About Issue No.1

All the pieces in this issue, our very first, were inspired by or gathered through the common theme of “Survival.”

Call for Submissions.

CANDOR magazine is accepting submissions for its second issue.

CANDOR publishes work by people of all sexes and genders.

Its debut issue, themed SURVIVAL, included an essay about the rhetoric of rape victims by Atossa Abrahamian, a personal essay about domesticity by Shashi Bhat, and a conversation entitled “Woman Writer / Writer Mother” between Sarah Manguso and the writer Rachel Zucker.

Online literary tastemaker THE MILLIONS called it “a SASSY for the intellectual set, rife with wit and intelligence.”

I hope you’ll consider submitting an essay of any size or shape to CANDOR’s next issue. Its theme is GAIETY. Consider queerness, joy, and, in the words of Russell Edson, “humor, that gaiety that death teaches!”

Thank you so much for your kind consideration.


Write

Fiction (up to 3000 words)

Essays (about 3000 words)

Reviews (500-1000 words)

To

candormagazine@gmail.com


Please have any submissions to us by April 1st.

PRESS

Candor Magazine in THE MILLIONS!

"The debut issue of Candor magazine is like a Sassy for the intellectual set, rife with wit (Emily Gould and Merisa Meltzer discuss Away We Go), intelligence (writer mother Rachel Zucker and woman writer Sarah Manguso speak candidly about identity, motherhood, women’s prejudices and writing), and women’s rights (Atossa Abrahamian considers the rhetoric of the rape victim).”

Photos from Candor’s Launch party, 11/22/09

readers!

The Believers by Zoe Heller, reviewed by Mina Kimes

The Believers

Zoe Heller

Zoe Heller isn’t out to make friends.  The Believers, her latest novel, is populated with jerks, weaklings, and fools.  Nearly all of her characters are difficult to sympathize with, and at times seem intentionally designed to alienate the reader.

That’s the point, says Heller. The author has in numerous interviews critiqued the reader’s desire for likable characters, or “relatability.” She has even admitted that the need for identification left her “slightly irritated.”  Like the weary mother of an unpopular child, Heller told the New York Times there are more important things than being liked. “If you want to find friends, go to a cocktail party,” she said.

Ironically, that is where we meet The Believers’ main characters—at a party in London, in the 1960’s.  Audrey Howard first sees Joel Litvinoff in a crowd of drunken graduate students and would-be revolutionaries.  Joel, a prodigious Jewish lawyer in his early thirties, woos her with his liberal affirmations.  He follows Audrey to her parents’ house in the countryside; she trails him back to New York City, visions of peace rallies dancing in her head. “They would go on marches and hold cocktail parties attended by all their Negro friends.”

The characters’ initial encounter shimmers with ambiguity. Audrey is alternately timid and forthright, inducing shifts of power between Joel and herself.  But Heller quickly alters the tone when she clues the reader into Joel’s thoughts.  On the train ride to the Howards’ home, he tells Audrey that he has been invited to join Martin Luther King’s legal team, and is immediately annoyed when she doesn’t fawn over his accomplishments.  When he enters her parents’ cluttered house, he is disgusted with the mess:  “Whatever malaise hung over this house could not be attributed to poverty, he thought.  Cleanliness cost nothing, after all.”  Heller invokes Austen by letting his perceptions shadow the narrative descriptions; the trip sags under the weight of Joel’s judgment.

When Audrey half-heartedly wonders what it would be like to marry Joel, one wants to claw their way into the scene, warning her of the inevitable pain that will ensue. We never get the chance, however as the story skips forward to 2002; Joel is now in his seventies, famed for exonerating civil rights leaders and accused terrorists.  Audrey, his wife, has become unremittingly foul-tempered, and the blurry qualities she exhibited earlier have sharpened into dark relief.  As Joel breakfasts in their West Village brownstone before a trial, she snaps at him several times—a habit, we learn:

"Audrey had decided long ago that if everybody else was going to guffaw at Joel’s jokes and roll over at his charm, her distinction—the mark of her unparalleled intimacy with the legend—would be a deadpan unimpressability. ‘Oh, I forgot!’ she often drawled when Joel was embarking on one of his exuberant anecdotes.  ‘It’s all about you, isn’t it?’"

She only grows nastier.  After Joel is rendered unconscious by a stroke early in the book, Audrey lashes out at nearly every person in her vicinity. She berates Joel’s coworker (“What did you learn on your big fact-finding mission?”), his nurse (“Is there someone more senior I could talk to?”), and her own daughter, whom she expels from the hospital.  There’s little to acquit her, as her thoughts don’t stray far from her belittling actions—a common case in The Believers.

Depriving a character of appeal poses a challenge, forcing the reader to question her need for identification—Heller’s “relatability.”  But where characters in other novels have pushed the boundaries of relatability while attracting our fascination and even our compassion (Shakespeare’s Richard III comes to mind; so does Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert), Audrey isn’t interesting enough to incite either sentiment.  Sometimes, a shrew is just a shrew.

Most readers will persevere though, which is a testament to Heller’s deftness at describing the situations of everyday life.  Particularly compelling are the scenes featuring the Litvinoff’s daughters: Karla, a chubby, weak-willed social worker in an unhappy marriage, and Rosa, a jaded activist who finds herself inexplicably drawn to Orthodox Judaism (there’s an adopted drug-addict son, but he’s a bit of an afterthought).  Neither Karla nor Rosa are very likable—Karla resembles a weaker version of the younger Audrey and says “Oh no!” too often, and Rosa is a less vituperative incarnation of Audrey in the present—but both navigate real, modern dilemmas.  Heller’s account of Karla’s struggle with her weight feels true to life, especially when she spills into “hot tears” because her future paramour, the Egyptian operator of a newsstand, asks if she’s on a diet.

Karla’s lover, Khaled, is perhaps the most intriguing character in The Believers, sympathetic not because he is likable, but because he is complicated; despite witnessing racial prejudice, he maintains a faith in American opportunism.  The rest of the cast consists of dated stock characters ranging from obnoxious bourgeois liberals to less articulate New Yorkers.  Few deviate from what is expected of them, even the Orthodox Jews whom Heller soft-gloves (they end up speaking in the muted cadence of primary school teachers).  We swallow them as Rosa does, but we also feel little for her, as they are, in many ways, the byproduct of her self-absorption.  For example, Rosa’s ditzy, Sex and the City-quoting roommate is an amalgam of stereotypes:

Happily, Jane’s natural obtuseness, enhanced by years of self-esteem training, had saved her from taking offense.  Insofar as she noticed Rosa’s froideur at all, she attributed it to social awkwardness.  Rosa, she had decided, was a shy girl, who needed bringing out of herself.  To this end, she was always appearing at Rosa’s bedroom door—-gooseflesh hips spilling over the top of her low-rise jeans, a mug of Celestial Seasonings in her  cupped hands, wanting to parse a celebrity interview in InSyle magazine, or to deliver a bulletin from her hectic life in the fast lane of public relations.

Are these people as unbelievable as they seem, or are they unbelievable because they are viewed through the solipsistic eyes of the Litvinoffs?  Even if it’s the latter, banal characterization has its limits. A shift in perspective cannot always excuse.

The timing of Joel’s coma suggests that it ought to serve as a catalyst, driving Audrey, Rosa, and Karla to change their ways and confront their beliefs.  But there is a strange sense of disconnect between the stroke and what ensues; none of the characters seem to be affected by it.  The Believers is a family drama, but it could easily be about a group of characters who have never met each other.  The Litvinoffs exist on disparate planes, rarely reverberating against each other.

Heller’s main characters flail in a world that offers no respite—because respite ought to come in the form of human connection, which is nearly non-existent in the novel.  Heller said her readers were complaining about a lack of likable characters, or a dearth of “Atticus Finch” types.  But what what’s really missing isn’t loveliness or kindness, but complexity, which necessitates characters who don’t solely see others as stereotypes.  Not liking characters, but believing in them, is relatability.  There is a brief flicker of understanding, occurring between Audrey and Karla near the end.  It’s enough to suggest that Audrey might be human—but not enough to make her an object of interest. Or, for that matter, a friend.

Mina Kimes is a writer-reporter for Fortune magazine.  She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Year of Men: An Expat in China, by Adriane Quinlan

The Year of Men:

An Expat in China

Names have been changed to protect friendships.

I lived in Hong Kong half a year and no men kissed me, and I thought it would be like this forever. I thought this is what life would be: Me, overdressed, drunk and bleary, sucking on chocolate soy-milk as I made my way in heels to my solitary apartment—a third story walkup above a store where shirtless men dried shark fins, staring at me as I walked out to the bus in the mornings or ran out in my hideous jogging costume, puffing like a blowfish. Ford and I had thought about what the essence of Hong Kong was, or I had thought of it while drunk and trying to be clever, and we had agreed that it was a puddle—a puddle that reflected neon lights. You’d come home at five, six a.m.— No one ever stayed out as late as they did in Hong Kong—and your digital camera would be full of the same picture: the retro Chinese neon sign reflected in the puddle that had gathered in the cobblestones.

I was miserable and in a month, I’d leave.

I’d go to Beijing.

I’d see something of the world.

I’d fall in love.

But first: this. This purgatory that I thought of as the world.

Ford was my best friend. He lived in a hotel at the end of a road that had not yet been built. To get there, we shared a cab that drove down the long, dirt path through the flat marshland and then there it was, glistening up ahead: a peach-colored chandelier-y place—what an alien civilization would have built if they worshipped crystals.

Years later we tried to remember how we had met and remembered two different stories. To him I had been the girl at the drinking game, in the back of that dingy Korean place, asking the morbid questions. To me, he had been the boy on the rooftop of the Foreign Correspondents Club. It was the night the Canadian dollar passed the American and the childhood friend he had come with, a Wall Street Journal reporter, had high-fived another Canadian at another table. I had looked on—reeling slightly for my country, slightly amused to be among the lucky rich still sipping, quite literally, gin and juice. And then Ford had yelled toward them in an outburst. “NEITHER OF YOU HAVE ANY MONEY IN EITHER CURRENCY,” he said. “WE DON’T CARE ANYMORE.”

We both just didn’t care.

The soy milk had become my comfort food. It wasn’t chocolate-flavored really, but advertised itself as “malted” and tasted almost exactly like chocolate. Children bought it in the stores; There was a daisy on the outside of the box and you felt like an idiot drinking it.

The discovery of the milk had come through Alan, the most hardened expat, having lived here for a few years after a horrific breakup with a woman who had moved here for him and whose paintings still hung silent in his apartment. (It was reported from a girlfriend of mine who had gone in there that one showed an octopus, pulling a sunk car out of the ocean up onto the sand.) Alan was now quiet, tempered. A jaded attitude of wisdom seemed to have gathered in his spine, weighing it down so he stooped. We turned to him for counsel while behind his back everyone wondered why he was friends with us, about how sad that was, and about how we didn’t want to end up like him.

We had been in a cab heading down Connaught Road, with three of us in the backseat and me looking out the window reading everything out loud. The boys had smoked hashish in Boris’s ice-cube apartment and I, not having any of it, had drunk a lot of yellowy beers in an effort to keep up. There was a one-dollar 8.6% beer you could get from the all-night 7-11s and these had done me over. The result was that I was now a loud freak while they were zoned out, staring at the fireworks lightshow that popped up along the water at night, the sponsorship effort of some bank or another.

Alan turned around from the front seat, saying that the driver was asking where we were supposed to be going.

“I asked, ‘WHERE ARE WE GOING,” Austin said, faux-serious.

"Is that a chocolate milk?" Boris asked, incredulous.

Alan was sucking the straw of a gravy-colored box. “You’ve never had these before?” he said, passing the chocolate-y soy around the backseat, not knowing any better where we were going.

“It’s wonderful,” I said, feeling that this was as good as it got. It was soy milk—so Hong Kong, what old women ladled out of wooden buckets in front of the noodle shops—and it was chocolate, drink of those who desire more.

Hungover on Sundays, we’d make plans to meet at a dim-sum place that Savir’s girlfriend called “the spit jar place.” There were a lot of dim sum places in the city where you’d wait in line and sit at a clean table and remark on the delicate intricacies of the dishes. But this wasn’t one of them. At the top of a staircase past a small medicine shop, there was a flotilla of grease covered tables, every one of them occupied by an old man with his stomach out, looking at us over the lip of a smudged newspaper and smirking foully. The light in the room was green and women with their hair up in nets would push their ways around the tables, screaming in Cantonese the names of the dishes. We didn’t understand, so they’d let us lift the little bamboo cages off of their plates and look at them and say oh, good golly yes—steamed shrimp wrapped in thick egg noodles, or a kind of yellow sponge cake Savir called “brain bread”—or good lord, no to the bony bits of beef you were supposed to suck the marrow out of or the gelatinous cubes that tasted of bacon. Still, the more terrifying, the better you felt about yourself, about your role here amongst the elbows of the men reading the papers. They’d smile to see you try to suck the marrow out, and you’d smile back, half-grimacing.

If I had wanted to be happy in any conventional sense I would have stayed in America. I had been in love with a boy who was going to be living in New York. Though I had loved him for a year, it was only just before graduation that he had acknowledged it. We had left a Myrtle party, with its oily pizza boxes lying unclenched over the sofas, and gone out to a balcony that overlooked a lit-up pool. I know what that pool looks like—bean-shaped, illumined, with a single beer can bobbing thoughtlessly—because I thought so often afterward of that scene, as though it had been a source of happiness.

We had kissed heartily and then, like two adulterers suddenly aware of the cruelty of their endeavor, pulled apart. “But we can’t be together,” he said. “You’re going away to Hong Kong to be a famous journalist!” I didn’t protest; It sounded glamorous, and I wanted to be the kind of person who did that, just as I wanted to be the kind of woman who scorned what she was given.

Then we went back to work on some puzzle that the rest of them inside—a drunk, shirtless mob—were piecing together on the golf-course-colored carpet, working from the edges in. And then I went away. Because it is what I had planned to do in the first place and there is no changing one’s life for a man.

Besides, the country felt dead. Anna Nicole Smith had overdosed in January. The troop surge wasn’t working. Anyone with half a brain had gotten the idea that the country was imploding on a dead center. Cocktail-party people were starting to insinuate that if you weren’t trying to save America, all of its failures were somehow your fault. I decided the best route was to ignore it all. So I had sought a job abroad.

At an informal going-away party in someone’s backyard, an aunt—a very pregnant, tattooed lady who had once gone on a couple of dates with Quentin Tarantino—pulled me aside, gleaned that I was single, and spoken with the ignorance of those born beautiful. “You’re going to live with some insane Hong Kong sugar daddy,” she said, “You’re going to have the time of your life.” And then a few days later, there was that woman on the plane—the luxe, double-decker plane with camel-colored leather seats. She was tan, married to a banker stationed there, and wore a plunging cashmere V-neck that framed a glinting droplet I recognized from the Tiffany jewelry catalogue. “You’re going to have the time of your life,” she said.

Who is the girl they thought I was? I see her—thin and empty-headed, wearing an eggplant-colored silk dress that flounces as she skips; the dress a million girls had that summer. I own no such dress. It’s hard for me to remember ever thinking that I was not going away to deliberately suffer, because that is what it so quickly became.

There was a poet I knew in Hong Kong, and within an hour or so of meeting him, drinking outside a 7-11, I learned that he had lived with a girl for seven years in New Orleans, and that she had left him.

He described the big spaces of that city—its palazzos and river-walks—and then their house, which was rattling and wooden and filled with her things. We longed for what we didn’t have and drove ourselves away from it. Long-term expats had a maxim: “People come here because they are running to something, or because they are running away.” Surely some came out of ambition—I had seen these men on the streets outside of clubs, the fat bankers in checkered shirts, holding the wrists of sly Cantonese women. But most I knew were from the other camp, from the city’s down and out who had come for simple escape. Because if there was a place for brooding’s opposite—distraction—it was in Hong Kong, where all the lights were always on and the people in the street knew nothing of you and cared less.

I arrived in August. It was raining like mad—the middle of the monsoon season—and the lightning puffed out behind the clouds to show the docks we were speeding by, with their robotic red arms pulling containers off of cargo ships, even in the dark. Behind the rain-streaked windows I could see the streetlights blaring, and a lot of people with thorned umbrellas pressing close to the bus while the driver honked through it, as though the people were a sound he could defeat with his own. I had printed instructions of how to find the apartment that I had found over the internet, and I got out where the paper said—in Tsim Sha Tsui, past Moody Road—and attempted to make my way to my first apartment through the river of people.

The city edged out any feelings you had inside of yourself; it took over. You felt that immediately.

The first apartment I rented in Hong Kong—the first apartment I had ever had—was on the 15th floor of a building zoned for commercial use at the intersection of the Night Market and Nathan Road, otherwise known as Golden Mile—the busiest strip of shopping in the tax-free SAR. In the basement was an all-night computer parlor designed to look like a cave. Among plastic tropical plants and faux stalactites, zoned-out teens stared at blue screens, their faces washed out in the light. At the first floor, the elevator doors unloaded into a tiled corridor of minty green, whose walls were the long windows of two shops on either side. One side sold knives and the other sold purses.

Past them, in the daylight hours the streets would be coursing with shoppers—it was unnavigable. Shoppers slowed to look at each and every window. Women stopped each other in the street. But at night, when the shops had closed, it was deserted—like Madison Avenue before dawn.

The Night Market held the opposite hours. At night, when Nathan Road was empty, the Market side was unnavigable. As soon as the sun went down, throngs of salesmen unfolded tables and covered them with junk; food stall cooks plunked crabs into pots of boiling, red broth; and fortune tellers draped shawls around the wire skeletons of their booths, which were soon peered into on by crowds of slow-moving gawkers. It would take twelve minutes to walk a one-block stretch through the mayhem of it. But in the mornings, the Night Market was emptied of people and strewn with trash—a ghost town. The only other people were kids who would scrabble over the piles of rubbish, every once in a while holding something up to the light to better ascertain its features.

The apartment, zoned for commercial, served as the office for my roommate, a tall, blonde Australian thirty-something, who ran a business selling sunglasses manufactured in mainland China to unwitting native countrymen. His secretary—an underpaid chalk-skinned Cantonese girl—slept on our couch most nights and our other roommate, a short, dark giggly German boy who worked at the Consulate, would invite groups of obstreperous Germans over to smoke Hashish with our Nepalese neighbors. I’d come home to find them in the home-office, or on our slim balcony that overlooked the city, which looked down to the Night Market and out to the rest of the pinkish city extending deeply into the dark hills.

I would try to charm their Italian friend with stories of America; I don’t remember what I said, only that they called me “The American Girl” and laughed at my allergy to peanuts, thinking it hilariously impossible. The fact that I really tried to get these two characters to like me, to really like me says perhaps more about the extent of my loneliness than I was willing to admit to myself then.

I had one friend in Hong Kong when I got there, and that was the boy who had gotten me the job. Savir was my former roommate. We had never really talked about what we wanted out of life and I got the sense that he, sure of his appearance though angsty about his accomplishments, had thought of me and some of my more bohemian friends in college as an added bit of spice in his social circle.

We had met at a summer program that was designed ostensibly for college students to do community service, but which most had signed up for because it came with a free hotel room at the Holiday Inn. He had graduated a year before me and got a job in Hong Kong. So when I faced graduation, emailing around looking for a way to get out of the country—a visa, a job, a reason, he wrote back: “You could just come work here.”

Here was Time Magazine’s Asia Bureau.

To work I wore my best Banana Republic suits and skirts and knits, inherited from a cousin now working at Conde Nast, and everything I wore had the air of New York in it—perfume in a dank subway. It clouded out the smell of Hong Kong—the salt of the food carts, the dark of the soil after the rain.

I’d take the whooshing subway out to the Island’s Eastern Coast, disembarking into a huddled Hooverville of juice stands and snack stands—shop-fronts no wider than closets that sold glazed, roasted squid on teeny sticks or mango juice, made before your eyes in a dingy blender. Then I took an escalator upwards, and the scale changed. A vast, unfriendly lobby connected the four or five skyscrapers that made up the office park. I liked the way my heels sounded on the marble and the whisking of the elevator as it shot to the 57th floor. Everything afterwards was horrible.

I had a little cubicle and was expected to fact-check boring wrap-ups of exciting things—a monk’s protest in Burma, racism in Japan, the Chinese art market. My boss was a sallow, miserable lady who spoke in morose tones about even the most uplifting things: an afterwork drink, the espresso machine downstairs. “What’s the point?” she asked, looking up quickly, when out of boredom I offered to organize her magazines by date. You could tell she was unhappy and I made a mental note never to end up like her. (Much as my childhood friend had noted when we were about ten of a group of sullen older girls wearing sweatshirts and jeans as they waited for a plane: “I hope we never buy college sweatshirts.”)

The rest of the bosses were usually seen only at morning meeting. Around a teak table they sat way back in their chairs, their tailored pant legs crossed. “Well what about that match, woohoo,” they’d say, comparing rugby and cricket scores for a good twenty minutes and then, in a five minute huff, wrapping up the day’s stories. They each had their own glassed-in offices and I wondered what they did in there everyday.  Behind me sat the woman who covered “The Environment.” As she phoned scientists in various regions, I couldn’t stop myself from eavesdropping. “Well what about the spotted pineapple?…Uh huh…And the Chinese are burning the crops?…Uh huh.” Every article we printed seemed in some way to say that the Chinese would be evil, if only they were more competent.

And then I’d leave work and it would be obvious that the Westerners were the despots here.

By default, I was hanging out with Savir’s friends—a sprawling collection of expats. There was one Korean restaurant in Causeway Bay that they would always go to. The beer was cheap and you got your own little paperboard room with a television playing in the corner that showed the races. To get there you walked to the back, past families calmly eating dinner—frozen with their chopsticks up to see us go by. Women in slippers would enter and clear the dishes, turn over the coals. I was usually the only girl but sometimes there were two others—Jing and Leslie—and we made pains to be kind to each other. But on one level, we were competing for male attention. And on the other, we competed with each other to pretend that we did not want it.

Out in Causeway Bay there was a bluish-lit bar with a sign reading “San Francisco” in the window. The bar watered down their drinks and probably used grain alcohol—the stuff worked so well. And then the boys would drink out on the street, shotgunning cans, and they’d drink in other bars high up in buildings or beneath the escalators or in the basements below the street. The leader of the group was a kid called Zack. A tall, red-headed athletic-looking boy with small, babyish features, he seemed an impossible ladies man but was so good at convincing women he was something he was not that he had begun believing it himself. He was smarmy and charming, which was enough in Hong Kong to make him a leader. When I had first walked into his apartment—we were all going out together afterwards—he had been in the bathroom, gussying up, and had come out into the living room, not knowing that a lady was present, or not caring. “It’s amazing,” he was saying to a boy on the couch. “All you have to do is just apply pressure to this part of her pelvis, and she gets off. Easy.”

They would sleep with girls at dance clubs. Or maybe only Zack would sleep with them and the other boys would hear about it. There was a club they talked about going to on Sundays which was like “shooting ducks in a pond.” The Filipino women who were hired as maids only got Sundays off, and there was one dance club open.  At a certain point—maybe a day or two in—I just gave up trying to reprimand or judge anyone for anything. I was here to experience the strangeness of the world, I told myself.

Besides, I was reluctant to go home. In the mornings my roommate’s girlfriend would be in the shower and I’d slough out of my room to see her emerge wrapped in my towel. My one towel. I thought of myself as forgiving but I writhed to see her. The girl was my age with a perfect body—perky breasts, tan legs—and she’d lollygag in our living room, laughing with a full set of teeth at whatever bad TV was playing in the morning. Knowing Hong Kong, this consisted of serious news coverage of panda births and panda deaths peppered with the occasional snap of a celebrity caught doing a completely normal thing. A Canadian, Belinda had signed a contract back home to dance for two years with a company that exploited its dancers. It told them they would be working locally, asked them to sign a contract that told them they would go wherever the troupe went, and then shipped the women off to Macau—whose Casino owners paid the troupe owners per contracted girl. Despite an ailing father in Toronto, she was contractually obliged to go along and act cheery, along with a host of other beautiful girls who were caged and suffering in what I imagined to be the Casino’s dungeons. And I wanted to hear about this, to bond with Belinda, but she was dating the Australian and I loathed him.

He wore board shorts, leather flip-flops, and faux-vintage shirts and spoke of how much he loved things and how great everything was. His demeanor was of a happy, easy-to-get-along-with dude, but his eyes—hard and tired—showed worry and hate. The effect was that, in order to get along with him, one would need to pretend to be easygoing and careless and fun, while also making it obvious that you had prepared well.

And at one point I realized that despite all the strange adventure of having them in my lives, I couldn’t stand it. It was one of the nights when they had brought home a lot of people and I had come home stressed from work, wanting to go out running in the city. And I had to walk through their party—through the thin women, lolling on the overstuffed L-shaped couch, their hands dipping into their drinks as if testing pool waters. I went out running along the docks—the oily smell coming up out of the boats—and I felt as though I couldn’t escape anything, anywhere.

And so I had given my month’s notice and left and at the end they charged me a “flower fee”—$8 extra dollars a month for the lilies David kept festering on the sideboard, which he accused me of never noticing.

The nights out started festering. The strangeness was no longer enough. One night Savir and I even took a boat out to a party in the harbor. There was a big fete on a cruise liner, meant to sponsor “Fashion TV” and the whole boat was lit up with lime-green lights. When we got out onto the lower platform we couldn’t find the way to the upper deck and looped through the body of the ship, searching. We walked by one long, dim window and there before us was a cafeteria—a few long, grey tables—and sitting there were models, their heads down, their impossibly long necks bent over trays of baked potato and slabs of ham.

Ford and I would go out with Savir and a gawky reporter from the China Standard who talked a mile a minute. We liked to think of ourselves as the literati, the only people who read or talked about books and sometimes the poet would come over and talk about his ex girlfriend. We’d hang out in Boris’ apartment, where everything was slick and clean. There was a lap pool downstairs and a baby grand. The onyx lobby was decorated with the skulls of Western animals, like Hunter S. Thompson’s idea of rococo. On the TV, there would be a DVD of Weeds playing, but none of us were watching. Mary Louise Parker was changing out of her underwear in a minivan’s backseat—when was the last time any of us had been in a Nissan minivan?

Something in me was damaged by our insularity; This had become enough for me. When I did go on a date—with some boy I had met at a luxe Halloween party in ritzy mid-levels—I had ended up abandoning him to meet up with Ford and the rest of them at a fry-joint in Sheung Wan.

One night we went out to a place Ford had heard about—the basement of another place, with 50 kwai drink specials. You couldn’t hear yourself talking and there were mirrors everywhere. I waited seven minutes at the bar for a glass of wine that wasn’t on special, then got it anyway—too flustered in the uproar. By the time Boris and I got back to the group, they had settled among three Cantonese girls whose story—whatever they were saying—was drowned out, so I concentrated on the wine, whose red tannins looked purple in the goosy blue light. When I couldn’t talk, when it was only bodies—I felt useless and ordinary.

"I need air," I said to Ford.

"What?" he said. "What?"

"I need air," I said, but he didn’t come—staring instead at the bones in the exposed knees of the strange women. Ford wouldn’t save me anymore than anyone else would.

Outside, the bars were bleeding wispy lines of ladies in huggy black shifts. Everyone was smoking up into the air. This was Lan Kwai Fong and everywhere you’d see white men with their stomachs out, asking their girlfriends to hold steins of pale, yellow beer while they cupped their hands around the hot mouths of cigars. I felt awful for these women and jealous at the same time; They eclipsed me with a kind of hungry beauty I could hold for no one.

The air was cool and damp and clung about the lights. I started walking up Wellington to the stairs that led to Hollywood Drive. There were always a lot of cats on the steps, waiting for the roaches that came out around 3:00, and you could pretend for a minute you were in New Orleans or some other city where the cats wailed. Up on Hollywood there were a few restaurants where moneyed expats were still enjoying late dinners and then that petered out and it was just quiet darkness. The windows of the antique shops were unlit. At my favorite section—where Spanish moss clung down from the public tennis courts—there was no one but a rubbish collector, scuttling about the paving stones. At the bottom of the hill the 7-11 was still open and I went in, embarrassed to buy a box of milk while the man in front of me—some gruff Australian—teetered in looking for “smokes.”

I kept self-medicating. The strange foods, the booze, the $20 dollar hour-long massages. What was I counseling myself for?

I remember the first weekend in Hong Kong, and how nothing was every any different than it had been then. My Australian and German roommate had hired a “junk,” a little boat to take forty of their very closest friends around the island. The water around Hong Kong—however dirty everyone kept saying it really was—was the bright turquoise of the swimming pools I had preferred in my California childhood to the black green ocean. The boys didn’t know the islands and told the captains—two beleaguered Cantonese men in white shirts with gold buttons—that it would be fine anywhere, and they put us up for a nice lunch swim around a little island where there were no other boats. A bunch of pool toys were heaved into the water and the girls, whose bikini straps had been showing under their tank tops, stepped daintily onto the outboard, taking a long time to get in.

There was only one CD on the boat—a Jay-Z album—and it was playing on loop. The coca cola we’d brought onboard as chasers had attracted bees and the only people who were talking to me would ask me about America, what it was like, if I really voted for Bush.

Seeking a respite, I determined to swim to the shore, but it took longer than I thought, and I kept turning around to see the boat was still the same size. Maybe twenty minutes later I got to the shore. I could see plasticy leaves and a sign telling me not to go further than the sand: it was a preserve.

But at the edge of the water, there was so much flotsam I couldn’t get there: splinters of seawood, coke bottles, pool floaties. I was too tired—and too aggrieved—to go back to them, on the boat, and all the loud voices so I just floated, listening to the clinking sounds of the flotsam over the water. The sky could have been anywhere’s sky. It was stupid to ever try to escape anything.

Adriane Quinlan returned from a year in Hong Kong and Beijing to New York, where she works as a blogger at MTV. She has previously written for The Washington Post, Time Magazine, and The New York Observer.

Everything Had Changed, but Nothing was Different, by Kate Axelrod

I

In the wake of her grandmother’s death, Grace and her father find a dozen cups of urine, plastic and red, like remnants of a frat party, scattered around the assisted-living apartment Beatrice has occupied for the past six months. The cups are everywhere — beneath the bed, lined up neatly in the hall closet, left absently by the kitchen sink, or on the lid of a dusty toilet.  The possible reasons are never discussed, but dementia is the most reasonable answer. Or perhaps some sick, cruel joke — their inheritance — stale piss in flimsy container. But Grace has chosen to believe that her delusional grandmother thought she was perpetually at the doctor’s office — a compliant patient, dutifully fulfilling a doctor’s simple request.

II

She remembers it as fall when she fell in love with him  — that brisk fresh air — but in reality her time with Chris was mostly winter. Trees naked and tall, the sky white and barren. When Grace looks back, she cannot imagine anything but beautiful fall days, streets littered with a rainbow of leaves, lovely and damp, a carpet of shed skin.

They’d met at a party in December, in an enormous blue house that was off-campus. Drunkenly, he had pressed her up against the railing of the back stairwell and kissed her. Burgundy paint splintered onto the back of her shirt.  He walked her home, and in the morning reemerged, car keys dangling from two of his fingers. She was still in her clothing from the night before, a sweatshirt zipped up over a long t-shirt she’d worn as a dress.  She had no idea what he was doing there, couldn’t imagine he was the type to take her to breakfast. Last night I promised I’d teach you how to drive stick, you don’t remember?

When she thinks of that day a succession of distinct images come to her, flashes of rich color, textured plaid, thick woolen scarves, the gray and burgundy pattern on the inside of his Honda. The stale cigarette butts that littered his metallic ashtray. The forward thrust and belated shutter as he let her practice, navigating some invisible space between the gears and the clutch, the release and simultaneous pressure. It will come easy to you, he’d promised.

III

The Kings County Home for the Aged was painted like a nursery – each room a pale purple or blue with yellow borders. Signs were painted in bold lettering, always with swirls and hearts punctuating phrases. It was as if the staff did everything possible to mask the inherent bleakness — the end — too obvious and present to acknowledge.

During the day, Beatrice made necklaces with uncooked penne, and cards with felt cut-outs and doilies.  In the evening, an army of walkers and wheelchairs flocked the dining hall. It was like a banquet room in a Best Western – decorated with framed paintings of the sun setting against some peaceful expanse of water.

One of the last times Grace saw her grandmother was in the dining hall. Beatrice sat, cutting her food absently, her knotted fingers trembling as she attempted to make incisions in the thick, overcooked fillet of chicken. She still recognized her son, but now regarded Grace like a sweet, sweet stranger.

“Jeff,” she said, relief watering her eyes. “Jeff, Table 7 kicked me out.”

He bent down to kiss his mother.

“What do you mean, Ma?”

“I don’t know, they just did. I got downstairs and Sarah said I couldn’t sit with them anymore. I don’t know what to make of it, but Barbara’s sitting in my seat, so I guess that’s it.” Exasperated, she lay her fork and knife down on the table. “I’m just so lonely.”

Grace headed toward the bathroom — she couldn’t bear to see this plain, heavy sadness. It was like everything had changed but somehow nothing was different. It was high school but worse, middle school with decaying bodies and incontinence. When Grace returned from the bathroom, Beatrice seemed sort of content, in a post-panic daze.

“At least I have my children,” she said. But Grace was not her child, not her Linda, who had lost a war with melanoma many years ago.

IV

It was the second week of April, when Grace’s mother called her at school to ask if she would come home to say goodbye to Beatrice. “Daddy wouldn’t tell you himself,” Eleanor warned, “but I think this is probably it. I think it’d mean a lot to everyone if you came in for a night or two.”

Spring had come suddenly — days were long and stinging with light. The small college campus was brimming with life, abruptly awakened after a bleak winter. The quads were congested with students – graciously embracing the warmth – eager for human contact.  They passed neatly rolled joints in circles, sunbathed with paperbacks splayed open on their pale flattened bellies, and drank beer while highlighting relevant passages of Foucault. But to Grace, the onset of spring felt like nothing more than being woken up in the midst of a perfectly good afternoon nap.

Chris had broken up with her several weeks before. At a bar, he had fucked another girl  – Grace imagined them leaning against a cluttered bathroom sink, bottles of empty soap, a pink lather gathering in the hallows, and layers of soaked industrial paper towel. She kept coming back to this moment, Chris propping a girl up against the sink.

“Look,” he told her, “I’m sorry but you want too much, you need too much.” There was something so ruthless in his voice. “If it’s a question of all or nothing, then nothing, There it is. NOTHING.” She had never seen him lose his temper before, but his disgust and impatience for had had reared their head so abruptly, with a terrifying coldness.  Grace let out a long cry, a guttural moan, so primitive and weak.

Sometimes she was able to focus on all that she didn’t like about him (a couple of weeks ago he had canceled plans with her because he’d forgotten it was St. Patrick’s Day and had to focus on celebrating), but other times she couldn’t help but embrace it, lean into the love she had felt, which was now a literally emptiness. His absence was still something she could physically feel — like it was lodged in her chest.

For a few days she slept fully clothed on the couch in her living room. She wanted to wake up confused and disoriented — not in her bed, so plainly without him. She kept waking to this image of him — asleep in his own bed, his face tilted toward the spine of a black and white hard-covered book.  He loved to read about old New York, was fascinated by the city’s architecture, its attempts at preservation.  The old Penn station, the ancient El that once sped up Third Avenue.

IV

On her drive back to the city (toward Beatrice), Grace knew that in some sick way she had welcomed this loss. She hoped it would lift her up and out of her preoccupation with Chris. She hoped the flood of grief would distract her, guide her to focus on what really matted. But ultimately, it was all muddled together, this grief and that — together rendering her a deflated mess, inert and exhausted, ashamed.

The deterioration of Beatrice’s life was not unlike the decline of any ordinary elderly woman, but she had held onto her health and sanity, until the death of her husband (which had been infinitely more brutal). Hers was a simple and unhurried regression to nothing but a body – a decaying vessel to hold her absent eyes and slackened lips. The waxy grayness of her scalp had became more and more visible as her hair thinned out and dissipated into a thin, meager brush of white.

Beatrice had always been a nervous woman, perpetually anxious about her own health, the health of her husband, her children and grandchildren. She worried about mundane things — had she left the stove on?  Did she pour too much turquoise detergent in the washing machine — leaving the basement damp and flooded?  . But in addition to her household anxieties, there were the greater ones – Was her family content? Did she love well and enough? Was she equally loved in return? She was generous and undiscriminating in her anxiety, in a strange way somehow proud of her amazing capacity to worry — to bear the burden. Before exams in high school and college she would call Grace and say You relax, tell me what time to worry and I’ll do it for you.

But in the end, she had survived it all, and somehow had never seemed so at ease.

VI

After the funeral, Grace and her father returned to Beatrice’s apartment. Grace was suddenly uncomfortable touching her grandmother’s belongings – each item seemed to hold a stiff significant, as if she were visiting a crime scene and everything was evidence. The remote sandwiched between two couch cushions, floral and worn. A copy of an enlarged Reader’s Digest lying beside a bottle of seltzer, plastics bins filled with holiday cards, dozens of boxes of unlabeled photographs.  Eighty-eight years of a life — a childhood, a marriage, a home with a family – a husband and three children, messily stuffed into one box of a room, a ‘silver suite’ at the Kings County Home for the Aged.

There was no way to avoid the clutter, it was simply proof of everything she had survived – the loss of her parents, her husband, her child, her own cancer scare twenty-five years ago, the birth of her grandchildren, her career as an English teacher. Decades upon decades of jewelry, paintings, books and records. Sifting through her belongings, Grace began to feel a faint optimism. It was close enough to radiate, to propel her forward. Despite everything—her constant anxiety, her devastating losses—Beatrice had simply kept on living. Until she didn’t anymore.

Kate Axelrod is a twenty-four year old writer living in Brooklyn.

Woman Writer + Writer Mother: A Conversation between Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker

Our ages, educations, professions, resumes, and mailing addresses are similar, but Sarah has no offspring and Rachel has three sons. This one difference seems more than any other quality to establish and absolutely separate our private and public identities as women, as writers, and as human beings.

In an attempt to understand why, we corresponded over several months.

*

SM: I want to ask you about motherhood because — childless and approaching the age at which conception is difficult — I am intimidated by the apparent difficulty of being at once an artist and a mother, and I crave input from thoughtful mothers.

RZ: I’m surprised by your interest.

A few years ago I invited you to write an essay about a living woman poet. Arielle Greenberg and I were co-editing an anthology of essays about mentorship, and I was curious to know which poet you would pick and what you would say about mentorship. What you said, though, was that you did not want to be included in a women-only anthology. I don’t have your words in front of me, but your answer was reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop’s response to the editors of No More Masks, an anthology of poetry by women. You declined, as Bishop had done, saying you considered yourself a writer, not a woman writer.

I remember being astonished and exasperated. The births of my two sons and my experience mothering them had radically affected every part of my life—I could not imagine what it would feel like to not feel like a woman writer or a mother writer. (At the time I didn’t distinguish between motherhood and womanhood.)  I felt then that the words “mother” and “woman” were invisibly adhered to every action and element of my life. I was, at every moment and in every way, a woman _____, a mother _____.

But you didn’t feel that way.

SM: No. I still don’t feel that way. I don’t feel that my femaleness is incidental to my identity, but at the time I was unwilling to choose femaleness as my principal category of identity, even just within the confines of a book project. Bishop’s line seems reasonable to me: “Art is art and to separate writing, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art.”

Cynthia Ozick wrote this in 1997 in the Atlantic: “I absolutely reject the phrase ‘woman writer’ as anti-feminist. … People often ask how I can reject the phrase ‘woman writer’ and not reject the phrase ‘Jewish writer’ — a preposterous question. ‘Jewish’ is a category of civilization, culture, and intellect, and ‘woman’ is a category of anatomy and physiology. It’s rough thinking to confuse vast cultural and intellectual movements with the capacity to bear children.”

It was that piece of text (not Bishop) that I quoted in my email to you and Arielle when I declined to contribute to your anthology. Maybe I unwittingly portrayed myself as an antagonist, when really what I wanted to be was a conscientious objector. A respectful one.

The female archetypes available in our culture are few. Mother, wife, spinster, whore. All of these identities depend upon the sexual organs. I did not want to disappear into my body. Not again. I was in and out of the hospital throughout my twenties, and even when everything was in remission, my deteriorating body was all I thought about. I couldn’t control my body. It ran my life for a long time.

A man can become a husband and father and still be a writer first in the public imagination, but it seems a woman must choose. In the public imagination, it seems that if a woman is to be perceived as a writer first, she must stay sexually available to men, even if that availability is only hypothetical. The public doesn’t believe (yet?) that women are as complex as men, so perceptions of women aren’t as nuanced.

One symptom of this problem is that people seem unable to talk about women’s writing without talking about their bodies. I periodically start to log the adjectives used in the New York Times Book Review for a comparative analysis, but after the first day, it’s just too depressing and obvious. Books by women are “gorgeous,” and books by men are “brilliant.”

At this point in history, wife and mother are still noncomplex, nonqualifiable categories—they’re such powerful archetypes, they swallow all the others, even if a woman has been a writer beforehand.

RZ: Forgive me for saying so, but you sound like a nonmother to me when you say these things. I also want women to be more than their sexual organs and yet I am truly confounded by the ways in which my feelings about the importance of gender and bodies have changed for me since having children.

SM: I may sound to you like a nonmother, but I could introduce you to people to whom I sound, simply, white. Or rich. Or poor. Or American.

RZ: True. You also sound to me like an intellectual and like a feminist.

Perhaps Ozick is right that “It’s rough thinking to confuse vast cultural and intellectual movements with the capacity to bear children.” Or perhaps she’s wrong. I’m wondering not just about “the capacity to bear children” but also about my (and others’) experiences birthing and mothering.

And this isn’t just about pregnancy. What about the reality of caring for infants or older children? The physical realities of childbearing and childrearing change my ideas about feminism. I may resent being limited to my gender, and yet I feel that to some extent these archetypes are inescapable because they are true.

SM: Capacity versus experience—that’s an important distinction, absolutely. Still, why does the experience still have to be an identity-changer for women but not men?

A couple of women I know published an announcement of the birth of their first child. They included details, like the fact that the baby was delivered on the sidewalk in front of the hospital—but made painstaking care not to designate which of them actually gave birth to the baby. I liked that. They’re parents now. Whose uterus fed the fetus is private and maybe irrelevant.

RZ: Fascinating. Did one of them hide the pregnancy? One of the wonderful and terrible things about being pregnant is how public and visible it is. Are both moms planning to nurse the baby? Will one mother nurse but not in public? For equality’s sake will both abstain from nursing?

Pregnancy and birth (which is just one of several ways that women become mothers) are physical, literal, and figurative transformations of the self. Some women will never be pregnant or give birth but the fact that only women can and men never can is significant, don’t you think? Don’t you feel it changes how girls and women feel about themselves and their bodies from the time they understand where babies come from?

SM: It absolutely changes the way girls feel about themselves. It’s a differentiation from half the world that can never completely disappear. I hate being perceived as a potential mother—an empty vessel—but in Western medical culture, that is my identity. When I am given a new medication, I have to prove I’m not pregnant, couldn’t possibly be pregnant. Before being given potentially toxic medications, I am asked to pinpoint when I want to be pregnant—sooner, later, or never. Even as a kid I wore a lead apron over my ovaries when I got an X-ray. For as long as I have lived, I have been an egg-box. In a Western hospital, my eggs are the most valuable part of me.

RZ: Do you feel like an “egg-box”? I think I did, before I had children. I think I still do, to some extent. For example, I’m very aware of how my libido is tied to my fertility. For the most part I only want to have sex when I am fertile. I recently got an IUD put in because I don’t trust my own rational ability to override my biological urges. I sound so pathetically unable to control my feelings—“womanly”?—and yet to say otherwise is to lie.

Is it just the culture that makes me into an “egg-box”? Or is it something else, something in me? I always, always wanted to have children. It is a struggle for me to not have more.

SM: I don’t feel like an egg-box, no. My eggs seem hypothetical to me.

RZ: It’s hard for me to understand that feeling.

When pregnant, I had the recurrent, visceral, mostly unpleasant sense that I had turned into a humpty dumpty—a huge egg with arms and legs.

After birthing, my eggs and their transformations into my actual children were so visible, tangible to me. Most of my days are spent in close proximity to my children or spent working but always with part of my brain occupied with the task of waiting for them to come home or wake up. Looking up just now (I’m writing during my baby’s nap), I laughed—I have this lovely, fat ceramic chicken on my desk. I bought this hen several years ago in Austin where I had traveled to attend the Association of Writing Programs conference. That conference is usually the only time I spend a night or two away from my children. When I saw the hen in a local artisan’s store, I thought, “oh, that’s me!” and now here she sits.

Even now, with my IUD, I feel very much like an egg-box. I feel, even when not pregnant or nursing a baby, that the making, bearing, and nursing of babies is what my body was meant to do.

I know, of course, that I can do many other things with my body, be many other things, but it still means something to me that this is the original or truest function of my body.

SM: Your fertile female body seems a key determinant to your identity.

Fertility seems a fairly important part of our cosmic process, but it becomes fascinatingly problematic when we look through the other end of the telescope and consider individual particles in that process. Fertility is irrelevant to the lives of my friend A., a gay man; D., an infertile woman; R., a severely disabled kid.

The body absolutely determines the course of our species, but not necessarily the course of the individual. And we relate as individuals. I think what we’re talking about here is simply the problem of empathy between different categories of women—which is of course just a subset of the general problem of empathy between different human beings.

What do you and I have in common besides our shared enemy, the old boys’ network?

RZ: Well, we actually have a great deal in common—gender, race, nationality. Also, we are roughly the same age, were born in the Northeast, attended Ivy League schools as undergraduates and earned MFAs in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ workshop (although not at the same time). I’m an only child and believe you are too. We are both writers. I live in Manhattan and you live in Brooklyn.

That’s a lot of similarities. If we want to understand one another then we have try to form empathy around our similarities and our differences.

SM: Yes. And not just our differences on paper, but the differences in how we experience ourselves. In my mind my identity begins with Writer and Teacher; Woman is much further down the list.

RZ: I was a writer and teacher before I was a mother but so much of my mental and physical energy is spent in my role of mother. Am I more a mother than a writer now? I’m not sure. I don’t think I can really separate them enough to measure them against each other.

It is interesting that despite our many similarities, we don’t know each other very well. Over the years our paths have crossed from time to time, but we’ve never become friends. Is it because I have children and you don’t?

I know that I’ve made assumptions about you, about the kind of nonmom you are.

I’ve always imagined that you went to parties and stayed out late and slept with various handsome men (and maybe women too) and had beautiful clothes that were not machine washable and that your body functioned in ways that did not surprise, alarm or amaze you. I felt sure that you went to sleep late, woke up late, and read the newspaper at breakfast. Your apartment, as I pictured it, was quiet and peaceful but not very tidy. Your life was your own. Your read books voraciously but were sometimes lonely. You traveled and went to writer’s colonies and applied for fellowships and teaching jobs that might require you to move to other states or countries for a few months. Your mother worried that you weren’t married and you told her that her alarm was antiquated and sexist.

SM: I think we both made assumptions about each other based on the popular stereotypes associated with New York women. I certainly did. I thought your life consisted of reading banal storybooks, making instant oatmeal, and doing laundry. I couldn’t imagine how that would feel fulfilling. I considered an obviously complex and evolved person but went straight to the stereotype, which is basically a failure of my imagination.

You’ve read my memoir now, so you know that my life and my relationship to my body are not as you describe above.

I don’t know if the severe limits on my life have been greater or lesser in degree, or similar or different in type, to the limits on your life, a mother’s life.

RZ: I agree that most assumptions about mothers and nonmothers are erroneous.

For example, a few months ago I sent a YouTube link to a movie I made about my son’s home birth out to everyone on my email list. I was surprised when you responded. I had assumed you wouldn’t be interested in my movie. I thought you might find it overly sentimental or possibly disgusting. But you said it inspired you. How? Why?

SM: “Inspires” as in fills me with breath and hope, as in somehow both increases and decreases the mysteries surrounding motherhood and birth.

During a high school internship program at a local teaching hospital, with a teenager’s total assurance that I would be a doctor when I grew up, I watched a vaginal birth and came close to fainting. The attending doctor had to take care of me while the mother was in labor. It was almost funny. So I was surprised by how clean and simple the birth process seemed in your movie.

I am genuinely interested in the lives of mothers inasmuch as I am interested in the lives of people in general, but I’m separately fascinated by some mothers’ apparent conviction that nonmothers are shallow, that mothers suffer and feel more deeply than nonmothers. It seems as if these mothers want to shun me because I’m not a member of their sorority—hell, I didn’t even show up to rush.

RZ: I’ve never thought that you or nonmothers in general are “shallow” but clearly I’ve made a lot of other uncomplimentary or idealized assumptions. Perhaps I should have spent more time thinking about what you and I have in common or about what I have lost in the years in which I signed on so completely to the world of mothers and the idea that we are different from nonmothers. How does such a perception affect women? What can we do to change things?

SM: The problem with sustaining the dichotomy between mothers and nonmothers, of course, is that in doing so we weaken all women against the reigning culture of men.

James Baldwin is supposed to have said at Berkeley, that no white man, no matter how wretched, would want to trade places with him. Well, no man, no matter what color, would want to trade places with me.

RZ: Maybe because I’m trying to justify my own path or maybe because I truly feel this way—I don’t know—but I’ve spent my whole life assuming that (to bring it back to James Baldwin) no mother, no matter how wretched, would want to trade places with a nonmother. So I’m back to the dichotomy.

SM: I find it hard to understand that feeling.

RZ: Obviously I’m exaggerating. Some women do not want to be mothers. Women have abortions or give children up for adoption or responsibly avoid pregnancy, but by and large, despite the fact that motherhood is not physically, logistically, financially or socially supported, most women do become mothers at some point even if they don’t choose a particular pregnancy or child.

Is this because of a cultural message that motherhood is the ultimate goal for women? Why do so many women become mothers?

And how can I discuss my feeling of having chosen the “right” way, the only path that makes sense to me without being offensive? Motherhood, it seems to me, is both extremely difficult but also and ultimately, the greatest privilege. I guess I fear nonmothers’ scorn and envy when I say these things.

SM: It is hard for me to understand mothers who assume I envy them, or who assume that motherhood is my goal.

But the problem here is that the dialectic of mother versus nonmother isn’t a perfect one. Every mother has also been a nonmother, so only they know the difference. Nonmothers simply can’t have this perspective.

It’s generalizing an individual belief—that my, or anyone’s, experience of womanhood should be considered the ultimate experience for all women—that’s the problem.

RZ: I can see how my assumption that motherhood is (or should be) your (or anyone’s) ultimate goal would be offensive and problematic. I need to think about what’s led me to embrace such an essentialist view of womanhood.

SM: My friend J., the mother of a severely disabled child, finds the mother/nonmother dialectic deeply problematic. She knows that not all mothers are in the same boat.

I find that dialectic problematic, too, because I know that not all nonmothers are in the same boat.

There’s a vast difference between the life of a committed artist and the life of a person who gets paid to take orders forty hours a week and spends the rest of the time entertaining herself.

There are very many ways to live a nonfulfilling life. I have found several. But from where I’m standing, plenty of mothers seem to have found them, too.

What I want to know is: what do thoughtful and insightful mothers know that I can’t know?

RZ: So much of being a mother is learning to tolerate discomfort. There is an athleticism to motherhood, a kind of torture-victim’s resolve. Nursing a child is like a spiritual practice, a meditative disciple, a consecrated patience. I imagine I might feel this way about yoga if I had time to do yoga. Also, I would give up my life for my children but not for my husband and not for my parents and not for my friends….

SM: That might be it — the essential difference between us. I don’t know anyone I’d die for. That is a fascinating dialectic. Do you think all mothers feel the same say?

RZ: I think they do. I think it is one of those biological imperatives that kicks in for almost all mothers. Not right away, necessarily, but pretty soon.

Other things I know: I feel completely responsible for the health and welfare of other living beings (my children). I have learned to communicate with nonverbal and irrational human beings. I have learned to cajole, to teach, to lead, to reward, to dissuade, to negotiate, to mediate with and between my children.

My ego has shrunk and expanded more than I thought was possible. I have stifled and survived the kind of rage and boredom that might lead me to harm myself or others. The ability to withstand these feelings seems to have grown out of my placenta or developed in my psyche during my nights of interrupted sleep. (I don’t mean to imply that adoptive mothers don’t feel this—only that the development of these feelings and my ability to withstand them felt involuntary.) This—call it equilibrium—now extends beyond my children.

SM: I know something about rage and boredom and the eradication of the ego.

RZ: How did you learn this?

SM: I learned it more or less alone, as a hospital patient. It was a perversion of parenthood — I tried to keep my physically regressed and helpless self emotionally and mentally functional. I learned how to walk again, and to use a fork again, with the help of therapists.

Still, I had no one to take care of but myself, so it was a different lesson from the ones of motherhood.

RZ: I wondered, after reading your memoir, whether, when you were in the hospital, you felt there was a dichotomy in the world: sick and not sick. And now, do you feel there are two types of people: those who have faced death or a serious illness and those who have always taken their health for granted?

SM: Well, yes, in a way. I believe the essential dichotomy is between those governed by the childish ego and those whose egos have been eradicated—through suffering or motherhood or whatever.

RZ: It is possible that the things I’ve learned from being a mother are things I could have learned in other ways—by running a marathon, by caring for a sick parent or partner or friend, by having pets, by taking antidepressants, by being in therapy, by studying nonviolent communication.

The fact that I could have learned these things in other ways does not mean that I would have otherwise learned them.

SM: I guess that’s what we can’t know about ourselves, given that we live in four dimensions and can’t backtrack.

RZ: I think about this a lot. I wonder what have I missed by mothering my way through my late 20s and 30s? What have you learned that I don’t know? Is a mother still, also, a woman? Or does she lose something of her womanhood in becoming a mother? Do nonmothers think of mothers, no matter how young, as old, as over, as staid, as “them”?

SM: Well, as I see it, there are degrees of participation in being a mother just as there are degrees of participation in being a writer.

I have an easier time identifying with you than with some other mothers. Yet it’s hard for me to identify with mothers in the abstract. I’d like to think that my consideration of them as “them” is a response to my bewilderment that I have yet to meet a mother whose life seems like one I could choose.

I read your essay about writing behind a closed door for minutes or hours at a time while someone minded your sons, and wondered—do you want to pay deep and sustained attention to your work since having children? Does your work differ in quality or degree?

RZ: I do want to pay deep and sustained attention to my work. Of course this desire ebbs and flows just as it did before I had children. When it is strong, the conflict of interest can be painful. On the other hand, the writing time feels more precious than ever before and I feel more grateful for my writing and more appreciate of having this passion. When my oldest son was born I was an adjunct at NYU teaching composition to freshmen. It wasn’t a great job, but I never noticed that until my son was born. In order to keep up with all those many, many papers, I didn’t (once I had a baby) have time to write. It very quickly became clear that I didn’t care about that job, but cared desperately about writing. So there is something clarifying about having children even though it complicates things.

SM: That makes sense.

How did you consider motherhood before you were a mother? Did it enter into your politics, your relationships with men? With women? How did you perceive your mother?

RZ: One of my primary experiences as a child was watching my mother work. She is a storyteller and a writer. We lived in Greenwich Village and my mother wrote and practiced in her office, which was a separate apartment in the brownstone we rented. I was trained, at an early age, to be a good listener, which meant being quiet. I spent many hours being quiet while my mother performed in front of audiences or in the big mirrors of her office or on in the on-air room of WNYC for her weekly radio program.

As a writer I’ve learned so much from my mother—her work ethic and dedication are amazing. But as a mother, she was a model that was difficult for me to figure out. I grew up determined to be a “hands-on” mother. Many of my aspirations and much of my identity was formulated in opposition to my mother. I imagined starting my own school or doing something to  “help people” but mostly I wanted to be a mother. Available, attentive, present.

I am a different mother from my mother. I have three sons instead of one daughter. After eleven years I am still married and think my marriage is much stronger than my parents’ marriage was (although, yikes! they were married for thirteen years). But we’re both artists, both deeply committed to our work.

It’s often a challenge for me to attend to my children with a full heart, to be with them without trying to do something else. I often want to be writing when I am with my children, and I worry that they will sense this conflict in me and feel unloved.

Having children made me want to work more and made me more covetous of the feeling of deep engagement I get from writing. So there is always a conflict. I work hard to protect my time with my children, but I’ve also had to forgive my mother for a lot of things she did when I was growing up that I swore I would not do. I know that I am more emotionally and physically available to my sons than my mother was to me but perhaps that’s because, as a woman-artist in the 1970s and 1980s, my mother had to be more focused on her work.

My father was gone all day (at work) and for weeks at a time (for work) but this never lessened him in my eyes or affected my ideas of how to be a parent. Clearly, I had different expectations of him, of fathers, than I did of my mother and mothers. The fact that my mother was upstairs in her office for much of the day while I was with my babysitter was upsetting. Of course it is not only about hours logged, and this is part of what haunts me. I felt that when my father was with me he was really with me. I always felt like my mother wanted to be somewhere else. What do my children imagine that I feel when I’m with them?

As you say, there are degrees of participation in being a mother. Unfortunately I don’t know many (any?) mothers who feel at peace with the degree of participation they’ve chosen. This seems, unfortunately, an ineluctable part of being a modern mother.

What about your mother? What about your childhood ideas about becoming a mother yourself? Did you think about it often? Do you have models of women you admire who are not mothers?

SM: Well, we have that much in common: our adult identities were formed at least in part by the ways we observed and experienced our own mothers’ identities. After she graduated high school, my mother stayed at home while taking classes at a local college, then worked for a few years, still living at home, before she was married. I don’t have all the information on what she did for the nine years she was married to my father before I was born, but afterward, she was a full-time wife and mother. She responded “housewife” when asked to identify her career on official forms. For as long as I can remember, I felt depressed by that. I sensed (imagined?) her depression and boredom. Later on, her rage and despair became even more obvious (imagined?) to me. I swore I would never get married—my parents have been married forty-four years and counting—or take on any dependents. I left home and became financially independent a few days after I graduated college.

My fear of becoming the woman I perceived as my mother—trapped, frustrated, helpless, enraged—is what has impelled me to make most of the major decisions of my life. Then again, an older woman friend said to me—offhand, but it became indelible—“She’s probably happier than you think.”

It fascinates me that so many women continue to choose motherhood. Does this mean I want to remain a child myself?

Do mothers perceive women without children as, essentially, children themselves?

RZ: I will speak for myself. I think that when I think of women who are not mothers I both fear and pity them. I feel threatened and confused. I am fascinated by and ashamed of these feelings. They probably have more to do with ambivalence about my choices then with theirs.

Is this because, despite feeling that I would never trade places with women without children, I worry that I am throwing my life away? I worry that the hours and hours of child care and domestic child-related tasks I do day after day and year after year are a waste of my time?

SM: What’s the threat? As for the confusion, I guess I feel confused about what people do if they aren’t workaholics, but then I think, well, they run marathons and go on trips and play softball and have healthy, well-rounded, rewarding lives. And they have children.

RZ: Making art sometimes feels highly indulgent and narcissistic. So does having children. At the same time, making art and having children sometimes seem to me like the only valuable things to do. I feel confused about what gives nonmothers’ lives meaning. Is that terrible? Condescending? It’s hard to admit that I wonder about this. The tone and attitude remind me of how fundamentalist Christians talk to me when trying to tell me “the good news.”

SM: Making art can often be indulgent and narcissistic, but if one is doing it right, the ego doesn’t necessarily participate.

I understand your position, I think—I can’t imagine calling my life meaningful without as much time for silent contemplation as I have. It’s hard to imagine fitting parenting into the life I’ve devised, and which seems like the only way I can remain alive and sane. Yet I know there must exist a deep fulfillment in being a parent.

RZ: I have this idea that if I didn’t have children I would read a million esoteric books, and I would become so smart and interesting. I do sometimes wonder if I’ve “wasted” my education. Once, a friend of my father jokingly said to me, “oh, you went to Yale to get your M-R-S,” I wanted to slap him. In dark moments I fear it’s partly true.

I obviously want things both ways. I feel defined by my role as a mother and wife and am grateful for the ways these identifications give my life a sense of purpose. At the same time I intermittently feel a festering restlessness, a self-loathing for what I’ve become: mother of three living on the Upper West Side. A good girl.

There are all sort of contradictions for me: becoming a mother made me a feminist but being a mother means I spend a lot of my time doing menial domestic tasks. I’m not sure how my mothering—the daily aspects of caring for my children—fits into my ideas about feminism. I hate the way motherhood seems to separate me from women who don’t have children, and I hate the way motherhood separates mothers according to the choices they make about birthing, nursing, economics, parenting philosophies, working, etc. At the same time I feel that motherhood brings me into a crucially important and sustaining sisterhood with other women, especially other mothers.

SM: It amazes me that a mother would think my life is not fulfilling. I truly appreciate and admire your courage in admitting that.

My psychiatrist tells me that many mentally retarded people report internal fulfillment. Did you feel unfulfilled before you had a child? Is having a child what led to fulfillment? Do you think anything else could have led there?

RZ: For a long time I believed that the world was divided up into two groups: mothers and nonmothers. I had friends in the second group but more and more they seemed foreign or even burdensome to me and I disliked the way I imagined I seemed to them. Becoming a mother awakened in me a strong interest in feminism, but to be honest, for several years this interest was pretty much confined to feminist issues that concerned mothers.

SM: Yes. I tend to prefer the company of people who share my values. It’s convenient not to have to defend oneself. I remember being challenged by a woman who asked me if a yearlong university fellowship required that I live on campus. When I told her it did, she railed that it wasn’t fair, that she had a husband and a daughter upstate and couldn’t leave home, and that she wanted the fellowship, too. I couldn’t believe this woman—how could she not see that I had made sacrifices in order to be able to accept the gift of such a fellowship, that I had no house, no partner, no child, no health insurance? That the fellowship existed to help people like me, writers who had chosen writing over the comforts of family, writers who actually needed money and a place to live? It infuriated me that this woman’s sense of entitlement blinded her to this. She took for granted the comforts she’d chosen.

I think it’s tempting to count a particular identity component as more important than the others—money, parental status, relationship status, gender, health, race, nationality, vocation, education, and on and on—and to use that overvaluation as a means of judging people who lie on the other side of the dialectic from oneself.

I think I needed this conversation in order to remember that an individual human is a vast unknowable phenomenon, composed of infinite variables, and unlike any other.

RZ: I’m thinking right now about Venn diagrams, which my older boys are studying in school. Perhaps you remember these—they’re helpful in learning about sets and logic—two slightly overlapping circles is a simple example. One circle represents things that are round. The other circle represents fruit. The area that overlaps represents fruits that are round.

Before this conversation I imagined us as two circles that overlapped in a small area. Inside the overlapping area were the things we have in common: writer, woman, American, etc.

It is obvious to me now that our circles overlap more than I had imagined.

More importantly, though, I see now how incredibly oversimplified a view like this is of human relationships. I had assumed that what we had in common was what would bring us close, but of course this is not necessarily true. In our case what brought us closer was a shared interest in exploring a difference between us.

There are these wild and beautiful Venn diagrams that represent higher numbers of sets—overlapping polygons and sine curves—but I think the analogy is limiting. I see us more as an area of detail in a large pointillist painting. We are made of up of millions of dots of millions of colors and perhaps my concentration of dots is reddish, and perhaps yours is greenish. But when one steps back we are both part of the larger painting of women, of humanity, of life. This is not to say that close examination is meaningless or that our closely examined micro-patterns are insignificant—not at all. It is on this level that we most commonly experience daily life. But it’s important for me to remember that what I saw as such an important difference between us—having children or not having children—is pretty minor when seen from farther away, and it’s important to remember that the differences whether in shape or color are what enable us to see anything meaningful at all.

Sarah Manguso is the author of four books, most recently the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches creative writing at Columbia. For more information go to: www.sarahmanguso.com

Rachel Zucker is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, Museum of Accidents. For more information go to: www.rachelzucker.net

Emily Gould and Marisa Meltzer discuss AWAY WE GO

Note: This discussion took place months ago, when Candor hoped to launch. Neither Emily Gould nor Marisa Meltzer are weirdly fixated on Away We Go, for the record.

emily:  Showered! Dressed! I mean “dressed” is defined pretty loosely

marisa:  I define it as wearing a bra. “real clothes” means I am not wearing elastic waist pants.

emily:  I hardly have any underwire ones. I guess my boobs are going to be around my ankles when I’m old. WHICH, SEGUE is an issue “cutely” discussed in Away We Go.

As is, being so fat your Life Partner can’t find your vagina.

marisa:  The movie had body issues

emily:  Starting from the first scene: “You … taste different.”

marisa:  It’s hard for me not to take everything with that movie and just project it onto Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida.

emily:  oh please, Marisa, I want to be able to have sex again at some point in the future

marisa:  I’m sorry!

emily:  I wish his face had been visibly glistening

like in the Weight Watchers episode of SATC

marisa:  OMG! I was just about to say that

emily:  Let’s see, pop cultural references to cunnilingus for 500, Alex

1) Pulp Fiction

2) the oeuvre of Lil’ Kim

marisa:  There has got to be some bad oral sex in a book?

Emily: there are two types of dudes

One is so zealous about going down on you that you’re like “okay, buddy” (a la Miranda’s compulsive overeater)

and the other is like, not indifferent to it exactly, but he doesn’t like … he’s not overinvested in it. His “skill” at it is not a measure of self-worth

and John Krasinski’s character is the former type of dude

marisa:  I hate that type of dude

emily:  me too.

marisa:  But I also really grew to hate his character

emily:  They’re very irritating people!

And they find everyone else irritating!

And they PRETEND to worry that they are “fuckups”

but what they really mean is that everyone else is fuckups.

I think this strikes a chord in the audience

because it taps into everyone’s feeling that they are superior

that they are the only ones who Really Get IT

marisa:  hence the smug laughter

emily:  “We are going to be the ones who don’t fuck this up.”

"We are going to invent a new way of living"

"A microculture of our family"

"Us against the world"

marisa:  But that is what I found so deeply disturbing about the couple!

They had this weird pioneery sense that all they needed was each other.

They didn’t need outside jobs or friends or family, really

They just needed to LOVE THAT BABY

emily:  that was the LESSON!

marisa:  And be with each other all day everyday

emily:  “It doesn’t matter where we go because all we need is each other!”

marisa:  That is funny that you bring up the lesson because last night I was having drinks with my friend Suzanne and she asked me what the lesson was at the end of the movie

and I said, “I don’t know.” I guess it was Choose life? All you need is love?

emily:  I think it was, “If you inherited waterfront real estate, all you need is love.”

marisa:  Bennett and I had a lot of problems with the endless expository dialogue

emily:  “I’m the big sister, you’re the little sister” that kind of thing?

marisa:  When she explained the itinerary and when she talked about the real estate and the house they inherited

marisa:  that stuff works in a book but not a screenplay

emily:  What I’m saying though is that the baggy plotlessness would not have worked in a book even. I knew what they would end up doing as soon as she mentioned the house.

If it had been a book I would have stopped reading.

marisa:  Really? You’re so hardcore.

emily:  No I read all kinds of terrible crap all the time but I read that crap TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS.

marisa:  Were there any highlights? Like, did you laugh at anything that wasn’t laughing at the movie?

emily:  When Burt stumbled over a low divider wall in Phoenix while talking on his cell phone. I laughed, because watching people trip is funny.

In terms of actual “jokes”?

I think I might have laughed at Maggie Gyllenhaal’s delivery of some lines

marisa:  Me too.

emily:  She really did her best.

me:  Obviously I felt very sympathetic towards her character.

emily:  I would watch a whole movie about her character actually.

marisa:  I hope to someday be a rich hippie.

emily:  I also hope you will be a rich hippie. I actually have imagined going over to your house and you have a kid that you’re sort of absently carrying around and there is some kind of delicious curry smell coming from the kitche and your nails are really cute and maybe you’re wearing a sari?

marisa:  I will collect sufi art.

emily:  You’ll have Indonesian wooden screens.

me:  This is like life porn for me.

emily:  And you’ll take me upstairs and be like “this is my inspiration room.” It will open out onto a terrace

marisa:  Inspiration room! Gahhhhh! I’ll garden, in a vague way.

emily:  Maybe your life partner will garden and you’ll just harvest the vegetables and use them in your cooking unless that’s too gendered.

marisa:  My life partner will be rich so I can just write columns for websites that don’t pay. I want it to be that we somehow effortlessly made a lot of money.

Marisa:  How did we effortlessly make a lot of money? And do you live next door?

We can cook together

emily: Yeah, of course I live next door, we babysit for each other sometimes. But mostly we ignore our kids and they just play together. It is sort of like Weetzie Bat meets Hannah and her Sisters minus all the weirdness.. I wish this movie had been “LN’s Adventures”

marisa:  I want to think that that’s the movie that DE and VV wanted to make.

emily:  all the cameos were like 10 seconds long. Except the weird overlong fully clothed stripping scene in Montreal.

marisa:   I thought their cities were all off. Those people would have gone to Portland and Austin and Northampton.

emily:  Well, it all looked like the same place. Where WERE THEY in the BEGINNING?

marisa:  I have no idea! Colorado? Vermont?

emily:  Why was it COLD THERE and WARM EVERYWHERE ELSE (incl. Wisconsin!)

marisa:  It looked awful

emily:  when they were driving to the parents’ house it looked pretty

marisa:  That shack they lived in looked like something out of Stephen King

emily:  Sometimes that kind of thing appeals to me! They should have come back there.

marisa:  Ew, no! I wanted to never see that place again. Remoteness like that kind of scares me

emily:  No but I mean, that’s what they deserved. No place is good enough for you? Ok, enjoy your cardboard window!

marisa:  they make me feel claustrophobic

emily:  California mountains are awful

marisa:  It’s true, it’s what they deserved. Is that a thing the movie got right?

emily:  That we all feel like our adult life might have to start somewhere else?

marisa:   I definitely went through a very intense phase where I always wanted to move to fix my problems

emily:  but Wherever You Go There You Are

marisa:  Exactly

emily:  which is actually a valid lesson, but it was not the lesson of this movie. The lesson of this movie was, you can move to fix your problems because your problems are other people.


Marisa Meltzer’s next book, Girl Power, comes out in February.

Emily Gould’s blog is emilymagazine.com

Domestic Things, by Shashi Bhat

I am dating again – well, the one date, with a man who didn’t ask me any questions about myself. It ruined the pace of things. I had to maintain a constant brainstorm of conversation topics, mostly replicating material from his profile – falsified – he’d lied about his height. “What do you do for a living?”, “Where are you from originally?”, “Do you drink much coffee?” I asked, and he said optometrist, Baltimore, no, though we were in a coffee shop and he was drinking coffee, which, iced and milk-pale, had touched his breath already, that dad-smell. “I might do that at home,” I said, pointing at the glossy violet quotes stenciled on the walls of the café, letters in a dissonant overlap. I began tearing my napkin into tiny pieces. I didn’t know how to end a date properly – was thirty minutes enough? The napkin was indigo blue with “Indigo,” the name of the café, patterned over it. I tore it to separate the letters – i, n, d, i, g, … – and formed a lush pile in front of me, until he answered one of my questions with unanticipated enthusiasm, and his dad-smelling breath blew the pieces over me in a sudden napkin rain.

Afterward, I found bits of it caught in my hair. I combed them out with a slow flourish. The cat watched for a little while and then fell asleep, curled by the window like a seashell. At the sound of cars, her ears flickered in sleep, affected by the world in only this small way. At what degree of loneliness does owning a cat become a cliché? I don’t want to leave our apartment again. I’d rather stay here and do domestic things – bleach down surfaces, iron your clothing, clean the tarnished silver with a chemical reaction, boil a chicken carcass into stock. I want to research the history of the clawfoot bathtub, to discover where it got its cruel, curled feet. I want to paint the rooms, roll a creaking roller over the gray wall. That’s the part I was most looking forward to – I would have painted the back of your shirt when you weren’t looking. There wouldn’t have been any brainstorming, or any new dates with uncurious strangers, to scrape me empty like a vanilla bean. We would shut the shutters, and if an ambulance sirened violently outside, it wouldn’t be headed here.

Shashi Bhat teaches creative writing at The Johns Hopkins University, where she recently received in MFA in fiction. She has had stories published in several journals, including The Missouri Review, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

The Case for Survival, by Atossa Abrahamian

1.

In the beginning, there were only victims.  A raped woman was a worthless one – robbed of her virginity, stripped of her dignity, mentally and physically scarred and possibly even pregnant outside of wedlock, the rapist could alter the woman’s life for the worse in a matter of moments.

Today, in the West, we think of rape primarily as a psychological trauma. But traditionally, the consequences of rape have had less to do with the woman recovering from the event — certainly no small task in itself - and more to do with the fact that her entire social circle was affected. Someone’s daughter would no longer be eligible, and considered damaged, broken, cheap – a blow to the family’s reputation, finances and social standing. It was thus emotionally difficult, but also practically impossible for a woman to move on after such an event.

It is no surprise, then, that rape is employed strategically during wartime – it has the power to affect a community for generations after a political or military conflict ends. And rape, like all military tactics, aims to make victims of its enemy. The Greeks and Romans routinely rape their enemies; as early as 1797, upon noticing the widespread nature of rape warfare in his Egyptian Expedition, Napoleon Bonaparte declared that every man accused of rape must be “shot” for his crimes. More recent examples can be found in the conflicts in Eastern Congo (NY Times columnist Nick Kristof claims that in some area, three-quarters of women have been raped) and Darfur, where women are not only raped, but physically branded afterwards. Systematic rape in conflict is considered a crime against humanity, and in 1998 the Rwanda Tribunal determined that rape is part of genocide - “sexual assault formed an integral part of the process of destroying the Tutsi ethnic group and that the rape was systematic and had been perpetrated against Tutsi women only, manifesting the specific intent required for those acts to constitute genocide.” With the added dangers of HIV/AIDS, the risks of rape are greater today than ever, but the stigma surrounding sex makes it difficult for many sex crimes to be reported.

Conservative views on chastity and virginity are still widely held, particularly in religious countries. In Pakistan, for example, the law currently requires 4 witnesses for a rapist to be convicted; if no such witnesses are to be found, the rape victim is found guilty of adultery and punished. But in societies that exhibit more of a commitment to gender equality and human rights, considerable efforts have been made to better understand and cope with rape and its effects. In the U.S and Europe, rape does not have the same structural consequences: it is not a family affair linked to questions of honor, money and marriage, but a personal, individual trauma. This in itself allows for, at least some semblance of normalcy in external life after the rape happens. But there remain challenges in helping the individual overcome the event, and more broadly speaking, taking away from rapists the power of forever defining their subjects. And out of support groups, counseling sessions, feminist theory and first-hand accounts of recovery, an important semantic distinction arises: rape “victims” are victims no longer, but “survivors.”

2.

In 2002, Susan Jacoby wrote an essay entitled “Thank women for rape reforms” for the Baltimore Sun. She noted that even though feminist movements in the past century have brought about considerable structural reforms (say, women’s suffrage, or equal voting rights) “the most important change brought about by the women’s movement is abandonment of the antediluvian notion than rape is a ‘fate worse than death.’ Nothing is worse than death.” Without addressing the question directly, Jacoby’s article sums up why rape is such a big issue for women, and why there has been a strong movement to ditch the term “rape victim” in favor of the more forward-thinking “rape survivor.” The article implicitly makes the connection between the semantic shift (victim/survivor) and the (slowly) increasing amount of attention sexual abuse is receiving in the media.

But are the semantics of rape comparable, say, to the “American Indian” vs. “Native American” debate? Is it derogatory, even sexist to refer to a raped woman as a victim? And who decided this in the first place?

90% of all rape cases have women as targets, it is no surprise that feminist organizations have taken up sexual violence – and its semantics - as a major cause of concern. It’s a touchy subject (no pun intended), as to talk about rape means to take on a variety of difficult questions, including those of sexual health, domestic abuse, gender discrimination, violence, and societal power dynamics. The idea of referring to the raped person as a “survivor” is that a woman (or in rare cases, man) is able to move on from such an event without letting it control her life entirely. It is a means of regaining a sense of self that was quite literally – and non-consensually – overpowered by an invading body. It is no coincidence that on many American college campuses, the march that is organized yearly to raise rape awareness is called “Take Back the Night”. Nicole Landry Sault writes, in Many Mirrors:

“When others learn about a rape, some may view the person who has been attacked as a rape victim and interpret the term in a way that defines the person’s whole identity and all his or her actions as those of a victim….for others, a person who has been raped is a rape survivor, someone who has experienced rape but moved beyond the role as victim to the role of an actor or an activist who redefines what has happened and how this affects a sense of identity.” (237)

The roots of the survivor rhetoric are difficult to trace. A representative from Barnard College’s Rape Crisis Center was unsure about the details, but said that adopting the word ‘survivor’ in rape crisis centers “started in the 70s during the feminist movement, with the main goal of taking away part of the victim blaming that happens with rape cases.” And the following statement, published by the London Rape Crisis Center in 1984, is among the first to explicitly challenge the use of the term “rape victim”: “There is not a separate category for women called victims, just as there is no category for men who are not ‘rapists’ – ‘ victim’ takes away on power and contributes to the idea that men can ‘prey on’ women.”

In 1989, the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s “victim” caucus was renamed the “victim-survivor” caucus. In colleges, anti-rape and sexual violence awareness literature (handouts, posters, etc) tend to use the term “survivor” too. But while the term is acknowledged widely, especially in academic and activist circles, very few institutions have a set policy on what term to use. Major newspapers like the New York Times use “survivor” and “victim” interchangeably within the same article (probably due to a lack of synonyms, rather than politics) and even RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) use both terms on their website.

Still, there are indications that “survivor” is catching on. Perhaps the most well-known rape case of the past couple of decades was the case of Trisha Meili, a.k.a the Central Park Jogger, who, after being brutally raped and left for dead, would not reveal her identity for a long time. In 2003, she published a memoir about what had happened to her, and spoke to various newspapers about her experience. She told the Daily News:

“Although I was a victim of a horrific crime, I always considered myself a survivor. The difference between victim and survivor is more that semantic. Being a survivor is an attitude, it’s a mindset. Seeing myself as a survivor means taking responsibility - not for the beating and rape, but for where I put my energy each day going forward. Seeing myself as a survivor helped me to heal.”

It is significant is that her statement on the term  – which does not differ much from feminist and activist accounts - was approached not in the New York Review of Books, but in the Daily News, a local paper read by thousands of people in the subway.

3.

Susan Faludi famously wrote, “a backlash against women’s rights… is a recurring phenomenon: it returns every time women begin to make some headway towards equality, a seemingly inevitable early frost to the brief flowerings of feminism.” The argument over the semantics of sexual abuse are no exception to her theory, but interestingly, opposition to the survivor rhetoric has come from both the extreme right and the far left. At the time the aforementioned London Rape Crisis Center pamphlet was printed, a British doctor felt compelled to mention that “the predominant role of the Rape Crisis Centres should be supportive. Unfortunately they are often used as a feminist political tools using rape and rape victims in the general cause of women’s lib rather than vice versa.” The usual suspects – right wing media, for starters – have also given predictable rebuttals. Conservative commentator Roger Kimball called this use of “survivor” a “mis-description”: “victim”, he wrote, "is an accurate description of someone who has suffered a rape. To describe him or her as a `rape survivor’ is to mis-describe the person and the situation. It is, in fact, to lie in order to endow the situation with an aura of political virtue.” He then added that it is a perversion of the English language.

From the other side of the political spectrum, the late feminist writer Andrea Dworkin made her own point for the use of the term “victim”:

“It’s a true word. If you were raped, you were victimized. You damned well were. You

were a victim. It doesn’t mean that you are a victim in the metaphysical sense, in your

state of being, as an intrinsic part of your essence and existence. It means somebody

hurt you. They injured you. And if it happens to you systematically because you are born a woman, it means that you live in a political system that uses pain and humiliation to control and to hurt you.” (Woman-Hating Right and Left, in The Sexual Liberals and Attack on Feminism, 38 (Dorchen Leidholdt & Janice G. Raymond eds., 1990).

It is worth noting that Dworkin saw all intercourse as coercive in some way – her view of power dynamics is a radical one, to say the least. But her point is interesting if looked at from the perspective of the raped individual. Is it always helpful to be told to move on, to deal with what happened, to not let it affect your self-worth and future relationships when it probably will? And is it fair to ask women to not only move on, but to stop feeling like they were victimized?

—-

To call somebody a rape victim is not politically incorrect in the same way using the word “retard” to call someone stupid is – the term is not out of context, vilified, or used in a derogative manner, and it would hardly make sense to bleep out every time someone said “rape victim” on television. It has also been pointed out that it makes no sense to be a survivor of something which is not fatal (unless it becomes violent, of course) – cancer survivors have survived a life-threatening illness, but victims of the common cold are hardly referred to as “cold survivors.” But it is important to think beyond petty technicalities and linguistic minutiae and consider what such a term can do for the mentality surrounding rape – especially when thinking of rape as a global phenomenon. As stated earlier, in the West, overcoming rape is today, in the long run, a predominantly mental and personal battle, and to recognize that a happy, fulfilled inner life is possible after rape is the first step towards recovering. I would also argue that such a mentality is particularly relevant in parts of the world in which rape systematically stands in for murder – thus giving the idea of survival almost literal significance. When rape is used as a weapon, it is unlike traditional warfare in that it is impossible to retaliate in quite the same way: you can shoot back, fire back, bomb back, but you can’t rape your rapist back. One of the driving ideas in abandoning the term ‘victim’ is that ‘survivor’ carries with it the mindset that allows the so-called victim to refuse the rapist’s power. In this case, living well is not the best but the only revenge.

Atossa is a writer and translator living in Paris.

Single, by Lisa Locascio

SINGLE

BY LISA LOCASCIO


RITUALS

Stella’s first months of being single after the end of her seven-year relationship were structured through a series of ceremonial gestures. She and her now-ex-boyfriend had begun dating when she was in her last year of high school and continued through the first year of her coursework for an MFA in poetry. The strange new world of singlehood seemed a sort of Da Vinci Code populated by men who worshipped Charles Bukowski and tall girls who winced when she spoke. She had been the type of twelve-year-old who pursued correspondence courses in witchcraft, so it was natural that she would develop certain rituals, attempts to penetrate this new symbology.

Now, after sending a message to a man she was interested in, she would walk away from her computer and not check her email for as long as humanly possible, waiting certainly overnight and sometimes well into the next day. While she waited, Stella read ornate cookbooks she had received as gifts and never opened before. By hand she wrote sketches for a series of poems about old cars and abandoned furniture. She watched a marathon of television shows about women who didn’t know how to handle men.

Stella created and then tested magic tricks: if she didn’t look at her cell phone for two hours, she would have a text message from the guy she wanted a text message from. If she controlled her vitriolic self-deprecation by chanting a secret mantra under her breath, if she was just quiet for a minute and focused her eyes on the far wall of the room until they watered, a man would seek her out at a party.  For anything resembling a date she donned a panoply of amulets, charms and lucky underwear, and left her house feeling like a human iPhone, decked out with gadgets charged with simple tasks. The gold necklace would make him look at her chest, the bracelet meant that she would be safe, the bleached hair meant that he would want to touch her face, the underwear or no underwear meant that he would spend long enough with her to see what was beneath her clothes.

PARTIES

Each time Stella went to a party that fall, she came home with a story that was like the setup for a tasteless joke.

    1.  In September, Stella went to a party with her best friend, Dean, and two of his former co-workers, older women with clear designs on Dean. The women asked strange, vaguely insulting questions about Stella’s life.

    “Are you satisfied being a graduate student?” said the wealthy brunette. “You know, with basically taking a vow of poverty?”

    “Do you feel like you’ve come to terms with your appearance?” said the Polish blonde, “You are unusual looking.” The party was in a large apartment in a ritzy Brooklyn neighborhood she had never heard of. Stella had never been both single and at a party before, so she got drunk and winged around the apartment looking for a boy to hit on. Instead she found a room of weepy Long Island girls with great legs who told her that the man who owned the apartment was also heir apparently to a large media conglomerate: Hearst, or Conde Nast, or Wenner, but Stella couldn’t be sure which, because the music was too loud.

    Things got blurry: Stella found the host and attempted to engage him in a conversation that ended with him asking why he hadn’t seen her before and her responding “I guess you just haven’t been looking hard enough!” Dean was aggressively danced-with by a bespectacled girl who spoke at length about her shoes. He looked nervously over his shoulder, mouthing the word “help” and then laughing to cover it up. The Polish blonde made out with the wealthy brunette’s brother, who had driven to the party from another state. At around four Stella wrapped her hand around the bicep of a passing boy. He looked so friendly, with his floppy black hair and exhausted blue eyes.

    “Who do you know here?” she asked him.

    “Oh, nobody,” he said. “I just came off the street.”

    2. In November, Stella went with her beautiful roommate Yasmin to a party held by some people she didn’t know. Stella had been very depressed all day, and Yasmin convinced her to leave their apartment by telling her that it was “a reading party,” where she could read a new very short poem she had written. But when she arrived, the hosts told Stella that that she could not read her poem. They were tall skinny girls wearing shorts over black tights, oblivious somehow to the fact that it was November, and said they wanted to “keep things professional.” So Stella sat on a thin cushion on the floor and listened to a boy read twenty minutes of a poem about math and language variation. Before he started, he said: “I’m going to read twenty minutes of a poem about math and language variation.”

    Afterwards the party turned into a bigger party, and more people who Stella didn’t know showed up. Yasmin helped her start conversations with strangers. The benefit of having a very beautiful roommate was also the problem with having a very beautiful roommate: everyone wanted to talk to Stella because she knew Yasmin, but they did not want to talk to her for very long. Stella complained about the twenty-minute poem to some stranger boys, using an analogy to a popular science fiction show, and one of the boys said, “Wow, you watch that show?”  and Stella felt like a big deal. She went outside with the boy, Sam, and for two hours they discovered together that they had everything in common. He was appealingly rabbity, with a little halo of wavy brown hair and a way of looking at Stella that made her sure he was good in bed. At some point a horrible girl from the party decided they should flip a coin to see if they would go to her apartment or Stella’s, but she left Stella and Sam alone with the coin. He flipped and it came up heads. The horrible girl’s apartment. Sam and Stella looked together over at the horrible girl, who was laughing loudly at a joke about public universities. Yasmin made an apologetic face behind Sam’s head, but Stella touched his arm and said, “Make it tails, make it my apartment, make it tails.” He stuck the tip of his tongue out between his lips a little, more like a bunny than ever, and he did.

    On the walk to the train Stella took Sam’s arm, swinging it in hers. His friends were going to come over, too, and Sonia, her other friend, a sloe-eyed Polish beauty who dressed that night like a young soccer player. The evening bounded out in front of her like an excited dog. But then at the last minute the boys mysteriously decided they were tired and elected to head back to the “Slope,” which coincidentally was the most irritating nickname for Park Slope that Stella had ever heard. Stella rode the train home with Yasmin and Sonia, who rested her head on Stella’s lap, her light brown hair splaying over Stella’s black trench-coat, and moaned: “I’m never going to have sex again in my life.”

    “It’s cool,” Stella said, touching Sonia’s hair. “Me neither.”

    Yasmin smiled down into her collar.

    3. In December, Stella went to the Christmas party at the magazine where she had worked for a year. Stella had idolized this magazine as a child and had leapt at the opportunity when she had been offered an internship there. It was a sort of Holy Grail of internships, the end result of several years of lesser internships. Through the window across from her desk Stella had watched the seasons change in Times Square, the sparkling advertisements covered in snow, then gray sleet, then spring rain. Carrying a pile of envelopes to the mailroom and indulging in the free coffee, she had felt a sort of special calm. She had known that there was no real possibility of being hired at the magazine, but in her happier moments Stella had entertained the fantasy.

    Now her time at the magazine was ending and the Christmas party constituted a sort of spiritual payment for her toil: an invitation to a gathering of New York’s media elite. At the office Stella wandered through the gaily-decorated cubicles, recognizing no one. She ate several mini quiches and mirthlessly drank a cocktail made from pepper vodka and cranberry juice. Stella had wanted to take the opportunity to network – to make some connections – but the idea of talking to the pulled-together-looking strangers made her hyperventilate. She walked around smiling brightly, making eye contact with people and holding it until they looked away. Her boss talked to her for a while, then said “Wait right here,” and disappeared.

    Stella went to check on her coat and found herself doubled over among the bright woolens, dry-heaving as she choked back furious sobs. She put the coat on and ran to the elevator, counting backwards, silently naming the many comforts in her life into being. I love my parents, she thought, and my sister, and my pets, and Yasmin, and Dean, and Sonia, and my boyfriend. I mean, my ex-boyfriend, and then she was outside, the December wind somehow sympathetic as it whipped her face. A huge video screen flashed on the side of a building: HOLIDAY TRAVEL FRAUGHT WITH DANGERS, it said.

SUMO, or, FINALLY, SOME ACTION

During her Christmas vacation home to Chicago, Stella agreed to have dinner with a man from her past. At the time they had first met she had been a teenager and he had been four years older than she was now. The man – Ira – took her to dinner, then to a bar, and then back to the condo that he owned in Wicker Park, a few doors down from the building where Stella used to spend every Saturday in high school, writing poetry in a repurposed apartment with other at-risk teenagers, which seemed appropriate.

At the bar, Ira had leaned forward in mid-sentence to kiss the bare square of skin just below her throat, beginning a tide of elation that rose higher as he opened the passenger door of his car for her, a chivalrous gesture she did not recognize. “Is there something wrong you’re your car?” she asked. He just turned and looked at her. They barely spoke as he drove the short distance to his building. Stella bopped around the bright interior of the elevator like an excited toddler, falling forward into Ira’s soft torso just as the doors opened. She held her breath as he pushed the key into the lock. Ira’s condo was huge, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the futuristic concrete façade of a hospital with a massive exterior ventilation system that made it look like a set from Blade Runner. A black wire dress form dominated the front room.

Stella’s elation began to ebb at the sight of the dress form. She had lied to her parents about where she was going and was now at the home of a strange older man. She had never done this before. Perhaps Ira was a serial killer. Hadn’t Patrick Bateman owned a dress form? There was very little furniture, just a kitchen island with a Viking range and a brown shag carpet with Ira’s gym bag on it. Stella took off her coat and shivered.

“Where should I put this?” she asked.

“Uh,” Ira said. He had close-cut dark blonde hair and a chewy-looking pink mouth. His hands and face were covered all over with light brown freckles. Stella walked to the far corner of the room, where the windows met. The dull orange glare of the city seeped in through the translucent shades. There was a sort of metal frame in the corner, like a table with no surface. A word was embossed on the side. She moved my hand to touch the letters.

“Oh!” Ira said. “You can just put your coat on that.”

“What is this?” she said. The word was Sumo.

“It’s a stand for a book of Helmut Newton photographs,” he said. “It’s a huge limited edition book. It cost fifteen thousand dollars. But my building was broken into a few years ago so I put everything I cared about in storage.”

Stella glanced around the empty room. “It must be a great book,” she said.

“It is,” Ira said seriously. They looked at each other and she laughed suddenly, her breasts jumping hard on her chest. Ira took her coat and draped it over the stand. Then he came and stood close to her, his body just inches from hers, and looked down into Stella’s face. He put his hands to her face and kissed her with, tonguing the roof of her mouth.

When he pulled away Stella burst into giggles. “I think –“ she tried, and couldn’t finish. “I’m glad,” she said.

“We don’t have to do anything,” Ira said. “I just want to sleep next to you. I can tell you’re nervous, with all this laughing. It’s okay.”

“I’m not nervous,” Stella said, and kept laughing. “I’m just happy.” She kissed him again. She pulled back and considered his face. He seemed afraid to touch her.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I know you’re not my boyfriend.”

SCUBA DIVING

Sex with Ira was like scuba diving. The first kiss was her oxygen mask, all of his smell around her like water, his mouth the only real thing. Then Stella had to sink down to the bed, carefully, so she didn’t get the bends; she felt like she might faint. Ira unzipped her dress, cupping the curves of her back in his palms. “Don’t move,” he said, and undressed her, running his fingertips under the waistband of her underwear like he was opening a letter. Nude, Stella felt like she had put on a new body, like she was wearing another skin.

Ira kissed the indent of her spine, lifted her breasts and licked their shadows, rubbed her knee with his thumb. He sat her on his lap and she felt herself falling deeper down, towards the shadowy bottom of the ocean. She slid off his knees and onto the bed, stretched out her legs and rubbed her cheek into his crotch. Was there anything Stella loved more than the feel of an erection through jeans? No, there was not.

She was down there, at the sea floor, and she had found it, the rare creature for which she had gone diving. The salty wet warmth of his cock in her mouth, lolling on her tongue, sent Stella into a silent paroxysm of languid questions. What had she read that could be applied to this task? What could she summon from her memory to send angels to her jaw? She tried so hard to focus on the tiny, sensate pleasures of the blow job – the bob of his testicles on her wet chin, his loamy scent rising in her nose like bread baking or gingko trees in bloom. Having him in her mouth made her feel completely underwater, like she had grown gills, like she could stay down forever.

LONNIE

After she returned to New York, Stella began calling her younger sister late at night and dreamily recounting her evenings with Ira. “I hope I see him again,” she’d say, her voice husky in her darkened room. Stella’s sister told her that Francie Jacobs, a girl a few years younger than Stella who had grown up down the street, had been dating a thirty-seven-year-old ex-con named Lonnie since she was sixteen. Francie and Lonnie had met on an Ayn Rand message board during Francie’s junior year of high school. For the first four months theirs had been a love affair only of the mind. Then Lonnie had appeared at Francie’s dance recital, and now, three years later, they were secretly living together in Evanston, where Francie studied comp lit at Northwestern and Lonnie cleaned the bodies of the elderly invalids. Francie described Lonnie as “slightly overweight.” He had gotten into philosophy in prison.

It was difficult for Stella to imagine Francie – a painfully quiet girl with whose brown hair seemed to drip from her scalp – carrying on a thrilling affair with a pudgy felon. Could there be a more appropriate name for this man than Lonnie? Only, perhaps, “Ronnie.” And yet, in light of Ira, Stella felt a sudden strange sisterhood with Francie. She swam for a moment into Francie’s mind, felt the thrill of Lonnie’s practiced and grateful embraces, their shared passion for The Fountainhead. Although “slightly overweight” surely meant “quite fat,” and Stella could not avoid picturing Francie and Lonnie’s awkward coupling, Stella felt warmly towards the clandestine lovers.

In this torrent of sympathy, she decided to write a prose poem called “The Older Man Story.”

THE OLDER MAN STORY

I liked the way he looked at me, his eyes full of awe for the miracle of my body. Sometimes he pressed his face to some particularly smooth part – the flatness between my breasts, say, or the inside of my elbow – and breathed in, the way mothers breathe in the scent of their babies. Of course I smelled good: before I saw him I took long hot showers and rubbed my skin with desert-smelling lotion. I squirted tea-scented perfume on the insides of my wrists and at the nape of my neck, where I knew he would lick.

When I did some basic math and compared what he and I had been doing in a given year – You were twelve the year I was born, I was in first grade when you lost your virginity, When I got my driver’s license you bought your first house – he shook his head and sighed ruefully.

“I’m a bad person,” he said sometimes. “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

But then he would do it, he would do anything: drink the sweat from the backs of my knees, hold my hand in his lap as he drove me home, offer up his whole arsenal of weird confirmed-bachelor toiletries: skin spray, leave-in conditioner, a row of eight bars of Arrid XX lined up like an army behind his mirror.

AN INSURRECTION

Stella got fed up with “The Older Man Story” and went to another party, this time alone. At first she thought she didn’t know anyone at this party, and then she realized that she did: Sam, the boy from the party in November, was there. They drank together all evening. Around two in the morning, Stella sat next to him on a couch and said “Will you hold my hand and talk to me about your favorite mythology?”

“Is that what you want right now?” he asked. Stella nodded and he took her hand. She was so proud the successful move that she had made that she could hardly speak. When it was time for them to leave Sam said that he would walk her to the train. On the way she held his arm like she had the night they met and smiled happily into the wind. At the entrance to the subway, Sam turned to her. His mouth seemed blurry, as if he was shaking as he spoke. “As your host, I would certainly be remiss if I did not offer you lodging for the evening.”

“Are you saying I can stay over?” she asked, trying not to slur. His brown eyes seemed rich and true in the reflected yellow light from the subway.

“Yes,” he said. They turned and walked back to his house without speaking.

They went into his bedroom, where Sam put on a pair of glasses. Stella sat on his small couch and curled her knees into her chest, waiting for Sam to sit next to her. Instead, he settled in a chair perhaps five feet from the couch. Her drunkenness exaggerated this distance, made it echo out in front of her like a long hallway. They were silent, and then Stella awkwardly gestured towards a small book of Bukowski’s poetry, which led to a long conversation about Bukowski. It was four-thirty in the morning, they were both quite drunk, and Stella was bluffing by claiming to know anything about Bukowski. Her eyes kept crossing with the effort.

“I don’t really care for his work,” she said. She tried to place her hand elegantly on her knee, but it slipped and fell into her crotch.

“Well, perhaps you haven’t seen every shade of his development as a verse writer,” Sam said thoughtfully.

Stella looked down at her breasts. The shiny pale skin rose up like a loaf of fresh bread. When she looked again at Sam he was flipping through a book. “Here, I think this piece illustrates his engagement with the sensual,” he said, thrusting it at her.

After what seemed like an hour of this poorly functioning critical discourse, Sam said, “Well, I’m going to hit the hay,” and stood. Stella followed him to his bed at the far corner of the room. She stood still, sparkling with anticipation, as he unzipped her dress. He took it off and she was nude. “Why don’t you take off some clothes?” she suggested, covering her chest with her arms. Sam removed off his shirt. Stella lay down and was suddenly and briefly self-conscious about her body, untouched for four months and exposed in the shadowy moonlight from the window next to his bed.

She opened her eyes and saw Sam’s thin pale body standing over her. He had stripped down to only his underwear, tight black boxer briefs, and looked delicate and small, almost pathetic, his thin torso like a feather. Stella felt a great surge of affection. She held her arms out to him and said “C’mere.” He lay down beside her and kissed her thrillingly for several minutes, rubbing her breasts like they were a soft piece of fabric, which was okay, which felt pretty nice. His hand traveled down to her thicket of ungroomed pubic hair and gently poked at her clitoris, which was also okay, which also felt pretty nice. Despite the several hours of intoxicants she had consumed and the near-dawn hour, Stella felt quite awake.

Sam sat up and moved into a kneeling position. Stella smiled with her eyes closed. She knew what happened now. She liked what happened now. She took him in her mouth and rolled him around a little bit on her tongue. The act made her happy, made her feel like she knew what was going on. Ira could become only a memory, her ex-boyfriend only one of a long chain of events that led to her continued status as a lady with many lovers, a libertine. True, her technique seemed less effective than usual – tumescence was not occurring in her mouth – but everything takes time, she reasoned, and applied herself to her task with new vigor.

Stella sucked Sam’s penis for almost as long as they had listlessly discussed Bukowski. The feeling of exhaustion and intoxication returned. Through the corner of her slitted eyes she saw that the sun had begun to rise, the sky behind Sam’s strangely feminine white curtains turning an electric purple. She decided that Sam was hard and withdrew, lying back down. She was tired, and it was his turn. She writhed a bit, waiting for him to touch her. Time passed. Was Sam even on the bed anymore? She felt his weight, but no contact – not even the proximity of his leg to hers.

She opened one eye and saw the instantly embarrassing image of Sam crouched on a far corner of his bed, masturbating.

“Uh,” she said. “Touch me?” A cliché rose in her mind: Sex is like pizza – even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good. Stella suddenly hoped that this was true.

Sam came back towards her, but she felt so far from him now – not that she had ever felt any real closeness, but before she had assumed that their shared attraction was a vehicle she could ride towards a mutually satisfactory conclusion. Now she began to fear that there might be a different outcome.

“You should put your mouth on me again,” Sam said, and Stella moved automatically to do so, still dimly optimistic about the situation. After all, men always complained that women didn’t enjoy giving oral sex, and she had always been eager to prove that this was not so. Then Sam came quickly and silently in her mouth. The consistency of his semen was not right, somehow too thin, as if it had been watered down. He immediately withdrew and lay down beside her. She swallowed, confused, and lay down too, resting her arm on his torso.

“I can’t sleep if anything is touching me,” Sam said, not moving. She removed her arm. A horrible realization began to blossom. She felt a pang of recognition. She knew this story from movies and books. He lay inert beside her. She opened her eyes fully and glared at the shape of his body. Did people really behave this way? There must have been some misunderstanding. Perhaps Sam had thought that Stella’s enthusiasm for fellatio was such that she took orgasm-level pleasure in bringing him to climax.

“Um,” she said. There was no response. “You know, Sam,” she said. “I didn’t have an orgasm. I’d like to.”

Sam’s silence settled around Stella like a miserable wet veil. “So…” she said after a few minutes.

“That’s an awkward thing for you to say,” Sam said finally.

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t really feel comfortable having this conversation,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s awkward,” Stella said, shivering. “I mean – what are you talking about?”

“It’s just not really a topic I think I can talk about right now,” Sam said.

“Um, well, I think this is pretty basic procedure,” Stella said. She couldn’t think up a decent argument for why she deserved to have an orgasm. She had never thought she would need one.

“You know, now may not be the time,” Sam said as if she had suggested they drive to his parents’ house in New Jersey and announce their engagement. His tone was of deep and abject aggravation, and he punctuated his sentences with sighs of disbelief.

“I don’t even really know what to say,” Stella said, horribly awake. “I mean…” She trailed off. The argument stretched out, Sam continuing his rebuke of her awkwardness and Stella more and more incoherent in her attempts to express her rapidly retreating desire.

There had been a few incidents in the past when Stella had been crazily sexually demanding when drunk. Eight years earlier, when she was a sophomore in high school, she had woken up her boyfriend in the middle of the night, enthralled by his sleep-erection, and demanded coitus. And she had been occasionally guilty of a certain insatiability with her most recent ex, ignorant of the fact that multiple bottles of wine had a different effect on her libido than on his. Was this, she wondered, a similar circumstance? Was she out of line?

“I just don’t think now’s the time,” Sam said.

“It would just be nice,” she said.

Sam heaved a sigh of great frustration and disgust and yanked the sheet from her body. He dropped his hand onto her hip. It began to creep forward.

“You know what,” she said. “You know what, it’s okay.” And she moved her body away from his. She felt like crying, but also knew that she would not cry, not even when she was alone. She considered leaving, but she did not have her glasses and she did not know the neighborhood. She had to pee, but the idea of putting her dress back on to go into the hall Sam shared with two roommates was too much. She wrapped herself in the sheet and sat up against the wall. She felt the weak sunlight on her shoulders and the movement of the curtains behind her head. How melodramatic, she thought, and almost laughed, but did not.

“There’s a towel on the floor,” Sam said without moving. She had thought he had fallen asleep. “If you need it.” She lay back down and hoped he would not speak again.

Stella did not sleep, but instead lay awake beside Sam’s lightly slumbering form for the two hours until eight o’clock, when his alarm went off. At the first sound Sam rose and crossed to the other side of the room, where he dressed with his back to her, taking time to button his cuffs and collar. She took this as a sign to scramble into her dress and gather her things.

“I’m sorry we can’t have a more leisurely morning,” Sam said as he led her out of his room. “I have a polo lesson with my cousin in half an hour.”

A polo lesson? At eight-thirty on a Sunday morning? Stella didn’t have time to express an opinion on Sam’s schedule because they were already at the threshold. She stepped outside.

“See ya,” he said, and shut the door.

THEN, YOU’LL KNOW

As she stumbled blindly along the street, squinting into the sunlight, Stella thought of the phrase her friends had used over and over again as they encouraged her to be brave, to act without fear. “I want,” she had said to them, in October and December and February. “I want to ask Sam to come over to my house. I want to go visit Ira in Chicago. I want to go home with Sam.”

“Then you should do that,” they had uniformly told her.

“But,” Stella said. “But what is Sam says no? What if Ira freaks out? What is Sam is a terrible lover?”

“Then, you’ll know,” Stella’s friends had said. “You’ll know he’s a douchebag, or that he’s scared, or that it wasn’t meant to be.”

“Take it off like a Band-Aid,” Yasmin sometimes added. “Just get it over with.”

“But,” Stella kept saying. “What if I don’t want to know? I’d rather not find out if these guys are terrible people.”

“Really?” Yasmin asked.

“Are you sure?” Sonia said.

“Fine,” Dean said, and shrugged.

But now, with the cold Brooklyn wind blasting her bare neck and arms, Stella realized that she was in fact glad to know. Briefly she returned in thought to the waning moments of the party where she had found Sam the night before, a moment not five hours earlier when she had stood in the apartment’s tiny kitchen, pouring herself and Sam brimming shots of Jack Daniels and grinning widely. Had she ever felt as happy as she had in that moment, full of the possibility of the evening, sure that she was signing up for a menu of pure pleasure? Now she stood blinking at a faraway traffic sign, trying to figure out if it was safe to cross the wide avenue. She stepped off the curb and a car suddenly blazed by, nearly running over her foot.

But now, she knew. Her attempts to find fulfillment with the men she had met in the past year – her hope that one might bear out her interest in him, might prove capable of riding her body with her to a different place – had largely failed. But this failure was hardly uninteresting, and her advisor had written all over her thesis, was, in fact, “More interesting.” She began to see the value of this comment. What she had wanted from these men was a good time, an authentic emotional interaction, the thrill of their hands and eyes on her body. She had wanted to feel, always, the shimmery transformation she underwent in the presence of a man’s desire. Sam and Ira had given her moments of this, little half-servings of what she wanted.

What she only realized fully now was that these men had been the barest of hors d’oeuvres meted out by a finicky caterer. Her friends had been the real meal all this time. They were the ones who had sustained her. How may nights had she slept on the lumpen sofa in Dean’s disaster zone bedroom, just passed out stoned in her clothes and woken in the middle of the night to steal his toothbrush and rinse her mouth with his Listerine? How many evenings had she spent drinking draft beer with her MFA classmates, grousing about how small a place the world seemed to hold for them? How many mornings (well, afternoons) had she walked to Café Orlin with her roommate and felt soaringly happy at the knowledge that they would order the same breakfast as always, that Yasmin would sometimes look up and the light from the window would catch just so on her shining hazel eyes? And hadn’t Dean always woken her with a kiss on the forehead, hadn’t he gone downstairs to make coffee so that she could sleep on his couch a moment longer? Hadn’t he stood patiently by when, after they went back to her apartment drunk one night, she had filled a cookie sheet with raw bacon, coated it in brown sugar and chili powder, and shoved it in the over? And hadn’t Yasmin been kind when she came into the kitchen after Dean and Stella removed the bacon from the oven and stood screeching as they burnt their fingers, trying to pluck the sizzling strips from the half-inch of bubbling fat at the bottom of the pan? Hadn’t Yasmin only mildly said, “Can you guys keep it down?” and not mentioned the ultimate irony of waking a Muslim at four in the morning by noisily cooking and then eating bacon? Hadn’t she even smiled a little as Stella and Dean crammed the crispy meat into their mouths?

The wind picked up again, blowing a steady band of cold against Stella’s bare knees. She felt new amazement at the fact that Sam had not offered a jacket. Wasn’t the point of going home with someone that you liked them, even if only a little bit, that you wanted to be nice to them, even if only a little bit? She stood on the corner, feeling a certain appreciation for the ugliness of the big intersection, for its unabashed barren morning self. At home Stella had a little stuffed owl, no bigger than her thumb, which Dean had given her on some happy morning at his place in Brooklyn – a morning when she’d been fully dressed, one where she’d had breakfast. She and Dean had gone for a walk along the shores of the East River, surveying the shapes of Manhattan across the water, and the wind had not bothered her because Dean had loaned her a sweatshirt. On their way back inland they had stopped at a market, and Dean bought her the little blue owl.

“You’re my heart, Stella,” he had said.

Stella kept the owl on her nightstand. She closed her eyes now and saw it there, waiting for her, right where she’d left it. She would go home and crawl under her blue blanket – she would crawl under and hold the little owl in her left hand, and feel the love that had so selflessly been given her, the joy she had taken in loving others.

Stella stepped off the curb. A tiny elderly woman with fluffy white hair wearing an orange leather jacket appeared next to her. The lady leaned towards her and said “Great dress.”

“Thanks,” Stella said, and crossed the street.

Lisa Locascio recently completed her first novel, Peculiar Qualifications. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is Virginia B. Middleton Fellow at the University of Southern California.

About Issue No.1

All the pieces in this issue, our very first, were inspired by or gathered through the common theme of “Survival.”

Call for Submissions.

CANDOR magazine is accepting submissions for its second issue.

CANDOR publishes work by people of all sexes and genders.

Its debut issue, themed SURVIVAL, included an essay about the rhetoric of rape victims by Atossa Abrahamian, a personal essay about domesticity by Shashi Bhat, and a conversation entitled “Woman Writer / Writer Mother” between Sarah Manguso and the writer Rachel Zucker.

Online literary tastemaker THE MILLIONS called it “a SASSY for the intellectual set, rife with wit and intelligence.”

I hope you’ll consider submitting an essay of any size or shape to CANDOR’s next issue. Its theme is GAIETY. Consider queerness, joy, and, in the words of Russell Edson, “humor, that gaiety that death teaches!”

Thank you so much for your kind consideration.


Write

Fiction (up to 3000 words)

Essays (about 3000 words)

Reviews (500-1000 words)

To

candormagazine@gmail.com


Please have any submissions to us by April 1st.

PRESS

Candor Magazine in THE MILLIONS!

"The debut issue of Candor magazine is like a Sassy for the intellectual set, rife with wit (Emily Gould and Merisa Meltzer discuss Away We Go), intelligence (writer mother Rachel Zucker and woman writer Sarah Manguso speak candidly about identity, motherhood, women’s prejudices and writing), and women’s rights (Atossa Abrahamian considers the rhetoric of the rape victim).”

Photos from Candor’s Launch party, 11/22/09

readers!

The Believers by Zoe Heller, reviewed by Mina Kimes

The Believers

Zoe Heller

Zoe Heller isn’t out to make friends.  The Believers, her latest novel, is populated with jerks, weaklings, and fools.  Nearly all of her characters are difficult to sympathize with, and at times seem intentionally designed to alienate the reader.

That’s the point, says Heller. The author has in numerous interviews critiqued the reader’s desire for likable characters, or “relatability.” She has even admitted that the need for identification left her “slightly irritated.”  Like the weary mother of an unpopular child, Heller told the New York Times there are more important things than being liked. “If you want to find friends, go to a cocktail party,” she said.

Ironically, that is where we meet The Believers’ main characters—at a party in London, in the 1960’s.  Audrey Howard first sees Joel Litvinoff in a crowd of drunken graduate students and would-be revolutionaries.  Joel, a prodigious Jewish lawyer in his early thirties, woos her with his liberal affirmations.  He follows Audrey to her parents’ house in the countryside; she trails him back to New York City, visions of peace rallies dancing in her head. “They would go on marches and hold cocktail parties attended by all their Negro friends.”

The characters’ initial encounter shimmers with ambiguity. Audrey is alternately timid and forthright, inducing shifts of power between Joel and herself.  But Heller quickly alters the tone when she clues the reader into Joel’s thoughts.  On the train ride to the Howards’ home, he tells Audrey that he has been invited to join Martin Luther King’s legal team, and is immediately annoyed when she doesn’t fawn over his accomplishments.  When he enters her parents’ cluttered house, he is disgusted with the mess:  “Whatever malaise hung over this house could not be attributed to poverty, he thought.  Cleanliness cost nothing, after all.”  Heller invokes Austen by letting his perceptions shadow the narrative descriptions; the trip sags under the weight of Joel’s judgment.

When Audrey half-heartedly wonders what it would be like to marry Joel, one wants to claw their way into the scene, warning her of the inevitable pain that will ensue. We never get the chance, however as the story skips forward to 2002; Joel is now in his seventies, famed for exonerating civil rights leaders and accused terrorists.  Audrey, his wife, has become unremittingly foul-tempered, and the blurry qualities she exhibited earlier have sharpened into dark relief.  As Joel breakfasts in their West Village brownstone before a trial, she snaps at him several times—a habit, we learn:

"Audrey had decided long ago that if everybody else was going to guffaw at Joel’s jokes and roll over at his charm, her distinction—the mark of her unparalleled intimacy with the legend—would be a deadpan unimpressability. ‘Oh, I forgot!’ she often drawled when Joel was embarking on one of his exuberant anecdotes.  ‘It’s all about you, isn’t it?’"

She only grows nastier.  After Joel is rendered unconscious by a stroke early in the book, Audrey lashes out at nearly every person in her vicinity. She berates Joel’s coworker (“What did you learn on your big fact-finding mission?”), his nurse (“Is there someone more senior I could talk to?”), and her own daughter, whom she expels from the hospital.  There’s little to acquit her, as her thoughts don’t stray far from her belittling actions—a common case in The Believers.

Depriving a character of appeal poses a challenge, forcing the reader to question her need for identification—Heller’s “relatability.”  But where characters in other novels have pushed the boundaries of relatability while attracting our fascination and even our compassion (Shakespeare’s Richard III comes to mind; so does Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert), Audrey isn’t interesting enough to incite either sentiment.  Sometimes, a shrew is just a shrew.

Most readers will persevere though, which is a testament to Heller’s deftness at describing the situations of everyday life.  Particularly compelling are the scenes featuring the Litvinoff’s daughters: Karla, a chubby, weak-willed social worker in an unhappy marriage, and Rosa, a jaded activist who finds herself inexplicably drawn to Orthodox Judaism (there’s an adopted drug-addict son, but he’s a bit of an afterthought).  Neither Karla nor Rosa are very likable—Karla resembles a weaker version of the younger Audrey and says “Oh no!” too often, and Rosa is a less vituperative incarnation of Audrey in the present—but both navigate real, modern dilemmas.  Heller’s account of Karla’s struggle with her weight feels true to life, especially when she spills into “hot tears” because her future paramour, the Egyptian operator of a newsstand, asks if she’s on a diet.

Karla’s lover, Khaled, is perhaps the most intriguing character in The Believers, sympathetic not because he is likable, but because he is complicated; despite witnessing racial prejudice, he maintains a faith in American opportunism.  The rest of the cast consists of dated stock characters ranging from obnoxious bourgeois liberals to less articulate New Yorkers.  Few deviate from what is expected of them, even the Orthodox Jews whom Heller soft-gloves (they end up speaking in the muted cadence of primary school teachers).  We swallow them as Rosa does, but we also feel little for her, as they are, in many ways, the byproduct of her self-absorption.  For example, Rosa’s ditzy, Sex and the City-quoting roommate is an amalgam of stereotypes:

Happily, Jane’s natural obtuseness, enhanced by years of self-esteem training, had saved her from taking offense.  Insofar as she noticed Rosa’s froideur at all, she attributed it to social awkwardness.  Rosa, she had decided, was a shy girl, who needed bringing out of herself.  To this end, she was always appearing at Rosa’s bedroom door—-gooseflesh hips spilling over the top of her low-rise jeans, a mug of Celestial Seasonings in her  cupped hands, wanting to parse a celebrity interview in InSyle magazine, or to deliver a bulletin from her hectic life in the fast lane of public relations.

Are these people as unbelievable as they seem, or are they unbelievable because they are viewed through the solipsistic eyes of the Litvinoffs?  Even if it’s the latter, banal characterization has its limits. A shift in perspective cannot always excuse.

The timing of Joel’s coma suggests that it ought to serve as a catalyst, driving Audrey, Rosa, and Karla to change their ways and confront their beliefs.  But there is a strange sense of disconnect between the stroke and what ensues; none of the characters seem to be affected by it.  The Believers is a family drama, but it could easily be about a group of characters who have never met each other.  The Litvinoffs exist on disparate planes, rarely reverberating against each other.

Heller’s main characters flail in a world that offers no respite—because respite ought to come in the form of human connection, which is nearly non-existent in the novel.  Heller said her readers were complaining about a lack of likable characters, or a dearth of “Atticus Finch” types.  But what what’s really missing isn’t loveliness or kindness, but complexity, which necessitates characters who don’t solely see others as stereotypes.  Not liking characters, but believing in them, is relatability.  There is a brief flicker of understanding, occurring between Audrey and Karla near the end.  It’s enough to suggest that Audrey might be human—but not enough to make her an object of interest. Or, for that matter, a friend.

Mina Kimes is a writer-reporter for Fortune magazine.  She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Year of Men: An Expat in China, by Adriane Quinlan

The Year of Men:

An Expat in China

Names have been changed to protect friendships.

I lived in Hong Kong half a year and no men kissed me, and I thought it would be like this forever. I thought this is what life would be: Me, overdressed, drunk and bleary, sucking on chocolate soy-milk as I made my way in heels to my solitary apartment—a third story walkup above a store where shirtless men dried shark fins, staring at me as I walked out to the bus in the mornings or ran out in my hideous jogging costume, puffing like a blowfish. Ford and I had thought about what the essence of Hong Kong was, or I had thought of it while drunk and trying to be clever, and we had agreed that it was a puddle—a puddle that reflected neon lights. You’d come home at five, six a.m.— No one ever stayed out as late as they did in Hong Kong—and your digital camera would be full of the same picture: the retro Chinese neon sign reflected in the puddle that had gathered in the cobblestones.

I was miserable and in a month, I’d leave.

I’d go to Beijing.

I’d see something of the world.

I’d fall in love.

But first: this. This purgatory that I thought of as the world.

Ford was my best friend. He lived in a hotel at the end of a road that had not yet been built. To get there, we shared a cab that drove down the long, dirt path through the flat marshland and then there it was, glistening up ahead: a peach-colored chandelier-y place—what an alien civilization would have built if they worshipped crystals.

Years later we tried to remember how we had met and remembered two different stories. To him I had been the girl at the drinking game, in the back of that dingy Korean place, asking the morbid questions. To me, he had been the boy on the rooftop of the Foreign Correspondents Club. It was the night the Canadian dollar passed the American and the childhood friend he had come with, a Wall Street Journal reporter, had high-fived another Canadian at another table. I had looked on—reeling slightly for my country, slightly amused to be among the lucky rich still sipping, quite literally, gin and juice. And then Ford had yelled toward them in an outburst. “NEITHER OF YOU HAVE ANY MONEY IN EITHER CURRENCY,” he said. “WE DON’T CARE ANYMORE.”

We both just didn’t care.

The soy milk had become my comfort food. It wasn’t chocolate-flavored really, but advertised itself as “malted” and tasted almost exactly like chocolate. Children bought it in the stores; There was a daisy on the outside of the box and you felt like an idiot drinking it.

The discovery of the milk had come through Alan, the most hardened expat, having lived here for a few years after a horrific breakup with a woman who had moved here for him and whose paintings still hung silent in his apartment. (It was reported from a girlfriend of mine who had gone in there that one showed an octopus, pulling a sunk car out of the ocean up onto the sand.) Alan was now quiet, tempered. A jaded attitude of wisdom seemed to have gathered in his spine, weighing it down so he stooped. We turned to him for counsel while behind his back everyone wondered why he was friends with us, about how sad that was, and about how we didn’t want to end up like him.

We had been in a cab heading down Connaught Road, with three of us in the backseat and me looking out the window reading everything out loud. The boys had smoked hashish in Boris’s ice-cube apartment and I, not having any of it, had drunk a lot of yellowy beers in an effort to keep up. There was a one-dollar 8.6% beer you could get from the all-night 7-11s and these had done me over. The result was that I was now a loud freak while they were zoned out, staring at the fireworks lightshow that popped up along the water at night, the sponsorship effort of some bank or another.

Alan turned around from the front seat, saying that the driver was asking where we were supposed to be going.

“I asked, ‘WHERE ARE WE GOING,” Austin said, faux-serious.

"Is that a chocolate milk?" Boris asked, incredulous.

Alan was sucking the straw of a gravy-colored box. “You’ve never had these before?” he said, passing the chocolate-y soy around the backseat, not knowing any better where we were going.

“It’s wonderful,” I said, feeling that this was as good as it got. It was soy milk—so Hong Kong, what old women ladled out of wooden buckets in front of the noodle shops—and it was chocolate, drink of those who desire more.

Hungover on Sundays, we’d make plans to meet at a dim-sum place that Savir’s girlfriend called “the spit jar place.” There were a lot of dim sum places in the city where you’d wait in line and sit at a clean table and remark on the delicate intricacies of the dishes. But this wasn’t one of them. At the top of a staircase past a small medicine shop, there was a flotilla of grease covered tables, every one of them occupied by an old man with his stomach out, looking at us over the lip of a smudged newspaper and smirking foully. The light in the room was green and women with their hair up in nets would push their ways around the tables, screaming in Cantonese the names of the dishes. We didn’t understand, so they’d let us lift the little bamboo cages off of their plates and look at them and say oh, good golly yes—steamed shrimp wrapped in thick egg noodles, or a kind of yellow sponge cake Savir called “brain bread”—or good lord, no to the bony bits of beef you were supposed to suck the marrow out of or the gelatinous cubes that tasted of bacon. Still, the more terrifying, the better you felt about yourself, about your role here amongst the elbows of the men reading the papers. They’d smile to see you try to suck the marrow out, and you’d smile back, half-grimacing.

If I had wanted to be happy in any conventional sense I would have stayed in America. I had been in love with a boy who was going to be living in New York. Though I had loved him for a year, it was only just before graduation that he had acknowledged it. We had left a Myrtle party, with its oily pizza boxes lying unclenched over the sofas, and gone out to a balcony that overlooked a lit-up pool. I know what that pool looks like—bean-shaped, illumined, with a single beer can bobbing thoughtlessly—because I thought so often afterward of that scene, as though it had been a source of happiness.

We had kissed heartily and then, like two adulterers suddenly aware of the cruelty of their endeavor, pulled apart. “But we can’t be together,” he said. “You’re going away to Hong Kong to be a famous journalist!” I didn’t protest; It sounded glamorous, and I wanted to be the kind of person who did that, just as I wanted to be the kind of woman who scorned what she was given.

Then we went back to work on some puzzle that the rest of them inside—a drunk, shirtless mob—were piecing together on the golf-course-colored carpet, working from the edges in. And then I went away. Because it is what I had planned to do in the first place and there is no changing one’s life for a man.

Besides, the country felt dead. Anna Nicole Smith had overdosed in January. The troop surge wasn’t working. Anyone with half a brain had gotten the idea that the country was imploding on a dead center. Cocktail-party people were starting to insinuate that if you weren’t trying to save America, all of its failures were somehow your fault. I decided the best route was to ignore it all. So I had sought a job abroad.

At an informal going-away party in someone’s backyard, an aunt—a very pregnant, tattooed lady who had once gone on a couple of dates with Quentin Tarantino—pulled me aside, gleaned that I was single, and spoken with the ignorance of those born beautiful. “You’re going to live with some insane Hong Kong sugar daddy,” she said, “You’re going to have the time of your life.” And then a few days later, there was that woman on the plane—the luxe, double-decker plane with camel-colored leather seats. She was tan, married to a banker stationed there, and wore a plunging cashmere V-neck that framed a glinting droplet I recognized from the Tiffany jewelry catalogue. “You’re going to have the time of your life,” she said.

Who is the girl they thought I was? I see her—thin and empty-headed, wearing an eggplant-colored silk dress that flounces as she skips; the dress a million girls had that summer. I own no such dress. It’s hard for me to remember ever thinking that I was not going away to deliberately suffer, because that is what it so quickly became.

There was a poet I knew in Hong Kong, and within an hour or so of meeting him, drinking outside a 7-11, I learned that he had lived with a girl for seven years in New Orleans, and that she had left him.

He described the big spaces of that city—its palazzos and river-walks—and then their house, which was rattling and wooden and filled with her things. We longed for what we didn’t have and drove ourselves away from it. Long-term expats had a maxim: “People come here because they are running to something, or because they are running away.” Surely some came out of ambition—I had seen these men on the streets outside of clubs, the fat bankers in checkered shirts, holding the wrists of sly Cantonese women. But most I knew were from the other camp, from the city’s down and out who had come for simple escape. Because if there was a place for brooding’s opposite—distraction—it was in Hong Kong, where all the lights were always on and the people in the street knew nothing of you and cared less.

I arrived in August. It was raining like mad—the middle of the monsoon season—and the lightning puffed out behind the clouds to show the docks we were speeding by, with their robotic red arms pulling containers off of cargo ships, even in the dark. Behind the rain-streaked windows I could see the streetlights blaring, and a lot of people with thorned umbrellas pressing close to the bus while the driver honked through it, as though the people were a sound he could defeat with his own. I had printed instructions of how to find the apartment that I had found over the internet, and I got out where the paper said—in Tsim Sha Tsui, past Moody Road—and attempted to make my way to my first apartment through the river of people.

The city edged out any feelings you had inside of yourself; it took over. You felt that immediately.

The first apartment I rented in Hong Kong—the first apartment I had ever had—was on the 15th floor of a building zoned for commercial use at the intersection of the Night Market and Nathan Road, otherwise known as Golden Mile—the busiest strip of shopping in the tax-free SAR. In the basement was an all-night computer parlor designed to look like a cave. Among plastic tropical plants and faux stalactites, zoned-out teens stared at blue screens, their faces washed out in the light. At the first floor, the elevator doors unloaded into a tiled corridor of minty green, whose walls were the long windows of two shops on either side. One side sold knives and the other sold purses.

Past them, in the daylight hours the streets would be coursing with shoppers—it was unnavigable. Shoppers slowed to look at each and every window. Women stopped each other in the street. But at night, when the shops had closed, it was deserted—like Madison Avenue before dawn.

The Night Market held the opposite hours. At night, when Nathan Road was empty, the Market side was unnavigable. As soon as the sun went down, throngs of salesmen unfolded tables and covered them with junk; food stall cooks plunked crabs into pots of boiling, red broth; and fortune tellers draped shawls around the wire skeletons of their booths, which were soon peered into on by crowds of slow-moving gawkers. It would take twelve minutes to walk a one-block stretch through the mayhem of it. But in the mornings, the Night Market was emptied of people and strewn with trash—a ghost town. The only other people were kids who would scrabble over the piles of rubbish, every once in a while holding something up to the light to better ascertain its features.

The apartment, zoned for commercial, served as the office for my roommate, a tall, blonde Australian thirty-something, who ran a business selling sunglasses manufactured in mainland China to unwitting native countrymen. His secretary—an underpaid chalk-skinned Cantonese girl—slept on our couch most nights and our other roommate, a short, dark giggly German boy who worked at the Consulate, would invite groups of obstreperous Germans over to smoke Hashish with our Nepalese neighbors. I’d come home to find them in the home-office, or on our slim balcony that overlooked the city, which looked down to the Night Market and out to the rest of the pinkish city extending deeply into the dark hills.

I would try to charm their Italian friend with stories of America; I don’t remember what I said, only that they called me “The American Girl” and laughed at my allergy to peanuts, thinking it hilariously impossible. The fact that I really tried to get these two characters to like me, to really like me says perhaps more about the extent of my loneliness than I was willing to admit to myself then.

I had one friend in Hong Kong when I got there, and that was the boy who had gotten me the job. Savir was my former roommate. We had never really talked about what we wanted out of life and I got the sense that he, sure of his appearance though angsty about his accomplishments, had thought of me and some of my more bohemian friends in college as an added bit of spice in his social circle.

We had met at a summer program that was designed ostensibly for college students to do community service, but which most had signed up for because it came with a free hotel room at the Holiday Inn. He had graduated a year before me and got a job in Hong Kong. So when I faced graduation, emailing around looking for a way to get out of the country—a visa, a job, a reason, he wrote back: “You could just come work here.”

Here was Time Magazine’s Asia Bureau.

To work I wore my best Banana Republic suits and skirts and knits, inherited from a cousin now working at Conde Nast, and everything I wore had the air of New York in it—perfume in a dank subway. It clouded out the smell of Hong Kong—the salt of the food carts, the dark of the soil after the rain.

I’d take the whooshing subway out to the Island’s Eastern Coast, disembarking into a huddled Hooverville of juice stands and snack stands—shop-fronts no wider than closets that sold glazed, roasted squid on teeny sticks or mango juice, made before your eyes in a dingy blender. Then I took an escalator upwards, and the scale changed. A vast, unfriendly lobby connected the four or five skyscrapers that made up the office park. I liked the way my heels sounded on the marble and the whisking of the elevator as it shot to the 57th floor. Everything afterwards was horrible.

I had a little cubicle and was expected to fact-check boring wrap-ups of exciting things—a monk’s protest in Burma, racism in Japan, the Chinese art market. My boss was a sallow, miserable lady who spoke in morose tones about even the most uplifting things: an afterwork drink, the espresso machine downstairs. “What’s the point?” she asked, looking up quickly, when out of boredom I offered to organize her magazines by date. You could tell she was unhappy and I made a mental note never to end up like her. (Much as my childhood friend had noted when we were about ten of a group of sullen older girls wearing sweatshirts and jeans as they waited for a plane: “I hope we never buy college sweatshirts.”)

The rest of the bosses were usually seen only at morning meeting. Around a teak table they sat way back in their chairs, their tailored pant legs crossed. “Well what about that match, woohoo,” they’d say, comparing rugby and cricket scores for a good twenty minutes and then, in a five minute huff, wrapping up the day’s stories. They each had their own glassed-in offices and I wondered what they did in there everyday.  Behind me sat the woman who covered “The Environment.” As she phoned scientists in various regions, I couldn’t stop myself from eavesdropping. “Well what about the spotted pineapple?…Uh huh…And the Chinese are burning the crops?…Uh huh.” Every article we printed seemed in some way to say that the Chinese would be evil, if only they were more competent.

And then I’d leave work and it would be obvious that the Westerners were the despots here.

By default, I was hanging out with Savir’s friends—a sprawling collection of expats. There was one Korean restaurant in Causeway Bay that they would always go to. The beer was cheap and you got your own little paperboard room with a television playing in the corner that showed the races. To get there you walked to the back, past families calmly eating dinner—frozen with their chopsticks up to see us go by. Women in slippers would enter and clear the dishes, turn over the coals. I was usually the only girl but sometimes there were two others—Jing and Leslie—and we made pains to be kind to each other. But on one level, we were competing for male attention. And on the other, we competed with each other to pretend that we did not want it.

Out in Causeway Bay there was a bluish-lit bar with a sign reading “San Francisco” in the window. The bar watered down their drinks and probably used grain alcohol—the stuff worked so well. And then the boys would drink out on the street, shotgunning cans, and they’d drink in other bars high up in buildings or beneath the escalators or in the basements below the street. The leader of the group was a kid called Zack. A tall, red-headed athletic-looking boy with small, babyish features, he seemed an impossible ladies man but was so good at convincing women he was something he was not that he had begun believing it himself. He was smarmy and charming, which was enough in Hong Kong to make him a leader. When I had first walked into his apartment—we were all going out together afterwards—he had been in the bathroom, gussying up, and had come out into the living room, not knowing that a lady was present, or not caring. “It’s amazing,” he was saying to a boy on the couch. “All you have to do is just apply pressure to this part of her pelvis, and she gets off. Easy.”

They would sleep with girls at dance clubs. Or maybe only Zack would sleep with them and the other boys would hear about it. There was a club they talked about going to on Sundays which was like “shooting ducks in a pond.” The Filipino women who were hired as maids only got Sundays off, and there was one dance club open.  At a certain point—maybe a day or two in—I just gave up trying to reprimand or judge anyone for anything. I was here to experience the strangeness of the world, I told myself.

Besides, I was reluctant to go home. In the mornings my roommate’s girlfriend would be in the shower and I’d slough out of my room to see her emerge wrapped in my towel. My one towel. I thought of myself as forgiving but I writhed to see her. The girl was my age with a perfect body—perky breasts, tan legs—and she’d lollygag in our living room, laughing with a full set of teeth at whatever bad TV was playing in the morning. Knowing Hong Kong, this consisted of serious news coverage of panda births and panda deaths peppered with the occasional snap of a celebrity caught doing a completely normal thing. A Canadian, Belinda had signed a contract back home to dance for two years with a company that exploited its dancers. It told them they would be working locally, asked them to sign a contract that told them they would go wherever the troupe went, and then shipped the women off to Macau—whose Casino owners paid the troupe owners per contracted girl. Despite an ailing father in Toronto, she was contractually obliged to go along and act cheery, along with a host of other beautiful girls who were caged and suffering in what I imagined to be the Casino’s dungeons. And I wanted to hear about this, to bond with Belinda, but she was dating the Australian and I loathed him.

He wore board shorts, leather flip-flops, and faux-vintage shirts and spoke of how much he loved things and how great everything was. His demeanor was of a happy, easy-to-get-along-with dude, but his eyes—hard and tired—showed worry and hate. The effect was that, in order to get along with him, one would need to pretend to be easygoing and careless and fun, while also making it obvious that you had prepared well.

And at one point I realized that despite all the strange adventure of having them in my lives, I couldn’t stand it. It was one of the nights when they had brought home a lot of people and I had come home stressed from work, wanting to go out running in the city. And I had to walk through their party—through the thin women, lolling on the overstuffed L-shaped couch, their hands dipping into their drinks as if testing pool waters. I went out running along the docks—the oily smell coming up out of the boats—and I felt as though I couldn’t escape anything, anywhere.

And so I had given my month’s notice and left and at the end they charged me a “flower fee”—$8 extra dollars a month for the lilies David kept festering on the sideboard, which he accused me of never noticing.

The nights out started festering. The strangeness was no longer enough. One night Savir and I even took a boat out to a party in the harbor. There was a big fete on a cruise liner, meant to sponsor “Fashion TV” and the whole boat was lit up with lime-green lights. When we got out onto the lower platform we couldn’t find the way to the upper deck and looped through the body of the ship, searching. We walked by one long, dim window and there before us was a cafeteria—a few long, grey tables—and sitting there were models, their heads down, their impossibly long necks bent over trays of baked potato and slabs of ham.

Ford and I would go out with Savir and a gawky reporter from the China Standard who talked a mile a minute. We liked to think of ourselves as the literati, the only people who read or talked about books and sometimes the poet would come over and talk about his ex girlfriend. We’d hang out in Boris’ apartment, where everything was slick and clean. There was a lap pool downstairs and a baby grand. The onyx lobby was decorated with the skulls of Western animals, like Hunter S. Thompson’s idea of rococo. On the TV, there would be a DVD of Weeds playing, but none of us were watching. Mary Louise Parker was changing out of her underwear in a minivan’s backseat—when was the last time any of us had been in a Nissan minivan?

Something in me was damaged by our insularity; This had become enough for me. When I did go on a date—with some boy I had met at a luxe Halloween party in ritzy mid-levels—I had ended up abandoning him to meet up with Ford and the rest of them at a fry-joint in Sheung Wan.

One night we went out to a place Ford had heard about—the basement of another place, with 50 kwai drink specials. You couldn’t hear yourself talking and there were mirrors everywhere. I waited seven minutes at the bar for a glass of wine that wasn’t on special, then got it anyway—too flustered in the uproar. By the time Boris and I got back to the group, they had settled among three Cantonese girls whose story—whatever they were saying—was drowned out, so I concentrated on the wine, whose red tannins looked purple in the goosy blue light. When I couldn’t talk, when it was only bodies—I felt useless and ordinary.

"I need air," I said to Ford.

"What?" he said. "What?"

"I need air," I said, but he didn’t come—staring instead at the bones in the exposed knees of the strange women. Ford wouldn’t save me anymore than anyone else would.

Outside, the bars were bleeding wispy lines of ladies in huggy black shifts. Everyone was smoking up into the air. This was Lan Kwai Fong and everywhere you’d see white men with their stomachs out, asking their girlfriends to hold steins of pale, yellow beer while they cupped their hands around the hot mouths of cigars. I felt awful for these women and jealous at the same time; They eclipsed me with a kind of hungry beauty I could hold for no one.

The air was cool and damp and clung about the lights. I started walking up Wellington to the stairs that led to Hollywood Drive. There were always a lot of cats on the steps, waiting for the roaches that came out around 3:00, and you could pretend for a minute you were in New Orleans or some other city where the cats wailed. Up on Hollywood there were a few restaurants where moneyed expats were still enjoying late dinners and then that petered out and it was just quiet darkness. The windows of the antique shops were unlit. At my favorite section—where Spanish moss clung down from the public tennis courts—there was no one but a rubbish collector, scuttling about the paving stones. At the bottom of the hill the 7-11 was still open and I went in, embarrassed to buy a box of milk while the man in front of me—some gruff Australian—teetered in looking for “smokes.”

I kept self-medicating. The strange foods, the booze, the $20 dollar hour-long massages. What was I counseling myself for?

I remember the first weekend in Hong Kong, and how nothing was every any different than it had been then. My Australian and German roommate had hired a “junk,” a little boat to take forty of their very closest friends around the island. The water around Hong Kong—however dirty everyone kept saying it really was—was the bright turquoise of the swimming pools I had preferred in my California childhood to the black green ocean. The boys didn’t know the islands and told the captains—two beleaguered Cantonese men in white shirts with gold buttons—that it would be fine anywhere, and they put us up for a nice lunch swim around a little island where there were no other boats. A bunch of pool toys were heaved into the water and the girls, whose bikini straps had been showing under their tank tops, stepped daintily onto the outboard, taking a long time to get in.

There was only one CD on the boat—a Jay-Z album—and it was playing on loop. The coca cola we’d brought onboard as chasers had attracted bees and the only people who were talking to me would ask me about America, what it was like, if I really voted for Bush.

Seeking a respite, I determined to swim to the shore, but it took longer than I thought, and I kept turning around to see the boat was still the same size. Maybe twenty minutes later I got to the shore. I could see plasticy leaves and a sign telling me not to go further than the sand: it was a preserve.

But at the edge of the water, there was so much flotsam I couldn’t get there: splinters of seawood, coke bottles, pool floaties. I was too tired—and too aggrieved—to go back to them, on the boat, and all the loud voices so I just floated, listening to the clinking sounds of the flotsam over the water. The sky could have been anywhere’s sky. It was stupid to ever try to escape anything.

Adriane Quinlan returned from a year in Hong Kong and Beijing to New York, where she works as a blogger at MTV. She has previously written for The Washington Post, Time Magazine, and The New York Observer.

Everything Had Changed, but Nothing was Different, by Kate Axelrod

I

In the wake of her grandmother’s death, Grace and her father find a dozen cups of urine, plastic and red, like remnants of a frat party, scattered around the assisted-living apartment Beatrice has occupied for the past six months. The cups are everywhere — beneath the bed, lined up neatly in the hall closet, left absently by the kitchen sink, or on the lid of a dusty toilet.  The possible reasons are never discussed, but dementia is the most reasonable answer. Or perhaps some sick, cruel joke — their inheritance — stale piss in flimsy container. But Grace has chosen to believe that her delusional grandmother thought she was perpetually at the doctor’s office — a compliant patient, dutifully fulfilling a doctor’s simple request.

II

She remembers it as fall when she fell in love with him  — that brisk fresh air — but in reality her time with Chris was mostly winter. Trees naked and tall, the sky white and barren. When Grace looks back, she cannot imagine anything but beautiful fall days, streets littered with a rainbow of leaves, lovely and damp, a carpet of shed skin.

They’d met at a party in December, in an enormous blue house that was off-campus. Drunkenly, he had pressed her up against the railing of the back stairwell and kissed her. Burgundy paint splintered onto the back of her shirt.  He walked her home, and in the morning reemerged, car keys dangling from two of his fingers. She was still in her clothing from the night before, a sweatshirt zipped up over a long t-shirt she’d worn as a dress.  She had no idea what he was doing there, couldn’t imagine he was the type to take her to breakfast. Last night I promised I’d teach you how to drive stick, you don’t remember?

When she thinks of that day a succession of distinct images come to her, flashes of rich color, textured plaid, thick woolen scarves, the gray and burgundy pattern on the inside of his Honda. The stale cigarette butts that littered his metallic ashtray. The forward thrust and belated shutter as he let her practice, navigating some invisible space between the gears and the clutch, the release and simultaneous pressure. It will come easy to you, he’d promised.

III

The Kings County Home for the Aged was painted like a nursery – each room a pale purple or blue with yellow borders. Signs were painted in bold lettering, always with swirls and hearts punctuating phrases. It was as if the staff did everything possible to mask the inherent bleakness — the end — too obvious and present to acknowledge.

During the day, Beatrice made necklaces with uncooked penne, and cards with felt cut-outs and doilies.  In the evening, an army of walkers and wheelchairs flocked the dining hall. It was like a banquet room in a Best Western – decorated with framed paintings of the sun setting against some peaceful expanse of water.

One of the last times Grace saw her grandmother was in the dining hall. Beatrice sat, cutting her food absently, her knotted fingers trembling as she attempted to make incisions in the thick, overcooked fillet of chicken. She still recognized her son, but now regarded Grace like a sweet, sweet stranger.

“Jeff,” she said, relief watering her eyes. “Jeff, Table 7 kicked me out.”

He bent down to kiss his mother.

“What do you mean, Ma?”

“I don’t know, they just did. I got downstairs and Sarah said I couldn’t sit with them anymore. I don’t know what to make of it, but Barbara’s sitting in my seat, so I guess that’s it.” Exasperated, she lay her fork and knife down on the table. “I’m just so lonely.”

Grace headed toward the bathroom — she couldn’t bear to see this plain, heavy sadness. It was like everything had changed but somehow nothing was different. It was high school but worse, middle school with decaying bodies and incontinence. When Grace returned from the bathroom, Beatrice seemed sort of content, in a post-panic daze.

“At least I have my children,” she said. But Grace was not her child, not her Linda, who had lost a war with melanoma many years ago.

IV

It was the second week of April, when Grace’s mother called her at school to ask if she would come home to say goodbye to Beatrice. “Daddy wouldn’t tell you himself,” Eleanor warned, “but I think this is probably it. I think it’d mean a lot to everyone if you came in for a night or two.”

Spring had come suddenly — days were long and stinging with light. The small college campus was brimming with life, abruptly awakened after a bleak winter. The quads were congested with students – graciously embracing the warmth – eager for human contact.  They passed neatly rolled joints in circles, sunbathed with paperbacks splayed open on their pale flattened bellies, and drank beer while highlighting relevant passages of Foucault. But to Grace, the onset of spring felt like nothing more than being woken up in the midst of a perfectly good afternoon nap.

Chris had broken up with her several weeks before. At a bar, he had fucked another girl  – Grace imagined them leaning against a cluttered bathroom sink, bottles of empty soap, a pink lather gathering in the hallows, and layers of soaked industrial paper towel. She kept coming back to this moment, Chris propping a girl up against the sink.

“Look,” he told her, “I’m sorry but you want too much, you need too much.” There was something so ruthless in his voice. “If it’s a question of all or nothing, then nothing, There it is. NOTHING.” She had never seen him lose his temper before, but his disgust and impatience for had had reared their head so abruptly, with a terrifying coldness.  Grace let out a long cry, a guttural moan, so primitive and weak.

Sometimes she was able to focus on all that she didn’t like about him (a couple of weeks ago he had canceled plans with her because he’d forgotten it was St. Patrick’s Day and had to focus on celebrating), but other times she couldn’t help but embrace it, lean into the love she had felt, which was now a literally emptiness. His absence was still something she could physically feel — like it was lodged in her chest.

For a few days she slept fully clothed on the couch in her living room. She wanted to wake up confused and disoriented — not in her bed, so plainly without him. She kept waking to this image of him — asleep in his own bed, his face tilted toward the spine of a black and white hard-covered book.  He loved to read about old New York, was fascinated by the city’s architecture, its attempts at preservation.  The old Penn station, the ancient El that once sped up Third Avenue.

IV

On her drive back to the city (toward Beatrice), Grace knew that in some sick way she had welcomed this loss. She hoped it would lift her up and out of her preoccupation with Chris. She hoped the flood of grief would distract her, guide her to focus on what really matted. But ultimately, it was all muddled together, this grief and that — together rendering her a deflated mess, inert and exhausted, ashamed.

The deterioration of Beatrice’s life was not unlike the decline of any ordinary elderly woman, but she had held onto her health and sanity, until the death of her husband (which had been infinitely more brutal). Hers was a simple and unhurried regression to nothing but a body – a decaying vessel to hold her absent eyes and slackened lips. The waxy grayness of her scalp had became more and more visible as her hair thinned out and dissipated into a thin, meager brush of white.

Beatrice had always been a nervous woman, perpetually anxious about her own health, the health of her husband, her children and grandchildren. She worried about mundane things — had she left the stove on?  Did she pour too much turquoise detergent in the washing machine — leaving the basement damp and flooded?  . But in addition to her household anxieties, there were the greater ones – Was her family content? Did she love well and enough? Was she equally loved in return? She was generous and undiscriminating in her anxiety, in a strange way somehow proud of her amazing capacity to worry — to bear the burden. Before exams in high school and college she would call Grace and say You relax, tell me what time to worry and I’ll do it for you.

But in the end, she had survived it all, and somehow had never seemed so at ease.

VI

After the funeral, Grace and her father returned to Beatrice’s apartment. Grace was suddenly uncomfortable touching her grandmother’s belongings – each item seemed to hold a stiff significant, as if she were visiting a crime scene and everything was evidence. The remote sandwiched between two couch cushions, floral and worn. A copy of an enlarged Reader’s Digest lying beside a bottle of seltzer, plastics bins filled with holiday cards, dozens of boxes of unlabeled photographs.  Eighty-eight years of a life — a childhood, a marriage, a home with a family – a husband and three children, messily stuffed into one box of a room, a ‘silver suite’ at the Kings County Home for the Aged.

There was no way to avoid the clutter, it was simply proof of everything she had survived – the loss of her parents, her husband, her child, her own cancer scare twenty-five years ago, the birth of her grandchildren, her career as an English teacher. Decades upon decades of jewelry, paintings, books and records. Sifting through her belongings, Grace began to feel a faint optimism. It was close enough to radiate, to propel her forward. Despite everything—her constant anxiety, her devastating losses—Beatrice had simply kept on living. Until she didn’t anymore.

Kate Axelrod is a twenty-four year old writer living in Brooklyn.

Woman Writer + Writer Mother: A Conversation between Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker

Our ages, educations, professions, resumes, and mailing addresses are similar, but Sarah has no offspring and Rachel has three sons. This one difference seems more than any other quality to establish and absolutely separate our private and public identities as women, as writers, and as human beings.

In an attempt to understand why, we corresponded over several months.

*

SM: I want to ask you about motherhood because — childless and approaching the age at which conception is difficult — I am intimidated by the apparent difficulty of being at once an artist and a mother, and I crave input from thoughtful mothers.

RZ: I’m surprised by your interest.

A few years ago I invited you to write an essay about a living woman poet. Arielle Greenberg and I were co-editing an anthology of essays about mentorship, and I was curious to know which poet you would pick and what you would say about mentorship. What you said, though, was that you did not want to be included in a women-only anthology. I don’t have your words in front of me, but your answer was reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop’s response to the editors of No More Masks, an anthology of poetry by women. You declined, as Bishop had done, saying you considered yourself a writer, not a woman writer.

I remember being astonished and exasperated. The births of my two sons and my experience mothering them had radically affected every part of my life—I could not imagine what it would feel like to not feel like a woman writer or a mother writer. (At the time I didn’t distinguish between motherhood and womanhood.)  I felt then that the words “mother” and “woman” were invisibly adhered to every action and element of my life. I was, at every moment and in every way, a woman _____, a mother _____.

But you didn’t feel that way.

SM: No. I still don’t feel that way. I don’t feel that my femaleness is incidental to my identity, but at the time I was unwilling to choose femaleness as my principal category of identity, even just within the confines of a book project. Bishop’s line seems reasonable to me: “Art is art and to separate writing, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art.”

Cynthia Ozick wrote this in 1997 in the Atlantic: “I absolutely reject the phrase ‘woman writer’ as anti-feminist. … People often ask how I can reject the phrase ‘woman writer’ and not reject the phrase ‘Jewish writer’ — a preposterous question. ‘Jewish’ is a category of civilization, culture, and intellect, and ‘woman’ is a category of anatomy and physiology. It’s rough thinking to confuse vast cultural and intellectual movements with the capacity to bear children.”

It was that piece of text (not Bishop) that I quoted in my email to you and Arielle when I declined to contribute to your anthology. Maybe I unwittingly portrayed myself as an antagonist, when really what I wanted to be was a conscientious objector. A respectful one.

The female archetypes available in our culture are few. Mother, wife, spinster, whore. All of these identities depend upon the sexual organs. I did not want to disappear into my body. Not again. I was in and out of the hospital throughout my twenties, and even when everything was in remission, my deteriorating body was all I thought about. I couldn’t control my body. It ran my life for a long time.

A man can become a husband and father and still be a writer first in the public imagination, but it seems a woman must choose. In the public imagination, it seems that if a woman is to be perceived as a writer first, she must stay sexually available to men, even if that availability is only hypothetical. The public doesn’t believe (yet?) that women are as complex as men, so perceptions of women aren’t as nuanced.

One symptom of this problem is that people seem unable to talk about women’s writing without talking about their bodies. I periodically start to log the adjectives used in the New York Times Book Review for a comparative analysis, but after the first day, it’s just too depressing and obvious. Books by women are “gorgeous,” and books by men are “brilliant.”

At this point in history, wife and mother are still noncomplex, nonqualifiable categories—they’re such powerful archetypes, they swallow all the others, even if a woman has been a writer beforehand.

RZ: Forgive me for saying so, but you sound like a nonmother to me when you say these things. I also want women to be more than their sexual organs and yet I am truly confounded by the ways in which my feelings about the importance of gender and bodies have changed for me since having children.

SM: I may sound to you like a nonmother, but I could introduce you to people to whom I sound, simply, white. Or rich. Or poor. Or American.

RZ: True. You also sound to me like an intellectual and like a feminist.

Perhaps Ozick is right that “It’s rough thinking to confuse vast cultural and intellectual movements with the capacity to bear children.” Or perhaps she’s wrong. I’m wondering not just about “the capacity to bear children” but also about my (and others’) experiences birthing and mothering.

And this isn’t just about pregnancy. What about the reality of caring for infants or older children? The physical realities of childbearing and childrearing change my ideas about feminism. I may resent being limited to my gender, and yet I feel that to some extent these archetypes are inescapable because they are true.

SM: Capacity versus experience—that’s an important distinction, absolutely. Still, why does the experience still have to be an identity-changer for women but not men?

A couple of women I know published an announcement of the birth of their first child. They included details, like the fact that the baby was delivered on the sidewalk in front of the hospital—but made painstaking care not to designate which of them actually gave birth to the baby. I liked that. They’re parents now. Whose uterus fed the fetus is private and maybe irrelevant.

RZ: Fascinating. Did one of them hide the pregnancy? One of the wonderful and terrible things about being pregnant is how public and visible it is. Are both moms planning to nurse the baby? Will one mother nurse but not in public? For equality’s sake will both abstain from nursing?

Pregnancy and birth (which is just one of several ways that women become mothers) are physical, literal, and figurative transformations of the self. Some women will never be pregnant or give birth but the fact that only women can and men never can is significant, don’t you think? Don’t you feel it changes how girls and women feel about themselves and their bodies from the time they understand where babies come from?

SM: It absolutely changes the way girls feel about themselves. It’s a differentiation from half the world that can never completely disappear. I hate being perceived as a potential mother—an empty vessel—but in Western medical culture, that is my identity. When I am given a new medication, I have to prove I’m not pregnant, couldn’t possibly be pregnant. Before being given potentially toxic medications, I am asked to pinpoint when I want to be pregnant—sooner, later, or never. Even as a kid I wore a lead apron over my ovaries when I got an X-ray. For as long as I have lived, I have been an egg-box. In a Western hospital, my eggs are the most valuable part of me.

RZ: Do you feel like an “egg-box”? I think I did, before I had children. I think I still do, to some extent. For example, I’m very aware of how my libido is tied to my fertility. For the most part I only want to have sex when I am fertile. I recently got an IUD put in because I don’t trust my own rational ability to override my biological urges. I sound so pathetically unable to control my feelings—“womanly”?—and yet to say otherwise is to lie.

Is it just the culture that makes me into an “egg-box”? Or is it something else, something in me? I always, always wanted to have children. It is a struggle for me to not have more.

SM: I don’t feel like an egg-box, no. My eggs seem hypothetical to me.

RZ: It’s hard for me to understand that feeling.

When pregnant, I had the recurrent, visceral, mostly unpleasant sense that I had turned into a humpty dumpty—a huge egg with arms and legs.

After birthing, my eggs and their transformations into my actual children were so visible, tangible to me. Most of my days are spent in close proximity to my children or spent working but always with part of my brain occupied with the task of waiting for them to come home or wake up. Looking up just now (I’m writing during my baby’s nap), I laughed—I have this lovely, fat ceramic chicken on my desk. I bought this hen several years ago in Austin where I had traveled to attend the Association of Writing Programs conference. That conference is usually the only time I spend a night or two away from my children. When I saw the hen in a local artisan’s store, I thought, “oh, that’s me!” and now here she sits.

Even now, with my IUD, I feel very much like an egg-box. I feel, even when not pregnant or nursing a baby, that the making, bearing, and nursing of babies is what my body was meant to do.

I know, of course, that I can do many other things with my body, be many other things, but it still means something to me that this is the original or truest function of my body.

SM: Your fertile female body seems a key determinant to your identity.

Fertility seems a fairly important part of our cosmic process, but it becomes fascinatingly problematic when we look through the other end of the telescope and consider individual particles in that process. Fertility is irrelevant to the lives of my friend A., a gay man; D., an infertile woman; R., a severely disabled kid.

The body absolutely determines the course of our species, but not necessarily the course of the individual. And we relate as individuals. I think what we’re talking about here is simply the problem of empathy between different categories of women—which is of course just a subset of the general problem of empathy between different human beings.

What do you and I have in common besides our shared enemy, the old boys’ network?

RZ: Well, we actually have a great deal in common—gender, race, nationality. Also, we are roughly the same age, were born in the Northeast, attended Ivy League schools as undergraduates and earned MFAs in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ workshop (although not at the same time). I’m an only child and believe you are too. We are both writers. I live in Manhattan and you live in Brooklyn.

That’s a lot of similarities. If we want to understand one another then we have try to form empathy around our similarities and our differences.

SM: Yes. And not just our differences on paper, but the differences in how we experience ourselves. In my mind my identity begins with Writer and Teacher; Woman is much further down the list.

RZ: I was a writer and teacher before I was a mother but so much of my mental and physical energy is spent in my role of mother. Am I more a mother than a writer now? I’m not sure. I don’t think I can really separate them enough to measure them against each other.

It is interesting that despite our many similarities, we don’t know each other very well. Over the years our paths have crossed from time to time, but we’ve never become friends. Is it because I have children and you don’t?

I know that I’ve made assumptions about you, about the kind of nonmom you are.

I’ve always imagined that you went to parties and stayed out late and slept with various handsome men (and maybe women too) and had beautiful clothes that were not machine washable and that your body functioned in ways that did not surprise, alarm or amaze you. I felt sure that you went to sleep late, woke up late, and read the newspaper at breakfast. Your apartment, as I pictured it, was quiet and peaceful but not very tidy. Your life was your own. Your read books voraciously but were sometimes lonely. You traveled and went to writer’s colonies and applied for fellowships and teaching jobs that might require you to move to other states or countries for a few months. Your mother worried that you weren’t married and you told her that her alarm was antiquated and sexist.

SM: I think we both made assumptions about each other based on the popular stereotypes associated with New York women. I certainly did. I thought your life consisted of reading banal storybooks, making instant oatmeal, and doing laundry. I couldn’t imagine how that would feel fulfilling. I considered an obviously complex and evolved person but went straight to the stereotype, which is basically a failure of my imagination.

You’ve read my memoir now, so you know that my life and my relationship to my body are not as you describe above.

I don’t know if the severe limits on my life have been greater or lesser in degree, or similar or different in type, to the limits on your life, a mother’s life.

RZ: I agree that most assumptions about mothers and nonmothers are erroneous.

For example, a few months ago I sent a YouTube link to a movie I made about my son’s home birth out to everyone on my email list. I was surprised when you responded. I had assumed you wouldn’t be interested in my movie. I thought you might find it overly sentimental or possibly disgusting. But you said it inspired you. How? Why?

SM: “Inspires” as in fills me with breath and hope, as in somehow both increases and decreases the mysteries surrounding motherhood and birth.

During a high school internship program at a local teaching hospital, with a teenager’s total assurance that I would be a doctor when I grew up, I watched a vaginal birth and came close to fainting. The attending doctor had to take care of me while the mother was in labor. It was almost funny. So I was surprised by how clean and simple the birth process seemed in your movie.

I am genuinely interested in the lives of mothers inasmuch as I am interested in the lives of people in general, but I’m separately fascinated by some mothers’ apparent conviction that nonmothers are shallow, that mothers suffer and feel more deeply than nonmothers. It seems as if these mothers want to shun me because I’m not a member of their sorority—hell, I didn’t even show up to rush.

RZ: I’ve never thought that you or nonmothers in general are “shallow” but clearly I’ve made a lot of other uncomplimentary or idealized assumptions. Perhaps I should have spent more time thinking about what you and I have in common or about what I have lost in the years in which I signed on so completely to the world of mothers and the idea that we are different from nonmothers. How does such a perception affect women? What can we do to change things?

SM: The problem with sustaining the dichotomy between mothers and nonmothers, of course, is that in doing so we weaken all women against the reigning culture of men.

James Baldwin is supposed to have said at Berkeley, that no white man, no matter how wretched, would want to trade places with him. Well, no man, no matter what color, would want to trade places with me.

RZ: Maybe because I’m trying to justify my own path or maybe because I truly feel this way—I don’t know—but I’ve spent my whole life assuming that (to bring it back to James Baldwin) no mother, no matter how wretched, would want to trade places with a nonmother. So I’m back to the dichotomy.

SM: I find it hard to understand that feeling.

RZ: Obviously I’m exaggerating. Some women do not want to be mothers. Women have abortions or give children up for adoption or responsibly avoid pregnancy, but by and large, despite the fact that motherhood is not physically, logistically, financially or socially supported, most women do become mothers at some point even if they don’t choose a particular pregnancy or child.

Is this because of a cultural message that motherhood is the ultimate goal for women? Why do so many women become mothers?

And how can I discuss my feeling of having chosen the “right” way, the only path that makes sense to me without being offensive? Motherhood, it seems to me, is both extremely difficult but also and ultimately, the greatest privilege. I guess I fear nonmothers’ scorn and envy when I say these things.

SM: It is hard for me to understand mothers who assume I envy them, or who assume that motherhood is my goal.

But the problem here is that the dialectic of mother versus nonmother isn’t a perfect one. Every mother has also been a nonmother, so only they know the difference. Nonmothers simply can’t have this perspective.

It’s generalizing an individual belief—that my, or anyone’s, experience of womanhood should be considered the ultimate experience for all women—that’s the problem.

RZ: I can see how my assumption that motherhood is (or should be) your (or anyone’s) ultimate goal would be offensive and problematic. I need to think about what’s led me to embrace such an essentialist view of womanhood.

SM: My friend J., the mother of a severely disabled child, finds the mother/nonmother dialectic deeply problematic. She knows that not all mothers are in the same boat.

I find that dialectic problematic, too, because I know that not all nonmothers are in the same boat.

There’s a vast difference between the life of a committed artist and the life of a person who gets paid to take orders forty hours a week and spends the rest of the time entertaining herself.

There are very many ways to live a nonfulfilling life. I have found several. But from where I’m standing, plenty of mothers seem to have found them, too.

What I want to know is: what do thoughtful and insightful mothers know that I can’t know?

RZ: So much of being a mother is learning to tolerate discomfort. There is an athleticism to motherhood, a kind of torture-victim’s resolve. Nursing a child is like a spiritual practice, a meditative disciple, a consecrated patience. I imagine I might feel this way about yoga if I had time to do yoga. Also, I would give up my life for my children but not for my husband and not for my parents and not for my friends….

SM: That might be it — the essential difference between us. I don’t know anyone I’d die for. That is a fascinating dialectic. Do you think all mothers feel the same say?

RZ: I think they do. I think it is one of those biological imperatives that kicks in for almost all mothers. Not right away, necessarily, but pretty soon.

Other things I know: I feel completely responsible for the health and welfare of other living beings (my children). I have learned to communicate with nonverbal and irrational human beings. I have learned to cajole, to teach, to lead, to reward, to dissuade, to negotiate, to mediate with and between my children.

My ego has shrunk and expanded more than I thought was possible. I have stifled and survived the kind of rage and boredom that might lead me to harm myself or others. The ability to withstand these feelings seems to have grown out of my placenta or developed in my psyche during my nights of interrupted sleep. (I don’t mean to imply that adoptive mothers don’t feel this—only that the development of these feelings and my ability to withstand them felt involuntary.) This—call it equilibrium—now extends beyond my children.

SM: I know something about rage and boredom and the eradication of the ego.

RZ: How did you learn this?

SM: I learned it more or less alone, as a hospital patient. It was a perversion of parenthood — I tried to keep my physically regressed and helpless self emotionally and mentally functional. I learned how to walk again, and to use a fork again, with the help of therapists.

Still, I had no one to take care of but myself, so it was a different lesson from the ones of motherhood.

RZ: I wondered, after reading your memoir, whether, when you were in the hospital, you felt there was a dichotomy in the world: sick and not sick. And now, do you feel there are two types of people: those who have faced death or a serious illness and those who have always taken their health for granted?

SM: Well, yes, in a way. I believe the essential dichotomy is between those governed by the childish ego and those whose egos have been eradicated—through suffering or motherhood or whatever.

RZ: It is possible that the things I’ve learned from being a mother are things I could have learned in other ways—by running a marathon, by caring for a sick parent or partner or friend, by having pets, by taking antidepressants, by being in therapy, by studying nonviolent communication.

The fact that I could have learned these things in other ways does not mean that I would have otherwise learned them.

SM: I guess that’s what we can’t know about ourselves, given that we live in four dimensions and can’t backtrack.

RZ: I think about this a lot. I wonder what have I missed by mothering my way through my late 20s and 30s? What have you learned that I don’t know? Is a mother still, also, a woman? Or does she lose something of her womanhood in becoming a mother? Do nonmothers think of mothers, no matter how young, as old, as over, as staid, as “them”?

SM: Well, as I see it, there are degrees of participation in being a mother just as there are degrees of participation in being a writer.

I have an easier time identifying with you than with some other mothers. Yet it’s hard for me to identify with mothers in the abstract. I’d like to think that my consideration of them as “them” is a response to my bewilderment that I have yet to meet a mother whose life seems like one I could choose.

I read your essay about writing behind a closed door for minutes or hours at a time while someone minded your sons, and wondered—do you want to pay deep and sustained attention to your work since having children? Does your work differ in quality or degree?

RZ: I do want to pay deep and sustained attention to my work. Of course this desire ebbs and flows just as it did before I had children. When it is strong, the conflict of interest can be painful. On the other hand, the writing time feels more precious than ever before and I feel more grateful for my writing and more appreciate of having this passion. When my oldest son was born I was an adjunct at NYU teaching composition to freshmen. It wasn’t a great job, but I never noticed that until my son was born. In order to keep up with all those many, many papers, I didn’t (once I had a baby) have time to write. It very quickly became clear that I didn’t care about that job, but cared desperately about writing. So there is something clarifying about having children even though it complicates things.

SM: That makes sense.

How did you consider motherhood before you were a mother? Did it enter into your politics, your relationships with men? With women? How did you perceive your mother?

RZ: One of my primary experiences as a child was watching my mother work. She is a storyteller and a writer. We lived in Greenwich Village and my mother wrote and practiced in her office, which was a separate apartment in the brownstone we rented. I was trained, at an early age, to be a good listener, which meant being quiet. I spent many hours being quiet while my mother performed in front of audiences or in the big mirrors of her office or on in the on-air room of WNYC for her weekly radio program.

As a writer I’ve learned so much from my mother—her work ethic and dedication are amazing. But as a mother, she was a model that was difficult for me to figure out. I grew up determined to be a “hands-on” mother. Many of my aspirations and much of my identity was formulated in opposition to my mother. I imagined starting my own school or doing something to  “help people” but mostly I wanted to be a mother. Available, attentive, present.

I am a different mother from my mother. I have three sons instead of one daughter. After eleven years I am still married and think my marriage is much stronger than my parents’ marriage was (although, yikes! they were married for thirteen years). But we’re both artists, both deeply committed to our work.

It’s often a challenge for me to attend to my children with a full heart, to be with them without trying to do something else. I often want to be writing when I am with my children, and I worry that they will sense this conflict in me and feel unloved.

Having children made me want to work more and made me more covetous of the feeling of deep engagement I get from writing. So there is always a conflict. I work hard to protect my time with my children, but I’ve also had to forgive my mother for a lot of things she did when I was growing up that I swore I would not do. I know that I am more emotionally and physically available to my sons than my mother was to me but perhaps that’s because, as a woman-artist in the 1970s and 1980s, my mother had to be more focused on her work.

My father was gone all day (at work) and for weeks at a time (for work) but this never lessened him in my eyes or affected my ideas of how to be a parent. Clearly, I had different expectations of him, of fathers, than I did of my mother and mothers. The fact that my mother was upstairs in her office for much of the day while I was with my babysitter was upsetting. Of course it is not only about hours logged, and this is part of what haunts me. I felt that when my father was with me he was really with me. I always felt like my mother wanted to be somewhere else. What do my children imagine that I feel when I’m with them?

As you say, there are degrees of participation in being a mother. Unfortunately I don’t know many (any?) mothers who feel at peace with the degree of participation they’ve chosen. This seems, unfortunately, an ineluctable part of being a modern mother.

What about your mother? What about your childhood ideas about becoming a mother yourself? Did you think about it often? Do you have models of women you admire who are not mothers?

SM: Well, we have that much in common: our adult identities were formed at least in part by the ways we observed and experienced our own mothers’ identities. After she graduated high school, my mother stayed at home while taking classes at a local college, then worked for a few years, still living at home, before she was married. I don’t have all the information on what she did for the nine years she was married to my father before I was born, but afterward, she was a full-time wife and mother. She responded “housewife” when asked to identify her career on official forms. For as long as I can remember, I felt depressed by that. I sensed (imagined?) her depression and boredom. Later on, her rage and despair became even more obvious (imagined?) to me. I swore I would never get married—my parents have been married forty-four years and counting—or take on any dependents. I left home and became financially independent a few days after I graduated college.

My fear of becoming the woman I perceived as my mother—trapped, frustrated, helpless, enraged—is what has impelled me to make most of the major decisions of my life. Then again, an older woman friend said to me—offhand, but it became indelible—“She’s probably happier than you think.”

It fascinates me that so many women continue to choose motherhood. Does this mean I want to remain a child myself?

Do mothers perceive women without children as, essentially, children themselves?

RZ: I will speak for myself. I think that when I think of women who are not mothers I both fear and pity them. I feel threatened and confused. I am fascinated by and ashamed of these feelings. They probably have more to do with ambivalence about my choices then with theirs.

Is this because, despite feeling that I would never trade places with women without children, I worry that I am throwing my life away? I worry that the hours and hours of child care and domestic child-related tasks I do day after day and year after year are a waste of my time?

SM: What’s the threat? As for the confusion, I guess I feel confused about what people do if they aren’t workaholics, but then I think, well, they run marathons and go on trips and play softball and have healthy, well-rounded, rewarding lives. And they have children.

RZ: Making art sometimes feels highly indulgent and narcissistic. So does having children. At the same time, making art and having children sometimes seem to me like the only valuable things to do. I feel confused about what gives nonmothers’ lives meaning. Is that terrible? Condescending? It’s hard to admit that I wonder about this. The tone and attitude remind me of how fundamentalist Christians talk to me when trying to tell me “the good news.”

SM: Making art can often be indulgent and narcissistic, but if one is doing it right, the ego doesn’t necessarily participate.

I understand your position, I think—I can’t imagine calling my life meaningful without as much time for silent contemplation as I have. It’s hard to imagine fitting parenting into the life I’ve devised, and which seems like the only way I can remain alive and sane. Yet I know there must exist a deep fulfillment in being a parent.

RZ: I have this idea that if I didn’t have children I would read a million esoteric books, and I would become so smart and interesting. I do sometimes wonder if I’ve “wasted” my education. Once, a friend of my father jokingly said to me, “oh, you went to Yale to get your M-R-S,” I wanted to slap him. In dark moments I fear it’s partly true.

I obviously want things both ways. I feel defined by my role as a mother and wife and am grateful for the ways these identifications give my life a sense of purpose. At the same time I intermittently feel a festering restlessness, a self-loathing for what I’ve become: mother of three living on the Upper West Side. A good girl.

There are all sort of contradictions for me: becoming a mother made me a feminist but being a mother means I spend a lot of my time doing menial domestic tasks. I’m not sure how my mothering—the daily aspects of caring for my children—fits into my ideas about feminism. I hate the way motherhood seems to separate me from women who don’t have children, and I hate the way motherhood separates mothers according to the choices they make about birthing, nursing, economics, parenting philosophies, working, etc. At the same time I feel that motherhood brings me into a crucially important and sustaining sisterhood with other women, especially other mothers.

SM: It amazes me that a mother would think my life is not fulfilling. I truly appreciate and admire your courage in admitting that.

My psychiatrist tells me that many mentally retarded people report internal fulfillment. Did you feel unfulfilled before you had a child? Is having a child what led to fulfillment? Do you think anything else could have led there?

RZ: For a long time I believed that the world was divided up into two groups: mothers and nonmothers. I had friends in the second group but more and more they seemed foreign or even burdensome to me and I disliked the way I imagined I seemed to them. Becoming a mother awakened in me a strong interest in feminism, but to be honest, for several years this interest was pretty much confined to feminist issues that concerned mothers.

SM: Yes. I tend to prefer the company of people who share my values. It’s convenient not to have to defend oneself. I remember being challenged by a woman who asked me if a yearlong university fellowship required that I live on campus. When I told her it did, she railed that it wasn’t fair, that she had a husband and a daughter upstate and couldn’t leave home, and that she wanted the fellowship, too. I couldn’t believe this woman—how could she not see that I had made sacrifices in order to be able to accept the gift of such a fellowship, that I had no house, no partner, no child, no health insurance? That the fellowship existed to help people like me, writers who had chosen writing over the comforts of family, writers who actually needed money and a place to live? It infuriated me that this woman’s sense of entitlement blinded her to this. She took for granted the comforts she’d chosen.

I think it’s tempting to count a particular identity component as more important than the others—money, parental status, relationship status, gender, health, race, nationality, vocation, education, and on and on—and to use that overvaluation as a means of judging people who lie on the other side of the dialectic from oneself.

I think I needed this conversation in order to remember that an individual human is a vast unknowable phenomenon, composed of infinite variables, and unlike any other.

RZ: I’m thinking right now about Venn diagrams, which my older boys are studying in school. Perhaps you remember these—they’re helpful in learning about sets and logic—two slightly overlapping circles is a simple example. One circle represents things that are round. The other circle represents fruit. The area that overlaps represents fruits that are round.

Before this conversation I imagined us as two circles that overlapped in a small area. Inside the overlapping area were the things we have in common: writer, woman, American, etc.

It is obvious to me now that our circles overlap more than I had imagined.

More importantly, though, I see now how incredibly oversimplified a view like this is of human relationships. I had assumed that what we had in common was what would bring us close, but of course this is not necessarily true. In our case what brought us closer was a shared interest in exploring a difference between us.

There are these wild and beautiful Venn diagrams that represent higher numbers of sets—overlapping polygons and sine curves—but I think the analogy is limiting. I see us more as an area of detail in a large pointillist painting. We are made of up of millions of dots of millions of colors and perhaps my concentration of dots is reddish, and perhaps yours is greenish. But when one steps back we are both part of the larger painting of women, of humanity, of life. This is not to say that close examination is meaningless or that our closely examined micro-patterns are insignificant—not at all. It is on this level that we most commonly experience daily life. But it’s important for me to remember that what I saw as such an important difference between us—having children or not having children—is pretty minor when seen from farther away, and it’s important to remember that the differences whether in shape or color are what enable us to see anything meaningful at all.

Sarah Manguso is the author of four books, most recently the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches creative writing at Columbia. For more information go to: www.sarahmanguso.com

Rachel Zucker is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, Museum of Accidents. For more information go to: www.rachelzucker.net

Emily Gould and Marisa Meltzer discuss AWAY WE GO

Note: This discussion took place months ago, when Candor hoped to launch. Neither Emily Gould nor Marisa Meltzer are weirdly fixated on Away We Go, for the record.

emily:  Showered! Dressed! I mean “dressed” is defined pretty loosely

marisa:  I define it as wearing a bra. “real clothes” means I am not wearing elastic waist pants.

emily:  I hardly have any underwire ones. I guess my boobs are going to be around my ankles when I’m old. WHICH, SEGUE is an issue “cutely” discussed in Away We Go.

As is, being so fat your Life Partner can’t find your vagina.

marisa:  The movie had body issues

emily:  Starting from the first scene: “You … taste different.”

marisa:  It’s hard for me not to take everything with that movie and just project it onto Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida.

emily:  oh please, Marisa, I want to be able to have sex again at some point in the future

marisa:  I’m sorry!

emily:  I wish his face had been visibly glistening

like in the Weight Watchers episode of SATC

marisa:  OMG! I was just about to say that

emily:  Let’s see, pop cultural references to cunnilingus for 500, Alex

1) Pulp Fiction

2) the oeuvre of Lil’ Kim

marisa:  There has got to be some bad oral sex in a book?

Emily: there are two types of dudes

One is so zealous about going down on you that you’re like “okay, buddy” (a la Miranda’s compulsive overeater)

and the other is like, not indifferent to it exactly, but he doesn’t like … he’s not overinvested in it. His “skill” at it is not a measure of self-worth

and John Krasinski’s character is the former type of dude

marisa:  I hate that type of dude

emily:  me too.

marisa:  But I also really grew to hate his character

emily:  They’re very irritating people!

And they find everyone else irritating!

And they PRETEND to worry that they are “fuckups”

but what they really mean is that everyone else is fuckups.

I think this strikes a chord in the audience

because it taps into everyone’s feeling that they are superior

that they are the only ones who Really Get IT

marisa:  hence the smug laughter

emily:  “We are going to be the ones who don’t fuck this up.”

"We are going to invent a new way of living"

"A microculture of our family"

"Us against the world"

marisa:  But that is what I found so deeply disturbing about the couple!

They had this weird pioneery sense that all they needed was each other.

They didn’t need outside jobs or friends or family, really

They just needed to LOVE THAT BABY

emily:  that was the LESSON!

marisa:  And be with each other all day everyday

emily:  “It doesn’t matter where we go because all we need is each other!”

marisa:  That is funny that you bring up the lesson because last night I was having drinks with my friend Suzanne and she asked me what the lesson was at the end of the movie

and I said, “I don’t know.” I guess it was Choose life? All you need is love?

emily:  I think it was, “If you inherited waterfront real estate, all you need is love.”

marisa:  Bennett and I had a lot of problems with the endless expository dialogue

emily:  “I’m the big sister, you’re the little sister” that kind of thing?

marisa:  When she explained the itinerary and when she talked about the real estate and the house they inherited

marisa:  that stuff works in a book but not a screenplay

emily:  What I’m saying though is that the baggy plotlessness would not have worked in a book even. I knew what they would end up doing as soon as she mentioned the house.

If it had been a book I would have stopped reading.

marisa:  Really? You’re so hardcore.

emily:  No I read all kinds of terrible crap all the time but I read that crap TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS.

marisa:  Were there any highlights? Like, did you laugh at anything that wasn’t laughing at the movie?

emily:  When Burt stumbled over a low divider wall in Phoenix while talking on his cell phone. I laughed, because watching people trip is funny.

In terms of actual “jokes”?

I think I might have laughed at Maggie Gyllenhaal’s delivery of some lines

marisa:  Me too.

emily:  She really did her best.

me:  Obviously I felt very sympathetic towards her character.

emily:  I would watch a whole movie about her character actually.

marisa:  I hope to someday be a rich hippie.

emily:  I also hope you will be a rich hippie. I actually have imagined going over to your house and you have a kid that you’re sort of absently carrying around and there is some kind of delicious curry smell coming from the kitche and your nails are really cute and maybe you’re wearing a sari?

marisa:  I will collect sufi art.

emily:  You’ll have Indonesian wooden screens.

me:  This is like life porn for me.

emily:  And you’ll take me upstairs and be like “this is my inspiration room.” It will open out onto a terrace

marisa:  Inspiration room! Gahhhhh! I’ll garden, in a vague way.

emily:  Maybe your life partner will garden and you’ll just harvest the vegetables and use them in your cooking unless that’s too gendered.

marisa:  My life partner will be rich so I can just write columns for websites that don’t pay. I want it to be that we somehow effortlessly made a lot of money.

Marisa:  How did we effortlessly make a lot of money? And do you live next door?

We can cook together

emily: Yeah, of course I live next door, we babysit for each other sometimes. But mostly we ignore our kids and they just play together. It is sort of like Weetzie Bat meets Hannah and her Sisters minus all the weirdness.. I wish this movie had been “LN’s Adventures”

marisa:  I want to think that that’s the movie that DE and VV wanted to make.

emily:  all the cameos were like 10 seconds long. Except the weird overlong fully clothed stripping scene in Montreal.

marisa:   I thought their cities were all off. Those people would have gone to Portland and Austin and Northampton.

emily:  Well, it all looked like the same place. Where WERE THEY in the BEGINNING?

marisa:  I have no idea! Colorado? Vermont?

emily:  Why was it COLD THERE and WARM EVERYWHERE ELSE (incl. Wisconsin!)

marisa:  It looked awful

emily:  when they were driving to the parents’ house it looked pretty

marisa:  That shack they lived in looked like something out of Stephen King

emily:  Sometimes that kind of thing appeals to me! They should have come back there.

marisa:  Ew, no! I wanted to never see that place again. Remoteness like that kind of scares me

emily:  No but I mean, that’s what they deserved. No place is good enough for you? Ok, enjoy your cardboard window!

marisa:  they make me feel claustrophobic

emily:  California mountains are awful

marisa:  It’s true, it’s what they deserved. Is that a thing the movie got right?

emily:  That we all feel like our adult life might have to start somewhere else?

marisa:   I definitely went through a very intense phase where I always wanted to move to fix my problems

emily:  but Wherever You Go There You Are

marisa:  Exactly

emily:  which is actually a valid lesson, but it was not the lesson of this movie. The lesson of this movie was, you can move to fix your problems because your problems are other people.


Marisa Meltzer’s next book, Girl Power, comes out in February.

Emily Gould’s blog is emilymagazine.com

Domestic Things, by Shashi Bhat

I am dating again – well, the one date, with a man who didn’t ask me any questions about myself. It ruined the pace of things. I had to maintain a constant brainstorm of conversation topics, mostly replicating material from his profile – falsified – he’d lied about his height. “What do you do for a living?”, “Where are you from originally?”, “Do you drink much coffee?” I asked, and he said optometrist, Baltimore, no, though we were in a coffee shop and he was drinking coffee, which, iced and milk-pale, had touched his breath already, that dad-smell. “I might do that at home,” I said, pointing at the glossy violet quotes stenciled on the walls of the café, letters in a dissonant overlap. I began tearing my napkin into tiny pieces. I didn’t know how to end a date properly – was thirty minutes enough? The napkin was indigo blue with “Indigo,” the name of the café, patterned over it. I tore it to separate the letters – i, n, d, i, g, … – and formed a lush pile in front of me, until he answered one of my questions with unanticipated enthusiasm, and his dad-smelling breath blew the pieces over me in a sudden napkin rain.

Afterward, I found bits of it caught in my hair. I combed them out with a slow flourish. The cat watched for a little while and then fell asleep, curled by the window like a seashell. At the sound of cars, her ears flickered in sleep, affected by the world in only this small way. At what degree of loneliness does owning a cat become a cliché? I don’t want to leave our apartment again. I’d rather stay here and do domestic things – bleach down surfaces, iron your clothing, clean the tarnished silver with a chemical reaction, boil a chicken carcass into stock. I want to research the history of the clawfoot bathtub, to discover where it got its cruel, curled feet. I want to paint the rooms, roll a creaking roller over the gray wall. That’s the part I was most looking forward to – I would have painted the back of your shirt when you weren’t looking. There wouldn’t have been any brainstorming, or any new dates with uncurious strangers, to scrape me empty like a vanilla bean. We would shut the shutters, and if an ambulance sirened violently outside, it wouldn’t be headed here.

Shashi Bhat teaches creative writing at The Johns Hopkins University, where she recently received in MFA in fiction. She has had stories published in several journals, including The Missouri Review, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

The Case for Survival, by Atossa Abrahamian

1.

In the beginning, there were only victims.  A raped woman was a worthless one – robbed of her virginity, stripped of her dignity, mentally and physically scarred and possibly even pregnant outside of wedlock, the rapist could alter the woman’s life for the worse in a matter of moments.

Today, in the West, we think of rape primarily as a psychological trauma. But traditionally, the consequences of rape have had less to do with the woman recovering from the event — certainly no small task in itself - and more to do with the fact that her entire social circle was affected. Someone’s daughter would no longer be eligible, and considered damaged, broken, cheap – a blow to the family’s reputation, finances and social standing. It was thus emotionally difficult, but also practically impossible for a woman to move on after such an event.

It is no surprise, then, that rape is employed strategically during wartime – it has the power to affect a community for generations after a political or military conflict ends. And rape, like all military tactics, aims to make victims of its enemy. The Greeks and Romans routinely rape their enemies; as early as 1797, upon noticing the widespread nature of rape warfare in his Egyptian Expedition, Napoleon Bonaparte declared that every man accused of rape must be “shot” for his crimes. More recent examples can be found in the conflicts in Eastern Congo (NY Times columnist Nick Kristof claims that in some area, three-quarters of women have been raped) and Darfur, where women are not only raped, but physically branded afterwards. Systematic rape in conflict is considered a crime against humanity, and in 1998 the Rwanda Tribunal determined that rape is part of genocide - “sexual assault formed an integral part of the process of destroying the Tutsi ethnic group and that the rape was systematic and had been perpetrated against Tutsi women only, manifesting the specific intent required for those acts to constitute genocide.” With the added dangers of HIV/AIDS, the risks of rape are greater today than ever, but the stigma surrounding sex makes it difficult for many sex crimes to be reported.

Conservative views on chastity and virginity are still widely held, particularly in religious countries. In Pakistan, for example, the law currently requires 4 witnesses for a rapist to be convicted; if no such witnesses are to be found, the rape victim is found guilty of adultery and punished. But in societies that exhibit more of a commitment to gender equality and human rights, considerable efforts have been made to better understand and cope with rape and its effects. In the U.S and Europe, rape does not have the same structural consequences: it is not a family affair linked to questions of honor, money and marriage, but a personal, individual trauma. This in itself allows for, at least some semblance of normalcy in external life after the rape happens. But there remain challenges in helping the individual overcome the event, and more broadly speaking, taking away from rapists the power of forever defining their subjects. And out of support groups, counseling sessions, feminist theory and first-hand accounts of recovery, an important semantic distinction arises: rape “victims” are victims no longer, but “survivors.”

2.

In 2002, Susan Jacoby wrote an essay entitled “Thank women for rape reforms” for the Baltimore Sun. She noted that even though feminist movements in the past century have brought about considerable structural reforms (say, women’s suffrage, or equal voting rights) “the most important change brought about by the women’s movement is abandonment of the antediluvian notion than rape is a ‘fate worse than death.’ Nothing is worse than death.” Without addressing the question directly, Jacoby’s article sums up why rape is such a big issue for women, and why there has been a strong movement to ditch the term “rape victim” in favor of the more forward-thinking “rape survivor.” The article implicitly makes the connection between the semantic shift (victim/survivor) and the (slowly) increasing amount of attention sexual abuse is receiving in the media.

But are the semantics of rape comparable, say, to the “American Indian” vs. “Native American” debate? Is it derogatory, even sexist to refer to a raped woman as a victim? And who decided this in the first place?

90% of all rape cases have women as targets, it is no surprise that feminist organizations have taken up sexual violence – and its semantics - as a major cause of concern. It’s a touchy subject (no pun intended), as to talk about rape means to take on a variety of difficult questions, including those of sexual health, domestic abuse, gender discrimination, violence, and societal power dynamics. The idea of referring to the raped person as a “survivor” is that a woman (or in rare cases, man) is able to move on from such an event without letting it control her life entirely. It is a means of regaining a sense of self that was quite literally – and non-consensually – overpowered by an invading body. It is no coincidence that on many American college campuses, the march that is organized yearly to raise rape awareness is called “Take Back the Night”. Nicole Landry Sault writes, in Many Mirrors:

“When others learn about a rape, some may view the person who has been attacked as a rape victim and interpret the term in a way that defines the person’s whole identity and all his or her actions as those of a victim….for others, a person who has been raped is a rape survivor, someone who has experienced rape but moved beyond the role as victim to the role of an actor or an activist who redefines what has happened and how this affects a sense of identity.” (237)

The roots of the survivor rhetoric are difficult to trace. A representative from Barnard College’s Rape Crisis Center was unsure about the details, but said that adopting the word ‘survivor’ in rape crisis centers “started in the 70s during the feminist movement, with the main goal of taking away part of the victim blaming that happens with rape cases.” And the following statement, published by the London Rape Crisis Center in 1984, is among the first to explicitly challenge the use of the term “rape victim”: “There is not a separate category for women called victims, just as there is no category for men who are not ‘rapists’ – ‘ victim’ takes away on power and contributes to the idea that men can ‘prey on’ women.”

In 1989, the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s “victim” caucus was renamed the “victim-survivor” caucus. In colleges, anti-rape and sexual violence awareness literature (handouts, posters, etc) tend to use the term “survivor” too. But while the term is acknowledged widely, especially in academic and activist circles, very few institutions have a set policy on what term to use. Major newspapers like the New York Times use “survivor” and “victim” interchangeably within the same article (probably due to a lack of synonyms, rather than politics) and even RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) use both terms on their website.

Still, there are indications that “survivor” is catching on. Perhaps the most well-known rape case of the past couple of decades was the case of Trisha Meili, a.k.a the Central Park Jogger, who, after being brutally raped and left for dead, would not reveal her identity for a long time. In 2003, she published a memoir about what had happened to her, and spoke to various newspapers about her experience. She told the Daily News:

“Although I was a victim of a horrific crime, I always considered myself a survivor. The difference between victim and survivor is more that semantic. Being a survivor is an attitude, it’s a mindset. Seeing myself as a survivor means taking responsibility - not for the beating and rape, but for where I put my energy each day going forward. Seeing myself as a survivor helped me to heal.”

It is significant is that her statement on the term  – which does not differ much from feminist and activist accounts - was approached not in the New York Review of Books, but in the Daily News, a local paper read by thousands of people in the subway.

3.

Susan Faludi famously wrote, “a backlash against women’s rights… is a recurring phenomenon: it returns every time women begin to make some headway towards equality, a seemingly inevitable early frost to the brief flowerings of feminism.” The argument over the semantics of sexual abuse are no exception to her theory, but interestingly, opposition to the survivor rhetoric has come from both the extreme right and the far left. At the time the aforementioned London Rape Crisis Center pamphlet was printed, a British doctor felt compelled to mention that “the predominant role of the Rape Crisis Centres should be supportive. Unfortunately they are often used as a feminist political tools using rape and rape victims in the general cause of women’s lib rather than vice versa.” The usual suspects – right wing media, for starters – have also given predictable rebuttals. Conservative commentator Roger Kimball called this use of “survivor” a “mis-description”: “victim”, he wrote, "is an accurate description of someone who has suffered a rape. To describe him or her as a `rape survivor’ is to mis-describe the person and the situation. It is, in fact, to lie in order to endow the situation with an aura of political virtue.” He then added that it is a perversion of the English language.

From the other side of the political spectrum, the late feminist writer Andrea Dworkin made her own point for the use of the term “victim”:

“It’s a true word. If you were raped, you were victimized. You damned well were. You

were a victim. It doesn’t mean that you are a victim in the metaphysical sense, in your

state of being, as an intrinsic part of your essence and existence. It means somebody

hurt you. They injured you. And if it happens to you systematically because you are born a woman, it means that you live in a political system that uses pain and humiliation to control and to hurt you.” (Woman-Hating Right and Left, in The Sexual Liberals and Attack on Feminism, 38 (Dorchen Leidholdt & Janice G. Raymond eds., 1990).

It is worth noting that Dworkin saw all intercourse as coercive in some way – her view of power dynamics is a radical one, to say the least. But her point is interesting if looked at from the perspective of the raped individual. Is it always helpful to be told to move on, to deal with what happened, to not let it affect your self-worth and future relationships when it probably will? And is it fair to ask women to not only move on, but to stop feeling like they were victimized?

—-

To call somebody a rape victim is not politically incorrect in the same way using the word “retard” to call someone stupid is – the term is not out of context, vilified, or used in a derogative manner, and it would hardly make sense to bleep out every time someone said “rape victim” on television. It has also been pointed out that it makes no sense to be a survivor of something which is not fatal (unless it becomes violent, of course) – cancer survivors have survived a life-threatening illness, but victims of the common cold are hardly referred to as “cold survivors.” But it is important to think beyond petty technicalities and linguistic minutiae and consider what such a term can do for the mentality surrounding rape – especially when thinking of rape as a global phenomenon. As stated earlier, in the West, overcoming rape is today, in the long run, a predominantly mental and personal battle, and to recognize that a happy, fulfilled inner life is possible after rape is the first step towards recovering. I would also argue that such a mentality is particularly relevant in parts of the world in which rape systematically stands in for murder – thus giving the idea of survival almost literal significance. When rape is used as a weapon, it is unlike traditional warfare in that it is impossible to retaliate in quite the same way: you can shoot back, fire back, bomb back, but you can’t rape your rapist back. One of the driving ideas in abandoning the term ‘victim’ is that ‘survivor’ carries with it the mindset that allows the so-called victim to refuse the rapist’s power. In this case, living well is not the best but the only revenge.

Atossa is a writer and translator living in Paris.

Single, by Lisa Locascio

SINGLE

BY LISA LOCASCIO


RITUALS

Stella’s first months of being single after the end of her seven-year relationship were structured through a series of ceremonial gestures. She and her now-ex-boyfriend had begun dating when she was in her last year of high school and continued through the first year of her coursework for an MFA in poetry. The strange new world of singlehood seemed a sort of Da Vinci Code populated by men who worshipped Charles Bukowski and tall girls who winced when she spoke. She had been the type of twelve-year-old who pursued correspondence courses in witchcraft, so it was natural that she would develop certain rituals, attempts to penetrate this new symbology.

Now, after sending a message to a man she was interested in, she would walk away from her computer and not check her email for as long as humanly possible, waiting certainly overnight and sometimes well into the next day. While she waited, Stella read ornate cookbooks she had received as gifts and never opened before. By hand she wrote sketches for a series of poems about old cars and abandoned furniture. She watched a marathon of television shows about women who didn’t know how to handle men.

Stella created and then tested magic tricks: if she didn’t look at her cell phone for two hours, she would have a text message from the guy she wanted a text message from. If she controlled her vitriolic self-deprecation by chanting a secret mantra under her breath, if she was just quiet for a minute and focused her eyes on the far wall of the room until they watered, a man would seek her out at a party.  For anything resembling a date she donned a panoply of amulets, charms and lucky underwear, and left her house feeling like a human iPhone, decked out with gadgets charged with simple tasks. The gold necklace would make him look at her chest, the bracelet meant that she would be safe, the bleached hair meant that he would want to touch her face, the underwear or no underwear meant that he would spend long enough with her to see what was beneath her clothes.

PARTIES

Each time Stella went to a party that fall, she came home with a story that was like the setup for a tasteless joke.

    1.  In September, Stella went to a party with her best friend, Dean, and two of his former co-workers, older women with clear designs on Dean. The women asked strange, vaguely insulting questions about Stella’s life.

    “Are you satisfied being a graduate student?” said the wealthy brunette. “You know, with basically taking a vow of poverty?”

    “Do you feel like you’ve come to terms with your appearance?” said the Polish blonde, “You are unusual looking.” The party was in a large apartment in a ritzy Brooklyn neighborhood she had never heard of. Stella had never been both single and at a party before, so she got drunk and winged around the apartment looking for a boy to hit on. Instead she found a room of weepy Long Island girls with great legs who told her that the man who owned the apartment was also heir apparently to a large media conglomerate: Hearst, or Conde Nast, or Wenner, but Stella couldn’t be sure which, because the music was too loud.

    Things got blurry: Stella found the host and attempted to engage him in a conversation that ended with him asking why he hadn’t seen her before and her responding “I guess you just haven’t been looking hard enough!” Dean was aggressively danced-with by a bespectacled girl who spoke at length about her shoes. He looked nervously over his shoulder, mouthing the word “help” and then laughing to cover it up. The Polish blonde made out with the wealthy brunette’s brother, who had driven to the party from another state. At around four Stella wrapped her hand around the bicep of a passing boy. He looked so friendly, with his floppy black hair and exhausted blue eyes.

    “Who do you know here?” she asked him.

    “Oh, nobody,” he said. “I just came off the street.”

    2. In November, Stella went with her beautiful roommate Yasmin to a party held by some people she didn’t know. Stella had been very depressed all day, and Yasmin convinced her to leave their apartment by telling her that it was “a reading party,” where she could read a new very short poem she had written. But when she arrived, the hosts told Stella that that she could not read her poem. They were tall skinny girls wearing shorts over black tights, oblivious somehow to the fact that it was November, and said they wanted to “keep things professional.” So Stella sat on a thin cushion on the floor and listened to a boy read twenty minutes of a poem about math and language variation. Before he started, he said: “I’m going to read twenty minutes of a poem about math and language variation.”

    Afterwards the party turned into a bigger party, and more people who Stella didn’t know showed up. Yasmin helped her start conversations with strangers. The benefit of having a very beautiful roommate was also the problem with having a very beautiful roommate: everyone wanted to talk to Stella because she knew Yasmin, but they did not want to talk to her for very long. Stella complained about the twenty-minute poem to some stranger boys, using an analogy to a popular science fiction show, and one of the boys said, “Wow, you watch that show?”  and Stella felt like a big deal. She went outside with the boy, Sam, and for two hours they discovered together that they had everything in common. He was appealingly rabbity, with a little halo of wavy brown hair and a way of looking at Stella that made her sure he was good in bed. At some point a horrible girl from the party decided they should flip a coin to see if they would go to her apartment or Stella’s, but she left Stella and Sam alone with the coin. He flipped and it came up heads. The horrible girl’s apartment. Sam and Stella looked together over at the horrible girl, who was laughing loudly at a joke about public universities. Yasmin made an apologetic face behind Sam’s head, but Stella touched his arm and said, “Make it tails, make it my apartment, make it tails.” He stuck the tip of his tongue out between his lips a little, more like a bunny than ever, and he did.

    On the walk to the train Stella took Sam’s arm, swinging it in hers. His friends were going to come over, too, and Sonia, her other friend, a sloe-eyed Polish beauty who dressed that night like a young soccer player. The evening bounded out in front of her like an excited dog. But then at the last minute the boys mysteriously decided they were tired and elected to head back to the “Slope,” which coincidentally was the most irritating nickname for Park Slope that Stella had ever heard. Stella rode the train home with Yasmin and Sonia, who rested her head on Stella’s lap, her light brown hair splaying over Stella’s black trench-coat, and moaned: “I’m never going to have sex again in my life.”

    “It’s cool,” Stella said, touching Sonia’s hair. “Me neither.”

    Yasmin smiled down into her collar.

    3. In December, Stella went to the Christmas party at the magazine where she had worked for a year. Stella had idolized this magazine as a child and had leapt at the opportunity when she had been offered an internship there. It was a sort of Holy Grail of internships, the end result of several years of lesser internships. Through the window across from her desk Stella had watched the seasons change in Times Square, the sparkling advertisements covered in snow, then gray sleet, then spring rain. Carrying a pile of envelopes to the mailroom and indulging in the free coffee, she had felt a sort of special calm. She had known that there was no real possibility of being hired at the magazine, but in her happier moments Stella had entertained the fantasy.

    Now her time at the magazine was ending and the Christmas party constituted a sort of spiritual payment for her toil: an invitation to a gathering of New York’s media elite. At the office Stella wandered through the gaily-decorated cubicles, recognizing no one. She ate several mini quiches and mirthlessly drank a cocktail made from pepper vodka and cranberry juice. Stella had wanted to take the opportunity to network – to make some connections – but the idea of talking to the pulled-together-looking strangers made her hyperventilate. She walked around smiling brightly, making eye contact with people and holding it until they looked away. Her boss talked to her for a while, then said “Wait right here,” and disappeared.

    Stella went to check on her coat and found herself doubled over among the bright woolens, dry-heaving as she choked back furious sobs. She put the coat on and ran to the elevator, counting backwards, silently naming the many comforts in her life into being. I love my parents, she thought, and my sister, and my pets, and Yasmin, and Dean, and Sonia, and my boyfriend. I mean, my ex-boyfriend, and then she was outside, the December wind somehow sympathetic as it whipped her face. A huge video screen flashed on the side of a building: HOLIDAY TRAVEL FRAUGHT WITH DANGERS, it said.

SUMO, or, FINALLY, SOME ACTION

During her Christmas vacation home to Chicago, Stella agreed to have dinner with a man from her past. At the time they had first met she had been a teenager and he had been four years older than she was now. The man – Ira – took her to dinner, then to a bar, and then back to the condo that he owned in Wicker Park, a few doors down from the building where Stella used to spend every Saturday in high school, writing poetry in a repurposed apartment with other at-risk teenagers, which seemed appropriate.

At the bar, Ira had leaned forward in mid-sentence to kiss the bare square of skin just below her throat, beginning a tide of elation that rose higher as he opened the passenger door of his car for her, a chivalrous gesture she did not recognize. “Is there something wrong you’re your car?” she asked. He just turned and looked at her. They barely spoke as he drove the short distance to his building. Stella bopped around the bright interior of the elevator like an excited toddler, falling forward into Ira’s soft torso just as the doors opened. She held her breath as he pushed the key into the lock. Ira’s condo was huge, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the futuristic concrete façade of a hospital with a massive exterior ventilation system that made it look like a set from Blade Runner. A black wire dress form dominated the front room.

Stella’s elation began to ebb at the sight of the dress form. She had lied to her parents about where she was going and was now at the home of a strange older man. She had never done this before. Perhaps Ira was a serial killer. Hadn’t Patrick Bateman owned a dress form? There was very little furniture, just a kitchen island with a Viking range and a brown shag carpet with Ira’s gym bag on it. Stella took off her coat and shivered.

“Where should I put this?” she asked.

“Uh,” Ira said. He had close-cut dark blonde hair and a chewy-looking pink mouth. His hands and face were covered all over with light brown freckles. Stella walked to the far corner of the room, where the windows met. The dull orange glare of the city seeped in through the translucent shades. There was a sort of metal frame in the corner, like a table with no surface. A word was embossed on the side. She moved my hand to touch the letters.

“Oh!” Ira said. “You can just put your coat on that.”

“What is this?” she said. The word was Sumo.

“It’s a stand for a book of Helmut Newton photographs,” he said. “It’s a huge limited edition book. It cost fifteen thousand dollars. But my building was broken into a few years ago so I put everything I cared about in storage.”

Stella glanced around the empty room. “It must be a great book,” she said.

“It is,” Ira said seriously. They looked at each other and she laughed suddenly, her breasts jumping hard on her chest. Ira took her coat and draped it over the stand. Then he came and stood close to her, his body just inches from hers, and looked down into Stella’s face. He put his hands to her face and kissed her with, tonguing the roof of her mouth.

When he pulled away Stella burst into giggles. “I think –“ she tried, and couldn’t finish. “I’m glad,” she said.

“We don’t have to do anything,” Ira said. “I just want to sleep next to you. I can tell you’re nervous, with all this laughing. It’s okay.”

“I’m not nervous,” Stella said, and kept laughing. “I’m just happy.” She kissed him again. She pulled back and considered his face. He seemed afraid to touch her.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I know you’re not my boyfriend.”

SCUBA DIVING

Sex with Ira was like scuba diving. The first kiss was her oxygen mask, all of his smell around her like water, his mouth the only real thing. Then Stella had to sink down to the bed, carefully, so she didn’t get the bends; she felt like she might faint. Ira unzipped her dress, cupping the curves of her back in his palms. “Don’t move,” he said, and undressed her, running his fingertips under the waistband of her underwear like he was opening a letter. Nude, Stella felt like she had put on a new body, like she was wearing another skin.

Ira kissed the indent of her spine, lifted her breasts and licked their shadows, rubbed her knee with his thumb. He sat her on his lap and she felt herself falling deeper down, towards the shadowy bottom of the ocean. She slid off his knees and onto the bed, stretched out her legs and rubbed her cheek into his crotch. Was there anything Stella loved more than the feel of an erection through jeans? No, there was not.

She was down there, at the sea floor, and she had found it, the rare creature for which she had gone diving. The salty wet warmth of his cock in her mouth, lolling on her tongue, sent Stella into a silent paroxysm of languid questions. What had she read that could be applied to this task? What could she summon from her memory to send angels to her jaw? She tried so hard to focus on the tiny, sensate pleasures of the blow job – the bob of his testicles on her wet chin, his loamy scent rising in her nose like bread baking or gingko trees in bloom. Having him in her mouth made her feel completely underwater, like she had grown gills, like she could stay down forever.

LONNIE

After she returned to New York, Stella began calling her younger sister late at night and dreamily recounting her evenings with Ira. “I hope I see him again,” she’d say, her voice husky in her darkened room. Stella’s sister told her that Francie Jacobs, a girl a few years younger than Stella who had grown up down the street, had been dating a thirty-seven-year-old ex-con named Lonnie since she was sixteen. Francie and Lonnie had met on an Ayn Rand message board during Francie’s junior year of high school. For the first four months theirs had been a love affair only of the mind. Then Lonnie had appeared at Francie’s dance recital, and now, three years later, they were secretly living together in Evanston, where Francie studied comp lit at Northwestern and Lonnie cleaned the bodies of the elderly invalids. Francie described Lonnie as “slightly overweight.” He had gotten into philosophy in prison.

It was difficult for Stella to imagine Francie – a painfully quiet girl with whose brown hair seemed to drip from her scalp – carrying on a thrilling affair with a pudgy felon. Could there be a more appropriate name for this man than Lonnie? Only, perhaps, “Ronnie.” And yet, in light of Ira, Stella felt a sudden strange sisterhood with Francie. She swam for a moment into Francie’s mind, felt the thrill of Lonnie’s practiced and grateful embraces, their shared passion for The Fountainhead. Although “slightly overweight” surely meant “quite fat,” and Stella could not avoid picturing Francie and Lonnie’s awkward coupling, Stella felt warmly towards the clandestine lovers.

In this torrent of sympathy, she decided to write a prose poem called “The Older Man Story.”

THE OLDER MAN STORY

I liked the way he looked at me, his eyes full of awe for the miracle of my body. Sometimes he pressed his face to some particularly smooth part – the flatness between my breasts, say, or the inside of my elbow – and breathed in, the way mothers breathe in the scent of their babies. Of course I smelled good: before I saw him I took long hot showers and rubbed my skin with desert-smelling lotion. I squirted tea-scented perfume on the insides of my wrists and at the nape of my neck, where I knew he would lick.

When I did some basic math and compared what he and I had been doing in a given year – You were twelve the year I was born, I was in first grade when you lost your virginity, When I got my driver’s license you bought your first house – he shook his head and sighed ruefully.

“I’m a bad person,” he said sometimes. “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

But then he would do it, he would do anything: drink the sweat from the backs of my knees, hold my hand in his lap as he drove me home, offer up his whole arsenal of weird confirmed-bachelor toiletries: skin spray, leave-in conditioner, a row of eight bars of Arrid XX lined up like an army behind his mirror.

AN INSURRECTION

Stella got fed up with “The Older Man Story” and went to another party, this time alone. At first she thought she didn’t know anyone at this party, and then she realized that she did: Sam, the boy from the party in November, was there. They drank together all evening. Around two in the morning, Stella sat next to him on a couch and said “Will you hold my hand and talk to me about your favorite mythology?”

“Is that what you want right now?” he asked. Stella nodded and he took her hand. She was so proud the successful move that she had made that she could hardly speak. When it was time for them to leave Sam said that he would walk her to the train. On the way she held his arm like she had the night they met and smiled happily into the wind. At the entrance to the subway, Sam turned to her. His mouth seemed blurry, as if he was shaking as he spoke. “As your host, I would certainly be remiss if I did not offer you lodging for the evening.”

“Are you saying I can stay over?” she asked, trying not to slur. His brown eyes seemed rich and true in the reflected yellow light from the subway.

“Yes,” he said. They turned and walked back to his house without speaking.

They went into his bedroom, where Sam put on a pair of glasses. Stella sat on his small couch and curled her knees into her chest, waiting for Sam to sit next to her. Instead, he settled in a chair perhaps five feet from the couch. Her drunkenness exaggerated this distance, made it echo out in front of her like a long hallway. They were silent, and then Stella awkwardly gestured towards a small book of Bukowski’s poetry, which led to a long conversation about Bukowski. It was four-thirty in the morning, they were both quite drunk, and Stella was bluffing by claiming to know anything about Bukowski. Her eyes kept crossing with the effort.

“I don’t really care for his work,” she said. She tried to place her hand elegantly on her knee, but it slipped and fell into her crotch.

“Well, perhaps you haven’t seen every shade of his development as a verse writer,” Sam said thoughtfully.

Stella looked down at her breasts. The shiny pale skin rose up like a loaf of fresh bread. When she looked again at Sam he was flipping through a book. “Here, I think this piece illustrates his engagement with the sensual,” he said, thrusting it at her.

After what seemed like an hour of this poorly functioning critical discourse, Sam said, “Well, I’m going to hit the hay,” and stood. Stella followed him to his bed at the far corner of the room. She stood still, sparkling with anticipation, as he unzipped her dress. He took it off and she was nude. “Why don’t you take off some clothes?” she suggested, covering her chest with her arms. Sam removed off his shirt. Stella lay down and was suddenly and briefly self-conscious about her body, untouched for four months and exposed in the shadowy moonlight from the window next to his bed.

She opened her eyes and saw Sam’s thin pale body standing over her. He had stripped down to only his underwear, tight black boxer briefs, and looked delicate and small, almost pathetic, his thin torso like a feather. Stella felt a great surge of affection. She held her arms out to him and said “C’mere.” He lay down beside her and kissed her thrillingly for several minutes, rubbing her breasts like they were a soft piece of fabric, which was okay, which felt pretty nice. His hand traveled down to her thicket of ungroomed pubic hair and gently poked at her clitoris, which was also okay, which also felt pretty nice. Despite the several hours of intoxicants she had consumed and the near-dawn hour, Stella felt quite awake.

Sam sat up and moved into a kneeling position. Stella smiled with her eyes closed. She knew what happened now. She liked what happened now. She took him in her mouth and rolled him around a little bit on her tongue. The act made her happy, made her feel like she knew what was going on. Ira could become only a memory, her ex-boyfriend only one of a long chain of events that led to her continued status as a lady with many lovers, a libertine. True, her technique seemed less effective than usual – tumescence was not occurring in her mouth – but everything takes time, she reasoned, and applied herself to her task with new vigor.

Stella sucked Sam’s penis for almost as long as they had listlessly discussed Bukowski. The feeling of exhaustion and intoxication returned. Through the corner of her slitted eyes she saw that the sun had begun to rise, the sky behind Sam’s strangely feminine white curtains turning an electric purple. She decided that Sam was hard and withdrew, lying back down. She was tired, and it was his turn. She writhed a bit, waiting for him to touch her. Time passed. Was Sam even on the bed anymore? She felt his weight, but no contact – not even the proximity of his leg to hers.

She opened one eye and saw the instantly embarrassing image of Sam crouched on a far corner of his bed, masturbating.

“Uh,” she said. “Touch me?” A cliché rose in her mind: Sex is like pizza – even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good. Stella suddenly hoped that this was true.

Sam came back towards her, but she felt so far from him now – not that she had ever felt any real closeness, but before she had assumed that their shared attraction was a vehicle she could ride towards a mutually satisfactory conclusion. Now she began to fear that there might be a different outcome.

“You should put your mouth on me again,” Sam said, and Stella moved automatically to do so, still dimly optimistic about the situation. After all, men always complained that women didn’t enjoy giving oral sex, and she had always been eager to prove that this was not so. Then Sam came quickly and silently in her mouth. The consistency of his semen was not right, somehow too thin, as if it had been watered down. He immediately withdrew and lay down beside her. She swallowed, confused, and lay down too, resting her arm on his torso.

“I can’t sleep if anything is touching me,” Sam said, not moving. She removed her arm. A horrible realization began to blossom. She felt a pang of recognition. She knew this story from movies and books. He lay inert beside her. She opened her eyes fully and glared at the shape of his body. Did people really behave this way? There must have been some misunderstanding. Perhaps Sam had thought that Stella’s enthusiasm for fellatio was such that she took orgasm-level pleasure in bringing him to climax.

“Um,” she said. There was no response. “You know, Sam,” she said. “I didn’t have an orgasm. I’d like to.”

Sam’s silence settled around Stella like a miserable wet veil. “So…” she said after a few minutes.

“That’s an awkward thing for you to say,” Sam said finally.

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t really feel comfortable having this conversation,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s awkward,” Stella said, shivering. “I mean – what are you talking about?”

“It’s just not really a topic I think I can talk about right now,” Sam said.

“Um, well, I think this is pretty basic procedure,” Stella said. She couldn’t think up a decent argument for why she deserved to have an orgasm. She had never thought she would need one.

“You know, now may not be the time,” Sam said as if she had suggested they drive to his parents’ house in New Jersey and announce their engagement. His tone was of deep and abject aggravation, and he punctuated his sentences with sighs of disbelief.

“I don’t even really know what to say,” Stella said, horribly awake. “I mean…” She trailed off. The argument stretched out, Sam continuing his rebuke of her awkwardness and Stella more and more incoherent in her attempts to express her rapidly retreating desire.

There had been a few incidents in the past when Stella had been crazily sexually demanding when drunk. Eight years earlier, when she was a sophomore in high school, she had woken up her boyfriend in the middle of the night, enthralled by his sleep-erection, and demanded coitus. And she had been occasionally guilty of a certain insatiability with her most recent ex, ignorant of the fact that multiple bottles of wine had a different effect on her libido than on his. Was this, she wondered, a similar circumstance? Was she out of line?

“I just don’t think now’s the time,” Sam said.

“It would just be nice,” she said.

Sam heaved a sigh of great frustration and disgust and yanked the sheet from her body. He dropped his hand onto her hip. It began to creep forward.

“You know what,” she said. “You know what, it’s okay.” And she moved her body away from his. She felt like crying, but also knew that she would not cry, not even when she was alone. She considered leaving, but she did not have her glasses and she did not know the neighborhood. She had to pee, but the idea of putting her dress back on to go into the hall Sam shared with two roommates was too much. She wrapped herself in the sheet and sat up against the wall. She felt the weak sunlight on her shoulders and the movement of the curtains behind her head. How melodramatic, she thought, and almost laughed, but did not.

“There’s a towel on the floor,” Sam said without moving. She had thought he had fallen asleep. “If you need it.” She lay back down and hoped he would not speak again.

Stella did not sleep, but instead lay awake beside Sam’s lightly slumbering form for the two hours until eight o’clock, when his alarm went off. At the first sound Sam rose and crossed to the other side of the room, where he dressed with his back to her, taking time to button his cuffs and collar. She took this as a sign to scramble into her dress and gather her things.

“I’m sorry we can’t have a more leisurely morning,” Sam said as he led her out of his room. “I have a polo lesson with my cousin in half an hour.”

A polo lesson? At eight-thirty on a Sunday morning? Stella didn’t have time to express an opinion on Sam’s schedule because they were already at the threshold. She stepped outside.

“See ya,” he said, and shut the door.

THEN, YOU’LL KNOW

As she stumbled blindly along the street, squinting into the sunlight, Stella thought of the phrase her friends had used over and over again as they encouraged her to be brave, to act without fear. “I want,” she had said to them, in October and December and February. “I want to ask Sam to come over to my house. I want to go visit Ira in Chicago. I want to go home with Sam.”

“Then you should do that,” they had uniformly told her.

“But,” Stella said. “But what is Sam says no? What if Ira freaks out? What is Sam is a terrible lover?”

“Then, you’ll know,” Stella’s friends had said. “You’ll know he’s a douchebag, or that he’s scared, or that it wasn’t meant to be.”

“Take it off like a Band-Aid,” Yasmin sometimes added. “Just get it over with.”

“But,” Stella kept saying. “What if I don’t want to know? I’d rather not find out if these guys are terrible people.”

“Really?” Yasmin asked.

“Are you sure?” Sonia said.

“Fine,” Dean said, and shrugged.

But now, with the cold Brooklyn wind blasting her bare neck and arms, Stella realized that she was in fact glad to know. Briefly she returned in thought to the waning moments of the party where she had found Sam the night before, a moment not five hours earlier when she had stood in the apartment’s tiny kitchen, pouring herself and Sam brimming shots of Jack Daniels and grinning widely. Had she ever felt as happy as she had in that moment, full of the possibility of the evening, sure that she was signing up for a menu of pure pleasure? Now she stood blinking at a faraway traffic sign, trying to figure out if it was safe to cross the wide avenue. She stepped off the curb and a car suddenly blazed by, nearly running over her foot.

But now, she knew. Her attempts to find fulfillment with the men she had met in the past year – her hope that one might bear out her interest in him, might prove capable of riding her body with her to a different place – had largely failed. But this failure was hardly uninteresting, and her advisor had written all over her thesis, was, in fact, “More interesting.” She began to see the value of this comment. What she had wanted from these men was a good time, an authentic emotional interaction, the thrill of their hands and eyes on her body. She had wanted to feel, always, the shimmery transformation she underwent in the presence of a man’s desire. Sam and Ira had given her moments of this, little half-servings of what she wanted.

What she only realized fully now was that these men had been the barest of hors d’oeuvres meted out by a finicky caterer. Her friends had been the real meal all this time. They were the ones who had sustained her. How may nights had she slept on the lumpen sofa in Dean’s disaster zone bedroom, just passed out stoned in her clothes and woken in the middle of the night to steal his toothbrush and rinse her mouth with his Listerine? How many evenings had she spent drinking draft beer with her MFA classmates, grousing about how small a place the world seemed to hold for them? How many mornings (well, afternoons) had she walked to Café Orlin with her roommate and felt soaringly happy at the knowledge that they would order the same breakfast as always, that Yasmin would sometimes look up and the light from the window would catch just so on her shining hazel eyes? And hadn’t Dean always woken her with a kiss on the forehead, hadn’t he gone downstairs to make coffee so that she could sleep on his couch a moment longer? Hadn’t he stood patiently by when, after they went back to her apartment drunk one night, she had filled a cookie sheet with raw bacon, coated it in brown sugar and chili powder, and shoved it in the over? And hadn’t Yasmin been kind when she came into the kitchen after Dean and Stella removed the bacon from the oven and stood screeching as they burnt their fingers, trying to pluck the sizzling strips from the half-inch of bubbling fat at the bottom of the pan? Hadn’t Yasmin only mildly said, “Can you guys keep it down?” and not mentioned the ultimate irony of waking a Muslim at four in the morning by noisily cooking and then eating bacon? Hadn’t she even smiled a little as Stella and Dean crammed the crispy meat into their mouths?

The wind picked up again, blowing a steady band of cold against Stella’s bare knees. She felt new amazement at the fact that Sam had not offered a jacket. Wasn’t the point of going home with someone that you liked them, even if only a little bit, that you wanted to be nice to them, even if only a little bit? She stood on the corner, feeling a certain appreciation for the ugliness of the big intersection, for its unabashed barren morning self. At home Stella had a little stuffed owl, no bigger than her thumb, which Dean had given her on some happy morning at his place in Brooklyn – a morning when she’d been fully dressed, one where she’d had breakfast. She and Dean had gone for a walk along the shores of the East River, surveying the shapes of Manhattan across the water, and the wind had not bothered her because Dean had loaned her a sweatshirt. On their way back inland they had stopped at a market, and Dean bought her the little blue owl.

“You’re my heart, Stella,” he had said.

Stella kept the owl on her nightstand. She closed her eyes now and saw it there, waiting for her, right where she’d left it. She would go home and crawl under her blue blanket – she would crawl under and hold the little owl in her left hand, and feel the love that had so selflessly been given her, the joy she had taken in loving others.

Stella stepped off the curb. A tiny elderly woman with fluffy white hair wearing an orange leather jacket appeared next to her. The lady leaned towards her and said “Great dress.”

“Thanks,” Stella said, and crossed the street.

Lisa Locascio recently completed her first novel, Peculiar Qualifications. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is Virginia B. Middleton Fellow at the University of Southern California.

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About:

''A career of candor and dissent is not an easy one for a woman; the license is jarring and the dare often forbidding.''
- Elizabeth Hardwick

Publisher: Jessica Ferri
Contributing Editor: Sarah Manguso

candormagazine@gmail.com

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