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.
You call us special snowflakes,
tell us to buck up, buttercup,
to move on and give up.
But all I hear is a bully pacing
the weedy field behind the school,
worried about whether he’ll eat that night
and who his mom will bring home.
His chaotic taunts hurt him
more than anyone else,
as he waits for someone to call him
wonderful and mean it,
as he wishes for cuddling,
as he hopes that someone will see
his mysterious, frosty edges,
his patterns known and unknown,
and deem them, with no more irony
than the desert’s late afternoon sun, special.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, The Ilanot Review, Silk Road Review, Eyedrum Periodically, and other publications. She's also the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Aldrich Press-Kelsay Books).
Sixties Social Media
What did you do before Twitter, Grandma?
We had transistor Twitter.
I hid in the attic,
ear pressed to the round silver speaker
of your Aunt Ruthie’s transistor radio,
big city airwaves,
New York, Boston, Philly,
dreaming of beaches
where cool teenaged girls joined
surfing safaris by day
and spent the night
dancing in the streets
on the wrong side of town
to follow doomed bad boys
like biker pack leaders
Even back then,
we whiled away summer nights
in the suburbs
the same way you do now,
for an authentic self
not too different
from everyone else.
Late Night Monster Movie
The police were here, Rudy.
They asked if I had seen you last night.
I lied and said yes,
and you stayed until morning.
At first, they weren’t sold,
I could tell
from their narrowed eyes.
But I told them
my brother stayed with me sometimes,
when he was too drunk to drive
or if we watched a late movie.
You should have seen me, bro.
A star turn
to make you proud.
What did you do this time, Rudy?
I kept my mouth shut about the bank money
and the stolen checks.
I never said a word about the blood on your clothes
the night old man Nelson was robbed.
I will not keep lying for you.
Where were you?
I deserve an explanation.
By the way, if the police ask,
we watched “King Kong,”
the one with Jessica Lange
as the beast’s captive.
Christine Jackson teaches literature and creative writing at a South Florida university. Her poetry has been published in many online publications, including The Slag Review, The Phoenix Soul, The Ekphrastic Review, and Verse-Virtual. For more, please see http://cahss.nova.edu/faculty/christine_jackson.html
Photo 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).
His body shouts
secrets to his universe,
little messages murmured
to cryptic cancerous cells
beside whimpers from diseased organs
which gasp for stale air
as reminders of years
behind unfiltered cigarette sticks,
underneath agent orange messages
rippled from unnecessary wars
which took too long to end,
and parents who slipped away
before the proclamation
of their time transcended
beside messages from deprived brain cells
pulling oxygen particles from back seat tanks
inside collapsible mini vans
as the stars hang in despair
of your inevitable passing
not because we wanted you to leave us
but because you did not believe
how loved you were when you were here...
Diana Raab, PhD is an award-winning poet, memoirist, blogger, essayist and speaker. Her book, "Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life" is forthcoming in 2017. Raab is a regular blogger for Psychology Today, Huff50 (The Huffington Post), and PsychAlive. More at dianaraab.com
What We're Made Of
Netflix crashed, and we’re left to the tenderness
of our lover’s ears seen from behind. What can
we do with the long evening, summer not yet
done? Unscripted, we come up with nothing
but a walk to the nearest six pack or recreational
bud, trolling for Pokémon along the way. Why
does hanging look cool in season three of whatever
while we feel bored? Bored or boring? my dad
would ask, spanked as a boy for having nothing to do.
What if the inside of our head really were a cell, us
trapped there for the duration? Could yours hold
you, or would you paint the wall with feces, undone?
One day, rest assured, the power will go out, our
phones become nothing but projectiles to hurl
into the nearest lake. We need to stock up, get ready.
Quickly—sirens are sounding. Save yourself.
Face to Face
The old man’s alarm goes off all night. We are livid.
One after another, we parade to his door, shouting and
pounding. We fill the cops’ blotter with complaints.
Come morning, enough light to peer past grimy slats,
we see him, hair askew, fumbling key after key, unable
to open the door. Asked if he needs help, a doctor,
he shakes and shakes his head, no English left, not even
Hungarian. He has no one who can come, one child
disabled, the other schizophrenic. The police arrive
with an ambulance, a fire truck, a locksmith. Apparently,
it takes a small army to liberate one old man from
decrepitude. They load him up and wheel him away,
alarm still blaring. We look at one another, relieved
and sobered. This is old age with no family. If we hadn’t
been pissed, he might have died in there, no one the wiser.
He was never friendly. No one would have missed him.
Now alarms shriek both within and without.
Devon Balwit is a poet and educator from Portland, Oregon. She has a chapbook, Forms Most Marvelous, forthcoming with dancing girl press (summer 2017). Her recent poems have appeared in numerous print/on-line journals, among them: Oyez, Red Paint Hill, Timberline Review, The Yellow Chair Review, The Journal of Applied Poetics, Vanilla Sex Magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Rising Phoenix Review, Rattle, Rat's Ass Review, and The Ekphrastic Literary Review.