Student Showcase: Laura Dzwonczyk

White Gloop Judgment

It was inevitable. I should have known that, one day, I’d receive the bugged-out stare, the strange look, at my face, back down at my sandwich, then back to my face again. Is she serious? Oh god, she’s really serious. That’s what she’s eating. Alas, I was a sheltered child, encouraged by overly generous parents to pursue “individualism,” another word for, “we’ll let you eat whatever the hell you want, in whatever combination, as long as you’re eating something.” And so my mother said nothing when I first made up my favorite sandwich, didn’t bat an eye. My father may have made a few wisecracks, but he jokes about everything, so it went right over my head.

And so I didn’t give my culinary choices a second thought until the winter I was six. My neighbor Kaitlyn and I had been out sledding all morning, and when we returned to my house for lunch, my mother was making soup and sandwiches. As I sat myself into my kitchen chair, sitting on my legs so I’d be high enough to reach the table, I saw Kaitlyn look with half-interest, half-disgust at my lunch.

            “Is that a mayonnaise and cheese sandwich?”

            “Yep.” I was unperturbed. I hated any type of lunchmeat, and mustard just wasn’t my thing, but this right here was heaven on earth: two slices of white American cheese slathered with mayo, all slapped haphazardly between two pieces of white bread. Lunch of champions. “Do you want one?”

            She shook her head, with that unconditional acceptance that pervades childhood, reaching for her own turkey and cheese. I continued to pack this lunch all throughout my elementary school days, alternating it with Lunchables, unaware and uncaring of any outside opinions. This same attitude allowed me to wear overalls and flowers in my hair and read preteen historical fiction novels like Boston Jane for SSR time and skip down the halls with my friends after recess, singing “It’s No Fun Being in Sixth Grade” at the top of my lungs. It was only after my move to middle school that I abruptly started picking out jean miniskirts, shaving my legs after Jordan Munsell came up to me during softball day in gym class and said, “Everyone is making fun of you,” and eating lunch meat. Unsurprisingly, I still do all of these things.

            “We need to get you back to where you were before middle school,” my shrink said after our initial meeting. When I looked at her in horror, she laughed. “Your mindset, I mean. How unfiltered you were, how much you let other people see your true self without letting your brilliant mind get in the way.”

            When it comes to debate over my favorite condiment, I’m a surprisingly good mediator. I can completely understand why it scares people, with its semi-gelatinous, gloopy off-white manner. I sympathize with people who are put off, even repulsed, by its strange, thick, barely-there flavor. But as much as I want to go along with everyone else on this one, as much as logic defies it, I can’t quit mayonnaise. It raises sandwiches and burgers a cut above their normal standard, and don’t even get me started on pasta salad. I’d probably be model thin without it, but avocado spreads and ketchup just don’t do it for me. It has that strong of a hold over me. It’s magic. And so, when you tell me you don’t like mayonnaise and I calmly, politely, ask you to please never speak to me again, it’s nothing personal. I don’t actually mean it. But I may love mayonnaise just a little bit more than you.

Student Showcase: Alaina Symanovich

 Stains

 As a girl you feared dropping the communion tray more than anything.  Not the one with the wafers, of course, but the wine tray, the one with the million thimble-sized cups that glittered up at you like galaxies.  You imagined the disaster unfolding as your pastor shouted the blood of Christ, shed for you: the tray tumbling out of your hands, flooding your Sunday clothes with the million sips of wine and ruining the seat and the carpet and the communion service.  Even when your parents admitted that the tray carried only Welch’s, nothing stronger, you still fretted, still thought if Jesus could turn water into wine then surely He could infuse sacred things into a plastic bottle #7.

            Maybe you should have dropped it, you realize now, staring at the broken glass that constellates the ground.  Maybe you should have bathed in the blood of Christ, watched it pool in the crooks of your elbows and trickle down your legs and seep under the arches of your feet.  Maybe then the stain would have stuck, would have purpled your insides, would have made you faithful.  Jesus said if anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink, and you think Jesus didn’t understand how much drink you required.  I’m sorry, Jesus, you should have told Him.  I need too much.  I’m more indulgent than I like to think.

            You never dropped the communion tray, though, so here you stand.  Here you stand with glass around your shoes, shaking your head and apologizing for the shattered bottle.  I must be a little drunk, you tell your friend.  He wants to know how much beer you wasted and you can’t remember.  You remember a skinny brunette, someone-from-somewhere’s little sister, pointing to the lower fourth of the bottle and saying you wouldn’t get drunk until you got there.  You remember another girl warning you not to get there.  You remember swearing you would, your friend raising his bottle and shouting fuck her she’s not the god of you and you laughing and telling him I’ll finish it, I’m finishing it, alright.

            You dropped it. You glutted yourself with it and still couldn’t finish, too much you’ll realize the next morning; less than you wanted but more than you could handle.  You fail at gluttony, fail at filling the empty space inside you.  Whether you shoot Welch’s thimbles or shoot for the lower quarter of the bottle you can’t fill the void—evidenced by the sloshing in your stomach because full things don’t have wiggle room and the sloppiness of your words because they run away like prodigal goddamn sons and the slowness of drunk tears because every. fucking. time. 

Sometimes you feel like the only empty person in the room, the only one who can suck down so much juice and alcohol and even—you remember why your mouth tastes like a campfire—cigarette smoke and not think, voila!here I am!, this is my color!  You are an empty glutton, trying to fill yourself in but only making a mess.  So you smile at a boy until he hands you his beer, hoping against hope that this drink will be the one that stains.

Student Showcase: Nick Miller

Electric Nothing

Inside the house with the red door, Oliver sits in lowlight counting the take out loud. Each bill he skims off the stack and sets onto the table, calling it by its name. Twenty, twenty, fifty, ten. He makes marks in a notepad, impulsively crossing out old figures and re-adding the sum. Cigarette smoke wafts from the cracked bathroom door. From time to time, when the hairdryer clicks off, he can hear Leslie singing. Since the latest concussion she sings always. At first he was very afraid. She’s mostly back now even though from time to time there’s trouble doing one thing for too long and she still hasn’t been back to work at the pet shop. The singing is a good sign though. When she remembers entire verses, Oliver feels soothed like above him the sky is completely empty and nothing is blocking him from the way-out-there everything-else. He’d teased her the night they unloaded the knifefish into the tub that, when Chance bucked her off last, she must have landed on a ringing rock. It must’ve busted song into her skull. Her voice sounds like the things he thinks of when he says her name or just rolls it over his tongue. Leslie, velvet, wine, smoke. Soft things like clouds. Out the window behind him, an unbroken one hangs over building tops, and, when he looks up, Oliver can see its featureless reflection across the fish tank.

He feels a quiver in his chest each time the leftmost digit goes one higher. When he adds an extra zero, he remembers his grandfather who died of a heart attack at thirty. He sums up the final figures, slips two hundred into his wallet, and tucks the rest into a box labeled Freshwater Salts. Tonight they’ll do it all: deep fried pickles or calamari to start, he’ll get a steak, each their own dessert, and drinks the whole time. One splurge he can afford. He senses, looking into the white haze on the tank glass, a splurge they desperately need.

He runs his hands through his hair. A fish tank is a thing of delicate balance. There’s inhabitant type, biotype agreeability, ph, lighting, filtration, salt water and fresh, predator and prey. In the same notebook he has scrawled definitions of aeration and oxygenation. Species too aggressive or too foreign can lead to stress-death. Oliver wrote it down when the leader of his night seminar said, “Electricity won’t flow through the endoskeleton and their hearts will stop.” At night, when Leslie pinches food into the tank, he holds her by the elbow and makes sure she doesn’t add too much. Together they watch fish with round mouths pluck flakes from the surface.

Another two days, with luck three, before the fish start to belly up. Horace is driving down from Missoula with a couple tanks and contacts for buyers. He’ll need Horace to help him drain it, to get the Tiger Barbs away from the Swordtails and Angelfish, to get the Shortfin Squid out. The squid are too active, darting in and out of the hairgrass like ducks fleeing a birddog. The real work will be with the Moorish Idol. It’s quick as lightning and easily stressed. Oliver worries about this fish, with its long black barbels, yellow spotted lateral line and dorsal. It’s a heavily-decorated and arrogant beauty. Worth three times as much as the others.

Half of the take will go to supplies, the rest to bills. He needs to stock up on tanks to spread out the fish and sell, some filter types, more water conditioner. Maybe even some polo shirts with a name printed over the pocket to look real. If she can, Leslie will help him come up with a name. She had talent of that sort. The only woman who could do her hair with two knifefish in the tub. The fish are nocturnal and soon will start to squirm.

Oliver gets up and walks to the bathroom. He takes the cigarette out of the tray and puts what’s left between his teeth. Leslie in her pick robe sits at the edge of the tub, reaching toward the water.

He rushes her, grabs her by the wrist and pulls her from the tub. His cigarette falls to the floor.

“Gymnotiforms are electric,” he says. Her face is heavily made up, birchbark pale with outlined lips, cat eyes drawn on.

She looks back at him confused, her razor eyebrows pressed.

Oliver loosens his grip on Leslie’s wrist, and places both her hands on his hips.

“I don’t want the fish to hurt you,” he says, stepping the cigarette into the tile.

Her lip quivering, she nods up at him.

“Okay, Oliver,” she says. “I won’t touch your fish.”

He holds her there for a minute, gently, then tightly, so tight that her white make up smears wet against his shirt as she presses her fingers into his back and in the tub the knifefish know that it is night and begin to stir and if he holds her there long enough running his hands through her hair Leslie will begin to sing and he will see the muscly black bodies of the knifefish jostle in the tub as if it is not a tub but a wide cold river in Argentina woven between mountains so tall that, if you got to the top, your hands could cup lightning and you would be as much part of the sky as of the earth.

Student Showcase: Kayla Candrilli

Faggots

Fairies, faggots, fairies. I believe in fairies, have ever since Peter Pan. Tinker with this, tinker with that. Break the line no matter the cost. The way their wings spread, eagles the size of my thumb—heads platinum blond—or white? The way they live in the pock marked trees—little screech owls that don’t screech but sing musical numbers off Broadway: Wicked, Sweeny Todd, Hair, Hair, Hair!

            If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that most people don’t believe in fairies. They never did. The fairies flew around too far outside the sphere of white angels and fat cherubs. Maybe it’s because Fairies are unisex, androgynous the way a hummingbird might be (as they never slow enough to see—to know for sure—amphetamine addicted beauties). There’s no little cherub penis giving it away, no shawls of Toole meant to cover young, prepubescent breasts.

            All fairies come from the Great Fairies of ancient times: Alexander the Great, Sappho, Plato. They, spawn of the greats, mischievous and diabolical, always get their way, unless a nonbeliever sees them sparkle, hears them sing. Faggots, maggots. Strung up by their faux feather wings, tangled in barbed and electric wire. Currents shocking their bodies to convulse like any Cher song from the 80s. All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.

Still on the streets at night (so long after reading them into existence) I see them sparkle, stumble. Drunk fairies. Sometimes (most times) I’m one of them, checking my reflection in dark storefront windows, to ensure I’m still shining, to know my wings are beating as fast as they should, as fast as my speeding heart, catching and throwing the yellow lights of street lamps like kisses. Little narcissists we are, fairies, faggots, pouring glitter over ourselves like holy waters.

Student Showcase: Elise Gruber

Legacy

My brother says, it’s probably easier for people who are the same race to date each other, and baby, I was this close to telling him how right he was, and this close to telling him to shut his face.

It’s been worrying me though, you and me.  I been dreaming about the Klan, lately.  I grew up knowing to wrap crosses in carpet, to douse that in gasoline so it burns brighter, longer.  How will I love you knowing that?  I once found a loose noose of nylon rope in my Sunday school classroom; a study in knot tying, only big enough to hang a doll.  How will I hold you, remembering that?

I dream about them coming for you.  I dream about them coming for you because of me.  I don’t dare take you to my parent’s home, only miles to the Grand Wizard’s.  I think I am the danger sleeping in your bed, charring cheese omelets at the stove, bouncing through the door with a bag of pilfered persimmons in the afternoon.

I wake up in the morning so glad you’re alive.  When you’re snoring away with a ring of dried snot around one nostril, I love you babe.  Wake up and tell me what you’re dreaming of, wake up and tell me you’re fine.

Student Showcase: Carlos Chism

 The Secret Under the Big Tree

She’s the reason you look forward to recess every day, the reason you quickly finish your lunch even though you’d rather savor that peanut butter and jelly sandwich, pack of animal crackers, and Hi-C juice your mom packed at 6 a.m. this morning. Instead of thinking about the sandwich or the juice, you look forward to recess: you like her brown hair, especially when she lets it out of her pony tail. Even though she’s missing her left big tooth, you don’t care. You secretly wish you could hold her hand. You imagine the two of you walking around, fingers locked, smiling at each other. She causes fireworks in your chest like at the end of the parade on the Fourth of July and it feels new and exciting.

 Everyone takes turns at the monkey bars, on the slides, piloting the wheel of the “ship”. Then the group moves to the hill, rolling like barrels of giggling skin and bones against the grass, trudging back up only to race down again, your legs ecstatic slaves to gravity and momentum, your chests exploding with laughter at the bottom.

            After these daily rituals, the two of you are sometimes alone. She usually likes to read a book under the big tree in the corner by the fence. Thinking yourself clever, you bring a book to read by the big tree too. Sometimes, she says nothing, and the only sounds you share are those of pages sliding against pages, or the breeze whispering through the blades of grass around your ankles. Every once in a while, you sneak a look up at her; every day, she’s reading a new Magic Tree House book.

            On a day when you’re actually engrossed in the latest Hardy Boys novel from the library, she asks you if you know a word she can’t figure out. She’s reading The Magic Tree House #23: Twister on Tuesday, and the word is “engulf”. You try to explain that it means being surrounded or taken over or something like that, but then she’s distracted:

What’s that book you got? She asks.

It’s the Hardy Boys, you say, holding it up proudly.

Like Nancy Drew? She asks, tilting her head to the side inquisitively.

And you say who’s Nancy Drew? Then the two of you spend the next half hour talking about all the different books you’ve read. In the end, it’s really her talking and you listening, since she’s read so many more than you. When the bell rings and it’s time to go back inside, you say goodbye and start can’t waiting for tomorrow.

            Every day now the two of you sit and read for a bit before you start talking. At first the conversations consist of what math homework you’ve got (she’s doing times tables but you’re still on addition and subtraction), then they morph into gossip about the kids and the teachers (I heard Mrs. Moss is 100 years old! No way! I heard her hair is just a wig.) but after days and days she tells you a secret.

            My parents are getting a divorce, she says, slapping her finger to her lips so you don’t tell. It’s because my mommy cheated on my daddy, but I’m not supposed to know that. I woke up late one night to go pee and heard them yelling about it.

            You can’t believe she would trust you with something like that, so you think hard about something super secret of yours to share with her so she knows you appreciate the trust.

            I still wet my bed a couple times a week, you say to her, after weighing several shameful options in your head. Please don’t tell, you plead.

            Of course not, she smiles.

            The next day while everyone is taking turns on the monkey bars, a kid with a gap-toothed grin asks, do you wear diapers at night?

            What do you mean? You ask him, but the seed of fear blossoming in your gut knows what he means.

            When you pee your bed every night, he says, laughing. The other kids laugh too. You feel your face flush red.

            I don’t pee my bed every night, you attempt, but your voice is small under the truth.

            Is it because you like the smell? Someone else asks.

            Did your mom and dad teach you to use the bathroom?

            Do you still wear diapers?

            Are you wearing diapers right now?

            As the voices continue to question, you see her down by the tree reading a book alone. You wonder what would happen if you tell the others that her parents are getting a divorce, that her mom cheated on her dad, but the thoughts are drowned out by the overwhelming question: why? You don’t understand how an exchange of trust can be so easily shattered.

            After the questions subsist, you race down to the tree, lacking a book, and ask her why she told, who she told, how she told?

            I’m so sorry, she said, but it just slipped out. I won’t say anything else to anyone ever again, cross my heart and hope to die. She crosses her heart and hopes to die. See? She asks. See? I mean it.

            Okay, you say, and walk away, looking for the latest Hardy Boys volume from the library.

Student Showcase: Dan McCool

Shocking

In an unexplained fit of hopefulness I’d decided to get “Always walk tall” tattooed on my leg.  A reminder to myself to keep obeying my skin no matter what.  Make it Latin to be even more official, as if proffered from the Vatican or some other ancient institution of truth.

Then I plugged in the axiom to an online and undoubtedly incorrect translator and found out what it was: “Semper ambulantes sublimem.”  I could never have that; everyone would be thinking, “Ambulance?  You kidding?”  I looked at it in all other kinds of classical languages—French, where trying to translate “walk” is an approximation of the most desparate kind, German didn’t fit the sentiment, and Russian and Arabic looked good as artistic imagery but I didn’t want to look like a criminal tattooed in jail, having pledged my body to some illicit outfit.  So, discouraged, I put it off for a year or so.

Everyone I knew, everyone my age, was getting tattooed.  Trashy stars or inspirational quotes, barbed wire, the usual suspects; and then true art, what seemed so real, a part of them and not an artificial stamp.  Maybe it was the cool thing to do, maybe it was a rite of passage into independence.  And here I was, too afraid to go back home to picket-fence parents and gossiping aunts, to stand the seething disapproval.  Either them or Leviticus, one would stop me.  Twenty-one years old and still a chickenshit dependent too scared to finally step out on my own, in my own direction.  To mark myself as I saw myself, marked like a counterfeit bill or a defective playing card.  I knew I could, I knew I wouldn’t take charge of my body, claim myself for myself.

It had to be plain English.  Of all the words I learned in England, “shocking” is my favorite.  It means “terrible” or “awful,” and can be used as an understatement or at face value, a real exclamation.  Forget Latin and stars, flowers and symbols; shocking was my lowest common denominator, something I knew was permanent, something that would always be true of me.  Worthless.

It’s on the inside of my upper thigh, so when you see it, it’s already too late.  I scraped together enough courage to walk into the parlor, using that adolescent shaming that kicked my thick head into going.  I could use a little torture, I’d be thankful afterwards.  Even a teenage girl could sit through an hour or so, to get her butterfly or whatever it was.

I tried to make that standard, I really did.  Plain English, no fancy script or font, just stark, thin, simple letters.  Spare like that endless winter, flurries falling, cars hissing by the building, dry and cold.  The girl who did me tried to be patient and reassuring, but her kind smile grew tired when I got in the way of business.  I bled, I cried, I asked for breathers until finally she said no.  It would be easier to get it over with.  Exceedingly simple and quick, and yet when she finished with the “K” I just aborted it.  I told her to stop, I was done, I couldn’t make it through any more.

To anyone who’d see it, it would make no sense.  SHOCK.  For me, forever, a constant reminder, yet again, of cowardice, inadequacy, reminded of my inability to even finish my snide insult to myself, of a failed accomplishment.  More shocking than shocking.

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