Recently, we’ve all had pages and pages of information forced under our noses. After all of the (important, though exhausting) discourse, I’ve been wanting to read something a little shorter, and sweeter. I asked anyone willing to collaborate to send me, in no more than 200 words, a short and sweet story.
They delivered, and then some. Enjoy.
I always worried about the call. I worried that it would come and interrupt my life. Maybe I would be wearing my hair up for you, in that ponytail I never liked. But I would do anything for one of your sly compliments, lap it up like a puppy. I worried that you might not see my new dress. I saved it for Rosh Hashanah. I didn’t know if I would see you then. I hoped you would come for dinner, but you had such sad eyes that week. I still invited you, though. I hoped your guy wouldn’t come through. I worried that I would never really get to meet your parents. I mean, I know them enough to avert my gaze now, but I always wanted to be introduced as… something. But, I always worried about the call. Like the telephone itself had the power to take you away from me. So, I texted you day in and day out. So frequently that your name is still the most used word in my phone’s dictionary. But maybe that came after? I’m not really sure. One thing I do know, I don’t need to worry any more. But I wish I did.
Some summers during rainstorms, the river overfilled and a few of the basements along Exeter Road flooded. The Rosens still used their basement to store their mementos, all the inessential items they’d collected through life but couldn’t bear to throw away. As their children left home and moved to small apartments in far-away cities, more mementos gradually found their way into the boxes the Rosens stacked downstairs. Neither parent would ever admit it, but they couldn’t bring themselves to rummage through the past and decide which parts of it were worth keeping. Secretly, they wanted a flood to make that decision for them.
Q panted up the marble steps, leaving a trickle of blood on the cement. She stopped briefly in the middle of the steps to tuck some bedraggled curls behind her ear and readjust the bag on her shoulder. She also suckled her left wrist, gaping from an open wound, before continuing up the steps. Q had underestimated the power of Les’ uppercut, or the rings on 7 out of ten on his fingers that grated her face. Q underestimated how much he’d spit at her when he said she was too dumb to have anywhere better to be, and was she cheating, and was she a whore? All Q said was that she had somewhere to be, somewhere she should have been a long time ago. At the top of the steps, Q pushed open the glass double doors and continued walking through the entryway. All the gasps and recoiled expressions left her unfazed. She arrived at the counter. The woman behind it opened her mouth, but didn’t know what to say. Q took a deep breath and removed two books out of her bag. “These are overdue. I can pay the fee now…if that’s OK.”
Charles took his younger sister’s hand and opened the beat-up wooden door. It hadn’t been this quiet in days. The first thing he noticed was the smell: fire, ash, and death. Looking out the front door, Charles stood in shock as he saw the desolation for the first time. He could see a wall of the neighbors’ house still standing among the pile of rubble. Stepping outside, they began to walk slowly. Not uttering a word as they searched for any sign of life among the wreckage. Signs that a lifetime of searching would never find.
It’s frustrating trying to find a reclusive bed to blow your boyfriend on when you’re 16. Unseparated parents, boyfriend and kid brother not the latchkey family you’re used to associating with in a city that has neighborhoods known for containing women tighter and younger than your wife. Though open cemetery hours have long since passed, you find a cut in its flimsy fence, likely made by a girl with similar taboo fantasies. You crouch, climb inside. You find the reclusive bed: The Holographic Gravestone. This detailed hologram depicting the body buried below, printed onto his plaque, will stick in your memory forever. Michael, wearing his high school graduation gown, smiles as you lower your mouth down a shaft that never seemed attainable, smiles as you repeat this action for 20 minutes, smiles as you choke out the words “warn me before,” smiles at the “okay okay” response, smiles as you jump back into safety, smiles at fluids sitting lifeless in the grass on top of his now forever-roof as you walk back towards the cut in the flimsy fence with a small amount of extra protein, extra strength, as it sticks to your hair and chin.
At 7:00 am, he called her on a whim; at 8:00, surprisingly, she called back. They reminisced, waxed nostalgic, met for a 10:00 a.m. matinee. Caught up afterward: Remember when? Didn’t that scene remind you of? It was good, wasn’t it? Back then. 1:00 pm: his place. Flirting, then more than flirting. It felt like memories, like inevitability. At two, he told her they’d talk, told himself it wasn’t love. Not this time. From 3:00 to 5:00: the thrill of the illicit, the freedom of the unattached. By five they were playing house, acting a scene they never could the first time. At six, she said that word; at seven, he echoed. Lived the fiction until ten, when the calls stopped coming, and in their place, better things to do. Was there someone else? Of course there wasn’t (of course there was). It was midnight. An hour of confused, lovesick requests to “talk about it.” A 2:00 am. epiphany: there would be no closure. Not from her, not ever. That was on him. 3:00: he turned his phone off, went to bed. It had been a very long day. But only one day, he realized much later. And I’m already forgetting.
She stood in front of the door. She braced herself, took a deep breath, and opened the door. It was dark. She felt her hand along the left side of the door frame for the light switch and flipped it on. Illuminated was the closet, filled wall-to-wall with clothes and accessories, neatly hung and meticulously organized. On the back wall was a rack holding 30 pairs of shoes. She walked over to it and ran her hand over the rack, lightly touching each shoe in the top row. Her hand stopped on a pair and she picked it up, lifting the shoes to eye level. They were pink stilettos, designer but gaudy, chunky—the kind that hadn’t been in style since the early 2000s. She lowered the shoes and stood motionless, staring at the wall for a few moments. Then she walked back to the doorway and picked up a plastic garbage bag that she had left there. She held it open and dropped the shoes inside the bag. Afterwards, she paused again, taking another deep breath. After a steady and complete exhale, she opened her eyes. “Let go,” she said.
Like all good stories, this one starts with a frog. And, like all good stories, it ends with the death of a mosquito. You’ve probably already filled in the rest and there’s really no need for me, then, is there? I don’t really need to tell you about the Mexican swamp, or even about the dangerously humid day, or that lily pad. But, I’m sure you want to hear about the frog. The frog has a name, if you care. Do you care? The frog’s name is Harold, and yes, he is waiting to be kissed. But, let me tell you, Harold is going to wait a long time. So, in the meantime, he’s parked himself on that precious little lily pad, and uses that tongue of his — oh, what a tongue! — to catch mosquitoes. The mosquito has a name, too. The one that dies at the end of this story. I like to think that all mosquitoes have names, but I’m really not a mosquito-sympathizer, so don’t typecast me yet. Her name’s Lolita and she likes reading romance novels and flying through her hometown, Auckland, New Zealand. How did she end up in Mexico? Well, that’s a question for another story, now, isn’t it?
The train stalls just as I see he’s holding some other girl’s hand. I look up and out the window. I’m doing my quietest panic, seeing as I’d rather not give my fellow passengers a more memorable commute.
In the empty courtyard below there’s a figure dancing, headphone cord swaying. I title the display “rhythmic jumping.” My hand is burning. I look back at her hand in his. The burning spreads to my face. She has nice nails; way nicer than mine.
There was that one time we walked down that icy road holding hands for support and joking that we’d let the other fall. We had made some sort of bet back at the bar that we’d decided had ended in a draw. The stakes involved a number of kisses; which we now each had to deliver on. I used his hand’s support to catapult myself toward his lips.
The train slowly begins to roll again. I look up and catch the eyes of a fellow passenger. I then, almost too quickly, look back at my phone. As my stop approaches, I exit his Facebook page and note that stalking is not for the faint of heart.
“Have you seen that film ‘The Mad Adventures of ‘Rabbi’ Jacob’? Oh, it’s a cult classic, it’s hilarious!” And again, I felt that familiar lump in my throat, the same lump I felt when I sat in my ex-boyfriend’s church and listened to the pastor tell me that 6 million Jews deserved to die because they didn’t accept Jesus as their savior. The same lump I felt when a drunk Carnegie Mellon student told me that I don’t have a ‘people.’ “Yes, hilarious, especially the scene where he takes the Torah, the Talmud, the, what is that thing called, the Ki-bal-eh!” They laughed (and mispronounced Kaballah). Laughter is a simple, involuntary process, but often frightening. It involves fifteen facial muscles contracting, your respiratory system upset by irregular air intake. I watched them and sat still in my seat, trying to control my own breathing as they looked back at me, probably thinking I didn’t understand what they had said in French. I understood how their involuntary processes reminded me of gas chambers, of my ancestors’ cries, of villages burning down, of photos destroyed, of constantly moving farther away as time continued to stand still. The lump in my throat is back again.
The mechanical monstrosity pulled itself slowly across the ground, deliberate and tireless in its stride. Bristled teeth churned and chewed through dirt, debris, grime. Obscured gears whirred together in terrible harmony, flooding the room with a thundering, monotone roar. Eyes widened and paws struck the ground in a blind, panicked rush. They never did like it when I brought the vacuum out.
I’ve always been pretty open about my sexuality. I didn’t have a coming out story with my parents (they said they always knew anyway). Nor did I have a rough time growing up being accepted for being gay, for which I am quite fortunate. I don’t hide it, of course. It’s only one part of who I am.
The conservative side of my mom’s family isn’t as open-minded. I haven’t brought someone to introduce to that side of the family, simply because I haven’t found someone special enough to introduce. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that I am the 28-year-old cousin, still single and without kids. I heard through the family grapevine in summer 2015 (once same-sex marriage was legalized), some of the family said they wouldn’t attend my wedding, that my day will “tear the family apart.” I even heard that I’m going to hell for my lifestyle. (I chuckled at this).
How do you define “family”? For me, family means someone who has similar values as me and supports me no matter what. That’s what love is—accepting you 100 percent, not tolerating it. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
At a diner in the Great Plains, a man and woman are talking intently. I am seated in the corner booth, chosen for its perfect view of both the cold street outside and the kitchen. My coffee is hot. As my plate of bacon arrives, the man runs a hand through his hair, saying something about “West”. An almost imperceptible shift trickles down the woman’s face. Leaning forward, he knocks over the salt shaker, scattering its earthy contents across the table and onto her lap. The woman stands up and brushes the mess onto the floor, shaking her head. She turns to leave; he draws circles into the salt with his finger. At the door, she half-glances back at him, then exits. I catch the server’s eye and gesture for another cup.
The morning presses into my back as I enter the daylight and continue to stumble in the wake of this new year. As I drift from my beginning, the trees partially illuminate a truth I can’t quite fully discern. As the day expands I find myself at a loss for whether the pressure of a nascent vision is pushing me forward or compacting me into a fresh mold. I am all so new to this: the blur of leaving the contracting womb, the quaking of entering a nameless night, the sudden heaviness of freedom.
The storm had been over for an hour, but water was still running down the sides of the SUV. It almost seemed, as Casey watched, that the car was sweating. The driver, dark-haired and wearing a leather jacket, turned her head to face him. She smiled—her face stretched in a predatory grin, eyes fixated on him. The window rolled down, releasing a song into the air—one way, or another, I’m gonna find ya. She began to mouth along with the words (I’m gonna getcha, I’ll getcha), the water almost pouring from the roof. Casey felt himself waver, swimming in his own mind, nearly falling off his bike. As he snapped upright, a single word flickered in his mind—escape. Before he could push his pedals, the car screamed through the red light, staining the pavement and nearly t-boning a truck. Casey would swear that she never looked forward—just kept her smile on him.
Once upon a time you traveled because you could no longer live where you were. Over time, the reasons changed. We started traveling to bring new things to us. We traveled to broaden our limited world views. Eventually we started traveling to find ourselves, as if we could only see where we stood from a hill in the distance. But what happens when we travel and find out we don’t like who we are? How do I go home?
I am continuously intrigued and inspired by the beauty in life. From the tiny flowers that grow along the cracks in the sidewalk to the intricate patterns on the vegetables at the farmer’s market, the natural world is full of small details. I am happiest when I’m able to immerse myself in nature, but that is not always an option, especially during the challenging Chicago winters. It is easy to get frustrated by the harsh temperatures and lack of sun. However, even on the coldest of days, I can find joy in a walk to Lake Michigan or a stroll through my neighborhood. There is beauty in everything: the way the waves crash against the shore, the different textures of each building, and the speeding trains over the mural-covered bridges. Although it is challenging to find inspiration in hard (or cold) times, I’m comforted to know that beauty exists everywhere; we just have to open our eyes and embrace it.
There is a secret in their temples. In a realm of incredible beauty and sprawling wonder, mystification of our magic-free lives is commonplace. They insist on making secrets and building temples. Inventing new secrets to keep. Dreaming new temples with bigger doors with bigger locks and rooms no one may enter. To keep the secrets of their temples. You imagine inside out worlds bigger than ours in a sea of universes criss-crossing existence and bringing more complexity to the secrets kept in heads behind a brick wall of vain optimism. Yet it is not so, and thank the Gods that never existed. The world needs no new secrets or temples. The planet requires answers and open fields, open arms and open minds. So fill your heart with the want for danger and glory, knowing our secrets are safe with their indifference.
On a particularly rainy night, at a little bar in Campo San Provolo, Jessica stood under the bar’s awning. As she was waiting for the rain to calm a bit before walking home, she watched the delicate but persistent drops fall all around her and the bar. She had an orange drink in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. In Venice, nights are either long and spectacular or quiet and introspective, and Jessica was having one of the latter. She was anxious to begin her walk home but, there, under the awning, her mind was, at least a little, at ease. Jessica loathed storms; more so, she loathed wet socks, which are seemingly inevitable in Venice on a stormy night unless one has the foresight to wear large, ugly, rubber boots. Jessica had not had that foresight, but at least she had a dry place to stand and smoke, a place where she could momentarily forget the rain.
Her eyes closed reflexively as she walked into the bright July morning. It was almost too hot to breathe, but she enjoyed that breathlessness brought on by the sun and turned her face up to let it bathe her in a hug as warm as the mug of tea she’d left to cool on the kitchen counter.
She stepped lightly across the sturdy wooden planks of the porch so as not to burn her bare feet. Leaning over the railing, she inhaled deeply and smiled. The yellow roses were blooming with an almost aggressive intensity. She admired their spirit as a droplet of sweat made its way down her forehead, catching in her eyebrow and adjusting its course to the side of her face. She took that as her cue to go back into the house and started turning away before remembering why she came out in the first place. Darting back inside, she picked up the little speckled porcelain plate with fresh milk and danced across to the roses again, bending down and placing it underneath. She winked at the pixie reclining in the shade of the massive petals. He lazily opened one eye, grinned, and closed it again.
A second droplet of sweat followed the first, and she went inside.
Cover image was taken by Emma Shipley, Copyright 2017.