Delmarva Review: My Diseased Hope by Michele Whitney

Nearly twenty years ago, after my sister was murdered, I sat across from a counselor and told her that I wanted to kill myself.

The counselor inquired if this was the first time I had those thoughts, and even though I had just experienced the most tragic loss in my life to date, those thoughts were not new, just intensified in that moment. She wanted me to seek psychiatric treatment, but wanting to take my own life was not enough for me to believe that something was medically off. I refused to go. I didn’t want to face the possibility of having to take medicine for an illness that could not come up on an X-ray or lab test.

My belief was that any so-called illness of the mind was not an actual illness; it was a weakness. I was a strong black woman, just like my mom before me and her mom before her. In the African-American community, mental illness in general, and depression specifically, is still taboo. We are expected to be strong and get over things because we have dealt with so much.

My ethnicity, upbringing, and many other theories could be the reason why I didn’t accept depression as an illness, but there was more. Ultimately, I didn’t view “hope” as an actual part of my body, such as brain cells, red blood cells, or my immune system. Hope was not a necessary characteristic of my life to keep me alive. I thought the severe lows that led to sleeping all day, daily thoughts of suicide, self-loathing, and self-hatred were normal.

It’s been more readily accepted as an illness over time, but for some reason, depression remains one of those stigmatized issues. People think you’re just crazy.

Although there may be some truth in the “crazy” label, most of us who are diagnosed with depression are diagnosed based on the symptoms. Feelings of worthlessness, overwhelming guilt, loss of interest, lack of energy and concentration, thoughts of suicide, all of this for more than a few weeks…and I can go on and on. These are obvious symptoms, but what makes it real?

The most eye-opening image I’ve ever seen in my quest to understand depression was a picture I saw on social media. The image was of two brain scans; the one on the left side represented a person with clinical depression, and the one on the right represented a person without it. The left side was dimmed, lacking the presence of light, and engulfed in a shadow of darkness and hopelessness. The right side was bright, enlightened, and glowing, and I imagined that this brain was full of hope.

Given the nature of this visual, I came to my own conclusion that depression, yes, is a real illness. This, of course, is not news. But what happened within me at this moment was that I realized, at a fundamental level, that depression occurs when people are clinically unable to have hope. I’ve come to recognize that, similar to how Alzheimer’s disease attacks brain cells, sickle cell anemia attacks red blood cells, or HIV attacks the entire immune system, major depressive disorder is a disease that attacks hope.

Years passed after that first preview with my depression destiny. I found myself in a counselor’s office yet again with the counselor making the same suggestion. Psychiatry. Medication. Chemical imbalance. But this time, something began to shift. I had just ended a two-year relationship with a married man and had spent that time surrounded by shame and secrecy. I no longer wanted to hide. I now craved a feeling of normality, if such a feeling existed. So I took my counselor’s suggestion and sought psychiatric help. I was diagnosed in my early twenties with what was then known as clinical depression, and I began a course of drug therapy that took me well into my thirties. But my story of major depression did not end there.

At the end of 2009, I left an abusive work situation, subsequently losing my income and everything I thought defined me. This included my health insurance. With no job, little income, and, more importantly, no health insurance, I made the decision to go off my antidepressants. I had dated a guy who told me I was crazy for taking meds, and my mom kept asking me when I was getting over this thing. I figured if I was ever going to try and “beat this thing,” now would be the time to do it. I “treated” my depression naturally with aromatherapy and vitamins. I was only halfway in denial. Psychotherapy remained a part of my self-made treatment plan. Luckily, by that time, I had retained the services of a therapist who took my case pro bono.

Things were okay for a little while. But leaving a job in the midst of the economic crisis made securing additional work close to impossible. In March of 2010, I ultimately lost my home, my car, and many other possessions. I made the transition from living on my own to living with my mom. I suffered severe culture shock as I went from my spacious one-bedroom apartment, where I lived independently, to a room as big as a box, where my mother treated me like I was twelve. I also took a part-time job that at the time I felt was beneath my value and qualifications. I was extremely unhappy and lonely. I sought out many solutions to cure my condition. I spent a lot of time sleeping, in isolation, irritable, and crying. This went on every single day for an entire year.

And then Christmastime came…

The holidays have always been difficult, but Christmas 2010, I felt like a stranger within my own life. I spent time with a dear friend and her family for Christmas Eve festivities. Her family had always made me feel so welcome and loved, which was something I desperately needed. But after the festivities were done and I left their home, I felt this overwhelming sense of sadness and emptiness. I cried all the way home. I couldn’t understand why, in the midst of all of that love, I felt so unloved. Life wasn’t perfect, but I still had so much to be hopeful for, I told myself. And yet I was unable to feel any hope at all. I hated myself for being surrounded by so much happiness and love and being unable to feel any of it. A person like me did not deserve to live….

I’m no genius, but I consider myself a relatively intelligent person. But life, at this point, had me completely puzzled. I could not figure out what my issues were. I only knew I needed to fix myself in some way because I was broken. I felt this tremendous pain in my heart, and I wanted it to stop. My body radiated with agony. I wanted to feel hopeful, but my brain would not allow me to get there.

It’s one thing to be depressed when everything is going wrong. But it’s another thing to be depressed when you are surrounded by love, encouragement, and positivity. There is so much shame in saying, I’m so blessed, but I’m still depressed, sad, and hopeless. I still can’t get out of the bed. I still can’t stop crying. I still don’t think my life means anything. This is a tricky disease.

When I got home from my friend’s house, I went to my room and closed the door. I kept the lights off and turned on the TV. I cried and cried and cried as I watched It’s a Wonderful Life and thought, I really don’t want to die…. Yes, like George Bailey, I wish I had never been born. But I found myself looking on the Internet for ways that I could end my life. I wanted to go to sleep and not wake up. There would be no dramatic letters or good-byes; here in the privacy of my little room, I would just disappear.

I had been prescribed Tylenol with codeine awhile back for back pain, and I hadn’t taken the entire bottle. There were about ten pills left in the bottle. I took about six of them. For some reason, nothing was happening. I wasn’t even able to sleep.

I couldn’t even do this right. This was my rock bottom.

Something was holding on to me. I literally just stopped taking pills to kill myself and began to look up suicide hotlines. I called one. The man on the line told me that he was grateful that I had called him because he got to spend this time with me on Christmas Eve. The guy obviously knew his job well, but if he was bullshitting, I didn’t care. It was something I needed to hear. I hung up the phone and eventually drifted off to sleep.

At the end of January 2011, my condition grew worse.

I began walking around like a zombie. Uninterested. Indifferent. I went to work and couldn’t remember how I got there. I’d come home and cry myself to sleep. The transforming pain that was with me on Christmas Eve was now here, sitting with me, and I could no longer deny it.

My counselor suggested I see a doctor. I still had no health insurance, but I found a doctor who was willing to prescribe an antidepressant. It wasn’t working. Here was that desperation. I felt like asking my doctor if she knew where I could buy some serotonin. Through hopeless tears, I just asked if she could up the dose of my meds. She said that was as high as she could go and suggested I see a psychiatrist.
I couldn’t afford to see a psychiatrist.

After beginning drug therapy again, and the symptoms not changing, my counselor suggested that I may have something called “treatment-resistant depression.” But I was tired of the labels. I just didn’t want to feel like this anymore. Whatever this was. I wanted to feel something other than nothing again.

An idea popped into my head. Maybe there was a depression research study somewhere that could look at my case? That way I wouldn’t have to pay for treatment; they would pay me for treatment. I put the idea in the back of my mind.

Then it all caught up with me. One morning, I woke up and literally felt nothing. I felt numb. I felt as if nothing in the world would make me happy. I thought about the things I usually enjoyed—reading a book, laughter, snuggling with the cat, watching the fish in the fish tank—and none of it sounded appealing. I couldn’t even feel God with me. I literally felt like I was null and void.
I didn’t have time to feel this. I got up, threw on some clothes, and went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for my mom. When I returned home, there was a commercial playing on television about a depression research study. Specifically, the study was geared toward people with treatment-resistant depression.

God was taking care of me.

The research study had an easy number to remember. I immediately called and made an appointment.

Several days later, I went to the research center. I had to answer a bunch of intake questions, and then I met with the doctor who was leading the study. He was very nice. But it turned out that for various reasons, I didn’t meet the criteria for the study. I was devastated. Done. I was never going to feel better. They gave me $20 for my time, and I cried as I slowly walked out of the research office, leaving my hope behind.

I had barely made it to the parking garage when my cell phone rang. It was the intake lady from the research center. She said, “Michele, are you still here? If so, the doctor would like to see you.”

I was thinking I may have forgotten something. I turned around, went back to the office, and sat down with the doctor. He kept looking at me, and looking at his notes. He told me there was just something about me…something about me that he just wanted to help. He told me, “You are too smart of a person to think there is no hope for depression.”

Fresh tears began to flow. He told me that he would treat me for free for three months and then continue to treat me based on whatever I could pay. And then he said something that I will never forget.
“After the three months, we can talk about payment. But your level of treatment will not change based on what you can or cannot pay.”

I squinted my eyes and looked at this doctor in disbelief. Based on everything I had told him about my story and my history with antidepressants, he believed another course of drug therapy in a new class of antidepressants would work for me. But it was more than the drugs. This doctor believed in me. He believed that my hope could be restored.

I began taking the new meds, and I eventually began to notice a difference. I was functional again. Not cured, but functional.

There are still struggles, and feeling better wasn’t just about the medication. There was work on myself I needed to do but had been unable to because my brain was sick.
Over time, I felt the darkness in my brain being replaced with light. My diseased hope is now being healed.

The Spy is pleased to republish Michele Whitney’s personal essay from The Delmarva Review, Volume 9. The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Michele L. Whitney is a writer, musician, and teacher from the South Side of Chicago. She holds an MBA as well as a MS in Human Services. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, and her creative nonfiction is published in The Griffin, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, r.kv.r.y, Diverse Arts Project, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. Her website is michelewhitney.net.

Delmarva Review: Stickman by Tom Larsen

The guy at the door doesn’t look like Danny, though a case could be made for the nose. A mashed-in version, dramatically scabbed and weather beaten, and the hair, filthy but spiked in defiance. A strange, Dan-like head on a body that would make an anorexic flinch. Withered limbs swimming in cutoffs and stained polo shirt. Dead-end Danny after the rock fight. It couldn’t be, yet the voice assures us it is, the South Philly accent unmistakable.

“What have you done to the real Danny?” my wife demands.

“C’mon, Andree, let me in.”

It was little more than a year ago, during the last dismal round in his squabble with the hospital administration, that we saw him last. Bloodied but unbowed, he vowed to fight them to the end. Master of the-cat-and-mouse game of drug counseling, Danny was as close to a legend as anyone in that line is likely to get. Confrontational, abrasive, streetwise to a fault, he did what you have to do to reach the reachable. The bureaucrats were another story. The end was never really in doubt.

Now he’s sitting in my kitchen eating Froot Loops and making phone calls. The calls are brief. No one wants to hear from Danny these days. We’d heard rumors, but nothing could have prepared us for the wreckage. I console myself with a single thought. Originally, he was Andree’s friend.

“I won’t give you money,” she sets the limit.

“Two bucks? Two bucks and I’m outta here.”

 “I’m a nurse. I can’t give you money to cop.”

 Strange, after all these years, to hear her talk the talk again. He turns to me.

“Tom?”

 “Jesus, what can you get for two bucks?”

 He smiles. By God, it IS Danny.

 “Where’s Libby and the kids?” Andree asks. Again he smiles.

Somewhere in the depths of her secretary desk is an in-house magazine with a faintly sneering Danny on the cover. Pre-crash and burn addict-savant in a black leather jacket. In the archives of the very hospital that fired him is a Dan-directed recovery video that leaves the unaddicted feeling strangely unversed. What have we to overcome?

“Where’s little Danny?” Andree grills him. He mumbles something unintelligible

It is her job to disapprove. Dazzled as I am by the plunge, the physical devastation, the ridiculous polo shirt, I try not to stare. It occurs to me that the bulk of the homeless once had a home and a bathroom and a closet full of clothes. This will not always be the case. The next generation is fast upon us.  

He pours a small mountain of sugar on his Froot Loops and we watch as it dissolves. The tattoos have not fared well, the dagger on his bicep reduced to a hatpin, the naked lady shriveled to a smudge. But it is the shirt that gets me. In real life, Danny would not own such a thing.

Andree plays the nurse/interrogator to Danny’s strung-out supplicant. They speak in code, a mix of medicalese and doper slang. All the while, Danny smokes my cigarettes and shovels in the cereal. It’s a toe-to-toe performance by masters of the genre, Andree projecting tough love with a no-bullshit bottom line, Danny a perfect blend of psychic pain and sardonic wit. I sit fiddling with my fingers, in the loop but out of my league.

“You want something else to eat?” I ask him. “A sandwich maybe?”

“No way, Jose. This guy gave me a sausage sandwich yesterday.” He clutches at what’s left of his stomach. “Tried to kill me, I tell ya. I said later for you, Mr. Sausage.”

Danny has a jargon all his own, Port Richmond patois laced with goofy names and words you have to look up

“I got some green chili salsa,” I make a joke. They roll their eyes and tune me out. Different treatment centers are suggested and rejected. Andree persists, Danny resists. References to HIV are impossibly oblique, pauses mostly, a hardening of the eye. It’s a pointless exchange when you stop and think. Danny invented the game. If anyone knows where the treatment centers are, it’s him.

I slip him three bucks under the table.

“You need a ride somewhere?”

He reaches past me and steals another cigarette.

 “Florida,” he gives a wink. “Winter’s coming, don’t you know.”

For the next hour Andree works the phone, calling in a decade’s worth of markers. The old-girl network of admission nurses finds a place for him in the Benton Institute, though he has no medical card or even a valid ID. During the negotiations, Danny tells me about the car he shares with a friend on the west side.

“Well, at least you can get around.” I put my clueless spin on things. His look says later for you, Mr. Andree.

He was clean for seven years. Worked a job, got married, bought a house, and had kids. Amazing what you can do in seven years. At the reception for his son’s christening, he commandeered the stage to serenade his bride. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Neighborhoods. Where you can still be a hero, or even worse.

A week later, we go to see him. Benton Institute, with its pillared porches and fairway grounds looks more Main Line then medicinal, its present function as unlikely as its location. Walled off from surrounding badlands, a fair share of the city’s pipers could walk there in minutes. We meet him at the med station, still wasted but showered and shaved. The only patient we’ll see who looks like a patient.

“They’re cutting me down to 40 milligrams a day,” he complains as he leads us down lavish hallways to his room. “I mean, whatever happened to coddling?”

“You’re here to get well, not to get high,” Andree tows the line. As usual, my presence is not required. I trail behind them, scanning the paintings and Queen Anne furniture.

“Nice place,” I tell him.

“Oh, yeah, it’s like drying out in Graceland. I heard some of the rooms even have fireplaces.”

His is a corner suite with a view of the rose garden. Two single beds and a chest of drawers. Fireplace. Despite our protests, he insists on showing us his feet, which have suffered some withdrawal-related malady too gruesome to get into. My own toes curl in sympathy. Andree turns away.

“Will they get better?” I ask him.

Danny shrugs and wiggles the big ones at me.

 “Will we?” the right one wonders in falsetto.

“Beats me,” the left one bows from the waist.

He didn’t last long at the Institute. A late-night phone call confirmed, Danny checked out against medical advice. The news came as no surprise, and whatever comes next will not include us. And I’m thinking, clawing your way back should be enough. Do the right thing, and the right things should happen. But the way of addiction rigs it differently. When the game is never over, how can you win?

 You don’t hear much about crackheads these days, but that’s just because we got tired of listening, too much to worry about, troubles of our own. In the meantime, they’re out there hitting rock bottom, the scufflers, the sidewalk sleepers, the stickman who used to be Danny.

The Spy is pleased to republish Tom Larsen’s nonfiction essay from The Delmarva Review, Volume 9. The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Tom Larson has been writing fiction for 25 years. His work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Newsday, Puerto del Sol, and the LA Review. His novels FLAWED and INTO THE FIRE are available through Amazon. Originally writing from Milton, Delaware, he now lives in Philadelphia.

 

Delmarva Review: Autumn Morning by James Keegan

AUTUMN MORNING

Winter is sitting not far away
on an old park bench,
its green paint flaking and cracked.
His brown coat is open and he
is peeling a tart apple
he swiped in the market.
His dead father’s pocketknife,
all the old man left to him,
turns the skin from the flesh
in one sharp red ring.
Smell the air and there
the blue edge, oiled and fine,
grazes the tender hair
at the top of your spine.
James Keegan is an author and actor, who, for over a decade, has been a member of the resident acting company at The American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse. He is an associate professor of English and theater at the University of Delaware, in Georgetown, DE. His poems, essays, and short fiction have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Best Small Fictions of 2015. He lives in Milton, Delaware.
The Spy is pleased to reprint Mr. Keegan’s poem from the coming Delmarva Review’s ninth issue. The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers
Association with additional support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review: Tidepool Strata Near Half Moon Bay by Judith McCombs

Tidepool Strata Near Half Moon Bay

I was there at first light, in the minus tide,
picking my way across weed-strewn strata
risen from sea. Wave crests, far out;
white gulls at the edge of a bay revealed,
shore beyond shore. A grey shape lifted
from hidden fissures, heron, great blue,
pterodactyl beak gliding and stabbing.

Fault lines of granite angled me out:
at my feet a skittery n
ew-winged cloud
of insects risen from chasm. I saw
how barren the channels where alien landwater
ran undersea; how fierce with life
the crevices, hollows, inlets where waves
surged and withdrew, flotsam and foam.

I stepped between weed-mounds, myriad black snails
coiled in their pearl, small anemones shut
to the air, fisting their grit-studded muscle.
I bent to the tidepools where sculpin hovered,
the sidelong hermit put forth its black limbs,
and the great anemones opened their ancient
animal flowering, corolla and mouth.

I gave thanks for the ancestors, foam cell and breath,
for the bones and the softness; for the deep flood-tides
of the young, the slowing blood-tides of the old.
For the lessons of stone, breaking down, and of water,
flowing on. For the unseen life that feeds,
and the seeing. For the great primordial light
that pulls the tilting earth; for the lesser
light pulling and heaping the seas. For all this,
and the salt in my mouth, the sea in my hands.

By Judith McCombs

Maryland poet Judith McCombs has been published in numerous literary journals. Her fifth book is The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New. She has held NEH and Canadian Senior Fellowships and won the Maryland State Arts Council’s highest Individual Artist Award for poetry, in 2009. She teaches at The Writer’s Center.

The Spy is pleased to reprint Ms. McCombs poetry from The Delmarva Review, Volume 8 (2015). The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with additional support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council. Print and digital editions are available from libraries, local bookstores, and Amazon.com. For information, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review: A Conversation With Lars By Rose Strode

The year of my divorce I taught Sunday school in a room the size of a large walk-in closet: a windowless, cramped pen in the gymnasium basement of a cinderblock building. At the end of every class, my four-year-old students burst forth like starlings out of a tree: chattering, swirling, looping around the gym in pandemonium. I loved to watch and to think about how good it feels to burst out of a too-small place, even if it’s a place one loves. I worked hard to make the cell assigned to me a haven, and I knew I succeeded because my old students sometimes migrated back. My most frequent visitor was Lars.

I met Lars the year before, at Sunday school “summer camp,” and we bonded. Lars was a skinny seven-year-old whose gray eyes, blond hair, and translucently pale skin reminded me of a watercolor left out in the rain. Lanky and twitchy, he stood in the doorway so those going out had to push past him. That was Lars: the kid who somehow could not figure out how to join the ever-moving flock.

I once asked him why he stood there, and he told me, “I like to watch the little kids.” Lars sometimes confided in me: why his Halloween costume had been a flop; his doubts about Santa; and his parents’ refusal to get him a kitten. All of his stories involved thwarted plans, and he seemed to brood over a worry he could not yet articulate as he watched the other children from the safety of the classroom that once had been his.

One day, as I folded a tablecloth Lars piped up: “Rose, which kids are your kids?”

I didn’t understand him at first. “I teach the four-year-olds,” I reminded him. From my classroom’s open door we could see the gym, and I pointed at my students as they raced by: “There go Jessie and Tamsin; there’s Diego on the table.”

“No, I mean, which ones are your kids,” he said, pointing right at my stomach.

“Oh,” I said. “None of those kids are mine.”

His eyes got big. “None of them?” he asked.

“Not a single, solitary one, Lars,” I replied, and tossed the tablecloth at the shelf. It missed.

“Where are they?” Lars peeked into the big carpetbag where I keep my toys, as if maybe my children hid inside. “Did your kids stay at home today?”

As I retrieved the tablecloth, I drew one of those deep breaths I find necessary before explaining something complicated to a child. “There are no children at my house,” I told him. “Even though I am the same age as a mom, I’m not a mom.” I put the tablecloth on the shelf and began picking up puppets. I paused when I realized he wasn’t moving.

“If you’re not a mom,” he said, “what are you?”

Of course I already knew that I was the only teacher in the school that was not also a mother, just as I knew all the mothers spent time together socially, but not with me. Yet I’d never wondered what conclusions their children, my students, might draw.

“I’m not sure how to answer that,” I said. “I’m just me, like you are just you. I’m the same as other people in some ways, and different in others. One difference is: I don’t have kids.”

“But,” said Lars, “I thought you liked kids.”

“Of course I like kids,” I said. “I like elephants too, but I don’t have any of those running around at my house.” I thought about that. “You know, I’m not sure how I’d even get an elephant up the stairs.”

Lars laughed, and I could have made my verbal escape by embellishing on the elephant story. But I didn’t. Part of the reason was I hated the idea he thought I was some sort of aberration because I had not reproduced. I was also motivated by Lars’s vulnerability and my hope that if I modeled sharing my feelings, he might find a way to speak of his own. I had this notion that he was like a well of clear water under the ground, which with effort might come sparkling to the surface.

But when I look back, I realize I had a third reason I did not recognize at the time, which would not allow me to turn the moment into a joke.

So instead of gliding to a safer topic, I told him: “I did want to be a mom, Lars, but it just didn’t work out that way.”

Lars handed me a rabbit puppet. “If you like kids, why don’t you just have them?”

I looked down at the puppet in my hands. “Did you ever imagine something special happening, like your birthday party you waited a long, long time for? But then when it happened, it didn’t look like the picture in your head, and even though the party was still good, you were a little disappointed?”
Lars nodded, leaning back against the wall.

“Well,” I said, “that’s what happened to me. I wanted a family with children in it. But it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. I can’t tell you all the reasons, because those are private; but the important thing is, my real life is different from the picture in my head.” I rearranged the puppets in my bag, tucking them in. “If I worry too much about the old picture, I can’t think about what new picture I might make. And I can’t enjoy the real kids already in my life, like you, if I’m always thinking about imaginary kids I don’t have.” I waited a moment to make certain he was looking at me. “I love kids, I just don’t have kids.”

“That’s sad,” said Lars, picking at a rough patch on the wall and swinging his leg.

When an adult tells me my lack of offspring is sad, it is often a kind of judgment disguised as sympathy. I braced myself. “Why is that sad, Lars?”

He shrugged, not looking at me. “Because I wanted to be friends with your kid.”

Before I could respond, he added:

“Your kid would be my best friend.”
I swallowed twice before I answered. “You would be a good best friend, Lars.”

He smiled at me. “So, when will you have some kids?” he asked. “Because I want to be their best friend.”

Would we ever run out of monkeys in this barrel? “Lars, in the new picture of my life, I am a teacher, not a mom.”

I saw Lars open his mouth. “Let me explain it this way,” I said, holding up my hand. “The other teachers have kids, and when their classes are over, they go home and are moms. But the kids in my classroom are the only kids I get. So I am a teacher all the time. It’s what I’m doing right now.”

He smiled and wound his arms around my waist. “You’re a good teacher,” he said, his voice muffled against my stomach.

I pitched my voice low so it would not shake. “Thank you, dear,” I said. My hands caressed his head as it lay against my belly. It was, I realized, the same protective, possessive caress made by pregnant women.

After a long moment, Lars leaned back to look up at me. “I still wish I could be friends with your kid,” he said.

“You had a picture in your mind that you and my child would play together,” I told him. “It’s a good picture, even if it can’t happen for real.”

“But, still,” he said.

I closed my eyes. “Yeah, I know. But, still.”

We were silent together. He did not let go, so I didn’t, either. Then he whispered, “I wish there was some real magic, like in the stories.”

When a child pines for magic, often what he’s longing for is hope. “I’ll tell you something magic, Lars,” I said. “When we are in this classroom, the children are sort of like my children. Not for real, of course, but close enough that if you want to be a friend with a child of mine, make friends with any child in the school.”

Lars’s face tightened, and his thin body tensed. Sudden trepidation flickered over me like a shadow.

He whispered, “How?”

And that was it: the question that he’d been waiting to find the words, or the courage, to ask. It was the question that summed up Lars.

I paused to think. “There are lots of ways to meet a friend,” I said at last. “But the easiest way is to find someone who needs your help. Sometimes you have to help a lot of different people before one of them becomes a friend,” I cautioned him. “But you’ll know you’ve made a friend if that person likes to help you, too.”

A sudden light filled Lars’s face. “Yeah,” he said, as if amazed. “I could do that.”

“Good,” I replied. Before he could ask me any more questions, I added, “You know, I think I saw they have cake in the gym. You’d better go get some before the other kids eat it all up.”

He dashed away without saying good-bye.

I glanced around the room. There was nothing left to put away, so I hauled my carpetbag over my shoulder and stepped through the doorway of my classroom.

Out in the gym, the parents stood facing in toward each other in little groups, their backs to me as they discussed soccer camps and parent-teacher meetings: difficult conversations for a divorced, childless woman to wedge into. Directly outside my classroom, a six-year-old girl jumped up and down, trying to reach the water fountain. Let her be, I thought. Don’t help her solve a problem she can fix on her own, just to make yourself feel necessary.

Then I saw Lars, rushing against the tide of children. His face glowed pink. In his hands he gripped the small, grubby plastic step we kept in the bathroom so kids could reach the sink. He held it over his head, like the Olympic torch. He dashed past me to the side of the girl by the water fountain.

“Here!” he crowed. “Let me help you!”

He stopped in front of the startled girl and placed the step before her. She advanced toward him then stopped, her dark eyes uncertain. Lars awkwardly held out his hand, focused as only a lonely kid can be. He was being weird again, acting out the part of a Disney prince in front of the water fountain; yet he had the intent look of a person trying to coax a young, wild animal from the shelter of the trees. Perhaps this is why the girl put her brown hand in his and stepped up to the fountain.

Lars stood frozen for an instant, then collected himself and pressed down on the lever: the silver water arced up, the girl pushed back her hair with both hands and bent her face to drink.

Then I saw Lars’s mother close beside me. She, too, noticed Lars and began to move suddenly toward the water fountain. I stuck my hand in her way and whispered, “Wait.”

“But,” she said, then stopped and whispered: “But…they need help.”

“Seems to me they’re doing fine,” I replied. “Watch.”

The girl slipped away during this exchange, but three more children arrived: Tamsin, Jessie, and a chubby toddler with fragments of Cheerios stuck to the drool on his face. Lars helped each child, and each scampered away after drinking. Lars stood alone again. One corner of his mouth drooped, his narrow shoulders slumped, and the glow in his face diminished.

Then the girl seemed to flit out of the doorway of my empty classroom. Her hand flashed out to press down the lever for the water. It leapt up, sparkling. Lars turned toward her. I could no longer see his face. He bent his head to drink, and when he finished he wiped his mouth on his wrist, sprang down, and together the two children galloped away.

Beside me Lars’s mother stared. I bent my mouth into a smile shape: I hoped it looked kind, but I was so tired I was no longer sure. “Sometimes it’s good to let the kids solve problems together,” I explained. “That’s the first step toward becoming friends.”

Lars’ mother gave me a look of admiration. “What a shame you’re not a mom,” she said.

I knew she was trying to be friendly. But still. “I’m a teacher,” I said, turning toward the door.

“Oh, but it’s just not the same,” she said, turning with me. I was afraid she’d try to put her arm around my shoulders. “There’s a bond between a parent and a child you can’t understand unless you’re a parent yourself.”

Since when, I wondered, do experiences have to be identical to be equally precious? I sped up, but Lars’s mother kept stride.

“This is such a waste of your talents,” she added, shaking her head. “You must become a mother before it is too late.”

I don’t remember what, if anything, I said in reply.

Somehow I crossed the room and left the building, climbing the concrete stairs with the rusted pipe bannister to the street. A cold, damp wind shook the flagpole lanyard so its clips clanged, metal on metal.

“Lars won’t be back,” I thought to myself. “That’s sad.” And I laughed, remembering him saying the same thing, and how it hadn’t meant what I expected.

Suddenly I wasn’t laughing. I hung onto the bannister, pulling the cool air into my lungs with deep breaths. Something seemed to be physically crushing me, and though I knew it was not real, I felt that if I let go of the bannister I would be pressed to the ground. I couldn’t seem to draw enough air into my lungs, as if the weight was squashing them closed.

“Stop it,” I thought to myself. “This is ridiculous.” But my body was not listening; my lungs were not listening. I was opening and closing my mouth like a bird stunned after flying into a window that looked like open sky.

Rose Strode, from Virginia, received a 2014 Undiscovered Voices Fellowship from The Writer’s Center, in Bethesda, MD, where she has been a student. Her personal essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review and The Little Patuxent Review. She also studies acting at The Studio Theatre in Washington, DC.

Spy Publications is pleased to reprint Ms. Strode’s personal essay from The Delmarva Review, Volume 8 (2015). The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with additional support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council. Print and digital editions are available from libraries, local bookstores, and Amazon.com. For information, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review: On the Third Shelf of My Aunt’s Library by Rosanne Singer

On the Third Shelf of My Aunt’s Library
Picture the inch-thick phonebook of a small city,
the single-line entries, the almost-transparent pages.
Is it a myth that a great actor can make you cry
just by reciting names, addresses and numbers?
Now imagine that same book with names and birthdates only.
No one is returning home, no one will make a phone call.
This is the book of my grandmother and her small city
with its clinical name—Convoy 55, June 23, 1943.
Can there be this many pages, this many names?
She is on page 132. I want the tiny type of her name
to be raised, to feel something of someone I could never call.
Instead I read it aloud for the first time. No actor necessary.

By Rosanne Singer

Rosanne Singer is a teaching artist with the Maryland State Arts Council and part of small arts teams working with pediatric patients at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC and with military families at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda. She has been published in numerous literary journals.

The Spy is pleased to reprint Ms. Singer’s poetry from The Delmarva Review,
Volume 8 (2015). The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with additional support from private contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council. Print and digital editions are available from libraries, bookstores, Amazon.com. For information, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review: Connected By Shawna Ervin

“Tell him your name,” the woman holding the horse’s reins said again. She looked down and twisted the toe of her boot in the dirt.

I stood several steps away from the horse and said nothing. It was morning, the shade long from the barn to the corral, reaching mud puddles lying by the fence. After a week of heavy rain, the July heat pressed on my back. Flies buzzes around me, the horses, the mud. A trickle of sweat ran from the brim of my stiff, new sun hat, along my hairline in front of my ear. I brushed it away, then rubbed the back of my hand on my jeans.

“Go ahead, tell him who you are.” The woman shifted the reins from one hand to the other and patted Cisco gently on the side of his neck.

I didn’t know what to say. I had learned of the workshop through WINGS, a nonprofit for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and had received a scholarship. Was I merely a survivor? Was I limited by other parts of my identity? Did I still harbor the little girl who liked horses and watching my dad groom them?

I considered giving a false name, maybe Gretchen or Zoe, something so unlike my given name that I could be someone with a very different past and not need the workshop at all. I stepped forward and brushed my fingers down a strip of white hair on horse’s nose.

“Hi, Cisco. I’m Shawna,” I muttered, running the syllables together. The other participant, a woman brimming with confidence and horse knowledge, boldly introduced herself to a white horse. I shuffled beside Cisco, shoved my fingers through the handle of a blue jelly brush, and hoped someone would issue a set of instructions I could master. It was quiet.

The workshop was called Horse Ibachakali, ibachakali meaning “connection” in Choctaw. The Choctaw language has several words for connection; ibachakali is the type of connection aspen trees have. On the surface each tree appears to be independent, but underground the trees belong to one large, intricate root system that holds the trees together as one, strengthening them individually and collectively. We were going to learn how to be a part of a reciprocal relationship with a horse, the instructor said.

No, I thought. I can’t. I am a liability in relationships due to the damage I’ve sustained. I will hurt the horse if I get close. I might break myself. I can’t afford closeness or connection. No.

I placed the brush tentatively on Cisco’s reddish-orange back, brushing slowly in small strokes along the side of his spine. Around me I noticed splinters in the rotting picnic table, the changing shapes of wispy clouds over me, where the paint had chipped off the metal fence. There were crops of dandelions by several fence posts, the dirt was a pale brown, more dust than dirt.

“Look at the horse,” the instructor said.

As I brushed, his hair rose and fell in tiny waves, leaving thin tracks. I followed the brush lightly with my left hand and rubbed my fingers together. They were greasy.

_____

My dad’s hands were callused and strong. He wrapped them around my slight child’s body and held on. The calluses snagged on my skirts, the seat of my pants, nightgowns. His body was thin, his nearly six feet hunched forward, as if saying he wasn’t sure of something. Strength erupted from him with rage or desire, his frame stretching until his arms reached around me and held on like tentacles. When I moved, they squeezed tighter. It was love that I wanted.

“You’re getting so big,” he said pulling me close, looking from my hips to my chest where small bumps had appeared and were growing despite my hatred of them. “You’re so pretty.” The snaps on his Western shirts cut into my chest, the love between his legs and mine lumpy and swollen. I left my body there a series of limp limbs and escaped into fantasies in my head, focused on seams between the wood paneling and etchings in the plaster. I didn’t feel the pain when I bit my lip to keep from crying.

_____

“Let go of any judgments, memories, or thoughts,” the workshop instructor said. “Focus on your breath and the present moment.”

I gasped a breath in and held it. With a long brush stroke, I let the breath out in a big huff, then struggled to inhale again. My eyes widened and I stepped back from the horse. Liability, I thought. The instructor walked toward me. Her shirt was green plaid, the snaps the same pearl my dad would have worn.

“Just think about your breath.” I copied her raspy, deep breaths. Inhale. Brush stroke. Exhale. Brush stroke. Inhale. Exhale. I closed my eyes and smelled manure, fresh hay, mud, dust.

_____

“Take this one,” my dad had said when I was twelve. He quickly slipped a harness on a white horse. “Go wait up by the street. Don’t let him eat leaves or weeds.” He dropped the rope in my hand and busied himself harnessing another horse.

I longed for the privilege of going with my dad to the neighbor’s barn to groom and exercise their horses. I hadn’t been allowed to go before. That day was special; I was special too. When he leaned against the frame of my door and nonchalantly mentioned I had been good enough or was old enough to go, I crammed my feet in my shoes and scampered down the street with him.

In the barn he moved confidently, his long arms gracefully reaching for blankets, harnesses, and tightening buckles. He spun on the toes of his boots, stepping over piles of hay and sinking into soft dust. His arms and legs worked like a team, his power matching that of the horses, their partnership formed without language. My dad pressed on a horse’s shoulder; the horse moved. The horse stamped its foot; my dad shook a blanket. He pulled out a burr, held it up to the horse’s eyes, then tossed it in a trash can. From outside the barn I admired the elegant pas de deux; through the afternoon sun, dust floated gently over them like Nutcracker snowflakes.

“Almost there,” my dad said. The muscles in the horses’ backs twitched against flies.

I held the white horse’s lead rope tight under a cottonwood tree to keep the horse from eating. My knuckles were white; the frayed threads dug into my hand. The horse jerked its head toward the leaves.

“Hold that horse away from the leaves!” My dad clipped a lead rope to the other horse’s harness and started out of the barn. “Remember, you’re in control!”

I jerked the horse and saw his eyes blink.

“That’s the way.” My dad leaned forward into his steps, walking up a small hill.

My stomach burned with the shame of failure. I wanted to be special to him, worth the privilege of time with him and the confidence he had in me. His love was something to earn, something given, something I could lose even more easily if I reached for it.

I was no match for the horse’s strength. It nuzzled its nose and mouth against my arm, flared its lips, and bit. I saw the pink tissue inside my arm, then blood filling the wound in my triceps, saw my arm jerk away, as if it was someone else’s arm, as if my body was no longer mine.

My dad stretched his lips wide, flared his nose. “I told you to hold him away from the leaves!”

I waited for tears, but none came.

_____

At the workshop it was time to try putting a harness on a horse, then walk around the corral. I lifted the harness, then stopped.

“Where does this part go?”

“Right here.” The instructor patted a spot behind the horse’s ears.

My breath sped up. I had forgotten or didn’t know how to harness a horse. My only option was to fail, I thought. Not even halfway through the workshop, I faced failing the leaders of the workshop, the horse, myself. I can’t do this.
My water bottle and keys were close. I considered silently walking away. My reasons for registering for the workshop—to reconcile who I tried to be vs who
I was meant to be—felt ridiculous in that moment. It was easier to hate my dad, every part of him, even the parts we had shared. I wanted to wipe him from my DNA, wipe away who I had been before his tenderness had transformed special into shame. To accept myself, I had to accept our shared love for horses, and let myself enjoy a connection with a horse both with and without my dad’s DNA. I had to love the pieces of my dad that were part of me. I had to love myself and learn how to connect.

“It’s OK to bend his ears. It won’t hurt him.” The instructor reached over his head and helped me put the rope harness in the correct spot. I tied a knot by the side of the horse’s face, then patted him.
“Ready to take him for a walk?”

I nodded as if following an order and took a step. Slowly the horse followed me. Inhale. Exhale. I watched my feet, thinking not of where I was going, but of where I had been. The horse pulled me toward by a patch of weeds. Oh no, I thought. I tried to pull him back gently without letting the workshop leaders see; too gently. He chewed.

“Come on,” I begged. “You can have a snack in a little bit.”

I worked hard to breathe, to tell myself that moment didn’t define me. I didn’t believe myself, my breath, anything there. I wanted to shout, stomp, and scream until my throat was raw. I wanted to run into the field past the fence and sit alone in the tall grass. I give up, I thought. I quit. I can’t connect with a person, a horse, anything. I have earned the sting of solitude.
_____

“Keep breathing,” I heard. My breath was shallow and fast. I clenched my eyes tight and rolled my feet in my boots. My feet felt heavy. I tapped my fingers against my thigh and bit my tongue.

I’m here, I thought to the horse. We’re here. Please, tell me who I really am. Please tell me I’m OK.

The rope rested loose in my hand. Step. Inhale. Step, step, step, Exhale. Cisco’s nose flickered, his tail swished. I walked and breathed until I found a rhythm, felt and heard only the sound of my boots and Cisco’s feet. Breathe. Step. Breathe.

“Look,” the instructor whispered. Cisco and I walked in perfect rhythm. Inhale. Step. Exhale. Step. Step. I placed my free hand on the side of Cisco’s neck, expecting to pat an acknowledgement of our connection. He blinked, hung his head low in relaxation, and kept walking. I left my hand on his neck.
The instructor held a dirty thumb up and smiled. I smiled too. Ibachakali.

Cisco and I had connected. I was a part of the underground root system.
I longed to rest my head against Cisco’s neck, to feel his breath and mine together, to feel his hair on my cheek. I wanted to be close in a way that allowed me to let sadness and anger out, let tears run down his hair and fall into dots in the dirt. I wanted to say thank you in a way he’d understand, in a way that reached past words. There was no need to explain what I felt, what I had known, who I knew I was. All I needed to do was breathe.

Shawna Ervin’s nonfiction essay “Connected” was published in Volume 8 of The Delmarva Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Ms. Erwin is a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado. She is writing a memoir about adopting her kids and what it means to belong to a family. Recent publications include poetry in Forge, and prose in The Diverse Arts Project and Sliver of Stone.

The Delmarva Review, Vol. 8, contains original prose and poetry by 35 authors, including regional writers. The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with additional support from the Talbot County Arts Council and private contributions. Volume 9 will be published in November. For more information, see the website: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review: Romeo and Juliet, Horseshoe Crabs, May, Pickering Beach by Catherine Carter

ROMEO AND JULIET
Horseshoe crabs, May, Pickering Beach

Juliet’s helmet is clogged with eggs
like slate-blue shot (most, red knot bait.)
This is the night. She cannot wait.

Romeo is a third her size,
his head (which is his back) studded with eyes.
Sooner than unclasp, he’d die,

as many do. Along the wrackbreak lines
are strewn the corpses, hinged on the tail-spikes
that tried to thrust them free, turn them upright.

Sand-smothered, Juliet lived through
the sucked-back tide, the sunken moon,
her Romeo buried with her in the tomb,

and who among us can guess what it’s like
when, dug out, she can scrabble toward the tide,
with Romeo still clinging for dear life?

—dear life. It’s what the clawed, the mailed—the bugs,
the aliens—throw on the sand, when their cold blue blood
beats to the tides, the moon, and love.
Catherine Carter’s poem is reprinted from The Delmarva Review, Volume 8 (2015). Ms. Carter was raised on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and now is associate professor of English at Western Carolina University, in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Her poetry collections include The Swamp Monster at Home (LSU, 2012) and The Memory of Gills (LSU, 2006).

The Delmarva Review publishes literary fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction annually, in print and digital editions. Published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association, it welcomes outstanding submissions from all writers, regardless of residence (see the website for information: www.delmarvareview.com). 

Delmarva Review: Gravity by Wendy Mitman Clarke

Gravity
By Wendy Mitman Clarke
At night in the meadow
we lay the blanket down and fall back
to watch the stars in their endless migration
find the unyielding geometry of distance.

The tall grass of autumn
does not tease our faces,
nor does the dew wet our skin.
Out here, we remain untouched, you and I,

wheeling in our own orbits
of intractable light years
and the lambent echoes of stars long dead
that burned and burned, like we did.

There should be comfort in the gravity
that pins me to this blanket
like a butterfly, wings ashen under
the airless glass of this hurtling universe;

there should be comfort in knowing
I don’t have to hold on.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 8.05.09 AMWendy Mitman Clarke, of Centreville, Maryland, has published nonfiction in River Teeth, Smithsonian, Preservation, and National Parks. She’s the former executive editor of Chesapeake Bay Magazine, and her book of essays Window on the Chesapeake: The Bay, Its People and Places was published in 2002 (Howell Press and The Mariners’ Museum). The Delmarva Review published her first poems in its current edition (Vol. 8).

The Delmarva Review’s eighth annual issue contains original prose and poetry of 35 authors from the region and beyond. The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with additional support from the Talbot County Arts Council and private contributions. For information about availability and submissions, see the website: www.delmarvareview.com.

Delmarva Review: The Vision By Catherine Carter

The Vision
By Catherine Carter

In a rainy April evening you come into a town
you used to know. The town has changed,
just enough the same to be disturbing,
upsetting, and enough changed
to remind you that you don’t know this town
after all, not now. The rain running down
the streets blurs the lines, you can’t tell
which lane you’re in; the water makes rings
and little crowns on the black asphalt,
deeps and illusions from surfaces,
veils between trees. The traffic moves
too fast. You keep up, heading for a house
you think you could never forget
while the mind lasts; your hands know
what your mind fumbles, the sudden strange
turn at the end of a blind
curve. Your old house isn’t there, then
it is, once you realize that you’re on
the wrong part of the street, there
isn’t the right there, you’ve forgotten
after all. It’s just enough
the same to be upsetting, neither the town
you knew nor any strange
town free of associations. The rain tumbles
and drums; you’ve had dreams
like this, everything you remember lost,
and kids the age you were then
passing you like a ghost, though
you’re still alive, for now, and you’re awake.

Catherine Carter was raised on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She teaches at Western Carolina University Her collections of poetry include The Swamp Monster at Home  and The Memory of Gills. In addition to The Delmarva Review, her work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2009, Orion, Poetry, and Ploughshares, among others.

Her poem, “The Vision,” is reprinted from The Delmarva Review’s eighth annual issue (2015), which contains original prose and poetry of 35 authors from the region and beyond. The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with additional support from the Talbot County Arts Council and private contributions. For information about availability and submissions, see the website

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