Knights Of The Oleander
Kids from broken homes like telling stories. My brothers fought imaginary wars in the craters of our backyard, hurling pieces of concrete and dirt clods at kings’ armies and dragons, an evil that made sense. We forged swords in oleander nectar, stockpiled sticks of dried cactus. These we hid in the very back of the shed, behind the faded red storage bins of Christmas decorations.
Jude, my oldest brother, declared himself general. He put us through hell, making us hide in the crawlspace behind the house for hours to avoid discovery. Leo and I were good at being quiet after that. It was almost peaceful, the three of us crammed together, breathing in the copper of each other’s sweat. I always played spy, one eye pressed against the hole in the wall, my brothers placing steady hands on my spine.
We only ever saw the antics of our neighbor, but Jude claimed he was an admiral in the enemy ranks. We had to keep extensive notes on his activities if we had a chance in hell in winning this war. The neighbor in question was a short man named Jeff, who possessed a permanent sunburn. He’d rage in what he thought was the privacy of his backyard, silhouetted against a sparkling blue tower of Bud-Light cans. One morning we saw him hit his German Shepherd. I saw, anyway. Men killing men made sense. Jeff’s sweaty fist bearing down on a dog was incomprehensible. A dog that never barked had borne the iron teeth embedded in her neck without complaint. Jude didn’t let us go back there anymore after that. He told me Jeff was going to jail.
I never saw that dog again.
Sometimes we were lost in the woods, a stack of twigs for a campfire, a Home Depot bucket for a cauldron. We became experts in healing potions, rainwater stew garnished with wild mushrooms, and dandelions. We knew starvation, clawing at our stomachs with our plump child hands.
I drew angry red marks all over my legs with a red felt tip pen. “I’ve been shot! I’m done for,” I hollered. My brothers carried me off to the shed, wrapping my legs in packing tape. We suffered no shortage of fake injuries, decorated soldiers, bruised and bloody. I got captured by the king’s army, and the game was over. Jude did not stop being general.
The summer my dad started disappearing, Jude taught us to make magic. On windy days, we’d raise our arms to the sky and shout spells about nothing, hoping the breeze would take hold of our fingers and carry us into the clouds. Soon, Jude spliced twigs down the middle and filled the inside with mystical ingredients– scraps of velvet, a feather from the chicken coop–and wrapped the whole thing together with twine. We were never caught without our wands in our back pockets–Jude made sure of that. Leo liked this game a lot better than war. Our magic was pointless, but it mattered. The rules were constantly changing. We could pluck the right words from the air like pulling an apple from a tree. Magic was not violent, was not hurled like thunder at unseen enemies. Our magic was for us.
Jude left general behind for The Wise One, traipsing around our backyard draped in mom’s old floral bedsheets. There was no one coming after us. Jude only expected us to speak to the wind, to heal our skinned knees with incantations. Jude expected us to believe.
My dad was never around, I suppose. He spent most of his days at work and went straight to bed when he came home. That summer, my mom started going to Book Club. Book Club turned into parties, turned into drinks with the girls, then turned into being gone three nights a week. My dad was supposed to watch us, but we could never find him. His office always stood empty, the bedroom doors locked, and dad nowhere to be found. His car stayed in the driveway. I’d imagine my dad lost in our neighborhood, stumbling through a labyrinth of alleyways, trying to get home to us. He always reappeared the moment mom came back. This was one magic trick Jude had no explanation for.
I thought maybe Dad was cursed. He was always in a daze, jiggling his knees so hard I could almost hear the bones rattling in his cargo shorts. He mixed us up at least once a week, jumbling our names. Sometimes he’d call us Tom or John like we were someone else’s kids. Like he’d never had kids. I spent the rest of the summer concocting charms to release him.
Fall came, and dad came back, but not all the way. He opened and shut every door in the house at all hours of the night. He shook nonstop, his fingers trembling with every word. This dad was forgetful. He left the backdoor open, kept the gate unlocked. This dad was different.
After dad threw a beer bottle at us over homework, Jude told us a monster had stolen dad’s skin. Magic was more powerful than monsters. On nights when the arguments morphed into screaming matches, Jude would sneak us outside, creeping along the garden wall. The moonlight made it easier to see the forest we occupied in our imaginations. The grapefruit trees became a thicket, Bermuda grass swirling around our ankles until it seemed taller than Jude. A hundred pairs of eyes peered at us from behind the towering oleander bush, but we were welcome here. This was our jungle, our forest, our desert. We moved slowly anyways, draped in shadow, to the one imperfect wall in our backyard.
Several bricks jutted out, and none were sealed correctly, resulting in pools of dried concrete, perfect footholds for three small boys. I’d go first, going as fast as I could to see if Jude would notice. He never did. He was always busy boosting Leo. Leo, with his sticky, outstretched hands. It was my job to pull him up. Jude came last, silent and graceful.
From there, we could spy on our neighbors. There wasn’t much to see at night. We watched a lot of people eat dinner. Jude quickly discovered that the tree hanging over us drooped with figs. We’d sit there forever, fig juice running down our legs and onto our shoelaces. We tried to learn constellations, but they were always changing. Leo made them up, and Jude told the stories of his favorites, The Great Jellyfish and Lionboy.
The Great Jellyfish lived far away. Sometimes he was from France; other times, he grew up in Bolivia. Both seemed unbelievable to young boys. The Great Jellyfish was an orphan, having lost both his parents to a boat motor before he could speak. His skin shimmered like fish scales, so translucent you could trace the map of veins leading to his heart. Unfortunately for the great jellyfish and his wobbly legs, the people of France/Bolivia always fainted at the sight of him. He never stayed for long before walking straight into the ocean, never to be seen again.
Lionboy was a genetic mistake, captured by evil scientists for critical tests. A sympathetic lab assistant set him free, but he died at the hands of the security guard outside.
In our mythos, you had to have a tragic story to get up in the sky. I think Jude knew the actual constellations but played dumb to make us feel better.
Leo asked Jude once where the magic came from.
“Under the rosebush, where the sun sets. That’s where all magic is born.”
I thought that was a stupid answer to such an important question. Still, when we didn’t feel powerful, we’d lay beneath the rosebush. The sun always burst through the center of it, painting us boys in gold, boys pulsing with magic, boys full of light. I wanted to climb right into the heart of that bush. I thought maybe I would be consumed with whatever ancient energy lurked there. I could stop being afraid, covered in magic. The rosebush, however, was also home to giant ivory spiders, so I kept my distance.
Our world fell apart the day Leo’s wand broke. Our dog Cornelius dashed through the oleander that morning, a streak of black into the street. I didn’t see him get hit by a car, but I swear that I felt it. He limped back to our porch, his chest full of cracks. I lay beside him, my back slick with blood. Leo joined me, whispering incantations. I tried to summon the sun through the rosebush, felt it burst through me. I could almost see it, threaded light shining stitches through our dog who was broken. I didn’t know where Jude was.
He always woke up before us but never failed to join us at the table for breakfast. This morning, Leo and I ate our waffles alone. Sometimes Jude would vanish for a while. I used to think it was to spend time away from his little brothers. Lately, he spied on dad, tailing his truck on his baby blue Schwinn. Jude never shared his findings with us, choosing to convey them only to the insides of his leather-bound notebook. I did not ask because I did not want to know.
Some part of me thought Dad had caught on to Jude’s scheming, and that was why they both were missing. Leo wrapped his arms around Cornelius, chubby cheeks slathered with snot. I wanted to tell him that everything was okay. Without Jude, it felt like a lie. I was scared the magic did not work without him.
Leo and I stayed like that for a whole hour. Maybe it wasn’t, but an hour is an interminable amount of time for a child. Jude came strolling up our driveway, his sneakers slick with the flesh of rotting grapefruit. He looked gray, faded, and tired. At the sight of Cornelius, he placed one hand on the porch railing, rusty paint falling like discarded rose petals to the cracked concrete. He shut his eyes, exhaling a breath that should have been calm, but instead came out a low scream. Leo and I did not speak, in case children being quiet was enough magic to save Cornelius.
Jude came to sit in the sanctuary of our porch, scooping one long arm beneath Cornelius’ bleeding and broken chest. He pulled him into his lap, cradling his head. We cried together for the first time that day. My mom came home eventually, took him to an emergency animal hospital. He’d return in a t-shirt and a neck full of yellow tubes. Cornelius survived. Six months later, he would collapse in the dead grass of our battlefield. Every muscle in his body twitched before he closed his eyes for the last time, a day after his first birthday.
Later that afternoon, none of us felt like talking. There was no wind to talk to, no spellbooks or declarations of war. It was a nothing kind of day.
Nothing ended with the red iron gate creaking open. Nothing ended with Leo standing in the middle of the road, stooping to collect the grapefruits he’d thrown at cars all day. Nothing ended with the moving van crashing into my baby brother, his bones snapping with the wand in his pocket.
I was too much of a coward to go out there. Jude was there in a second, pounding on the hood of the car with bleeding fists, shouting in a tongue no one but his brothers would recognize. I reached for the wand in my pocket only to find it broken into two pieces. My mouth formed all the right shapes, but I couldn’t recall the words.
I remember the rhythm of my heart in my ears, calling 911 and reciting my address just like my mom taught me. I remember my mom sobbing until she could barely breathe, hiding behind the lock of her bedroom door. I remember Jude stopped telling stories.
My dad did not say anything. He shrugged, went about his business. The longer the bedroom door stayed locked, the faster his leg jiggled. The light left our house, faded from the rosebush, from Cornelius, from Jude. Leo was all the light in the world, and we just couldn’t grab hold of it anymore.
My dad left for good a week later. He tried to get into school to say goodbye, I guess, but my mom knew about the gun in his glove compartment and called ahead to put us on lockdown. My face ground into the sand-filled carpet, close enough to my classmates we could almost lock pinkies. The safest thing to do was inhale the salty smell of sweat and dirt, the smell of my school, the smell of kids being kids. I was ashamed that we had to lay here like this like it might be the last thing we do. It felt like my fault. The girl next to me asked why someone would want to kill us. I wondered how confused she’d be if she knew my dad was the killer prowling our playground. I decided not to answer.
Kids from broken homes like telling stories. Ten years later, Jude and I still look for a fig tree. We sit in the rose garden in the park on Leo’s birthday. Together we look for the light.
Some days I think I can see it, dancing in the corners of my art classroom, in new mothers crossing the street, in kids play-fighting in the park.
I keep the porch light on just in case Leo ever comes home again.
The two wand halves on my dresser ensure that my dad never will.
Bearing Witness; The Caravan of Souls
by Kevin Flynn
When I pick up the horn at home, I step out of time, and enter that other world where sound is the only substance, and making music the all-consuming goal. As a consequence, I don’t usually stop to answer the door. I don’t know what possessed me that particular day. By the time I had set the alto down and reached the door, the sundry little group had moved down the street. When they heard me open up, they turned and hurried back up the sidewalk.
A rangy white lady in austere dress quick-stepped to the door. The rest of the little band remained huddled at the property’s edge, watching their marquee player step to the plate. She wore her dark hair pulled back, a scatter of freckles across her cheeks. Her severe features and attire blended in a somber tonality, the hue of brown bread.
Despite her drabness, she seemed charged by a low current. “We’re out today sharing the word of the Lord,” she offered, passing me a pamphlet as sparks shimmered in the depths behind her eyes. With a tight smile, she directed my gaze to the pamphlet. Pointing with a close-trimmed, unvarnished nail, she asked, “Do you know this passage from the Bible?”
It was the one about the truth and light, the way to the father and all the rest of it. I said I had heard it, wanting to get the conversation over, the door already in motion. Far from being finished, the visitor was just warming to her work. She had seized upon the moment, an evangelical foot barring the door.
“Do you know what that means?” she queried, with an aquiline look of appraisal. “It means that either you accept the word of the Lord or choose to spend eternity in hell.” With a tilt of her head, she paused to let that settle. Now fully zeroed in, sparks kindling, amber-tinted irises drilling into mine. My head buzzed in the glare of her tawny high-beams. A voltaic shiver passed through the intervening air. I felt like a knee was pressed against my back, my chin pressed to the concrete, hands rifling through my clothing.
“I understand that is what you believe it means,” came my choked reply.
She responded with a narrow look, the mouse negotiating with the hawk, before sharing a final rejoinder: “Just so you understand–now you’ve heard it, and you know what it means.”
Then, as quickly as it began, the moment passed. The visitor turned on her heel, absently smoothing her dress with her hands, and retreated to join the little band waiting on the street. Already I was fading in her rearview. The deal done, the cake baked. I remained dazed in the doorway, holding the brochure. I realized in the moment, she was inviolate and unreachable. Hermetically bound in her rectitude. What I happened to choose? If I burned? Well, C’est la vie.
Closing the door, I shuddered like a dog to clear my head. Distractedly, I gathered up the horn from the stand and clipped it to the strap, at once drifting back to a familiar orbit. I felt connected again to the society of my peers, safely re-established among the denizens of the underground; the beat down, dissolute and disenfranchised, the down-and-out hookers and strung out junkies. The congregation duly assembled, I set the folio on the stand, prepared once more to bear witness to the Word according to the dark gospels of the prophet Charles C. Parker, traveling companions one and all on the caravan of lost souls.
No Looking Back
The wind had picked up from a gentle breeze to a modest gust towards the east. The Tempe Junior oarsman’s face beside me was as purple as his jersey. Despite being rivals on our home turf, we both had something in common that morning: we were tired, cold, and nervous. Getting a good night’s sleep was hard, facing the highest-stakes regatta of the year. The small, rolling waves echoed throughout the thin, cavernous, carbon-fiber hull of the boat—nearly thirty feet long, twelve inches wide, and light as a feather; it was designed purely for speed. I had spent countless hours in this boat, my sweat drenching the sliding seat beneath me.
“Carpenter! Cross the course and proceed towards the start line!” shouted a race official behind me. A few hard strokes carried me across the racecourse just before a fleet of six one-person boats hurled down the course. The tension at the start line was palpable. “Varsity men, race 1A, proceed to your lanes!”
Backing my stern into the starting gate, I looked over my shoulder, taking light corrective strokes, aiming the boat’s bow downrange.
“One minute remaining!” I had spent months training for this, innumerable exhausting laps rowing around this lake, countless times meticulously re-reading my race plan, memorizing every start sequence, every possible outcome, every way to mount a charge.
“All boats, sitting ready!” I reached forwards, resting my blades in the water, and took a deep breath. I’ve done this before. I had come too far not to give it my all. “We have alignment!” It was all I wanted. “Attention…” Time seemed to slow to a grueling pace. With a death grip on the oars, my gaze fixed on the start official’s flag, waiting for it to drop.
“…GO!” All went silent, my eyes shot forwards, and with a tremendous heave, I shot away from the starting gates. So began the two-thousand meters of pain. Sprinting at over forty strokes-per-minute, I was keeping up with the other five oarsmen. Five-hundred meters in, and I began to settle into a steady pace. I noticed through my peripheral the other boats’ sterns creeping further into view with every stroke I took. They were falling behind; I was pulling ahead! My legs and lungs began to burn, but of course, I had conditioned myself to ignore my body screaming in pain.
Fast approaching was an abrupt turn in the course. I had spent hours determining the quickest way to manipulate the bend and gain a further lead. I was now well over two boat-lengths in the lead; it was only now I glanced over at my competition; these guys were all much larger than me. Before I could process why this might be, cheers from my team on the shore began fading in—this was my moment, this would be the race I win.
Just passing the halfway point, I launched into another sprint. But I wasn’t the only one with this plan; every other oarsman began surging. With the cheers of my team echoing in my head, the panic set in. This was my moment. My legs were numb at this point, and I was pulling as hard as my body would physically allow, yet they were gaining faster and faster.
One-hundred meters left, and the air had entirely escaped my lungs. I fell further and further behind, my entire team watching; their cheers faded away as my lead did the same.
Suddenly, I heard the buzzer signaling the first boat passing the finish line, then the second, third, fourth, fifth. And with one final heave of the oars… sixth. Last by three boat lengths.I was devastated—This was supposed to be my moment; I had put in so many hours of practice. With all the qualifications and lineups, the compliments, medals, and test scores, I was sure I would at least place on the podium, as I had so many times before. My confidence was shattered. That day, I was the only person on my entire team not to get a single medal, which only added to my shame.
It was days later that I learned I had been placed in the heavyweight category instead of the lightweight category I had always raced in. This explained why the margin by which I lost felt so huge at the time. Under normal circumstances, it would have been. Realizing later that I was up against opponents fifty pounds heavier and six inches taller than myself, that margin felt like a victory. I could have not gotten in the boat at all that morning; I could have just taken the disqualification for not showing up and dodged the humiliation. But by getting out on the water at all, having led the race for even a second, and facing a challenge of that magnitude, I came to realize; that indeed was my moment.
I’m Worried that I’m Worried About All the Wrong Things
I’m worried that I’m worried about all the wrong things.
I saw an accident today. A man on a motorcycle swerved and hit a fence right in front of me. I was sitting in the passenger seat with my feet on the dash, rambling. As we approached the intersection, our conversation trailed off as we tried to see what had caused all the cars to slow to a near stop. Smoke drifted across the road. It was so thick all I could see were brake lights. Anxiety welled up inside me as I ran through everything it could be: fire, bomb, shooting. Of course, it was much more mundane. The bike was on the ground in the yard of a tattoo parlor. It had plowed through the wrought iron fence, twisting the bike out like a tree branch. Its owner was on the street, his body on the road and his head on the curb. There were people around him, screaming, running, but no one touched him. We have all heard not to move people with spinal injuries, but the reality feels callous and inhumane. He wore a helmet, so I couldn’t see his face. All I could see was the way he twitched, twisting to try and ease the pain.
I tried to look away. I didn’t want to witness any of this. The image took up permanent residence in my head anyway.
It’s been three months since I saw the accident, and the fence still hasn’t been fixed. I drive by it every day and I still see him twitching. Every day I drive by and see it, and I think of skydiving, and my grip on the steering wheel tightens.
The most dangerous part of skydiving is the drive to the drop zone, but that isn’t the part anyone is afraid of. I do not want to be afraid of statistically unlikely threats, so I memorize the statistics so I know what to fear. In the United States, about 450 people die every year falling out of bed. 24 from champagne corks. 19 from skydiving. 6 million die in car accidents.
I never found out what happened to the man on the motorcycle. I spent a few hours searching the news for accidents near the area, reports of fatalities, anything. I don’t know if he became part of the statistics, the analysis of which dictates my life.
I like to pretend that I can decide what to be afraid of based on logic, but it’s a lie. I am afraid of the jump. And the drive. And the pollen count that day. And whether I’m overdressed. The statistically likely and rare.
I don’t know how not to be afraid. I try to apply logic and algorithms to my fear to sort it into neat little boxes to manage. I inventory my fears, categorize them as if studying them will somehow lessen the paralysis they cause. I like to think of myself as a scientist. It’s not just what I study or what I do for a living, it’s who I am. The impulse to study and examine rather than act often seems to leave me nervous and disconnected. I watch a car accident and analyze what my response says about me as a person. Sometimes I wish I could just watch a car crash and scream.
The Tender Mercy of Cafeteria Staff
Banner University Medical Center, Transplant Unit – Phoenix, AZ
It is somewhere around 7 p.m. and Doug is shifting uncomfortably in his bed. The kidney transplant surgery was successfully completed yesterday afternoon. Doug, with the assistance of a walker, completed several laps around the nurse’s station earlier in the day. Everyone was so proud of his progress, which exceeded the medical team’s expectations. I wasn’t surprised at all. My dad has always been tough, always persevered, always accelerated past the finish line in victory.
He found out in 1995 that his kidneys were failing and, with a healthy diet and regular exercise, he made it twenty years before needing the transplant. Now he says his back hurts. That’s weird because he hardly ever complains. His pain continues to increase over the next few hours, seemingly at an exponential rate. I get the nurse and the surgeon is called. He orders an ultrasound; the next available appointment is a few hours away. The nurse brings a pain killer, but the pills can only be given every few hours. Between the times the pain killer wears off and another one can be administered, Doug suffers both excruciating pain and sheer terror from his reaction to the pain. I try not to panic but feel guilty for pretending that everything is ok, because it’s obviously not.
We go to the ultrasound and learn that Doug has a hematoma. A small amount of blood is slowly leaking from somewhere at the surgery site. This blood has nowhere to go, and the increasing volume is pushing against Doug’s other organs, which, I imagine, are pushing against each other. He wails loudly, pleading for the pain to subside. There is no one else in the room but me. The nurse doesn’t come because there is nothing she can do until it is time to give the next pill. I wonder if the unstoppable pain is causing Doug to hallucinate; he appears to be talking to someone who isn’t there.
The person in the bed with the hospital bracelet that reads “Doug,” who looks like my dad, isn’t the same dad I remember. This person’s mortal anguish and heartbreaking screams manifest as sounds I’ve never heard. My dad is a certified martial arts black belt and does not surrender to hard things in life. I am terrified and then mad about my terror. We’re in a hospital in a big city that is staffed by experienced medical professionals. We’re already where we need to be. The pain pills are being administered the minute they are allowed. There is nothing to do but wait until the surgeon can remove the hematoma at five o’ clock tomorrow morning.
I feel helpless, even desperate. Should I call someone? It’s after eleven on a weeknight. There are so many people I can call and they would sit with me on this vinyl couch. I know they would come, but Doug’s physical pain wouldn’t be affected by anyone else’s presence. It is solely dependent on pharmacological and surgical intervention. And would Doug really want people to see him like this? I don’t call anyone and tell myself that this conscious decision makes me in control of something, even if it’s imagined. I do not cry.
I wasn’t hungry during the chaos that led to the painkillers and ultrasound, but now that the chaos is over, I’m really hungry. It’s a few minutes before midnight. Surely the cafeteria is closed. I remember that there were vending machines downstairs, outside of the cafeteria. Doug is sleeping, temporarily relieved until the pill wears off, while drops of blood continue to feed the slowly expanding hematoma. There is nothing I can do. I hate it. I take my wallet and move swiftly and silently out of my dad’s room, trying not to make any mental noise in case he can somehow sense my thoughts.
It’s funny, even though it’s nearly midnight, all of the fluorescent lights are on in every room except for patients’. Yet another reminder that hospitals have a rhythm of their own–-an unending march through one unchanging tunnel with no halves of night and day. As I make my way downstairs to the vending machines, I’m hoping that there will be something, or maybe several somethings, that I can pretend is a meal. If there are packages of almonds standing at attention in one metal coil, maybe there will be veggie chips in another? Maybe together they will count as a meal. Happy to have something new to think about, my mind becomes obsessed with the possibilities and combinations of vending machine treasures.
I reach the bottom of the stairs and hear soft noises. Oh my God, the cafeteria is open! How is this possible? It’s midnight. I look around suspiciously, expecting to see a cleaning crew and for someone to yell at me in an irritated voice, “We’re closed!” But the metal retail gate is not partially down; the floor is not shiny from mopping in progress. Feeling like I’m doing something unauthorized, I walk past the tables and chairs and toward the food section. I expect that only packaged snacks and food will be available.
And then I’m standing in front of the soup station. There are kettles of hot soup and I start to cry. After everything we’ve been through in the last hours and the uncertainty that lies ahead in the next, there is this tender mercy. There are people who arranged childcare, got in their cars, and came to their shifts tonight to prepare food. All of these people could have done something else, but they didn’t. These benevolent people chopped onions and carrots, boiled water, pulled mixing bowls from cupboards. They created love and mercy and sustenance, which is now between my hands in a Styrofoam cup. There are other people out there in the world. I am not alone. Everything is going to be ok.
I pay for the soup and return to Doug’s room. He doesn’t wake up when I open the door. I sit quietly on the couch so it doesn’t creak or groan and carefully remove the plastic lid. I see that there is nearly an entire ten-pound bag of onions in this one cup of soup, but I don’t care. Doug asks me if I got something to eat. His voice is groggy and hoarse. I answer, but he falls back asleep and doesn’t hear me.
The next day the surgeon removes the hematoma. After waking up from this second surgery, Doug is in a panic and urgently tells the nurse that he needs a kidney transplant. She tells him that he already had the transplant; the new kidney is in his abdomen. He looks confused and says, “Oh, it is?” And we all feel guilty for laughing.
Six years later, my dad and his kidney donor continue to enjoy hiking, water skiing and spending time with the people they love. Life, and soup, are beautiful.
Amitabha Stupa Peace Park: Scooby Doo
by Corrina Tape
Have you ever dreamed of a place so beautiful that the moment you see it you feel an overwhelming feeling of serenity? A scene so beautiful it challenges your standards of beauty? What if you were able to enjoy this place with your best friend whenever you wanted?
The windy roads of northern Sedona, Arizona hide Amitabha Stupa Peace Park. As I step out of my car, my favorite pair of battered black converse meet the bright red dirt. The fresh air caresses my nose like a soft blanket. It is sunny but cool out today. My best friend, Scooby-Doo, hops out of the car full of excitement; his tail wags so fast that I worry its forceful motion will cause him to topple sideways. This is our favorite place. Flourishing green leaves and brightly colored prayer flags decorate the trees. It’s as though tiny rainbows hang from their branches. We start up the trail leading to a tall, clay-like monument: A mesmerizing Stupa trimmed with gold. Many gather around it for prayer or quiet meditation. I release my desires onto the universe while Scooby sits beside me panting and eager to continue our journey through the park. Next, we saunter up a short trail leading to a medicine wheel. As I walk around the wheel, I think of the things within me that need healing and I am at ease. I ask the universe for guidance in healing, and the weight on my shoulders no longer feels so burdensome, so heavy. It has lightened. Scooby, finally weary from the day’s journey, lies beneath a shady tree. At last, we have a seat under a shaded tree by the prayer wheels. The sun glistens on their golden bodies, rotating quickly, then slowly and fast again. Tourists are rustling the pages of the prayer books, looking for an open space to write their requests. Scooby drinks cool water from the silver bowl they put out for thirsty pups. After a short walk around the trails leading through the park, we are back at our car, ready to head back down the windy roads to home. Scooby’s red paw prints are all over my passenger seat. It is a sweet reminder of a peaceful day at our favorite place.
I’ve avoided returning for almost a year now. The Peace Park is still here, but the day is gloomy. I’m in a state of intense psychic pain, a feeling akin to a knife stabbing through my chest. I am hesitant to step from my car, so I take a few deep breaths to calm myself. I drove all this way so I cannot turn back now, right? This time the air feels heavy like a ton of bricks pressing on my shoulders. Prayer flags still decorate the trees, but now, flapping in the wind, they look dim and tattered. As I approach the Stupa, it seems less mesmerizing and more like a painful reminder and my eyes pool with tears. I sit quietly where there is nobody around. I try to release my feelings of guilt, but today it does not feel like it is working. Instead, I am being crushed under the giant red rocks surrounding me. The Stupa has lost its magic. Now I drag myself over to the medicine wheel. This time, I don’t walk around it. This wound refuses to heal… not yet and not so easily. I skip the spinning prayer wheels and head right for my car. The red dirt causes my shoes to get dirty and now it is all on the floor of my car. This frustrates me. Coming here without my best friend was the worst idea. This is no longer my favorite place.
Scooby went from an energetic, healthy 11-month-old puppy to being completely paralyzed on the left side of his body. In a matter of days, I had lost my best friend. After his passing, I found out he had a rare genetic disease that caused his immune system to fail when a tiny number of bacteria entered the top of his spine. I lost my best friend, and he took the love I had for the park, our favorite place, with him. The serenity I felt at the park arose from going to such a beautiful place and spending the whole day with my closest companion. The moment I lost Scooby’s companionship, my life changed. I no longer saw beauty or felt peace but instead felt a deep well of discomfort. I felt a thousand pounds of guilt. Guilt, because I wondered if the doctor made the right call. Answers I will never know. Sometimes it is not where you are or what you are doing but instead who’s with you.
Lessons in Love
I am seven years old watching The Little Mermaid. He is tall, dark, handsome, and ready to battle sea monsters for Ariel. He just met her, but he knows they will live happily ever after. Is this what love looks like?
I am 17 years old; I just had my heart stomped on by a boy I barely knew, and I am a ricocheting bullet. He is tall, dark, and modestly handsome. I am not immediately interested, but he is persistent. We spend three years together. He doesn’t battle sea monsters for me. Instead, he makes me feel stupid, and tells me he will kill himself if I leave. I am trapped. This is not what love looks like.
I am 22 years old; he is short, dark, and a class clown. He is kind and gentle, and I know he loves me, but he won’t make time for me. He owns a barbershop, and all his time is devoted to making it thrive. I am lonely. We spend four years together, fighting about who is hurting whom the most. I do not think this is what love looks like.
I am 28 years old, another man-child gone, another scar on my heart. I am done looking. He is tall, bald, and handsome, but he is my best friend and he comes with multiple complications. He knows we are soul mates, but I am not convinced. He says that I am smarter than he is, even though he is getting his master’s degree and I have nothing to prove my knowledge or worth. He doesn’t sweep me off my feet, but he is always there when I need him. I do not feel ready for him, but he slowly works his way in. I think this is what love looks like.
I am almost thirty years old, and it’s our wedding day. He’s still tall, bald, and handsome. We stand together in front of seventy of our closest friends and family. There is a beautiful koi pond in front of us and a lush green garden behind us. I am nervous because I hate being the center of attention, but I am not scared to make this commitment. I finally know what love looks like.
I am 34 years old. He is tall and completely hairless from head to toe. His skin is thin and grey, and he looks sick from a mile away. He has a giant scar across his left side from having a tumor and a slice of rib removed. He is weak but strong enough to hold my hand as I push our last baby out. He sits in the visitor chair holding our newborn son with the tenderest of expressions on his pale face. In that moment, he’s the most handsome he’s ever been. We have fought so many sea monsters together, and I know for certain: this is what love looks like.
by Matt Perez
It was the spring of ‘95. My friend and I thought it would be a good idea to skip school. That day, we would not conform to what the teachers were trying to make us into: responsible robots that followed the rules. I met him at his house at about nine o’clock. His mom had left for work already, and his dad wasn’t around. I never asked questions about it; I only knew it was him and his mom. We went to his room, and he pulled out a tin cookie container filled with marijuana and papers. Time disappeared as we rolled and smoked. We decided to go to a Chinese buffet and to the movies. We would have to make our way to Phoenix since Buckeye was still a small town that didn’t quite yet have these places.
We loaded up in his sky-blue Monte Carlo that was riding on twenty-inch Daytons, bumping the ten-inch woofers that played Tupac’s “Dear Mama.” We hit the back roads of our small town to remain inconspicuous from the police. We made our way on that sunny day down the winding roads, passing the green alfalfa fields on both sides with the mountains in the distance.
Outside the buffet, we smoked another joint, hotboxing in the car. We couldn’t stop laughing about the robots back at school and how much fun we were having. The double doors of the buffet looked like the gates of Heaven. Inside we picked our table and made trips back and forth; we probably tried everything they had to offer that day. We left a good tip, feeling guilty for all the cheap food we ate.
We hit the side streets to the movie theater and pulled in, twenty minutes before the movie. We sat in the car smoking and laughing about nothing at all. I don’t remember the movie we watched that day. I can only remember the feeling of how great life was at that very moment. We had freedom and no worries. We headed back home the way we came, still hiding from the police. We smoked and bumped the music, letting it enter our souls. I guess we both figured something was wrong with the way we were living from all the rules we had been given. Conform or be cast out, left out, looked down upon, and judged. That day there was no judge. We belonged, and it was one of my best days ever.
by Brenda Mason
The notion of reflection, in general terms, brings up images of looking at oneself in a mirror – looking inward instead of outward. But I like to take it a step further, and conceptualize reflection as viewing something in opposition. I usually see things like how someone else sees me; they see my right side as the left.
For example, I recently saw a holiday card with the number “2020” going up in flames in a cartoon dumpster. I got the humor; just about every damaged, broken, or burnt object has become a visual metaphor for the year 2020. The last 12 months have witnessed traumatic illness and divisiveness that will forever be in the memories of those who survived.
However, this particular image struck me; the cartoon flames and the smiling dumpster made me think that someone willfully chose to destroy this calendar of events – a violent act aided and abetted by the happy little blue dumpster. I understand that, as humans, we try to rationalize our negative experiences to make sense of the bad things that happen to us, and often, we want revenge. But 2020 is just a year, a passage of time. 2020 isn’t purposeful in its intent, it just is, as we describe it. So I choose to reflect on 2020 in the following ways.
2020 helped me build relationships and think creatively. I started fights and gave apologies. I comforted my children and have been comforted by them. I had time to practice writing, speaking, and listening from a more honest place. And I have learned that there are lots of ‘right’ ways to do things. 2020 forced eye-opening opportunities for growth and creativity. This may be the only year I spent over nine months at home with my kids, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I stepped in for online teachers and stepped out for composure. I fought to be the parent I think I’m supposed to be and relaxed into being the parent I am. I don’t know that I’m a better parent, but I have stopped pretending. Now, I engage my whole self and will help my kids do the same.
2020 has shown us, unflinchingly, what our priorities are. Directly or indirectly, we have all been faced with our mortality this year. We have all felt some level of threat and sorrow, yet we have all felt compassion for another. And although I have kept myself and my family physically distant from every other human being on earth, I have never felt so connected to my fellow humans. Because I know that we are all dealing with these events as best we can.
So, yes, 2020 was a difficult, painful, exhausting year. And I, for one, am grateful.