The Jacket

Sasha LaPointe

an excerpt from her memoir, Little Boats

Six years after my name was gifted to me, my parents moved us to the Swinomish Reservation. There was tribal land in the family and my parents saw an opportunity for an easier life. I saw a dark forest and a lack of ocean. I thought I’d be close to mermaids if I could be close to the water. As a young girl, I wanted the world of mermaids to be real. I learned to hold my breath underwater at the community pool, unafraid. This was especially difficult because I am an asthmatic; breath has always been a powerful and terrifying thing to me. The idea of drowning without water, of choking on nothing, of suffocating simply because your body forgets a basic function, has haunted my nightmares since childhood. I have always wanted gills.

Mermaids, according to Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney, have always wanted something. They want it so desperately they will sacrifice anything to get it. Most often the thing is escape. They want legs. They want the ability to leave. They want a prince. They want anything other than what they’ve got.

My first day of school after moving to the reservation, I stepped out into the dim, blue light of morning. It felt like something was wrong with my legs. I was nine years old and this was my first time boarding the bus that would take me to La Conner Elementary School. The move from city to woodland was frightening for various reasons. Mermaids—those half-women, half-fish—represent the ultimate half-breed, an obvious kind of duality. A neighbor would never swim up, poke Ariel in the chest while eyeing the scales of her fin, and say, “Hmm, you don’t look part fish.”

There was no tribal school to attend on the Swinomish reservation; instead all the kids were shuttled across the channel to La Conner to attend the mostly white school. Here was a pool of strictly fish and strictly non-fish, corralled together, and here I was, a pale person in a hand-me-down pink windbreaker. In my shabby floral print leggings, oversized denim button-down, and K-Mart brand sneakers, I inched out. I looked back at our trailer, at my new home as it stood against the trees. My parents’ bedroom light glowed orange in the dark. I wanted to turn back. I studied my outfit as I crunched the gravel of our driveway beneath my sneakers. The only new things were the cheap magenta knockoff Keds and the plastic barrette in the tangled mess of my brown curls. I inhaled shakily, my chest sputtering, and then exhaled. The doctors at the tribal clinic would later inform my parents of my asthma, but this morning the stifled breathing was still a mystery.

The yellow school bus streaked through the cedar trees. I swallowed air and quickened my pace. Climbing up the big steps, I moved past the bus driver with her sunken face and stared out at the columns of strangers. Fingers of panic closed around my throat and I reminded myself to breathe.

I saw Starters jackets with shiny zippers cutting through the brightly colored sports logos. I saw jerseys on the kids from the rez, Polo shirts and name brands on the kids from La Conner. I looked down again at my collage of hand-me-downs. I shuffled to a seat and stared out at the wall of trees zooming by. Groups of kids huddled together, laughing at jokes I didn’t understand. Whispering and sniggering came from faces, brown and white and all unfamiliar. The only other native kids I had ever been around were relatives. The only white kids I had been around were my peers at the inner city elementary school I attended before my parents decided to move us here.

“They’re just curious about you,” my mom would say each afternoon when I’d return home, complaining that no one had talked to me again. “They’ll come around.” I told myself she was right. I was new and from the city, and I let this strange confidence root itself in me.

One afternoon, a girl in the third grade finally approached me. Her name was Anna and she lived three stops ahead of mine on Indian Road. She usually sat in front of me on the afternoon bus rides home. I watched her golden head rest against the vinyl seat. It bobbed and bounced when she laughed with the gaggle of girls that surrounded her, and when she’d flip her blonde locks over her shoulder I smelled strawberries and sugar, a cloying aroma that seemed to belong in shampoo commercials on television. She beamed around to face me unexpectedly one afternoon.

“Hi!” she said brightly. “You’re in Mrs. Middleton’s class with me, right?”

I nodded, a feral instinct tugging me further back into my seat. Unabashed, Anna launched into a barrage of questions. She wanted to know what Seattle was like. She was confused when I shrugged at her question, “But you’re a white girl, right?”

“No. I mean, yes. But I’m also Indian,” I began, but she laughed and cut me off.

“So,” she smiled, “you’re only part Indian?”

Part Indian. Like only half of me was bad. I shivered a little. Anna glowed with a kind of cleanliness I would never know, not even on the mornings after my family’s weekly trips to Thousand Trails Campground. In those days, we didn’t have running water on the property. The nights my brothers and sister and I enjoyed the luxury of hot water, shampoo, and soap always felt decadent. I’d go to bed those nights huffing my perfumed hair, feeling clean and proud, but there wasn’t enough berry scented Herbal Essences shampoo in the universe to make me as squeaky clean as Anna.

Before her stop came up, Anna smiled, showing teeth. “You know, that first day you got on the bus, I kind of just thought you were some ugly girl. But you’re nice.” She flipped her hair, perfume strawberries splashed me in the face, and I watched her glide off the bus.

I decided to invest some time and energy into my appearance. Climbing up on the toilet to reach into my mom’s makeup bag on the shelf was the first step. I wanted to transform, but I thought I’d better practice first. One Saturday morning, I spent the better part of an hour tugging my hair back into a scrunchy and applying my mom’s makeup to my face. I wanted to look more like her. People always talked about how beautiful she was. I surfaced from the bathroom to the roaring laughter of my siblings. Even my parents chuckled. My mom’s foundation was about three shades darker than my own skin, and I looked like I had rubbed my face in dirt. I scrubbed my face back to its natural state and swore off makeup forever. I went back to my normal routine of life on Indian Road, afternoons spent in the woods with my brothers and sister, hunting salamanders and poking around in the depths of decomposing logs.

Tara was my first real friend at school. I met her walking across the blacktop at recess one morning. I saw her first. Her brown hair fell to her shoulders; her eyes disappeared when she smiled a big smile. But what really caught me was her light blue denim jacket. It was a perfect fit, definitely not a hand-me-down. Its sleeves weren’t rolled up into ridiculous little cuffs around her wrists. There were no stains, no burn marks or holes, and the jacket fell right to the waist of her blue jeans. I had never seen a jacket so new. Most importantly, the back was adorned with a giant, sparkling decal of The Little Mermaid. Painted in glittering colors, Ariel posed, her ruby hair floating in the sea of that jacket. I was bewitched and stood back observing Tara. She jumped off the monkey bars and chatted with the girls around her. Then she walked right up to me.

“Hi!” Even her freckles sparkled. “What’s your name? Do you wanna come to lunch with us?”

I must have looked like a wounded animal answering her questions. I was worried at each new inquiry that Tara’s face would drop, but it never did, not even when I told her where I lived. Tara wasn’t fazed by me living across the channel, on the rez. She kept chattering on, smiling and telling me about her mom’s house out in the farm flats and her dad’s house in town by the channel.

The jacket became an obsession. I coveted it so intensely that I dreamed of strutting around school with it, only to wake and find the same pink, thrift-shop windbreaker in its place. I begged my mother to take me to the mall, to the Disney Store where I knew the jacket lived.

My mom came home late every night after the long commute back from the native group home where she worked. Exhausted, she’d ask us kids if we’d eaten, throw together a box of macaroni and cheese, and check on chores and homework. One night, she leaned against the sink, still in her work clothes—a burgundy pencil skirt and white blouse—doing dishes. I paced around her excitedly. I described the jacket in all its detailed glory. I explained to her that Tara and I would have matching jackets. My mom put the last plastic bowl on the wooden dish rack.

“Who is Tara?”

“Tara is my new friend,” I beamed. “She lives in town!” My emphasis on in town caused my mother to look up from the dish towel she was patting her hands with. Her lips pursed the way they always did when she was irritated.

“In town, huh?”

“Yeah.” I circled back to the jacket.

My mom frowned. “We’ve already done the back-to-school shopping,” she snapped. “And regardless, we certainly can’t afford to just buy all you kids fifty dollar jackets. It’s absurd! The one you have is fine. Enough about the stupid jacket!” She asked about my homework, looked at the clock, kissed me, and said goodnight.

The jacket was more than just status though. Ariel and I had a history. When I was six, my mom had taken me to the Cineplex, bought me a cherry Coke and a bucket of popcorn. This was a magical luxury—the neon lights, the smell of butter, the rainbow assortment of treats displayed behind glass. There was something extravagant about that first march down the dark theater aisle, holding an armload of candy boxes and sucking on the plastic straw of my soda cup. I felt rich. This is how kids on television went to the movies. The animated fairy tale exploded from the big screen in a world of color: singing fish, talking crabs, an evil sea witch, a handsome prince, and of course, that iconic redheaded merprincess, longing for a better lot in life. The Little Mermaid had a bunk deal and I identified with that.

The ocean became my biggest fantasy. Ariel was hellbent on trading in her fins for a pair of legs to walk on land, and I was her opposite. I longed to wake up one morning to find webbing between my toes, to slowly morph into half-fish and disappear beneath the surface. I knew I was just like that fiery and mischievous mermaid, only instead of a sea cavern full of treasures, I escaped into the forest behind our trailer. I built forts and talked to trees and daydreamed about leaving. That was always the Little Mermaid’s deepest desire—leaving.

My mom catered to my mermaid fantasy when she could. We couldn’t afford the jacket, so she tried to make up for that by throwing me a mermaid-themed birthday party. There on the table was a giant cake in the shape of Ariel. Her green tail, peachy torso, purple seashell bra, and crimson hair were all accurately portrayed in frosting and sprinkles. In the kitchen was a mess of pots and pans, different shapes she had used to sculpt and cut out my mermaid-shaped cake. I was horrified as we began section-ing her off into chunks, carefully serving up squares of green fins, the belly button, a serving of purple seashell, her pink mouth. But as I watched my girlfriends around the table in their triangle party hats smile, as streamers fell in purple and green ribbons beyond their heads and they enjoyed their personal portion of mermaid, I swelled with pride.

On ferry rides out to my grandparents’ property on the peninsula, I squinted hard through the waves. I was determined to catch a glimpse of the shining scales of mermaid fins. During family camping trips out at the beach property, my great grandmother and grandfather would get up at sunrise to take the ladder down the cliff to the ocean where they would spend the morning digging for clams. I’d explore the beach’s early morning tide pools while they watched for the squirt of geoducks in sand. I played out entire mermaid scenarios in my head as they filled their buckets with the clams we would eat for dinner. I’d carefully climb out over the rocks, squint to the horizon and wish hard that the merpeople who lived beyond the breakers would come back for me.

My great grandmother was a storyteller. I would sit perched on the edge of my stump during the nighttime campfires as the fire cracked and lit her face in the dark. The lines in her brown skin were faint and, though she was past sixty, her cropped hair was a dense black to match her eyes that glittered dark against the firelight, the cracks around them moving as she spoke. My great grandmother told the stories in our tradi-tional Coast Salish language, Lushootseed. I hung on each Lushootseed syllable, eager to hear it repeated in English to make sense of the story. When she told stories, the whole family quieted to hear her words amid the crackle of cedar burning. Desperate to impress her one afternoon after a long morning of clamming and fishing, I sat down next to her as she cleaned and gutted a fish. I decided to test out my own skills as a storyteller. I sucked in a deep breath and launched into a play by play of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I left nothing out. I even sang the songs. My mother had taken me to the Seattle Public Library, and I had educated myself on all things mermaid. I knew it was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” and I had seen the picture books and watched the animated film, discovering to my horror that the mermaid princess doesn’t marry the prince in the original but tragically turns to sea foam at the end. I proudly gave this epilogue after I’d finished my performance. My grandmother graciously listened. She smiled and nodded. She praised me when I was finally finished.

“You know,” she said that afternoon at the beach. “Your ancestors have their own sea princess.” I nearly fell off my stump. I listened intently as my great grandmother told me for the first time, the story of “The Maiden of Deception Pass.”

The story tells of a maiden who lived with her people down by the water’s edge. How one morning while gathering clams with her sisters the maiden stepped into the ocean and felt it grip her. She heard a voice as the ocean spoke to her, reassuring her he only wanted to look on her beauty. Each day she’d return to the beach to collect oysters and clams, and each day the ocean spoke to her. He beckoned her to come live with him; he pled for her to be his bride. One morning, the voice did not come, but a man emerged from the water, tall and handsome. He walked the girl through the village and asked her father for her hand in marriage. Her father refused, unwilling to part with his daughter and certain she would die in the ocean. The ocean left but warned the village that if the girl could not be his bride he’d bring on a drought. True to his word, the rivers dried up and there were no clams or fish for the maiden’s people to eat. The maiden’s father finally refused to see his people go hungry and agreed to the marriage on the condition that his daughter be allowed to return to her village once a year, able to walk on land and be with her people. The ocean complied, and the two were married. Below the sea the maiden was happy. She was in love and enjoyed her new home, but she knew her people missed her and soon enough it was time to return home. Each year that the girl returned home it became more difficult for her to walk on land. She returned each year covered in more bits of the sea. On the last year she returned, her father saw the barnacles on her face, the sea kelp that was her hair, and heard the difficulty in her breath. He told his daughter he couldn’t bear to see her in such discomfort and released the ocean from his promise to return the maiden to her people each year. The people of the village lived happily with their abundance from the ocean and knew that each time they saw the long streaming pieces of sea kelp floating in the narrow waterway of Deception Pass, that they were seeing their maiden’s hair and that she was still with them.

The Maiden of Deception Pass didn’t just disappear into the ocean; she became the ocean. She sank into the sea to save her tribe from starvation. She returned each year like Persephone. But unlike Persephone, she went willingly into the depths, that underworld. This empowered her beyond the other sea maidens with whom I had become so obsessed. Mermaids were always bargaining with the sea witch in order to trade their fins for legs. Their motives were usually selfish and usually resulted in their demise.

Selkies were a different kind of tragedy. Like mermaids, the half seal women of these Scottish folktales always sacrificed their life beneath the sea to be with human men, to be on land. The men often tricked the selkies, hiding their seal coats from them so they couldn’t return to the sea. The selkies became depressed. They missed the ocean and their seal lives. They were captives. Unlike mermaids and selkies, this sea-maiden of Deception Pass wasn’t a victim but a warrior, willingly braving the deep sea to save her people and find happiness.

I begged my great grandmother to tell and retell the story as often as she would. I ran along the beaches with new enthusiasm and pride. The ocean and I were practically related. I hopped along the stony shores, ecstatic each time I’d see the rubbery shine of sea kelp on the surface. I’d scoop large bits of the maiden’s hair up in my arms, cradling its slick weight.

Hearing the story of the Maiden of Deception Pass only intensified my mermaid obsession. Like Ariel, I felt her in me. The only problem was there were no Maiden of Deception Pass Barbie Dolls or backpacks. I was stuck with hoarding all the Little Mermaid objects I could get my hands on.

I had a Little Mermaid lunch pail, thermos, sleeping bag, night-shirt, and all the dolls available. Each birthday or Christmas brought a new Ariel artifact into my life, some new talisman that I could tote around. But the jacket was the next level. It wasn’t some silly doll or nightie. This was fashion. This was grown up and somehow was sure to elevate my status from new girl who lived in a trailer, who wasn’t white but also wasn’t Indian, to Tara’s new and popular best friend. Still, my mother refused. “We can’t afford it.” She said it so often that it began to sound as regular as breathing. Inhale: We can’t. Exhale: Afford it.

One Sunday morning, my mom brought home a surprise. She had gone out for errands and returned with a giant bag from the craft store. She worked well into the evening, tracing and painting. By the time the sun set, she called me into the kitchen to show me what she had made. She held up a Levi’s jacket. It fit perfectly. If it was second-hand, you couldn’t tell. And on the back was a near flawless replication of Tara’s Ariel decal. I burst into simultaneous tears and laughter. I jumped up and down. I quickly put the jacket on and tore it off again to admire the shimmering painting of Ariel. It looked like the real deal.

My mom pointed to the display of fabric paints strewn across the kitchen table.

“Do you want to add something?”

I nodded. She left the room as I scooted up to the table and picked out a pearly, sea foam green paint. I concentrated hard. I bit down and chewed on my lip. I wanted my lines to be precise. When my mom came back into the kitchen I was sitting cross-legged in my chair, waiting for it to dry. “Oh,” she smiled sympathetically, “It’s l-i-t-t-l-e, dear.”

I looked down at my drying paint: The Littel Mermaid stared back at me, already drying in its pearly finish.

We scrubbed with wet towels and dish soap, but the damage was done. Littel was still visibly clear through a cloud of pale green paint, hovering above my mother’s pristine replica. My mom reassured me it was fine.

“No one will notice honey. Your hair will cover it.”

The jacket did look pretty good. I put it on the next morning and shook my hair over the collar. Maybe it did cover the horrible, puff-paint typo. I held my head high as I boarded the bus. I sat in my usual seat, kicked my legs back and forth, and hummed. I wore my jacket through first and second period. I wore it into the cafeteria at lunch time. Sitting next to Tara I ate my lunch and she smiled. “It looks so good,” she said. “Your mom did such a good job.”

Anna and a group of girls sat one table over and as I bit into my PB&J on wheat, I began to feel their eyes burning into my denim back.

“Oh my god,” Anna squealed across the cafeteria. “Is that a hand painted Little Mermaid jacket?” She had gotten up and was standing behind me now. I nodded, still holding onto the pride of my mother’s fabric paint masterpiece. I sat in the silent wake of what came next. I thought of The Little Mermaid, The Maiden of Deception Pass. I thought of sea kelp moving on water. The wave crashed. Anna’s laughter was a shrill and stinging thing. “Well, whoever did it is STUPID,” she announced. “They spelled little wrong! You should take it back.” She walked away, just like that day on the bus. Only this time there was no question. I was just some ugly girl. Worse. I was now just some stupid girl, too. I trembled a little and stared at my plastic tray.

Tara smiled her sympathetic smile. “It’s really not that noticeable, I think it looks nice.” I recognized her kindness, but it was too late. I was already broken apart, like sea foam.

I walked slowly down the gravel driveway towards our home that afternoon. The coat, a bundle of shame tucked under my arm. I pulled the metal door to our trailer open and bolted down the narrow hallway. I glanced at my mom, who sat chatting on the telephone before I slammed the door to my small room shut. I hurled the jacket into the closet and sobbed. I wouldn’t ever wear it again. I heard my mother outside the thin walls of my room and sucked in a ragged breath.

The trailer started to shrink around me. Things felt smaller and I spent more time in the woods. I started pocketing my lunch money, skipping meals or shamefully sneaking the bland peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that were free in a large plastic crate next to the food line. I didn’t dare remove the jacket from its crumpled pile. I shoved my saved-up lunch money between my box spring and my mattress, waiting until I had enough to go to the mall, to buy something new to wear. I just wanted to look like everyone else. I’d come home and take off my pink windbreaker, open my closet, and try not to look at the denim coat in a pile in the corner of the small cupboard. If I looked too long, I’d see the glittered lines, so careful and precise. Ariel’s face would appear, distorted in some fold of fabric, and I would see my mother, carefully bent over our folding table, patient and steady handed.

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Sasha LaPointe is a member of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. Her work focuses on trauma and resilience, sexual violence, and indigenous feminism. She’s inspired by the work her grandmother did for the Coast Salish language revitalization, loud basement punk shows, and what it means to grow up mixed heritage. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Indian Country Today, Luna Luna Magazine, The Yellow Medicine Review, The Portland Review, AS/Us Journal, and THE Magazine. She received her MFA from The Institute of American Indian Arts with a focus on creative nonfiction and poetry.

A Running List of Things Learned Today:

Syreeta McFadden

The songs of birds are call and response.

Woodpecker rhythmically answers a hummingbird’s song.

Kindness is dropping a leaf onto an earthworm’s back to shield it from sunlight.

Quiet is as loud as a bird’s call.

Adrienne Rich was haunted by a line in an Elizabeth Bishop poem: “Love should be put into action!”

Tonight is the 50th anniversary of the film, To Kill a Mockingbird.

A friend tweets of murders in Tulsa from a funeral. This will likely send me down a rabbit hole. The blindspot? I think Tulsa has a history around race riots. I know I read this somewhere, years ago. I’ve been re-reading Adrienne Rich’s essays because of a conversation I had with Jon two weeks ago. We think things are getting really real now. Rich asks: “Love might be put into action by firing a gun, yes—but at whom? In what extremity?”

The path in the woods is desolate. I am walking it alone, in daylight. In Brooklyn. My love of nature pushes me forward. I live on the south end of Prospect Park, where there is a lake. A sizable lake. I walk deeper along the trail, away from the birdwatching couple (their banter is vapid and uncute). I try to find the woodpecker in the trees. I can hear him. The two birds are talking. I don’t know what they want me to know. I hold my phone so that I can upload a photo so that someone will know where to find me should I become lost.

*

“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I can keep it all away from you,” Atticus says to Jem.

Later, I watch a baby black girl’s lesson about love come from the hands of an angry father. He pops her potbelly three times. He doesn’t use words to tell her that her jerking from his grip as they crossed Ocean Avenue scared him to death.

The essay I reread today is entitled “The Hermit’s Scream.” It’s a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem. True to form, I emerge from the rabbit hole to uncover a fact: 90 years ago this season, the worst race riot in American history was in Tulsa.

Beyond the nightmare, there is still dream.

*

‘I write to make my own sound,’ the author told me when I asked, why write this story now? The story is hers; her voice is a birdsong. We had this conversation two years ago.

But this dude making figure 8s around his chest right now on the C train, though … Does anyone else see this?

He’s wearing nylon, so the compulsion is loud. Like corduroyed legs in motion in an empty hallway. I can hear him through the subway breaks, mumble mouthing some prayer to his god. He beats his chest. Squeezes his eyes. What penance do you seek, Sir? That cannot wait for you to do this work from the comfort of your own home? His twisted face of agony. What menace do you pray abated? Your most fervent prayer rumbles and rattles like this train.

*

You’re not hearing me. Perhaps I’m coming at this all wrong. The child’s name is Finch. A type of bird. Catherine once gave us an exercise, pay attention to the conference of birds. Where I lived before, sparrows would roost outside my window. When I encountered dead sparrows in the Spring of 2002, I’d bury them. Could that be love in action? I see everything out the corner of my right eye. I’m mindful of small things. An example: Bees seeking pollen on my walk to the train on my old block crushed by thoughtless pedestrians. They didn’t see them. They just wanted to get the pollen from the tree blossoms. You didn’t know I see all these things, did you? I can’t help myself.

*

There’s more: I don’t think I understood fully Rich’s haunting from the Bishop poem. The dreaming mind got it though. The poem begins: “Alone on the railroad track / I walked with pounding heart.” I walk through the park today, along the shoulder of the lake, to a deso-late part. Men are fishing and as I come upon them, they look startled. I clench my phone, they don’t speak English. I am alone in the questionable parts of Prospect Park. I am a black woman. I am alone. No one really comes looking for me.

*

Later in “Chemin de Fer”:

The hermit shot off his shot-gun
and the tree by his cabin shook.
Over the pond went a ripple
The pet hen went chook-chook.

“Love should be put into action!”

Those are the words of the poem’s hermit. “Across the pond an echo / tried and tried to confirm it,” sticks at the tip of my nose. My body knows what this poem means, but my head has a harder time wrapping her arms around it. The dreaming mind? She knows, she goes for a walk in the woods, follows a path, listens for the echo.

*

Rich’s essay goes further though. She talks about June Jordan’s and Audre Lorde’s visceral responses to unjustifiable deaths of black boys. These poems predate our current conversation about Trayvon. I don’t have the words to write about any of that yet. I have a nephew who also wears hoodies.

*

“The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children.”

That’s a line from Audre Lorde’s “Power.”

*

I’d probably categorize myself as a loner. The hermit enters the woods, seeks enlightenment, draws within, listens to the conference of birds. Love is action. What action shall we manifest? The echo, the call, the response.

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Syreeta McFadden is a writer and professor of English at the Borough Manhattan Community College, City College of New York. Her work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, The Nation, BuzzFeed News, NPR, Brooklyn Magazine, Storyscape Journal, and The Guardian. She is currently working on a collection of essays.

Slum Night: An Essay

Hallie Goodman

The Crazy Lady groaned up against the bad side of I-35. It wasn’t much from the outside—a squatty, stucco lump of a strip club, perched perilously close to the interstate edge, its façade ground smooth by relentless traffic grit. This was where Austin girls went when they’d been fired from the clubs with valet parking and three-drink minimums, or when they weren’t pretty enough to get hired there in the first place. The Crazy Lady marked the official end of the line in the titty-bar world, full of dancers who flinched at things that weren’t there and muttered manifestos into their handbags.

Her home club was Sugars: the crown jewel of the local smut scene. But every so often, she liked to work at the Lady instead. That afternoon, over chips and queso at Magnolia, she’d talked her two best stripper friends, Christie and Natasha, into meeting her there and making a night of it.

We can look like day-old shit at The Crazy Lady, and still suck up every dollar in the room, she said. We can get completely fucked up and no one will yell at us.

Both were true. Officially, working at The Crazy Lady was about letting herself coast. It was about taking a break from the brutal competition of the top-tier girls, and the tedious rules of the top-tier clubs—gentlemen’s clubs they called them, though only ex-cons used words like gentlemen. At The Crazy Lady, no one cared if she showed up for a shift on time. No one insisted she wear a sparkly cocktail dress, or coat her tattoos with the thick, smelly foundation made for burn victims. She loathed the body makeup. It darkened over the course of the night, giving her tattoos the look of bruises, which she guessed Texas gentlemen preferred.

Unofficially, The Crazy Lady called to her for reasons harder to name. There was something raw and menacing about the Lady that made every one of her nerve endings hum. The place felt cinematic and unreal, as if every tawdry detail were part of an elaborate show staged just for her. As if it were a curated stop on some kind of depraved safari.

Stepping in, she felt a familiar rush, her pulse a hot growl in her ear. The heavy hydraulic door pressed closed behind her, squeezing out all that bleached Texas sky. She waited in the icy blackness, willing her eyes to adapt. The sticky, sweet powder of fake smoke snaked into every hollow. Then, as her vision simmered on, the whole room seemed to breathe with her. Movement everywhere, a synchronized shimmy. Look where she wound up, she thought, narrating her own docudrama.

She knew there were guns, knew there were drugs. Every drug. She did not know, could not explain, why this brought her such comfort.

The club was darker than the others. Darker than anywhere. She felt certain that pitiful, furtive sex was being transacted in the blackened corners. So what? She was good at minding her own business. She’d steer clear of the perimeter. She’d be vigilant about keeping her bare ass from the upholstered furniture.

Vaguely, somewhere in the back of her brain, she knew she preferred to be surrounded by people more fucked up than she—people her junior high therapist would have termed “lower companions.” But trying to arrange that was like chasing the dragon.

Not so long ago, Sugars had done the trick. As a newbie stripper, she’d seen the posh club as a trapdoor into an underworld. And for a while, it had fed the fable: that she was some kind of waylaid heroine, just rolling through. That while her coworkers might be lifers, she was touching down from somewhere else. Somewhere higher. That she was not really of this.

She knew better now. Some of the dancers at Sugars were earning master’s degrees or wrapping up law school. She’d watched as one planned a trip to Mexico and then took a trip to Mexico. She’d noticed one coworker squealing out of the parking lot in a jacked-up F-150, with tinted windows and chrome rims; heard another say that of course she had health insurance.

She didn’t give two shits about healthcare, or tricked-out redneck rides, or even higher ed. That they knew how to do these things. The thought made her seasick.

She did not know what to call any of this. Only that it must be outrun.

Natasha and Christie tumbled in, sinuous and glowy from a long, liquid dinner. They were top earners wherever they worked. Both had glorious boob jobs and pouty, girl-next-door faces. Both knew how to keep banter breezy and light, how to tune down to make the men shine smarter, wittier. She did not know why they let her boss them around.

The three settled into the dressing room, the compartments of their yawning makeup kits accordioning out and out and out. Christie fluttered pale pink glitter nails at a hunched over cocktail waitress, who was somberly reloading her breasts into a push-up. Hon, Christie trilled, we’ll take six Cuba Libres to start.

Later, when her lashes could not structurally bear the weight of another mascara swipe, she knew it was time to hit the floor. She tried to gauge her own level of drunkenness by squinting into the mirror. Standing up would be the moment of truth and she hoped the scale hadn’t tipped too far. She hated barfing or being too smashed to dance. But just shy of that? Heaven. If only she could keep her motor skills and lose everything else. There was something about her face that looked different. But what? A hardness around the eyes. Rum probably.

As a final stall, she tried on a pair of Natasha’s colored contacts. They were lavender or they were turquoise. They were not human-looking (that part she remembers). They had little clear spaces where her pupils were supposed to go, but she couldn’t seem to make them line up. Maybe her pupils were bigger than average. Even under the glare of the vanity bulbs, she could barely make out the sparkly blob that was Natasha.

She stood, shakily, and stumbled around laughing.

Out on the club floor, she dragged each platformed foot along the industrial carpet an inch at a time, feeling her way along. Silhouettes appeared and receded in time with the bargain basement light show. Purple, then dark. Green, then dark. Then, a throb of dingy white. She smelled rivers of spilled Long Island Iced Teas. She smelled vomit and Tiparillos and Ivory soap and Old Spice.

Her fingers raked the worn-down arm of a club chair, and she blinked hard against the viscous dark. By the time she could pick out his fuzzy outline, she was inches from the man. He leaned back in the chair, legs splayed, a bouquet of bills choked in his fist, his face an anonymous smudge. It felt as though a thick veil hung between her and everyone else.

It should always be like this, she thought.

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Hallie Goodman’s writing has appeared in many publications including Glamour Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Redbook Magazine. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, NYFA MARK and Instar Lodge, and holds a GED and MFA. Hallie lives in Hudson, New York, where she co-founded Volume Reading and Music Series. She is at work on a memoir.

The Waist That You Are From

Caroll Sun Yang

There’s a Korean word, Han. I looked it up. There is no literal English translation; it’s a state of mind; of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still, there’s hope. — Josiah Bartlet, “The West Wing”

 

 

Profile: DOB 1974/USA/Female/Korean

Developed Disorders: Generalized Anxiety, Bipolar, Panic, Borderline Personality, Emetophobia, Excoriation, Body Dysmorphic, Depersonalization, Derealization, Agoraphobia, Obsessive Compulsive, Social Anxiety, Premenstrual Dysphoric, Irritable Bowel, Hypochondriasis, Art.

Inherited Disorder: Han¹

Childhood Onset (Citations):

· I withered, becoming teary and knot-throated when merely asked my name.

· I obsessed for long hours each day over a set of art books (Book of Art I, II, III) that a door-to-door salesman charmed my usually pragmatic mother into buying. My life and those pictorial lives fused. I explored grotesqueries, narratives, sickness, freedom, oddness, composition, heaven/hell, woods, torrents, sins, saints, crosses, fruits, bugs, geometries, colors, passion, moods, tones, and all of the mesmerizing power of the object/image and inevitable language. In that house with so few books, no instruments, and welcomed neglect — did the ambitious peddler know he would change my life, that in a sense he helped make me?

· I spent many nights scanning the sky, imagining that distant aircrafts and the night’s first stars were UFOs. This activity usually occurred while my skeleton was cradled in a yellowing beanbag, while I urgently probed my private parts with Barbie’s head.

· I experienced crippling nausea at the sight of other Korean daughters excelling at ice-skating, piano, tennis, and swimming — all manners of tricks that this little pony did not have access to. Other children’s confidence further eroded mine. I could hold jealous vomit all day. Clapping and cheering, but not for me.

· I watched movies about Cinderella and Snow White while gnawing my fingers bloody and wondered how to be like them, without knowing why it seemed better. I later imagined a Disneyland of misfits, a place where we peculiar ones fit. The red, brown, yellow, black and — did Jesus really love us, too? How precious were we in his sight? What color is a private Jesus standing in the corner of a room?

· I experienced my inaugural panic attack while bearing witness to father striking mother again, and suddenly becoming cognizant of the danger in it, when before the beatings only amused me. The physical abuse that once seemed filmic and separate from me, the way a brutal episode of Popeye feels, were finally too real. So adult. I think that moment of recognized violence answered the question that starts with what do you want to be when…?

· I believed aliens abducted me. They circled my bed and inspected me, bone slate hands lifted me from my rosebud littered canopy bed (a rare luxury purchase my parents splurged on to get me to sleep in my own room) and took me somewhere, then delivered me back feverish, paralyzed, with a bloodied nose and no memory of anything.

· Most nights, I crawled like a carpet soldier into my parents room and slept under their creaking bed for fear of death via stabbing by a male intruder wearing a black ski mask. The most I ever saw was something like a guardian angel that unfurled from head to toe, glowing like an ectoplasmic scroll of the Statue of Liberty, hovering by the bed and beaming.

· I sunk in the deep end of a lap pool at a wedding reception, met my own smiling ghost wearing my favorite pale pink dress. She and I breathed water in sync for what seemed like eons packed into blank-faced dice, and when the tuxedoed man pulled us up from under, witnesses say I only smiled as hot urine streamed down my legs. I never coughed up that water.

· One night at my father’s best friend’s home, I stole a wooden rosary, binged on canned lemon frosting when no one was watching, and coveted my friend’s Lite-Brite. Later, I hid behind a dresser, trembling and fearing notice, while my dad’s drunken pal angrily vomited into a trashcan, his wife scolding him. The next day I stuffed the rosary between my mattresses and left home to ride my bike as fast as I could, trying to outspeed my guilt, repulsion, jealousy and strange new fears that blossomed in the alien-filled night.

· I never shook any of it.

Treatment: Paxil. Writing. Waiting (tables and time).

Base Notes:

I am Korean. Poor Korean. There is a difference. Childhood places my mother planted us always gave heed to affluent whites. She would have no less, believing that you are whom you run with. Because of this, I was a double anomaly in all my habitats—poor and brown. They called me karate girl, math girl, china girl, mute, alien, blind, chingchongdingdong (it’s okay, you can laugh), brown girl, dime-slot eyes, chink, Jap, twinkie… They cited my eyes by squinting theirs. They bowed aggressively. They karate-chopped the spaces in front of my face and body. They preyed on my timidity. Little boys chased me, forcing their hard kisses until I cried in shame. All of it felt like my fault. So I swallowed hard, dammed up tears and learned to sputter a chronic lie—Well, I have a big blue pool in my backyard. What did Small Me believe that proved to anyone?

If my mother wanted to assimilate me into what she believed was a superior condition—the condition of being wealthy, white (ish) and Christian—she failed. Or she might say I failed. Because I think I learned the most important things in my life from poor, many-colored (even a lot of white) agnostics/ atheists, and it is their influence that has shaped me the most. From a young age I was attracted to people from the “unsavory” classes. Those who were orphaned, promiscuous, addicted, riddled, cunning, irreligious, drunk, defiant, emotive, shunned, nuts—all whom possessed superior bullshit meters. My radical angels saved me. They didn’t give a damn. I didn’t want to.

On Aesthetics:

A) I was born in perfect health:
·Brown – first defect.
·Monolids – second defect.
·Rickets – third defect.
·Wide nose – fourth defect.
·Flat head – fifth defect.

B) I was born again:
·Skin paled – first correction.
·Eyelids creased – second correction.
·Legs straightened – third correction.
·Nose shaped – fourth correction.
·Skull rounded – fifth correction.

Today, from head to toe, I feel defective. Even my insides scream “Wrong!” I have this “flaw” (common in Asian body types) that I share with another girl; it is that my waist is too long. Like the waist of the terrified Vietnamese girl in that famed Pulitzer Prize winning photo, you know exactly which one. I feel we are disposable. Does she feel it, too? Are we both frozen in a colorless freeze frame, our arms reaching out for something, a mouth shaped like an O that traps a kind of soundless howl? Life, at its best, is a state of constant hoping with sporadic encounters with beauty but in my blood, and probably hers, streams also a kind of persistent dread. In the mirror, we flinch from the belly button to the pubis.

“The Waist That You Are From”, Digital Image 2012

Mother mated with a Korean man bearing western features. She says her family did not approve of this fortuneless and hard-partying man, that it was a faulty arrangement. But she begged to have him. She wanted to live in America, with this suave human, where things seemed wide open, full of every opportunity. She wanted a home with choices, not strictures. So she came to him, because she was a white-hot fire, and her family submitted. My father took her with his enormous eyes, model cheekbones, strong-bridged nose, lean build, and mafia-style alpha swagger. She owned her features, too. Ideal pearl skin, silky black-brown waves, bedroom eyes and shapely legs—all that served well in California. Father used his looks and his gender to be spoiled by women, lord over non-alphas and be hired at swank white establishments. Mother worked hers to weasel out of traffic tickets, clinch jobs that “less attractive” immigrants were denied, flirt down prices with her coquettish smile, swindle social service departments… my bearers must have believed that America plus attractiveness could equal power. When there is no wealth or natural born privilege to be utilized, there are equally fleeting devices. Can you see, it’s about beauty + race in this family.

Who could blame us?

My late teen years saw me bloom into my face bones and my body turned solid, less like a dark fragile stem with an erasable head, and people began to ask half-white? My mind expanded in conjunction with strange new powers, a kind of “passing.” My breasts bloomed into firm mounds, my hair was a wild chestnut beacon. Coal rimmed eyes and flaming lips became my signature. Boys began to tease me in new ways. Young men and middle-aged men and geriatric men and divorced men and widowed men and men in traffic and men in gyms and men in bars and men in school and men in markets, women too… asked for my name and more. I didn’t cry or lie to them about pools. I could swim now. I could speak. I could curse. I could throw a hit back. I returned kisses hard. I had control. I had a thin skin of Han protecting me, and now I could make you cry.

But I still cried a lot too. Do.

Self-Care/ Antidote:

I lured many men to bed, nearly all white as beautiful lambs. Did I sacrifice them or did I sacrifice me? Who was exotic then? And if we both were, did it negate the negative aspects of that condition? Sometimes prostitution, stripping and escorting seemed viable career paths, a rejection of the proper mode (remember the wealthy, white, Christian standard?), an embrace of the romantic stereotype of war-ravaged love between lonely soldiers and Asiatic angels. All of these ways to feel good and not sleep alone, they beckoned me. I heard I was good at it. That reputation spread. I did it for free every single time. There was cheering and clapping, for me.

But what war?

Whenever radiant whites courted me for more than one night, I was pleased. They took me under their wings and their rides were wild. With them, I felt as though I was in an important movie, as the reliable sidekick—rarely the star, but better than the extras. I desired them, their easy legitimacy. Words unspooled from their mouths, full of humor, secret dialects, deep meaning, information and flagrant stupidity, too. Their confidence was noted. Paths widened for them. They drove with one hand on the wheel. Smokes tucked behind ears. When they laughed, they did not cover their mouths. They bared their teeth, and puffed up like heroes, cowboys, and rebels. I touched their beards. I ate their ears. I rode on their backs. I sat on strong laps. I shared their clothes. I learned their music. I flipped their covers. I ate their food. I read their books. I watched their movies. I changed their stations. I took their heat. I watched their play. I greased their backs. I comforted the drunk. I nursed the sick. I danced their dances. I sorted their mail. I drank their brews. I smoked their plants. Every little thing they did was magic. Every bone they threw, I crawled for. And when I learned how, I started throwing bones, too.

The pool is full of our bones.

Instead of aborting, I produced two Hapa children. One male and one female, from two different white men. One man left, and one stays true. My parents prize both children, as if they themselves bore them, viewing them as superior specimens with their large clear eyes, their snowy white, fluttering lashes, their soft olive complexions turning opaline in winter and that cool, confident American air. They got good ass! Pure Asians crane their necks to see them, smiling and cooing, searching our faces to understand something. These children are intriguing and exotic, the way hybrids can be. Just the way a kaleidoscope shifts its arrangement, so do the children remain in a mesmerizing flux—a white and Korean flux. In some way, I hope I have negated a lingering curse handed to me by my Korean legacy and by their father’s white history. Stopped it in its tracks, through the children. Will he not beat her? Will she not cower? Will he not feel faulty? Will she not feel inferior? Will they not retreat? Will they not invade? Will they take no slaves? Will they flee from guilt? Where is their Han? Where has it gone? Did I absorb it for them? Will I? Just let me.

Every day I ask myself, who am I?

And the answer depends on who you are. So here I am. Trying to write myself brave. I spin myself into a notable character. I appear benign but I feel dangerous. I am transparent as a thousand jellyfish, fitfully electric because under this crass bohemian authorial exterior is a person who dared raise her hand and was not noticed. She opined, but was not heard. She was viewed suspiciously, even by her own race. She was a mere curiosity, a heartless thing under glass. Her ethnicity boggles her mind. Happily doomed to a life of waiting tables, in a state of forever smiling servitude, an ultramodern geisha, a mealtime concubine, and a cultural anomaly. Are there many poverty-line-straddling, mid-life, neurosis-riddled, agnostic Korean waitresses who practice authoring? Isn’t it abhorrent to her kind? But then, what is her kind? Does she need a kind? Does anyone?

Let me cling to Han. Han is wildness. Han is action. Han is poetic. Han is disorder. Han is temper. Han is intuition. Han is ingrained. Han is heritage. Han is energy. Han is fits. Han is woman. Han is myth. Han is riding bikes in the sky, with nothing chasing us down. Han is a forever packed into blank faced crystal dice. Han is equalizing. Han is an orgy. Han is monochrome, yet a fluorescent rainbow, too. Han is the thing we ALL possess and the thing that dies when we die. Han is a glimmering sky-blue pool in a celestial future of equally visible/invisible beings. Han is the beginning, middle, and end of each of our own onsets, the memories of the scary, divine remembrances that make us who we really are and show us where we are going.

So I ask, will all of your pretty aliens, ghosts, and words swim with mine?

Desired Outcomes:

¹ Han is a concept in Korean culture attributed as a unique Korean cultural trait, which has resulted from Korea’s frequent exposure to invasions, by overwhelming foreign powers. Han denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds (the overcoming of which is beyond the nation’s capabilities on its own). It connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.

The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as a “feeling of unre-solved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_(cultural)

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Caroll Sun Yang earned her BFA at Art Center College of Design, an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, and holds certification as a Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist. Her work appears in The Nervous Breakdown, New World Writing, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Columbia Journal, Diagram, and Juked. She is the associate editor for The Unseasonal. She survives in Highland Park, CA with her family of four and is always down for lo-fi anything/sarcasm/dogs/Latrinalia/frosting/Cheetos.

Valentine’s Day: A 14-Point Meditation on Love & Other Fiery Monsters

Sayantani Dasgupta

1. My husband and I don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day. If we remember the date, we might splurge on chocolates or a nice meal at a restaurant (usually, breakfast or lunch because dinner reservations for that night must be made five months in advance, which neither of us remembers to do, plus it costs as much as the blood of a baby unicorn). If, however, Valentine’s Day falls on a weekend, we make the 75-minute drive to our nearest big city of Spokane, WA, from our current hometown of Moscow, ID. We check ourselves into a nice hotel downtown, the Spokane Club, which began its life in 1890 as a historic “gentlemen’s club.” The first such clubs were set up in 18th century Britain by upper class men and they were not accommodating in the least when it came to the gender, race, or social status of their members. Meaning, back when it opened its doors, neither my husband nor I would have been admitted inside Spokane Club on account of our race, and in my case, also because of my gender. Which is why, when we stroll through its august corridors, I imagine the ghosts of all those long-dead white men staring down at us from sepia photographs and oil paintings. “Look at those monsters,” I imagine them hissing, as they fume at our insolence, at our metaphorical middle fingers pointed toward them, at the loss of everything that was once good and pure and right.

2. The year I turned twenty, I wrote an article about Valentine’s Day. From my pulpit of recently gained adulthood and heightened righteousness, I called it silly and pointless. To my absolute delight, one of the biggest dailies in the country, The Pioneer, published it in their New Delhi edition. The morning it came out, I dutifully scanned it and emailed it to my then boyfriend, a PhD student at Ohio State University. He loved it and emailed me a dozen sappy e-cards. I bristled a tiny bit at the irony and my own hypocrisy, but I loved them all because at age twenty, that romance felt real and everlasting.

3. In India, Valentine’s Day wasn’t a thing when I was a kid. Sure, it was still the country of the Taj Mahal and the Kama Sutra, but in cinema as in real life, romance often assumed prudish forms. For example, in the Hindi films of the 1950s and ’60s, two flowers playfully smacking into one another meant, well, you know what. In later decades, seduction played out on the screen against the backdrop of heavy rains and a smoldering fire-pit in the room, forest, or barn, wherever the boy and girl happened to be. This fire-pit was everything. Either the boy and girl chased each other around it, or they danced facing it or the camera zoomed into the orange-red flames indicating that all manners of love were about to be consummated.

4. But the mid 1990’s changed it all. I was a teenager when India opened its doors to economic liberalization. Now we all wanted to be cooler and hipper, meaning… American. And that’s how Valentine’s Day entered our lives, and each year it grew a little bit bigger. The first casualties were the roses. They popped up, juicy, fat, and red, ready for sale at street corners and traffic lights, inside shiny new malls, outside multiplex theaters, and at the grocer’s next to the egg cartons. It was as if we’d let red roses take over our city and shame the other flowers to admit defeat and close in on themselves.

5. Or did it begin with the cards? In New Delhi, if your boyfriend didn’t buy you a card from Archie’s, the stationery and gift store with multiple locations all over the city, he didn’t love you enough. If the card was just regular-sized, he loved you just so. But, if it was five times the size of your head, he was going to love you forever.

6. There were also the balloons—lots and lots of them, red, upbeat, and always, heart-shaped.

7. In addition to the cards, the roses, and the balloons, what if your boyfriend also bought you a teddy bear? There was only one answer to this question. This man was a keeper.

8. Because Valentine’s Day was such a small thing to begin with, the first protests against it were also on a proportionate scale. They claimed such open displays of affection were evil Western imports that were destroying Indian values, specifically Hindu values, as if values are tangible like dry leaves on a fall day, rakeable and tossable into a fire. Today, however, in a country of more than one billion, these protests are neither small nor a laughing matter.

9. Most often, the protestors are saffron-robed men. Saffron, because it’s the color deemed sacred by Hindus. It pays homage to the sun and to Agni, the God of Fire. To a good Hindu, Fire is everything. It represents virtues such as honor and sacrifice. It marries us to our partners. It cremates us at the end. Its flames carry our prayers to the heavens. For the protestors, however, it aligns them to extremist, right-wing political parties.

9a. On the morning of February 14th, if they are mildly annoyed with life, they burn cards and tear down celebratory banners.

9b. If they are more peeved than that, they attack flower shops and trample meticulously arranged bouquets beneath their feet.

9c. If they haven’t slept well for a few nights in a row, they fan out in search of couples in public places. They accuse them of shaming the country, of dishonoring their respective families, parents, culture, community, and everything else in between.

9d. If they lead truly shitty lives themselves, they vandalize restaurants that seek to profit from this Day of National Shame (Special Valentine’s Day Dinner! Couples Get One Free Appetizer or Dessert of Their Choice!). They break windows and furniture, throw out celebrating couples, and sometimes carry out their threats of bodily harm.

10. Each year, I read about these protests. Each year, I wonder, how have these protestors lived until now without knowing about the Sun Temple of Konark? Built in the 13th century in the eastern corner of India, the Sun Temple is counted today as a World Heritage Site. But its antiquity alone does not make it unique. It’s what’s on its walls: detailed, lavish carvings of couples in passionate kisses, embraces, and more, inspired by the Kama Sutra, itself written in 2nd century India.

11. I wonder how these protestors claim to be “expert” Hindus without knowing about Kamadeva, Hinduism’s own God of Love? Like Cupid, Kamadeva too wields a bow. His is made of sugarcane and the string is composed of honeybees. His arrows are ornamented with five different kinds of flowers—Ashoka, blue lotus, white lotus, jasmine, and mango. He prefers the colors yellow and green, symbolic as they are of spring. When he strikes men and women with his special arrows, they have no option but to fall in love.

12. Back in Spokane, or Moscow, or anywhere else in America I happen to be on February 14, I hear about gifts and cards schoolchildren exchange inside classrooms. I see magazine covers promising life-changing wisdom, such as “33 Ways to Capture Your Man’s Heart and More.” I walk past store windows gloriously done up in pink and red, all trussed up for the occasion before they too must accept defeat, and fold in on themselves to make room for the green of St. Patrick’s Day.

13. But not once do I pause my celebrations (or the lack thereof) to worry about hapless threatened couples in India.

14. It is only the next morning, while reading The Times of India that I remember them, when I come across headlines such as “Fourteen Cities in India to Celebrate Valentine’s Day: Arranged from Least Safe to Most Safe.” I look at pictures of destroyed property, of massive bonfires devouring red-hearted cards, of angry mobs shouting slogans and holding up puny flags to save a three-thousand-year-old faith, as if it needs their saving. I see girls hiding their faces behind scarves to avoid being captured on camera, and the hunched shoulders of their boyfriends accepting what I assume is a mix of shame and resignation. I wonder why these girls and boys set out to celebrate Valentine’s Day in the first place? Why do they leave the security of their homes, knowing full well they are courting harassment and far worse? Do they do so to be modern Romeos and Juliets and celebrate love for love’s sake? Because they foolishly believe they will be allowed to be themselves in their own city and country? Or do they thrill in being monstrously insolent, in sticking metaphorical middle fingers to all those saffron-robed men lamenting the loss of everything that was once good and pure and right?

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of FIRE GIRL: ESSAYS ON INDIA, AMERICA, & THE IN-BETWEEN (Two Sylvias Press, WA), and the chapbook THE HOUSE OF NAILS: MEMORIES OF A NEW DELHI CHILDHOOD (Red Bird Books, MN). She edits nonfiction for Crab Creek Review and teaches at the University of Idaho. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Phoebe, and Gulf Stream, among other magazines and literary journals. Honors include a Pushcart Prize Special Mention and a Centrum Fellowship.