Doña Paz

It is quiet when Elena Marín opens her eyes. Her head feels swimmy, untethered from her body, and her vision flashes blue and red in soft focus.

She blinks a few times and concentrates not on the warning lights around her or the deep blue out the window but instead on the message scrolling across her left eye screen. […SpaceCraft Doña Paz 01 update: System malfunction, o2 levels low, ILSA overload, pressure overload…]

Marín curses, but she doesn’t hear the words as she does so. She is certain there are sirens blaring, but they don’t sound either. She reaches her hands up to her ears, making sure they are still attached. They are, but her fingers come away slick with blood.

“Patch audio,” she says, although the words feel cottony in her mouth without the accompanying sounds.

The alarms hit her like a brick as the tinny audio captured by the microphone in her eye connects with her mech-brain interface.

“Calibrate levels,” she half-shouts, and the sirens fade to a quiet buzz as other sounds come to the fore—breathing, light cursing in a language she doesn’t speak.

She reaches down to unclasp her harness and takes a step away from the wall. It’s starting to come back to her. They strapped in once they realized they had steered too close to the wormhole to avoid it, and then they prayed to whatever they each believed in that they would come through fine on the other side.

It didn’t appear they had.

The cruiser is small, designed for two days travel, max. The controls are visible from the sleeper pods and the tiny reclamation bathroom is the only private space onboard. Next to where Marín has just emerged, Ndibe and Rhodes are still strapped in. Ndibe’s chest is falling and rising with regular rhythm, but Rhodes is quite limp and had a nasty gash above his forehead. A’nishi’a and the captive are nowhere to be seen.

Marín sticks her fingers to Rhodes’s neck, feeling for his pulse. His heartbeat is faint but definitely present. He is bleeding profusely—where the blood hits the stubble on his chin it has started to gel, but at the brow it is still flowing, liquid and hot. She unbuckles his harness and lifts him out of it. He is heavy and her muscles are weak from the force of their unexpected wormhole travel and the low oxygen levels, but she manages to lug him to an empty sleeper pod, which doubles as an infirmary bay for ILSA, the ship’s Intelligent Life Support Apparatus.

Once she shuts the pod door, it begins to scan. The swearing gets louder, and Marín finally turns her attention to the controls.

A’nishi’a has all four of her hands on the controls, pressing wildly and releasing a steady stream of filthy words in Olipse, which Marín gathers more from the tone of voice than from any real understanding of the extralunar language.

Outside the window something flashes past, a shark or a three-tailed eel. Marín doesn’t catch a good glimpse.

“Status, soldier,” Marín says as she approaches.

“Comms are down, and so is nav. I don’t know where we are but I do know we’re underwater and losing air fast.”

“Losing air?”

“To cope with the pressure. ILSA is a little overdrawn right now. I’m doing everything I can to stop the release of air and start with the ascent.”

“What’s the atmo like?”

“Unclear, but it’s a safer bet than trying to breathe water, ma’am.”

Marín laughs. The Olipse always sound like they’re being snarky, but once you get to know them you realize they’re just overly earnest. Or maybe it’s only A’nishi’a that’s earnest and the rest really are assholes.

“Do you think it’s doable?”

“It might be. But ILSA took a serious hit through the wormhole and even more when we crashed through the atmosphere.”

“Did you get a good look at the planet while we were descending?”

The Olipse don’t lose consciousness as easily as humans do, which is part of why nearly every ship in the Keppler Alliance keeps one on crew.

“No, General. Just blue.”

That could be anywhere. There are a million trillion water planets, and even more that have liquid oceans of different chemical makeups. Through the wormhole and without nav, they could be anywhere.

“Where’s the traitor?”

“Hiding under one of the sleeper pods. Praying, I think.”

It wouldn’t help her. Whether she died here or onstage as scheduled, Suki Watanabe was going to no one’s heaven. She had betrayed the Kepler Alliance and sold out to the Andromeda Republic. Her own family had been slaughtered on information she’d given, not to mention the plot that killed Marín’s mentor, General Padgett. Dishonored and distraught, she hadn’t even defended herself when Marín had captured her. Just before she delivered the killing blow, the Supreme Cariell of the Republic had surrendered. Watanabe had been taken alive, for later trial and execution.

That was the purpose of this trip in the first place, to deliver her to her public grave. That, and for Marín to be granted the title of General, inherited from and honoring Padgett. The council had sent Ndibe to inform her she had been chosen to succeed her mentor, and that she would have the honor of killing Watanabe publicly after her inevitable guilty conviction.

Marín creeps towards the sleeper pods anyway. It doesn’t seem right to allow Watanabe to take solace in faith. That has to be earned.

“Get out of there,” she barks. It sounds strange to feel her voice reverberating through her skull and hear it through a mic in her eye.

“I’m busy,” Watanabe says back, not turning her head. She lies beneath the lowest pod, her face staring directly up at it and her hands scrunched to her chest, fiddling with something on its underside.

“Sabotaging my ship? If we die you’ll only die quicker.”

“I’m trying to save your ship. Your tech-hands doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of it, and you’re the one trying to get us all killed.”

Marín feels the blood rising to her cheeks. Her abuela always used to tell her that her temper would abate with age, but even at forty-nine she still flushes like a child whenever she’s caught off-guard. It takes every inch of her military training to keep from yelling her response. “Me?”

“You plugged the goner into the system when it was already overtaxed.”

Marín blinks, then looked up at Rhodes’s prone form in the sleeper pod, wires and tubes already extending from his arms.

“What? Was I supposed to let him die?”

“Either he dies now and the rest of us get a fifty-fifty shot of surviving our ascent to the surface, or he dies later when we split the hull on the sea floor and get crushed beneath pressure and salt. Your choice.”

When Marín says nothing, Watanabe continues. “Come on, it’s basic cost-benefit analysis. I know they taught you that at mili school.”

She would know. Before she’d turned on them she had been a rising star at the Kepler Military Academy. Top human in her class.

“Commander! I mean, General! You have to see this,” A’nishi’a calls, with a rare tinge of panic in her voice.

“You’d better decide, and quick,” Watanabe says. Marín looks down and shakes her head. Then she makes her way to A’nishi’a’s place by the ship’s key window.

The ship’s outer lights have caught something. Another structure glints in front of them. It is larger than the cruiser, long and pointed, smooth metal with blooms of rust along the sides. As the cruiser continues to sink they pass more holes eaten into the metal, some irregular where the craft has worn through, some perfectly round as though punctured by cannon fire. Fish swim through it. A pair of eyes watch from one of the holes, she thinks, but they are sinking too quickly for her to tell.

As they near the bottom of the ship they pass the words USS Calvin Coolidge.

Text flashes across the bottom of Marín’s eye. […Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States of America from 1923-1929 Earth Common Era. The USS Calvin Coolidge was commissioned in 2107 ECE at the dawn of the War of Five Powers and was sunk in 2109 ECE in the Pacific Wastes…]

Earth. They are on Earth. No one will be able to rescue them.

There is a dimmed thud as the spacecraft lodges in the ocean floor. It does not seem to have burst. For the time being they are safe as they slowly suffocate to death.

“Do you know what colony this is?” A’nishi’a asks. The Olipse curriculum doesn’t go into distant human history, not to the point of explaining nautical naming conventions. She does not know yet.

Marín does not want to tell her.

This has always been the hardest part of having a position of authority. Marín has a level head in battle, can strategize and lead attacks. She is more than willing to put herself in the line of fire. But the parts of her duties that require her to deliver news of tragedies? She has never been comfortable telling painful truths.

Still, she steels herself. It will only be worse if they don’t know.

As she is about to speak, Ndibe approaches from behind, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. He gapes out the window at the ship, understanding what it means even without a fully functional cyberlink with thousands of terabytes of information downloaded onto it.

“Earth,” he breathes. “We’re on Earth.”

There is silence for a moment. Then A’nishi’a begins to hum a low string of words that might in equal likelihood be curses or prayers.

“We’re dead,” Ndibe says, his voice stony. He turns to Marín and looks her in the eyes, then repeats himself. “We’re dead.”

“Not yet we aren’t,” Watanabe calls from the back of the ship. “Ball’s in your court, Marín. You know what you have to do.”

“What is she talking about?” Ndibe asks.

“Rhodes. I put him in the sleeper pod for ILSA to fix. It’s diverting most of the ship’s power. We might be able to ascend if… if we unplug him.”

“And then what?” A’nishi’a asks. Her skin is flushing green with anger. “It isn’t as though we can breathe up there either.”

“We can,” Marín says. “For a few days. Long enough to fix the comms, to hope a stronger ship can pass through that wormhole and rescue us. It’s a chance.”

“It’s murder,” Ndibe says. “Murder for the tiniest chance that we live instead.”

“So you would have us all suffocate down here?” Watanabe asks.

“We’ll suffocate one way or another.”

Marín pinches the bridge of her nose. There is still blood on her fingers from her ears, from Rhodes’s gash. It’s impossible to think.

“I estimate we have twenty minutes to make the call,” Watanabe says. “Thirty, tops. And we don’t even know if we’re near land. If I were you I’d make up my mind, General.

“Audio off,” Marín says, and the strange closeness of silence returns. She can see the others yelling at her and one another, but her cyberlink doesn’t read lips. She has a moment to think.

She turns her gaze out the window again, and the text in her eye pops up as the camera registers the ship’s name again. […Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States of America from 1923-1929 Earth Common Era. The USS Calvin Coolidge was commissioned in 2107 ECE at the dawn of the War of Five Powers and was sunk in 2109 ECE in the Pacific Wastes, two miles off the coast of the Japanese-Hawaiian Islands…]

They are near land, if her link is right. Her link is always right.

The only question now is Rhodes. She has known him for a long time, but never very well. He was a few years behind her at the academy, not particularly exceptional at anything, but steady. He’d risen through the ranks fairly quickly as the war wound on, and by the time the Andromeda Republic surrendered he and Marín were both lieutenant generals, one step down from Padgett.

She hadn’t particularly liked or disliked him.

Even considering pulling the plug seems wrong. That could well have been her in that sleeper pod. But ILSA is overtaxed and they’d all suffocate if the life support ran out. She has some good carbon filter masks but even she can’t turn seawater to oxygen at an efficient enough rate to keep them all alive.

This is what it is to be a general. To make the hard choices.

Marín walks over to the sleeper. In the blue and red light, Rhodes looks even paler.

“ILSA,” she says, deaf to her own words. “Disconnect sleeper pods.”

The light in the pod goes dim, and the tubes and needles in Rhodes’s arms begin to recede. Marín turns around. A’nishi’a is hammering away at the controls with all four hands. Watanabe stands by, watching, making suggestions. When she feels Marín’s gaze on her she turns and gives a sad little smile. Ndibe is looking at Marín hard. She forces herself to look him in the eyes and nod, then turns back to Rhodes.

She feels it as they began to ascend, the thrusters pushing underneath, hot enough to set the water around them to boil. Rhodes’s breathing slows, becomes more labored. She still cannot hear, but she can see the shake to his chest. She would bet anything he is rasping. She takes his hand in her own, his skin so fair against her star-bronzed tan.

The waves churn as the USS Calvin Coolidge disappears beneath them, as the ship rises and rises. She turns her audio back on when Rhodes’s chest stills, when his hand goes limp in her own, then turns around.

At the window, A’nishi’a is frozen. Watanabe clutches the dash. Ndibe is still fixed on Marín, but when he sees her jaw go slack he turns around as well.

A creature, human in shape but piscine in appearance, has its webbed fingers pressed to the window. Marín shivers. She does not know what this creature is. She thinks rapidly at her mech-brain interface, but all it can come up with is […A Mermaid is a creature from many Earth cultural folktales, with the top half of a Human woman and the bottom half of a Fish…]

The creature presses its face to the window next, mashing its nose against the glass. Its eyes are wide like a human’s, but blank like those of a fish.

It slams its fingers forwards. The glass cracks, and water is gushing in. Marín thinks she sees the creature smile as the cruiser floods before water shorts out her visuals.

Her dying breath tastes like salt.

Book Review: On Representation in Literature: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

A few notes: This post was written originally in 2018, but since then I’ve revamped this blog. That being said, I think this post holds up, so on its first anniversary I thought I’d re-share it, and use it as a vehicle to relaunch my very occasional book reviews. Below is the original text, with a few updates (indicated in bold).

This post was inspired by a very thoughtful Goodreads review of Maggie Stiefvater’s All the Crooked Saints, and the comment I made in response to it. Before I begin, I feel the need to express a disclaimer: I do not speak for all minorities, nor even all Latinx people. What follows is my own opinion, but one that I have seen widely expressed throughout minority conversations about diversity and representation in literature.

With that out of the way, let’s begin!

The question of what types of writers can write what types of characters is nothing new. Throughout history, white writers have written characters of all races and ethnicities, sometimes well, but very often, very poorly. The effects of blackface minstrelsy and stock characters like “Sambo” and “Aunt Jemima” still have a major impact on how African Americans are portrayed in present-day media. Whitewashing in Hollywood films erases roles for Asian actors, who make up only 1% of Hollywood’s leading roles. Muslim men are often portrayed as terrorists, and Muslim women as victims who must be saved from the “oppression” of the hijab. I could go on and on for hours about the countless movies, TV shows, and books that portray Latinx characters as maids, drug dealers, or sexy, spicy, feisty Latin lovers. With all of this, it’s easy to understand how some people believe writers should stick to writing about characters of their own racial/ethnic background.

*Addendum from 2019: A lot of the negative reviews I’ve seen about this book are from readers who didn’t seem to connect with the characters, as though their Latinidad is by its very nature ostracizing to non-Latinx characters. This is a phenomenon that happens frequently with books about minorities of all varieties, and I find it deeply frustrating. Just because something is outside of your personal experience doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy reading it or connect to the characters. I don’t know about you, but my lack of dragon-riding experience didn’t keep me away from A Game of Thrones, so the fact these characters speak a little Spanish shouldn’t scare you off.

But this is not a solution to the problem in the slightest. If white writers, who still hold the majority of writing posts in America and whose path to publication has fewer hurdles, write only white characters, then the vast majority of characters in literature will remain white. Representation is crucial for people of color, especially for children, who should see positive examples of people of their racial or ethnic background in the media they consume. So this presents the conundrum: how do writers depict someone from a different cultural background sensitively?

There are a myriad of answers from a number of different sources. Some people recommend sensitivity readers. Some immerse themselves in the culture they’re depicting. Some believe that characters of different ethnicities should be treated no differently, that the color of their skin or the second language they speak should be incidental, background information with no more importance attributed to it than eye color or favorite song. Personally, I believe a mix of all three is important. A non-Latinx writer may never capture the full nuance of my day-to-day Latinx life, but it isn’t, quite frankly, that different from non-Latinx life most of the time. Sure, I have abuelos who I love, and a tin of Vicks VapoRub and a bottle of Superior70 Alcoholado to heal my ailments, and I like my food with lots of Adobo and garlic. But my daily thoughts are not about my Latinidad. I go to school and struggle with that. I have complex relationships with my friends of all backgrounds. I worry about what I wear, and I read great books, and I watch too much Netflix. All in all, I’m normal, and that’s what writers should remember.

Now, to connect this all back to All the Crooked Saints. The Soria family of Bicho Raro is nuanced, delicate, real. Not once do the central female characters appear to be “spicy chicas” oozing sexual energy, or saintlike virgins whose faith is the most important thing in the world to her. Not once are the male characters reduced to “cholos” or drug dealers, men who rely on their machismo to secure their otherwise undifferentiated identities. Instead, the family is a collection of oddball individuals, whose problems stem from human flaws. And while some reviewers have pointed out the potential stereotyping of the radio name Diablo Diablo, I think it is justified by its explanation in the story: that triple repetition of the devil’s name summons him, and that double repitition is just close enough to be cool and just far enough to be safe. To those questioning why Stiefvater would write about Latinx characters, I want to make clear that choosing to make the main characters of this story Latinx is especially important considering the roots of magical realism in Latin American life, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Isabel Allende to Jorge Luis Borges and more. Stiefvater acknowledges the long literary tradition she is writing in in a respectful manner, and has clearly done her research in the use of Spanish and the realities of life for a Latinx family in the 1960s.

The same care should apply to all portrayals of minorities in literature, whether that be racial/ethnic minorities, neurodiverse individuals, LGBTQ+ characters, or women. Research must be done. Drafts must be read and revised. Characters should be treated with respect. But don’t you dare tell me that male authors can’t write female characters, or that straight authors can’t write LGBTQ+ characters, or that neurotypical authors can’t write neurodiverse characters. That’s a sort of literary segregation that will get us nowhere.

*Addendum from 2019: I also feel like this is an important moment to remind folks that Latinidad isn’t monolithic. Latinx people come in all races, are of all faiths, inhabit all countries. Some of us use a lot of Spanish. Some of us know none. Some of us like spicy food, but many of our cuisines aren’t hot at all. We are millions of people from dozens of countries, and taking that into account is crucial. Sometimes we live up to certain stereotypes and oftentimes we don’t. No work is necessarily flawed because a few stereotypical boxes are checked, so long as the complete humanity of the characters is guaranteed. And I’ve never seen Stiefvater fail to capture the humanity of her characters, regardless of background.

Musings: On Originality, Inspiration, and Unintentional Frankensteining

It was a warm, dense day in April when I realized that for two years, the novel project I’d been working on was not truly my own. I had been struggling for months to find the inspiration to continue writing, going through brief spurts of energy, revamping the entire plot before again losing interest among my myriad other commitments. I couldn’t understand why this story, which had interested me for so long, was getting worse and worse even as my prose skills were rapidly increasing.

Then it dawned on me: it wasn’t my story.

I know the various theories, that there are only seven stories, or thirty-six, or one. I’ve heard that every story that can be told has been told. I know that West Side Story is just Romeo and Juliet, that even Shakespeare stole from Chaucer and that Chaucer stole from Boccaccio and classic myth. All telling is retelling and all that. I’ve been told in writing classes that what changes is simply the way the story is told, the presentation, the word choice, the voice.

I don’t buy it. At least, not completely. When you break a story down to its constituent elements, there are two major layers: language and plot. To break plot down even further, there are only two elements of that: tension and release. These are what make art great. Music builds and swells and escalates your heart rate only to come crashing together in a sigh, a cadence that allows you to regain composure and reset. But like binary code, two ingredients can compound to make vastly different works. Two cells can make a living being.

The problem comes when the similarities between your story and others are on a much larger scale than tension and release. My novel wasn’t a shimmering layer of language set atop the skeleton of some ancient, primal structure. It wasn’t a retelling, or a subversion. It was a monster, stitched together from books and movies and TV shows I liked, borrowing major motifs, character profiles, plot elements. I wasn’t rearranging the thirteen tones all Western musicians have to work with. I was cutting from Dvořák to Tchaikovsky to Wagner and back in whole chunks.

Once I had realized this, it became easy to see why my writing was losing steam, easy to understand how this had happened. In appreciating other art, attempting to recreate the wonder those works inspired in me, I accidentally wound up recreating the stories themselves, or at least cheap facsimiles.

To quote T. S. Eliot, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

I had fallen into the trap of defacing. It was disguised by pretty words, darlings I still struggle with killing, turns of phrase I’ll likely recycle into later works if I have appropriate occasion to do so. But it was defacing all the same.

In one of the hardest decisions of my writing life, I set the project aside. It’s all saved somewhere so that I can go back to it someday with a clearer head, but as of right now I’m novel-less, and a little unmoored. I’m still in a strange haze coming down from that fictional world I spent so much time in. But this break is for the better. I’ve been focusing on short fiction, and I definitely feel my prose strengthening. I’ve experimented with poetry and nonfiction, and liked what I’ve discovered. And I can feel another novel churning in the nebulous horizons of my mind, just wisps of something now: a snatch of a character here, a glance of a deserted street there, the whisper of magic in the shadows. Nothing has coalesced, yet, but there’s still time to be had and research to be done and life to be lived in the meantime. I’ll just have to be a little more careful what books I read when I’m plotting and planning next.

Book Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

Sometimes, I read a book that provokes such wonder in me I don’t know whether to put it down and marvel at the changed world around me or to keep it pressed tight to my face and never let it go. The dilemma between a desire to process thoughtfully and a burning hunger to consume more is overwhelming.

But eventually I finish the book, one way or another, and find myself in a strange haze afterwards, trying to reconcile the real world around me and the much realer world I’ve just left. Everything seems distant, and shiny. And then it all sharpens. The knowledge crystalizes. My worldview has changed.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu is one such book. Shifting between science fiction and fantasy, traditional and wholly innovative, Liu focuses in on human concerns even as he leaps through space and time and species lines. I read The Paper Menagerie in a week last summer and it’s been turning over in my mind ever since. This week, after finishing another read, I decided to revisit Menagerie, this time as an audiobook.

Some books are thin. Not in size necessarily, but in content, in complexity. They may dazzle and astound at first, but become thin upon the closer scrutiny that comes with rereading. Menagerie is not thin. It instead unfolds, revealing ever more layers, striking the same chords and new ones. From its first tale, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” which chronicles the reading practices of alien races of Liu’s invention, to its last novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which zooms in on a future Earth and on the very real atrocities of our past, Liu manages to gather nostalgia, loss, shame, and love together in his fists, ball them up so as to make them indistinguishable, and release them, now commingled, into the world. His characters make sacrifices and make mistakes, explore the American frontier and the final frontier, but they are always reaching out to one another, always searching for connection. They are raw and complex and intricately human, distinct and compelling, and within the many worlds he casts they come to life, some timid and some bold, all more than what they seem at first.

It is for this reason that I found The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories so difficult to put down the first time, and for this reason I revisited it again. It makes me feel the sort of connectedness that I only ever find through fiction. This book broadened my understanding of what short stories could do, and helped me to realize there’s more worth reading than just novels.

I can’t give this book five stars. That’s too simplistic. It’s worth a galaxy.

Nonfiction: Excuse Me

A brief note before the actual text begins: This work received 2nd place for the George M. Lucaci Award at Duke University this year. I wrote it partially because of the anger I was feeling after compiling a list of questions that women ask which men rarely have to consider. I recommend reading that list in tandem with this work. At any rate, let the piece begin.

I.

Excuse me, I know you don’t mean anything by it but I’m just not comfortable with the way your palms are on my shoulders with your fingers trailing down towards my chest because I am a small girl in a foreign country who doesn’t speak the language and you are a grown man some thirty years my senior who owns the restaurant enveloping me and you are talking to my professor across the table like everything’s fine. In a way everything is fine because I’m about to drink this delicious mint lemonade you brought out and chat all night with my friend across the table and nothing will happen after you leave except me scooting forwards in my chair a bit so when you have to lean forward the next time your hands will have hard wood to grip instead of bird-thin bones. But I won’t say anything and you won’t say anything and my friend will say something only after you’re gone and my professor’s husband will say something the next day to another student when I’m not even there to hear it except through the grapevine, which is how these things travel anyway. I know they’re all sorry. I know they froze, we froze. But in this moment with your hands on my shoulders and your warm rough fingers dripping onto my skin I am alone.

I’m sorry but I’m not comfortable watching you become a punchline these next few days because I’m part of the same joke in that case. You’re the reason I flinch when my professor taps me on the shoulder the next day and the reason why I’m so much more tense when a drunk man starts following our whole group because the road to hell is paved with guys who didn’t mean anything by it.

II.

I ate freeze-dried raspberries once while camping in a yurt with my Girl Scout troop, a bunch of rambunctious twelve-year-olds comparing tree bark patterns, led by a woman some nine years our senior, a child herself but eager and bright-smiled and warm. I remember being shocked that the berries were similar in taste and texture to Fruit Loops, and when we tried the freeze-dried edamame I spat them out.

She showed me how to turn a penny from copper to silver to gold, and in turn I let her graduate and move away, and I stopped talking to her as she went on with her life. It’s these little decisions we look back on and question. Fourteen months ago in Kansas she swallowed a bullet put there by an ex-lover. She was not yet twenty-eight.

Sometimes I remember the raspberries but mostly I cry when I eat Thin Mints alone and wonder if I will ever give a little girl the world and rip it away in a long-game, one-two punch.

III.

 If I go to hell I’ll be sure to greet Brett Kavanaugh there with a swift kick to the nuts before I’m dragged away so someone else can take a turn. On the day he gave testimony I called my mother in tears because I knew him, this man who laughed and held women down, by some thirty different names. I knew the many faces of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, knew the flavor of the tears she shed both raw and stewed. I know what it is to hold a woman shaking in my arms as we both hunt for the words to make things right.

I was fourteen the first time I bit my tongue to bleed. A friend—and not even a close one—had made me her first point of contact. I would later discover that this was my talent, inspiring trust—I have a friendly face and a burning spirit. The moment she said the word “rape” I was tight-fisted and shaking.

But she asked me to tape my lips shut, so I became all ears and glares and gentle hugs. I learned well what to do, and the next time I was ready. When another friend came forward, and another, and another, and told me, in a stony-faced Greek chorus, about Persephone, I clenched my mind and loosed my muscles.

IV.

When my sister took a self-defense course in college, they taught her to go for the eyes. As a writer I think that’s a lesson I learned long ago.

V.

I was taught to cross my legs at the ankle like a lady. I was taught to cross my fingers and hope for the best. Never put down my drink at a party. Never look a panhandler in the eye. Keep my neckline high and my hemline low. Keep my gaze low—no, lower. Speak rarely, quietly, shyly. Apologize if I interrupt. Apologize when I’m interrupted. Say no once, then acquiesce.

I found out I was a girl on a mustard-yellow school bus that ferried me from elementary to middle school for algebra classes. I was all elbows and knees, joints wired together with gangling copper and not a hint of spare fat for curves. The six boys I had for company on those rides back and forth would talk to each other and rarely to me, spreading their legs wide to claim entire seats, making fart jokes in August, dick jokes in November, pussy jokes in March. They spoke in tongues too large for their mouths of violent acts and degrading deeds while I shrank in the corner, raised my hand less in class, and stopped outscoring them on tests. It didn’t keep them from turning on me by April. My very presence was an attack.

There are so many rules for being a woman in public, rules that change shape based on the color of your skin or the weight of your body, the prominence of your breasts or the wideness of your eyes. There are so many ways to erase ourselves from hungry eyes that keep uncovering us.

VI.

So when your fingers brush my shoulders, grip my collarbones, graze the skin above my breasts, I cannot breathe because I’m tired of having to make myself small for you but I don’t know how to speak without making you angry and I don’t know how to make you angry without making myself unsafe and I don’t know how to do anything but stiffen and make awkward eye contact with my friend across the table and wait for someone to say something and crumple as you leave.

Musings: A List of Questions…

This is a list of questions I compiled from an Instagram story poll, wherein I asked the young women I know to share questions that they have to consider which rarely occur to men. I have withheld the names of the submitters to protect their privacy, but I know their identities and can vouch that they are all real young women I know personally. These questions are listed in the order of submission.

The questions on the list range from relatively light-hearted (e.g. Question 53: Why does this male author writing a female character describe her boobs so much?) to anguished (e.g. Question 63: What do I do about the guy who raped my friend if she doesn’t want anyone to know? and Question 64: If it happens again, am I partially responsible?) though notably more of the questions are on the heavier end of the scale. Of particular interest to me was Question 60: Why do I constantly gaslight myself about whether what’s happening is real? This is a phenomenon I have experienced, in which an instance of harassment/assault is committed by someone who is usually kind, or someone who is greatly apologetic after the fact, to the point that such harmful rhetoric or action from the perpetrator seems entirely uncharacteristic. We live in a world where it is easier for women to change their memories than to confront the problems posed by men in their lives.

It is important to acknowledge that the questions on this list do not exclusively apply to women, but occur more often to women than to men. Many of these questions were submitted by able-bodied, heterosexual, white women and as such do not reflect the even greater intersections that women of color, LGBT women, and disabled women must deal with on a regular basis. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center (https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics), a nonprofit that seeks to inform the public about sexual violence and ways to prevent it, “one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives,” and “one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime”. These rates are significantly higher for minority groups of all forms, and “one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old”. I encourage you to follow the link and read more statistics about sexual violence.

To bring this back to a more personal scale, every single respondent is someone I know personally, ranging from about age 16 to about age 20. Every one of these women has experienced sexual violence or knows someone who has. It is a fear that follows women regularly, both consciously and subconsciously, as we navigate a world that seeks to silence us, a world where victims are threatened further when they do come forward. The purpose of this list is to present to you plainly the ways this fear is made manifest in our daily thoughts and behaviors, and to make it concrete to those of you who do not experience this fear.

I do not have a solution to the epidemic of sexual violence plaguing not only the US, but the world. I do not know, or claim to know, any way to calm these fears in my own mind, or to protect my friends. I know, however, that I have to live every day knowing that my former Girl Scout troop leader was murdered in January of 2018 by her former partner. I carry with me the rapes of at least three of my closest friends, the harassment and assaults faced by countless more, the knowledge of my small body and inability to fight back if my life depended on it. I carry with me tears and hugs, support and shame, and always, always questions.

And to those asking why I’m sharing this on my blog which up until this point has only included my creative content, my answer is twofold. First, it makes an excellent companion for a nonfiction piece I’m posting later this week, which received 2nd place for the George M. Lucaci Award at Duke this year. And second, I think these questions tell a number of important stories of their own. With that in mind, the list begins here:

  1. Is it safer for me to give him my contact information and hope he never uses it, or to turn him down and hope he doesn’t get angry?
  2. Are we just going in the same direction or is he following me?
  3. Do I take the short way home that’s poorly lit, or the well-lit route that adds on a lot of extra time and distance?
  4. If things go wrong when I say no, am I closer to the exit or is he?
  5. If I called out right now, would anyone hear? Would anyone care?
  6. If I report him, would anyone believe me?
  7. Do I need to borrow my friend’s pepper spray to walk back to my dorm if it’s just barely after midnight, the path is well-lit, and it’s a five minute walk?
  8. Is he joking or am I in danger?
  9. This makes me uncomfortable, but if I say something about it will he take it the wrong way and overreact?
  10. If I speak up, will it hurt my career?
  11. If I speak up, will it hurt my social life?
  12. If I speak up, will he hurt me physically?
  13. Is he really my friend or is he just “playing the long game” and going to freak out when I tell him I’m not interested in being more than friends?
  14. Is this old guy being friendly because he’s just a nice old man, or should I be leaving right now?
  15. I’ve told him no in every way I can think of, including gently, firmly, and with profanity, but he still doesn’t get it—how do I make him just leave me alone?
  16. What is the best response to have when I hear about someone I considered a friend harassing women?
  17. Is it my responsibility to correct the way this person inappropriately acts?
  18. Will I be unsafe if I do?
  19. Will I be complicit if I don’t?
  20. If I accidentally make eye contact and smile, will it be considered an invitation?
  21. Should I avoid wearing this cute dress because it will draw unwanted attention?
  22. Why has this boy I have barely met latched onto me as someone to share personal information/struggles with?
  23. If I tell him to stop, am I mean?
  24. Will he lash out at me?
  25. Will he tell others I am unkind?
  26. If I don’t stop him, will he only grow a stronger sense that I am someone he should turn to?
  27. Can I no longer show simple kindness/politeness to strangers because it makes them latch onto inappropriately?
  28. Should I be doing more? If something happens will people say it’s my fault?
  29. Is carrying my keys like Wolverine claws too much? Or is it just a safety precaution?
  30. Will I be safe walking upstairs to ask the floor above me to stop partying at 3 am?
  31. Am I safe at this coffee shop with a 30 year old man hitting on me and touching me uncomfortably?
  32. Should I not try to leave because I’m not sure anyone will help me if he tries to go further?
  33. If I leave will he follow me?
  34. Do I trust this male friend to walk me to my car? Should I find someone else?
  35. Wait, why did I just say I’m sorry?
  36. Am I okay letting my male boss drive me somewhere?
  37. My friend and I are sharing a cab/Uber/Lyft, should I spend extra so she can get out first and be safer?
  38. Is it safe for me to give this man directions, or is he using that as an excuse to follow me?
  39. Why do women feel obligated to help male strangers even when it inconveniences them?
  40. Over half of all rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Am I really safe with my friends, family, and partners?
  41. What do I do if a guy gives me unwanted compliments while I’m at work (in the hospitality industry)?
  42. Is the way he’s touching me creepy or platonic?
  43. Does it matter if I’m uncomfortable?
  44. Can I give this male acquaintance a ride? I know it’s cold, but am I safe?
  45. Does the man I’d be alone on this elevator with if I take it seem nonthreatening?
  46. Will I be wanted in a relationship if I don’t want sex?
  47. Will I be safe if I say no?
  48. Will I be wanted in a relationship if I have a physical challenge that prevents me from having sex at all, or at least without pain?
  49. Would I be creeped out by this action if a woman did it?
  50. If I wouldn’t, is it still valid to be creeped out when a man does it?
  51. Why am I so used to men being unapologetic that when they are kind, respectful, and apologetic after an incident, part of me feels bad for calling them out in the first place?
  52. Is it safe to meet up with someone I met through a dating app?
  53. Why does this male author writing a female character describe her boobs so much?
  54. Is the trauma of reliving my assault in a trial worth the slight chance my attacker sees consequences?
  55. Did it count as rape if he didn’t seem to know he was raping me?
  56. Why do I keep making excuses for my attacker?
  57. Will wearing headphones in public keep me safe from harassment and unwanted conversations, or put me at more risk of not hearing potential assailants?
  58. Why do women on TV and in movies excuse abusive/stalkery behavior just because the male lead is attractive?
  59. Is love an excuse to put up with abuse?
  60. Why do I constantly gaslight myself about whether what’s happening is real?
  61. Do I have to forgive something unforgivable just because he said sorry?
  62. What do I do if he knows personal information about me that he could use against me?
  63. What do I do about the guy who raped my friend if she doesn’t want anyone to know?
  64. Is it partially my fault if it happens again?

Fiction: Blanca the Beautiful

Don Carmelo had traveled the land from the arid sands of León to the seas of Cartagena. He was a very vain man, and believed he had seen all that Spain had to offer. He knew well the old mosques of Córdoba and the bustling squares of Madrid, had even ventured to the Galician countryside to look distrustfully at the Portuguese border. But he had never once ventured across the Pyrenees into France.

Don Carmelo was a man of great fashion, and the fashion in those days was to leave one’s homeland and never return, but instead to pine for it from the luxurious prison of Paris. And so, on a whim, he saddled up his strongest stallion and set forth from his estate towards the foothills, leaving behind all of his treasures, save the one he could not bear to part with: a lock of his beloved Blanca’s hair, cut the night she died.

Night fell over Don Carmelo when he was near the peak of the last foothill before the mountains began in earnest. He had just dismounted to tie his steed and make camp when he heard voices nearby. He held the reins steady and listened, but he couldn’t quite make out the words being muttered. It sounded like a gathering some little ways away, and so he remounted his horse and went on through the dark until suddenly the trees stopped growing.

He arrived in a clearing with three squat huts and seven women, all ugly, all identical but for the colors they wore. One was draped in a gown of bloody red, another in bright Valencian orange, the third in mustard yellow, the fourth in darkest green, the fifth in the blue of the seas, the sixth in the violet of distant mountains, and the final in a gown of purest white. As one, the wall of rainbow women looked up, their wrinkled faces pinching together as their yellowed eyes met his.

Buenas noches, damas. My name is Don Carmelo. I seek a place to rest for the night. Do you know where I might find the nearest village?”

“There is no village for miles and miles,” the women say in unison. “You are welcome to stay with us.”

Don Carmelo’s skin prickled at the very thought of it. But he couldn’t rest in the forest nearby knowing that these hags had all seen him. Who knew what they might do if he rejected their charity?

“I wouldn’t want to impose,” he said graciously, but he had already decided that he would rather stay the night here than alone. At least he could hear them this way.

“Stay with us,” said the women in red, orange, and yellow, “and we will ensure your safe passage through the mountains, for a price.”

“Stay with us,” said the women in green, blue, and purple, “and we will ensure your safe return home, for a price.”

“Stay with me,” said the woman in white, “and I will grant your heart’s truest desire, for a price.”

Each set of women looked expectantly at him. He looked back, unsure what to do, then looked down at the lock of Blanca’s hair in his hands, remembering her moon-bright skin, her laughing eyes, her full lips pink as the salmon she once loved to eat.

Dama, I will stay with you,” he said to the woman in white, then turned to the others. “Gracias por todo. Buenas noches, damas.

As he watched, the other women filed back into the first and second huts. The crone in white extended her shaking, gnarled hand to him and he took it, holding fast to Blanca’s hair and the reins of his stallion with the other.

He staked and tied his horse behind the third hut to pasture, and followed the woman inside. The hut was bare of furnishings, but for a small carpet in one corner and a shovel in another. A small fire blazed at the center of the room, held aloft in the air and spending no fuel that Don Carmelo could see.

“What price do you ask, Dama?” Don Carmelo asked once he was finished marveling at the flames. “I have gold and jewels aplenty at my estate.”

“I need nothing of your material wealth,” she said. “I can conjure gold and gems myself.” She pulled a coin from the air, and closed it in her fist. When she opened it again, it was a large, smooth ruby. She placed the gem in the fire, where it disappeared. Her hands came away unburnt. “I will ask you to do three tasks for me. Tell me what it is that your heart desires, that I might make it manifest for you.”

“My beloved Blanca, the beauty I was once betrothed to. She died the night before we were to wed. Bring her back to life and I will do anything you ask of me.”

The hag looked him up and down, evaluating his request, then nodded. “First you must dig a hole, as long and deep as you are tall, and as wide as you are broad.”

“Where?”

“Oh, anywhere outside will do. You must dig it tonight. Use that shovel there.”

And so he took the shovel and he dug a hole behind the house. His hands grew blisters, and splinters from the shovel popped them. He relished the pain, though. It was nothing compared to the joy of regaining Blanca.

When the hole was completed to the hag’s specifications, he returned inside. Hours had passed but the crone still stood waiting.

“Very well,” she said. “For your second task you must give me the lock of Blanca’s hair which you carry with you always.”

Don Carmelo was sad to part with the hair, but he knew it would be worth it to have Blanca back.

“It is yours, Dama, but please be careful with it.”

“I will treat it as though it is my own.” As she said this, the hair began to grow in her hands, upwards towards her scalp. It latched there, and the rest of her white, patchy hair became black and lustrous, just as Blanca’s once was.

Don Carmelo held back a grimace. But this must be to the witch’s plan. He could despise her all he wanted once Blanca was back.

“What is your third task, Dama? I would like to get it over with and see my beloved.”

She smiled, displaying three yellow teeth and many empty gums. “Come outside with me, and Blanca will live again.”

He followed her outside, heart leaping in anticipation. “Andale,” he exclaimed.

She stopped just next to the hole he had dug, and turned to him.

“For your final task, you must die.”

Don Carmelo blinked, certain he had misheard her. But she did not say anything, merely stared at him.

When he finally opened his mouth to protest, she put a haggard finger to his lips.

“It is a side effect of the magic, of sorts. For her to live, you must die.”

Don Carmelo braced himself, then leaned backwards and fell into the grave. As he watched, the witch above him transformed, her face smoothing and paling, her body straightening and filling.

And the last thing he saw was Blanca’s beautiful face, and her long fingers scattering a handful of dirt onto his corpse.