Illustration by Ryan V. Bitinis
In 2020, world governments decided fame was a right, not a privilege. But Hellen Hopper wanted none of it.
Hellen was a beautiful eighteen-year-old with raven-black hair and eyes the color of coffee. She could have been the next big star, the one everybody talked about around the water cooler, but she was what you’d call an introvert. She never sought attention, and she never understood why just being human wasn’t enough. Still, Hellen’s father made a point of telling her every morning that she was born to be famous.
Except by 2020, everyone was born to be famous.
In the early 2000s, fame had been controlled by the rich and well-connected, and only those who bought into the system were rewarded with fame. And then sometime around 2010, fame was democratized and politicized, and the backlash was intense. A rich and well-connected reality-TV star was made president of the United States and he lobbied for an end to democratized fame, calling its stars “lazy” and “losers” and suggesting that all of them “get real jobs” building walls or mining coal.
The newly famous didn’t like that idea, so they rebelled. The world economy came to a standstill. By 2019, all the rich and well-connected began to suffer. And by that, I mean they lost money.
So, in 2020 it was decided that every person in the world would be given 22 minutes of fame. A previous theory had put the ideal time at 15 minutes, and the World Fame Commission, WFC for short, tried it, but there were still too many rogue fame-seekers. Once the time was increased, the mass shootings stopped.
A Master List was created and all living persons were required to register by their eighteenth birthday. At registration, a person was allowed to choose whether they wanted to be on television or have a hit song whose air-time equaled exactly 22 minutes. Art and writing were deemed by the WFC to be “too high-brow” to qualify as legitimate paths to fame, and films were too expensive to produce, so all three were banned. On any given day in 2020, there were 480 songs playing across 44,000 radio stations worldwide and there were 65.455 shows on each of earth’s 28,017 television channels. At first, Texas and Indiana tried to reserve the .455 for fetuses, but the World Court struck that down, saying, obviously, that because they weren’t able to act outside the womb, the unborn could not be stars. So, instead, the World Fame Commission decided to round up or down by one, depending on how many shows were needed for that day’s programming.
Just like all the other kids in her class, Hellen registered with the WFC on her eighteenth birthday. She checked the “Television Show” box when asked what form she wanted her fame to take, but she didn’t think anything of it. There were so many people ahead of her on the Master List, she knew she wouldn’t be assigned to a show for years.
When she got home, her mother and father were watching television. They glanced up at her, then back to the big-eyed man on the screen struggling to hammer in a nail with an electric drill.
“Which did you choose?” her mother asked.
Her mother and father nodded, still watching the big-eyed man, who was now chasing the drill across the floor, where it flopped and rolled like a dying fish.
“You’ll do better than this guy.” Her father sounded confident. “Fool doesn’t know the first thing about home improvement.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” her mother said. “He built the Johnson’s porch last week, so he’s already making good on his fame.”
Hellen pictured the porch. She had thought the odd angle and dangling two-by-fours were an aesthetic choice, but now she wasn’t so sure.
“When will you hear?” her father asked.
“It’ll be sooner than that.”
Hellen didn’t believe it. She sat with her parents and watched the man choke the drill, which was threatening to pierce his eye. As someone off-screen finally unplugged the menace and the man, now crying, collapsed onto his knees, Hellen hoped she would never be called.
And then, three days later, the letter came.
Her father gave it to her with a wink and a nod. “I knew you’d be first in your class.” “Everyone’s getting these. It’s nothing. Probably just information.” Hellen said.
So, Hellen opened the letter and to her dismay, she was scheduled to start filming the following week. She groaned. “I don’t want to be famous. I want a job. I thought I might try college. There ought to be a law that says you don’t have to be a star if you don’t want to be.”
“Do you really want things to go back to the way they were, with people blowing themselves up and North Korea conducting missile tests every three minutes?”
“No. I guess not.”
“Do you really want to be responsible for that?”
“No. I already said no.”
“No, of course not. So you’ll go to the shoot. Where is it?”
Hellen looked at the letter. “At the old courthouse.”
“Bet it’s a period piece. Bet they’ll have you as head lawyer on a defense team and you’ll have to prove your client is innocent.”
Hellen shrugged. The letter didn’t provide any character references.
“Bet you’ll be smarter than the cops.”
“I might already be.”
“Not smart enough to get away with not going, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
That was exactly what Hellen was thinking. And she had one week to come up with a plan.
At the end of the week, though, Hellen didn’t know what she would do. Her mother was disappointed with her and told her so. It wasn’t enough that the government had provided this opportunity for her. Oh, no. Now she had to be Miss High-and-Mighty and refuse it.
“No one refuses this, Hellen. It’s just not done.”
“But I don’t want my life on display for everyone to judge. I don’t want people to know I wear a 34DD. That's my business.”
“I’m sure that won’t be part of the plot. I’m sure only Wardrobe will be acquainted with that information.”
But her mother’s assurances and her father’s pride did little to comfort her, and on the appointed day, she got into the baby-blue Cadillac her father had rented to make a good impression on the director (in case it ended up being a reality show), and she drove the four miles to the courthouse.
The camera crews were already set up and standing around. So she slammed the car door and walked up to one of the men behind the camera. He whistled at her as she approached.
“You a 34DD?”
“No, I’m Flemish.” She walked past him and over to a woman with a clipboard. In Hellen’s experience, only people with answers held clipboards.
“I’m Hellen Hopper. I’m here for my show.”
The woman looked Hellen up and down. “You’re not better than me,” the woman said.
“I never said I was.”
“You said it with your eyes.”
So, Hellen blinked in the most neutral, democratic way she could think, closing first one eye, then the other, scrunching up her face until it hurt. This seemed to placate the woman enough that Hellen was able to extract the director’s whereabouts. She found him sitting on the steps of his trailer smoking a smokeless, nicotine-free cigarette. He looked as used as a used car.
“You Hellen?” he asked. She barely responded before he said, “This is my third show today. I’m short-handed. Can you work the boom?”
Hellen knew about this. Once the fame laws had been enacted, the core curriculum was updated to include a class on fame, usually taught by the gym teacher, that was made up of many diagrams and conversations Hellen had found completely embarrassing. But she at least knew that a boom was just a microphone on a stick. She was not opposed to the director’s request, but the logistics began to bother her. “Operate the boom? On my own show?”
“No, no, no. Of course not. On the show after yours. We’re all in this together, Ms.
“Well, sure, anything I can do to help. I wouldn’t want to seem unpatriotic.”
So the director led Hellen to the set where she was to play a homeless woman with a heart of gold who saves an orphanage from a forest fire and ends up being given a job as a lawyer, even though she couldn’t pass the bar. So Father was right, she thought. I will be a lawyer.
In Wardrobe, Hellen was draped with dirty oil skins and potato sacks and given a shopping cart full of broken electronics (“To show your intelligence,” the prop man had said.). They teased her hair and dirtied her face so her makeover would be even more dramatic, and they gave her a rubber chicken, which she was supposed to hold like a baby in the scenes without her shopping cart. They didn’t give her a reason why.
When Hellen saw herself in Wardrobe’s huge full-length mirror, she was shocked. She looked just like every homeless woman she had ever seen in the movies. Then she was led back to the set and asked to stand still while the lighting was adjusted and angles and shots were planned.
Hellen stood for a long time, and maybe it was heat from the lights, maybe the smell of rubber, maybe the overworked and unhappy crew scuttling around like angry little beetles, or the director cursing and chain-(not)-smoking, but something in Hellen grew strong as titanium. She saw the cameraman finally point at her, saw the red light come on, heard the director whisper “You’re on,” and Hellen did what she knew she had to do.
Hellen Hopper bolted.
Clutching her rubber chicken, she ran and ran, past the courthouse set, past the blue Cadillac, past the orphanage set that had once been revered as the town’s first school house, and into the woods. And then deeper into the woods, past the forest fire set, until she knew she was alone, and she rested. She heard a whirring nearby and decided it was the blood in her ears that whirred and throbbed with exertion, so she ignored the sound and set about making camp.
Meanwhile, two thousand miles away, Hellen’s escape replayed on five large screens as the WFC board members, all rich and well-connected, banged their collective fists on their collective table.
“Another one!” The United States President said (he was the ranking board member).
“Not to worry,” said the gaunt Englishman to his left. “We’ve got this under control.”
“We can’t keep having escapees like this. It screws everything up. We lose money!”
The German delegate at the President’s right sighed. “It could be,” she started quietly.
“Couldn’t it be that some people just don’t want to be famous?”
The President banged his fist again. “Don’t tell me you’re buying into that story! That’s
Fake News! Listen. If I want to be famous, everyone does.”
“What about her parents?” the young Sudanese delegate asked. “Do they know she’s gone?”
“They say she can take care of herself,” the middle-aged Chinese delegate said. “Her father seems to have supreme confidence in his daughter’s intelligence.”
“With 34DDs?” the President scoffed. “She might be in good shape, but there’s no way she’s smart!”
And they all listened as the gaunt Englishman detailed the plans already in place to capture Hellen.
Back at her camp, Hellen had built a fire and used the rubber chicken as bait to catch her dinner, which ended up being a wayward coyote that tasted like roasted dog. Once she had eaten, she washed her face in the creek. And then she sat until sunset in the pine-scented quiet. The oilskins and sacks were plenty warm that night. She slept in the moonlight, in the cradle of tree roots, her cooked coyote tucked away in her waistband for breakfast.
Hellen made a life for herself out there in the woods. She built a lean-to out of evergreen boughs that kept her relatively dry. She fashioned squirrel traps out of saplings, wrote perfect poetry on birch bark using a burnt stick as a pencil. She kept busy gathering firewood or chatting with her chicken, whom she grew to love as a child.
One day, ten years into her rebellion, she saw a tall streak of red shoot through the forest. She was used to intruding hikers and rambunctious teenagers, but this was different. She ran after the red streak, her rubber chicken slapping up and down at her waist. When she reached the clearing, she hid behind a tree and saw a tall, blonde, beautiful girl, no more than eighteen, in a red and gold band-leader uniform. She was sitting on a boulder, crying.
Hellen approached cautiously and, touching her on the shoulder, asked, “Are you okay?” The girl waved her away, then went back to covering her face.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
The girl shook her head and sobbed louder.
“Are you running away?”
The girl hissed through her hands, “Would you get out of here?”
“This is a cameo. You’re ruining the shot. Get out of the way.” The girl’s shoulders still shuddered with sobs, but Hellen realized the girl was acting. It turned out she was a gifted actor. “You’ve been given more than 22 minutes? Is that legal?”
“Not that it’s any of your business,” the girl whispered through her fingers, “but due to an administrative error, I was only given 21 minutes, so this is my one-minute cameo.”
“For what show?”
“Never mind. Just get out of here.”
Hellen, rejected and dejected, stepped back into the line of woods circling the clearing. To her chicken, she said, “The nerve of some people,” but she had trouble seeing her way back to her lean-to for all the tears.
So, slowly, Hellen grew older, forty, then fifty years-old. Her hips began to ache, her finger joints thickened, and every once in a while, when it was quiet, she would think of her parents, her mother’s pride and her father’s confidence, and wonder how long they had been dead. And then finally, one cold summer night when Hellen was somewhere around seventy, deep in the woods, surrounded by her industriousness and cuddling her chicken, she died, quietly, in her sleep.
Unbeknownst to her, mostly because she was dead, a whirring descended on her, the sound of a million tiny helicopters coming from all directions. Had she been alive, Hellen would have been appalled.
It turns out the World Fame Commission, not willing to let such a buxom beauty go, had set drone cameras on Hellen from the moment she received her letter, had miked her parents and bugged the Cadillac and, later, the woods. They had captured every sad, triumphant, boring moment of Hellen’s life. At her death, WFC producers condensed her life down to the required 22 minutes, spent only two minutes on her courthouse rebellion, spent twelve full minutes showing all of the many instances of Hellen’s ingenuity and bravery out in the wild (with one minute dedicated to her conversation with the crying blonde in the band-leader uniform), and then, in the remaining seven minutes, with many touching close-ups and sentimental tilts, viewers watched Hellen’s last hours. The final shot, a fade-out, lingered on her aged face, clean and still perfect, relaxed and peaceful in death.
And when The Hellen Hopper Story aired a week later, Neilsen ranked it #27 out of 1,849,122.
Michele LG Bitinis is a short story writer and novelist who works to represent the oftentimes sad, but mostly absurd, human experience.
Photograph by Deepak Tolange
Maya Angelou wrote a collection of essays titled "Letter to my Daughter." In the opening essay, 'Home,' she writes,
"...that no one can ever leave home...
...that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears, and the dragons of home under one's skin...
...that we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and maybe the only place we ever really do." (p.67)
Home is a place of foreverness. Home is a setting, a scene.
Family, the characters. Family in whatever forms and apparitions they occupy. Family as mom and dad asleep with the TV on; family as your younger brother that you can rewind and replay that single line from Friends with, and laugh and laugh and laugh and say nothing but "again," and laugh; family as the nonsense, as the understood; family as the lessons taught, and the lessons learned.
What makes family different from friends, acquaintances, lovers, co-workers, the barista you see every morning, the grocer that makes friendly conversation while your 'AUTHORIZATION' is 'IN PROGRESS', the football player, the ticket taker, the preacher at church and the devil on the corner what makes family different is nothing.
Importantly, it is the nothing. It is no need for words on the 12-hour car drive. It is no need to say sorry that you couldn't afford Christmas presents this year (even though all your friends, cousins, and ex-boyfriend got one). It is not seeing one another and knowing they are there. It is not speaking for months and knowing exactly what they will say. It is life; it is having nothing if not for your family. It is death; it is having everything even without them there.
Like home, family is something that is built from within. It is an empty space that we fill with interactions, and as these interactions are nurtured, with relationships. Family is that 'nothing' connection that turns out to be everything we are made of, just like home is that 'nowhere' place that turns out to be everywhere we go.
Maya Angelou never had a daughter. She gave the world her shadows, her dreams, her fears and her dragons. My mother had me. She gave me a book by Maya Angelou.
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
A man is trying to sleep. The night is in the peak heat of summer, and a thick film of sweat swaddles his body. In this sticky state, he feels like a newborn. His wife is in the living room reading on the couch; some prize-winning novel she started last week. He has to work early the next day, so he shuts his eyes and splays his legs open so things can hang freely. It is too hot for sleeping.
But he has to try. A weak breeze squeezes past the window screen and pokes his shapeless body, which resembles tapioca stuffed in sandwich bags. The hairs on his skin go up in relief. The air cools him, and he sighs deeply. He thinks about the dinner his wife made—a chicken fricassee with rice and beans; it was good, a little on the spicy side, maybe there was too much chili powder—and the sauces and lumps of fowl floating in his stomach like kids in a pool.
But he's starting to feel his pores gasping, oozing grease all over his body. The sheets beneath his Buick of a back are now damp, and the space inside the folds of his fat are actually beginning to feel wet.
He thinks about the dinner he ate, and then he thinks about his wife who cooked it. These days she sits a lot in their living room, where the carpet color matches the curtain color. The house they live in is white, with black shutters. It was finally purchased last November after twenty-five years of mortgages. They almost lost it in the "economic downturn," or the "recession," or the "subprime mortgage crisis." But they'd lost a lot of things, so it wasn't shocking.
Kids, for instance. His children are almost grown up, some in college, some working their first jobs, all far away from him. The last time he saw his eldest son Randy was at an Olive Garden, behind an endless basket of breadsticks and across from his son's then-girlfriend, whose cleavage eclipsed the endless salad bowl. He was graduating college. He did not turn out tall, like his mother. He took a banking job a few months later and hasn't called home since.
But that's just what grown-ups do, the man tells himself. They get busy. He isn't sure what the official age for a grown-up is, and anyhow, he is no example of that. He quit college to chase his dreams.
"What the hell is a cinnamontographer?" his own father had bellowed at the dinner table.
The man never ended up going to film school, or working on any film at all.
Then they died. Both his parents. That was another thing he lost.
Also, erections. To say that he and his wife didn't have sex was probably untrue; they just stopped having it with each other. Once he walked in on Sally jacking something with urgency between her legs on the couch. In a suspended moment he saw her, silent, eyes beamed ahead like headlights with the focus of an archer, sprinting to some euphoric finish line on their wall.
"Is that—" he began. "Is that corn?"
She cried as he stood there, coat still on, frozen with his briefcase and sagging eyes that observed the mechanics of ecstasy from afar.
That was three years ago. Another hundred pounds later, he was here, sweating like a whale in cardiac arrest on a bed by himself.
Stop thinking, he thinks.
His wife turns the page and it makes a crinkling sound. It echoes throughout the living room and bounces into his, ricocheting off his translucent thighs and springing onto the ceiling, landing hard on his bulbous nose. It veers against the wall and pummels square into the vast, useless space between his legs. He turns over in agony and lashes the pillow across the back of his head. No, no, no, he moans. He wallows, face-down, into the mattress. The backs of his thighs are sweating. His eyeballs are sweating. His wife will not stop reading.
Suddenly he thinks of a pot roast. That's it, a pot roast, tender and moist—not unlike the underside of his arms—glazed all over with its own fat and some chopped carrots. He imagines his fork delving its glinting prongs into the sinewy chunk. It disintegrates to the touch. The saliva mills of his mouth are up and roaring, and he angles for the perfect bite. But the meat slides right through the fork like thin cough syrup, and he can't get it onto the utensil. It's like eating soup with chopsticks. He stabs at it again, but the chunk only runs down his fork—a caramelized drip right onto the plate, where it pools back into the shape of a perfect pot roast.
The whole affair makes him sweat more. The plate is a vast white sheet, just under his nose, and he chases the food around with his fork before succumbing to more desperate measures. If the meat will not come to him, he will go to the meat. He stamps his massive, doughy cheek on the plate and opens wide, a gaping hangar where the pot roast will park for eternity. The meat is a dark, sideways mound on his horizon.
With his free hand he nudges it, just to be sure.
It stays firm.
His saliva glands lose control and blast an uncontrollable highway of warm drool onto the plate, but no matter—it's going back inside anyway. His fingers prod the chunk just before his eyes.
One more shove and it's in.
He can almost taste it.
The last push is a hard one and he can hardly contain his anticipation before he shovels the meat at full velocity into his face, yes, here kingdom comes—when suddenly he arrives at the fleshy cram of his own fingers, the pudgy pointer jammed hard down his own throat and none of it, not a thing, tasting like pot roast and carrots.
It was gone.
It had left him, again.
Why, he moans. Why, why, why. He thinks he's crying, but it could well be the pond of drool beneath his face. The entire episode tires him. In five hours he would have to get up, drive twenty minutes to rot under mail room lights for the day, drive home and stare at the light beer selection in the fridge. He will talk, or not talk, to his wife over dinner. She will read her novel, likely for eternity. His children were never coming home. He couldn't remember the color of his living room carpet. He was two hundred and eighty pounds.
Two hundred and eighty. He thinks about this number. The eight does not look unlike him when he's wearing a belt. He could be the zero lying down. It all flattens out.
He counts blubbery sheep that have his face. They jump over a fence. He hits two hundred and eighty and starts over again, this time with a mustache on. He fancies himself French. The breeze is coming back. It's nice. It grazes over his skin and he turns on his side so it can hit his back, the one his wife used to caress but now tells him to wax. "It isn't that bad," he protests, but when she makes a face he's only seen right before she vomits, he nods his head and does nothing about it.
There, that wind—it's a wind now—gliding over the right plane of his body. It's as if someone is petting him, and he settles on that—the sensation of being pet.
He thinks he's asleep. Maybe not. But he feels different suddenly—his body, folded over on its right, is thinner, lighter, more athletic. His tits disappear. Everything is slim. He has difficulty breathing and puts his hand to his neck—there's a necktie there, that's why. He loosens it, and realizes there's a collar. The collar is attached to a shirt, and the shirt is underneath a jacket, and the jacket is over a pair of pressed pants. He's wearing a full suit. He looks good. At least that's what he's feeling—that he looks good. There's no way to know for sure, is there. He wiggles his toes and sees that his feet are in a pair of nice shoes. They're buffed and shining and the laces look made from silk. The shoes have an elegant shape to the toe: long, sleek, made of good brown leather. His grandfather used to tell him that you could judge a man's character by his shoes. So they're definitely not his shoes. His shoes are boxy, square at the toe, and there's a hole in the sole. Sometimes he can feel himself leaking out of that hole onto the pavement, where he steps himself all over the city's sidewalks.
What's he doing in a suit?
He's in a cold room and looks down, where a red carpet begins to form beneath his feet. At first he wonders if he's bleeding out of that hole in his shoes, but realizes he's not wearing his shoes. He's not even himself, is he? The bottom of his pants are perfectly trimmed. He can actually see his toes, which is refreshing. The carpet rolls out in all directions and the room fills with people, all dressed like him, some women in skirt suits, other men in the same crisp outfits of varying shades: blue, gray, black, blue, gray, black. They notice him. They say hello. His hand is being shaken many times over, and he finds himself smiling at their attention.
"Hey, Walter," they say, and they look into his eyes. "Good to see you again."
His name isn't Walter, but it doesn't matter. He must look really good. They are milling all over this room like caffeinated ants, walking bolted paths to where, he's not sure, but they're doing it with purpose, and that's all that matters.
He gets a cup of coffee from the breakfast spread and stirs in cream with a silver spoon. Maybe a person like him shouldn't be putting cream in his coffee. He should probably take it with soy milk. So he sets his old coffee aside and gets a fresh one, this time with soy. He stirs it with satisfaction and takes a sip, pretending he likes the flavor, which is horrid and tastes like bong water. He's had bong water before, in college, before he dropped out. His frat elders videotaped him, drunk and stoned, chugging it with a jock strap taped to his face. He threw up on the carpet, and they made him do it again.
He hasn't had bong water since.
He looks across the crowd and feels placed. He belongs here. The soy coffee is beginning to taste better, and he no longer feels the strangle of his necktie. He likes the way people are shaking his hand, even though they shake everyone else's hand the same way. A man next to him barks into phone and bats his arms around to make a point. A woman checks her blackberry, eyes hardening at something that drives her out of the cold, carpeted room.
It is suddenly beginning to feel hot again. Walter, or so they call him, tugs at his necktie. He wants to take it off. He unleashes it in the middle of the room and none of the other tie-wearing people seem to notice, so he takes off his jacket. There's a blast of air conditioning from nowhere. He turns his left side to face it and lets it run over his forearms, his ribcage, his firm buttocks. It feels so good he takes off his shirt, just unbuttons it right there amid all those people and none of them stares. Fine, then I'll take my pants off too, he decides, and he takes his pants off, letting the cool blast air things out.
His shoes are the last to go. He's sad to take them off and has the sense he'll never see them again. They were beautiful shoes, and he wished they were his. But as he loosens those laces and tugs off the heel, there's sand. It comes pouring out, as if he'd been at the beach, and he, from long ago, had buried them there. The sand doesn't stop flowing and he checks the sole.
There's a hole in it.
So much sand has leaked out that he's in fact standing on a mound of it. Something caws overhead: a seagull. The waves are just to his right. There's a little boy pounding a stick into the wet sand with a plastic shovel. It looks like someone he knows. The little boy's mother—she's also familiar, but before he can put a finger on all of it, someone calls out to him.
"Walter!" she cries.
She approaches him, her blond hair caught in the wind like a tangle of hay, a sand dusting over the bridge of her nose. Her freckles splatter high on her cheekbones.
"But I'm not Walter!" he replies.
"Oh, Walter," she says with relief. "There you are. We thought we lost you."
She looks exactly like the woman in an advertisement he and his wife passed two days ago walking past a Gap store.
"They don't actually look like that you know," she'd said to him.
He wasn't sure what she meant, so he grunted, and continued on their way. He thinks about this now as the woman from the window smiles at him, looking exactly like that. He wants to ask his wife what she meant. But his wife isn't here.
She's over at the sand pit, with the little boy. Walter squints at her and she's the spitting image of herself in their wedding photo, the one tucked behind the coffee coasters. Her brown hair is frazzled, half-up in a barrette. Her tanned breasts are spilling out just slightly from a polka-dot one piece that hangs itself around her long neck. She's radiant. She's smiling in a way that makes Walter squeeze his ass cheeks together and mush his fingernails into damp palms.
I can't go talk to her, he thinks. She's so pretty. She's too pretty for me to go over there and talk to her.
His wife is playing with their firstborn, Randy. He's shoveling sand all over her chest and she's giggling and Walter is getting a hard-on. This is wrong, he thinks.
This isn't me.
He stares at the beginning of his own family. Why doesn't it feel his? It's his wife, and that's their son, conceived the night they shared two bottles of cheap Merlot at Josephine's, on Pine Street, and came home to empty the liquor cabinet. Randy was a five-pound, six-ounce accident. Then came Lainey, then Max. Andrea was born after a miscarriage.
That had been hard on his wife. He had cupped her limp hands and felt her lungs shiver through her back each night when he cradled her. When day broke, there was the sting of warm salt when he kissed her cheeks.
He had been familiar with the nape of her neck, then.
At what point had they left themselves?
What had he done Tuesday night? Wednesday night? How long had she been reading that novel?
"Walter," comes a voice.
His name isn't Walter. But he glances up anyway. The people from the conference room are standing, blue, gray, black, on the beach. Their suits move like flags in the wind and they're arranged like props around each other, as if on set. He feels a momentary sense of relief. They know him. They had shaken his hand—with smiles, no less. If only he could get a soy coffee.
But something strange is happening, he thinks. The girl from the advertisement is standing before them, gesticulating. Walter strains to hear what she's saying. The cries of children and seagulls and waves drown out her voice.
"Walter—" she is saying. "Do you know where he's gone?"
They shake their heads. They seemed baffled. She hoists his shoe to identify him.
How does she have that?
Yet there it is, canoe-like in the way his foot had stretched it. It's his. He sees the laces, frayed like floss, the black leather more like scoffed bark gnawed by an animal. That boxy toe, fit for an oaf. He stuffs all of himself into those shoes each day, all two hundred and eighty pounds, and this day, after all this time, he wonders why he never bought a new pair of shoes.
There's a hole in the sole.
My god, that hole. Sand is flowing out it like a broken hourglass. It runs endlessly. She's holding it up and the wind is blowing the stream of manila beach westward. The crowd considers and shakes their heads.
"Do you know where Walter is?" she asks again.
There is an urgency in her voice that touches him. But he's losing track of the girl's voice. The wind is whipping sound away. He merely sees the outline of her lips, the shallow shape it makes of the name, Walter, her eyebrows pushed together in the frenzy of a mother who's lost her child.
The suits shake their heads again.
"No," they say. "We don't know a Walter."
Photograph by Prima Alam
If Mum knew that I was here she would kill me. Eighteen years on from the day when Stork Incorp. took the final instalment of my conception fee from her account, I am finally about to meet the male who fathered me.
My first sight of the imposing grey concrete buildings on the outskirts of Dundee, that are Stork Incorp. with their surround of high barbed wire fences is almost enough to turn me about in my tracks. Almost, but not quite. I am determined to meet him, this male who out of Mum's earshot and even then, still under my breath I sometimes refer to as 'Dad'. As a child, all I had to prove his existence was a small, crumpled photograph, torn from the Stork Incorp. catalogue of the year of my birth, but that tiny picture, hidden inside my pillow, heard as many childhood secrets and wiped away as many tears as any flesh and blood parent.
Blood, that is what we share and why without him I feel like I'm only half a person. I have inherited my mother's hair and eyes but according to our medical records, my blood is my father's. It's not my head or my heart that aches to know him, it is my blood. It pumps faster now in growing expectation as my two escorts lead me through countless gates, doors and security scanners and past the windowless nurseries where the few male children reared, are kept. It must have been a strange, strange world before the revolution, when males were allowed to roam among us.
History has always fascinated me. It was both my favourite subject at school and, as it turned out, the reason for my eventual expulsion, when I dared to attend a Invergowrie School end of term party in a SKIRT! I was expelled instantly on grounds of 'unacceptable femininity'. Mum laid the blame for my degeneracy on my father's blood. This only served to strengthen my resolve to meet him and each week I put a little of my meagre wages aside until I could afford the trip to Stork Incorp.
I am ushered into the waiting room and left by myself. Here, the walls are painted in pastel shades and covered in pictures of smiling baby girls with their proud mothers. For a moment these photographs remind me of those that are sticky-taped to my bedroom wall at home, except that my photos and posters... I cringe with shame as I admit this... are all of males. Degenerate I am, like Mum said. It's in my blood. Never the less I do find it embarrassing to walk into a second-hand shop, in a Dundee side street, and under the disapproving eye of the proprietress, pick out the faded, torn pictures of rock and film stars from a previous age. Despite my shame and the fact that my purchases are invariably wrapped in brown paper and quickly thrust into my bag by the shrewd shopkeeper; once I reach home, tear off the wrapping and see those handsome male faces staring up at me, the ordeal is made worthwhile.
I have been waiting here for twenty minutes now and growing more nervous by the second. What shall I say to him? There is a pile of magazines on the table but they too contain nothing but endless pictures of mothers and their daughters. I wrote to the problem page of a similar publication to these, a couple of months back, explaining that I was planning on seeing my dad and asking them what I should expect to find. Their reply was most unhelpful -'DON'T DO IT' in capital letters, and informed me that even if I succeeded in meeting him, the outcome would only be a bitter disappointment to me. 'Males aren't like us you know.'
I have a book in my bag. I shall take it out and try and read. It's a romance, my favourite kind of fiction, no longer published of course. I have covered it in the jacket of a volume entitled 'Advanced Hydraulic Systems, Their Maintenance And Repair', thus sparing myself the pitying looks of my fellow travellers on the journey down. It's by a woman named Jane Austen, the romance that is, not the hydraulics tome. Mum still finds my wearing of feminine clothes and shoes very hard to accept, but her reaction is mild compared with the fury I provoke when walking around our small town, dressed in all my finery. The very first time I plucked up the courage to venture out on the streets of Invergowrie in a DRESS and a pair of SLINGBACKS, the abuse and the spittle fairly flew in my direction, until a friend of ours dragged me home in disgrace. Never though, will I be tempted to trade my glamour and femininity for the drab uniform of overalls, sweater, laced up boots and cropped hair worn universally by everyone else, young or old. I am proud that degeneracy is in my blood. I am going to thank my father for giving me this, the greatest gift of all.
The only word I can think of to describe what has drawn me here to finally meet my father, is an old fashioned term no longer used - LOVE. I love him although I have never met him and 1 hope that once he knows who I am, he will love me. Love must be the thing that fills up that cold, empty space inside of a person. When I look at my posters and pictures of males, I feel moved in some way. Is that love too? It must have been pretty important once. Pre-revolution poets filled books with poems about it and most of the songs on my antique CD's mention the word as well. I cannot see any of these songs of love making today’s top twenty. Nowadays almost every song written is about a woman's aspirations or career - either how well she is doing or how well she would like to be doing at her job. I work as a plumber. I was startled to read somewhere the other day that there used to be male plumbers too in the old days. Mum says that it cannot be true because it is a skilled job and if males had been responsible for our sinks and toilets the whole planet would have been flooded with sewage in no time. It does make you think. At school we were taught that males have only a limited intelligence and are all dangerous and destructive. Apparently, they began to threaten both the survival of womankind and of the planet itself, hence the revolution.
My escorts still have not returned. Do you suppose they can have forgotten me? I must say that the women in this Jane Austen's novel seem to be very taken with the charms of the males in the story. These males do not act like they are dangerous at all and the way she has written it, they seem to be almost as intelligent as the women.
At last I can hear the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside. My escorts are returning to collect me and take me to see HIM! I can hide my book inside a different cover but I cannot hide my feelings. I am coughing and sweating - will it arouse their suspicions, or are the women who come here to choose a father for their children, usually nervous like this? If my deception is discovered I may be thrown back out into the street without seeing him or I may even be arrested. That does not scare me as much as the prospect of meeting Dad, even though it is something I have waited for, for the majority of my life. Will we be like strangers to each other? After all, we share nothing but blood.
There is a warmth down deep inside of me, in my blood. Perhaps there is a similar warmth in him and at the sound of my voice it will kindle into love. I wonder if he will still be recognisable as the male in my photograph, taken nearly nineteen years ago. Unfortunately, I will be behind mirrored glass so that although I will be able to see him clearly, he will not be able to view his daughter. This is a precaution by Stork Incorp. to 'protect the woman's anonymity and to avoid causing undue disturbance to the controlled daily life patterns of our males'. At least we will be able to speak to each other. This is allowed so that those women looking for a male with a higher than average I.Q. rather than a specimen with mere physical beauty, may question the males at length though it's stressed in the publicity material that the males might well choose not to answer. I sit down in the chair provided and look through the glass into the opposite room, where my father will soon enter. The escorts leave me, the door in the room beyond opens and here he is! It is him! Yes it is; older naturally, a few lines on the handsome face, a sprinkle of grey in the thick brown hair, but it is unmistakably the face which has looked out at me from that torn piece of paper, these past eighteen years. DAD!
"Hello" I stammer. He sits down in a chair but doesn't try to stare in the direction from which my voice is coming, out of habit I suppose. He has never had the opportunity to view one of his visitors and probably never will. Of course, I do not interest him - not yet, not until my fumbling tongue can explain our special bond. Our bond of blood.
"I have come here for a very special reason..." He is not reacting to my words. An awful thought has just struck me. Suppose he is not English and cannot understand me. Some males are imported from abroad to give a wider choice and variety. I must put the thought out of my head. I must carry on now I have come this far. "Hello Dad, yes that's what you are, you are my father." He jumps up out of the chair. He understands! "I love you, Dad and I've missed you all of my..." He has turned away from me. He is pushing a button on the wall. What does that mean? I cannot see his face to see how he is taking my news. "Dad! Dad!" He is not listening to me. He is at the back of the room now. He is hammering on the door by which he came in. He is pounding on his door, but it's my door that flies open. My escorts are back and with them two huge, grim-looking women. "Dad, what's happening? What's going on? Do they treat you well in here? WHY WON'T YOU SPEAK TO ME?"
The heavy gates slam shut behind me, my hands are nursing my head where it cracked against the pavement. Lifting my face from my hands, I see first the barbed wire barricade around Stork Incorp. and then upon my fingers I see my blood, our blood, beginning to collect and to drip down the front of my dress.
Judy is a multi award-winning playwright/screenwriter, with plays produced by the Royal Court, Hampstead Theatre, National Theatre and BBC Radio 4 among many others. She has also had two feature films, several short films and an original TV drama produced, as well as numerous short stories published.
Photograph by Prima Alam
Enter, stage left, a woman raised in the West but rooted in the East, the age-old immigrant story, the proverbial clash of civilizations (though she’s never bought into that oversimplified narrative). She comes of age like her peers, quickly, wildly, and defiantly. She flinches reflexively at words of obligation - should and ought and must - because she cannot see their relevance in the land of opportunity.
Her parents, in the shadows of stage right, stand aghast. Raised in a culture that privileges the voice of community, they dare not speak personal pipe dreams and desires aloud. Who is their shape-shifting daughter, who shows flashes of both the culture in her blood and the one she wears over her brown skin, and yet is neither one nor the other?
ACT ONE: FAMILY
I am in the passenger seat of my friend’s car, and we are driving with no purpose other than to feel the possibility inherent in the evening. There is a party at my house tonight, full of relatives who would ask biographical details to see if any details have changed. Name, age, what do you want to be when you grow up? We don’t see these people often enough for them to come into focus, so I would try for the hundredth time to memorize faces, names, relationships. Every gathering is a reunion for our parents but a meet and greet for the children. Once, I asked my mother to help me write down our family tree but I couldn’t find a piece of paper big enough to fit all the branches.
My presence is nonetheless always required, though I am never consulted regarding my own plans for the evening. I must attend, because any meeting of families is impossible unless each unit is complete. I currently have ten missed calls, and they all scream “Mom” with increasing urgency. I see the name flash again on my phone, and I send it to voicemail, letting my other hand catch cool currents of air outside the window. My mother laid out an outfit this afternoon for me to wear, loud crushed silk shot through with heavy gold thread. I have been the dutiful paper doll for every other gathering, but tonight, I could not put on the appropriate face, so I do not make an appearance.
She did not come, so we had to play her role. Every aunt, uncle and cousin forcing us to answer questions on her behalf. We all relish these gatherings, to be able to spend rare time with one another with a comfort and familiarity which does not extend to any other aspect of our lives. She does not find similar solace in blood ties.
She views family as a flat plane, but really it is a pyramid, sloping up to our elders at its point. Those forming the foundation are critical; without them, or any of us supporting one another, the structure crumbles. How to tell her that she will have her freedom of choice when she has earned her knowledge and her place?
ACT TWO: EDUCATION
Two years into college, after I’ve had my fill of experimentation, I call my parents to switch my major. I’m changing from biology to fine art, I tell them, and they react straight from their script, which is to say with great alarm and distress. They already have doctors, so why do they need me to be one?
I send them photographs of my art, in which I try to make feelings tangible, to communicate with them through slashes of paint because words are woefully inadequate. I send them an invitation to my final show. They shuffle through the gallery quietly, spending a few seconds on each piece. But when they find me at the end of the line of paintings, I do not see pride on their faces, only deep and abiding concern.
Every time my mother comes to my apartment, a tiny studio barely large enough for a double bed, she does the dishes. Actually, she asks me first if I’ve thought about going back to school or getting a job, while we are surrounded by the canvases that already speak to my chosen profession. Then she stands at the half-sink getting splashes of water on her clothes and scrubbing paint-encrusted pallettes and food-stained plates. Pouring down the drain the feelings she cannot express to me.
When you know struggle, you do not wish it upon anyone else. How could you? You wish for your children a life better than you have lived. You wish for them an easy life, where the paths are straightforward and lead reliably to security. If there are roads like this - doctor, lawyer, engineer - we do not know why someone would not take them. It’s like rejecting a buy one get one free coupon; we paid for the education, and the career was supposed to come with it.
We took cars and trains and airplanes all the way to a different country, simply to reach an endpoint we could trust. Or that our parents told us we could trust, because we put our faith in those who know better. She thinks chaos and uncertainty will fulfill her. But beauty alone cannot sustain you; art cannot feed you. What else can keep you whole like stability?
ACT THREE: MARRIAGE
I introduce him to my parents at the most awkward of lunches. They are usually the most sociable people - you have to be, when you grow up with relatives constantly coming and going - but now they are silent. My partner tries to carry the conversation but can find no purchase beyond one-word answers. He gives up and I try to block out the sound of all of us chewing.
He is confused as to the problem, and honestly, I am, too. Could my parents possibly have expected an arranged marriage, one in which I would have no say? It has to be willful blindness if they did not see my life leading inexorably to this result, a partner who doesn't share my religion or skin color, but most importantly, shares my love.
The wedding planning is particularly uncomfortable. My parents have moved on to resigned acceptance, and my mother sends a guest list of hundreds. All of these people are necessary, she says, and all of those other people are necessary because the first people are necessary. We are peeling every layer of relatives inward, but I wonder when we will reach the center where my partner and I are standing.
At the wedding, we are too drunk on joy and cheap wine to care about disapproval. In any event, there is none. I watch my father dab his eye as we say our vows, and my mother weep openly. We are surrounded by a crowd of relatives who vibrate with contagious happiness. An entire community of people, all here just for us.
It wasn’t what we would have wanted, though we can’t quite explain our objections. It wasn’t him so much as the idea of him. At that first lunch, we saw the disintegration of everything we worked for, all the values we believed in. When a girl gets married, she is no longer a part of her old family; she becomes a member of her new one. And so we had brutal dreams about the death of our culture at the hands of our daughter.
We wanted a logic for her union, one we could understand beyond amorphous “love”. Love is not a flash of lightning, a single glance, or infatuation; it is familiarity and companionship cultivated over a period of years. How else to know that you should put in that time and effort than by ensuring you are aligned with your partner as far as possible? It is a matter as elemental as finding the right seeds for the right soil.
We wanted a marriage with room for our culture, one that would rear children with a knowledge of our gods and languages and histories. We preferred our odds if she had accepted even one of our attempts to set her up. But we met him a few more times, and slowly he became more than the man who stole our daughter. We learned of his openness, curiosity and kindness, and how, in loving our daughter, he accepted all parts of her, not just the ones she pre-packaged to show him. Perhaps, we thought, this was the guarantee for which we’d hoped.
The wedding was beautiful, of course; everyone we knew and loved was there, which is one of the unstated purposes of the occasion. When we took her hands in ours and passed them to her partner, we didn’t even feel like we were losing her. We gazed at her radiant face and thought maybe, finally, she realized what we had been trying to say: all we wanted, in the end, was for her to be happy.
Exit, scene left, SHE and the CHORUS, on paths that do not run strictly parallel but endlessly diverge and converge, weaving a web to hold them in a strange and unknown land.
Nina Sudhakar is a writer, photographer and lawyer. Originally from Connecticut (by way of parents from India), she most recently lived in London and is currently based in Indiana. Her work is forthcoming in The Equals Record, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and re:asian. She writes about travel and culture on her website Project One Thousand (http://www.projectonethousand.com).
My parents weren’t born until 1975, but they were total hippies. They had vague memories of Reagan, and the way our country turned its back on those with AIDS, HUD and Iran-Contra -- all of it. Their own parents had lived through the 60’s, but they stood on the sidelines and observed because they were too busy cobbling together enough to keep Illinois family farms going.
My parents met while at a mediocre state university, both feeling like they had a sign on their backs that said “Kick Me: I’m Poor White Trash.” But they always wanted to change the world. At first they thought it was through teaching, and the Ivory Tower and all that noise. They did everything right, and they got advanced political science degrees and made just enough noise to call it Social Justice and to feel like maybe they could bring kids into the world. So they did. Jimmy in 1999. Me in 2002.
I can’t give you all the details. How my dad saw himself in every student, except the rich ones from the suburbs, whom he antagonized and shamed. Inside he was still poor with one pair of dungarees and boots he stuffed with newspaper. It made him afraid to stop working, to stop, period. Mom taught too, but once me and Jimmy came along, teaching didn’t hold the same import. We loved our lives. We lived in a town with a university at its center and everything radiating out from it. Jimmy and I would ride our bikes home and find international students from Africa and Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, along with the entire art faculty at our table, a little drunk. My mom was in the kitchen, so happy and a little high. She’d have us carry in huge dishes of curry, samosas, aloo goobi and garlic naan. She’d present us as if we were the most delicious dishes she ever made, one hand on each of our heads, blessing us. She’d kiss us all over our faces for the entire world to see.
Here’s what happened. So you understand my dad isn’t evil. My mom got sick. She was stage 4, so she wasn’t working. Couldn’t work. The state of Illinois was starving higher education. There were massive layoffs at the university and my dad’s program was small. Small but mighty, he used to say. Even though he was tenured and full, boom. He had one year of employment still, but he walked, out of principal.
My grandparents’ house, 13 miles outside of town with 6 acres had sat empty. My parents had cared for it—mowing and upkeep, and we mushroom hunted and picnicked and spent time there in all seasons for the thick silences, but my dad and mom explained we were going off grid, in a sense. We were going to grow tomatoes and sunlit happiness. I was 13. Jimmy was 16. We’d have a plethora of peace and quiet, which my mom really wanted. To die in. She said stuff like that so we’d press our face up to the fact that she was dying. She wasn’t scared. She thought it’d be like before she was born. And when I can’t sleep, I try to remember what it was like, before I was born. I think of the sign above the front door my dad made, reading “Utopia”. Everyone says I speak like some forty-year-old, but they don’t get it. Most adults don’t know what I know. Dad likes to say it isn’t their fault, but I sometimes wonder. Maybe I’ll be a hospice nurse. Maybe at 14 I’ve already found my calling. Easing pain.
My caseworker asked, “Knowing what you know now, what would you go back and change?” Made me want to punch her in the throat and I’m a pacifist. My dad grew weed, yes. He sold it to middle aged folks grappling with hard life and there was so much of it, suffering everywhere and the weed helped. It took off the hard edges so people could endure. My father never, ever glorified it and he mostly dealt in trade—an oil change, alpaca wool socks for the whole family, six loaves of stone ground wheat bread, and people came in and helped with my mom.
Mom died, bathed in our attention, the solidity of our love—we were a wall around her. The whole world was right there, in us four. I told my caseworker that’s all I’d say about it, in addressing you, the court, but maybe all of you gathered can imagine how the world was blown apart too. Maybe you can understand some pain can’t be eased. Only carried.
The people who once ate our table will turn their backs to shame us now. When the cops came, with a helicopter even, Jimmy grabbed my hand and looked hard into my face, looking for all the world like a child, not my nearly seventeen-year-old brother. “It’s just time, Suzie,” he said. “Dad will do it. We’ll endure it. When I’m 18, I’ll come for you and we’ll be right back here. In the meantime, you carry it all with you.” He pointed to his own forehead, and tapped twice, something my dad would do to tell us, “Think. Think.” We watched out the kitchen window, our beloved father in the front yard of Utopia, down on his knees, hands behind his head, centered in a spot light that made me shudder, that made my teeth chatter and so we grabbed hands, knowing the world had come to tear us all asunder.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, Rappahannock Review and Iron Horse Literary Review. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism. She can be found at barbaraharroun.com.
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
You always wanted us to be well dressed on big occasions. And we were, Sandra and I, as we came rushing to the hospital to see you. We had been celebrating my birthday in town with friends that evening when the call came from Mum. She was sobbing. Hurry, be quick, she gasped… Something about Dad not being well…
Sandra drove as fast as she could. Although she did stop to buy some crisps at a petrol station. ‘I’m hungry,’ she said very matter-of fact like. We ate them in silence on the way to the hospital, driving through all the red lights. The air was thick with apprehension.
We arrived at the hospital. Our heels reverberated as we hastened through the tedious corridors. We were out of breath by the time we got to the right floor. A nurse with a kind face and rehearsed look of apology greeted us. She wanted to fill us in on what had happened before showing us to your room. She murmured something about giving you oxygen, about you trying to get up from your wheelchair but then…. Her voice sank, became inaudible and the world ground to a halt as she opened the door to your room.
There you were, in your hospital bed. You looked like you always did when you were asleep and I would come and say goodnight to you in the evenings. I took your hand- it was still warm from whatever residue of life lingered on inside of you.
It was hard to imagine you would never open your eyes again. I stared and stared at you. As if my staring might bring you back to life. Your head was tilted to one side and they had put a ridiculous bandage around it. I was hoping you might open your eyes like you used to and give me one of your reassuring side glances - a sign you were still alive. But this time you did not. It was you. But it was not you. I was angry. You cannot go, Dad. Not now. Not now! There is still so much I want to talk to you about. I need your advice more than ever. You cannot go! That was all I could think of then.
Mum was sitting by your side, sobbing uncontrollably. Her grief had transported her to another world. She hadn’t notice us arrive, even as we squeezed her in our arms. She was like a ghost, grasping your right hand, stroking your face, and telling you the most beautiful things about your forty years of love together, wishing no doubt that you would take her with you- wherever you were.
Everyone comes to an end. But nothing prepares us for that end. If we knew our expiry date perhaps we would be better prepared for Death? Before it choked our loved ones and took them away. Before it choked those left behind with brutal grief.
The truth is, I had begun to mourn you five years ago. When that old devil Dementia took control of you, slowly severing you from the old you, robbing us of the strict fatherly figure we were accustomed to. In some ways, you softened up. You even became more playful, surprising us from behind doors or unexpectedly breaking into song during meal times. You were fond of Sinatra’s ‘Young at heart’ or Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’. Even your skin became softer. Like a peach.
Sometimes you liked to wander off in the middle of the day, leaving Mum in a state of panic every time you disappeared. Once you invited yourself round to the new neighbours. I think you told them there were ‘bad people’ coming to get you and would they terribly mind hiding you- just for a short while? They were very polite about it. You were drinking coffee, chatting away to them when I came to find you. When you saw me, your face lit up. ‘Ah, this is my daughter! She’s an actress!’ That was the first time you had ever introduced me so. It made me happy. I smiled politely at them. Thanked them. They smiled back politely. We all nodded politely in awkward silence. And I took you back home.
That evening Mum held your hand and wouldn’t let go. They were coming to get me, you told her, like a teenager who’s just been caught trying to sneak out in the middle of the night. No-one is coming to get you, my love. This is your house- this is the house you had built for us, remember? We have had some happy years in here. And you are safe in it. I want to go home, you told her. But this is your home, Mum would remind you, relentlessly. This is where we brought up our children. Do you remember your children? Look, here are pictures; this is your eldest daughter, Sandra, then Deborah, then Robert, here is Lavinia and look, here is Wilfred…Ah yes, you said, and smiled. We have beautiful children, don’t we? Yes, my love, said Mum, as she leafed through the family album with you.
Then Parkinsons made his way in too, like some unwanted guest feeling too much at home too soon, causing you to tremble, interrupting your speech patterns and driving Mum up the wall. For a while, she was in denial. We all grudgingly learnt to accommodate the intruder, as it tightened its stranglehold on you. We had no other choice. Nurses came and went, mornings and evenings. You feared them. To a certain extent, they feared you too- especially when you battled with them. You just wanted them to leave you alone.
I think you often pretended to recognize us when we came to see you. ‘Ah, good afternoon!’ you would greet us formally, with a twinkle in your eye which suggested you weren’t too sure who we were but were eager to uphold social graces nevertheless. Over time, that twinkle vanished and you became sadder. You no longer lifted your eyes to greet us. A cloudy film settled over your gaze and you spent whole afternoons staring into Nothingness- when you weren’t sleeping. Your skeletal frame sunk deeper and deeper into your armchair which eventually became an extended part of you.
In such moments I desperately wanted to hear you recount – just one last time!- the stories of your childhood in India where you fled to from Salonica, just before the Nazis invaded Greece. I wanted to hear about that time you cut the beard off that priest who was taking his afternoon nap under a tree or that time you sprayed a policeman with water, from behind a wall. I wanted to hear about your Cambridge days, what you got up to during the Cold War years- you were always so secretive about it…The umbilical cord of memories had atrophied over time, leaving me – leaving us - temporarily suspended in a No-Man’s land of Selfhood.
When the day came for us to choose the outfit you would wear for your burial, we made sure you were well dressed. We settled for your favourite outfit- the one you always wore on big occasions. Like Christmas and birthdays. The red checkered jacket, black trousers and your black bow-tie, with your polished shoes that still looked like new because you always took such good care of your things.
I retrieved the jacket from your cupboard, checked the pockets –just in case- and found a little note, neatly folded. ‘Dear Love,’ it began. It was a draft of a Valentine’s note to Mum; the hand-writing was shaky, the sentences incomplete. Till the very end, you maintained your need for perfection and had wanted to practice your hand writing before penning down your thoughts in a Valentine’s card- a tradition you upheld religiously during your forty years of marriage. It was the 14th of February that day. Mum has kept it in her purse ever since.
Born in London, Lavinia grew up in the UK, Switzerland, Germany and France. After obtaining her Bachelor's degree in German and Politics from Nottingham University, she went to drama school in Paris, then New York. She has acted in several plays and is the author of 'Célébrité: Mode d'Emploi', which was performed at the Théâtre de la Cité Bleu, in Geneva, 2008 and 'The Saint Factory', performed at the English Theatre in Berlin, in 2013. She recently wrote and directed her first short movie 'What Happened to Manfred', which is part of the official 2016 selection at the Stone Fair International Film festival, Romania.
Photographs by Nicola Tams
I had just returned from a four-day trip to Istanbul when I saw that a small cinema in Moabit, called Filmrauschpalast, was showing a Ben Hopkins film called “Hasret – Sehnsucht”. It was a film on the questions of the ghosts, cats and melancholy of Istanbul.
Afterwards I started to think about writing about this place using the memories which keep the form of fragments in my mind. All of these left-over memories are stockpiled, and exist without structure. I wonder whether I should write about Istanbul, whether it would be wise to write about something that I cannot grasp so well.
I wonder how to say something about a place that seems to have different layers underlining the visible? How to write about a place that I have only visited twice, a picture which has not yet taken shape in my mind? Yet I feel it writing in me anyway, something travels back and forth, looking for truths in the in-between space– where Hopkins locates his cats.
Hopkins says that the cats are one of the ways to start a voyage from the outer to the inner world, from what is most obvious – Bosporus – to what is most hidden – ghosts, pain and love. Cats are supposed to have several lives and they live all over, even in the most forgotten corners of Istanbul streets. They permit a way to access hidden layers of meaning. Who are these ghosts that Hopkins speaks of? And why does it sound so true when he speaks of melancholy?
So let us follow the unordinary paths of the cats, to see where we can find these sort of truths.
I saw cushion covers hanging from a clothesline in Beyoglu. It was as if they were expecting attention from passers-by. They waited and waited, but no one took them away. How long could they stare with their black, dull faces without eyes? What do they ask, if they don't want to know? Everything. They are lazy objects, but what if they demanded: "Come here, take a seat, and talk about your experience." How to make them speak?
I then walked into the "Museum of Innocence" where Orhan Pamuk tried to give life to literary "objects": Masumiyet Müzesi. In the museum he places all of the objects he gathered in his fictional book on Istanbul. For instance, he provided an envelope with a letter which, according to his voice on the audio guide, is so private that he would be ashamed to death if someone were to read it. But the statement stays untrue because we cannot read it. No account to be given here, either.
Why open the letter, when the secret is so much more inspiring? Why formulate things rather than letting them stay in the wind, covering the streets with the sounds of their heavy laughter? Can we fictionalize our lives? Is Pamuk diminishing the difference between a book and a lived life, real violence and violent language? How can we judge or grasp the thin line between one and the other and say: "This is not important." Or: "This is."
And how can we forget? Is it fiction, if someone tells me his or her story? Is it fiction if they lock objects into museum shelves? If it is, then I would like to see only what I want to see and write only what I want to read.
A friend of a friend once surprised me with the remark that she had once been blind. We both shared the sensation of having been watched, people staring at our bodies, especially as women. One day she decided that she had wanted to turn away from this. It would be easier not to be seen if we could just shut down our own vision. Like hundreds of cats that just close their eyes and sleep on a warm metal car or rolled over two chairs in a café. She was surprised to discover that when she was blind, she saw some things even better. I wish I were less afraid of the experiment she proposed to me and I could walk a couple of days through the streets keeping my eyes closed, blindfolded.
I have a picture of Istanbul in my mind. A woman's eyes look at the street, there is work to be done. A little girl's eyes follow the movement of a cat, a street cat, an Istanbul street cat. I watch the little girl who is watching the cat, she is holding her hand towards the cat, it needs to be seduced to stay.
The cat stays for a while.
There is something going on. The cat of my friend is in awe of the printer giving out sheets at an impossible speed, it follows the sheets with its eyes. My friend says that's because cats don't have a sense of machines, but I think the cat had an intuition. It stared at the working printer, amazed. Just like the two of us being surprised that we could find the correct printing driver and make it work.
Another cat walks over a broken mirror and does not seem to be struck by the fact that it is an object which can no longer be used. Nor does it seem to be struck by its brokenness or even by the light. So why do I write? To not forget? To not forget the few things I have and haven't seen, when there is still only intuition?
Hopkins begins and ends his film on depression, at the same time on a lost love for the city he had wished to be drawn into. He really seems to have captured some of its emotional truths – as fluid and vague as a dream, or a piece of music. Like those old Istanbul tango songs, street music was able to make people smile even in a rather melancholic moment. And yet I haven't taken part in that pain. Some façades, some lights that cut the lines, drew the city into a postcard, made it representable, effable, to be sent to someone else in the form of light, in the lights of storytelling. Is a witness full of lies? Yet Istanbul is itself a play of different greys which tries to escape the sun that puts people into shape, that gives them a clear identity.
I return home from the cinema. As I am walking through Berlin Wedding, there is a gloomy moon hiding behind a cold German winter night and I wonder what is different. Nothing is left on the streets, just a couple of cars passing by and something is missing. The cats. There is no one to keep me company. I should be like one myself and cling on to someone’s footsteps as a jealous company. But I prefer to walk on. My hard shoes make an odd sound which reverberates in the empty street. A ghostly car whizzes by and it is as if I were in a different place. No cats, no pain but no happiness either. Just the explosion of some artificial lights, the street covered in black nothingness, and some publicity urging me to read it. I feel a nostalgic need for a chair to hold on to, but nowhere, nothing is to be seen.
Watching old videos about youth culture on YouTube can be illuminating, inspiring and let’s face it, entertaining. Seeing the old haircuts, clothing and seeing shapes not thrown in public for decades is a special piece of history that should be treasured. It was through watching these videos that I found Funk Music 20th Century Box (1980) which is a short documentary presented by a young Danny Baker. It was originally shown on terrestrial television in the UK to shine a spotlight on the particular youth culture at the time known as Jazz-Funk.
The Jazz-Funk scene was made up of lots of ‘tribes’ which were groups of young Jazz-Funk fans particular to a single geographical location, each tribe had its own name and uniform. The documentary focusses on a tribe called “The Brixton Frontline”, it follows a young man named Junior Fairweather who is a computer programmer from Brixton and part of this tribe. We follow Junior to get a sense of what belonging to one of these groups involves. He is seen trawling record shops such as Solar Records in Brixton London underground station with his fellow tribe members Eddie, Kevin and Phil and then in the pub with more friends discussing the latest records that they have bought or would like to buy. Later on we see Junior and friends dressed in military style clothing which is the tribe’s uniform on their way to a Jazz-Funk night. He describes his involvement with the Brixton Frontline as a “membership of a club, although there are, in fact, no members. It’s just a collective gathering.” He goes on to say “Whenever we go out, we don’t go out as individuals, we go out as The Frontline”. Although this military dress might seem quite a bold or provocative choice, they seem to fit in seamlessly with other tribes who have similarly random and obscure themes, as there is no reported rivalry between tribes. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to the names or the uniforms but there does seem to be a genuine unity among them.
DJ Chris Hill describes the coming together of tribes as the coming together of a family. He specifically refers to the nights and weekends that he DJs at as reunions, as in ‘family reunions’. This is supported by the location chosen for the weekend’s away, a holiday camp in Caistor, Great Yarmouth. The sort of caravan park that the majorty of these people would have stayed in in their school holidays with their own families.
What is interesting about this documentary is the idea of youth culture becoming an alternative family. There isn’t any mention of this group being alienated by mainstream culture or disaffected in any way, which can be typical of other youth cultures. There seems to be no political message and tribe members do not speak of feeling rejected by society or their own families. This, for me, makes their choice to stick together all the more powerful. They aren’t filling a gap where a biological family or support network should be and they aren’t uniting to change society or the status quo. They are choosing to come together as a family just because they want to.
David Grant of the band Linx describes the Jazz-Funk scene as united and multi-racial, which, in 1980s Britain was important, as race was a contentious topic. He explains this unity as a result of being united by music, rather than clothing or ideology.
There have of course been other subcultures that have been brought together by music in this way but the tribes in this documentary are fascinating because they are on the one hand so individual—each tribe is based in a different geographical area and has its own uniform and customs. But on the other, these individual groups regularly come together to create one large self-identified family.
This is demonstrated most clearly in the documentary’s closing scene. We see young people dressed in uniforms and costumes dancing together, lifting one another up in the air. This is a visual representation of the united, multi-racial group that Junior, Chris and David have been talking about. The most touching scene is the final one, a crammed nightclub moving as one unit singing and dancing along to the 1979 Billy Paul song “Bring the Family Back Together”.
You can watch the full documentary above. BLYNKT doesn’t own the video, but hopes that you enjoy this blast from the past!
Photograph by Deepak Tolange
Last week I was in the basement of my mother’s house going through my belongings when I noticed my copy of The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer in a crate. This book played an instrumental role in my understanding of gender in society. This was the book which taught me that the teenage magazines were wrong. If a boy was mean to me, it did not mean that he actually secretly liked me.
I devoured this book aged 16 and felt empowered after reading it. It was like having an older sister demystify the adult world and then gave me the confidence to boldly and unapologetically march into it.
Germaine Greer wrote this book in 1970 and it was so progressive that it resonated with the sixteen-year-old me in 2001, thirty-one years later. It was perhaps naivety on my part to assume that the author would continue to be progressive in her thought.
But now when I look at the book, I feel sad and disappointed because the woman who wrote it is now most famous for her transphobic views. This woman who I had held in such high esteem was the same woman who in 2015 argued that:
“Just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress, doesn’t make you a fucking woman”.
This week Germaine Greer has once again been in the news for her controversial and transphobic comments on Q&A, an Australian TV show. This time she said that it isn’t fair
“that a man who has lived for 40 years as a man and had children with a woman and enjoyed the services – the unpaid services of a wife, which most women will never know ... then decides that the whole time he’s been a woman”.
She did not touch on what her views are of trans men, nor did she qualify what she thought of women who are married to women. Do both partners benefit from the unpaid services of their wives, or are they, as women, exempt? This view to me also seemed slightly archaic, it is now much more common for labour both in and outside the house to be divided between genders if there are mixed genders in that household.
Germaine Greer’s attacks on the transgender seem particularly aimed at trans women which, for a feminist, seem particularly shocking. Her barbed comments appear to be ill-thought out. The use of phrases like ‘man in a dress’ seem spiteful and lazy.
I thought about this for a long time and something Marlon James, Booker Prize winner 2015, had posted on his Facebook page came to mind. It is what he describes as “The Liberal Limit”. This in essence is when people are liberal ‘to a point’, to the point where it is easy and convenient for them to adapt and evolve their liberal beliefs to stay inclusive. The liberal limit is not progressive, it is static. He goes on to address specific issues of racism and sexism as examples of when people can’t be bothered to update their beliefs and ideas in a constantly evolving world. When discussing trans people he says:
“You’re a progressive. You’re supposed to progress. You’re supposed to be more liberal today than you were yesterday…...My views on trans people are different in 2014 that they were in 2004. And you can bet your ass it will be even better in 2024 than it is now, because that's what makes me not conservative. The point to being a progressive is to fucking progress.”
This progress and evolution in thought is what I had expected from Germaine Greer. But instead she continues to stick to her beliefs in binary gender, with the occasional intersex exception. She believes men ‘decide’ to become women without considering that it is possible that the person making this decision was never a ‘man’ in the first place. Instead of updating her beliefs that these women are themselves victims of sexism and misogyny, she accuses them of being the perpetrators.
Marlon James’ comments seem to ring true for me in this instance. I believe that these transphobic comments stem from a place of insecurity. I am certainly not an apologist for Germaine Greer’s remarks, I wholeheartedly disagree with them but I believe that these spiteful comments are rooted in fear, which is the case with most bullies.
In 2015 she cancelled a talk she was due to give at Cardiff University after the initial backlash to her comments. She told Newsnight:
“I’m getting a bit old for all this. I’m 76, I don’t want to go down there and be screamed at and have things thrown at me. Bugger it.”
Her reference to her age, acknowledgement that she had angered people and her flippant use of ‘bugger it’, makes me think that her heart is no longer in it. She has realised that her feminism is now out of date and rather than trying to keep up with the times she has succumbed to a fear of change and progress. In short, she had reached her liberal limit.
It seems to me that she has decided that rather than progressing and evolving her brand of feminism, it is easier for her to say controversial things to gain publicity at the expense of transgender individuals. Whether this prejudice comes from a place of fear or not, it does not excuse what she is saying and my views on gender in 2016 don’t match Germaine Greer’s views on gender in 2016. It is a shame because she had such an influence on so many young feminists over the years, but the biggest shame is that she didn’t grow with us.
The book remains in a crate in the basement of my mother’s house and I wonder if I ever have a daughter will I pass it on to her? Or, is it best kept in the crate, obsolete and gathering dust?
Carly Dee and Q Lei, Editors of BLYNKT magazine and hosts of BLYNKT podcast