I take scissors
and snip off my fingers
like a little girl
mangling her paper dolls.
And I find
that it satisfies
the tyrant in me.
I pluck off my hair, too,
One by one,
from my head
To test the follicles,
extracting the Hubris,
from their stems.
But new hairs begin to grow,
As soon as they are plucked,
and Hope still bleeds through my fingers.
I cut the blood-flow
with popcorn and Netflix.
But, still, it remains.
Still, it flows,
into the bloodstream.
I wish there was a pill
‘cause that damn infection
just won’t die.
It resists all antibiotics,
every cure-all I’ve ever tried.
I’ll wrench it out of me, yet,
The latest news report,
or my inbox,
full to bursting
with elegant-worded souvenirs
of all my failed poetry.
But, what’s this?
I’ve sent one off, again,
dropped into electronic oblivion.
I push forth
like the damn fool that I am,
like an insect, attracted to light,
Like a sheep
sucking at the teat
Ingesting gulp after gulp
of the gleeful poison.
It shrivels my organs,
plagues me with illness,
but it never quite kills me.
Can’t scratch it,
can’t purge it,
can’t sweat it out.
It seems this pixie-dust
is part of my DNA,
twined through organs,
pulsing through synapses.
Try as I might,
This Hubris – this Hope,
it doesn’t go out.
I’m an aspiring photographer born and raised in San Francisco. I find myself compelled to document the expansive change our City is going through. In the blink of an eye things disappear, and most are worth remembering. My work can be found here https://www.instagram.com/de_murjian/.
Over two-decades of cooking has taught me that a lot can go wrong with simple recipes. Most cookbooks don’t include plans B, C, and Z. Take bread for example. Investment-prone people can convert practically any phase of bread– sums of unintegrated ingredients, doughy masses, steamy loaves, culinary innovations, or spoiled goods – into a feast’s worth of nutrition. But there are limits: ingredients and elements collude against even the most practiced fingers and fervent wishes. What’s left are the burnt or discarded remains of heroic experiments, or what many refer to as “food for thought.”
Thankfully, with enough sense and a trusty guide, you can choose your own bread-venture. Below is a fool-proof recipe for going on and off-script to make it happen:
1. Start by preheating the oven to the degree to which you care about doing this right. Temper your expectations.
2. Combine the starter or yeast, flour, salt, and sugar. Add in water. Work the ingredients until you get dough; knead the dough into a flexible existence. Sneak a piece. If it doesn’t seem right, pray or think your way towards a solution. If your earnest entreaty goes unanswered, think about what you value, act accordingly, and move on.
Author’s note: Nothing is well done at this stage. If something went wrong, it won’t quite surface until later.
3. Find a suitable place to allow the dough’s sugars to mingle with the yeast and excitedly bubble with carbon dioxide. If you’re unsure where that would be, consider where you’d like to be if you were about to process significant growth.
Author’s note: Some dough won’t rise, no matter how well you’ve worked it, how lovingly you laced each bit with top-shelf ingredients or A-grade effort. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been an outstanding citizen, a dedicated partner, or whether you’ve seen a therapist. Some doughs are simply unwilling to proceed as indicated. If you can accept the dough as it is, it’s very possible that you’ll be able to make it into something, even if it’s something other than what you wanted it to be. Crackers, flatbread, or pigeon-pickings are all possible. But they only have a chance to exist if you get out there and start experimenting.
4. You’ll need to score the dough so it can let off steam. The number is not as important as what you learn from making your marks. Observe how exposing what’s within changes everything.
5. If you’ve made it this far, your dough is ready to rise to its full potential. You’ll need to find a solid foundation to set it on–something supportive that can take the heat. Lightly coat whatever that is with a with a layer of cornmeal so the dough doesn’t get stuck. Place the dough where it belongs. Introduce it into the hearth. Wait however long it takes you to lose your immature sourness; if you are not good at waiting, set a timer and do something else, but notice every time you lose your cool. If you are fortunate, you’ll welcome a nicely toned loaf. Ideally, you’ll be impressed by its form, but still easily connect with what’s within. If you’ve strayed from the recipe to this point, good for you.
Author’s note: Some dough will cook just enough to look extremely promising, but when you get inside, you’ll notice the rawness. You may try to put back what’s stuck to you, only to find more of the stuff on your hands than you can handle. You could trash the doughy mess and resent it for stubbornly remaining formless despite all honest-to-god-solid effort. You could take the matter personally. But if you stop here, I assure you that not even an ocean can wash away the residual taste of immaturity.
5. If your bread become stale, all is not lost. Yes, you will feel guilty at this point, which will make it tempting to toss it, conclude that it was never meant to be. You may take this failure personally. If you undermine your creativity, you should. Instead, try adding water and warming the bread up until you can re-establish some balance of crunch and chew. Don’t leave anything off the counter.
Author’s note: The difference between master and amateur chefs is that the former often make use of what others discard. Stale bread is a key ingredient in caramel-laced bread-pudding, savory croutons, and crunchy breadcrumbs on cheesy casseroles.
6. If your loaf grows mold on it, it’s moved on.
After many cycles of making, you’ll become more willing to walk away from the suggested path and embrace a hunch or a fancy. You’ll become better at guessing which mishaps are worth nurturing, transforming, and leaving; you’ll know better than to let that experience stop you from trying something new.
You may think that your willingness to experiment will make you a better person in the long-term. You may be right if you continue to believe this. Whatever you do, don’t take the bread personally – most of what happened was out of your hands.
Oh, and if it wasn’t already clear, more often than not, you’re the bread.
Faith Hanna has a sweet-tooth for a good story which is why she’s been cooking up her own. She’s based in San Francisco and makes money in marketing to support a growing craft-habit. Her most recent triumphs include quitting coffee, making an appearance at her 5-year college reunion, and learning how to weld.
Clara Davis was born in Redondo Beach, California and moved to San Francisco for college. She is in the process of completing her BA in studio art at CCSF and SFSU. She has been shown in multiple local galleries and currently works in a shop fabricating and installing public art.
Regardless of the value I feel in fluidity, often when without direction, I wish I had more form. I imagine I would erect myself and propel towards anything but the washing-away. Do away with the drifting, the push and pull, the blur of environmental embrace. To be a form for form’s sake.
But the form does not propel, it’s a stagnation, and the world moves around its fixed contours. The fluid is undefinable, so it does not appear to exist. Appearing does not equate to existence. Existence, as granted by definition, isn’t of value. To believe this is to grant oneself permission for the desire to disappear.
The form must be activated. It craves reaction, so it attracts. The fluid is the reaction, the endless transition. This transition can go many ways, the sum of which does not equate to its potential.
The question is: how do you cross over into the space of potential? The space I imagine you feel new beginnings, where transitions are not just gradual ends and the loss of momentum. Where the body gives direction, even if it is in all directions, even if it is cyclical—it flows, out.
How do you avoid being tricked into form by the temptation to be definable? Of being defined?
When my fluid is directionless, it desires a container. This is the coffin. But what is a stagnation without form? Nothing. It is neither activated nor activating. It is the absence of potential and so it does not exist.
Can the undefinable lose potential because it has lost direction(s)? It may not flow, but it must be drifting. Cannot be a stagnation, like form. Everything must disappear, but while it exists, it exists, even if it does not appear so.
So there it is, a drifting, with suspended potential, a reaction so slow it does not appear to exist. Maybe this is disappearance. Maybe it is the lull, the culminating, the withholding of energy, the hiding of another reaction. There is no direction, no future, no formula, only potentiality.
Simeon Otyrba is a queer something interested in the destruction of identity and the way writing both creates and negates this potential.
This piece, titled “Cosmic Sands,” is a view into the colors of my mind. My work is an expression of my passions, and through my art I hope to spread both peace and happiness.
Robert’s mother hobbled into the kitchen. When had that started? The lively woman he had known as a child was visibly ravaged by time. Her bottle blonde hair that had once been so full sat deflated in shoulder length curls, her muddy roots bleeding into the fading bronze bleach. Her green eyes had become tiny as her once angular face became lost in a surplus of waxy flesh.
“I’m so happy you were able to make it home for the holiday,” she grunted as she moved. “And Gabe’s turkey was amazing.”
“Me too. It’s been too long,” he said as he locked his phone and tucked it into his back pocket. “Yeah, he’s a great cook.”
A crack of a beer can snapped the silence of his brother’s home. It was so loud in the late evening silence that he half expected to see his mother return shotgunning it.
Robert looked at the gold framed photographs and paintings that adorned the walls of Edward’s living room. He had not anticipated the house to be decorated so meticulously. Washed in hues of blue, grey, and white, accented with flashes of gold here and there and brought together with sharp, clean lines the 1950’s starter home had been successfully upgraded into the modern age. The scent of vanilla and spices perfumed the air from burning candles throughout the space and decorated with all manner of neutrally colored plush couches and cushions.
With a slurp and a sigh of satisfaction, his mother limped back to her stool at the dining table.
“How many of those have you had?” He asked.
“Oh hush!” She waved at him playfully with a chuckle. “This is only my second one. I only brought two with me.”
“You brought them…with you?” His phone vibrated from his back pocket and he ignored the urge to grab it.
“It’s how I relax.”
“I can see that…but you need to be careful.” Another, more agitated alert, buzzed like a mosquito in his ear.
“Oh stop. I’m not gonna drop dead from two beers,” she said with another loud slurp.
He raised his brow at her at that statement. “You know that’s not true,” his leg had begun to bounce rapidly.
“That was my high blood pressure.”
“Which you still have. And that,” he said with a nod at the can as his phone spasmed from his back pocket for a third time, “Isn’t helping.” He could feel that itch to check it rising.
“I know. I know. I know. I’m cutting back though.”
How often she recycled his lines. He wondered if she ever heard herself when she thought back on her conversations at the end of the day.
“I hope so…I just worry. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you, Mom,” the phone had gone silent and with it the urge to check it had begun to abate some.
She put the beer on the dark wood of the table and gave that familiar warm smile he’d grown up seeing.
“Don’t worry about me, honey. I’ll be fine. I’m made of tougher stuff,” she assured.
“We all get old, Mom. You need to take care of yourself. I want mine and Gabe’s kids to know their grandma.”
She grew quiet, the warmth draining from her face revealing the weariness and concern lurking below. “Well,” she gave a smile that was immediately replaced with a contemplative frown. “At the rate you two are moving on that front I’ll be dead either way.”
“I just wish you’d tell me the truth…I live too far to be able to check in on you and I don’t want your health to be like the divorce,” he shifted in his seat. “I just don’t want to be surprised again.”
“Honey, I didn’t want to worry you while you were away at school,” she recited.
“Well now I worry regardless.”
“I’m sorry, honey…”
“I don’t need your apologies, Mom. Did you ever tell Edward and Brian?” he asked sharply.
“Not yet,” she muttered.
“I didn’t want to worry them.”
“You have a heart attack and the only child you tell is the one who can’t look in on you,” he said shaking his head. “And you told me three months after the fact. Jesus…”
For a moment they both sat quiet. Robert’s phone buzzed once again and instinctively he grabbed it from his back pocket to check what had been happening while he was away. A wave of relief washed over him as he checked his notifications.
“Have you talked to your father lately?” She asked as she put the can back down on the table.
“A few weeks ago,” he said absently as his fingers jabbed at the glass, typing a response to a work email.
“How is he?” She sat forward in her seat.
“Let’s not talk about him, not tonight,” Robert locked his phone and placed it under his leg.
“I’m just asking you how he’s doing,” she remarked with a slighted tone.
“He’s fine. I don’t want to get sucked into a conversation about the divorce right now,” he said as his phone buzzed from under his leg. He retrieved it and checked the screen.
“I’m not talking about the divorce. I’m just asking how he’s doing,” she said matter-of-factly and took another drink.
“Why do you care though?” He said as he looked at an image he had posted on an app earlier that day. It had gotten some attention which made him excited.
“I’m nosey. I wanna know everything,” she laughed.
“You need to move on,” he said as he scrolled through news articles now.
“Trust me honey,” she said retrieving the beer, “I’ve moved on.”
“Then why do you wanna know everything he’s doing?” He asked not looking up.
“Because I’m a stalker,” she said playfully.
“You’re somethin’ alright,” he said as he now typed a message to a friend.
“Come on! Tell me, I wanna know,” she pleaded playfully.
Robert’s patience gave out and he closed the phone and shoved it back under his leg.
“He lives a sad, lonely life by himself in a colorless house in Vegas. It’s repressive. I felt the joy leave my body at the door when I saw him in October,” he said coldly.
It was true. The sensation must have been how Dante felt crossing those gates. The house was a ruin of salvaged bits of all the previous homes they had occupied as a family, arranged in all the haphazardness of a denizen of the fifth circle.
Pictures of Robert and his brothers sat arranged on the ground propped against the walls of an empty room. All that had been missing was a few chalk lines, candles and some chicken blood. In the kitchen was the old four-seater table for a family of five with only three chairs now. Bills sat organized neatly in descending columns, waterfalls of cascading stress. The kitchen was equipped with the worst bits of the leftover pots, pans, cutlery and dishware Robert had grown up with. None of it matched. He recalled his confusion at the hundreds of bottle caps his father had thrown into the silverware drawer as if they were shells or colorful glass beads.
His mother’s phone vibrated and she turned to grab it, squinting at the notification that illuminated a wallpaper of Robert and his two younger brothers as toddlers. They stood around Brian, the youngest, who sat in a high chair. Robert and Edward smiling with an uneasiness that couldn’t be attributed to a reluctance to pose.
“That makes me sad…” she paused. “You know he’s on Facebook again, right?”
“No I didn’t. I deleted mine,” he said with a sense of pride. “Why are you even looking him up?”
“Because I wanna see if he’s as miserable as I am,” she laughed forcefully. “He’s back with that crazy woman.”
“He posted a picture of them both on a beach. Did you hear about his last girlfriend?”
“Edward said she wore a bikini to the beach and it was awful!” she exclaimed delightedly.
“Well when I was visiting him, he told me that’s how he judges if a woman is beautiful or not,” Robert scoffed with an eye roll. “She was a pretty lady, a little heavy on the makeup. But he was showing me pictures of her and while he was scrolling through them I saw a few less than wholesome ones.”
“What?!” She stammered.
“No, no. Let’s drop that. I don’t want to remember them.”
His mother picked the can up and took another drink. “He still drinking?” She asked putting it back down.
She scoffed. “He told your siblings he’d stopped.”
“All he told me was cutting back.”
She grew quiet, then shook her head disappointedly.
“Do you know why he married me?”
Robert grabbed his phone in the moment of silence and checked his email.
“I needed dental work done and it was cheaper for me to use his insurance than pay out of pocket. So, that week we go down to city hall and get married…” she paused for a moment as she stared off into the distance then chuckled with a huff. “You know where he took us out to celebrate afterwards?… Pizza Hut…. Fucking Pizza Hut….” her voice cracked and she paused. “He was the love of my life,” her forlorn voice quivered as she wiped at her eyes before taking another drink.
He looked up now only having half heard what she said. “I’m sorry, Mom.”
“You know…as awful as it was with your father sometimes, it wasn’t all bad,” she added with a sniff. “There were some good times.”
“Yeah when he was at work,” Robert shot back.
His mother laughed heartily. “True. But at least we had a house and money. That was the one thing you could always rely on your father for was to have money in the bank.”
“Yeah, because he’d never let us buy the things we needed. He’d just spend it on his car,” Robert looked up at his mother now. “Mom…please don’t try and make him out to just be flawed. He put us through too much.”
“I know…” her voice cracked. “And I blame myself everyday for staying as long as I did.” At this she began to cry once more.
“Don’t,” Robert consoled. “You did what was necessary to survive, Mom. And none of us blame you for it,” his phone buzzed in his hand and he looked down at it.
“But I can’t even help my children now. I live in a trailer park!” she exclaimed through tears. “God…how did I get here?” her voice trailed off.
“By surviving,” Robert said flatly as he responded to the message he had just received.
Robert’s mother looked at her son as he stared down at the glowing screen in his hand, tapping away.
“Anything good?” she asked with a sniff as she nodded to his phone.
“No…” he said slowly. “I’m waiting on a work email.”
“On Thanksgiving weekend?”
“If you’re salary they own you.”
“My depression? It’s alright. Getting off Facebook helped a lot. My anxiety is still…eh,” he shrugged.
“Not like it was though, right?”
“No,” He found himself opening up and closing the same app for the third time now.
“That’s good,” she said with a solemn expression. “I was really-”
“Yeah, therapy has really helped, thank God,” he interjected. “Got me out of that dark place.”
“Good for you honey. I’m so proud of you,” she smiled.
Robert’s leg was bouncing rapidly now.
“I just read an article about phone use. Said that these smart phones are bad for kids. They can get addicted to them, can you believe that? Addicted to your phone?”
“I don’t think you can get addicted to a phone. Social media, sure. It’s designed to be addicting. But a phone is just a tool. Where’d you read this?”
She thought for a moment. “Don’t remember…Probably on Facebook,” she said with a laugh as she took another drink. “It was interesting though.”
“Yeah I’m cutting back. It isn’t good for me.”
“That’s good. You’re right, it isn’t. I wish I could, but I can’t delete Facebook all my relatives are on there,” she sighed. “Maybe someday…” she drifted off as she shook the now empty can.
“Not just, Dad?” Robert asked. “Brian told me you posted on his page the other day.”
“Yeah. Said you called him a piece of shit husband who didn’t even bother to keep in touch with his kids or something.”
She laughed. “I said he changed his number every time one of his kids got ahold of him so they couldn’t keep in touch.”
“Nice,” he said as he scrolled through articles and pictures on his phone.
“It just pissed me off that he posts on there about how great these other women are that he’s dating. Or how he goes camping with these women and their kids or some other shit. He never did anything like that with you guys.”
“Had to save money.” Robert said flatly.
“Family was the only thing your father ever successfully cut back on,” his mother added.
“You gotta just let him go.”
“Then do it.”
“I will,” she shot back a little too quickly.
They sat in silence once more as Robert flipped through his phone and his mother sat at the table beside her empty beer can. She picked up her phone and began to scroll through the various alerts. Just as quickly as she had picked up the device she set it back down.
With some effort she got up from her chair and hobbled back into the kitchen and opened the fridge. There was a loud crack and she returned to the chair.
“I thought you only brought two,” Robert said coldly.
“I forgot I left one here earlier this week,” she dismissed him with a jovial laugh.
Robert shook his head as he tapped a link on his screen.
“I love you,” she said as she took a drink.
Robert let out a laugh at the video that played softly in his hand.
A student at CCSF studying Computer Science, Keith Trottier is a west coast nomad and a lover of Final Fantasy, cheese and his best friend Haley. He currently resides in San Francisco with his fiancé, Mike, and their two cats Ori and Lir.
A huge thank you to Alley Cat books for hosting our Launch Party on May 23! We had a standing-room-only turnout to celebrate the latest issue of Forum and hear from many of the contributors featured in the issue.
Especially when the artists and writers of San Francisco are feeling the pressures and rapid changes of the city, gatherings like ours on Thursday can serve as a revitalization of the creative spirit. The bravery of our readers sharing their stories, and the support of all the attendees, resonated with a sustaining hope. A deep thank you to everyone!
And now for some photographic proof of that “revitalization of the creative spirit.” 😉
Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I just lay down and it goes away.
Unlike most people I know, I hate exercise; it’s exhausting and it’s boring. What’s the point of running nowhere? When I get in a swimming pool to cool off on a hot day, I float on my back watching the cloud formations in the sky until I lose direction. Then, I get out, lay on a chaise lounge, and enjoy a vodka tonic with lime. I just don’t get the point of swimming back and forth in a lane. Since I quit the gym I feel so much better; relaxed, and rested.
I believe in economy of style; I always take the shortest route from here to there. Where is the elevator? Working up a sweat doesn’t feel good to me. I agree with Robert Browning: “less is more.”
Exercise may be good for you; I’m not so sure it’s good for me. The most productive thing I can think of is to lie on my bed and contemplate the ceiling. Living a “healthy” lifestyle adds years to your life, I agree. The quality of life is what is healthy, and what adds years. Lying around reading, eating and drinking, listening to music, seeing a play or a movie, and laughing at the cosmic giggle adds quality. Studies show that laughing reduces stress and adds years. In fact, there are actual “laughing clubs” where people just stand around laughing and building up their 6-pack abs. I fear those same folks also worry too much about what they eat and probably deny themselves biscuits and gravy.
My best friend tells me not to stand in front of the microwave, not to drink anything alcoholic and drive, have water with me at all times and drink plenty of it, not to overspend, get a flu shot, wear sensible shoes, and always look both ways when crossing the street. She loves me.
Like a dutiful citizen, not only did I vote this week (correctly of course), but this morning, I went for my annual flu shot. So, two good-for-me-and-the-world healthy things in one week!
While waiting in the clinic for my turn at not getting the flu, I couldn’t help but notice all these young, pony-tailed, perfect-bodied, flip-flop-wearing, yoga mat-carrying, women. Where did they come from? I guess I need to get out more often, huh pal?
Okay, so healthy food choices: Macrobiotic? Organic? Vegetarian? Vegan? High fat with no simple carbs? No sugar? Balanced diet from the four food groups? Gimme fatty meat, preferably red; plenty of cheese and butter; french bread; and sweet, greasy fried carbohydrates, ice cream, and a Hendricks martini with a twist.
The great philosopher, Redd Foxx, once said, “Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying around in hospitals, dying of nothing.”
This is my first submission to any publication. Audrey Ferber’s class in the OLAD program has changed my life from a political junkie to a creative writer. I am endlessly surprised at what comes out on the page as I discover my own voice.
Yousef is a queer artist who grew up in Iran. After immigrating in his early twenties, CCSF became his home. He found an international community of students, and traveled to different parts of the world. Yousef is a storyteller and his work is inspired by mixing different cultures and traditions.
The following is an interview by Thomas Hesketh, Poetry Editor of Forum, with Athena Kashyap.
What’s it like to be named after a goddess?
Well, the thing is it’s not just any goddess, it’s a Greek goddess. A lot of Indians have the names of goddesses. Growing up in India with the name of a Greek goddess is kind of unique, but I think that my mother liked the name and she also liked to do things that stood out. I have a whole essay devoted to what it was like growing up with a Western goddess’s name.
Can you bring us up to date as to what your present situation is?
I grew up in India and I moved to the U.S. when I was 18 to study. I lived here for twenty years. My husband and I then relocated back to Bangalore. We’d never lived there as adults. We were there for seven years. We thought it was going to be just a year or two, but it ended up to be seven years. Then we came back two years ago and have been here ever since. We moved back into the same house we lived in before. So, it’s all back to square one.
Do you consider yourself bicultural?
Oh, absolutely! I was in India until I was eighteen. I turned eighteen, and a day or two later I left to continue my education here, and I’ve been in the U.S. most of the time since.
How do you begin your poems?
You know, with poetry, I actually work on a computer, but my advice to young poets would be to just find a poet they really like, and study them, and maybe try and write a couple of poems in their style. That would teach you far more than any other thing, to really get inside the head of one poet. They say that really good poets find one poet that they can learn from, and then are able to do their own thing, to have their own voice. So I think finding that one person is a key point and then learning the craft well enough so that you develop your own voice outside of that.
Do you write for a particular audience?
I would like to that I say that I write for a general audience, but I find that when I went back to review my choice of titles, and what I put underneath those titles, and then definitely in my recent book itself, Sita’s Choice, I had to keep in mind that the audience does not have any background in Indian culture. While writing the poems I didn’t do that, so then I had to add in relevant background information.
The Glossary at the end of Sita’s Choice was very helpful when I was reading the poems. As the title suggests, it is evident the collection revolves around Sita, the Indian goddess, and her story. Is this a prominent theme in your writing in general or just true in this collection?
That’s true just in this new collection. My earlier collection, Crossing Black Water, was about borders, and all kinds of borders, actual physical geographical borders, borders of mountains, rivers, political boundaries, such as Pakistan versus India, and also psychological borders between life and death. So, in both these books, I took on a big idea as a theme and linked poems, which is why each of them has taken me so long to complete.
I notice you used the term “linked poems” in both your last response and in your Introduction to Sita’s Choice. Did you decide on a theme for the book and then write the poems or did you write a collection of poems, and then cull those poems to include ones that matched a theme?
That’s a really good question. I think with Crossing Black Water I had a number of poems already and I saw an underlying theme, and that’s when I pushed that situation a little bit more to complete a book. With Sita’s Choice, I had a couple of poems about women. I had about three of four that I had pulled out from my first book before it was published, because I had this idea I would write a separate book about women. The second book took me a little longer. I’m not sure I would do that again, because these books take so long, because you cannot manufacture poem about something on demand. Some are a little more manufactured or constructed that I would ordinarily have liked!
How do you practice your craft as a poet, and what themes interest you?
Well, for me it’s the idea, I get an idea about something, like in my first book, Crossing Dark Waters, I have this poem about the new wilderness, and this is a poem about how we lost the wild. I always write a lot about nature, but we’ve lost the wild in us. There’s no wilderness anymore; the only wilderness there is, is in our minds. Books have taken the place of woods and trees. I’ve had this notion for a long time, and I didn’t take notes on it. I didn’t take anything. I just had it, you know, permeating in my mind, and then finally one day I wrote it. That’s after I had been thinking about it so much. I think that some of my good poems, without question, some of my better ones have been a result of that process.
Another example is that I have a poem about my father’s death when I was nine years old, but that poem came after so many years of letting the emotions sit, and then I wrote it in one sitting. Some of my better poems happen after an idea or emotion has percolated for a while. I find since I just started writing again, my poems are very different than before, and I’m very excited about them because I’m working more with tone. I feel a lot of my older poems are very serious poems and are not very playful. Now, I’m working more with tone and play, but also issues such as, what does it mean to be an ex-pat in India, and then, vice versa, a Westerner really into yoga. These cultural juxtapositions are really interesting to me now, and I feel that I can really play with them.
To the extent that your poems speak broadly about women’s rights and the women’s situation in India, are your observations meant to be limited to India or do they extend worldwide to the status of women?
I’ve taken the example of India, but I think all women can relate to the feeling, maybe the burden, of taking care of the house and children just on her own. Certain gender roles, and violence against women, are universal, which I tackle, and I also think the village-city dynamic that happens, that is very pervasive in India. You can look at it in a universal light. Farms have been becoming non-existent for a while now in the U.S. I think they have been dying out at the rate of several hundred every day since the fifties. They are still a part of life in India, but they are on the verge of contracting. So, I would like to think that my poems are universal to the condition of women.
Who do you claim as an influence in your poetry, starting you to write?
While when growing up, we went to English inspired schools, British inspired schools, so we had a very heavy Shakespeare curriculum, and a lot of the old classics. I particularly liked Shakespeare’s beat, the iambic pentameter. When I first started writing, I would have that beat in my head, and I really liked the poetry we were reading. When studying in the U.S., I liked Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I liked a number of the American poets as well, such as Sylvia Plath, but now my interests are turning to Indian writers who also write in English, and I’ve found that I’m particularly drawn to the ones who are most solidly bilingual. I’m looking to them more for inspiration.
I really like Arun Kolatkar who spoke only Murathi until he was about 15 or 16 years old, and then picked up English on his own. That’s what I mean when I say bilingual. They have a very Indian kind of world view because they’ve spoken their regional language, and then they’ve embraced English.
Your themes have some political connotations to them, don’t they?
Well, it’s political in the sense that everything has become political when it relates to myth and religion and in India. Myth is still religion, so people had fought and killed over Ram’s birthplace, Ram from the Ramayana. They have been trying to prove that his birthplace is actually Ayodha under a Muslim mosque. It has created a lot of unrest and murders.
The poems that I’ve read in Sita’s Choice include settings that are both rural and urban, and women in both contexts.
My Leela poems. She comes from the village and moves to the city. I was looking at the Leela poems and Leela as a modern day Sita because she has connections with the land and I was thinking that about that connection.
I’m entranced by the adoption of the goddess Sita as a pivotal point or point of departure for your poems and I’m interested in whether you wrote poems about life and about women and then adopted Sita as a common unifier or whether it was the reverse?
I had some ideas and Sita seemed to fit into them. I do feel that the idea of going back to the land, which Sita represents, is a universal kind of movement happening right now. We’ve gotten so distant from the land and our food production. I think this idea in the Bay Area is very big, right now, the whole movement of going back to the land, and even in the Obama White House, everybody having a back garden. Consciousness of getting back to the land and being close to the source of our food, was an idea already here, and Sita happened to be this wonderful person in mythology who pulled it together. She was born of the earth. Her mother is Mother Earth, and she goes back to the land. I kind of saw that as a great rallying cry for not only women, but for people, the human race, to go back more to the land as opposed to getting further and further away, the way we eat being distant from the actual way food is produced, so I’ve always been interested in food and how it is produced. I think that some of those ideas were percolating. When I teach a class here at CCSF, in one of my classes here I focus on food, so I always have that at the back of my mind. Sita has brought it together.
In Sita’s Choice, you’ve divided the collection into several different groupings: “Sita’s Septet,” then there’s “Body,” “Seed,” and “Soil.” I think you’ve just spoken to that, but did you write the poems thinking of those topics, or did that arrangement occur to you after you had reviewed the poems that you had written?
Well, I had number of pregnancy poems and then poems about little children, and one thing Sita is really revered for is her being this amazing mother. A lot of Indian Hindu women really look up to her for being an amazing mother, so I had these children poems, a Seed poem, and then I had poems that were more cultural. Actually, the Theyyams poem was a major part of the Soil section; because it is coming back to tradition, part of Soil means coming back to tradition, some aspect of it. And, then I had Body, like the physical manifestation of sexual harassment. It has to do with the physical differences of body and gender. So, I had these, but coming back to your question of whether what preceded what, I think I had the poems and then I tried to write one poem that spelled it out. It was Body, Seed, and Soil. Might have been too deliberate!
You have graced us with allowing us to publish “Theyyams” and you have said that you had intended to include it in Sita’s Choice and you did not. Is there a particular reason for that?
Well with “Theyyams,” I had labored on it, done a lot of work on it, and I was going to have it with my Soil section in Sita’s Choice because it’s coming back to the land, but it’s a very interesting poem in other ways because you have male actors dressing as females and seen as female goddesses. They’re very empowering female goddesses, so much so that, you know, everybody bows down to these goddesses, and like Markkam, who I write about, she was subject to total sexual harassment. In the myth she was accused falsely of adultery, just like with Sita, and then they murdered her, but she came back as a goddess, so I thought these were wonderful poems that would kind of highlight the themes in Sita’s Choice, but I felt the book was just getting very unwieldy. It’s got a number of poems, of pages already, and I didn’t want “Theyyams” to become too lost in it. If I had to do it again, I would have included it, because, as I said, I had put a lot of work into it.
Is there any practice you would advise students to avoid?
Yes, I would tell them not to write when they are not inspired. I’ve written many a bad poem when I’m not inspired (Laughs).
What are your sources of inspiration outside of poetry?
I love history. I was a history major. I read a lot in terms of magazines, now. I always enjoy reading literature, fiction, so I read a lot. I find I actually start writing more poetry when I just do more general writing. So, I think writing begets writing.
What would you recommend to community college students studying if they had an interest becoming a writer in general, perhaps with an emphasis in poetry?
When I think for a poet, a general round education is a really good one, because poetry deals a lot with ideas, and I think having a background in history, taking a number of courses across disciplines, and then also reading the newspaper, getting up to date with current events, and generally broadening the mind. All of this helps in becoming a poet. Reading about science, anything that matters in our world today.
Poets were the original philosophers. Poets deal with really tough questions, with life and death, with science and matter, so depending on what area you focus on, you can get really deep in that. You can take a lot of sociology and anthropology classes to talk about the culture, the clash of culture, but a poem can do that just as effectively.
How do approach organizing your poems for a small collection?
I would suggest there are two ways of doing it. One is to do it in a highly regulated, organized way, the way I organized Sita’s Choice, with Body, Seed, and Soil. It was very systematic. The other way is completely arbitrary; you simply toss up the poems and let the randomness speak for itself.
I’ve organized thematically. I’ve also used what I would consider the stronger poems initially, followed by the . . . you can look at it as a musical score. You want to entice people, initially with some stronger notes, and then you can vary it; you can sometimes ask yourself am I getting too heavy, so then I would intersperse it with lighter poems.
What draws you to the prose poem?
I just find more intense writing that is not really in a more common poetic form, because it’s not condensed enough, but it’s a little more intense than I find myself writing within my prose writing. So I would consider that in a prose poem every line is weighted, and so it is not condensed enough to be a poem. I think a poem is reductionist, in a way. When that doesn’t happen, but the writing is distilled more intensely than regular prose, that’s what falls into a prose poem.
When you edit and revise your poems, do you work with a group of people that you trust?
I have a poetry group that helps. My husband was a big support because he has a really good knowledge of mythology, so he was able to provide some missing information that I needed. My poetry group has been helpful as a first response and it’s helped me a lot to have someone respond to my work, to see how what’s working and what’s not.
Athena Kashyap is the author of Crossing Black Waters (SFA Press, 2012) and Sita’s Choice (SFA Press, 2019), both collections of linked poems exploring borders and women’s issues in India respectively. She was born in India, but currently makes her home in San Francisco, where she teaches English at City College of San Francisco.
Growing up I avoided birthday parties, so I didn’t have to play 7 minutes in heaven with Victor or so I didn’t have to pretend I was excited to kiss Evans during spin the bottle; but mostly so that no one would see my accidental smile when the bottle landed on Michelle, and everyone screamed, “Do it! Do it!” I’d pretend I didn’t want to and play it off as if I was daring, but it was one of the only feelings I was able to recognize as my own. The only feeling that made me feel like being me was okay. That feeling also made me feel like I was turning my back on God, that I traded my faith and sold my soul to his brother.
For a really long time I believed that all the bad things that happened to me were because of the one piece of me I couldn’t deny, and when I’d meet with my the pastor he demanded that I speak the “truth”, rid my insides of my filth, clear my holy spirit from my sins; even though they were just thought and feelings. He was more focused on the perversions of my mind than on the perversions of the men in my life and our secrets. The devil came to collect, often.
I was 15 when my mom first saw me kiss a girl. She watched from her car as the girl, who walked me home, believed it was safe enough to put her lips to mine and there I was…leaning in. I was breathing in full breaths, steadily and my mother was choking on all the moments she thought she failed me.
I was sent to live with her sister in the middle of Bumble Fuck Nowhere, Colorado. Falcon High School was predominantly white, but I found brown bodies that waved me over at lunch. This could be my do-over. This is where I could ask for forgiveness, and mean it. When she asked if I liked girls I stared at her with the face of disgust, the one I learned from my mother. When her white cheeks turned hot pink and her face fell I said “But I’d never tell,” and when she reached for my hand I suddenly wanted to cry and smile at the same exact time.
My mother’s sister helped me get ready for a school dance. She put my hair in curls, dabbed lipstick on my cheeks, and asked if Paul would be there. He sat with me on the bus, and sometimes we played tag on our quads, and I had suddenly realized…he might be there. I gave my aunt a smile while hoping he wouldn’t find me so that I wouldn’t have to hold my breath in lieu of crying when he placed his hands on me.
My safe brown bodies made room for me, and laughed when I wouldn’t take a sip of the vodka they snuck in. They didn’t know that the other me had been getting stoned since she was 12 or that the current me was in the middle of repenting to God.
A hand turned me around by my waist, and my eyes found hers, complimenting her entire being. In my group she was met with dismissal, still she grabbed my arm and pulled me out onto the dance floor, where I was excited to have that moment and I wanted to live in it, but was too scared to even touch her. This time we weren’t underneath the school bleachers, alone. We were in a crowded room and my friends were watching, and Paul…and God. She was brave enough to step closer to me, I could feel her breath and even though our lips never touched, I felt that silent kiss, lingering in the space between us. My body felt like it had been set on fire, and God was watching me throw away all of his good graces to dance with the fucking devil.
I found Paul eating chips and swapped her out for him instead. I let his hands explore places mine hadn’t even deliberately gone before. I let him kiss my neck, and when she stormed off in tears I pretended I didn’t know why; and when Ebony said she thought she was a dyke my only defense was that she wore “skirts” because apparently girls in skirts can’t be gay. When I found her again she was being slammed into a locker, and they were screaming “dyke” into the air like they were performing an exorcism. I could hear the moments their hands made contact with her body, and I could feel the sting of my mother’s discipline. Instead of trying to help her I was frozen with fear and drowning in my shame.
I called my mother’s sister to pick me up early and during the entire ride home… I had hoped the car would crash. And that I would be the one who didn’t survive it. That entire ride home I prayed to God and said that I couldn’t live like this anymore. I couldn’t be two different people in the same body and that I was certain his brother poisoned me, like he did Eve, came to me in the form of freedom and said I could run with it, all while he held onto my lungs.
I called my mother, told her that I was straight again, cried and asked for her forgiveness and promised what I hadn’t even been able to deliver to God. I was almost 16 when I returned home. I was quiet and I didn’t complain anymore when she bought me pink shirts and jean skirts. I hung out with older boys, who were legal enough to buy me Bacardi and who took me in when she put me out.
I was 16 the first time I had slept underneath a slide because “boys will be boys” and I had too many hangovers. I was stoned enough to decide to bargain with God. I promised that I would talk to him every single day, that I would believe in him, but that if he wanted my faith then I needed to trust that as long as I was honest, giving, as long as I was respectful and strong, that as long as I was forgiving…he would not penalize me, for the one thing I just couldn’t “get right”.
I have been queer since.
I have endured the death of my relationships with people who celebrated my existence before I was even born. I have done my walks of shame in the high school hallways and scrubbed the slander off my locker. I have been met with judgement from my own lgbt community and I have had to mold and remold myself. I have remained patient throughout the growth of my society, and I have grown the sharpest backbone, and the thickest skin. In my challenging God, I found safety in my grandmother’s arms, and a shield in the form of a baby sister. I found paper and pen and in my refusal to give up I have experienced a love that swept through me, giving me an infinity of hope; that has proven time and time again that there is always a rebirth.
Sometimes it feels like I’m at war with both God and the Devil because not everything can be accounted for, not every moment is a predestined one, and not every single thing happens for a reason. I know this because sometimes children are born lifeless, and sometimes an entire race has the skin on their back split open, for the vultures. My life happened because I was born. The things that happened, happened because people took advantage of my uncertainty and my trust. Not every struggle comes with a lesson, though I wish they did because it would make it easier to be less angry about them sometimes. Forgiving isn’t up to God, neither is Karma. That’s the Earth’s decision to set the balance between time and chance sometimes. It’s up to me, and how I choose to react and what I choose to forgive.
My queerness is not up for debate these days. My queerness is not a bargaining tool. It is not something that happened to me. It is not something that requires repent. It is not a dysfunction in my brain. It is not boredom. My queerness is filled with an abundance of love that surprises even me sometimes. It is not an afterthought or a decision. It is not dirt on my skin. It is not the determining factor of what happens to my soul when I leave this Earth. It is not a ball and chains at my feet. My queerness has no definitive line, no boundary. It allows me the capacity to pardon my memories, and it gives me the strength to wake up every day and be myself without shame. There is nothing shameful about love. There isn’t anything shameful about being alive and wanting to live.
Christine Alicea Gaan
I’m a queer, Boriqua-Indian from Jersey with a bit of a potty mouth, who believes actions & words should be considered lovers, & in actively standing up when you know something isn’t right. My attitude will never depend on how you treat me but on who I want to be.
This little Hebe flower is one of my favourite San Francisco blossoms. Its a close up shot with a macro lens on my Google pixel.
Josh kept repeating what he could fit in his mind while his mother lay in an assisted living center 450 miles to the south, where hospice care was now assisting her dying.
It was the hospice nurse who called Josh’s home office in San Francisco on a Sunday in January. “I think you should come down here if you want to be with your mother.”
Josh packed for a week, Mom should live at least that long. His wife Sally kissed Josh goodbye after dropping him at the crowded, fog-challenged airport. He hadn’t cried yet, but there he almost did.
The plane descended into the balmy smog-lit winter tropicalia of Long Beach. What a contrast to venerable gray Brooklyn, where Mom had grown up in a noisy expansive rowhouse, with ten siblings and half-siblings who sweltered and shivered together through all those early 20th Century summers and winters. What a change for Mom from the crisp clean coast of Maine, to which she and Dad had escaped sixty years ago to raise Josh and his two brothers. After Dad died and Mom had grown older and lonely, she’d let herself relocate to the Good Samaritan Assisted Living Center in Oceanside, California.
It was an ironic placement for an ethnically Jewish woman who’d learned to label all religion as the opiate of the masses, but she was summoned there by Esther, the youngest of her half-sisters, who’d long ago relocated to Oceanside from Queens with her husband Abe.
Josh picked up an airport rent-a-car, switched on the air conditioning and the Long Beach jazz station, and headed south. The freeway flirted with views of the Pacific, all along the way to San Diego County, where Mom was now at least near another ocean. Josh had grown up loving his seaside strolls with her, on Maine’s Atlantic coast. Unlike the land, and the people who’d built their lives on it, the sea never changed, it was maybe eternal, a place you could always go to, no matter what.
At the end of the 90-minute drive, Josh parked, signed the log at the Good Samaritan, and nodded to the grand piano in the lounge, a gift from a benefactor. Mom had made her own since arriving, offering up impromptu concerts for one and all till as recently as a week ago. Her captive audience would miss her fearless virtuosity.
Walking into Mom’s room, number 146, Josh also entered his memory of the bedroom at 7 Atlantic Avenue, some fifty years earlier. Mom had always seemed regal in that private place back then, particularly in the early morning after Dad had gone off to work at the Laboratory, leaving her undistracted, except by Josh. Was he her favorite son? She’d worn a quilted robe, her already graying hair streaming down her back. She’d always have something to say.
Now she was silent beneath the covers, her head and pillows slightly elevated, her eyes waiting for something to watch. Josh waved to Juanita, the hospice nurse, who was sitting beside the bed, glad for his arrival. He drew close enough to see the sparkle in his mother’s gray eyes, and then leaned in to kiss her brow. She reached up towards him, speaking very softly.
“Hi, Mom. I’ll be here for a few days.”
“Good, darling. Juanita has been keeping me company.”
“I know. I brought you some music.”
Josh pulled a cd album of Schumann’s Papillions from his shoulder bag and put it on Mom’s portable player. He smiled to see her extend her arms along the top of the institutional comforter and begin moving her swollen fingers to the music. She seemed happily both awake and asleep, like the drifting figures in the 19th Century music.
Rachel dozed herself back to livelier times.
Joshie is a toddler sitting beside the piano bench, smiling up at her, listening attentively, but watching his mother too, watching and wanting. Wanting to dream Schumann’s pretty dream with her. Rachel plays back to Brooklyn, where her own mother, Beth, and the mother of her eldest half-siblings, also named Beth, sit in the living room of the rowhouse, as Rachel performs Papillions for them and for several of their many children, several of who are also Rachel’s piano students. Two mothers, living and listening under the same roof.
“Ahhhhh,” the Beths murmur to each other in Yiddish, “Rachela should be playing for big money at Carnegie Hall. She should.”
The evening lingered outside the windows of the Good Samaritan. Inside room 146, not much was said, the lights were switched on, and it came time for dinnertime. Josh bid his mother and Juanita good evening, and drove to his Aunt Esther’s handsome home, in a well-kept development up against the scrub and cacti.
Inside and warmly greeted, avorites, Joshie,” and she helped him settle into the spare room before serving up a delicious supper. Josh put the soundtrack from Kiss Me Kate on his aunt’s cd player. Esther has always loved musicals.
“So how did your mother look to you, Joshala? I’ve been up to see her every day, you know, sometimes twice since she got the congestive heart failure diagnosis, did she look okay to you?” Esther the concerned little sister.
“Well, she didn’t have much to say, but I brought her some music, some of the music she taught me when I was a kid.”
“Good, she would have liked that, it’s important to her that you’re here with her now. Whether or not she shows it. And she never saw enough of you, but even if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to tell you that she wanted to see you more. That’s just the way Rachel is.”
Nephew and aunt went off to bed early, glad to be keeping each other company under the same roof with the same mission, but glad to have some relief from that mission for a few moments.
In Josh’s dream he’s in a house like one of the ones the rich folks owned back on the Island in Maine, right along the Shore Path. Mom is there, but no one else. They wander together, from her regal bedroom to the kitchen where she often overcooked the pot roast to the living room where her Steinway always stood waiting for her. But she doesn’t sit to play there. She stays standing, waiting and wistful. Josh knows it’s his role to make Mommy laugh, no one else is there to. But his efforts are gagged, he only mumbles. Mom isn’t laughing. There isn’t time enough.
Josh pulls himself awake, then wonders if he should have stayed in that dream house with his mother. But there’s a shower and a smiley breakfast of bagels and lox and orange juice with his aunt waiting.
His aunt smiling beside him, Josh drove to Good Samaritan through a sunny suburban Monday morning. Dad would have called this kind of community ‘bourgeois’. Dad had labeled Josh ‘bourgeois’ once, in a stupid argument at the dinner table over how much time his son was putting in on extracurricular activities at the high school, when he should be studying. Josh called himself a liberal, a champion of the rights of women and minorities. While Esther chatted with her bedridden sister in Room 146, Josh followed hospice nurse Juanita down the hall to the cafeteria for coffee.
“It’s good that you have come to her at this time,” Juanita said. “You are so important to your mother.”
“I was surprised she made me her executor,” he said.
“I am not surprised,” Juanita responded, “but that is really not what I mean. She is not talking much now, no, but she has told me about this special thing she feels with her second son, with you, Joshua. Sometimes it sounds like it is a music thing, sometimes it sounds like it is a love thing, I don’t know. But it is there. So, I prayed for Rachel, your mother, last night, Joshua. The doctor has said she will not be with us long. Her heart, it is not reliable any more, it is weak, and it is skipping beats. I prayed for her comfort. And the doctor, he is feeding her morphine through those tubes, to help her breathing. I prayed for you too, Joshua.”
“Muchas gracias, Juanita.”
Back in the room, which the Southern California sunlight was also visiting, Josh put the Bach Two-Part Inventions on the cd player. Rachel’s heart begged to borrow the strength of the beats, and the warmth from her son’s hand, as he sat on the bed beaming at her. All that and the morphine drip lulled her into a dreamy sleep.
It’s a smokey Brooklyn morning, and Rachel is holding hands with Harry, that intense boy with the dark hair from a few blocks away. She’s a normal school student, dancing in the auditorium with him. They’d met at the Young People’s Communist League, where she couldn’t really tell how much Harry might be falling in love with her and how much he might already be in love with Karl Marx. Ha-ha. And he’s so smart, this Harry, he studies science at City College. Science and scientific socialism, Harry tells her, will make the world right. It’s all too exciting. The shouting about the Manifesto and the coming Workers Revolution in America, a cure for cancer, the big band music, it all makes Rachel’s young heart beat better than it ever has. This is the way to go out into the world. They’ll elope, her family doesn’t have to know about it, they don’t much care for Harry. “He’s just too serious,” both Beths say, “and a communist? What are the communists doing with our people back in Russia?” “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rachel responds, tears in her eyes. She’ll get her stuff and sneak away with Harry, when the family isn’t looking. “But what about the piano? What about the lessons I’m giving my little brother? “ “Don’t worry about your brother, Harry replies. He’ll become a bourgeois pharmacist just like his father. He’ll be just fine.”
“Aunt Esther? I think Mom is dreaming.”
“Well, she is starting to smile, Joshala. I’ll bet she’s dreaming about you. So I’ll get a taxi back home, you call me if anything, okay? And you and me, we’ll have dinner, okay?”
“Okay, Mom looks pretty happy right now, it’s probably music in her dreams.”
Rachel dreams an adolescent Josh onto the piano bench beside her, on Atlantic Avenue. “We’ll play through the four-hand transcription of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale.” “But Mom, I’m supposed to be getting with some of the kids from school, we’re putting together a talent show at the Casino.” “Tell them to start without you, Josh. You won’t have your mother forever, but you will have Beethoven forever And you need to practice.” “I can’t tell them something like that.” “Tell them something else then.” “Okay.” “Good, you play the primo part, you’ll be the melody, I’ll be the secondo, supporting you.” “But Mom, you’re so much louder than me.” “I’ll try not to be, and you try too, Josh. Try not to get in the way of all the brooks and rainstorms and rainbows that Beethoven put there, let them shine and be heard. There’s even a dance, your friends should appreciate that.” “Does Dad ever appreciate this kind of stuff, Mom?” “Well, your father is his own man, he does play some clarinet.” “He never was the one who wanted to have kids, was he? It was you, wasn’t it, who wanted us.” “We shouldn’t be talking about that. But I suppose he never really felt he needed children. And me, I knew I did. And I’m not sorry about that. I came from a big family, and I wanted a family of my own.” “I will too, Mom, some day.” And you’ll want to play piano for them, so let’s play right now. For us, for you and me. And for them.”
Rachel woke to the ring of Josh’s cell phone. She felt happy, his hands were beside hers on the covers. His ringtone was the sound of seagulls, it reminded them both of Maine and of the ocean. The call was from Mitchell Bros., one of the mortuaries Josh had contacted on recommendation from Good Samaritan. They did cremations, and that’s what Rachel wanted, just as her husband had. Josh had to drive over now to make the arrangements, maybe he could can get a little lunch along the way.
His mother started to speak, more than she had so far during this visit. Josh thought about calling the place back, and cancelling the appointment. Why make arrangements, why should he be leaving her now, why would she be leaving?
“Go and do what you should do, Joshie. I’m happy that you’re here, you know? How is your wife? How are my grandchildren? Are they making music?”
“They are, Mom, whenever we can get them to stay put. They’ll want to come back down and visit you during school break, they’ll want to hear you playing that grand piano for them again. They don’t get enough classical music in schools these days. And they’re so proud to have a grandmother who’s a virtuoso.”
“I could have been that, Joshala, but I had to support your father, you know. I know. And I had to be a mother.”
“You still are, Mom. And you gave us all a lot of music. I’ll go do this, and we’ll listen to some more of your favorite stuff this afternoon when I get back.”
“Alright, darling. Kiss me. I’ll probably be sleeping.”
Josh waved goodbye to Juanita, who looked like he felt, about to cry, but not yet.
On the way to the mortuary, he picked up a taco to go. It was warm and spicy, but it settled cold into his gut, where it remained as he parked and walked past the stucco columns into Mitchell’s, which looked like some Southern California office of the Department of Death. Josh had no appetite for the magazines in the waiting room, with their glossy posed covers. He was wide awake, but he felt like he was back in his little kid’s dream, abandoned on Main Street, with a long wait and nowhere to go and no why about being there.
At the Good Samaritan, in room 146, Rachel took a sip of orange juice, looked long into Juanita’s teary eyes, and then settled into her pillow. She’d agreed to this whole hospice thing, but she really didn’t understand it, she didn’t want to think about it, or about what the doctors were saying to her about her body. Harry could have figured it all out, he was the scientist. But neither Harry nor Karl Marx would have had much to say about death. Or memories, or music.
“Your son is such a good boy,” Juanita said, even though she knew that Rachel was falling back asleep, and that Josh was in his sixties. “And your son brought you such nice music. I think I will put this one back on the player.
It was Schumann’s Papillions again. Juanita had never heard of it before Josh’s visit, but she was already humming along with its pastel swoopings.
A man in a suit and tie with a preternaturally anesthetizing voice flipped Josh through the pages of a big book with pictures of pseudo-Greek urns and lists of services above four-figure total charges. Mom would never have known what to do with this kind of thing. Dad would have, but of course he would have judged it impossibly ‘bourgeois’. Josh made a choice, signed the papers, wrote a check, and headed back to his rent-a-car, still suspended out of place and time.
Rachel’s voyage in room 146 is serenaded by the gossamer loveliness of Schumann’s pianistic fantasy, written early in his short life, and by old Juanita’s alto hum. Rachel flutters with the butterflies. They fly beyond the science of socialism, beyond the science of medicine, beyond the fond bonds of family, far beyond the gardens of memory, even beyond the primal pulse of the heart which had long ago become hers and hers alone, inside the womb of her mother. This heart, not now needing any body, stills and stops itself after the last of the ageless chords.
When the seagulls rang on his ride back to the Good Samaritan, Josh was afraid he knew what it meant. Juanita told him the news, and after he’d gotten there, she sat with him by the piano in the lounge while his mother’s body was prepared for transport to the mortuary.
“It is often like this,” she told him. “Our loved ones will not go while their loved ones are beside them. They will wait for them to be away, and then they take their own leave.”
“Was she okay?,” Josh sighed.
“I think so. She was listening to your music.”
Josh was almost ready to call Aunt Esther when he saw his mother wheeled motionless to the lobby, awaiting the imminent arrival of the van. That’s when his tears came to him. He wanted to water her face with them, as if that would give life to her, or at least grow something of hers that he could take with him. Juanita was there to warm him with a grandmother’s hug.
Next summer in Maine, there were tears again, this time with a glint of joy and the taste of salt spray, as Josh stood on the granite outcrops flanking his hometown, just where Mom had told him to go, beyond the Shore Path. He opened the urn and tipped it, and as the tide slowly surged, in and out, Mom’s ashes waltzed away in the wind and out across their ocean.
With this semester, Jeff Kaliss has published fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and playscripts in Forum magazine and blogs. Jeff holds an MFA in Creative Writing from SFSU, and is a longtime entertainment journalist and author. He reads at open mics, showcases poetry with jazz, and hosts a CCSF poetry podcast.
I’m Eunbin Lee from South Korea. Studying digital photography at CCSF as an international student. Currently living in Nob Hill in SF, trying to take more photos of my neighborhood and around me.