Backstory

You kiss Ryan Gosling at El Cid on one of those smoking terraces that overlook the canyon below Sunset Boulevard. You have both been catcalling the flamenco dancers and sharing cigarettes like you and your best friend used to on the patio of the coffee shop in Los Gatos, a life so distant from where you have come that you wonder whether you have made it up so that your character has backstory.

Contrary to what you will tell others later, the kiss is closed-mouthed and lopsided. You are so drunk it is not possible to know who leaned in towards whom, but it is likely that you perpetrated. You, desperate, starved for love, so deprived of the validation that you exist in this fetishized dystopia of self-willed kamikazes. There is some theatrical fondling of the shirt collar and its forced awkwardness. Still. In a small, lopsided way, you are confirmed.

The next morning, ebbing your way out of gin-induced oblivion, you manage to stumble into him. You are perusing the ’zines in Skylight Books, dressed in the same lace jumper you wore the night before, and he is handling a book on California poetry near the greeting card carousel. You should be wearing sunglasses. Or a mask. He is wearing a fedora; you, the glass beret you bought while backpacking through Brittany. Both of you are escaping the Los Feliz heat and its baking sheet sidewalks.

There is a blip. Unrecognition. A hiccup in reality—which is really a trademark experience since your unbecoming into one of many, many free radicals. Your grip on the black and white vanity print tightens. Your damp fingers smudge the script. But that’s okay. You will buy it anyway. As a memento of reformation. The smile is microscopic and barely hurdles the rampart of books and greeting cards, but by god, it is a smile. It is a laser to the brain. To his left, a wispy brunette spins the card carousel, unaware that you have conquered fantasy.

Ryan holds your gaze just long enough.

He licks his lips.

He sets the book down on an untouched stack of LA Weeklys.

Exits frame left. Fades to white.

Holy shit, you think. I’m finally real.

 

 

Tara Stillions Whitehead

Tara Stillions Whitehead’s writing has appeared in Fiction International, Red Rock Review, Chicago Review, Sleipnir, New Orleans Review, Texas Review, and elsewhere. She has received a Glimmer Train Award for New Writers and Pushcart Prize and AWP Intro Journal Awards nominations. A former assistant director for television and film, she now teaches film and writing in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Woman, Silent

My mother said, “It’s ok to say no.”

I needed a cup from my grandmother’s cupboard, but I was four, unable to reach. My aunt grabbed me by the waist, cupping my bottom the way a swing set holds the body of small children. She hoisted me up to reach the cup, but I wouldn’t grab one. When she set me down I mumbled, don’t touch my private parts. Her laugh was defensive. She confronted my mother and said I was disrespectful. My mother said, “She governs her own body.”

In middle school an older female teacher sometimes walked behind students and laid her hands on them. Everyone joked about how inappropriate it was. As a class, we decided we would stand up and voice our discomfort. One day, she rested her hands on my shoulders. I jumped up. Don’t touch me, I shouted. The room was silent. I was sent to the principals’ office and eventually transferred to another teacher. My mother was proud of me, although I’m ashamed of myself now for those moments of pain etched in my teacher’s face after I’d shouted at her.

That was my mother’s gift to me. While other parents taught their children to say yes, to their teachers and their elders and their peers, my mother was adamant I learn to speak for my body.

Recently I went to get a massage from a cheap parlor; a type of place where you don’t undress. I signed a form stating I wanted a stranger’s hands on my body, to pull and push it into submission.

In a communal room, my masseuse told me, in broken and heavily accented English, to flip onto my stomach. Without speaking, he removed my arms from the shoulder straps of my dress. I assisted him. My stomach burned. He tugged at the dress, mumbling something as he pulled hard against my waist. I was waiting for him to stop. Stop beneath my shoulder blades. Stop there, at the lowest rib. My body became a list he checked off with ticks. He unsnapped my bra.

When the dress was pulled to my hips, just below the two dimples along my lower back, I told him that was far enough, the only words I was able to utter. The breath from his laugh hit my naked back and stung.

Later I learned I’d unknowingly consented to a massage, body unclothed. The masseuse was not a predator. But during that hour, I was a woman, silent.

Afterward he tried to snap my bra back on for me. I removed his hands and attempted it myself. My hands shook; I couldn’t hook the clips of my bra. He laughed again as I took the bra off completely and, still face down, slithered back into my dress. I shoved a crinkled five-dollar bill into his hand, fled.

In the car I fixed smudged mascara, my frizzled hair. My lip was swollen from where I’d bit it to keep from screaming.

 

by Briana Loveall

In 2018 Briana Loveall was a finalist for the Beacon Street Prize and the winner of the Peninsula Pulse Hal Award. In 2017 she was a finalist for the Montana Book Festival Award and the Annie Dillard Award. Her worth has appeared, or is forthcoming, with The Rumpus, The Forge, Under the Gum Tree, Crab Orchard Review, and others.

 

 

 

 

Nicolas Ridley, Featured Author

Virtually Identical

FICTION

 

‘I shan’t introduce you to my sister,’ said Kate. ‘You’ll fall in love with her. Then I’ll have to hate you.’

‘Fine,’ I said.

(I’m used to Kate’s pronouncements.)

We were driving to Sussex. Having decided to marry me, Kate felt I should meet her parents.

‘You and your sister,’ I said. ‘Are you alike?’

‘We’re virtually identical.’

‘Twins?’

‘Stop the car,’ said Kate. ‘There by those bushes. I need to change.’

 

I find it captivating: Kate’s ability to transform herself. From brisk solicitor to untamed party-animal. From formal dinner guest to fun-runner in baggy shorts and shapeless t-shirt. The Kate, who now appeared in a black skirt and white blouse, was the dutiful daughter.

 

‘I must warn you,’ said Kate. ‘My parents are prudes.’

To me they appeared courteous, welcoming, perfectly charming.

‘Samuel will be sleeping in the guest bedroom,’ said Kate.

(Another of Kate’s pronouncement.)

Did I see Kate’s mother raise an eyebrow?

 

‘Don’t come looking for me in the night,’ said Kate. ‘You’ll end up in someone else’s bedroom.’

Kate’s father’s generous measures of single malt meant that I fell deeply asleep, but I woke up immediately when the bedroom door creaked open.

‘Don’t turn on the light.’

I didn’t.

In the morning, she’d gone.

 

‘Were you alright last night?’ said Kate.

‘Last night?’

‘By yourself in your lonely little bed.’

‘By myself? But didn’t you …?’

‘Didn’t I what?’

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I slept fine.’

 

‘Who are you?’

‘Me?’ I said. ‘I’m the bridegroom.’

‘I thought you looked familiar,’ she said. ‘I’m Aunt Astrid. I’m potty as an aspidistra. Did you know there was madness in the family?’

‘Really?’ I said, looking round the marquee. ‘Tell me. I haven’t met Kate’s sister yet. Is she here somewhere?

‘Sister? Kate has no sister. Kate’s an only child.’

 

by Nicolas Ridley

 

Unarmed Combat

NONFICTION

 

It’s a pleasant day in early April. Winter is no more than a memory and today we are learning how to kill people. Or maim them. Maybe both. I’m not sure yet.

Together we chant the sergeant’s mantra:

One-two-three-four,

Step-on-his-jaw,

Just-to-make-sure.

‘Next!’

Last January we slept in our boots on Dartmoor. We learnt the lesson on the first morning. If you leave your boots outside the tent, they freeze like solid blocks of ice. The answer is to keep them on all night. This means lying on your back in your sleeping-bag with your feet pointing upwards. It’s awkward at first but you get used to it. When you’re fourteen-years-old, sleeping isn’t usually terribly difficult.

One-two-three-four,

Step-on-his-jaw,

Just-to-make-sure.

‘Next!’

This spring the school’s Combined Cadet Force is camping in the Thetford battle area. We have spent much of the week crawling through damp bracken and sheep’s droppings but we’ve camped in many worse places and will do again.

This afternoon a group of us has volunteered to undergo training in unarmed combat. It sounded more fun than signals, mortars or map-reading. We are in the care of our instructor: square, unhurried, amiable, Sergeant Jones.

Methodically, almost languorously, Sergeant Jones disarms, disables and dispatches us by numbers.

‘You take the arm. You break the arm. You twist the wrist. And over he goes.’

Perhaps it’s a little chilling but it’s also oddly hypnotic.

‘You take the arm. You break the arm. You twist the wrist. And over he goes.’

One at a time, we rush at Sergeant Jones with wooden weapons. Step-by-step — cool and unflurried — he goes about his business.

‘You take the arm. You break the arm. You twist the wrist. And over he goes.’

I’m not certain what we’re learning except that Sergeant Jones is the master of his craft. If we have to watch him very much longer, we may become bored and rather restless but, for the present, it passes the time.

One-two-three-four,

Step-on-his-jaw,

Just-to-make-sure.

‘Next!’

All afternoon the sun shines down on us benignly. Tonight the damp bracken and sheep’s droppings will remain unfrozen and we will sleep peacefully in our socks.

 

by Nicolas Ridley

Nicolas Ridley has lived and worked in Tokyo, Casablanca, Barcelona, Hong Kong and Paris and now lives in London & Bath (UK) where he writes fiction, non-fiction, scripts and stage plays. A prize-winner and Pushcart Prize nominee, his short stories have been read at Liars’ League (London), Rattle Tales (Brighton), The Speakeasy (Bath), The Squat Pen Rests (Swindon), Story Friday (Bath), The Story Tales (London), Storytails (London) and Talking Tales (Bristol). Others have been published in London Lies, Lovers’ Lies & Weird Lies by Arachne Press (UK), Ariadne’s Thread (UK), Barbaric Yawp (USA), The Linnet’s Wings (Ireland), Litro Magazine (UK), O:JA&L (USA), Rattle Tales 3 (UK), Sleet Magazine (USA), The Summerset Review (USA), Tales from a Small Planet (USA), Tears in the Fence (UK) and Black is the New Black & True Love by Wordland (UK). Godfrey’s Ghost, his biographical memoir, is published by Mogzilla Life.

 

 

Heinous

I carry two things with me at all times: mace and paranoia. I’m always looking over my shoulder. Always expecting the worst. Is that my shadow or a stranger’s? Is that man jogging or hunting for someone weak? Am I about to be mugged or hit on? There’s no sad back story here. I was never attacked. Everyone I love is still alive. I just remember watching the news before school every morning. There was always a blurb on the Christian Newsom murders. Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. It always showed the same picture. A young woman with blonde hair, only a shade lighter than my own hair, smiling next to a boy wearing a Tennessee baseball cap. They were young. Happy. Alive. The murder was never explicitly described on TV. They only ever said “heinous.” It was a heinous crime. It was a heinous crime that happened in the same town where I rode my bike. The same town where my dad parked his car. The same town where my mom worked late. I didn’t read the details of the crime until years later. I regretted it. The dark is so much scarier when the monsters are real. And when the monsters are people, people whose bones are likely the same color as mine.

Last night I was walking home from the park. I wasn’t alone, I had a man beside me. But so did Channon. I kept turning my head back and sizing up the men on the sidewalk. Joe watched me jump at shadows, and I could see him wondering, asking why. We were less than a block from campus and there was a man leaning against a tattoo parlor. He was watching us, his fist tapping the brick wall. My mace was buried in a bag. I didn’t have any money for him take. He would take my laptop, all of my writing, and maybe my phone. Maybe that would be all. Maybe I could leave with my body intact. The man turned from the wall and entered the tattoo parlor. As we walked by I kept craning my head back. I wanted to be certain.

When I got back to my room I told a friend about the man leaning against the tattoo parlor. She said I was just paranoid. Later that night I researched the difference between pepper spray and mace. I learned that pepper spray causes more pain. I went on Amazon to make sure mine was pepper spray. It is. And I added a purple stun gun to my wish list.

 

by Sophie Ezzell

Sophie Ezzell was the winner of two Maier Writing Awards for her works in fiction and poetry. She is currently pursuing a degree in Creative Writing from Marshall University, where she also serves as Poetry Editor for its literary magazine, Et Cetera.

Why I’m okay with the C on my first French test, in thirteen footnotes

Because it takes two extra steps to add accents with my keyboard and I “don’t have that kind of time.”[1]

Because “I hate to tell you this, but I have a gun,”[2] and “Could you sound a little less angry?”[3] and “I’m telling you, watch out for that bitch.”[4]

Because, “[security officers] became suspicious when they saw the suspect following women through the store”[5] and “We’re so grateful for those who have stuck with us during this time. They know who they are.”[6] and “He’s still the best man I know.”[7]

Because, ‘When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.” [8]and “Is this judge a really good man? And he is. And by any measure he is.”[9]

Because fluent, cadenced nonsense used to tumble from my toddler’s mouth like birdsong.

Because “there are very fine people on both sides”[10] and “3,000 people did not die in Puerto Rico.”[11]

Because “when you finally realize that you do not need to understand everything said, you will know victory.”[12]

Because of the plane trees.

Because “Hey man, I feel like if you’re going to criticize this country, you know, you can just leave.”[13]

Because it’s so far away from everything I’ve ever known and also, it’s so far away from everything I’ve ever known.

Because I understand too much of my mother tongue.

My mother

tongue.

 


[1] Anne Lamott https://www.npr.org/2011/04/18/135517274/beyond-bunnies-the-real-meaning-of-easter-season.

[2] My assailant. December 15, 1989.

[3] Faculty Meeting, April 2012.

[4] Former Colleague, April 2017.

[5] https://www.thecabin.net/news/2012-06-13/vilonia-teacher-charged-harassment.

[6] Former friend, former Vilonia teacher, Facebook post.

[7] Former friend, former Vilonia teacher’s wife, e-mail correspondence.

[8]https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/california-professor-writer-of-confidential-brett-kavanaugh-letter-speaks-out-about-her-allegation-of-sexual-assault/2018/09/16/46982194-b846-11e8-94eb-3bd52dfe917b_story.html?utm_term=.49302c94c5ad

[9] https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2018/09/17/sen-hatch-says-christine/

[10] Donald Trump.

[11] Ibid.

[12] How to Get Really Good at French. Polyglot Language Learning, 2017.

[13] Overheard, University of Central Arkansas Fitness Center, September 11, 2018.

 

by Stephanie Vanderslice

Stephanie Vanderslice is a prose writer and creative writing professor at the University of Central Arkansas. Publications include Ploughshares Online, EasyStreet Online, So to Speak and many others, as well as several books such as The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life (Bloomsbury 2017).

The Line, or, An Unreliable Narrator of the Short Ride Home

My son today is anarcho-Marxist and looks towards a world of fractured power. On the way to school he laughed at the rationale behind a thin blue line; a line he’s certain will and should self-implode.  I feel like there’s an even thinner line between how people see me and what’s happening inside; maybe it’s the color of a two-way mirror.  On one side there used to be a bougie white woman with bohemian tendencies, a well-read Northeastern WASP, and on the other was sharp teeth, madness, the unpredictable danger of an inappropriate turn of phrase; blood-crusted fingernails; cake for breakfast.  Then someone flipped a switch, maybe me, and the line separated instead an inner composed sophisticate and an exterior mess, a person who has lost track of how to wear her face.  Strange fluids burbling out of unnatural orifices, oops!  Yet when I turn to plug one, chunks of flesh fall away, revealing open tombs of dead promises and unfinished thoughts. But that’s just right now; in a few hours the key will be properly in the ignition, engine on, and I’ll pick up my kid; he’ll complain about plutocracy and play me bad punk from his phone, gleeful, knowing or not knowing that his driver is an unreliable narrator of the short ride home.

 

by Abigail King

Abigail King lives, writes, and eats radicchio in Austin, Texas.