Hamlet’s Lesson

I still remember when I first heard about the coronavirus.

2019 was a bittersweet year. I spent the first half of it at Washington College, a not-so-small college in a frozen-in-time conservative-looking Maryland town. I experienced for the first time in my life (I was 22) what snow felt like, I got to talk in a language not my own for more than two weeks straight (the typical length of my previous trips to America), and I met wonderful people (I frequently talk with two of my professors and two of my students, all of them close friends now).

But the second half… Well, it was tough. I couldn’t attend classes in Argentina because the academic year here begins in March and not in August. So I had to stay at home, away from my classmates and the whole university environment that always did me well. It didn’t take too long for my long-forgotten depression to kick in. Without something to entertain itself, my mind went back to its old habits: self-loathing and apathy. 

And that’s how I received 2020: downright melancholic and nostalgic, not being able to get off the bed, without reading nor writing. And that’s when news about this new virus started to stand out here in Argentina. Journalists would report that things were bad in China (and its despotic, authoritarian government was trying to cover it all up), but almost next to nothing was known about it.

“Oh, great,” I thought, “it’s like in 2009, just another swine flu. Give it a month or so, and it will be over.” I’m sure now that God laughed right at that moment. I was naïve enough not to care at all (and politicians here did the same) since my mental health was my top priority. Lithium pills started to do their job and, when one morning I was able to dance to “Club at the End of the Street,” I knew I was (almost) cured. 2020 seemed promising: I would be getting a second chance at life, a redemption. Back to classes, back to seeing my friends, back to being busy. Nothing could go wrong, right?

I moved to a students’ residence in Buenos Aires to become a little less dependent on my family (although they were the ones paying for everything), and there I met my two Ecuadorian roommates, who would become close friends. Everything was great: we watched anime, we listened to Bad Bunny, we smoked cigarettes, and drank so much beer that, the first Friday of classes, in what would be my last physical, face-to-face course in college as of now, I dozed off in my chair due to my massive hungover.

I visited my parents that weekend because I missed my house, and that’s when the president spoke to the nation: quarantine would be mandatory starting next Monday. We didn’t know back then what that entailed; we couldn’t fathom the repercussions. Thinking it couldn’t last more than two weeks (at most), I went back to my residence feeling excited: I would be able to read whatever I wanted since they were probably going to prescribe us a compulsory holiday season. But my college (Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina) must have known something we didn’t because, after their initial silence, they started warning us that classes might go momentarily virtual. 

Wait, what? Is it supposed to last that long? The government (as always) was being completely inefficient and didn’t communicate clearly their plans (I’m guessing because they didn’t have any). So we were at a loss. How did virtual classes work anyway? I didn’t know back then that being a student would become such a chore, such a painful burden. I suffered my education’s virtuality. I wasn’t learning as much; I couldn’t pay attention. I had never had these problems in college; I felt like a high school student again, all frustrated and bored.

So I got really anxious too (I do suffer from anxiety and depression), being trapped in a small room with two strangers. That’s when I started smoking like a chimney: two packs a day, sometimes more, never less. There was a cigarette shortage for a moment, so I had to walk many blocks and go to every store in my neighborhood until I could find decent (if I can say so) cigarettes to smoke. And I drank a lot, too—no alcohol, or not a lot of it, but mainly Coca-Cola. So I always felt bloated and out of breath, my stomach and my chest hurt constantly, and I couldn’t sleep well (which was not good, since I had to get up around seven every morning). 

I studied all day, every day. I don’t know how I put up with so much studying. I didn’t watch any series; I didn’t read the books I wanted to; I didn’t go downstairs to play pool or poker. I was just focusing on my courses. This was probably just a defense mechanism: if not studying and being away from my classmates made me depressed, being trapped in my room, I had to study extra to cling to my sanity. That was not life: for a whole semester, I didn’t live at all. 

I didn’t mention that the residence I was in wasn’t my first pick. I always wanted to go to one in Recoleta, an Opus Dei Hogwarts-like “Center of Studies,” not because I’m a believer (I’m the complete opposite), but because it was the most exclusive, elegant one in Argentina. And when there was finally a place for me there, I moved out, leaving my two loyal Ecuadorian friends behind. Although Ecuador was still bound to haunt me since, when I got to CUDES (the new residence), other Ecuadorians there were cooking autochthonous food, and I helped them out to mingle with them. 

I had gained much weight during the last year (I hit triple digits, in kilograms), so now people would call me “Gordo” (literally “fat”); it was the first time in my life that someone had appealed to my weight to characterize me. It bothered me initially, but then I got used to it (as people usually do). 

There I met the most interesting people. I already knew an Uruguayan living there, but I got to know a Honduran filmmaker that blew my mind. We became closer as time went by, and now he’s got a place in my heart. I also established strong relationships with the numeraries there (people devoted to Christ and their work). They tried more than once to convert me to Catholicism, but every time I politely declined. However, I went to mass once and confessed to a Korean priest (a great friend of mine) all of my sins.

I gave a couple of final exams, but not as many as I would like to. My GPA went down a bit, but it didn’t affect me as much as I thought it would. I skipped many classes, mainly because I was getting really bored, and because I wasn’t able to stay more than an hour in front of a screen without smoking a cigarette (that problem didn’t go away, sadly). I didn’t like what we were studying the second semester: too many bizarrely and painfully marginal authors and none of the classics. Professors seemed duller too, more annoying than ever, excruciatingly plain and silly. 

My insomnia worsened. I would stay up until 4:00 in the morning, not able to fall asleep. My Honduran friend would play LoL while I studied right beside him, and that would go on for hours until night became day. Most days, I didn’t sleep at all before my courses, so I ended up falling asleep before lunch, which I missed more than once. 

2020 was a rocky year, but it had its highlights. I made great new friends (the Honduran one); I was able to write again (poems, basically), something that’s of the utmost importance to me; I reorganized my priorities (being happy is at the top, along with being both physically and mentally healthy); I became a better friend, a better son.

Being trapped in a bedroom was hard, but it gave me much time to think. So I thought and thought long and hard. And I realized that what we most value in life, freedom, is mainly a state of mind. I finally understood, after a year of being a prisoner, what Hamlet meant when he said: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

Submitted by Felipe Rodolfo Hendriksen

Felipe Rodolfo Hendriksen studies Literature at Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina. He currently lives in Quilmes.

Hopefully Broken

Konnor opened his eyes, city streets coming into focus around him. Everything else had been nonexistent as he drifted within himself.

Now the noise of the city deafened him. Cars, and people rushed by on their way to whatever place they thought they had to go. The hardness of the bench he sat on made him want to stand but he stayed still, the slight discomfort was a welcome distraction. 

“You were lost again, weren’t you?” A voice to his left said softly. Konnor looked over to see Sarah sitting beside him on the bench. Her blonde hair rippled occasionally in the light autumn breeze, her cheeks were rosy from the chill. He had forgotten that she was with him. 

“Yes.” He had given up explaining how he felt.

“Why do you do that to yourself?” 

“My words go unheard, my actions go unnoticed. In the end all of my suffering was pointless. I can’t make a difference because people don’t want anything different, they want things to be the same as they always have been.” 

Sarah looked like she was going to say something else, then turned back to watching the traffic. She had only ever known Konnor since he had lost hope, and she had remained longer than those that had known him before.

“You know you can’t go on like this. Eventually you’re going to get trapped in your own darkness again. And then what? It’s what you want but you’ve also told me before about how much you wanted to escape it last time you were there. Do you think you would survive it again?” She said so quietly that her words were almost lost in the noise of the city. 

“Is simply surviving enough? Is that all we are here to do? I’ve tried to live to the fullest, I’ve tried to make a difference with my life, and live each moment for the greater good so that our species can continue to evolve. All it accomplished was making me feel alienated from everybody. If I get lost in the darkness again then so be it, if I don’t survive then the world can go on as it is. Comfortably numb in it’s stagnation.” 

“No.” She let that one word crack like a whip, pausing for a moment before she spoke again, “The world will not go on as it is. It will go on without you. It’ll be missing one more real person, and you know it needs as many of those as it can get. You see the emptiness of our society, and you feel it more than anybody else, that’s why we need you. If you give up on us like you have given up on yourself then there truly is no hope.” Sarah said, her green eyes burned fiercely. 

“You see the world’s pain too. We all cling desperately to what makes us feel okay. Even being broken. Our potential is squandered in routine, and suffering.” His words felt hollow.

“If that is all you think exists then that is what you will see. I know the world needs help, and that’s a heavy burden to carry. It doesn’t invalidate the parts of life that are still beautiful. That’s why we hold on to the hope that we can make things better.”

“How can I help the world when I can’t even help myself?” The question slipped out of him, a glimmer of something more that shifted within his being.

“You have to let someone in. A counselor, a friend, someone. I know that’s hard for you. I know you’re scared to let others see how broken you are but you can’t carry the weight of existence by yourself. You’re so trapped inside your own awareness because you’ve never given anybody a chance to share it.”

She grabbed Konnor’s hand, her skin soft against his, and stared into his eyes. She looked deeper into him than he had ever thought another person would ever be capable of. 

Konnor wanted to turn away, to get up, to run. He knew if she saw the truth she would give up on him like everybody else had. 

He couldn’t move though. 

He couldn’t stop her. 

Konnor saw it in the slight widening of her eyes as she realized how dead inside he was. He watched as the same sadness, and emptiness filled her. Tears leaked from the corner of her eyes but she didn’t look away. 

She didn’t leave him. 

His breath felt forced, and his muscles ached from the urge to turn away. He had let her feel his pain. It was bad enough that Konnor had done this to himself but now he had done it to the only person that actually cared about him. 

He watched her struggle against giving into the darkness, eyes closed as she inhaled and exhaled heavily. They sat like this for a long time. Konnor thought he had broken her the same way he had broken himself. Then she opened her eyes, and with tears streaming down her face she smiled at him.

“Please let me help carry this with you,” she said finally.

Submitted by Elan Wayne Thunderfeet

Death in the Small Town You Dream Of

The town where I grew up is shaped like a woman. I rolled back and forth across the valley that lies between her bust and her hips, from crest to trough, as my family could not stop moving and fidgeting between neighborhoods after my parent’s divorce. In the winter, she is wrapped up by the tight wool of home knitted scarves and finds comfort in the hearths that pump smoke out from her belly, making her look swollen and pregnant despite how hollow and lifeless she feels. In the summer she is beautiful. Her hair is long and sways at her waist as she shimmies into the gently lapping waves of the reservoir and her forehead is sun kissed. Her meadows and small mountain peaks flourish in soft green and fifteen-year-olds stumble up them in search of a prettier view. But she is never so beautiful that she is free. Only lovely, only for three months. Even in this bliss, she remembers the things and people that make her up and she bites her lips and remains unheard, as to not upset the pleasantries that parade along her surfaces. 

She is a good woman. Her streets are controlled by stiff men in blue uniforms who tell drunk high schoolers to scatter and pull over anyone exceeding six miles per hour over the speed limit of twenty-five. The men in the middle-class homes along her spine demand her complacency too. They mow their lawns religiously on Sunday mornings, drink too many beers before dinner, and yell when their wives nag them. These habits seem built into them, inherent like the familiarity of the letters of their surname. Their lazy aggression comes out easy and settles into the fine cracks of concrete that line the floor of the half-finished basements where they watch football and feel comfortably alone. She is a good woman. She stays quiet. The husbands and business men that live inside of her still don’t think it’s enough. They wish for younger days when they were not burdened by marriage or mortgage, when their stomachs were less portly, when they felt free beneath the sky above them, not smothered beneath the delicate weight of the mundane locale where they settled down. 

She does not flinch when the cold men who dictate her breath teach their sons to do the same. She knows that she will teach all the young girls how to manage their volume and desire beneath the tension of pressing thumbs. She teaches girls to submit to giggling fits under the sour teasing of young boy’s crushes, and like it, no matter how mean they could be. She teaches girls in middle school to pinch the skin of their midsection and stop eating lunch- it’s pretty to keep yourself small, unnoticeable, almost invisible. She teaches high school girls to relish in the catharsis of full-volume music, blasting through the speakers of their cars— to enjoy it contained and alone. She teaches high school girls to glitter— high GPA’s, honors societies, great sister, beloved daughter— like the cast-in-stone shine of a freshly carved epitaph. These girls are palatable and easy to swallow- she tells them it feels beautiful to dissolve in the stomach acid of boys. She teaches them to float there, bask in the attention of young men who will soon become cruel, while they are still young and curious— too curious to punish the pretty objects that garner their attention. Curious enough to collect these shiny things like crows and treasure them for a while. 

Maybe she did not know what to do with me when I first came along, teetering on fresh, skinny legs, afraid to move. I was a lot like her already; used to the friction of anger in men’s voices and the feeling of curse words crashing and shattering along my cheekbones. Already used to the feeling of lack. Small Town taught me the most once I began to want to feel free— the sandpaper burn of my angry man moved away and only echoed in my ears every other weekend. I had a hard time learning. Little boys’ mean remarks prompted meaner ones from my mouth. I hated the way I could not finish meals, wishing to eat full plates until my bones gained more cushion and I took up more space. 

It was easier to learn in high school. I played my music from large speakers in strangers’ basements and boys disconnected the Bluetooth to bump the dull, heavy bass of their preferred monotone rap songs instead. The volume of my car speakers would get so loud as I drove around at night that I could not hear myself sing along. I began to shine too; all the tumble of emotions and moodiness and unsavory woman was buried beneath my new, pearlescent skin. I tried hard to submit myself to the digestion of boys, but no one told me how much it would scald or how bad singed hair smelled. I did not want to become a misplaced earring in the beak of a big, black bird, a collectable outlet for inquisition. But over and over again, she told me her lessons and soon it was hard to notice the discomfort of craving something that always felt wrong. I wrote poetry about boys. I kissed them. I talked to my friends about what sex must be like and taught myself to want it. The glitter was becoming itchy and I wished I could cut it off. On those late night drives punctuated by blaring music and tear-stained discontentment, I parked at the reservoir and imagined myself sunk to the very bottom, held there by cinder blocks on each ankle, disintegrating into the small town that bred me. Falling asleep at the bottom of the reservoir didn’t seem so bad. People fell asleep everywhere just to escape the feeling of drowning that choked us all the time— in study hall, after two bars of Xanax at a party, as they lost their virginity, during the Homecoming dance, as they filled out college applications to schools in driving distance. Small Town worked better than melatonin, better than tryptophan, better than any lullaby or bedtime story in getting teenagers to fall asleep. I think that most of them never woke up. 

Looking back, I wonder if my angry man felt discontent too, unwilling to become another calloused palm holding too tight to Small Town’s wrists. Maybe that’s why he left. Maybe I have him to thank for making me free to leave too. I ran away to a city plump with humidity and bashful joy that did not feel anything like from where I had come. For a year I let myself incubate and let the impressions of the grasp of Small Town fade from my muscles. Some habits were hard to extract; they were sunk into my veins like thick sap and it was hard to distinguish where they ended, and my own blood began. I remembered that it only takes twenty seven days for your skin to shed itself. I realized I was no longer what anyone expected me to be. I let myself bend and break over the rims of wine bottles, dance for the first time in my life, use my teeth to crack open nights full of learning myself better. I stopped apologizing. I fell in love with a woman. For the first time in the entirety of my life, despite the humid heaviness of New Orleans’ atmosphere, there is no more weight pressing into the pores of my sapling skin. The dank moisture in the Southern air pushed open the cracks in my body and showed me the fossils of who I was. This time it was not a learning, it was a remembering; it was a reminder that I was not drowning, I was not misplaced jewelry, I was not alone. The pearlescent skin I once gleamed in now fits me like a poorly tailored prom dress. I am glad to leave it on the side of the road in a Good Will collection container, for another girl to shimmy into and then outgrow. I hope she rips the taffeta, spills liquor on its skirt, and leaves burn marks along its edges. I hope one day it is so out-worn and tired that no one ever tries it on again. 

Published in Edition 4 of The Dilettante.

Lot 7

“So, Vron asks me if she can borrow my grinder the other day.” Bevin pronounced it like vee-ron, a nickname for her friend Veronica.“And I’m like yeah, sure, why not? Right?”

“It must be nice that you guys live so close together, so you can share stuff like that.”

“Yeah, it’s dope. She lives right down the street. But, she can’t keep any weed or anything at her house because her mom is batshit. Anyways, I give her my grinder and she comes back over after smoking. And she’s high as balls, right? And she’s smiling and she goes, ‘I have a theory… that the dust… gets you higher…’ And I open my grinder. This bitch smoked all my fucking kief.” She opened the top portion of her iridescent purple grinder, as me and the guy sitting next to me leaned in to find the top compartment that usually holds resin completely empty; we were both already laughing.

“Fucking kief thief,” the boy chuckled, head back, face flushed with a heavy red. The three of us were all sitting on the side of the curb sharing a bowl.

Bevin introduced me to Lot 7 that day. It was a student parking lot at a community college. It didn’t look any different from the college’s  other 8 lots, but once we pulled into a spot, we could see closely the wealthy Menlo Park and Palo Alto suburbs, and just past there, the salt flats and the San Francisco Bay. Up there, we could see everyone and no one could see us. 

There were several spots we went to smoke and drink at, and we could see most of them from the parking lot. Handley Rock was to the east, up on a different hill. It was cavernous and each crater was filled with layered graffiti and empty, plastic liquor bottles. On hot summer days, it was nice to hide in the caves’ pockets of shade. The view from there was less far-reaching and mostly of a valley of trees and hiking trails. We could only see in one direction, so, whenever we heard a car park behind the rock, we had to pray that the footsteps crunching across the dead leaves were just those of an amateur rock climber or someone with a bag of weed and a handle like us, instead of a furrowed-brow police officer.

To the west of the lot was The Cross, which boasts a similar view to the parking lot, but still was not as high up as Lot 7. No one knew why there was a giant white cross and a water tank up there for all of Redwood City to sin under, but it was always empty and we could spot cops rolling up the hill a bit ahead-of-time, giving us a few minutes pack up the goods, scramble into the car, roll down the window, and say we were just on a scenic drive.

To the south, there was an abandoned tunnel under a freeway with writing on the walls that read “Please let tomorrow be better than today.” Even farther south than that, there was an empty pool misplaced in the midst of a large field, also clothed in spray paint. Once, we found a couch off the road in San Carlos and smoked there too.

I lived in a very northern suburb compared to everyone else, and, whenever people came over, they slept in my away-at-Johns-Hopkins-University sister’s bed. Those nights, we’d walk down the street to the Crystal Springs Cross Country Trail, past the tennis courts, and slip through a gap in the fence. The trail was beaten down by the sneakers of college-bound athletes building their applications and running harder past the chunks of sideline filled with recruiters. We called it The Shack because we walked the beaten path to an old concessions stand, which we assumed sold candy and soda during cross country meets in the daylight. We sat along the wall with our legs stretched across the wooden deck. It wasn’t a good place to get too fucked up at because the unbeaten parts were a lavish nature preserve: big and empty and tucked in the suburbs. When the tired moms turned their lights out, it was pitch black and populated with coyotes and bobcats, and I could feel their there-ness, although we never saw any. Once, I took an edible and thought I saw a coyote walk right past the The Shack in a quick, white flash, but I was probably just too high. The cops never rolled by there, probably because we were the only group of teens who sat in the miles of nature preserve to smoke weed and drink wine. There were no abandoned bottles or lost lighters to be found.

The areas heavily populated by high schoolers were labeled “hot.” These included many state beaches and a creek bed that cut through Palo Alto which sits dry in the summer. It was littered with mattresses and shopping bags, but none of the people who lived down there ever bothered us. Once, some of us were sitting down there – it was one of the first times I ever got high – and we heard a voice call out, “Hey, guys!” We looked up to see two police officers staring down at us with their hands resting on their belts.

 “Why don’t you come on up?” We started to stand up when they asked, “What’s that next to you? A can of beer? None of you look twenty-one.” We were fifteen. We looked back down by our feet and laying between smooth, dry creek stones was a smashed beer can, full of spiderwebs.

“It’s not ours. It was here when we got here,” I said. I was surprised at how calm I sounded. I was surprised at how calm I felt.

“Alright, just come up here,” the officer conceded.

“Do you want us to bring the can?”

“No, it’s fine.”

There was a rope someone had tied to a tree up at the top and we grabbed onto it to pull our sideways selves up towards the cops.

I had gotten high and paranoid minutes before the police arrived and told everyone to put the bong, weed, and grinder back into the backpack that one boy had picked up from a pile of leaves behind a fence. He and his friend shared the paraphernalia and left it in a backpack around town for each other, since it was hard to come by a smoke shop that sold to minors, and they could only steal so many twenties from their moms’ wallets before they noticed. At the time,  my anxiety had annoyed the circle of smiling, red-eyed friends.

“You’re way too sus,” one said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Suspect, suspicious,” he replied.

When the cops showed up, they burst our bubble of euphoric high, found no evidence of drugs (California law stated they couldn’t search us without probable cause), and asked us what towns we were from. Most of us replied “here,” meaning Palo Alto, but I had to be honest: “not here.” The badged men smiled, “Where then?” 

“Oh, sorry. Belmont.”


The cops acted like they just wanted us to be safe and warned us about the “transients” that live down there, even though they never so much as glanced up from their camping areas when teenagers came stumbling down that ridge. Everyone said my paranoia had saved us. 

“We can’t go back there. That spot is too hot nowadays,” one boy said, as we walked past long, suburban driveways.

“The cops always treat white girls like they’re our, like, awkward Uncle, or something. You know? ‘Be safe, girls!’ C’mon. We are the ones breaking the law,” my best friend, Gianna, reasoned.

Lot 7 was densely populated at all times of day, but especially after 3pm, when school got out. I’d commonly run into people I knew from school there, and so did my other friends. I only had a few friends that attended the same “alternative learning” high school as me, but I liked the anonymity in the refurbished warehouse’s hallways. Jessie was the only one from school I ever really spent time with and, before I had my license, she would drive me up to the lot after school. Sometimes, she’d even take me to Taco Bell afterwards, when our eyes were red and her car’s A/C swirled a tornado of her Pink Sands scented air freshener and the warm smell of weed. She loved to paint wings across her eyelids and hated that girls felt ashamed for burping. Once, under the beating sun, in the passenger seat of Jessie’s car, I asked if she could pull the car up to one of the college’s buildings so that I could look for a restroom.

“Just piss in the bushes over there,” she told me.

“What if someone sees me?”

“They won’t.”

When we found other cars full of familiar teenagers, we’d pass bongs through rolled-down car windows. The only reason Lot 7 wasn’t hot was that it was a community college. Bevin told us that the campus security guards couldn’t arrest us. They could just ask us to leave, and maybe call the cops if we were disrespectful. They’d come up to windows during the day and ask us to open them, feel hot smoke rush across their face, ask what we were doing, to which we would reply, “Just chilling.” They never called the cops, even on Friday evenings at sunset, when the 50-something parking spots were full of people drinking whiskey out of the bottle in truck beds and hotboxed compacts.

Bevin knew all this about campus security because she went to the college part-time, and Lot 7 was technically a student parking lot. She took half her classes at the college and half at a public high school in a special program for “independent, self-motivated learners.” She didn’t go to class much but claimed she could transfer her college credits to a UC and be ahead when she was accepted as a freshman. She was the first person I knew with a nicotine addiction and taught me how to replace the coils and cottons in a box mod, carefully, wrapping metal around a pencil and pulling apart her bathroom’s cotton balls. She drove a twenty-two-year-old Volvo – half a decade older than me, four years older than she – and named it Thelma. “There is only one rule in Thelma,” she told me the first time I pulled hard to open the stiff door, “and it’s that you can’t say anything bad about her if you want a ride.” She strung fairy lights along the inside and always had a speaker sliding across her dashboard because there was no place to plug in an aux cord. I later learned that Thelma was named after Bevin’s babysitter who abruptly died from cancer; she left the car Bevin’s family had lent her full of hidden McDonald’s french fries and for a 16-year-old Bevin to inherit.

The first time I smoked a cigarette was at one of the picnic tables before the parking lot’s dirt drop-off. Gianna was there with pink wine, plastic cups, and her turtle-shaped pipe (I had a matching dolphin). She didn’t smoke cigarettes because her mom always did and she hated the smell, but she stood next to me while the older boy we were with helped me light the right end of the Marlboro Red. We played “Cigarette Daydreams” by Cage the Elephant and looked at the sea of lit-up towns as the lyrics played from an iPhone speaker stuck in a disposable cup: a scratchy “cigarette daydreams… you were only seventeen.”

After that, I made a pact with her that I would only smoke one cigarette per year for the rest of my life. Word of the pact spread amongst our friends and every time I’d smoke one more they’d ask: “What about the pact?” to which I’d reply, “I’ve got sixteen years of not smoking to make up for.” I never thought of death more than when I smoked cigarettes and that was only about seventeen times before I left the Bay Area. Mostly, I wished for time to move faster.

Jessie stuck around in the Bay Area for a while after everyone went to college and told me she found my pink, lacey underwear abandoned among the shrubs and crushed beer cans in the drop-off. I had gone down the hill like she had advised, pulled up my skirt and started to pee without remembering my underwear’s grip. I had to discard them, back in 2015, before going back to Jessie’s new civic.

Thelma doesn’t run anymore and Bevin and I both went to school out of state. When I was 18 in New Orleans, I met some girls and we made a routine of sitting at wood tables in a parking lot behind a college bar. We called it The Nook, which reminded me of The Cross and The Shack. I didn’t know what the word “nook” meant until today: a corner or recess, especially one offering seclusion or security.

By the time I turned 19, The Nook was blocked by gates at night and cars parked where tables used to be during the day. I asked the bar’s manager why they’d closed it and he told me they couldn’t watch people out in the back – that it just wasn’t safe.

I never asked anyone why they closed Lot 7; no one was around when I found it covered in caution tape.

Published in Edition 4 of The Dilettante.

Misplaced Artifacts

The only one of the family home that morning was Cathy. It was one of those strange days where the sun’s rays looked like a small opening to heaven, emerging through a blanket of dark clouds. She knew it would rain, but for the few moments before it did, the light poured in through every window. The shower caddy was full of products that no one had used in years: her father’s fine-tooth combs, her niece’s bubblegum-scented shampoo, and a bar of dried-out, unscented soap.

By the time she had gotten out of the shower, the hot rain had begun to fall, and she went to wipe the condensation off of the mirror with her towel. The first thing she noticed in the clear streak in the mirror was the creases between her brows and just below her eyes, where wrinkles had formed from years of laughter. Her reflection looked back at her, their eyes glued to each other, as she reached for her toothbrush with her right hand and the sink faucet with her left. Before she could find either, her fingers touched something small and metal. Her eyes were forced to detach from the mirror to look at her hands running across the counter, the valleys of wrinkles that littered her skin more prominent in the pale morning light. In her right hand, she now held a hairpin that she had failed to notice sitting on the white-tiled vanity when she had entered the shower.

Her fingers gripped the pin harder, carefully bringing it closer to her aging eyes. As it came into focus, a silvery strand of hair revealed itself, stuck perpendicular inside the clip. She let out an involuntary sigh and through her lips slipped the words “mom’s hair,” as if needing to explain her astonishment to her mirrored self. She gingerly placed it in the middle of the white tiles. On the barren vanity, whose shelves and drawers had been cleared out long ago, the dense, brassy, metal clip sat in contrast with the rest of the room, which now seemed hollowed out and devoid of color. She went to the kitchen to search for a bag or box that could hold it securely. This may be her mother’s final heirloom to give, she thought.

The kitchen’s linoleum floor was sticky, and her clean feet pulled against it, making a soft ripping sound with each step. The drawer under where her mother’s phonebook always sat opened with some resistance; it had been coated with so many layers of off-white paint that it didn’t fit correctly in its socket anymore. Where she was expecting a plethora of organized storage bags, she found only two loose gallon-sized Ziploc bags.

She stepped lightly as she walked back across the kitchen, trying to keep the freshly-cleaned bottoms of her bare feet smooth. The gallon-sized bag was much too large for its contents – a small hair clip and a strand of a dead woman’s hair. The treasure would drown in the emptiness of the plastic, she thought, like one girl in a four-bedroom house. Her busy mind ceased its murmuring the second she returned to the vanity; the clip was gone. She visualized herself, less than three minutes ago, placing it in the middle of the pearly countertop. She remembered the contrast of the dark brass against the white tile. Her hands began to crawl through every fiber of the bathmat and in and out of each cabinet. She found only rusting pipes and a wet, hard floor. In a puddle of her own bath water, skin cold against the unwelcoming flooring, she began to cry.

About three hours later, she returned from the market with enough groceries to fill the dated refrigerator for the first time in years. The paper bags she carried home were filled so full that they threatened to rip, but no one was around to hear her complain about her shoulder pain, so she kept quiet. Sliding a rotisserie chicken onto the bottom shelf, she suddenly remembered the pin she had spent hours trying to forget. Leaving the refrigerator door open, lights on and internal fan humming, her neck craned towards the bathroom. She thought to herself how crazy she must seem and then remembered there was no one there to notice. Walking towards the light blue bathroom, her pupils contracted in response to the bright sunlight that shone through the window by the mirror. The door was halfway open, but she thought she might have left it that way. Pushing it all the way open, she saw it from feet away: the tiny scrap of metal, smack-dab in the middle of the white-tiled counter. She could feel her heartbeat in between her ears as she picked it up to find the shiny hair sitting perpendicular to the brass.

That afternoon she drove to see her father. The building he lived in was filled with paisley carpeting and beige furniture skins, which all seemed to hold the stench of aged coffee breath. The archways and mahogany tables gave the space a manufactured elegance and familiarity. The same set-up was copied and pasted throughout this national chain of nursing homes. It seemed like the people were too: a few women with red lipstick sprinkling their front teeth, a tall man with a much-too-short walker, someone from the fourth floor constantly cradling a plastic doll.

That morning was the first time in years she had been awake before her father. His sleeping frame sported a generic, white, cotton t-shirt and she was surprised by the measly circumference of his biceps and forearms. His papery skin was wrapped around his veins so delicately she could almost see the blood coursing through them and worried that if she touched him, she might leave a bruise. He sat up quickly, as if he had just realized he overslept his alarm by five hours.

He began rambling with an inflection and tone she had only ever heard from behind the doors of his home office. For the first time, this stream of consciousness seemed to need validation: her validation. Her ears perked up as if just realizing she would be tested on the material.

“There was a market, Cathy. You would have loved it. You had to stumble down a long pathway from the villa. It was made of cobblestone, so, you know I had to watch my feet. But once you got there it was all open air and white tents and women who looked like your mother ten years ago, selling fruit. We have to go back, you and me. I liked it even more than Naples. Do you remember Naples?” He paused for a second, but barely waited for a response. “Verona…Italy,” he sighed, and a pleasant smile dashed across his face. Watching the square rug go out of focus, Cathy unintentionally smiled too. Snap out of it, she thought to herself, and blinked back into reality.

Reminding him of his dementia was her least favorite responsibility and probably a key reason she hadn’t visited in months. She spoke as if she was reading a script: “While these fantasies are nice, and we would love them to be true –”. He cut her off. “I know. I know they are not. You tell me. The nurses tell me. Your brothers tell me. I know,” he spoke quickly and firmly.

His voice softened. “I’ve had dreams before. I mean, I’ve had them all my life, but, nothing like this. I feel like I die every morning. There’s another world and it’s going on without me. I travel a lot there. One day I’m in Spain and the other in Thailand. Some days I’m the President of the United States during a nuclear war; your brother will tell you, that was a bad one. He drove me all the way to the Los Angeles Airport so I could get on a plane to Cheyenne Mountain. Sometimes I’m home, instead of this god-awful place, with you kids instead of the nurses. Every time I come back here it feels like a dream. I’m just waiting for it end so that I can come back to reality: to Italy, to Cheyenne Mountain, back home.”

Cathy’s mind was frustratingly blank. After a moment, she broke the silence: “Maybe it is real to you. There isn’t much research about dementia. I don’t know, Dad. Maybe in some way you really are in Italy, or Thailand, or back home.” They looked at each other for a minute, communicating an understanding that words couldn’t quite convey, before he changed the subject, asking, “How is the house?” She listed the things in need of repair: paint to spackle and floorboards to replace. She thought of the clip and the mysterious return of it. The room filled with dead air for a moment, and she clasped her hands together in her lap. She hesitated for a moment, before murmuring, “I think Mom is haunting me.” Then, she recounted the events of her morning. She waited for a logical response from her father, an atheist and a scientist. To her surprise, he sat quietly through the entire story, looking up at the popcorn ceiling above his bed. When she finished, he turned his head to rest sideways on the pillow in order to look into her eyes. He responded, “Maybe I am haunting you.”

She quickly scoffed; the claim was ridiculous. It was compulsory that she dismiss it. The two were silent for a full hour after that. She considered his proposal and his stubbornness about the realness of his daydreams, grasping the brass hair clip in her right palm the whole time.

Published in Edition 2 of The Dilettante.