewhere, leaping and wishing: perhaps she wishes to be free of me. There are millions of tourists and cariocas on midnight sands. We all have hopes and secrets to confess into a breaking wave. The difficulty is that pain can’t tell what it really wants.

It only seeks to soothe itself and I am ready for a new form of relief. When I twirl my fingers around a hair and pull, I cannot describe the release I feel. They call it trichotillomania: trich is Latin for hair, till means to pull, and mania is a madness that implies a sort of frenzy. But I’m not sure about that part and hardly ever call it that. It is a calm, soothing sensation for me—methodical, almost meditative. Agitation comes after and perpetuates the cycle that is potentially never ending. At thirty-two, I have been pulling for three quarters of my life. The pain doesn’t leave no matter how much of myself I pull and pluck away. Hair grows back, mostly.

And I know, too, that a continent or a city cannot remove me from the tangle of sorrow, regret, and guilt I feel for my sister. Rio is just the first stop on a much longer journey. And as much as we share the same experience and habits—and whatever the origins and reasons for them—we are ultimately each on our own path and will have to find our own way through this thing.

The fireworks have finished but the beach continues to sparkle and flicker, a million people dance and sway, an undulating sea of white. It is beautiful to watch and I am excited for what comes next in my six months in South America. There is such a lot of world to see. But I am missing my fellow drifter, my huckleberry sister, and I hope that she’s okay out there tonight. The moon is out now and the waves are softly crashing against music and revelry. I stare out into the crowd and catch a flash of hot pink, bobbing and weaving in the distance: a wish returned on the waves. Our hair will always bind us. It has been and will always be a way to know and see each other. I stand on my tiptoes and shout: “Jenny! Jenny!” And, somehow, she turns and sees me, smiles and moves my way.



by Wendy Qian

I went to a liberal arts college with mostly white peers. My Nigerian American college friend E stood out for that reason. Her high-pitched, infectious laughter posed a stark contrast with the social scene that championed poised sarcasm. She would part by saying “Toodles!” White boys who heard her bubbly laugh would look at her weirdly or even tell her that she was “loud.” She knew that and complained frequently about the “bro-iness” of our dining hall. She tried to transfer to a women’s college on the East Coast, but eventually graduated from the same college as I did.

I never attempted to transfer, but I empathized with some of her pains. E expressed her frustration with the rigid African American stereotypes. I could relate somewhat because at the time I did not identify as Asian American, despite the fact that people would characterize me as “Asian.” Like her, I had more experience with my ancestral country and appreciated my ancestral culture more than many other immigrant minorities.

I knew very little about other minority groups; luckily E had a lot of cultural knowledge to offer aside from her grievances. Once, I entered the dorm lounge when she was braiding dreads for another African American girlfriend. The intimacy of the event reminded me of when my grandmother used to comb my hair, but this happened among peers. I asked her how often she would braid her hair, and exclaimed at the tediousness of the chore. She replied with a sighing tone, “Our hair isn’t as simple as yours, Wendy, and we have to spend a lot of time tending to it.” I continued to marvel at the speed of her hands braiding extremely thin strands, and I was truly humbled.

Still, there were times when I thought E was too defensive about defining her selfhood. She complained about an event that advised attendees to dress in the style of “ghetto fabulous.” “That’s such a lame title and it’s so stereotyping!” she said over brunch. I realized the irony when she mentioned it—rich liberal arts kids dressing up in reference to a community they knew little about. The media glorified the style and all social classes consumed it, much like the numerous parodies of the “Harlem Shake” in later years. But I still maintained that the “ghetto” style has become a source of pride for people from the ghetto, and she could not appreciate it because she preferred “classy” events and wearing high heels.

I enjoyed her self-assured opinions and witticisms. She knowingly judged Akon, also a recent African émigré, as a “confused man” accepting everything that American pop culture offered. But sometimes this attitude could come off as overconfidence, especially when she commented on other countries. She described her trip to the Caribbean as somewhere she found she truly belonged, where people accepted her rather than put her in a racial category. She reminisced about a time when she bonded with a local, while they made fun of a white female tourist. She looked forward to the same feeling in Brazil—the next destination of her study-abroad plans.

I thought that she painted Brazil in such a rosy color on the basis of sharing similar skin colors. The gangs in the violent Brazilian film, City of God, were not divided by skin color. Unlike the 2011 cartoon Rio, City of God depicted Rio de Janeiro as a cruel and cutthroat place. I knew that one film could not tell the whole story, but I still believed that people living in a place of disparate income inequality would most likely cheat an American tourist, regardless of what she looked like. As a person who grew up in China, I was also extremely annoyed by the romanticization of a developing country. I tried to dampen her hopes by telling her that most people in developing countries need to hustle every day, rather than making her feel at home. She also got defensive and did not take my word for it.

No curse words were exchanged, but the dinner still ended unpleasantly. Both of us rushed to leave the table and put our dining plates on the racks. She did not say “toodles” this time. I posted an angry Facebook status when I returned to my dorm, chastising those who idealize foreign developing countries without understanding the reality. With the poor sanitation and crowded surroundings, those places are not as romantic as one would like to think. Fellow international students responded in agreement, while few American students understood what I was talking about. I did not mention E by name in that status, a common rule used whenever one makes a satirical jab at someone among the Chinese intellectuals. She did not comment on that status, or perhaps realized it was directed at her. I let the thought slide.

When E returned from Brazil, I never asked her about her experience as an act of defiance. By the looks of her crazy party photos, she did have a good time and made friends. Like E, I also enjoy traveling alone and I think back to my harsh advice. I might have been too cynical for E’s taste. Perhaps some tourists do get around better for their ability to blend in with the locals—E may have helped a Brazilian braid his long, dark dreads. I would never know.


Foreign Study

by Sara Quinn Rivara

The house in Parchment was the nicest on the street, nicest in the whole neighborhood. White siding, blue shutters, green roof. When we looked at the house, which had been recently rehabbed for a flip, there were toads everywhere in the lawn. There were new fiberboard cabinets, almond ceramic tile, cheap Berber carpet.

It was a billion times better than the house that had no toilet, just a hole in the floor on Howard Street. Or the house made of cinderblocks across the street from the house made of tarpaper and plywood. Or the house in Cooper Township next to the shuttered Congregational Church that had termites crawling over the kitchen floor.

It had a bullet hole in the kitchen window. The neighbors across the street had duct-taped a trailer to the side of their house, cut a hole. An addition.

We paid Cooper taxes, though our address said Parchment. A mile up the hill, gracious homes flanked Kindleberger Park. Even those cost less than 200K. Even those looked down upon the hulking shell of the shuttered paper mill where dozens—maybe hundreds—of turkey buzzards roosted. Where an osprey had made its nest near the river, over the humpback of the toxic landfill. PCBs and sludge. The Kalamazoo River swung slowly past, dammed to an extreme, flat and wide and smelling sour and foaming at the mouth. Cedar waxwings darned the sky above the slow-moving brown water.

We’d been married for two years. I’d been cervical cancer free for a few months. I’d just gotten a tenure-track job at the community college where I’d been teaching for pennies, part time, since I’d quit my job as an assistant librarian at a small town library where everyone had Jesus in their heart. Where women went to college to be kindergarten teachers or to drop out to get married at 20.

I’d gotten married at 24. I’d been diagnosed with cervical cancer at 21.

I called myself a feminist, or had—had grown up in Chicago and had such ambitions! And now I was here. Married, 26, happy to be making 40K a year— tens of thousands less than my male colleagues, I’d learn years later, the college not recognizing my MFA because, Jesus, I’d been so happy to not be making 10K a year and didn’t know to negotiate, didn’t know it was my right.


I’d gone to an exclusive private liberal arts college in the Midwest. I’d spent my junior year abroad, I’d lived in the Women’s Resource Center and been a member of the Women’s Equity Coalition, co-founded a feminist theater collective. Taken mostly women’s literature classes, creative writing. I spelled women womyn.

My husband had dropped out of high school. Had told me, when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer—which, if you didn’t know, is only the result of HPV, a sexually transmitted disease which I only could have gotten from him, having lost my virginity on Devil’s Night my senior year—didn’t want me to tell anyone. He was ashamed. I should be ashamed: an STD? I was raised a Catholic. I had done everything right: had him tested for HIV, herpes, the lot. And still. Punished. Or whatever.

I had grown up in Chicagoland, gone to school in Michigan, and expected to move, post-graduation, to the Southwest for a gap year with my best friend, before pursuing my MFA in vocal performance or my PhD in literature. I was an honors student in college, second in my graduating class of English majors. I knew I was smart.

And then I was in Kalamazoo, still. My then-husband telling me that my shirt was unbuttoned too much, telling me he liked my body despite my mind. He said it was a joke. Why can’t you take a fucking joke? I knew my body to be a shameful thing.  I was fucked but I learned to leave my body. I began to think I must be a lesbian—please, God, let me be a lesbian—because I couldn’t scare up anything that was attracted to my husband. I wrote poems. I went to graduate school, got my MFA in poetry. I began to publish my poetry in journals. The woman who drove home from work every day transformed herself into something else. She wore only black, blue, brown.

I taught women’s literature. I told my students that I was a feminist.  As if that was something that would save me.


At 20, sitting on the banks of the River Dee in Aberdeen, Scotland, I figured my life would be prescribed by travel. A man in every port. I was going to see the fucking world.

At 26, I was pregnant. Married. I hadn’t traveled since I’d graduated from grad school.  The horizons were so small.

No one wants to hear your poems about breastfeeding or bread rising on the counter, a poet (male, prominent, editor of a major literary magazine) had said in a workshop in grad school.

At 27, I was in a hospital room, 26 hours into labor, my then-husband telling me I was overreacting. I pushed my sweet boy into the world, and goddamn, it’s a cliché. But that night, my husband gone home to ‘let out the dogs’ and because he had to work the next day, I held that small boy in my arms and felt something: what was it? I was terrified. I’d never felt it before, and it was overwhelming and I realized holy shit, this is what it is to be in love. And I thought if this boy had my life, would I be okay with that?

And I’ll be honest: if I’m religious it’s an academic pursuit. But there was a voice that rose up in me and it said NO.


And there was my life. Blue light flickering beneath the door as the nurses walked past my hospital room, my Bird nursing and my nipples raw and I was crying and I knew:  I have to get out.

It took me almost two years. In those two years, my husband began to sleep on the couch because a crying baby all night made it hard for him to go to his shitty job, my son slept in my bed. I went back to my full load of classes when Jonah was three months old, teaching five courses on 2 hours of sleep a night. My ex called my midwife to tell her I was crazy and needed drugs because I didn’t want sex. Because I thought—he told me—I was frigid. My episiotomy had healed the wrong way. I couldn’t sit or walk comfortably for months. We took a vacation to Munising, Michigan, on Lake Superior. All I wanted was to slip into the crowd with my son, disappear. But I was terrified: if I told my husband I wanted a divorce, that I didn’t love him, never had, that I had stayed out of fear, he would kill me. He would take my son. He would kill himself. And what about the house? The dogs?

And then I got tenure. And then I read every poem I’d written and realized: I’d known all along. I was miserable and couldn’t raise my son to think that was okay.

I told my husband I wanted a divorce. He hacked into my email, accused me of having an affair with a student because I exchanged a list of books. He told me I was a whore. He got his GED, got a Breathalyzer on his car to get his license— which he’d never had—back. He threatened to kill me, chop me into tiny bits. He took every cent we had, and no one would front me the money for a lawyer. He got exactly equal custody because I was terrified he’d take my son from me forever.

At thirty, I was divorced. Tenured. I’d bought and sold a shitty house. I lived alone for the first time in my life. I got a tattoo. I published poems.

But I stayed in Kalamazoo. I desperately love my son. I started to attend writers’ conferences, found my tribe again. Became department chair, union agitator. Published my first collection of poems at 36. Filed with the courts to move across the country with my son. And even all these years later, I am terrified. My son has been with his father for two days; his father won’t allow any contact.  I am still terrified that he can bully me, that crazy always wins. That I am the crazy one, because I’m a woman. And emotional. And admit that I don’t know everything. And am small and female and he could kill me, he could.

How can I be a feminist?  A student asked years ago in my Women’s lit class. It’s easy for you, she said. Assuming, of course, that because I was standing in front of her as a professor that I must have had a different life than hers. I just want my boyfriend to love me.

Don’t write about domestic things, that poet said. Write about what’s important.

Okay.  I will.

Foreign Study

First Summers of Mischief: Round Two

Thank you to everyone who submitted. Here is our final round of First Summers of Mischief.


Sarah at 15, before a mirror, I watched her watch herself. She lifted her tank top, examined her stomach and her breasts, pulled her underwear down to her knees. Her boyfriend, she said, wanted her hairless.


I was modest to a fault then. And often afraid, often embarrassed. Silent too. And nervous and glinting. Like a handful of hot sand. Like the burnt hood of a blue-black car in a parking lot at noon. Like a pot of milk on the coiled eye of an electric stove. A pot of milk near scalding. Scattered shards of glass in the sun.


Finally, the cool lips of midnight. Finally, we slept. The hills outside, yellow, dusty, combustible.—Mary Camille Beckman


17: no car, no job, no air conditioning. I read all of The Fountainhead in one reclined moment and felt an adolescent yes. Ignoring the sandwiches dropped off by my mother and the disturbingly erotic fantasy novels recommended by the Barnes & Nobles clerk, I discovered, in a book that no one had ever read, something that no one had ever thought of. Freedom is the most important thing, and some people are just better than others. Yes, I thought, succumbing to the lure of the sandwich. People need to know about this. A year later, at college on scholarship, the drip of money ate away the candied dream of my teenaged meritocracy.—H. V. Cramond


Night at Kennywood was magical. White lights strung around the lagoon illuminated paddle boats, earlier populated by rowdy boys splashing, now serene with pairs of adolescents seeking escape from the warning eyes of adults. “Don’t get too close,” said the sharp, mother’s glance as thighs pressed close on the sticky roller coaster seats and day-dirty fingers feed each other Potato Patch fries. My girlfriends and I ran past the funnel cakes and Noah’s Ark. Running, we transformed: the carnival lights revealing that despite small breasts and bruised knees we were no longer girls but rather women seeking dark corners and the eager fingers of those, who hours before, were just boys.—Erica Gene Delsandro


The sun was an enormous hot pearl. I lay in the warm sands, staring into an endless white sky. A little dog passed, the old man with him only slightly less scruffy. I waved. I wasn’t doing much else; I was just there, under some boy from Queens whose face I will forget.

I remember my bikini, with its irregularly sized, perfectly round polka dots. It made me a Bond girl—Pussy Galore or Plenty O’Toole. It would take countless forgettable boys until I was Holly Goodhead.

That boy from Queens? He wore a red bathing suit. And I wonder, does he remember my perfectly polka dotted white and black bikini?—Jodi Doff


For mosquito season, we sleep adjacent, along front and back seats in the pickup. I pulled out pictures of them building the log cabin; stakes, friends, ex-wife; his sharp chin looks bitter without the beard. Don’t worry, in winter the woodstove keeps the cold out; firewood stacked out back, the swallows dive bomb you, he smelling like bush and chainsaw oil; the guy he works for bulldozed up the pond, the dog comes in with me, I am fat, hot bike ride back, he puts his beer in the pond to keep it cold, we kick up silt, it is hot but it was cold the first night we were together.—Paula Eisenstein


Smirnoff Secrets

An American rite of passage is the 21st birthday; an opportunity to check off your proverbial to-do list of things you’ll regret, and boys. I spent the beginning of my Christmas-in-July birthday in a classy downtown bar, the next hour passed out in the park next to a homeless man named Wayne, and then counted down the last minutes to midnight in the emergency room; singing karaoke to a stomach pump and an epi-pen. My first, and last, drink of my adult life was a magenta rum cocktail called “Victoria’s Secret.” It wasn’t until halfway through it that I realized my own summer secret was an acute allergy to alcohol. —Pattie Flint


Three feet from the stainless steel toilet, I sat on a thin mattress and surveyed my surroundings. A metal bunk bed, secured to the wall, housed a thin woman wrapped in a grey wool blanket. A drinking fountain was attached to the toilet tank. There were two scarred plastic cups and a door with a six-inch window.

Brown plastic flip-flops hung off my toes, partially obscured by supersized grey pants. Underneath I wore issued stained-pink granny panties and an ill-fitting, well-worn bra. My wrists ached from too-tight handcuffs; my pride suffered from injustice, gawking neighbors, my crying children. I promised my chattering cellmate my breakfast; I didn’t plan to stay. —Andrea S. Givens


A moodiness claimed him and replaced the man I loved with a stranger. We sat side by side but between us was an 8-lane superhighway I couldn’t cross without sustaining grave injury. Motorists sped along as I stared across at him, waiting. Finding courage, he advanced and, weeping, purged. I put my hand on his back and felt hatred toward those who dared harm him. Then he told me about Trevor. My brain, heart, and ears filled with cotton and I was cold. He was hugging me but I was still freezing. I wanted my blanket, the torn pale blue one with the satin trim. And I wanted him to leave.—Stacey Givens


knees up throat clenched manubrium sternohyoid omohyoid sounds almost like, not yet. focus on sand, sun between our toes, her lips cut from rosehips, fingers measuring everything, remember it? scorch at the back of the sternohyoid omohyoid we pulse dock we grill muscles we kick up sweat, you warm asking skin, me salty eyebrows, a red car backing up into the ocean, the loudest singing, girl with the eyes that cut glass, remember it? salt stained, canoe dune, state troop, something thrust and buried in the sand, loudest singing on those shores before we had the word, before we knew the many muscled word, sternohyoid omohyoid sounds like, but isn’t yet.—Monica Gomery


I went to sleep that summer, shivering with fever, and I woke up six weeks later. There were, during that nap, some moments of lucidity. Someone talking to me, someone opening my curtains, a beeping intercom . . . quickly fading into the landscape of an endless dream. That otherworldliness so enveloped me that I preferred it there. It was a place of peace and possibilities where I was content. My awakening was as sudden and unexpected. They whispered and I heard the words “brain-damage” and “slow recovery.” The diagnosis was viral encephalitis. I am a phenomenon. Not damaged after all, having awakened to the beauty of a place of peace and possibilities within me.—Janice


Reading Michel de Certeau convinced me walking is a form of syntax. I tested this the summer I moved to a new city alone, recently heartbroken. I walked, making sentences to build a language-city inside, remaking the landscape of alone-thinking. But, then, how to reach out of myself again? The concepts of Wing Chun Kung Fu explain its motions. You move as if you have a center line, then do. Personal space makes a triangle if you think it that way. After walking, I learned the martial art. I built an armature to hang my violence on, retrained myself outward. Theory allows me to hit with all my weight behind it.—Jennifer Kronovet


Lorelle had a cigarette she was flipping around in her pocket, not a match to be found, and someone busted the lock on the kitchenette and Lorelle lit the cigarette on a burner coil, then put her whole palm on it—flat-assed down—held it there a good four seconds before Tag started screaming, so Lorelle punched Tag on the neck, and he went down like a bag of flour; Lorelle prancing around blowing smoke out her nose, flipping the bird and wiggling her hips like a whore. I can’t remember a better night except after that they took away our butterscotch pudding and the binoculars for six weeks—those fuckers.—Rebecca Loudon


Every afternoon, a greasy bag of churros sees me past the reek of the abattoir. It’s 1966: I’m 17, still virgin, summer schooling in Santander, and vulnerable as veal. Holed up in my nunnish room, I alternate: Sex and the Single Girl vs. Sense and Sensibility. Paths will soon diverge, but not easily. Extremes will test me throughout my twenties, with sex, sex, ever more sex assuming the upper hand after years of fearful repression. Repatriated, at Barnard, I do not get pregnant the very first time. Neither do I fall in love, except with the wonder of tumescence. Let’s see if it works again, and again, how and with whom.—Sandy MacDonald


July of 2008: The Return of My Sense of Self

I wasn’t in the process of suffocating, I was finalizing the act. Imprisoned by a husband-turned-tyrant, I felt further trapped in a state I saw as a black hole. Although at my lowest, I realized that I was not powerless. I declared divorce. Air! And when that damn Colorado border continued to taunt me, I loaded the kids into the car and drove right over it. Freedom! My tumble into adulthood had somehow made me forget that we are either jailers or liberators—of ourselves. So, to keep myself reminded that limitations are self-inflicted, I continue to cross borders: Mississippi. South Dakota. Chicago. Lost my job—kids, lets drive to Florida!—Lesleigh Nahay


You were always prettier—but that summer they liked me best. We pretended to be French—you speaking with an accent, translating my nonsense sentences. They believed us until we confessed, but still they wanted to meet us at the beach to watch the sunrise. It was the first time I snuck out of my grandparents’ shore house, wearing a dark blue sweatshirt that smelled of sun and salt. We climbed on top of a boardwalk pagoda, using a pay phone as a ladder. When mine yelled “Police,” I leapt off the roof in the dark, trusting the sand to catch me, sealing their attraction, and led the way to escape.—Randon Billings Noble


Some Sort of Exchange

Shortly after my boyfriend tried to kill himself, we drove with his mother through the night to Georgia. I didn’t meet his father until the morning. We had coffee on the screen porch. A Japanese businessman learning English was staying there, too, some sort of exchange at the college. “It is my pleasure to meet you.” During the day, my boyfriend and I had the house to ourselves, soaking in the hot tub, watching hawks through a telescope. One evening we all had supper, soft shell crab. We clinked glasses—kampai! Lifted, my boyfriend’s stitched wrist emerged from his buttoned sleeve. Maybe only I saw tears roll down the businessman’s face.—Deirdre O’Connor


Worst of times; best of times. Age 12: a new set of boobs and strange fuzzy hair “down there”; a new baby brother who screamed; a father who’d died; a mother who . . . wasn’t “present”.

I was shy in my red-and-white polka dot bikini. It lies in a drawer 50 years later. That was the day a (nice, tanned) vacation beach boy met me in an ocean rock shelter. “Can I just look?  Please?” he’d begged.

Not knowing, I channeled Gypsy Rose Lee.

He ran, leaving me the sweetest softest juiciest ooziest tingle, unknown to my little-girl body. Opening the drawer, I can resurrect that sandy memory. It gives me new power.—Diana Perkins


small pricks of hot gravel made me Coal Walker outside a Timbuktu of Canada. heel-to-toe, asphalt bubbles popped. by my piggie that went to the market. by my Tyrannosaurus Rex dewclaw. by miles of empty road, the verge a brushtop tinder of grass, soles burnt into a red-hop step. friend’s dad slowed his bulgy-fendered pickup. want a lift? he turned off into pastures, not to my parents. the cab, the exhale concentrated boozy. over ruts behind the enclosure of cedars. forest shadows were my fingers, closing cold. ordered to the ground, my reply command: take. me. home. now. low, level, controlled as all that is most dangerous.—Pearl Pirie


The beach reaching, just below the sky, where else would it be? The ocean, not as blue as I imagined, next to sand, hotter than I could ever imagine, towels, tanning oil, magazines, Marlboros, what else would you need? The tall cool blonde, the auburn haired athletically built beauty, and I, the curly topped companion to both, who else would be there? The day, just on the edge of July, most are away on vacation, but we are not most, when else would we be here? The bodies, all bent back boldly, all breast, hip, thigh, over extended in repose and response, searching, seeking, why have I never been here before?—KP Ponzio

First Summers of Mischief: Round Two

Other Girls

by Meghan Maciver

When I saw Mina again, it was almost the first thing we talked about – that summer twelve years ago in Istanbul, and all the drama that had happened with Darren. I was surprised how quickly she brought it up, but I didn’t miss a beat.

“It was Darren’s fault,” I pointed out immediately.

“I know,” Mina replied, with an exasperated sigh.

Of course, I had been telling this story for years. I’d just never thought Mina had been thinking about it for the past decade as well. I picked up my tiny glass of tea but paused before taking a sip. We were supposed to have passed though our lives, but had found each other again, like so many people do nowadays, through social media.  A warm breeze came off the water and it felt good to be together again. I smiled to myself, as I remembered everything like it hadn’t been so long ago.

Darren had tried to remain inconspicuous, but he’d stood out nonetheless amongst the other travelers, ex-pats, working-holiday folks and Turks who made up the cast of characters and social misfits who hung out in the travel scene of Turkey in the sticky, hot summer of 2001. Darren was a tall, blonde Kiwi with a hard, muscular body, Maori tattoos, pierced nipples and a perpetual tan, which in the concrete interior of Istanbul was hard to achieve. He had also stretched out one earlobe, which held, at different times of the month, a pencil, an eraser, or dirty money. Despite his attempts to disfigure himself however, Darren was unstoppably attractive, not only because he was confident, but because he was clean. He smelled good. The fact that he was into sex, motorcycles and anti-American politics only made him more appealing.

It seemed that everything Darren did was different from other people. He talked about traveling over-land from India – infamously invading a full moon party on the back of a yak – then doing the work/party/drug/rave thing in England before making his way to Turkey before anyone else was here. One time, he told me about the quiet beauty of stepping out alone at night on the beach at Olympos and watching the phosphorus under the water, before the days of it being overrun in the park. I remembered how he told all of his stories openly, in his sharp, Kiwi accent, inviting you into it, and never coming across as if he was bragging. In fact, it genuinely seemed like he was trying to connect with you, on some level of risk and adventure. I had been traveling for a while at that point, in India and Costa Rica, but I hadn’t met someone like Darren before. It was hard not to be somewhat infatuated.

Not only did Darren like to do things differently, however, he was also known for his brutal honesty – to the point of being offensive. Our friend Dawn once told me that she had walked in on him shagging a girl in the dirty dorm room that she sometimes used to crash in on her way through Istanbul. It was a rank room, with clothes and food lying around everywhere. One night, plucking her way through the debris to get to an empty cot, she walked in on him having sex with a girl who was face down on a bunk bed. He was wearing Mickey Mouse ears and goggles. He looked up at her mid-thrust, lifted up the goggles and said matter-of-factly, “I can’t look at her eye, mate!” then put them back on and kept going. As she was backing out, the girl lifted her head up and Dawn caught her eye. Sure enough, it was lazy, which threw Dawn into a fit of laughter before she closed the door behind her. Dawn thought Darren was dead sexy and said she would be up for a shag with him any time, but privately I thought she didn’t have a chance. A guy like Darren was going to end up with some model, or no one at all.

Currently though, Darren was staying in Istanbul because he had recently moved in with his Turkish girlfriend, Sima Gul. Gul means rose in English, and Sima was certainly that. She was the most unique looking Turk I’d ever seen with big, black dreadlocks, large earrings in extended earlobes, a tiny frame and clear blue eyes. I only saw her once, when I spied her from the upstairs patio of the hostel where I worked. I couldn’t help but notice her visit to Darren, the whole street paused at her presence as she strutted her way into the travel agency where he worked. It was official, I thought to myself, Darren was king.

Although Darren wasn’t travelling, he said he didn’t mind because of all the money he was making. Darren worked the front desk at the biggest backpacking travel agency in Turkey, just next door to the hostel I worked at in the old city of Sultanahmet. Back then, it was just a street with two hostels, a bar and a few travel agencies, unlike now, with its hotels and restaurants straddling each other side by side as far as the eye can see. At the time, it was mostly housing, with conservative families living inside. But in the summer it got busy and it was common to see old women walking to their houses with long coats and headscarves, alongside young foreigners wearing short shorts and carrying backpacks.

Darren could be intimidating to some, but in general he was well liked, especially by the Turks. He was a good salesman and had deals with everyone in the neighborhood to take a commission, Turkish-style. While he worked the front desk, other young Westerners would show up for the season to work as tour guides for the agency. They arrived slightly prior to Anzac Day, when thousands of young Aussies and Kiwis descended upon Istanbul and jumped on tour buses to head down to Gallipoli to mark the fall of the ANZAC troops in WWI. I knew nothing about Anzac Day, but I learned all about it from Mina and Yasamin, the two small and well-known Iranian girls who also spent their summers in Turkey on the backpacking circuit learning English, working at the hostels and having all the fun in the world, especially compared to their boring and stifling winters in Tehran. They loved it here, they said and backpacking had changed their lives. Turkey was like a fun version of their own country, while meeting so many travelers had exposed them to a way of life they wouldn’t have had access to in Iran. Neither of them had much money though, so they worked in the hostels to make ends meet.

Mina and I were the breakfast girls at the hostel. I had been on my way to get a nanny job in Spain earlier that summer, but I’d landed a job at the hostel within the first few days of arriving in Istanbul, and it looked more and more like I wasn’t going anywhere else. Everyday, we’d wake up early, go out and buy fresh bread from the bakery and then walk up the seven flights of stairs to prepare food each morning.  Breakfast consisted of boiled eggs, fresh cucumber, tomatoes, feta cheese and bread served with bottomless glasses of tea. Our patio faced the Marmara sea, so even if we were hungover, the process of making breakfast was always somewhat of a magical experience for which we were both grateful.

“Gorgeous,” Mina would say, sucking in her breath as the sky lightened around us, and I’d nod back in approval.

Mina was very short, with dark skin, dark eyes and even darker hair. She had a round face, nose and eyes, round hips and breasts. She’d picked up a lot of English from Aussie and Kiwi travelers, so even her words sounded round to me, saying things like “roight” and “noice”. Her hair curled up in a round bob and she had a small rasta hat that she’d gotten from a fellow traveler that she wore like a beret. She always had a smile on her face and perpetually appeared to be laughing at something. When I asked her what made her so happy, she attributed it to the fact that she (and Yasamin) had gotten out of Iran.

“Really,” she said rolling her eyes, “we don’t do one thing there.”

We’d serve breakfast, being careful to select only the mellowest of musical tunes for atmosphere, then clean up and play endless rounds of backgammon with each other. It was never that busy, despite the spectacular views of the sea.

One morning, Darren came in with flowers and a small gift. Looking across the patio, I saw Mina smile and blush with excitement and while he bowed in front of her and I walked over to find out what was going on. It turned out that it had been Mina’s birthday recently, and we’d all missed it. Yass had informed Darren that morning and he had come straight over, he said.

I could tell that he had given the gift a bit of thought, but I was surprised to see him so intent on making things right with Mina for missing her birthday. We discussed that we should re-try a party for her sometime in the week and Mina looked so happy.

“Yes, yes we should make a party,” she said, exuberantly.

A few nights later, when I walked into the hostel’s downstairs patio Darren and Mina were already at a table chatting.  If Darren hadn’t left yet to go home, I knew it meant that he would stay all night as he sometimes did, in the dirty dorm room above the offices of the travel agency that were meant for the guides to sleep in during their stays in Istanbul. As we sat there, I noticed what appeared to be a small ball of light in Darren’s mouth. Then I noticed Mina had the same thing. I squealed in delight.

“What is that?” I cried.

They both stuck their tongues out at me, revealing miniature glow sticks. Not the big ones that people decorate their bodies with or hang around their necks, but small, thin, perfect tubes about two inches long. I’d never seen anything like them. The key was to crack them in your mouth and leave them in there while talking to someone to startle them with the color. A backpacker in the hostel had plenty and soon we had a table full of guides and random tourists popping them in our mouths.

As the night wore on, we reveled in how silly these gadgets were, and laughed at the absurdity of all of us having them in our mouths. The Turkish barmen looked at us like we were crazy, which made us order even more rounds of beer and drink at a maddening pace. We spent most of the night outside, but eventually we made our way into the tiny bar and started dancing wildly, while sharing the tiny tubes of light between ourselves. I was suddenly kissing one of the bar boys and other random people. I even kissed Mina, passing her the wand of light with my tongue. There must have been over 50 people packed into the small cramped bar, but no one seemed to mind. The booze was flowing, while everyone was dancing and laughing, singing and hooting in ecstasy.

“Well, this was good, yah?” Darren said, coming up to me with a big grin on his face.

I lifted my arms up and embraced him as he twirled me around.

Suddenly, Mina was beside us and I grabbed hold of her.

“Happy Birthday to you!” shouted Darren to her face, and we both squealed.

“I did alroigt,” she said proudly. I hugged her tightly before I went off to dance, leaving her and Darren behind.

It was shortly thereafter then, that I began to notice that Mina was gone when I awoke in our shared dorm at the hostel. Acting out of discretion, I kept any questions to myself. It was only when she smiled at me one morning on the patio and said softly how she loved the way the stars looked at night from the roof of the travel agency that I understood what had happened.

She was positively beaming. She told me Darren had dragged a couple of mattresses out of the dirty dorm room onto the upstairs roof so they could sleep under the stars. She said Darren would tell her about camping in New Zealand, how sleeping under the stars reminded him of home, and he explained to her how the stars looked different in New Zealand. Then, in a lower whisper, she asked me how many people I’d slept with. I smiled and replied, not that many. She smiled secretly back at me and told me she only had slept with one person, and began humming a private tune to herself.

Mina seemed almost in a dream. I couldn’t tell if she was entertaining notions that Darren would carry her away to New Zealand, but I hoped she had enough sense to not be doing so. She turned to me again.

“Darren says to just have fun this summer,” she smiled happily. She suggested we throw a party on the roof of the travel agency and I nodded in agreement that it would be fun.

A part of me was concerned, however, for Mina. In terms of the relationship, she was the one who was going to have her heart broken. As an inexperienced woman from Iran, I wasn’t sure if she understood what kind of man Darren was. I commiserated with some of the female guides and we agreed that the whole situation was bad news. Mina simply couldn’t handle Darren, we decided. Really, it was a cultural thing, we said. Mina just wouldn’t understand that he was only looking for something casual. Did ‘casual’ even exist in Iran?

In the world we inhabited that summer, ‘casual’ seemed like an understated word to describe the sexual encounters of our scene. Random female tourists were always sleeping with any of the eager Turkish bar boys around, Dawn had “boyfriends” in every town nearby and several in Istanbul, and the backpackers were notorious for hooking up with one another for one night stands.

“We’re just so free here,” Dawn remarked once, after recounting yet another sexual escapade with a young guy she’d picked up the night before. I nodded, but kept my mouth shut. It just seemed so meaningless, but I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t get it. It was the travel scene after all, not exactly a place of firm commitment. But as fun as it was supposed to be, it always seemed so lonely.

Sitting out behind the terrace on the back fire escape one day, Dawn and Lori, another guide at the agency, and I discussed in hushed tones about warning Mina about Darren. Mina was washing up the dishes and I kept poking my head around the corner to make sure she didn’t hear us. But we decided it might lead to drama between the two or anger Darren if it got back to him. And without speaking it, we all knew why we didn’t want to say anything. In the travel world, it was considered poor taste to meddle in anyone’s business; especially in these places where we were all unlikely to have met in the first place – and were more unlikely to ever meet again. I felt guilty though. After all, I worked with her every day, and it was becoming increasingly clear that she was falling head over heels in love with him. And Darren was no one to fall in love with.

Still, when they had their barbeque on the rooftop of the travel agency, it was wonderful to see them together. Somehow, it made everything seem more real. We had a great dinner with drinks and music and watched the bats fly around the minarets of the Blue Mosque, while the lights twinkled from the boats on the Marmara. The air was soft and warm, and it was good to feel like we were at a private party with real friends, especially after being so long on the road.

Near the end of the night, Mina had drunk too much and ended up vomiting in the dirty bathroom. Darren didn’t leave her side, and rubbed her back, scolding her gently with “Canim, canim,” meaning darling in Turkish. It was obvious that he cared for her. But would it be enough? Darren seemed like someone who could never have enough. I remember looking worriedly at him when I came down to check on Mina’s and asking, “You’re going to take care of her, right?” I don’t remember him giving me an answer; he just turned to Mina and kept rubbing her back.

It was shortly after the party then, that I noticed Mina back in our room when I woke up. Quiet. After weeks of being absent, morning after morning she was there, until one day I found her weeping in front of the eggs and cucumber. I didn’t say anything. I felt horrible. And I was pissed off. I knew Darren was ruining everything, and really hurting Mina. Unlike other girls I knew, who brushed off these kind of rejections with “Well, I don’t know if I was that into him anyway”, or “It’s not like we’re really together” that week was positively solemn around the hostel, with Mina pouring herself vodka orange juices at the beginning of our shifts and stumbling around the hostel like a teary, wounded animal for the rest of the day. Fuck you Darren, I thought privately. Not that he was anywhere to be found, or that I would have said anything anyway. I had always known that nothing could have ever come from this arrangement.

Finally, after three or four days of this, Darren appeared on the patio. The sun was blaring and he squinted hard before jumping under the awning where the tiles wouldn’t scorch his feet. One moment, he seemed defensive, with a puffed out chest, the next he was hesitant, like he really didn’t want to be up there. I never thought Darren would be scared of something, but it certainly seemed like he was now. I went over to the sink, where Mina was facing the wall. When she finally looked at me, she had tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Do you think it is possible for him to be sleeping with someone else?” she asked in a shallow, ragged voice. I paused. Darren was the kind of person who did exactly what he wanted, and I certainly didn’t want to be the one to call him out on this. I tried to look at her squarely and say yes, but I choked hard instead and ended up standing there lamely, shaking my head as if I didn’t know what was going on.

I felt so awful I was shaking as she headed for the table where Darren had sat down. From the corner of my eye, I could see them speaking as the harsh sunlight glared down on their heads. I could see Mina, the tears still streaming down her face. It looked like Darren was half trying to explain something to her, half trying to plead with her. Mina was shaking her head slowly back and forth, until she finally tilted it down and uttered some final words. All of a sudden, she got up and walked downstairs. For a while, Darren sat there looking out at the rooftops of the buildings that surrounded our hostel, ignoring the beautiful view of the water behind him and suffering in the hot sun. Finally, he got up and walked over to me. I could see that his eyes were bloodshot, like he’d been crying, too. His face was red and beading with sweat. “Do you think I’ve lost her?” he stammered.

Was it actually possible that Mina had broken up with Darren? I had assumed that he was going to smooth things over somehow, and convince Mina to continue on with him. A guy like Darren, I didn’t think it would be hard. I bit my lip and replied, “It’s possible.”

Darren turned away and sniveled. Then, without another word, he headed back down stairs. A few minutes later I heard the rumble of his engine and I watched him drive away down the road. It was early morning; prime tour-selling time. Where was he going? I poured myself some tea and changed the music.

When Mina came back upstairs, she walked towards me with sad but determined eyes.

“I told him that he could sleep with me, or he could sleep with other girls,” she said with a shrug, “but he cannot do both.”

I stepped back. I would never forget that moment. I was twenty-two, and I’d never seen anyone do that before. Here was this small woman standing in front of me, her chin slightly raised, her little hat hanging off her head, telling me as if it was the most matter of fact thing in the world to ask for a little honor – from Darren of all people.  It was so fiercely empowering, it changed everything for me in an instant. Being true to herself, she was just so strong. I felt sad for her, but not sorry for her, and there was a difference, I realized.

“Thank you,” I said finally. I’d been holding my breath and finally exhaled.  She looked up at me and I paused again. I wanted to say more, like how I felt vindicated for something I never knew I’d needed, but I just tucked all the information into the back of my head to use at a later time.

“You’ve given us a good excuse to have a drink early,” I said, managing a crooked smile.

“Roight,” she said, shrugging again and then moved with a resignation towards the bar.

“Well,” she said turning, “C’mon then”. She grinned back at me, faintly.

So it must have been hours later, while I was sitting downstairs on the street playing backgammon with some visiting travelers, when Darren rode back up to the travel agency, balancing boxes behind him on his motorcycle and carrying a massive backpack on his back.  With his head down and a strained look on his face, he moved quickly, carrying the boxes in and out and I realized he was moving into the travel agency, permanently. My world was turning upside down, or maybe right side up. He didn’t seem big or cool or anything in that moment, in fact, I don’t think that anyone besides me even noticed him as he brushed himself off before heading into the hostel. I knew the front desk would direct him to Mina, who’d been resting in our room since the end of our shift. Later in the evening, after I finished up at the bar, I headed to bed. When I got there, Mina’s cot was empty. In the morning, I found her on the rooftop, setting up our kitchen and humming to herself.

“Really,” she said, turning to me. “Sleeping under the stars is so beautiful, mate.” She laughed and I laughed with her.

Now, sitting at a tea shop in a small town on the south coast of Turkey, it felt surreal to be sitting in front of her again. That day had given me a reference point to cut through so much bullshit in my own relationships; a way to feel okay when I was being authentic to myself. I’d happily pointed to it as one of my big lessons from my days of traveling. I started to talk about that morning on the roof but she interrupted me before I could say anything.

“She contacted Darren, you know,” she said. I noticed her Kiwi accent so much stronger than back then. “On Facebook,” she continued. “She wants to see him this summer.”

“Who?” I asked, truly puzzled.

“Sima,” Mina replied shortly, and obviously annoyed.

I paused at this. Sima had been such a small part of the story. It was strange to hear her name, and think of her as a real person in the present.

“So I wrote her an email back,” Mina continued. “I told her how we could all meet, and her kids could meet our kids.” She stopped and looked at the sea wall, meters away, and her children playing with each other.

“Do you know what she did?” Mina said turning back at me. “She wrote to Darren and said I shouldn’t be contacting her. That it was none of my business about her, that she had asked him, not me, to meet up,” Mina looked outraged.

“That, canim,” I said, “is strange.”  Not about Sima’s reaction, I thought to myself, but about meeting up again. Why would she want to meet up with Darren after all these years? Especially after that parting.

“She’s a bitch,” Mina said, disdainfully. I looked up. I didn’t think that I’d ever heard Mina swear before. “Other women wouldn’t be this patient if another woman was writing their husbands,” she added, defending her outburst.

“I . . .” I paused. “Then why are you being so polite?” I hadn’t seen Mina in twelve years and it felt strange to be asking such intimate question.

Mina looked at me and frowned miserably. I realized that she was sharing this with me because I was the only other person who knew the story. And suddenly, it wasn’t like some travel story anymore. It had real people involved, and more complicated endings.

“Do you remember,” I started, “how Darren just moved that day?” I had always wrapped this part up in a neat bow, but now it was being unraveled by a frayed edge. “It probably wasn’t nice,” I finished.

She looked at me, with a perturbed look on her face. Either she was annoyed, or she didn’t know what I was talking about. I felt a bit sick at the thought that maybe I’d been remembering everything wrong all these years.

I tried again, “Do you remember that morning-” Thankfully this time, I didn’t have to continue.

“Of course!” she said almost gasping, catching on finally.

I felt myself relax. The recognition felt like talking with the only other astronaut who has been to the moon. I wanted to melt into the details of that morning, relive that moment again with someone who had been there.

“I knew what I had to do,” she added quickly. “Yass and I saw what was happening that summer, and,” she paused, “it wasn’t for us,” she finished.

I nodded, but I felt myself flush before I could say anything else. Hearing Yass’ name had thrown me off. We’d all shared that hostel room together, the three of us, with the orange carpet. Even on the hottest days it remained cool, and Yass and Mina would lie on their beds quietly talking back and forth to each other in their lush Farsi. It surprised me to find out what they had been talking about. While I’d whispered with Dawn and Lori about the challenges posed by the casual sex scene on the street, I’d avoided sharing my concerns with them, because I was embarrassed by my culture. Now, my mind was struggling to put together what Mina had known about, and hadn’t.

“Shityah,” I said, in English-Turkish slang, “It was Darren’s fault,” I pointed out again, resisting the urge to enquire about Yass and how she liked living in Melbourne nowadays.

“I didn’t know about Darren and her,” she insisted, “I didn’t know!”

“It’s okay,” I reassured her. I knew I certainly hadn’t said anything. I felt my face grow red from the thought and took a sip out of my tea in an attempt to cool down.

“I just didn’t want to be like the other girls,” she said, shaking her head at the whole memory of it all. It was a vague statement but I stopped myself from trying to figure out what she meant. Whatever Mina had known or hadn’t, it was clear we’d all been acting on the idea that there would be no consequences for any of our behavior. No one had imagined something like Facebook would ever happen, and I gave a fleeting thought to whether it disrupted or had changed travel from back when we were doing it. My small guilt subsided after that, but Mina still looked trapped in something she couldn’t get out of and suddenly I felt sorry for her.

“But,” I said gently, “you were the other girls.”

The words sounded so strange coming out, it’s like they broke a spell. As a travel writer, all of my friends had become mythical figures in my stories–Mina, my heroine.  But just like that, my story didn’t seem so great anymore. It seemed as small as gossip.

“I never thought of it that way,” she replied, carefully. Neither had I, I thought to myself.

“It must have been hard for her,” I continued, slowly, “and then you know, the wedding, down here.” I looked out at the sparkling water. The air was filled with jasmine, and the sea.

“Oh God,” she put her head in her hands, “Yass says not to worry, but you just never know about these women.” She seemed so flustered compared to my memory of her, I felt frustrated all of a sudden.

“Mina!” I exclaimed, “this is Darren’s fault,” I pointed out for the third time. She seemed so reluctant to confront this that I wondered what it’d been like to have been married to Darren all this time – what he looked like now and if he was still as selfish and irresistible. Then, I wondered if Sima had been wondering about all that as well.

Mina looked up. “He still drives me crazy, I swear Meghan,” she said sighing, “but, I love him,” she added helplessly.

“Oh God, Mina,” I groaned, “only you.”

She looked down, and slowly smoothed out the rumples in her shirt. Despite having two children, she was leaner than she had been years ago, I noticed. She was thinking about something when I saw her faint, grin spread across her face.

“Exactly,” she said to herself. Then she grasped her tea glass in her hand and looked at me with a familiar determination, “only me.”

Other Girls

Closed at Sea

by Michele Christle
On the ship, there were 23 men. I was not one of them. I was one of them. The vessel was a container ship, carrying thousands of tons of cargo across the Pacific Ocean. The ship was 906 feet long. My father was the Chief Mate and I was the only passenger, along for a fancy, exploration, and to behold the environment that shaped my father for the past thirty-odd years as a merchant mariner.

The voyage took 35 days. Crossing the Pacific took 10. We hit Long Beach, Oakland, Busan, South Korea, Yokohama, Japan, Shanghai, China, Yangshan, China, Okinawa, Japan, Busan again and back across the Pacific Ocean. To a veteran sailor, 35 days at sea is nothing—some go out for four or five months at a time. One sailor told me he liked sea voyages, because in contrast to his hectic life on land, every voyage has a foreseeable beginning, middle, and an end.

Two members of the crew were young cadets from an exclusive maritime academy. Most were older, many were veterans, quite a few were alcoholics, some practicing, others dry. Some kept their distance. They were mostly white, North American, self-proclaimed as happily divorced or remarried to women from the Philippines half their age. There was one man from Yemen, one from the Philippines. Former addicts, former convicts, former husbands, former fathers. Current sailors; all other identities could be left behind. These were storied men with jokes and nerve—my only company for the voyage.

My father began shipping out shortly after he married my mother. First, as an Ordinary Seaman and eventually as a Chief Mate. Some merchant mariners choose to live near a port, so that they can keep a close eye on incoming ships and jobs posted at the union halls. My parents chose to live near a lake in New Hampshire. When the money ran out, my father packed his sea bag and headed to the union halls of Boston, Seattle, or Oakland, ready to jump on whatever ship was coming in and never knowing where he would end up next. He went to Nigeria, Brazil, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Liberia, Panama, Kuwait. He took pictures of icebergs and brought home parasols, jewelry, and masks. Every time he went back to sea, he promised my sister and I that one day he would take us with him.

My quarters were on the second-highest floor, hundreds of feet above sea level. Many rows of containers were stacked between the ship’s house and the bow. They rested in towers, high above the deck, secured by hatches and dogs. We carried electronics, medicine, copper pesticides, and ice cream for the American military in Asia.

The days were divided into four-hour chunks. At all times, an officer and an able-bodied seaman stood watch in the wheelhouse, their eyes behind binoculars, fixed on the horizon. My father worked the 4 to 8 watch. During the second half of the later watch, I joined him. The sun was always setting.

What kind of things are you looking for? I asked.

Something wrong. Something strange. Something out of place, they said.

A good day for a sailor is when all systems are functioning normally and there is nothing on the horizon to catch your eye.

My time was loose; I had no duties. I wandered the decks as if I were the ghost of a cruise. It took seven minutes to walk from the bow to the stern. At meals, I ate in the duty mess, where both the officers and the crew could lawfully sit together. With time, I was invited to wash down the deck with the gang. I followed my father deep into the cobwebbed bowels of the ship to monitor a malfunctioning bilge pump. I sat in the hot engine control room with the engineers. The deck department tried to get me to jump rope with them using the mooring lines on the stern. At midnight, I went ashore to Texas Street in Busan, visiting the fondly dubbed “Four Floors of Whores.” I followed the sailors wherever they would go, wherever they would let me be.

All merchant mariners will tell you that things have changed since the industry’s heyday when ships spent weeks in port to allow local dockworkers to manually offload their cargo. There were beaches to roam in Madagascar, girls to meet in Brazil. One sailor told me about making love during a monsoon to a girl he met in Calcutta and the thrill of reuniting with her there a year later. Another bragged about finding his way into bed with the mistress of a cathouse—it was forbidden but she couldn’t resist him. The longer they had to spend in port, the easier it was to develop relationships to the land and people. Merchant mariners often romanticize these days, and along with it, the camaraderie they felt with their fellow sailors.

Coordination and cooperation are still a requisite part of the job. Hands still work together when the mooring lines are being laid out or the anchors are being dropped. The problem, if you would call it that, is that little is done with these bonds when the day is done. On this ship, instead of laughing or nodding about a day of hard work, a night in a storm, the sailors retreated to their rooms, as did I.

One sailor blamed the phenomenon of cocooning—people holing up in their rooms with technology in order to avoid conflict. Nearly every bedroom on the ship has a television. Flat screen televisions still hang in the lounges—the unlicensed workers occasionally hosted Wii-bowling tournaments. The only sailor I saw in the officers’ lounge was T. making popcorn to take back to his room. T. was a mountain of one-sad-turned-mad experiences piled on after another—a trail of wives and vast knowledge of various Asian cuisines remaining from each. The only thing he brings to sea with him these days is a photograph of his daughter. He brought it up on the bridge one day to show me.

She lives with her mother. I don’t see her much but I think we have a good relationship, he said.

She’s beautiful, I said.

She must take after her mother, an eavesdropping sailor said.

T. ignored him.

Did you hear me? I said she must take after her mother. Because she sure doesn’t take after you.

T. returned the photograph to his wallet and slid it into his back pocket. A familiar weight. He withdrew to his room, patting his pocket on his way down the ladder.

The longest time we were in port was about 20 hours. The average was 10—just enough time to get to the closest bar, Internet café, shopping center, or cathouse. There is massive pressure to stay on schedule, keep costs low, and come up under budget. There are mandates regarding how many hours the sailors can work and how many hours of consecutive sleep they should get, but by the end of the voyage, they were overworked and we were all crazy.

They had warned me of the inevitable threat of boredom and the dangers of going mildly or extremely insane. There were stories of hallucinations. Men overboard. Angry crewmembers taking axes to doorways. To combat this, it was understood that you should have some sort of hobby. So they studied real estate and transcendentalism. They read books about the Tuskegee Airmen. They wrote to their wives, lovers, and children. They probably watched a lot of porn.

But around me, the boss’s daughter, we’re keeping it clean, they said. My presence was an interruption to the flow of their conversations. Their sense of propriety was based on a loose interpretation of political correctness and company policy. It did not mean that they wouldn’t use the term “woman” as an insult.

What do you do to stay sane? I asked a man whose walls were plastered with breasts and derrieres.

This, he said, cracking open a can of beer.

Many sailors are loners by nature. Some report that going to sea has made them even more so. The divorce rate among merchant mariners is unbelievably high.

The best relationship I ever had, said one of them, was with a girl whose father was a sailor. She kind of understood.

I have known few other children of sailors. In this rare account of a parallel woman, another sailor’s daughter, what could I learn? What was familiar? The notion of reliable absence. Winters with women. A perennial resignation to the idea that men need to go away so that we could eat and live and have opportunities. The question I had then, as I have now, is how much of these choices are financial and how much is about desire for a life outside and beyond? Or, a desire to flee?

You’ve got to have something to live for at home, the sailors said. If you don’t, that’s when the problems start.

Why do you do it? I asked again and again.

For the money and the time off, they all said.

Why are you here? They asked me.



My prepared response was that it was both for experience and to provide context that would allow me to comprehend the work my father had done to support our family. I wanted to understand the pressures of life onboard a containership and the effects of those pressures on the crew. Beyond that, I wanted to understand how the crew brought their experiences home with them and how those experiences affected each sailor’s relationships and families. I wanted to understand how my father’s protracted absences affected my own potential to love when I never trusted or expected my lovers to stay. I wanted to see if the place to which my father had withdrawn for so many years could offer me any clues to my own solitude.

One sailor told me about sleeping next to a sex worker who reached for him in the night. He woke up to find her pulling his back closer to her while they slept. There was something else there, he said, something that gave him pause. While his confession of relief at this unexpected intimacy did not erase my sense of the potential violence and exploitation of the sex trade industry, it gave me pause as well.

During the last week of the voyage, the ship threw a pizza party, both as a morale booster and to celebrate a voyage without incident. Our ship had pitched and rolled on the edge of a typhoon but we delivered our cargo safely. Several presents were presented to me during the party—a mug and baseball cap sporting the ship’s logo, as well as a certificate of “nautical excellence” that they had all signed.

You are part of the crew now, they told me.

One sailor gave me a handheld mirror with inlaid mother of pearl. He looked like a movie star—a chest of steel and furtive obsidian eyes. He called me the Pacific Princess. He brought his own salad dressing from home and ate his meals in his room. He had done time in prison. Halfway through the trip, he stopped taking his medication and was keeping people awake at night, yelling and thrashing against the bulkhead. When we passed each other in the hallway, he always called me Sunshine. He was the only one who dressed up for the party—his bulging back muscles resting underneath a freshly pressed lavender button-down shirt.

What the fuck are you wearing, man? One sailor yelled. You smell good enough to fuck!

This mirror, you can use it for an SOS signal, he said, if you are ever in an emergency and you need help, you can just flash it up to the sky. If there’s a helicopter. You can make a distress signal.

He grinned at me and I back at him. He equipped me with a tool to use if I am ever in an emergency. To see myself. To flash at the sky.

Closed at Sea


by Seema Reza

Le Chatelier’s Principle: If a chemical system at equilibrium experiences a change in concentration, temperature, volume, or partial pressure, then the equilibrium shifts to counteract the imposed change and a new equilibrium is established. This is optimism: seeing everything, everything wrong. Seeing it all entirely. And then, very carefully, choosing not to see it anymore. Choosing instead to find beauty, to let the worst fade from focus, to shift to accommodate the unavoidable disappointments and changes in order to find balance. It is the way of the natural world. Necessary. Dangerous.

Such optimism is essential to existence in a place as poverty stricken and precariously positioned as Dhaka, Bangladesh. In 1971, East Pakistan divorced West Pakistan in a bloody civil war. East Pakistan ­­­­became Bangladesh. The majority of the country’s economic activity was agricultural then—fishing and farming—businesses and lives were tied to the tempers of the rivers crisscrossing the land on their paths to the Bay of Bengal. The people have tired of this relationship, so they migrate, 400,000 each year, to Dhaka city. Dhaka’s population density is double that of New York City’s—more than 100,000 people occupy every square mile. People live in commercial high-rises and in dingy, one-room apartments above the markets, in gaudily appointed mansions and in small, family-owned buildings three or four stories high. As the concentration of people in the city grows, so does the city’s volume: the fragile tin and bamboo shacks of slums mushroom and expand the borders of the city. Hopeful migrants work in garment factories and as household help in private homes; they pull bicycle rickshaws and beg in the muddy streets.

During the pre-monsoon, from March to August, the heat is dense and vicious, a physical force. The clouds bear down like a blanket still in place after the fever has broken and the city squirms and looks skyward. Children on the street, old men at roadside tobacco shops and women at tea parties anticipate the rain in every conversation. The monsoon invites the rivers, menacing and necessary as dictators, to encroach on the land, which is on average a mere 6-8 meters above sea level. It will turn the city back into a swamp, and thousands of people will die of water-borne illness, pneumonia, or will simply drown. Slum-dwelling families fish up their floating belongings and wait on drier land. Bangladeshi folk songs praise the beauty of the rain and rivers. The monsoon is a monster, but it is also their savior. For in the height of the monsoon, when curtains of rain are parted daily by an hour or two of intense sunshine, rice crops grow at rates of five or six inches a day, remaining just ahead of the furious, rising water.

I met my husband, Karim, here in Dhaka. He was twenty and I was seventeen.  We fell deep into a desperate, salty sort of love. I loved the way he looked at me and the way heads turned for us as a couple. I loved his dimples and his grace, his cool air in dark designer sunglasses. The Dhaka we inhabited was a series of rooftop parties and bottles of vodka bought on the black market for a middle-class man’s monthly wages. We lifted the hems of our pants and stepped over the muck on our way into posh restaurants. When he punched the windshield of his car in anger, I was scared. But through an optimist’s eye his jealousy proved his devotion; his forgiveness was divine. I saw an instant bridge to the future with him, free of our families, free of religion, independent, adult. We were married within a year and had our first child soon after, our second six years later.

Since then, I have been back with one son or both, with and without Karim. But now, for the first time in twelve years, at twenty-nine years old, I make the eight thousand mile journey entirely in my own company. Karim and the kids remain at our home in Maryland. There is no shoulder to rest my head upon, no children to care for. This visit to my family in Dhaka, a family in which I am a child rather than a mother, is intended to give me a break from cooking, cleaning, kids, and a respite from the tedium of my suburban life. The time apart will renew my marriage.

In a pale green journal with handmade paper pages I have written and illustrated a book for the children to read in my absence. The book begins: When I am flying high over the ocean, you will be warm in your beds. Let’s meet in our dreams and have mushroom soup up in the clouds. After ten or eleven pages of meticulous writing, chronicling how we will stay connected in dreams in spite of distance and differing time zones, I run out of time and have to improvise. I put captions on pages and ask them to illustrate, tuck a Starbuck’s gift card between the blank pages in the back.

The night before my flight, as I haphazardly finish the book, I feel an uncontrolled sense of failure—of unpreparedness and guilt. My suitcase lays open, gifts for aunts and cousins still in shopping bags wait to be packed. Karim offers to help. He asks whether the shoes must be packed beside their mates, if tags should be removed from gifts, if I am sure my mother really needs this or that. Irritated, I snap at him once, then twice, and before I know it, it has spun out of control; he has snapped back and we are up all night. I am pulled into his spiral as he dives into one argument after the other: grievances a decade old follow new accusations of wasteful spending and concerns over my immodest wardrobe choices.

At the airport, I hold the children and weep, smell their heads as if they are newborns. Karim spent the day sleeping while I ran all my last minute errands with the boys in tow. He woke two hours before I had to leave to catch my 9 pm flight. He checks my passport and tickets repeatedly. He moves my laptop from one compartment of my carry-on to another, fusses with the zipper on my suitcase—repenting through care for minutiae. When it is time for me to head toward the plane, I dodge his kiss and glide away down the escalator. By the time my plane touches down in London, I am ready to let go of my anger, to steady myself. I send him a text message from Heathrow to tell him I’ve landed and I remind myself of how lucky I am to have him.

* * * * *

The patchwork of green seen from the sky as the plane descends in Dhaka invites hope—perhaps it’s not as bad as I remembered, perhaps in the three years since my last visit, sweeping changes have been made. The view soon gives way to a swarming cityscape dotted with coconut trees and buildings that were once white, but are now streaked with the brown of pollution and the green of humidity-borne mold.

My luggage is slow to arrive and my parents, aunt and cousins have been waiting behind the metal gate outside the arrivals door for more than an hour. Finally one of my cousins pays a security guard five hundred taka to let him in to see what’s keeping me.  By then I am already rolling my parrot-green suitcase toward the door. There are no refunds on bribes.

My cousins make a big show of putting a garland of orange mums around my neck when I finally come out. They congratulate me on having traveled from America and ask me loudly if I need to use the bathroom. People stare, and our scene becomes louder. I assert that I am very busy and in America we all wear diapers to promote productivity. We laugh harder. The three of them were born and brought up in Dhaka, but have spent the better part of the past ten years studying and working in New England, Canada and Singapore. We appreciate the instant audience afforded by a society in which it is not considered impolite to stare.

* * * * *

Homeostasis is the ability of the body or a cell to seek and maintain a condition of equilibrium or stability within its internal environment when dealing with external changes. All horrors can be absorbed. Even the shock of poverty wears off.  Before this happens, every sight feels like a slug to the chest. It takes more than an hour to travel three miles by automobile in the city at some times of day, and through the windows of the car I watch children carrying babies on their hips. Thirty-six percent of the population in Dhaka is under twelve. Kids tap on my window and beg and wave sheets of cheap stickers that I buy. I watch a child of two or three squat and have a bowel movement on the sidewalk. His mother picks up a green foil potato chip bag from the gutter and wipes him with it and then picks up the feces. Everyday, I cry.

At a point in each trip, my heart begins to encase itself in armor: the working children who serve tea and cold drinks in households I visit socially, the mothers begging for rice to feed their babies, the haggard looking men and women breaking bricks by hand in the hot sun become nearly invisible. I realize the magnitude of the problem, recognize my own limitations and then give up, go about my own business. I talk on the phone or read a novel in traffic. I dip an edge of my cotton scarf in perfume and breathe through it when we pass through an especially malodorous part of the city. I adapt.

Soon, I begin to pick out beauty, find reasons to smile. The flowers, sticky fragrant, arranged in baskets to fan like peacock displays in neighborhood shops on nearly every main street. I admire the painted designs on the backs of bicycle rickshaws, the strings of lights spilling over the sides of wedding halls, the colorful bolts of checkered woven and floral printed fabrics stacked in the markets. I make offerings of paper boxes of milk and foil packages of biscuits to children in the street to ease my conscience, and feel good about what I’ve done. This skin of optimism is thin, permeable.  I go shopping with my mother and am suddenly faced with a child of nine or ten, the same age as my older son, pulling antiques from a case and presenting them to me. I smile and ask whether he goes to school.  His smile fades, and I realize I have embarrassed him. My chest constricts.

* * * * *

My mother has the smiling, dimpled, childlike confidence and self-assurance that come from being loved and believing in her beauty. Her only nod to vanity is black hair-dye—and even that she often forgets to do. She has left us behind, reversing her forty-year migration to the United States to retire and return to the city of her childhood. She has traded beloved indulgent weekends with her grandchildren and daily conversations with her daughters for an apartment across the hall from her octogenarian mother and stepfather, who suffers from dementia. In Dhaka, she is ‘grandmother’ to a group of the city’s poorest children. They attend a need-based school, only the least fortunate are accepted. They are mostly fatherless children whose mothers work as washerwomen and prostitutes. In addition to a traditional education, they receive lessons in hygiene. Each child bathes in the morning upon arrival at school. Signs posted around the open courtyard of the one-story building read “Don’t spit” and “Wear shoes” in Bengali and English. With their uniforms they receive a bag of rice, a bag of sugar, and a can of cooking oil for their families each month. My mother adds the fun. She takes them on trips to amusement parks and treats the whole school to ice cream and coke. She kisses and hugs them and remembers their names as well as she can.

She says she loves it here in Dhaka; that she is finally home. In her time in America, she sought out hard to find tropical flavors: squash greens, dried mango, fiery little green chilies. She ate rice everyday. Here in Dhaka, she bakes cupcakes and signs up for an Italian cooking class at the American Embassy Club. She asks me to bring cake mixes and tubs of icing in my suitcase. Now Duncan Hines tastes like home.

She asks about Karim and the children daily. I tell her the highlights: Karim’s promotion, Ali’s wisdom, Omar’s clever mischief. She can sense something is not right, and she is nearly always by my side. She sleeps with an arm over me in the giant bed she brought in a shipping container from America, and wakes me with a cup of tea. She reminds me to call Karim, to email him, wonders how he’ll feel about this or that. I try to respond evenly. But when I come out of the bedroom after a harrowing long-distance telephone conversation with Karim, she sees my face and I tell her, “I don’t think I can do this. He is so unhappy.”

I have spent my time in Dhaka basking in her confidence and regaining my own. I have stopped taking the anti-depressant I begged the psychiatrist for in an effort to save my marriage. I have laughed and been easy to be around. For a brief moment, my mother forgets the professional photograph hung on her wall of Karim and me, posed in an embrace, left hands clasped, the wedding bands we nearly forgot to wear reflecting the studio lights.  She forgets, and she says, “No, no.  You can’t live like this.  You can’t go on this way.”

To her, divorce is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Her own experience as a child of divorce, over half a century ago, still haunts her. It is the reason she is still married to my father. It is the reason she immediately takes back her words.

“Try counseling,” she says.  “Try something.”

* * * * *

Newton’s First Law of Motion: Every body remains in a state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force. There are times when radical change just cannot be avoided. For Bangladesh, that time came in 1970, when unrest over the lack of Bangla representation in the Pakistani government was compounded with fury over the lag in the government response time to the ferocious Bhola Cyclone, which hit in November of that year. Over half a million people were killed, crops were destroyed, and villages were leveled.  Bangladesh went into its fight for liberation wounded. And she paid, with self-destruction and the virtue of her daughters and the lives of her sons. She stood shakily triumphant, blinking in the light—she had never maintained her own economy or governed herself. But she had reclaimed her identity, and had hope for her future.

My grandmother is in love. She is no optimist. To her, nearly everyone is an asshole—just wait and they’ll prove it. But with her husband, she is sweet and trusting.  More so since his dementia has begun to steadily march across their life.  He reaches for her hand and she allows him to take it, embarrassed by the show of affection, but pleased to be one of the few he truly remembers. She has withdrawn. She was never a loud person—her voice trembles and squeaks when pushed to high volume and even her laughter is a nearly silent heaving. She covers her face with the loose end of her sari and shakes, emitting only the high-pitched intake of her breath, as though she might be sobbing—though she would never show sorrow so plainly. When the family gathers and conversation and laughter reach a crescendo of absurdity, each of us talking over the others, she stands up and shuffles away, the black border of her white sari hovering two inches above the ground.

I bring her TED talks to watch. She was a psychology professor at Dhaka University, and I’ve downloaded the lectures of Philip Zimbardo, Michael Sherner, and Dan Gilbert. They speak on the human capacity for evil, strange beliefs, and happiness. Morning after morning she half-watches, folding and unfolding her hands, adjusting the large glasses that magnify her already large eyes, crossing and uncrossing her ankles.

“Hmm.  Very interesting,” she says.

In fact, nothing seems to interest her. We make conversation over tea. She is careful to ask after Karim and the children; I remember to ask after her knees and heart. But the real conversation, when we arrive at it, is both less material and more concrete.  She asks me why I do not believe in God and what I do believe. I tell her I’m okay without knowing, that I can live without heaven if it means I can discard hell. She is religious; she prays regularly, a collection of prayer beads hangs on a hook on her bedroom wall. My step-grandfather is an atheist, but she can no longer ask these questions of him.

As the man my grandmother loves slowly recedes, she has more time to reflect on the man she didn’t love. My biological grandfather was a taboo topic when I was a child, broached only when my mother and her two sisters, one older and one younger, thought all the kids were asleep. In the darkened room we shared on our summer vacations in Dhaka, out of the earshot of my grandmother, they compared memories and updates acquired through the Dhaka grapevine. In the daylight, they pretended to feel no loss, pretended so well, in fact, that many of my cousins can recall the electric shock of the exact moment they found out that our grandfather was not a biological relation.  Even today, in spite of its twelve million people, the Dhaka of the English-speaking upper class is a relatively small town. In the early 1960s, it was smaller, more like an extended family. My grandparents’ divorce and my grandmother’s subsequent remarriage was a big deal. To quash any femme fatale accusations, my grandmother dressed in widow’s white after her divorce. The austerity of her dress and the smooth neatness of her bun are juxtaposed by her partiality to things that sparkle: she wears a diamond ring on every finger, a large round-cut stone perches on her nose, clusters of diamonds drag her earlobes down.

My grandmother does not forgive. People who show her disloyalty are removed from her life. Upon their divorce, she systematically removed her children’s father from every aspect of their lives and her own. At the beginning, she allowed their daughters to spend occasional afternoons with him, but when they returned home, she berated them for accepting the gifts he gave them. She told them that his mistress would be their stepmother and would beat them and torture them.  Soon my mother and her sisters, terrified, refused to visit him. When he remarried, my grandmother returned the jewelry she had received at their wedding by having it delivered in a dramatic display at his wedding reception and stopped speaking of him. Now my grandmother talks about her ex-husband openly and bitterly. She asks, “How many people can say they have been married to a true pervert?  I can!” And we shake with laughter.

In Bangladeshi culture, family ties and lineage are the foundation of one’s identity. While the caste system has no official place in an Islamic society, the successes of ancestors increase social standing and make young men and women more marriageable. Regardless of class, people meeting for the first time will ask one another, where is your home? The question does not refer to one’s current address—that question, where do you stay— is far less telling. Your home is the village that your paternal ancestry can be traced to. The divorce was an amputation for my mother and aunts.

* * * * *

When my three weeks in Dhaka are up, I feel renewed. For a few weeks, I am unflappable, a superwoman. I cook the children’s favorite foods and reorganize the closets. I apply for jobs, plan a future for myself, have nights out with friends.  I tell the psychiatrist to forget the pills. I tell Karim,  “It’s not me.  I’m happy when you’re not around.”

But the inertia returns, a force of its own. “He’s not so bad,” I tell myself. “He never breaks a bone or blacks an eye.” I remind myself that I am difficult to live with, that it’s my fault as much as his. “Nobody’s perfect.”

We struggle along, presenting our offbeat perfection to the outside world as we always have. We play our parts: I am silly, childlike, spoiled; while he’s serious, accomplished, caring. We are beautiful together. We wear hip clothes to Ali’s basketball games in a middle school gymnasium, and sit with Omar between us and cheer. We take the kids to nice restaurants and collect praise about their behavior from the wait-staff and other patrons.  Months pass.

* * * * *

One day my friend accuses Karim of making advances toward her.

When I confront him he denies it, says it was she who made the advances, and he who rebuffed them. I decide that the three of us should have this conversation in one place, together.

We meet in a park on a Sunday afternoon and they each tell their own side of the story, ladies first. When it is his turn, she interrupts his narrative, shouting, “Don’t lie!”

He turns to her, fists balled; features hard and sharp like a wooden mask.  I know this face and quickly stand between them.

“What are you going to do?”  She asks confidently.  “Hit me?”

She is one of my closest friends. But she doesn’t know. The key to equilibrium is absorption. Everything must be dissolved into the solution, stirred and warmed. If you say something aloud, it never goes away. And when Karim reaches his arms around me and pushes her by the neck, the solution becomes over-saturated. It is no longer liquid at all. It is another thing entirely, solid, concentrated. This is the point from which I cannot return, the point at which internal stability can no longer be maintained, and I am forced into motion.