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Found 11 results

  1. My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. That was the accusation screaming inside my head—like the chorus of a heavy metal song—when the doctor came striding in, asking about tacos. “Chicken or beef?” the nurse added. She was wearing magenta scrubs bright enough to blind someone. Maybe both their vision had been compromised. Could they not see the body right in front of us? “It’s this little game Doctor Mullion likes to play, asking what she should order for lunch,” the nurse explained. “My personal vote is pork.” Little game? My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. After rubbing a spurt of sanitizer onto her hands, the doctor took a few steps closer. “So Molly—it is Molly, right?” I must have nodded. “Molly, you’ll have to forgive my growling stomach. But I heard you might be able to help us figure out what happened to your friend. As far as you know, is this her first benzodiazepine overdose?” “No—no. See…that’s the thing,” I stammered, distracted by the tube protruding from Cate’s mouth. A different doctor had intubated her upon arrival, breezing out the door before I could ask any questions of my own. “This isn’t some sort of drug overdose. I keep telling everyone that, but no one seems to be listening.” I then sucked down a deep breath before repeating everything I’d already told the EMTs: What Instant Ten was. How I’d gotten it. And what I suspected might have gone wrong. “So let me get this straight,” the doctor said, folding her arms across her chest. It was impossible to miss the side glance she and the nurse exchanged—confirmation I was next in line for a drug test. “You think your friend’s overdose isn’t an overdose at all. It’s a side effect from a magical invention called Instant Ten…which you got from a girl named Van?” She didn’t let me answer. “And may I ask…is this so-called Instant Ten something you’ve been using as well?” I admitted that it was. “But obviously, I had no idea it was dangerous.” “Right. But then doesn’t it seem a bit odd you aren’t suffering any sort of life-threatening reaction yourself?” Life-threatening. My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. I shook my head, determined to prove my point. “I know how this all sounds—like an episode straight out of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. And I have no idea why the same thing hasn’t happened to me. But I promise it’s the truth!” I then began rummaging through my purse—a cesspool of toys and used tissues and half-eaten granola bars—insistent on showing them Instant 10. “Just give me a second, and I’ll find it again.” “That really won’t be necessary,” the doctor said, dodging the miniature fire truck I’d accidentally tossed toward her head. “Molly, I’m sure this is all a big shock. However, let me assure you, we see BZD overdoses each and every day, and these are the telltale signs: vomiting, muscle slackness, erratic breathing, pupil dilation, loss of consciousness…” She was ticking symptoms off as casually as a waitress reciting beverage choices but didn’t get the chance to finish. Because the machine hulking in the corner, watching over us like an armed guard, suddenly switched from chirping to red-alert beeping. And as a swarm of nurses came charging in, barking new accusations—Respiratory distress! Plummeting oxygen levels!—Cate’s bed went churning out the door. “Wait—what’s happening? Where are you going?” I tried to keep pace with them in the hallway but was quickly edged to the side by the fluorescent nurse. “They’re moving her to the ICU, which is facing significant capacity constraints. But I promise your friend is in good hands. Let’s get you back to the waiting room, okay?” “But I can’t just leave her. You don’t understand!” And despite my ongoing protests, with a few quick steps, the nurse somehow steered me all the way back to the ER lobby, asking that I take a seat. Instead, I paced alongside the front desk like a caged tiger, my mind jumping from regret to panic to despair—an exercise so exhausting, I eventually collapsed onto one of the blue padded chairs. Head falling into my hands, I allowed my fingernails to dig into the tender flesh where the hair had been ripped from my scalp just minutes before the ambulance came hurtling into my driveway. I wondered if I might go into cardiac arrest. A survival mechanism: my heart’s way of rejecting further trauma. There simply wasn’t a world in which I could handle another loss of this magnitude. Not after what had happened to my mother. My best friend is going to die. And it’s my fault. But wouldn’t Cate herself be the first to say that I needed to stop thinking negative thoughts? Positive visualization! Manifest your thoughts into reality. I closed my eyes, trying to picture her laughing instead of gagging on that tube. I opened my eyes. I’d tried to stop her, hadn’t I? But had I tried hard enough? I whipped my phone from my purse, anxious to see if Van had finally replied to my earlier barrage of messages: 10:04 a.m. Van? R u there? Something’s wrong VERY WRONG I know u said not to share Instant 10 But it was used w/o my permission And now … Something terrible has happened PLEASE CALL ME 10:12 a.m. Van, I’m serious CALL ME NOW OR I’M CALLING 911 10:33 a.m. I am BEGGING u to help me This is a matter of life and death!!! Still nothing in return. Such cruel silence—the opposite of the instant gratification I’d been conditioned to crave by the glowing box held in my hand; a hunk of glass and precious metal that could do anything I told it to. Almost anything. It couldn’t fill Cate’s lungs with air. It couldn’t undo the past. My thumbs had just launched an attack on the screen—violently tapping a new round of messages to Van—when a blur of movement filled my peripheral vision. Looking up, I expected to find the same nurse from before. But there was no magenta. Only gray. Gray blazers. Putty-colored pants. And the blur was actually two people. People who I could tell weren’t hospital staff. Just like the officers who showed up on my doorstep after the episode with my daughter…these people had badges. And when I tried to speak, I swallowed my defense whole. I was trying to help. To make things better. I never meant to hurt anyone.
  2. Raj could hear her husband’s voice through the wall separating their home offices. He was laughing. It didn’t sound like a work call. She moved closer, craning her neck to listen, trying to identify the voice. Alex had the phone on speaker, chatting on the phone with who sounded to be an old colleague and friend. “I miss working together,” a female voice bubbled with a girlish inflection. “All those late-night Thai food runs,” said Alex. “The boba tea!” They laughed at the same time. “You always drank it way too late and then you couldn’t sleep,” he scolded playfully. “It allowed for more coding time!” He chuckled. “Still a gunner.” “Those were the good ole days. Really it hasn’t been the same.” “Well, you’re a hot shot now. And Singapore! Come on! If you asked, I’d follow you…” he teased. They laughed like close friends. They promised to keep in touch. --- By the 2nd COVID autumn, Raj was feeling burnt out. The past two years of the pandemic had afforded her a lot of work as a psychiatrist. Everyone was anxious or depressed or both. She had transitioned easily to video appointments and work from home. Her patients were scared of getting sick, scared of getting others sick, overwhelmed by homeschooling, stressed by working from home, sick of their family, and missing their friends. Any of those things could have applied to her, but she didn’t have time for feelings. The voice of her dad, and the voice of her husband, were in her head. “Stay focused, do your work, make money when you can.” Things that were stressful before, were traumatic. Things that were disasters before, were even more disastrous in the context of shelter in place. They had the newest iteration of the California fire season with wildfires and smoke while homeschooling and working from home. They had civil unrest and a racial reckoning while worrying about a highly contagious virus. She noticed that patients, who she had seen for years, bread and butter stress and anxiety patients, the worried well, were experiencing mood and thought issues that required mood stabilizer and antipsychotic medications to manage. She was hearing more and more stories of drug overdoses and suicides. And the suicides that she was hearing about weren’t the typical pill overdose. A friend in the community stabbed himself to death. People were treating her differently as well. There were two main shifts. First, there were the people who were trying to be woke. A large proportion of the White women she worked with now spent a fair amount of their expensive time with her acknowledging their racial differences, their “privilege,” and wondering if Raj was “okay.” She had gotten reduced to her skin color, and the assumption was that she was less than. It angered Raj that no one in this group even considered the idea that she might be more privileged than them. That she could eat them for breakfast. The second change was the growing number of people whose emails had a tone implying her service person position. “I’m going to need you to send in my prescription today.” She was starting to feel like the colored help. The way people talked about other people in their sessions with her was also becoming less kind and more extractive. “I only date guys who fly private.” The empathy from the first year of the pandemic had more than disappeared. A vision formed of what providing therapy was like for her. Raj laid nude on the coffee table, while patients rifled through her naked body, finding and synthesizing what they need for themselves. Any replenishment Raj may seek is for the purpose of the patients, so that they can always find what they need—a reflection, a counter, some humor, a story, a question. A memory from her history, the love and pain in her heart, the gleam in her eye. Maybe her guts on a platter, maybe some dried menstrual blood, a dripping pussy, a piece of her soul. Sometimes she got something back. Sometimes there was an exchange. But that was never the point. Because it was never for her to grab, touch, or take. In the fall, she started looking at the idea of getting a job outside of medicine. Maybe something analytical, something having to do with numbers. Something clean and orderly. Raj put some feelers out, and it seemed like a possibility. She also looked at the family budget and started talking with Alex about possible timelines to early retirement. Maybe if she could stay focused and bear with it for a few years, she could get to a place where she could just be left alone completely. Really, at this point in her life, she was lost. Psychiatry used to be a profession that fit her perfectly. She had been a natural, probably because she had been her family’s therapist since the day she was born. Supporting and poking holes in her dad’s fragile male ego. Carrying her mom through her depression. And intervening with institutional resources when her sister got suicidal. Psychiatry residency just gave her the vocabulary to explain feelings and phenomenon she knew in her bones. Raj knew that sitting with any person, she would be able to find that person within herself. She always loved stories, and specifically she loved women’s stories. Her psychiatric practice focused on the intersection of hormones and mood as well as on parenting, relationships, and the lives of working women (whether working for pay or not). She cared for about two hundred women, including some transwomen. In her personal life, all her friends were women, and some of her friends had started getting divorced and were on apps like Tinder, Hinge, and even Felds. She started paying closer attention to the patients, especially the late 30’s to early 50’s year old’s, who were dating. Their struggles were difficult for her to relate to. Raj didn’t really know many men. She knew her husband and vaguely the husbands of her friends. She only had about five men in her psychiatric practice. The black box of men was something new to study. She was getting tired of all the female energy. She was tired of all the emotions. She struggled to understand or relate to the pains the women she spoke with were having dating. But the varied sexual experiences piqued her curiosity. She knew of people her age participating in sex parties or hooking up with a stranger and then kicking him out of her bed. And then one afternoon, Alex announced that he had a possible job offer. According to him, he had been kidding around with a female ex-coworker about a promotion she recently received. The next day, she followed up with an email to Alex, cc’ing her hiring manager. The email read, “You were probably joking, but in case you weren’t, we would love to have you.” He showed Raj the email, the only catch being that the job would be in Singapore. Raj jumped on the opportunity. She didn’t need to know any information. They had always wanted to live internationally. She had been working remotely throughout the pandemic anyway and was desperate for a change. She encouraged him to learn more and possibly take the job. After a series of promising phone calls, video meetings, and emails with company leadership, Alex’s priority was making sure that his wife would be comfortable with the move. He wanted her input in the decision. They had always done everything together, made every life decision together. They decided to fly to Singapore to check out the situation. They toured the city, visited some international schools for their daughter, considered the housing options, and wandered around a couple of grocery stores. Sitting on the hotel balcony, they discussed their wants list and under what conditions he would decline the job. “I’m worried about Olivia and I getting lonely and sad.” Raj said. “That seems reasonable. What do you think you need to help that?” “I think we need a house big enough to host friends and family visiting.” “Good idea.” “That means you need to get paid enough for us to be able to afford that. It’s expensive here.” “I feel like I’d rather get paid more heavily with stock than cash.” Alex floated an idea. “I get that, but we need to pay the bills.” “What about Olivia’s schooling?” Alex asked. “We’ll need an international school. One that would be a smooth transition from the US and back to the US if we return.” “Two that we visited seemed good.” “Yep, but they cost.” Raj reminded him. “When you tally up all the additional costs, it’s definitely more expensive than staying home. I’ll write out a list of the additional expenses, so they understand that. What about your patients?” “I've been seeing them over video because of the pandemic, so I can just continue doing what I'm doing.” “Are you going to be okay with me working all the time? The job might involve travel as well.” Alex worried. “I can do it. Olivia is a big girl now. We’ll miss you, but we’ll manage. I’m so proud of you. This is a big deal.” It really had been a joint decision. So, it wasn’t necessarily problematic that Raj was not included in the actual job negotiation, but it was certainly different. It was a new experience for her to sit by the hotel pool alone, waiting for her husband to call her to let her know if they would be completely upending their lives, or not. She thought of her mom, dragged along from city to city, children in tow, for her husband’s career. Her mom was the last thing Raj ever wanted to be. But this was not that. She would still be working full-time. Alex had always wanted her to be a full partner. Raj and her husband were making this decision together. They came back from Singapore energized for their future. Their ten-year-old daughter, Olivia, had spent their time away with friends. She had an extremely close-knit group of friends who she had known since kindergarten. Additionally, Olivia had friends in the area from preschool and still others from the birthing group that Raj had been in when she was pregnant. Anxiously awaiting their return home, their daughter was not happy with news of the move. Not happy was putting it lightly. She was distraught. They worked out a plan so that she could spend most weekends either hosting or attending sleepovers with her closest friends. They also decided to go to Singapore as a family for her one-week February and April school holidays, so she could get a sense of the place. Raj’s mother-in-law, Nadia, was surprisingly cooperative with the idea of moving. Unlike her usual behavior, she didn’t complain, argue, or bargain. Raj figured Nadia had finally recognized that she had limited options and needed their help and housing. --- Raj sat at her desk, laptop open to a Zoom window, talking with Carol, her patient of five months. Carol was married with two high school children. She also had a secret boyfriend of several years. She and her husband hadn’t had sex or any intimacy in years. “Tom has been talking with his therapist about the idea of opening up the marriage since we don’t have sex anyway.” “How do you feel about that?” “I think it’s an interesting idea. And it makes sense. Neither one of us is getting what we want from the other.” “Okay, but you look like you have reservations.” “My only concern is that 93% of couples who open their marriage end up getting divorced.” “You’ve talked about the idea of divorce before.” “Yeah, but I don’t want a divorce. Not right now anyway.” “Well, the thing to know about polyamory is it’s a lot of talking. It’s more talking than sex.” “Really. Why do you say that?” “You have to talk about the boundaries, rules, and expectations. And probably you’ll have to have those discussions multiple times, with maybe multiple people. Everyone has to be clear on everything and each person will have feelings about it. You might not agree on everything off the bat, and you’ll have to come up with compromises. For example, what would be the rules around communication if you kissed, or dated, or slept with someone else? Some couples are don’t ask, don’t tell. Some couples share everything. There are potential upsides and pitfalls to either.” “I see.” Raj waited while Carol’s chewed on her thoughts. “I talked to Steve, my boyfriend, about it. I thought he’d be more excited than he was.” “There’s another person, in addition to your husband, that you would need to communicate with. Do you have a husband and a boyfriend only or are both open relationships and you could date other people also? You’d have figure out the rules with your boyfriend as well.” “Oh boy.” “It gets complicated fast. There are books, which may be worth reading. Mating in Captivity, Polysecure, and The Ethical Slut. Also maybe restarting with your couple’s therapist to hash it out.” “I guess there is a lot to think about and talk about before we decide to do anything.” --- When Raj first met Alex, he was in an open, long-distance relationship with a dental student in New York and hooking up with a local sushi waitress. Granted the open relationship seemed an obvious ploy for a handsome twenty-five-year-old guy to get more action, but he insisted that this was the Russian, if not general European, way. He swore his parents had slept with other people. He wasn’t even sure that his dad was his biological father. Alex had olive skin, thick black hair, and strong angular features. He was in good shape, but not athletic shape, preferring to use his time to read, code, and talk with friends. His father, Misha, was fairer in complexion and a sportsman—hunting, skiing, and enjoying the vigor of jumping into icy cold pools. Alex’s theory was that his mother slept with her professors in the university, and he thought that one of those men may be his father. His parents had a pleasant enough marriage, going on vacations together. Though Alex’s mom would never raise her voice or openly disagree with Misha, Nadia was clearly bored by her husband and resented cooking and cleaning up after him after her long days at work. She often described a man she was in love with, who sounded nothing like Misha. Raj’s parents had a miserable marriage. They hated each other, always yelling at each other or giving each other the silent treatment, but they would never cheat or get divorced. They believed in duty, obligation, monogamy. Despite their traditional, conservative views on marriage, her cultural upbringing was one of distinctly liberal political views—as applied outside the house. She was taught to support cultural diversity, feminism, gay rights, and the lifting of the social classes. But in the house, the family functioned in a traditional and conservative way. Her dad was the sole breadwinner and her mother the housewife, though not an obedient one. Raj’s mom found ways to exert the power she had, through cooking foods she knew her husband hated, maintaining a certain level of chaos in the home, and refusing to accompany him to work events. With time, their disdain for each other only became more obvious and intolerable to those around them. From the time she was born, they wanted her to be different. South Asian people always asked her what her name was short for. “Raj must be your nickname, right.” “No, it’s just Raj.” People joked, “Your parents must have been expecting a boy.” “Not that I know of. They said they wanted me to be king, and nothing less.” Raj would reply. Raj’s mom’s mantra to her was, “Study, get a good job, don’t be like me.” Her dad told her, “Be a feminist. Sign up for AP physics and get an A in the class.” Raj wasn’t allowed to do any chores in the house. Her job was to study and make a better life for herself. She knew what that meant in terms of career and income. She had no alternative models to her parents, as to what a better life looked like in regard to love and marriage. Before Alex, she’d never known anyone who actually lived a lifestyle outside the traditional rules of marriage. Everything coming out of Alex’s mouth regarding open relationships was scandalous. Alex had a way of pushing buttons and taking devil’s advocate type positions on many topics. In fact, everything he was saying about his parents was so out there, that Raj doubted the truth of any of it. As their relationship grew more serious and she met his parents, then in their 60’s, the idea of their promiscuity and Alex being illegitimate became harder for her to wrap her mind around. His parents lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, on a street with a Rolls Royce and a Jaguar that probably belonged to drug dealers. Their home was stuffed to the gills with a combination of Russian memorabilia and Americana tchotchkes, and there was food hidden in all the drawers and cupboards of the kitchen, living room, and bedroom of the apartment. Alex’s mom, Nadia, described herself as a naïve and diligent student, growing up in a religiously Jewish family. She had met Alex’s dad, Misha, at the age of nineteen. Raj tried to show interest in Alex’s parents, but she found being with them taxing. Nadia didn’t help, saying Raj was immature, silly, and naïve and calling Alex a cradle robber, when Raj was only three years younger than him. Raj, though fairly traditional in her personal lifestyle choices, was an open proponent of sex education and sexually supportive communities. She had been the holder of the condoms in her college dorm, counseled students on healthy relationships, did a medical school rotation at Planned Parenthood, and volunteered at a local AIDS hospice. Her plan was to find a career in women’s reproductive health. If any of these topics came up within earshot or Nadia, her mother-in-law made a face of such strong disapproval, shaking her head. “I was good when I was young. I didn’t know any of the things you know about. Girls used to be sweet and about love. My family was so religious. I didn’t even think about sex.” Raj couldn’t square how Nadia could have grown up in a religious Jewish family in Stalinist Russia, especially since Nadia didn’t seem to know any basic Judaism. Raj studied Hebrew, Torah, and Jewish beliefs and practice as part of her conversion. Nadia didn’t know the fundamental rules of Shabbat or kosher. The second was Nadia’s proclamation that she was attracted to a man’s mind. Misha was sweet, funny, sportive, but an intellectual? He fixed washing machines for a living, seemed to be completely incompetent in the house, and endlessly told old stories about playing sports and drinking with buddies. Nevertheless, at some point, Raj started shushing Alex on the topic of his mother’s infidelity, finding it disturbing that he would slander his mom with a charge of adultery. Besides, she didn’t want to encourage that line of thought in her new and developing home and family. Misha died in a nursing home in 2006 of a stroke. Nadia had left him slumped in the hallway of their apartment for the entire day before calling Alex that evening. By the time the paramedics arrived, hours and hours had gone by. Misha was alive but disabled to a level that was unsalvageable. There was no choice, but for him to go to a skilled nursing facility, where he resided for several months before he finally died. In 2007, the genetic mapping company, 23andMe, launched, and Alex was one of the first people to sign up. He was so enthusiastic about it that he got his mother, his cousins, Raj, Raj’s parents, and Raj’s sister to sign up. Everyone was excited to get a deeper knowledge of their heritage and health. Raj discovered that she was exactly what her parents said she was—100% Sri Lankan Tamil. By then, the idea of extramarital sex had become verboten in the house, so the reason for signing up was ostensibly for health and cultural lineage reasons only. It took a few years to get enough people worldwide to submit DNA for family mapping to become a mission the program could assist with anyway. When Ancestry.com and myHeritage launched, Alex signed up for those as well. His enthusiasm spreading to the rest of the family, they all uploaded their DNA information to the two new sites. In 2018, Alex found a genetic match who didn’t fit with any other known relatives on his mother or father’s sides. Alex sent the match an email. “I see that we are related. I don’t know who my father is. I am wondering if you could help me.” Including information about his age, birthplace, mother, and her school and work history. Astoundingly, the response back was, “I think I know who your dad is.” A few days later, they spoke, and Alex had a name, Ilya. Tragically, Ilya died three years prior, alone while on a walk in the woods near his home in Moscow. The body wasn’t found for three days. The Russian national guard had been called to aid in the search. Alex knocked on Nadia bedroom door and sat down on the bed with her, speaking gently in Russian. Raj sat in the dining room, listening in. She had picked up enough Russian over the years to generally follow most conversations. It was a skill that caused Nadia to view her with suspicion. “I found my dad on 23andMe.” “How did you find your dad online?” “I found my biological father, Ilya, he worked with you at the university.” “Your father is Misha.” Nadia’s voice rising. “I had a DNA match with Ilya’s nephew.” Alex’s voice rose to match hers. “I have a photo of your father’s sister as a baby.” She got up from her bed to produce a photo of a baby. “How could I have that if Misha wasn’t your father?” She pushed Alex out of her room, slamming the door. Conversation after conversation, day after day, Alex explained that the DNA didn’t lie. With his first connection to Ilya’s family, he began reaching out to more people with his story. Some of the older adults even remembered Alex’s mother. She had worked in the research lab under Ilya’s supervision. Eventually, Nadia came clean, owning her indiscretion in a small voice. “He loved me. He wanted to leave his wife for me, but I said no. He visited us in the hospital after you were born. The stone statue of the deer is from him. It’s part of a pair. Ilya kept it’s mate in his office.” The statue was in Alex’s office. Raj had always thought it was strange that he kept it there, displaying it prominently. Disney-esque, it didn’t fit Alex’s aesthetic at all. But for some reason, Alex found it comforting, even though he hadn’t known where the statue had come from. Alex held his mom. More than the sexual-liaison—after all, that act did gift her Alex—Raj was bothered by the lying, the hypocrisy, and years in which she had to put up with Nadia’s judgment, criticism, and stonewalling. Even after her confession, coming out of her room to silently hug Raj, Nadia continued to criticize and antagonize Raj. --- It was the afternoon; the soft Bay Area sunlight streaking in through her front windows and dappling along her desk and wall. She had just closed the Zoom window with another young woman who was struggling with her dating life. The woman had had sex with a man she met online, and he wasn’t returning her texts. She felt hurt, used, and rejected, lost in knowing how to proceed in her romantic life. Raj asked her usual set of questions. Did you want to have sex? The woman hadn’t been sure, but she felt she was supposed to. What do you feel is the purpose of sex? To get a guy to date you, the woman had answered. What about your own pleasure? What do you enjoy? She hadn’t thought about that before. Raj gave her patient her talking points. There are only four reasonable reasons to have sex. To make a baby. To emotionally connect with someone you love. To get paid. For your own pleasure. Raj pointed out that the first three reasons being irrelevant in her case, the only reason for her to be having sex was because she wanted to, for her own pleasure. And to be able to do that, she needed to have a deeper sense of her sexuality. The woman had never thought of sex in those terms, and she had never given much thought to her sexuality beyond the trite labels of cisgendered, straight woman. In the ten minutes between patients, there was a knock at the door. “Come in.” Raj called out. Alex opened the door and stepped into the small space that was Raj’s home Zoom office. Raj turned in her chair to face him. Alex hovered in the doorway. “I’ve been thinking. I know you’ve been feeling burnt out with psychiatry.” “God yes!” “And I’m in a better financial position with this new job.” “Yeah, that’s so awesome. I’m really happy for you.” “You’ve done so much for our family.” “Same as you.” “No, you work full time, making the same or more than me most years, you keep track of all of Olivia’s school, friend, and summer camp stuff, you find time to sit with her and process her emotions and relationships. You’re amazing.” “Awww. Alex. I love you.” She jumped up to give him a hug. “I want to be the provider.” “What?” “I want to take on more of the financial responsibility. I want you to be able to step back from your work. Not have to be a psychiatrist if you don’t want to.” “What would I do?” Raj was shocked. “Whatever you want. Just do you.” “I don’t even know what that means.” “You’ll figure it out. I love you.” ---
  3. These first pages are preceded by an introduction which establishes the setting with relevant history. Job one is to orient the reader, as well as well as introduce the protagonist, antagonist, immediate problem, etc. A fumbo has a surface meaning and a hidden one, and it can be used to either avoid or create conflict. It is a puzzle, a metaphor, and the makeshift of an outspoken people during those accidental moments when discretion is suddenly required. It can be a riddle, an insult in disguise, an indirect accusation, and even something someone says without thinking. When should something so frequently silly as a fumbo be taken seriously? Only a few days ago, there was the mentioning, by Busiku, the catechist’s wife, of a goat squeezing through a neighbor’s garden fence. As is the intention of all fumbos, or at least all intended fumbos, it was only after they parted ways that Sophie Tembo began to grasp what it could mean — after a seemingly unrelated chat about their husbands. Only yesterday afternoon, another fumbo was uttered by Emma Tambwa, the village merchant’s second wife, during the village health lesson. As the only ongoing event for every woman in the village of Tumbako, the weekly lessons given by Kaya, the village health worker, were a sort of covert women’s forum. They studied each other’s faces more than the abstract illustrations that Kaya used for visual aids. A tall woman with a sharply upturned lip, shifty black eyes, and a little bulb on her nose, Emma Tambwa raised her hand, and her voice throbbed like a loose piece of rubber: “Do you do eye tests in case a child will need glasses?” Kaya shrugged. “I don’t know if I can get glasses, and, even so, I can’t tell you which ones,” he said. “Maybe I can get an eye chart that will tell me something. Is the child old enough to read letters?” “I just wondered,” Emma throbbed almost innocently. “Just in case the daughter is like the father.” The one person in Tumbako who wore glasses was Sophie’s husband Tolo, the village school director. Only a few hours ago, while she was sleeping, Sophie had a dream about her Grandma Sophie-Aya, for whom she was named. “Wake up,” Grandma Sophie-Aya said. Then she made the sign of the Uke. Grandma hadn’t spoken to Sophie from the dead before, and, after so many years and prayers, she never thought she would. Sophie opened her door and looked, in the growing light, at the village clinic, which was in the next compound. People were already over there, waiting for it to open. She couldn’t tell who they were, at least not yet. With the Sun still low on the horizon, their elongated shadows wagged between the fat mud-brick pillars of the veranda. “Are we going?” her daughter Maria asked behind her. “Yes. Hurry with the basin.” Maria stooped down. With plump red-brown hands and a new copper bracelet on her wrist, Sophie arranged a rolled-up piece of cloth on her daughter’s head. On top of the coiled cloth, she placed a plastic basin piled with laundry. Maria stood up, holding the basin on her head with slim fingers, alertly scanning her short, chubby, baby-faced mother. At ten years old, she was an adept apprentice, a strong girl, straight-backed in a blue cotton dress. If only she wasn’t so shy about everything. On top of the fuzzy cornrows arching front to back over her broad oval head, Sophie hoisted an empty plastic jerry can. The room around them was gray, but it was growing lighter, and almost everything could now be seen. From under the jerry can, she glanced at the picture on the wall, painted on a piece of canvas sack that was stretched over a frame: a mermaid with a snake wrapped around her tail. Her husband Tolo got it in Kitwanga, the market town. She didn’t like the mermaid’s hypnotic eyes, the pinpoints of white light in her pupils. Opening the door, Sophie and Maria stepped off the low, packed-earth foundation of their house into the sunlight, picking their way through the mud and goat shit they’d sweep later, after the ground dried. The morning mist was still on it. They reached the road and scrambled over the glistening ruts, turning their backs to the clinic. Sophie’s foot slid on a patch of clay, the empty container bucking on her head. Clutching the jerry can to her shoulder and the kanga around her hips, she danced to keep her balance, skidded to a stop, and gazed down at a red-grey clod of earth on the big toe in her sandal. She scooped up the chunk of clay and rolled it between her fingers. “Good?” Maria asked. “We’ll come back to it,” Sophie murmured, examining the soft red vein in the road bank. “We’re going somewhere.” “Where?” “Just hurry.” She took Maria’s hand, and they jogged down the firm side of the road. She moved like a chubby piston, and the girl struggled to keep up. The village of Tumbako unfolded alongside them. They jogged past clusters of thatch-roofed buildings: main house, wives’ huts, kitchen hut and latrine. Smoke was rising from kitchen huts where the morning tea was brewing. It was almost the end of the rainy season, and the air was cool, but the light beyond them was growing stronger. A skinny man crouching over a peeling enamel washbowl paused, a piece of green soap bobbing in the water. “What news?” he called. Sophie shook her head, and they kept moving.
  4. Preface The truth of a journey is that the vast and mysterious lands, the terra incognita, you set out to explore, in the end, becomes yourself. Every grain of grief and longing, love, regret, triumph, slips quietly into your suitcase. Harper had learned that at nineteen, a scattered girl full of woebegone and madness who made a pilgrimage to Paris to forget. But there is no escaping yourself. No drug, no distraction, works indefinitely. More than twenty years later, she was in yet another foreign country, and whether she’d gotten there by running toward or away, is debatable. Georgia was supposed to salvage her career and cure her loneliness. Nothing worked out the way she thought it would. A different story unfolded. The whole thing could even be comical, depending on how you told it, and if the story was only about her, which it wasn’t. Harper’s own story would become just one strand in a great tapestry of private chronicles and historical episodes she would spend nine months untangling, then weaving together again, in an attempt to understand some tiny, subtle thing which was the echo of a bigger, profound thing, which she had no idea how to find. Are we mixing metaphors here? Ah well, life is messy. Anyway, this is the thing, this is the beauty part — our stories give shape to our experience, which creates a delicate structure holding the essence of who we are. And sometimes, our stories can only be illuminated and understood, within a larger narrative; the play within the play, as it were. Walk with me; the story begins like this. Chapter 1 Preface Tbilisi September 2018 In those first heady days, roaming through the twisting streets of Tbilisi, Harper Hanigan was brimming with ambition and optimism. She was almost frantic for a fresh start, new surroundings, different air to breathe. It had been a dark, miserable year, and the prospect of returning to Georgia was the pinprick of sunlight which kept her going. Maybe she should have gotten to work directly after arriving, but she didn’t. Leaning out the window of the cable car as it soared above Vake Park, Harper breathed deeply and thought of Gia’s parting words, “Listen girl, when you get back to Tbilisi, relax, you hear me? I’ll deal with professor Blakewell. And by God, hop in bed with that man of yours. Blakewell can wait for the edits. It won’t kill him.” Harper’s furnished flat was in the fashionable Vake district named after the park. It felt indolent and romantic, with meandering tree-lined streets where the sidewalks lifted and cracked, and old, ornate apartment buildings with twisted iron balconies and laundry lines. Weather still warm, Harper slipped on a pale blue sundress and wound her way through vibrant street markets inhaling the colors and smells of harvest season. A tall blond in a sea of delicate, raven-haired women, men on the street noticed her. Though she might not admit it, she enjoyed the attention. At forty-two, Harper was not yet invisible to men, but her presence was fading for them, like an image on an old Polaroid. She passed lanyards of dried fruit and marigolds swinging from faded striped awnings, mud-spattered potatoes tottering in clumsy piles beside apples and walnuts, and mounds of gleaming, ripe tomatoes. Peddlers sliced pomegranates in half to display the ruby seeds inside. Whenever she saw one, open and glistening like a lusty invitation, Harper wondered if O’Keeffe ever painted a pomegranate. Her first trip to Georgia’s intoxicating capital city was on a summer’s research trip in 2017. Harper fell in love with the small, quixotic country, its layered mysteries, the food, and the people. That summer she also met the three remarkable women who now agreed to be unofficial cultural advisors, translators, community liaisons, and all-round champions of Harper’s new research endeavor. It was Friday afternoon, at the end of Harper’s first week back in town, when they arrived at the door of her new apartment for the first project meeting. Magda dropped her backpack on a table near the door and rummaged around for a moment. “Okay, I brought dessert. This is a new, gourmet chocolate bar — it’s supposed to have tiramisu in it, or something,” she rolled her eyes sarcastically. “But tiramisu isn’t Georgian. You know that, right?” Grinning, Magda held up two brightly colored packets stuck together with red tape. “And this, this is kid’s stuff. You know, crap candy. But I love it. Okay, here it is.” She thrust the candy at Harper, “Am I early?” Sebine and Nina arrived moments later carrying a bag of perfectly ripe, golden grapes. Sebine’s brilliant green eyes flashed with excitement, then she smiled shyly. “The vegetable man said these came from Kakheti this morning; they are very fresh. Here,” she said, lifting her hands. The grapes smelled earthy and sweet. They smelled like Indian summer. Nina breezed into the living room, turning slowly, her long black skirt twirling around her ankles. She sighed, “Oh Harper, I loooove your apartment. There’s so much light. Are you unpacked already?” “Yep,” she smiled, pointing to the bookshelf. In her tiny, sunlit kitchen, Harper rinsed the delicate grapes, enjoying their coolness and weight in her hands. On a tin platter, her impromptu charcuterie board, Harper set them beside a fat wedge of smoked sulguni, fresh figs drizzled with honey, sliced apples, a roll of rich salami, salted nuts, and warm shoti, a Georgia style baguette. In the center, curled like rosebuds, were the badrijani nigvzit, purchased from a delicatessen near her flat. Harper smiled, remembering the first time she tasted the heavenly eggplant and walnut rolls, and wondered if it was possible, she’d actually come all the way back to Georgia just for those. “Open the wine someone!” she called from the kitchen. Feeling happier than she had in months, a rush of excitement washed over her as she stepped into the living room with her platter of offerings. On the coffee table, two bottles of Château Mukharani Grappe Noir stood beside an old “Oh, good wine,” Nina purred, pulling a crisp packet of cigarettes from her bag, and settling herself on a pillow. Sebine took off her shoes and pulled a wooden chair near the sofa. Magda scribbled something in the notebook on her lap. Lifting it up she said, “Look guys, I’ve got a new journal so we can keep the notes from our meetings.” Sebine chuckled, “What’s your first note?” “Harper begins meeting with food and wine, like a good Georgian.” The tray still in her hands, Harper paused, smiling at the three women. They were her friends, and she felt so damn lucky.
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  8. Sample of Prose Narrative OPENING SCENE: Introduces protagonist, his personality, and attitude, the setting, and minor characters in his life. The black and white wing-tipped feet of Richie Dodge scuff Arcadia, California sidewalks. He trudges from one curb cut to the next, though careful not to scuff anything above the soles. Faces peer out at him from a shop window, not because of his hipster persona, when hipsters are sort of called hepsters some thirty years after beatniks had their run, but because their images hang captive from posters among three walls. Richie answers their stares with a running critique. Ace of Base—they’ll never be the next ABBA—and The Spin Doctors—who thinks an audience actually wants to hear a thirty-minute jam—and some grunge band—who sacrifices originality for its art; looking and sounding like any other grunge band. His reflection in the glass opposite Soul Asylum prompts a shrug. His tie, hand-painted vintage flash with a flamingo perched on bent leg in blue and orange pastel, hangs sloppily from an unbuttoned collar and dangles over pressed linen trousers below his belt, a pet peeve almost as bad as when the tie sticks out from beneath his collar behind his neck. He runs a hand through his product-styled hair and pulls it straight over his head. When it settles, he’s created a piled-high pompadour, fitting for the anachronistic life he lives. Pressed against the window of the shop, now closed, he cranes for the bins of used records, older vinyl, from the ’70s, then the ’60s. Accepting skips and scratches as part of the act, he copies them to cassettes to save wear and tear. He’s yet to pick up a CD, untrusting of the latest tech fad, though they’ve been around few years. If I invest in those, they’ll change in a couple of years to little tiny things the size of a quarter, he argues with skeptics. It’s not real music anyway. Some digital code standing in for analogue. His eyes widen with Lulu’s Something to Shout About LP leading the row and hopes they have a few Petula Clarks he doesn’t own yet. He’s got twelve already. Looking to the folds of his wallet, there’s stitched leather and a lining of some fabric but no cash. His wages go to vinyl. It being Thursday, he’ll pick up his paycheck, in person, on Friday and come back for Lulu on Saturday after cashing it … in person … with a bank teller. The 21st century looms, and Y2K scares surface among the population, but he pays no heed. He doesn’t even own an ATM card. The pocket planner he retrieves from a trouser pocket, the one opposite his wallet, summarizes his latest downfall. Lauren, 7 pm proves the evening didn’t disappear. Her name’s there, in the May 7 block with an arrow extending three weeks to present day, May 27. He scrawls an X through the 27th, across the entry, Lauren 8:30 pm. Richie flips the pages back to April and studies the 14th day hoping he’s somehow lost track of the years. But it’s still 1993 and his birthday on the 14th still marks his 29th year, the last throes of twentydom. He curls his lip, like Elvis, and tucks his tie into his shirt, like a military man would. His wingtips lumber up a flight of stairs while he fumbles for keys and taps a shoulder on the door that tends to stick. At the open refrigerator, Richie’s roommate for the past year, Drip, stoops and rubs his arms for the cold, wearing just boxer shorts and a white v-neck t-shirt, the Drip Cosgrove walkabout T, Richie calls, Drip’s choice attire around the place. Drip turns with the scuff of Richie’s feet over the black-and-white checkerboard tile. “Du—e!” Drip says, somehow never able to finish the full word “dude.” “You’re home early.” Drip fidgets as though he’s been caught pilfering import CDs at the swap meet, fumbling a cup of yogurt. “No, Drip,” Richie says, “right on schedule. As usual.” Drip’s girlfriend, with her kinda short hair for a cute girl, Richie had once confided in Drip, stands behind the open refrigerator door, bare feet on the tiles. Her face peeks from around the side. “Hi Nancy,” he greets her with a comic-book sigh. “No way, Du—e,” Drip says. “Dumped again already?” “Of course,” Richie says, “It’s been three weeks.” “Wasn’t the one before that—?” “Three weeks, tambien, Drip.” “And you been going with this Laurie chick how long?” “Lauren,” Richie corrects. “She was sickeningly adamant about getting it just so when I met her at the mall. I was looking for that Felix the Cat watch.” “Yeah? What else? Details!” “His arms are the clock hands.” Richie sticks his arms out to demonstrate, one at his side, one straight over his head, three o’clock. “That’s how he tells the time.” “No, Du—e. Details about Laur-ie—en.” “Not much else to say but yes, three weeks it has been.” “She didn’t even have the courtesy to throw off the average,” Nancy says, still tucked behind the refrigerator. Drip nods and grins dimwittedly. “Sorry, Richie,” Nancy says. “Are you, like, okay, Du—e? Drip asks. “I feel kinda sick,” Richie says. “I’ll be in my room. Where’s the newspaper?” “The personal ads?” Nancy asks. “The want ads,” Richie replies. “Go on-line,” Nancy says. “They’ve got updated jobs and even personal—” “I like the print media,” Richie says. “Rough day,” Drip says. “You get fired again too?” “Uh …” Richie says, thinking a moment, “no.” “Did you quit again?” Nancy asks. “No, not yet,” Richie says. “You gotta find a happy zone, Du—e.” “I’m looking,” Richie says. “I’m trying. “Seek and he will find,” Drip pronounces. “Ye. Shall,” Richie corrects. “Right!” Drip punctuates by pointing index fingers from each hand at Richie. “That’s the right—” The refrigerator door escaping his grasp cuts him short. Richie meets Nancy’s eyes. She drops a cup of yogurt, splattering Greek-style over her toes. Richie’s eyes wander from the spill to her waistline. “You surprised us,” she says, “you got home early.” “Yeah, Du—e,” Drip says, “you, umm, did.” “Huh, what?” Richie asks, unable to hear over Nancy’s pink and orange polka dotted panties. It must be the case she’s wearing nothing else. She crosses her arms over her breasts. “Dots,” Richie says in a state of mesmerism. Drip covers her panties with a folded newspaper. “Oh,” Drip says. The top half of the newspaper unfolds and opens to full size. “You need the paper, don’t you? Seems like we got us a Mexican stand-off.” “Sorry,” Richie says. “I didn’t mean to see your dots—” Nancy looks down at her arms covering her breasts. “No I mean—” he tries to explain, gesturing to her undergarment pattern. He turns his back. Drip rolls the newspaper into tube and hands it to Richie, who takes the paper without looking backward. He’s off like the anchor in a relay race. # After two weeks washout from the Lauren event, drip asks, “When’s your last day here?” “Two more days out West, then off to New Hampshire. “You don’t have to move to Canada just cuz of her.” “I think the U.S. annexed New Hampshire last year.” “Why New Hampshire?” “I was planning to move anyway, eventually, somewhere. It’s a long story.” Richie draws a breath and says, “I’m from New Hampshire.” “Yeah, that took a long time.” “That’s the abridged version. See, I grew up in New Hampshire, but after college, I got bored, so I took a job in New York.” “Cool! What was the job?” “Collections at a rental agency. What’s not to hate? I used to sit around Saturday nights depressed, because I knew I had to go to work on Monday morning. Still, I figured I was in like Flynn when my next job was at a radio station in Ohio,” Richie says. “But too much news and talk—” “Not good for a du—e musically inspired” That was my reasoning when I came up with these creative on-air lead-ins when no one was looking.” “Recite.” “Little think pieces I forgot as soon as they aired. One was during a local election, and I say, ‘Everybody talks about politics, but no one’s talking about poli-fleas.’” “Nice.” “I used to think writing a book meant writing in a book. Until a librarian yelled at me for it.” “Wow.” “And the guy who founded the station got a posthumous award from some civic group. I mentioned to our listeners posthumous awards must not be that prestigious, because I’ve never seen the winner show up to accept it.” Drip ponders a moment. “I think that was the one that did it. I was fired more than ever. And I’ve been fired a lot time.” “I know. I read the sacred scrolls. But how’d you end up here?” “In subsequent chapters, I fled west and continued fleeing, job after job, until I ran out of country. That brought me out here to California, to strike it rich. Having not done that, I can’t afford to go to Hawaii, so I’m on my way back East.” “My usual plan is to quit my job without any prospects of getting a new one.” “It’s good you got a plan. “Different strategy this time. I got a job lined up. Working for that political group I told you about. A friend of mine got me in. Deidre. I think I’ll like it, government work. Excellent gold-brick potential.” “Does she know about your ambition, lack thereof?” “She’s always helped me out, ever since junior high. If missed a class, or several, she got me the notes—” “Whoa, unrighteous. You shouldn’t hose your friends.” “It wasn’t like that. Not really. And if people wanna do stuff for me, who am I to deny them?” Richie says. “It would be rude. Besides, they won’t trace me back to her. It’s government work; I’ll get lost in the morass. Or I’ll join a union.” “What do you know about government stuff?” “Haven’t I just stressed my skill in subterfuge?” “I dig onomatopoeia.” “And apparently alliteration.” “You did it again, Du—e!” “As for the job, with the right amount of diplomacy, I can talk my way into and out of almost anything.” “What if you can’t?” “It’ll mess with the time-space continuum. You see, that day has yet to come.”
  9. Author Norah Vawter Title ANNA’S ENDLESSLY COLLAPSING STAR Genre Upmarket Women’s Fiction Comps The Queen’s Gambit meets astronomy. Complete at 80,000 words, ANNA’S ENDLESSLY COLLAPSING STAR is upmarket women’s fiction in the tradition of Little Fires Everywhere and Val Brelinsky’s The Girl Who Slept with God. Hook Line Anna thought this remote observatory in the Chilean desert was her escape, but it's actually her prison: to be free, she’s got to go home, stop pretending away her traumatic childhood, and stop hating her mom for saving her life. Pitch An astronomer in a remote observatory in the Chilean desert, Anna Rose Watson is on the verge of achieving her wildest dreams. But she’s spent her life running from her past. She’s an emotional ticking time bomb. And all the pain she’s repressed is about to catch up to her. When she was a child in New Orleans, Anna and her mother were shot. Her mom saved Anna’s life but ended up in a wheelchair—growing depressed and manipulative, living vicariously through Anna. Unable to cope with the pressure—and terrified she wasn’t worth her mom’s sacrifice—Anna ran out on her whole life, even her childhood love Willie. Now 4,561 miles from home, Anna peers into the distant past, studying ancient stars and working alongside a small, tight-knit group of scientists who live in close quarters. Her biggest problem: she’s dating her research partner, he likes her, and he wants to know the real Anna. But his questions make her feel like a freak. Like someone who doesn’t belong. When Anna discovers a 13 billion year-old supernova, it should be the best day of her life. But news of a mass shooting triggers painful memories—her past crashing into her present, just like her endlessly collapsing star, the supernova. Anna causes a public scene and starts missing work. Instead of seizing her big career opportunity, Anna’s spiraling out of control. Chile was supposed to be her escape, but it’s actually her prison. If Anna’s ever going to fulfill her scientific dreams, or feel like she belongs in the normal world, she has to stop running. It’s time to go home, stop hating her mom for saving her life and hating herself for living, and explore what might have been with Willie—so she can finally live in the present. Sample Joaquin let his long leg brush up against mine, as he always did when we sat close in the observatory during our long shifts. My research partner was tall and skinny, like a gawky teenager. We were manning one of our center’s four giant telescopes: tonight we peered into the distant reaches of Bode’s Galaxy. Studying objects so far away—we were actually looking back in time, into the distant past. After two years in Chile, living in this remote research center in the Atacama Desert, I finally felt cut off from everything that came before. Separated from my family and my past. Most of all, I was free of my mother. I’d whittled my life down to the stars. Of course, Joaquin broke the precious silence. He was incapable of stillness or self-control. “I read your paper,” he said. “Neutron stars?” He nodded, smiling that cocky grin. My handsome Joaquin: sharp and angular in a classically good-looking sort of way. Too good-looking for me to match him. His only flaw was his large nose, but it wasn’t much of a flaw. His interest was flattering, even sweet. But far too quickly he pivoted the conversation to his Christmas plans, and even more quickly to his confusion about my lack of plans. “You’re really staying here?” he asked. “But Lisi told me it will be empty, that everyone goes home—” “There’s always a few of us,” I said, running my hand through my short black hair, which was cropped in the same pixie cut I’d worn for over a decade. “You stayed in this place last year?” I nodded, not mentioning that I’d stayed at Paranal for every holiday since I arrived here. “But wouldn’t you rather go home?” Joaquin turned towards me. Somehow I’d piqued his interest and given him a reprieve from the boredom of telescope duty. “Where are you from again?” We’d been sleeping together for a couple months, since shortly after Joaquin transferred to Cerro Paranal. But I never talked about my past. To anybody. “I live here.” “But where is your home?” Joaquin was just making small talk. But I wanted to kick him in the shin. Sure, other people had casual chit chat about their hometowns, and funny stories about their childhoods. Other people might want to reminisce about their slacker friends in Santiago, who they were going to see over Christmas and who were making a “tall bike” for some reason I still didn’t understand. But my family, well, it wasn’t a family so much as an excuse to get cut by old chunks of glass, again and again, until there was nothing left of you. I refocused my attention on the monitors, wishing for work to distract both of us from Joaquin’s banter and his irritating, if possibly well-meaning curiosity. But nothing particularly interesting was going on in the sky tonight. Then—suddenly—something happened. It came out of nowhere. Like a hand reaching for us. A massive gamma ray burst appeared on one screen. Bio This novel has been longlisted for the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, and an excerpt was shortlisted for the RopeWalk Press Chapbook Prize (but not published in either case). I’ve published essays about my personal experience surviving gun violence and childhood trauma in The Washington Post and Memoir Magazine, as well as fiction in the Washington Writers Publishing House’s anthology This is What America Looks Like, The Nassau Review and Agave Magazine, among others. I have an M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University. I’m a freelance writer and the Local Authors Editor of online magazine DCTrending.com. I live with my husband and son in the D.C. suburbs, where I’m working on my next novel. www.norahvawter.com
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