You're Invited to a Country Club Birthday

Posted on: March 25, 2013

Style’s tricky. My Daria boots are okay. But there's no way I can blame McKenna when she tells me that wearing my beige cardigan with only the top button fastened looks like a cape. It does. I’m no Superman. Even still, I'm not sure how else to wear it that will cover my chest, and Mom says it's fine, so I button it over my corduroy dress for Chelsea’s party. I fiddle with my hair.

"Nobody's going to be looking at you," Mom reminds me.

She's not saying it to be mean. This is a mom-catchphrase. She means, "Stop stressing about superficial crap that doesn't matter." She means, "To me, you’re beautiful, and anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t worth it." She means, "We don't have time for primping because your brother has scouts at eight, so hurry up." I have known my mother for twelve years now, and we are practically telepathic.

The party's at the country club. Mom drives McKenna and me in our family’s awful conversion van with its scratchy gray curtains. McKenna lets me use her body glitter on the ride over.

The country club is the only place to have a party. It's classy. Adult. People's dads play golf here, and if you eat in the dining room, the chicken fingers come with secret-recipe honey mustard. We enter the social hall and set our gifts in the pile. I got Chelsea a lotion set that smells like Juniper Breeze. I think I got it right, this time. I learned my lesson the hard way last month when hand sanitizers started getting big. Mom took me to Bath & Body Works, and I picked Mountain Air because I thought it smelled nice. Audrey, who is popular, looked sorry for me when I took it out of my anorak pocket at break.

"That’s a boy scent," Audrey said. "You should go back and get Kitchen Lemon or Cucumber Melon."

I tried to give Mountain Air to my dad, but he said it smelled like Lysol and teen angst. But tonight, I'm in the clear. Juniper Breeze just came out last month, and it’s definitely girly.

The room is dark, and Chelsea’s parents are tucked out of sight in a corner while the rest of us mill around. Everyone in the grade is invited. This is an unspoken rule at our school, since our grade only has forty-two people in it. That’s why I’m here even though Chelsea exists in a remote social stratosphere.

McKenna and I are on the same social level, the bottom, because we both have glasses and weird hair, but McKenna is slightly higher up than me because she’s skinny. McKenna doesn’t eat anything and is always double-checking her skinniness by seeing if she can wrap her arms around her stomach to grab her elbows. McKenna is also a step up because she’s not wearing a cape cardigan. She’s wearing an embroidered peasant top from Limited Too, so I guess it makes sense that Christopher asks her to dance.

At country club birthdays, they only play slow songs. Except for the Macarena, we have no idea what to do when the fast ones come on. The slow ones, we know the rules. The boy puts his hands on your waist and you put your arms around his neck. Then you step-touch from one foot to the other until the song ends.

I have slow danced exactly one time, in fifth grade with Danny Dalton. We were going out at that point, which basically consisted of him holding doors open for me. Sometimes passing notes. He got me a Beanie Baby for my birthday, but then he started to like Audrey, so he had his friend tell me we were breaking up.

I’m always queasy when I get invitations to dance birthdays. If I don’t go, I’ll miss everything. But if I go, I know I’ll spend the whole time sitting in a folding chair, like now, waiting on no one to ask me to dance.

Out in the middle of the floor, Chelsea basks in birthday girl glory. She is slow dancing with Nick much closer than the rules allow, but no one says anything because they are in love. McKenna and Christopher are on the edge of the group, looking everywhere but at each other. I’m swinging my feet back and forth, buttoning and unbuttoning my stupid cardigan, sipping Hi-C mixed with ginger ale.

Just then, I see Audrey whispering to John Canneto over by the cake table. She’s gesturing towards me. John isn’t in our grade—he’s older—and he is fine. He’s invited because Chelsea has a crush on him whenever Nick is getting on her nerves. And now he’s walking towards me. Me.

“Hey,” says John Canneto.

“Hey, John,” I say.

“So…you want to dance?”

Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” is playing. I’d be a complete idiot to say no, even though I know he’s only asking because Audrey is trying to follow the advice on her What Would Jesus Do bracelet. All night, people will note her virtue.

“Okay,” I say.

We step-touch. I lock eyes with McKenna and mouth “JOHN CANNETO CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS” and she mouths “WHAT’S GOING ON” until Christopher looks at her funny.

At the end of the song, Chelsea comes up to me and John Canneto and hands him a cup of punch, which accidentally spills on my sweater. Maybe not accidentally. I spend the rest of the night waiting for John to ask me for a second dance, but he doesn’t. No one else asks either. McKenna wants to know what John’s hands felt like on my waist, and I tell her they weren’t really touching anything but the fabric of my sweater, but it was totally magical.

Mom picks us up after the party, and we giggle the whole way home. Back at the house, I throw my cardigan into the laundry. I hope the punch stain never comes out.

Photograph by: Whitney Ott
Written by: Dot Dannenberg


Posted on: March 18, 2013

Davy hadn’t smiled in three months. He hadn’t cried either. He showed no emotion since the night his parents sat him down and delicately announced that they were getting a divorce. It was a tough concept for a child to grasp, especially when that child was just starting to learn basic addition and subtraction. Soon, one parent would be subtracted from Davy’s household, adding one permanent hurdle to his emotional development.

But that was an issue Davy would have to overcome through several decades of therapy. For now, his only objective was to stay strong for his little brother; his little brother who happened to be eight inches tall, with moveable joints and a kung-fu grip.

Davy’s parents were never keen on giving him a sibling. Well, his mom wasn’t. If it were up to her, Davy would’ve been sacrificed in the name of stem cell research, but his dad had other plans. After many heated arguments, which Davy overheard through the walls of his mother’s uterus, his dad won the great baby debate. Who could’ve guessed that just six years later, Davy would hear the same raised voices through the walls of he and his parents’ adjoining bedrooms? Anyone who knew them, for starters, but it’s always easier to spot a car wreck from the sidewalk.

Those boisterous bedroom disputes were eventually brought before a judge, where, after dredging up the aforementioned debate and a few other defamatory tales, it was decided that Davy’s dad would remain his primary caretaker. The war was won, in Davy’s dad’s eyes, but the reconstruction was just beginning.

Try as he might, Davy’s dad couldn’t expel his ex-wife’s aura from the three-bed, two-bath battlefield where they fought for several years. The stains of fallen tears and echoes of shouted f-words haunted every room from the foyer to the attic. He had no choice but to put Fort Divorce up for sale.

The following Saturday, Davy’s dad signed a lease for a two-bedroom apartment on the other side of town. That Sunday, Davy, his dad and his little brother crammed into the cockpit of a yellow moving truck and headed toward their temporary residence.

“This is exciting, huh?” Davy’s dad asked in a futile attempt to solicit a smile.

Davy nodded his head in indifference.

“Hey, what do you say we stop for ice cream on the way?”

Davy nodded his head in indifference.

“I bet your little action guy is getting hungry?”

Davy stopped nodding his head.

“His name is Jacob,” he sternly responded.

“Well hi, Jacob! I’m Davy’s dad.”

“He knows.”

Aside from his ice cream order, Davy remained silent for the duration of the ride. He quietly licked away at his lemon sorbet, occasionally tapping Jacob’s face against the treat to give him a taste.

“This is it,” Davy’s dad announced as they pulled into the cookie-cutter apartment complex.

He grabbed a set of keys from the cup holder and dangled them outside of the driver-side window as they approached the sensor. The large iron slats slid out of their way like an elevator door.

“It’s safe, like a CASTLE,” he analogized, trying to pique Davy’s imagination.

They drove through the front entrance past a bean-shaped pool where bikini-clad coeds caught skin cancer as middle-age men stole glances.

“And look, a POOL,” he pointed out. “I can teach you and Jacob how to swim!”


Davy’s dad stopped making observations for fear of being demoted back to apathetic nods. He optimistically guided their rental truck through the maze of identical buildings until he spotted their empty patio. He backed into a parking spot right beneath their balcony and searched for the words to keep Davy’s spirits at “cool” level.

“Home sweet home!”

Davy took a moment to assess his surroundings.

“This isn’t our home,” he answered.

“It can be.”

“No it can’t.”

“Why’s that?”

“There’s no mom.”

Of all the things Davy could’ve said, that verbal dagger cut the deepest. Davy’s dad hopped out of the truck and filled his nostrils with air before tears could breach the surface. He held his breath as he walked around the front bumper to help Davy and Jacob out of the truck. He continued holding Davy’s hand as they ascended the flight of stairs leading to their new abode. Davy took the same precaution with Jacob.

“Well, here it is,” Davy’s dad said as he ushered the brothers through the door, their faces illuminated by the yellow walls of the entryway.

Davy hesitantly lifted a foot over the door rail like a dog preparing to walk on sand for the first time.

“You stay up here and decide which room is yours,” instructed Davy’s dad. “I’m going to go downstairs and grab some of the lighter things before your uncle shows up, okay?”

Davy nodded his head in accordance.

The tears Davy’s dad had been restraining escaped as he descended the steps. Once he reached the truck he shut himself in the back and took a seat on their sofa until he regained composure.

Davy’s dad was too full of hate and determination to cry during the custody proceedings, but now, surrounded by relics of his failed marriage, he was formally introduced to the loneliness of single parenthood.

He sobbed until he realized he left Davy unattended, Jacob not included. He climbed out of the truck, grabbed a floor lamp and headed towards the apartment. When he reached the top of the stairs he heard a sound he hadn’t heard in months, laughter. He quietly approached the door and opened it with the caution of a teenager sneaking in past curfew.

As the apartment came into view, Davy’s dad saw streaks of yellow liquid flying through the kitchen like lightening bolts. He saw Davy standing in the middle of the living room with Jacob in one hand and an open canister of touch-up paint in the other. And for the first time in three months he saw a smile on his son’s face. 

Photograph by: Jaemin Riley
Written by: Mark Killian


Posted on: March 11, 2013

I suppose I was lucky. I managed to scrape together enough money for rent just as the temperature dropped below zero. The apartment I found was just a room with a used mattress. There wasn’t a kitchen, but the last tenant left a portable gas burner and an unwashed pot, which I rinsed out in the communal bathroom. It was enough. The building itself was surrounded by the abandoned factory buildings emblematic of Red Hook. A clouded window faced two such factories, and I could make out a sliver of Upper New York Bay in between them. It was a room with a view.

The factories were changing though, just like the rest of Red Hook. What was founded as an active harbor became a neighborhood few chose to live, but for circumstance. Now, the factories were transformed into luxury apartments and businesses were opened by kids born during Clinton’s first presidency. They were called trailblazers, as if the shops that had survived the preceding decades were unworthy of being anointed forbearers of the neighborhood’s newfound popularity. But I’m not nostalgic. Things change, they always do. There wasn’t room for nostalgia. And anyways, I envied it—the idealism of youth. I envied the urgency of old age too, but I was blessed with neither.

It was my first morning back in Red Hook, and it was nice to wake up under a roof again. I went downstairs to Mr. Kim’s, a bodega that had been there since the late-70s. The eponymous proprietor was an amiable enough man if he accepted your company. A small bell rang as I entered, and Mr. Kim glanced up at me from behind the counter. It had been too many years, he didn’t recognize me. I ordered a coffee, my usual breakfast, and took a seat at a small table by the deli counter with my worn copy of The Idiot. It was the last book I owned from a former lifetime. Once I had accepted the fact that I could no longer afford a stationary existence, I packed what I could into a single canvas bag. I chose to bring a copy of The Idiot with me for no particular reason. It was a poor choice though—Russian authors were impossibly hard to read, let alone re-read.

After my coffee, I grab my canvas bag and make the journey to SoHo where I sell craft jewelry to tourists and the occasional local. I managed in this manner, selling my wares off of Spring Street. It was hard for people like me to find stable employment—people without a paper trail aren’t generally trusted, especially these days. Maybe if you’re charming or beautiful or both, you could get away with it, but if you’re reserved and plain, you’d be suspect. For a while, I put on airs and was successful, except I grew tired of the farce. But money was necessary, whether you were trying to sustain a single lifetime or infinite lifetimes, it just becomes much harder with the latter.

There are a lot of things they don’t tell you about immortality, but I’ve learned. I’ve learned that time won’t regrow the fingers I lost in 1898 blasting tunnels for the Ninth Avenue train. I’ve learned that I will never die from all the sicknesses, existing and extinct, I carry, but that I can never be intimate with someone I love. I’ve learned that everything that people come to accept as truths rarely ever are. Most importantly, I’ve learned that happiness is not inhibited by the possibility of death, that it’s in fact the supreme impetus of happiness. But I get by.

I still have friends, though I know one morning they’ll be gone too. Hopefully, I’ll have moved on before then, as I usually did. In this particular chapter of my life there’s Ed, a fellow Spring Street hawker.

He was already there with his faux leather goods. “Mornin’ Adam,” he said with his thick Bronx accent. He smiled widely, exposing white teeth that contrasted sharply with his dark, onyx skin. It was barely ten in the morning, but the sidewalks of the famous shopping district were slowly filling with people.

“Good morning Ed, how’s business so far?” I asked as I set up my own table.

“What business?” We laughed at the joke, acknowledging our misfortunes the best we could.

Ed became serious and asked, “Ya find a place to stay last night?”

I nodded.

“Good, I keep tellin’ ya dis, but mi casa es your casa if ya eva’ needit. This colda kill ya.”

I nodded again, and smiled, thanking him silently.

The day carried on as a blur of people. Aside from the occasional patron, Ed and I were just spectators, literally watching life pass us by. I manned Ed’s table around noon as he broke for lunch. He came back with two coffees, one which I gratefully accepted. We sat on our plastic crates, drinking, watching.

“Where d’ya think these people are goin’, always hurryin’ all the damn time?” Ed asked.

I shrugged and replied, “I don’t know, but it’s good.”

“How’s that?”

“It means they know they don’t have enough time, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

I’m home by eleven. Mr. Kim’s is still open. I buy a day-old baguette on sale for fifty cents and treat myself to some salami. The groceries should last a few days. Upstairs, I toast a piece of the baguette over the gas burner and have my first and last true meal of the day. The building’s heat is on, but the winter draft is too much for the small radiator and I keep my heavy coat on as I lay down to sleep. I’m on my side and as my eyes adjust to the dark, I see a dead cicada on top of my canvas bag, the moonlight creating a soft halo around it. I turn onto my back, mimicking the bug, wondering if the dead dream as the living do.

Photograph by: Jaemin Riley
Written by: James Mo

death and awe

Posted on: March 4, 2013

One of my husband’s co-workers passed away. I’m sitting in the pew, holding David’s hand and staring at the mourning family’s tear-stained faces. I’ve never had someone close to me die. I’ve imagined it a few times, just to see if it would make me upset, but it really doesn’t. I know if David died, I’d probably throw up and join a convent, but I don’t know if I could deal with hundreds of people telling me how sorry they are. I feel like their condolences would offend his existence and I’d choke someone out.

The dead guy’s name is Henry and his wife is Melissa. She’s wearing black and some fancy old-school veil over her face. She’s standing at a lectern, trying to talk about how Henry was a great husband and a super father, that he will be dearly missed. She’s blubbering so much that spit and snot are pouring from her orifices. Her mother-in-law finally gets up to escort her away as Henry’s dad takes over with red-rimmed eyes. He clears his throat like a thousand times.

The only black dress I have has yellow flowers on it and I kind of feel like it might be a little too festive for the occasion. I keep smoothing it out over my lap and David leans over to ask me if I’m okay. I nod, not making eye contact, hoping that makes me seem more sad. All I want to do is stand up and tell everyone to get over it because people die and that’s just the way it is. Instead, I just count my little yellow flowers and wait for the service to finish so I can eat some pigs-in-a-blanket.

At the reception, everyone is walking up to Melissa, holding both of her hands in theirs and looking deep into her puffy blue eyes as they say sorry. Is she enjoying this? Does she want to be here? I feel like I should walk over there and say, “Look, chick. I know you hate this just as much as I do. Why don’t I take you out for a few drinks until you blackout?” I’m practically stuffing my face with cheese cubes and crackers, trying not to laugh because I’m imagining Melissa drunk and twirling her black cardigan above her head like a lasso.

David touches my right hip and when I turn to look at him, he’s got that look in his eye. No, not the sexy one. The stop-acting-like-a-jackass look and I nearly choke on the pepperjack. He says we don’t have to stay too much longer, he just wants to be polite. I tell him that I understand and watch him make his way over to the punch bowl. Henry’s dad is over there and David pats him on the back. Maybe I should try to be comforting. Maybe I should stop being so weird and act like everybody else.

I refill my plate before disappearing into a small study away from the bustle, leaving the door open just a crack. I turn around to behold a beautiful, red, wingback armchair on the right and a small window to the left, facing the garden. Most of the walls are bookshelves, packed tight with old-looking volumes and antique trinkets. I take a seat and make myself a little cracker, salami, cheese sammy. The room is silent except for the dull hum of those talking just outside.

I chew heartily, reminding myself that cheddar is why I could never be vegan. Suddenly, Melissa barges in, shutting the door behind her. My mouth is half open and she’s looking at me like she’s embarrassed to interrupt, but also mad that I found her hiding spot before she did. She sighs, walking over to the window with her arms folded over her chest. I’m willing her with my mind not to start weeping so I don’t feel like a dumbass. Of course, a bird decides to chirp a cheery little tune outside and Melissa turns on the waterworks.

Her back is to me when I roll my eyes, setting my plate on the desk next to me. I interlace my fingers in my lap and tilt back my head, eyes wandering over to a crinkly-looking white vase holding a few spindly sprigs with tiny leaves. It sits on a side table next to the window and to Melissa’s right. I notice that she’s looking at it too, sniffling and whimpering like a little girl. She wipes her nose with a tissue crumpled in her hand.

“It looks dead,” she whispers. Her brow furrows and she pulls her lips in between her teeth, stifling a sob.

I clear my throat and scratch my head. “You should eat something.” Melissa turns to look at me before I grab my plate and lean forward to hand it to her. She stares at the cheese and crackers like they’re fire ants, but accepts.

I listen to her nibble as I look back at the weird decorative piece, taking note of the droopy leaves and the vase looks like a paper bag that’s been crushed by impatient hands. “My grandma loved fake plants. They were all over her house and I always thought they were so stupid,” I say.

Melissa wipes a few crumbs from her mouth and asks, “Is she still around?”

I’m staring now, tracing the veins of each and every leaf with my eyes as I shake my head. “No, she’s not.”

“I’m so sorry,” Melissa says. She places the empty plate next to the vase on the table.

I look her in the eyes and stand to face her. “No, I’m sorry. I’m kind of a jerk at funerals and I’m sure it’s obvious. I just don’t like how sad people get because it makes it seem like death could have been prevented. That makes people feel guilty. I don’t want you to feel like that.”

Melissa smiles as the right corner of her mouth trembles. “Thank you.”

Photograph by: Whitney Ott
Written by: Natasha Akery

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