Category Archives: Nonfiction

The Space Between

I fall in love on the A-C-E train to the Port Authority station in late summer.

Down there waiting for the next train, sound ricochets off of my bare shoulders and calves. Sweat rises on the back of my neck near my hairline. I can feel it prickling there among the roots.

When the world gets too loud, I tend to find corners. And New York is loud. The subway is loud – all of that noise bouncing against the walls and back onto my ears, onto my skin.

Sometimes I try to explain to people that I can feel the words almost as well as I can hear them. But no one ever takes me seriously, and I lack the vocabulary to explain it – all of the vibration, the depth of voices.

Once, Dr. Bonaiuto came closer than I ever have. He’d been sitting on that strange, short, round chair, fidgeting excitedly with the otoscope and large swabs. Stuttering away about a nine-year-old patient who was in the same boat as me. Her parents hadn’t realized she lacked most of her hearing, and she’d gone nine entire years reading lips. They’d tested the BAHA device on her and found that she had trouble with localization of sound, whereas before she’d been able to pinpoint every slight thing, even if she heard it at a much lower resonance than everyone else.

It’s hard enough to get people to believe that you’re legally deaf. Harder still when you never got the handicap sticker, never learned sign language, never even knew that they could do anything to help you hear better. It’s easier to turn away than try to explain what you lack and how you make up for it.

           

Walking through the city isn’t so bad, but the heat underground doesn’t move, doesn’t have anywhere to go. The turnstiles rotate and more people line up against the tracks.

I try to close my eyes to it all. With my vision gone and my feet flat on the concrete it’s easy to hear the men. It’s the depth of them. They rumble low under everything else, beat out only by the trains that barrel by intermittently.

For a while I let the noises come and recede as they will; if I try too hard to focus, I am easily overcome by it all. And then there is the problem of vertigo – and the recent panic attacks that accompany these situations.

There’s a violinist somewhere in the tunnel to the right, and two large men arguing over a subway map nearby. A woman’s cell phone starts to hum. I feel it through the bench, through the thin fabric of my dress and the meat of my thigh.

I know the train is coming before anyone else does, and I stand and move just moments before the crowd does.

They begin to shift and move forward, edging against the yellow line. One man on his cell phone steps dangerously close to the edge and sways. Watching him is enough to make me tilt accidentally on my heels.

 

And then the train is there in a rush of pressure. The air around me thickens and stirs and I can feel the hair coming out of my bun, dancing across the vertebrae rounding out where my neck is rolled forward.

I look down to focus on something solid.

I grip my bag tightly but the weight of the books I’ve dug out this morning from among shelves across the city is throwing me off. The woman who sat next to me earlier stands to my left. That creates balance for a moment. Enough to take advantage of the motion and get caught up with everyone else, move forward with the other bodies until I’m in the train car.

I touch a pole and then a seat, guiding myself to the back where I can press myself against the door there. There is so much sound that the car becomes a vacuum, and I can’t actually hear anything. I can only see and feel my way along for a moment.

As the doors start to compress my ears pull backwards. I wish suddenly that I’d worn my hair down – although the movement is almost never noticeable, I’m still embarrassed by the animal instinct of it. Once in a while it is even accompanied by a tilt of the head.

When I’m situated with my shoulder blades pressing into the glass and my feet braced beneath me I watch everyone else settle and speak, or pull books out of purses, or rest their heads back against the windows and close their eyes.

For the next four stops I can’t hear anything distinctly. I glance up occasionally to read the lettering that announces the next stop, but I am most excited about the books in my bag. It’s impossible for me to leave the city without any. Back home, further north, I have to drive to coastal towns to find good bookstores. Here it takes only blocks, blocks that I can tumble through quickly, grabbing doughnuts on the way and smiling at young men that I’ll never see again.

 

Eventually my ears settle back into their natural place.

With so much sound around me, pressing in, I can’t help focusing a bit on my body. I’m happy for having worn the dress; even in the moving train the air is stifling. My calves are bare. There is also a small slice in the back of the dress right where a line of poetry cuts into my skin. The font can be read simply, but I know that only half of it is visible: are animals, and below that the word love.

     Thoughts of the tattoo turn to thoughts of the men back in my state, some of whom, months later, are probably still waiting for me to realize I made a mistake. I press my back against the wall a bit more firmly, self-conscious of the words now. Men don’t want to sleep with you when they are inadvertently reminded of someone they were in love with, or someone you were in love with, or that love even exists at all. And the ones who do want to sleep with me are the ones who try to trace the raised lettering where it lies below my shoulder blades, whispering clichés to me as I roll out of bed and away from them.

Not that I make a habit of sleeping with men only once or twice. But the months between December and June are long and slow and lonely, especially when everything around you is growing so noisily and happily.

 

At the fifth stop, a young man in front of me stumbles back slightly with the lurch of the train. I don’t really see him for a few moments – I’m still distractedly thinking of how I can avoid running into any of the men I’ve left waiting.

With my thoughts back in Connecticut and my one (mostly) functioning ear temporarily out of commission, a small part of my brain starts to appraise the man. He’s three or four feet in front of me and very, very tall, which I think is the reason why I’m automatically drawn to him.

His elbow barely bends when he reaches up for the pole and apologizes to the woman next to him. She comes up to his armpit. I press back a little further into the wall as the train, and everyone in it, shifts.

I think about Jack Gilbert and his poetry, the nine-year-old who refused the BAHA device, how strange it is that Dr. Bonaiuto is still single. I think about the slice of black forest cake I had this morning, about how I usually like men with a little more meat on them.

But I like the tattoo on his right calf. And I like where his hips are in relation to mine. And as I slowly become aware of my appraisal of this, I think about how I’ve always felt a little too tall for a girl, which is silly – and not so silly at all. Men like to tease me about not knowing how small I really am. Until I’m talking my way out of a relationship and they’re sitting beneath my standing form, face dropping, muscles giving in. Then they see how much space I really take up.

My gaze moves quickly to the bar that runs the name of the next stop across it in red dots. Three more – then I’ll be driving out of the city within the hour. There is nothing waiting for me at home.

 

So I imagine the way his chin would graze the top of my head. Because, why not? I’m thrown off by his delicate wrists, and I don’t usually like blondes.

I’m trying to figure out what exactly is attracting me to him when I notice his friend.

I roll my shoulders and feel the sweat slide against the wall behind me. The friend’s eyes are flickering over everyone in the car, evaluating. He’s short. His arms are covered in tattoos, but they remind me of the city at night, all blurred shadows against skin.

Without meaning to I cock an eyebrow. The friend is speaking too quickly, and though normally I would make an effort to read a person’s lips, I find myself slightly disgusted by him. I’d rather not know what he’s saying.

The clack, clack of the train interrupts my attention for a moment. I press down on the balls of my feet with my weight. I think that the man, the tall one who has caught my eye, can’t weigh too much more than I do despite his height. He’s thin. Maybe only thirty or forty pounds more, and then –

 

his ears.

 

His ears.

I stop paying attention, and my balance is thrown by a particularly bad lurch. The vertigo comes. More sweat dampens my neck and lower back. I stumble forward and catch myself on a stranger, holding up a hand as an apology and thanks.

His ears.

Well, not his ears really, but just behind them. There is the small bud of a contraption pressed against the bone on either side of his ears. I touch two fingers to the spot on myself, where the hair is wispier.

I’ve never seen them close enough to know the details of the things, but I know what they are immediately. And when he straightens up and laughs, I fall in love a little bit.

Suddenly I’m off balance for a whole other reason. I cross my calves, lowering my chin and blushing a bit. My body bounces with the movement of the train as it stops – the last stop before mine. I pull my head up again and hope that this isn’t where he’s getting off. I’d like to look at him a bit longer. I’d like to be near him a bit longer.

 

I haven’t even seen his face, but he’s laughing at something his friend said, and I’m falling a little bit more in love.

How insane, I think. I’ve been spending all of these months devouring books looking for an answer. Even got a line of poetry bitten into my skin to remind me. And it comes back in a small rush on a train, of all places.

 

Despite a general lack of balance I can usually make seven out of ten hoops if I work up enough energy to play basketball. I wasn’t allowed to play sports growing up; I wasn’t allowed to do much of anything.

The bag thudding against my bare thigh is testament enough to years and years spent trying to prove a point.

Because I did know sign language, once. I can still fumble my way through the alphabet and a few words.

But when your own mother calls you disabled in that tone of voice – to family friends, to strangers, to people on the phone… It’s good to be angry sometimes, as long as you harness the anger to benefit you. And let it go eventually.

So I became a scholar and a writer and a runner. I learned to feel a car coming from behind in the asphalt. I listened hard to the way people spoke other languages and became mildly fluent in a few.

I stopped believing a long time ago that there were things I couldn’t do. But the last four years has had me wondering: when did the rest of me get so cold and apathetic? How did I miss the lessons on loving people?

 

I hold my breath until everyone gets off at the next stop. I exhale when I see him still standing there. The friend is there, too, at his elbow – leaning in close and muttering quickly about something as he scans the people remaining.

Almost no one has gotten on at this stop, and now there is only space between my knees and his calves.

I sway forward for a moment as the train moves again. It’s still too loud to really hear anything, but I’m not overly concerned with what he sounds like.

For the first seven years of my life, there was a possibility that what little hearing I had might degrade over time. You accept the potential worst-case scenario after a while.

In a few short minutes we’re at Port Authority, and I’m tightening my hold on the canvas bag over my shoulder, taking a risk to step a bit closer to this man’s broad back. My eyes are level with his shoulder blades.

This time, when my ears pull back, I don’t feel embarrassed; I’m close enough that I can feel his voice. There are no distinct words, but I like the sound of it. It calms me as I look closely at the devices just behind his ears. Two of them.

In the moments before the door opens I imagine asking him about BAHA, and what it’s like having something embedded in the bone of his head. Hearing really happens because of vibration and translation, but not many people actually know that. He would though. He might not think the way I stand is strange. He might have problems balancing too, might not be able to ride a bike, might get scared when there is too much or too little noise around him.

I imagine pressing my one functioning ear to his chest. I imagine that we’d have to be horizontal in order for me to do that, and I would curl myself around his long body like a cochlea.

I imagine reciting the line of poetry to him: we are animals haunted by love. And I imagine him being scared of it the same way I am. Not because I’ve been in love before, but because it seems I never learned how to be.

The train stops. I sway and stumble forward on my toes and catch myself on a thin, serious man. The friend glances at me and his eyes move quickly over my body as he continues speaking. The way his mouth moves indicates that he most likely didn’t change the subject, but the man with the implants turns slightly to look down at me.

The doors open and people flood ahead of us, flood between us. I let myself get jostled out onto the platform but it’s just as crowded.

I need to step carefully to get to the staircase. Especially if I’m going to keep my eyes on him.

I do so on the balls of my feet.

I breathe in four times before I lose sight of him.

Strangely, I don’t feel sad about his disappearing into the station. Instead I feel a bit lighter. There is enough room that I can trot up the stairs, the books knocking rhythmically against my leg.

 

Outside the sweat on my neck and under my arms and behind my knees dries. I tighten my grip around the bag. Sound is returning slowly; first, that of a horse moving toward me on my left. I turn and watch it approach. Can almost hear the couple in the carriage talking, the driver murmuring to the horse. A car passes and it thumps with bass. People’s shoes scrape against the sidewalk, thunder over the grates.

The important part is not to stay angry when you realize that something has left you. To recognize that there are still possibilities for you out there. No matter what you lack.


Sarina Bosco is a chronic New Englander.

 

Cans of Fire

Mom handed you your first beer at the lake, the idea of a ten-year-old taking a swig of Bud Light tickling her funny bones. To see everyone in the family getting along was a rarity, but the smell of the red clay and pine trees lightened everyone’s spirits. You excitedly drank, finally a part of a ritual you had long observed. After this, you expected laughter and food and fun, as there always was when your mom and stepfather drank from the blue aluminum cans. Maybe there’d be a fire pit. Mom always told you to stay back, but you never listened. You loved throwing in things that didn’t belong: cigarette butts, bottle caps, dead snakes. Everything had a certain crackle to it. You retched as the liquid hit your taste buds, bitterness and anguish flooding your mouth. Despite the disgust, you swallowed, prepared to prove your worthiness. Your parents clapped, congratulating you on your first drink. But quickly, their attention shifted away, back to each other, back to their drinks. They continued to sip on the cans of fire as you contemplated how they pretended to enjoy the taste.

*

     By fifteen, you were over the drinking. You’d done it. You’d seen it. You’d cleaned up after it. That Saturday night had already been long and it was only ten PM. Mom had retired to her bedroom hours ago, head spinning from the Crown, leaving you to deal with her husband, unconscious in a pool of Jager-tinted vomit. He’d fallen asleep in the doorway, his upper half on the white carpet of the living room and his lower half outside on the cold pavement of the back porch. The chilly night air seeped into the house and the rope lights twinkled yellow above him. He might’ve been there all night if you hadn’t ventured out for some late-night Oreos. You hadn’t been asleep. When they got like this, your parents slurred your name and begged you to make them another drink, but you retreated into your room. You pulled his legs inside, never once stirring the man from his drunken slumber. The house was silent, save for the ice crashing into the freezer’s tray. Stepping around the man on the floor, you walked into the cool night air. The backyard was calm and the rabbits under the deck settled in for the night. You absorbed the stillness, taking a deep breath before walking back into the house. You locked the back door, set the alarm, and left the vomit. You never wanted to be that drunk. You made that promise to yourself.

*

     You thought of yourself as an alcohol connoisseur by the time you started college. Sipping whiskey and shot-gunning beers came naturally at eighteen, the taste of alcohol familiar on your tongue. Your parents had unknowingly prepared you for the constant tapped keg of college life. Your roommate was different. You went to one party together during your first year of school, her first alcohol-fueled get-together. The ground, damp from yesterday’s rain, gave a little below your boots. ‘Handles & Flannels’ seemed like a tacky theme, but it gave you a reason to wear the purple button-up buried in your closet. The barn was outfitted with twinkling Christmas lights, a haphazard DJ booth, and a black trash can filled to the brim with cherry red Jungle Punch. Frat parties made you nervous. You much preferred a Crown and Coke in your bathtub to the strange, sweating bodies surrounding you. Zoey stayed close to you all night as you navigated through the pulsing crowd to the liquor table. She poured herself twice as much as you did for yourself. She may have been new to this, but she sure didn’t drink like it. You had fifty pounds on her easy, not to mention the years of experience. An hour and a half later, you carried her out, her drunken tears warm on your shoulder, your own buzz long gone. After shutting her in the back seat of the Dually, you leaned against the grey truck door, some rap song thumping in the barn behind you. You shook your head. Some people really couldn’t control themselves.

*

     The oak table feels good, the wood cooling your blazing forehead. Today is Tuesday. It doesn’t matter. You can legally drink now, whenever you please. The bottle in front of you has enough for one more glass. Since you’ve switched to reds, you drink slower, but the lack of sweetness leaves your belly ready for more. The wine is still cheap though. Drinking a bottle a night requires smart budgeting. The room blurs when you stand to make your way to the sofa, and the dog runs under your foot. You fall against the wall, praying your boyfriend in the other room doesn’t hear the tell-tale clunk of a drunk. The leather couch feels good. Cold. You Google:

Is it normal to drink a bottle of wine a night?

How much to spend on alcohol a week?

Signs you’re an alcoholic

     Your mother calls. I’ve been drinking, she says. Sorry for the slurring, she says. You reassure her it’s okay. You have too. You ask your boyfriend too many questions. You always do when you’ve been drinking. He never drinks with you. Just don’t enjoy the taste, he says, and it truly baffles you. However, you’re okay with his lack of indulgence. He keeps you safe. Your personal designated driver. But you’ve heard that only alcoholics drink alone. It’s only 8:30 when you fall asleep on the couch, an empty bottle of wine on the end table, your work for tomorrow unfinished. You don’t worry. Your parents drink more than you do and they’re just fine. Tomorrow, you’ll buy a new bottle.


Kourtney Johnson is a first-year MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Oklahoma State University. Her work has previously appeared in Frontier Mosaic and Burnt Pine Magazine. She is currently working on an essay collection about the death of her father. She loves black coffee, bad Star Wars memes, and her dogs, Hawk and Bella.

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