POSTS

Nancy Huang

Clocking Into Neopia

At my last job, I juice limes for hours, until my slick hands shrivel into their own branches bleeding fruit. I do this in a basement kitchen that is perpetually ninety degrees. I sweat and become part juice myself. I emerge from the underground smelling of zest, of green glee, balancing tuppers of milky brine to stock the bar. The juice will be mixed into cocktails, will pull acid from the tongues of customers. Once done, I let my forehead rest on the bar’s dark wood, soaked with fever. 

The kitchen staff call me sour girl. Citrusblood, my hands cool and hot at once. I’ve slung lattes. I’ve helped butchers unzip animals for their slick organs. I still drink coffee and eat meat. But I can’t stand the smell of limes. 

i. 

I scroll onto my Neopets dashboard and click on the world map. Neopia shines in orbit, a colorful globe of gaming, different lands that I pass over with my cursor. Every land in Neopia is bursting with story, color schemes screaming their allegiances. Purple clouds for Faerieland, dark blue Maraqua, green and leafy Meridell. 

I swoop into the Haunted Woods, a Halloweentown of sorts, complete with twisted trees and darkened skies. I collect my freebies. When I click on Grave Danger, a game that involves grave-robbing what I can only assume are dead Neopets, I see that my pet pet has scored me a Virtupets Energy Saber, a rare artifact and weapon. It will surely mean a large sum of Neopoints in my shop till. I go to feed my pets with the free food I’ve scavenged: omelets and jellos and the odd alien vegetable. I am mechanical in this endeavor, my clicking reflexive and instinctual. I wait for the lottery game page, Trudy’s Surprise, to load and spin for my daily winnings. I pull the lever, watch the counters spin. 

This is an essay about making money. The first lockdown in New York, I punched into work as a barista. Then I worked at a butcher shop, taking apart wheels of Parmesan, bagging customers’ groceries, and lifting whole pigs from meat delivery trucks. I left that job to be a substitute teacher once schools opened up after lockdown. Then I waited at an Italian restaurant, behind the bar and in front of it, clocking into a double shift right after brunch service. 

Now I work at a cemetery, giving historic tours to school groups. I edit essays for students trying to get into medical school. I don’t eat for free. My rent is approximately $30 a day, every day. The crux of my life is built on whether I can afford it. 

ii. 

In Neopia, I fly over to Faerieland, a realm of purple clouds and violet castles. I am visiting Jhudora, the dark faerie, to complete one of her quests. I have dutifully completed 32 of her quests. This means nothing to her. She is rude as ever when she demands I purchase a can of prune juice. Where is it? she demands, like a mean customer. I bet you aren’t this slow for other faeries! 

A slow worker I was not. I knew how to get plates out by a fifteen-minute mark, how to prioritize which drinks to make first for the to-go crowd. I knew how to work fast, quick, and quiet. When I messed up a cocktail I knew to pour it out and start fresh with the same rapid motion. When a customer complained I knew how to degenerate, defer, twist myself into something smaller until I shrank into the restaurant’s corner.

iii.

Though utopic, capitalism still has its claws in Neopia, running rampant in the overpriced artifacts and novelty items, the auction boards, the shopkeepers’ forums. I wait for my auction items to sell, like my retired Christmas Meowclops or Seasonal Evil Coconut. Pets remain feedable for free, and though inflation happens I’m mostly focused on fishing out the occasional rare item from an abandoned pirate cove or a snow monster’s ice cave lair. Over the years I’ve rotated out an impressive stockpile of shiny trophies, and frequently change inventory to keep up with demand. These include: limited edition holiday items, pieces of secret maps, a small library of magic scrolls containing arcane knowledge, morphing potions to transform a pet, rare food items, futuristic robot petpets. When my stock sells I collect the earnings and go fishing for more. I am rich in pixels. My bank account boasts 589,543 neopoints, with a 11.5% yearly interest rate. One day, I am convinced I will win the sweepstakes. For now, I collect my interest and sell my wares.

Karen, the nice lady I asked to take a look at my financials, asks about Future Me. What happens, she says, if you get sick? If you break a leg? How do you build security into your life? 

iv. 

A study from UCSF found that line cooks had the greatest risk of dying from COVID during the first lockdown. What we value as a culture remains consistent from what I’ve learned in the industry: when it comes to convenience, a worker’s life is disposable. 

Our value is tied to what we can churn out on the daily, healthy or sick. Our value is in our production, in our exhaustion, in our emotional labor, in whether our legs still work. We are interchangeable and replaceable. We are inventory. 

I did the math while juicing limes. I did it while staring out the window of a classroom. I did it over and over again, retreading the same muddy paths. For a time, I struggled to pay $30 a day. I struggled to feed myself, to heal my sicknesses. I struggled to see an end. 

Karen is nonjudgmental. She sends me charts dividing up my income so I can pay off my debt little by little. She tells me I participate in life; I am young in a beautiful city. There is time to do most of what I want to do. I have friends, an artistic practice, a cool job. 

I build a house for my Neopets in Faerieland. I buy and sell and buy and sell and buy and sell. I participate. I watch the money rise in my Neopian bank account. I watch the money leave my actual bank account. I wait and breathe and wait. 

v. 

The stages of starvation for a Neopet: 

1) Hungry. Last year was a whole hungry summer, so hungry I felt it in my sleep. 

2) Very hungry. My bank account chronically empty, I did all the tricks, did what was asked of me–lived less. Lived off sleeves of crackers, tea, packets of oatmeal, till the flesh under my eyes swelled my vision shut. WebMD said I was delirious with water, my body rivening for salt. When I switched to 99 cent ramen the swelling went away, replaced by horrendous acne.

3) Famished. A former friend who grew up wealthy laughed when I told them I was suicidally broke, said they didn’t see how the two were related. You can save and starve all you want, slough off the buds on your tongue. Endure indignity. Endure the organs’ revolt. 

4) Starving. Nothing I put into my body made it whole. Nothing I did made me whole. 

5) Dying. And Neopets don’t die, which makes the presence of a graveyard confusing, and also means that pets live in a kind of horrible emaciated limbo, unable to do anything about their own hunger. Like virtual ghosts, they are deprived of the means to feed themselves. They touch nothing; play with nothing; they float along in their world until I come to visit. Their benevolent, loving, forgetful owner. 

vi. 

I have friends who have been in service for decades. For every one of them, I think of their knees splintering, their spines unspooling. Stooping low to lift a delivery or burning a finger on a stove. Roughshod hands with cleaning chemicals. Stocking a grocery or scrubbing a kitchen. 

My father worked in a kitchen. Fresh off a plane, he became a busboy at a Chinese restaurant in New York, then Boston. He was saving up money for his graduate program in Louisiana. While a student there, he cleaned hotel rooms. He was paid $30 a day–my current rent–consequently the same amount of money for a room for one night. 

His first few nights, he likes to joke, he was so exhausted that he waved his money away and collapsed on the beds he’d just made, waking to an unfamiliar room. He did this because he had no strength left. He gave it away so that other people could rest. 

This essay appreciates service work. This essay is thankful that its author worked in service. It is not service work itself that this essay is critiquing–rather, the treatment of workers, the withholding of resources, the crossing of pickets. The legislating away of safety, the lack of protections. The lack of insurances. The lack of coverage. 

In Neopia, I am pushing colorful buttons to receive gifts in a world of utopic abundance. In this world, rest is our least abundant commodity.

vii. 

At the cemetery, I take school groups to different graves, and we talk about the people buried there. One time, a fourth grade student interrupts my Women Pioneers tour. “We’re stepping on dead bodies, aren’t we?” he asks. “We’re stepping on them, we are right on top of them, they can FEEL us.”

Children are good at telling the truth, and a cemetery is not always an easy place to be. His fifteen peers shudder and shuffle around in the grass. One of them flinches away from a headstone. 

“People here are buried five, seven, and nine feet underground,” I say. “I promise they can’t feel us.” It’s a rehearsed answer and he knows it. 

“Don’t you ever get sad working here?” he presses. I remember burning my hand serving a one hundred and twenty degree latte. Smiling when I felt incapable of smiling. Folks brunching while the cooks coughed below them.

I tell him what I know is real. That truthfully, working any job can make you sad. 

 

Nancy grew up in Shanghai and near Detroit. Her poetry, plays, and prose are published by The Offing, poets.org, Asian American Writers Workshop’s The Margins, film distribution company A24, and others. Nancy is a Voices/VONA, Watering Hole, Tin House, and Pink Door fellow. She is a ChaNorth Writer-in-Residence, and has a poetry MFA from NYU. She works at a cemetery in Brooklyn.

 

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Felix Lecocq

A Blue flash of light

Click the image to launch. Game will open in a new window.

Artist’s statement

While undergoing echocardiogram testing, I was struck by how much those grainy, black-and-white looping images resembled the pixelated video games of my youth. My body, which I had known so well for 25 years, became on the screen a grainy, unfamiliar landscape requiring new tools of navigation.

The subsequent diagnosis of a congenital heart defect, too, was a moment of profound defamiliarization for me. I experienced the defect as a glitch—not just a malfunction of my heart, which fails to efficiently pump blood in the correct direction, but a disruption to my relationship with my body, to the expectations I had of my life, to my orientation to time itself.

I found myself wanting to explore the liberatory possibilities of disruption. In this game, glitch allows the player to move into new rooms. It makes exit possible. Glitch releases the player from a normative relationship to time—a regular heartbeat must be disrupted for the player to explore the rest of the game. Blood must flow backward through my heart for this version of myself to live.

Perhaps this is a saccharinely utopian interpretation of a serious health condition, but what are games for, if not to imagine new worlds, new modes of thinking, to literally build those worlds into code?

Legacy Russell writes in Glitch Feminism, “We are the most fantastic and beautiful mistake… [We] proudly fail in the present as we dream new futures.” I hope you enjoy my game.

Click here to play the game.

The game should open in a new tab on your browser. Use the arrow keys to move and advance through text.

Desktop play is recommended, but the game can be played on mobile by swiping in the
direction you want to move and tapping to advance through text.

This game was made using the bitsy game engine, created by adam le doux.

Felix Lecocq is a writer with a weird heart. You can find his work in Black Warrior Review, Joyland, HAD, and elsewhere. Felix is a 2023–24 Tin House Reading Fellow, and he is working on his first novel. You can find more of his writing and games at felixlecocq.com.

 

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Tana Oshima

The ladder (an excerpt)

Tana Oshima likes to draw, paint, and write. She is a Japanese to Spanish literary translator, and has translated contemporary Japanese female novelists such as Yuko Tsushima, Hiroko Oyamada and Yu Miri. She also teaches art and comics at NYC public middle schools. She has self-published ten mini comics and has shown her work at galleries in NYC, Portland, Miami, Sweden and Spain. Her first novel is coming out in 2024.

 

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Ben Montague

Places I’ve Been Eaten and Regurgitated

Ben Montague makes comics, zines, poems, short fiction, memoirs, objects, tattoos and little films. Their work has been featured in publications by Driftwood Press and The Femme Moon, among others. They live in Chicago with two cats, a roommate, and many miscellaneous jars.

 

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Parisa Karami

Wheel Well Stowaway Survivors

Parisa Karami is an artist living in the Hudson Valley with her family. Recent works can be seen on media outlets such as Mc Sweeney’s, Northwest Review, Pleiades, Aquifer, The Belladonna, New Orleans Review, Drunk Monkeys, MQR Mixtape, The Indianapolis Review and elsewhere. For more information you can visit parisakaramipaintings.com

 

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Flavia Stefani

The Division of Bad News

Each day, it was someone else’s turn to receive a call. When it happened to one of us, we weren’t exactly sad. Neither were we happy; in that delicate space between hope and the hum of everyday life, we were a number of different things: digging out weeds, chopping carrots with dull knives, knitting by a fire that kept dying out, dutiful fingers interlacing threads that would become a scarf or a sweater. On a bright summer day, we might not have been at home for the call, the sound of the phone echoing through the halls and reaching no one, but there weren’t many bright days in Spring Mountain. Our lives were mostly cold, our shoulders never sun-kissed. So we villagers were in the middle of a meal: a roast and vegetables, smoked fish and boiled eggs. Or maybe we were about to enjoy a slice of pie, cheeks pinked by the warmth of the oven, when suddenly we heard the ring.

*

As it turns out, it was a bright summer day, the first blue one in years. The clouds had been scared away by a daring sun that radiated more warmth than I could handle. On my way to work that morning, I felt a slight pressure on my brow and realized I couldn’t look up—the light was a heavy hand directing my gaze to the ground. Over on Main Street, Billy Mayer stood on a staircase, a baseball cap covering his bald spot. He held a handmade sign that read, “Ice Cream today,” and placed it over the one that read “Firewood.” I quickened the pace. I took a shortcut through some backyards and walked into a side street to the parking lot, which was empty for a Monday. 

At the office, I approached my station at the end of a long hall. The window was open and the air had changed: the usual smell of stale soup had waned, and something clear, floral, made its presence known. A few employees were already hard at work, a dark card in their hands and dozens of others piled up on their desks. I put the jacket I didn’t wear on the back of my chair and sat down. On my desk sat a headset, a dictionary, and a brown envelope in wax paper with my name in all caps. Tearing the protective seal, I found what I always found: a new stack of pitch-black cards, forty or fifty of them, each bearing the name and phone number of someone from the valley. The cards looked identical, and their message was the same.

I put on my headset and dialed the numbers on the first card. The phone rang once, and I thought of all the calls I’d made in the past, the ones yet to come, and how they all started with a ring, how almost everything began with a sound. The line rang again, and I thought of the length of each ring: like saying someone’s name, like calling them.

While the phone rang a third time, I picked up my dictionary. It had been a welcome gift from my supervisor, with instructions to look up new words between calls. Words had a special weight for the Division. On a board next to the water cooler, employees were encouraged to write up synonyms and effective ways to convey the same message so that the calls wouldn’t sound robotic. With any luck, I thought, I could write a new one on the board today, one people hadn’t come up with before.

“Hello?” I heard the expectation in that woman’s greeting, the nervousness of not knowing what waited on the other side of the call. I always thought that one day, with a better phone, we would be able to hear their heartbeats. 

“Am I speaking to Mrs. Kandinsky?” I asked, straight to the point. On a normal day, I probably would have buttered her up some. Good morning—is this Mrs. Kandinsky? I would have said. Or, May I speak to Mrs. Kandinsky, please? But time was of the essence. If the weather got any nicer, someone could decide to host a barbecue or celebrate a birthday at the lake. Over in Lava Springs, Mary Kelly could fancy Billy’s initiative and reopen her soda fountain store. I mean, people could get all sorts of ideas, which would result in me losing an entire day of calls that would reach no one. The stack of cards in my workstation wouldn’t shrink on its own accord. On the contrary, given all the empty chairs in the Division that day, I’d probably have to work late.

“Yes,” a woman’s voice said. “I’m Mrs. Kandinsky.”

“Mrs. Kandinsky, this is a call from the Division of Bad News. We regret to inform you that you were not the winner of the lucky draft.”

Mrs. Kandinsky breathed into the phone.

“Do you have any questions?” I said.

She hesitated. I gave her some time. 

“Mr. Brooks,” she said timidly. 

I knew where this was going, but I asked her anyway. “What about him?”

“We went out last week,” she said. “He makes a good steak.”

“Maybe try again in a few years?” I said. 

“And my blueberries?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Kandinsky. I wish I had better news.”

“Well, thank you very much for your call,” she said. She didn’t curse me. Didn’t call me names or hang up on me. We got that a lot. But she was so polite, it almost hurt. Mrs. Kandinsky let me finish my speech. “The Division of Bad News appreciates your business, and we hope to contact you with better news in the future.”

*

Spring Mountain sat at the base of Rocky Mountain, a mountain under a mountain, and those who were born there grew up with a stony presence looming over their heads. As part of the St. Patricio Valley, a patron no one cared to pray to, the town was surrounded by smaller villages like Lava Springs, Houndtown, and Heckville, and it lived under the constant weight of a blanket of fog. Most houses were designed to be useful rather than beautiful, small homes with red brick roofs and faint paint. People led simple lives. Our hearts weren’t visited by burning material ambitions. Everyone’s fortunes were determined by a draw, and only one person in the valley would receive good news at a time. Sometimes that happened once a year, sometimes once every five years; the frequency wasn’t clear. It had been this way for so long, there wasn’t even a record of a time when life wasn’t like this. We didn’t even have a division of good news, that’s how little good luck there was to dish out. To make a good-luck call, the attendant would head over to a small room in the back of the Division and call the recipient behind closed doors. I had never received a good-luck call, nor had I ever made one, but I’d laid eyes on a good-luck card once, when one of our oldest employees retired and was assigned a good-luck call on her last day. As she made her way slowly to the small room, she held the card next to her chest, and through her wrinkled, papery hands, I saw a combination of colors so pleasing I almost cried in my chair: different shades of pink, red, orange and blue mixed with subtle hues of green and yellow, a beautiful thing to behold. I felt taller just looking at it.

*

Carol walked through the door later than her usual late. I followed the top of her head as she passed each cubicle, her dark bun bouncing like a ball, the bun she would untie and tie up over and over again between calls, and as always, I felt the urge to chop it off. She sat in the station next to me and flashed me a sly smile, followed by a wink, a movement that seemed to imply that I was complicit; that I, too, would be late one day, and wasn’t that a normal thing, a thing everyone did at some point?

In my four years working at the Division, I had not once been late.

Sitting up straight, I breathed in and pulled my head toward my right shoulder. I let the air out slowly. Stretching one’s neck was important, the head of the Division had said during an employee retreat earlier that year. Standing alone on the stage, the director turned her back to us and explained, her fingers running down her neck, that speech was affected by each small muscle and ligament, that everything was connected. She could always tell, she’d said, when the caller was relaxed, and what a painful sound when they were not. They could always tell: all calls were recorded for quality assurance. They were also transcribed, the logs cleared of curse words and placed on a shelf in the basement, an underground library housing the luck (or more frequently, the lack thereof) of each one of the valley’s inhabitants. 

I stretched my neck in the opposite direction and closed my eyes. I thought of the next call I was going to make, how it would be my best one yet, when all of a sudden I was struck by a sharp smell of apples. Apple pie, apple juice, something that required an unheard amount of apples clogged my nostrils. I opened my eyes. Carol’s face was only a few inches away from mine. 

I pushed my chair back. “Jesus,” I said.

Carol smiled. “Did you have a good weekend?” she asked. 

“What is that smell?”

“What smell?”

“Did you bathe in applesauce?”

“Oh,” Carol said, sounding pleased. She took a small tube of lotion from a drawer. “I got it over the weekend,” she said. She squeezed a small amount on the back of my hand. “Try it.” 

She had started at the Division a few months before me, and based solely on the fact that she and I were the same age, she acted as if we were best friends.

I wiped my hand on her arm. I reached for my headset. 

“Well,” Carol said. “If you must know, I had a fun weekend.” She looked both ways and whispered, “Mark and I went to the lake.”

There was also that: Carol had started seeing someone. She couldn’t help it. Although none of us would confess to harboring grandiose aspirations, our hearts ached for the tiny things like that. We adopted pets, met new people, drove with those people to the lake and, staring ahead at the silent body of water, made timid wishes—I suppose you could call them plans—for the future. Which, of course, only made the outcome all the more bitter: sometimes things took a turn for the worse within seconds of us receiving a bad-luck call. Milk would go sour in the fridge. A love interest would suddenly lose interest. A house would burn down and take the neighbor’s house with it. Some fatal car crash we would read about in the news. Still, we couldn’t help it. Though we wouldn’t openly discuss it, hope was the pale feathery thing tickling our feet at night. That’s why Carol and I had that job, and probably would have it for life. I liked to think I had learned my lesson, but Carol seemed a ways from learning hers.

I tapped the ends of my forefingers against my headset. Carol got the message. She dragged her chair back to her station, the casters leaving traces on the carpet. She unwrapped her brown envelope. I dialed the numbers on the next bad-luck card.

“Hello.”

“Can I speak to Mr. Knox,” I said. 

A loud burp sounded on the other end, and the smell of Carol’s lotion made me think that whoever was on the other side of that call had eaten pie for lunch. 

“This is he.”

“I’m calling from the Division of Bad News,” I said.

A female canine. The posterior opening of a mammal’s digestive tract. A person with limited intellectual development. That would be how Mr. Knox’s insults would appear on the log.

Carol let out a scream. I looked at her. With one hand she covered her mouth, and with the other, she held out a small piece of rainbow, a piece of paper so vibrant it seemed to suck in all the colors of the room. She had been assigned a good-luck card. The first good-luck card in years had been assigned to Carol. 

She stood up. She sat down. She moisturized her elbows and stood up again. She looked at me. I covered my headset. “Go,” I said and shooed her with my hand. She moved awkwardly to the back of the room. She was nervous, of course. I would have been nervous, too. On top of the surprise, whoever was assigned a good-luck call also received some luck. That’s what the rumors said, though how much luck no one knew for sure.

I heard a voice in my ear. Mr. Knox was still on the line. 

One who engages in sexual activity with another person’s mother, his final insult would read in the transcript. He hung up before I could finish my speech.

*

Carol seemed agitated when she returned to her cubicle. Feel my hands, she said, and placed them on my forearm. Her skin felt cold and moist, like beer on a windowsill. She untied her hair. She pulled a piece of gum from a drawer. We were not supposed to discuss good-luck calls, but if someone was going to break that rule, it would be Carol. She pulled her chair close to mine. She picked up my dictionary (who knows where she’d put hers) and pretended to look up words. She pointed her index finger at a random one. Her blue nail polish was chipped on the edges.

“He was on his way out,” she said to me. “I figured he was going for ice cream or whatever, so I said to him, do you have any fun plans for the day? It’s OK to ask questions, you know.”

We didn’t know. Because they were so rare, we were not trained to make good-luck calls. We could break the news however we wanted. Also, good-luck calls were never recorded.

“But he wasn’t going out for fun,” Carol continued. “He was on his way to work, like everyone else, he said.” 

She reached for a colorful pen on her desk. She opened the lid with her mouth and underlined a word on a different page. “I love how this smells,” she said. She brought the dictionary to my nose. The ink smelled like bananas.

“He is from Heckville,” she continued. I felt a heaviness in the bottom of my stomach. “Did you know that there are lumberjacks in Heckville? A dry place like that? I would never have imagined.”

My heart sank. I knew one lumberjack in Heckville. 

“Well, apparently there are.” She flipped the page. “But the strangest thing was, he didn’t ask me any questions. I told him my name, said I had fantastic news for him, but he just listened. I’d hoped my happy tone would tip him off—I’m a sucker for happiness, you know me. I believe we could all stand to be a bit more cheerful—but he just let me babble on. Didn’t laugh. Didn’t cry. Isn’t that funny? Some people are like that, I suppose.”

I shuffled my bad-luck cards.

“Anyway, I finally broke the news. Well, Mr. Dave Welly from Heckville, I said. It’s my great pleasure to inform you that you’re the lucky winner of the Division’s draft.” And you know what he said?

I knew exactly what he’d said. She said it aloud, and I said it in my head: “That’s better than being tickled by a monkey.”

*

There was a secret trail that connected Spring Valley to Heckville. A path that was often hidden by the fog, and that for that reason remained a secret to most people. But if someone, let’s a say a couple, a man and a woman: if they drove there together at the suggestion of one of them; if parking on the trailhead, they jumped the wooden fence that had been swallowed by the vines and made their way through the dense vegetation, the shrubbery scratching their elbows like arrows, they would find it: a stretch of dirt that linked one place to the other. It would feel promising under their feet, the trail; it would feel solid like a new beginning. 

About half a mile in towards Heckville, the fog would begin to recede. The path would start to clear and the colors would become sharper. The couple would reach a steep hill, and at that point, they had two choices: either to continue the trek up to the top or to walk back to the car. Now, it would take a certain type to walk back after having gone that far, especially if they were on their first date and one of them, say, the man, had recommended the trail. And if the woman had ever wondered about the difference between a rock and a stone, that initial ascent would clarify it for her: a rock was what she thought she’d stepped on before falling on her knees. A stone is what tore through her trousers and bruised her leg, a pain both sharp and hot. But suddenly, an open palm before her eyes. Her scraped hand would meet his, and he’d get her off the ground with one pull. He wouldn’t ask if she was okay; he hadn’t said much all day and she found that comforting. Instead, he’d kneel and peel the fabric of her trouser gently, like a piece of fruit. He’d examine the wound and then he’d produce an ointment from his pocket. He was that kind of man. He’d apply it to the wound: it would burn at first, then a sensation of cool. “It will be OK,” he would tell her, and that would settle it. They would continue on the trek, slower this time, the man guiding the woman by the hand through the riskiest parts. She wouldn’t sense even a drop of sweat on his palm: the texture was similar to the trees he felled, and it seemed to carry their wisdom, the way a tree could be calm and reassuring.

At the top, the whole valley would unfold before them. The houses looked like toys, the streets like the fine lines of a map. The Division building would be a narrow concrete block in the distance, the lake but a drop of water on a carpet of green extending in every direction, and whatever happened there and whomever it happened to would look so small. The sky would be a shade of blue so vivid it wouldn’t seem real. Funny, the woman would think, how the more vivid something was, the less real it seemed to be. There would be a bench at the top. They’d sit on it. She’d lay her head on his shoulder, and he’d put his arm around her waist. The silence between them would be a kind presence, and all around the song of the world: birds, bugs, the wind, the cars below. At some point, he would say “That’s better than being tickled by a monkey,” something his father used to say to him, and his grandfather too, he would explain. “It is,” she would reply. She would think that was nice, being up there with him. It was as nice a thing as it could be.

No one asked her, but if anyone had, the woman would have told them: at that moment, she made a wish. With her head on the pillow of his arm, she wished for that moment to go on forever, just that.

Say, wouldn’t it be the saddest thing if she never heard from him again?

*

I had never heard from him again. That had been four years ago, almost to the date. I spent the first months trying to call him, but each time I got the same message: this number has been disconnected. I assumed Dave had died. He had died for me anyway, like the ones who’d come before him, like my plants had died a few years back, like my pet lizard who had been run over by a truck. Things died. You got used to it. How do you know something will work out, I asked my supervisor when it became evident I wouldn’t hear from Dave again. When you receive a good-luck call, she’d said. Until then, assume that nothing will.

I looked out the window. Light was fading out, rosy hues succumbing to gray. A small bird landed on the windowsill. So Dave had received a good-luck call. His whole life would change, I thought, as I stretched my neck once more. Whatever life he had been living up to that point would only get better.

Carol gathered her things to leave. She hummed a tune I didn’t recognize and I could tell by the delicate manner she arranged her belongings that she was happy. She closed the window. Through the pane, I noticed that the sun had put on its neon pajamas: the clouds were stained with the final colors of the day and the air felt chilly again. Carol fastened her jacket. She reached for her keys. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. She handed me my dictionary. 

I read the words she had underlined.

                                           here n: this place <get away from ~>

                                           here.abouts \ -bout \ adv: in this vicinity

                                           1. here-after \ adv: after this sequence or in time 2: in some future time
                                           or state

                                           2. hereafter n 1: FUTURE 2: an existence beyond earthly life.

I read them again. I thought it was funny how a small detail could change a word. It didn’t even have to be a full word; sometimes, half a word would do it.

*

Night fell upon the valley. The head of the Division was heading out. “Don’t stay up late,” she said as she left. And looking at the pile of cards on my desk, “Just give it to them straight.” She winked at me. Since we’d been understaffed, she probably presumed I was covering for someone. What she didn’t know was that I’d actually met my quota an hour earlier. I had simply moved all my bad-luck cards to the bottom of the pile. 

The door clicked to a satisfying sound when she left, the sound of an instant coming to an end. Now it was just me and the flicker of fluorescent lights, the tired hum of the water cooler, which hadn’t worked that hard in ages. And then the sound of plastic as it wrinkled and crinkled, of me going through Carol’s trash bin and tossing all the contents on the floor. So much gum wrap—green-apple, strawberry, watermelon—her trash bin a testament to her obsession with artificial sweetness. A hairpin. Carol’s bad-luck cards from the day bearing doodles in the margins, which I thought was disrespectful. But Dave’s good-luck card was not there. 

I sat in Carol’s chair and imagined for a moment what it would be like to be her. Where would she have put Dave’s card? I looked at her belongings. She kept a photo of her dog, a French poodle named Mary, in a portrait next to a candle. A pit bull had beheaded Mary the previous year, not long after Carol had received a bad-luck call from the Division, and for a week afterward she didn’t show up to work. We all had to work late to make up for her absence, a fact I resented. Her candle had a lid where the words “Jasmine Sandalwood” were written. I lifted the lid and immediately closed it. I went through her drawers. More pictures of Mary, gum, lotion, hair ties, highlighters in several colors. A holiday planner with gift lists and a holiday menu idea, a brochure of the latest real-estate development. In one of the drawers I found a box of sympathy cards with the same design on the cover: a purple octopus and the caption, “Need a hug?” I recognized that card. Carol had sent me one last time I received a bad-luck call.

Old bills. Memos. Receipts. Paystubs. Not a single one of those documents had a droplet of color in them. I threw everything on the floor and sat facing the sea of paper before me. I fought back angry tears. Carol had kept the card. Of course she had. Why wouldn’t she keep it? A beautiful good-luck card with Dave’s contact information in the middle, which, as luck would have it, I had long lost. Who knew, at this point she could be on her way to Heckville to meet him—who amongst us wasn’t desperate for something nice to happen, for change? She was probably at his doorstep right now. It was possible. Everything was possible. Dave had had good luck. Carol had Dave’s card. What a lucky day for some.

I started to clean up the mess I’d made. As I opened the bottom drawer, I noticed Carol’s dictionary deep in the bottom, dusty and hardly used. I thought of replacing my marked-up dictionary with hers. I pulled it out of the drawer and a piece of paper fell on the carpet, a bad-luck card. I picked it up. The name on it was so familiar, I couldn’t register it at first.

I read my name. 

It dawned on me: I hadn’t received a bad-luck call in a long time. I really hadn’t. I thought about it. My new plants had made it through the winter. My roof was not leaking. I hadn’t caught a cold, hadn’t so much as sneezed over the past months. Even my hair was growing out nicely. I wondered how long my bad-luck card lay hidden in Carol’s dictionary, but in truth, it didn’t matter: we were supposed to make the calls the same day we were assigned them. That was the number one rule of the Division, a rule they emphasized at every gathering, and there were consequences, severe consequences, they told us, for not adhering to it. But what these consequences entailed we weren’t sure. As far as I knew, Carol was the first one to break the rule. Apple-scented Carol. Banana-pen Carol. Annoyingly optimistic Carol. Breaking the rule for me? I put everything back into the drawers. I chewed on a piece of watermelon gum. It tasted like the real fruit initially, and then like the worst thing I had ever tasted, overly sweet and repulsive. I switched off the lights and walked outside. I sat on the front steps of the Division and stared out at the darkness. Some stars danced against the blue night curtain of the sky, and I realized they were fireflies sparkling off and on, as if flickering in and out of existence. I took comfort in them. So much of life happens in obscurity, I thought. Almost all of it, really, but every now and then something glitters.

 

Flavia Stefani is a Brazilian American writer, a 2023-2024 Brown Handler Resident, who earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A former assistant editor at Guernica and Witness Magazine, Flavia is at work on a novel and a collection of linked stories. Born in Goiânia, she lives in San Francisco. 

 

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Gabrielle Esposito

The Blue Hour

after Megan Pillow’s “Margo, Turn Left”

Here is a single cloud rolling over the sinking sun. Here, the crow caws for a chick that fell from the nest in the Meyer’s yard. Here now, the first night of heat, striking as sudden and hard as a branding iron even as the sun goes down. But we barely notice because we’re watching Xochi, sitting alone in her car. 

She’s at the stop sign looking left, right, left, and we can’t see her face, but we can hear her wedding ring tapping the glass and it sounds like a fork hitting a champagne flute. We all know what she’s doing. We watch her from our Adirondack chairs at the edge of Mona’s hot tub, and all we hear is that clink and our lips purse waiting for a kiss that will never come. 

That sound, that sound—we close our eyes in unison, and here is Xochi, already tan before summer really starts. We hear it, and Xochi strips down to her sandals and drops her keys into Bryn’s fruit bowl. We hear it and wait for Xochi’s husband to come and quiet the mourning cries of the crow. 

Clink goes Xochi’s ring against the glass, clink clink clink and Alexandra brushes smooth the hair on her legs, but all she feels is Xochi tense as Alexandra brings her to the edge of herself for the first time, the last time. Clink and Mona slips her own ring off her finger and considers it like she’s seeing it for the first time. Clink and Bryn begins to bite the inside of her cheek so that she can soft-tissue pain like Xochi, who would eat herself alive if she could. 

Here is Xochi at the stop sign and we all know this summer will be oppressively hot. We all know her bag is there beside her on the seat but empty because Xochi hates commitment, and what is she thinking? We all know that if she goes the sun will grow so hot it will boil our blood in our veins and our households will shatter and the bells that chime on every porch she walks past will melt. And yet here is Xochi, not gone yet. Now is the time for the incantation. 

Alexandra brushes her course leg hair and with a practiced flick of her wrist, pulls out a pinch. Mona moves her wedding ring into her palm and drops it into the frothing mess of the hot tub. Bryn gathers a wad of spit in the back of her cheek and hocks it into the water and we all whisper the words:

Turn left, Xochi. 

Xochi, turn left. 

Again and again we whisper them, quiet, so our husbands won’t hear us and before us, the water begins to flash disco green. And while we chant, we think what we cannot say. 

Turn left, Xochi.

(because if you do, the road will sprawl out before you in a way that will reveal the true curve of your body, coiled like a crouching snake.)

Xochi, turn left.

(because one day, one day, you will pad the walls of your mind with softness so that it won’t hurt when you remember.)

Turn left, Xochi.

(because you are too big for this town, too big for us, and even though it’s good right now, it might be bad later).

Xochi, turn left.

(because we read the question on your lips when you look at your husband: What were we doing? What were you doing?)

Turn left, Xochi.

(because we were there the night you held up a raisin and said, This reminds me of—and you laughed and it was the worst thing we ever heard.)

And we don’t understand, and we don’t ask because we don’t have to. But every night when we are alone in our beds, here is Xochi’s reflection in a funhouse mirror and she looks 16, has always looked 16, and all we think is you are the daughter we chose not to have

Here is the cloud rolling over the sun. Here, the crow crying. Here, the first hit of heat. 

And yet. 

We watch Xochi. 

We tend to the water.

We chant the words five, ten, fifteen times. 

Turn left, Xochi.

Xochi.

Turn left.

 

Gabrielle Esposito is a graduate of SUNY Geneseo’s Creative Writing program. Her work has been published in The Manhattanville Review, Gandy Dancer, 34TH Parallel, and others. Her short story, “The Way Home,” is a recipient of the Doro Boehme’s Fiction Editor’s contest by Hypertext Magazine. She works as a Librarian and teaches writing classes throughout the Hudson Valley.

 

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Meg Cass

The Pink Rats Inside Us

There is a reason why no sleepovers at our house or at the houses of other girls, my mother told me the day I got my first period. Pink rats live inside us. Your grandmother had them too. While we sleep, they crawl out of our mouths, gnaw on the toes of people not in our family. For example, your best friend Sam, your only friend. She will wake in horror, flee into the night, tell all the girls on the lacrosse team. Keep this secret until your wedding night. That is when I told your father, who could have handled it better but didn’t flee. At least not right away.  

While she spoke, my mother drank long sips of red wine, her mouth ringed as if she’d been chewing on my fingers, though I was the one doing that. I liked the taste of my nails, the heady stink beneath them from between my legs. My cuticles stung when she had me chop onions, bled over incorrect math homework and the pastel pink bat mitzvah thank you cards. A dozen families from our temple had come, had kissed my cheeks and given me faux gold bracelets with gemstone hearts I’d never wear. None of them were our friends. I wondered if they too harbored animals they feared would attack. 

Sam gave me a chunk of Baltic Sea amber on a black cord. I wore it every day until the cord frayed, then carried it in the back pocket of my jeans. She wrote me funny illustrated notes during school, sculpted me a blue hot cocoa mug and fired it in her mother’s kiln. In her presence, I felt full of raspberries, salt, stars, and moons except when she and the lacrosse girls held parties and didn’t invite me. Then I’d want to scratch her from my life, would lie awake feeling pathetic and mean. I’d wonder what the rats inside me ate besides the toes of non-family. My mother said liver and onions, so make sure you clear your plate. Otherwise, they’ll gnaw your guts instead.   

In Hebrew school, we’d learned what it meant to be called vermin. I somehow knew not to ask my mother about this, to not question if our rats were an internalized myth, twisted to keep us alone and safe, an isolation passed down from my grandmother who’d lost her whole family. It was the same way I knew not to ask, at my first gynecologist appointment three years later, if the doctor felt them when she pressed my uterus, an organ more alien to me than any story my mother could tell me about myself. When I skipped meals, I wasn’t consciously hoping the rats would eat it out, along with my ovaries and breasts, return to me the body I loved. Still, the sharp hunger gave me a rush. 

My first boyfriend loved my flat stomach. When he took me into his parents’ lukewarm shower and bent me over without a word, the pain erased any memory of my before-body. I grunted as if in pleasure, bit the inside of my cheek. The shower curtain was patterned in tropical fish. Any rats inside me stayed put. I can’t remember how many times this happened. After, we always snacked on his mother’s dried apricots which she ate to stay regular. She and my boyfriend went to our temple, and I’d heard her discussing her bloat with my mother, who recommended she switch to prunes. 

My mother had no remedies for loneliness. When I came home at thirty, single and on my fifth city, she said, “There are difficult phases of life.” I didn’t tell her that on first dates with men, a hirsute rustling filled my throat. I stilled it with glasses of red, then invited them to my meticulously clean apartment, fucked them on the grey comforter. Then I swept them back out into the stream of strangers, cleansed again. After, my head ached for days. The rest of me was a staticky blur my friends admired in skater skirts, in tulled Roxy dresses. Over the years, a few girls asked me out. I’d want to say yes but something always clamped down around my heart, big-toothed, afraid. 

I’m middle-aged, back in town for my mother’s seventieth birthday, when she says, “I ran into Sam’s mother at the store last week. Did you know she’s married to a woman?” On the table, instead of the usual liver and onions, she has placed a golden roasted chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, a tangy spinach salad. She has switched from wine to sparkling water. My pink rats seethe. I chug the cheap Merlot I brought myself, take measly bites. My mother devours everything fast. “You know, I would support you if that was what you wanted,” she says, her mouth shining with schmaltz. “I’ve only ever wanted your happiness.” 

She stands up, grabs the sides of the table to brace herself. Then she vomits onto my plate as if I’m a baby bird. What comes up is not our meal but a glowing pink moon. It’s the size of her heart, reflects my still-young face. It smells of strawberry shortcake. “Don’t you want it?” I ask. “I’ve got many more, it turns out,” she says, a glint in her eyes. “Please, take this from me.” 

I’m drunk and angry—mostly at myself, at my nagging sadness—but I stab it with my fork, crank my jaw wide like a snake. My eyes water; the moon burns going down. It doesn’t hurt more than anything else. It tastes like alternate lives, like amber softening back to resin, like a joy that was always mine. My first beard bristles my chin. “Wait, not like that,” my mother says but it is too late. I burp berries. Stars bloat my belly. I lick my lips, whiskered and ravenous.

 

Meg Cass (they/them) is a queer, trans fiction writer and teacher who lives in St. Louis. ActivAmerica, their first book, was selected by Claire Vaye Watkins for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and was published in 2017. Recent stories have appeared in Ecotone, Foglifter, and Passages North. Their flash fiction has appeared in the Wigleaf Top 50 and in the SmokeLong Quarterly Best of the First 10 Years Anthology. They co-founded Changeling, a queer reading series focused on works-in-progress, and teach in the English Department at the University of Illinois Springfield.

 

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Said Shaiye

How ADHD Meds Changed My Life

Preface: The essay is about how adhd meds changed my life, but it hasn’t been an easy road or a quick fix. It’s been blips of perfection surrounded by turmoil. The format is intentionally jarring – I hope to convey the uncertainty of the adhd life. This is merely my experience and not meant as a universal definition. The thing about being neurodivergent is that we all exist on a spectrum. My viewpoint is unique to me. Perhaps you’ll find parallels in it, but there will also be points of departure. Take it all with a grain of salt. I don’t claim to be an expert on anything but my lived experience. All photos in this piece were taken, on film, by the author in Minneapolis.


“THE FEAR”

You can feel the fear in you. It wants to consume.

You just landed a dream job, a scholarship, new girl, anything worth celebrating.

The Fear says you are unworthy.

Or even worse: you will die before you ever enjoy this.

You were destined for misery. This Is The Fear.

If you get anything worth having in life, it will be right before you die.

Surely your death must be near.

You, taste, happiness? Please.

You’ve watched enough Star Trek to know that Logic is the blueprint for life.

The logic of your life thus far says you will die just as poor as you were born.

We don’t care if you feel you’ve made it.

You’re still that dusty lil African kid in that Mombasa Refugee Camp.

Utaango, you forget that place? Your mother nearly died there. Your brothers were born there.

And you? You’re still that Feed The Children commercial.

You forget how they bullied you in first grade, no English, Atlanta? African Booty Scratcher.

I am The Fear. I am your only friend.

I am the only one who can stand your bullshit enough to stick around.

Everyone else will leave you. You know it’s true. They already have. Show me a friend you’ve known more than 5 years. You can’t, can you? Tragic.

You said what? You are unworthy of love?

Well, you’re not wrong. I don’t love you. I am The Fear, incapable of Love. But I am here.

this is how the world began


I used to do a lot of drugs. The thing about abusing substances is that it depletes your neurotransmitters. This leads to very bad depression. Combine that with being dark skinned and growing up in a place like Seattle with no real sunlight, and you get a vitamin D deficiency (aka Seasonal Affective Disorder). This makes the depression symptoms even worse. This makes you do more drugs to cope. Which make you more depressed.. which makes you… yeah.

I’d end up in the ER, in the psych ward, at the tail end of a long binge. I would be so depressed that a psychiatric hold felt like my only option. The ER doctors only ever saw me at my lowest state. At other times, I’d show up to the same ER (hi, Harborview Medical Center) in a state of stimulant induced mania. They put all of this on my chart and their natural conclusion was: Bipolar. The man wavers from depressed to manic, he must be Bipolar.

I accepted their verdict, along with the Lithium salts which promised to ease my instability. It’s very dangerous to get dehydrated while you’re on lithium. I was working as a pedicab driver at the time, so I was routinely dehydrated. One weekend, I signed up for a 3-day festival on that pedicab and… it did not end well. I felt like I was dying for 48 hours. I didn’t ask for permission when I decided to get off the lithium. Better alive & down then dead & treated.

That was only one such incident. I have a million more stories like that, stories I’d rather not tell because they’re too painful. The basic story arch was this: misdiagnosis / wrong medication / very bad effects from medication / get myself off the meds / rinse & repeat cycle.

I was beginning to lose hope, and not just from being depressed. I turned to self-medication. Look, at least with weed, alcohol, mushrooms, molly, coke, meth, Xanax, experimental research chemicals (hello, 2CB) & everything else I got my hands on, I could control the flow of feelings.

Did I care that all this drug abuse was putting me in dangerous situations (I’ve had guns pulled on me, seen close friends OD, nearly died myself so many times)? No. It didn’t really matter because, as dangerous as this life was, it was better than the eternal malaise I was in sans drugs.

Years later, I would get sober, clinging to faith as my bedrock. Faith was the only thing keeping me from going back to the Old Ways. It didn’t occur to me that all the difficulties I was having could be attributed to ADHD or complex trauma or being Autistic. I had a feeling, but I had no way of knowing. We can’t know what we know until we know it, right?

See, I grew up in this culture that teaches you to be grateful for everything. Say you come home and say “mom, dad, I’m struggling with school. I feel sad all the time, and I don’t know why.” You would get a shower sandal flying towards your head (for daring to be so ungrateful), followed by a lecture on all the people back home who would kill for the opportunities you take for granted. You might be reminded of all the sacrifices your parents made to get you to this position. The refugee camps, the bullets flying overhead, the near starvation.

You want to say something like: yeah, I went through all that, too, except I was only a child, who didn’t have any way to process that level of death and destruction, and so perhaps that’s why I’m feeling so damn sad all the time. Perhaps that’s why I can’t relate to my classmates who only ever talk about the newest shoes or the latest reality show. Perhaps I am not ungrateful, but simply drowning in sorrow so deep that gratitude is the least of my concerns.

You know you can’t say any of this so you shake your head and shuffle off to your room. Cry into your pillow or something. Jack off and hope the endorphins make the pain stop. Cry again.

These days, I work as an adjunct professor, teaching composition courses at a slew of community colleges. The nature of adjunct life is such that you take whatever courses are offered. This is how I make my living, so I pretend to be grateful for the opportunity.

At the beginning of my second semester as an adjunct fresh out of grad school, I received an email that shook my world. “Due to low enrollment, we have no courses to offer you next semester. We know that your income, as well as you health insurance, is directly tied to the number of credits you teach. We encourage you to apply for food stamps, or disability, or unemployment, or find a wife who is willing to pay your bills until enrollment turns around again. We understand that you are Somali and Muslim, and that the expectation is for you to be the breadwinner in a household. We also hear that twitter discourse dictates you need to be a 6 figure salary (with benefits) man just to qualify for a first date. We see you and hear you. Hopefully you don’t get evicted while you try to find a new basket for all your eggs.”

Okay, maybe I’m taking creative liberties with the email. Much of what I wrote is true advice I received from other adjuncts: apply for food stamps/unemployment/disability; find a partner who can pay your bills until things turn around. I did not endure 3 years of MFA hell just to end up more job insecure than ever before. It was so disheartening that I signed up for a coding bootcamp, vowing to become a well-paid techbro & leave the adjunct professor grind for good.

Just as I was losing hope, two of the colleges I have relationships with reached out. One college wanted me to teach two classes. The other college wanted me to substitute for a professor on leave (5 classes for 6 weeks). Being in dire need of the money & benefits, I said hell yes.

Never mind the fact I’m Autistic & teaching in person is terrifying for me. I don’t enjoy being the center of attention, don’t do well with group settings, despise making eye contact. My voice isn’t very loud, so I have to scream for the entire class to hear me. I end up sweating at the front of the class for an hour & fall apart immediately afterwards. This isn’t a very healthy way to live, but this is how I pay my bills. What did Vonnegut say? So it goes.

I’ve always had a soft spot for caffeine, sweets, fatty foods, and nicotine. I quit smoking cigarettes a long time ago, but a hookah addiction had crept into my life in the last few years. I wasn’t proud of it, but it served a purpose. It helped me get through the long Minnesota winters. It allowed me to focus on tasks while I smoked. I did not know that these were all signs of ADHD. I just assumed that was my coping mechanism for stress. I thought it was a personal choice. A moral failing.


Years ago, I was addicted to much harder drugs than caffeine and nicotine. Think stimulants (coke & meth, mainly). During recovery, I used self-blaming as a sobriety device. I said it was due to trauma, I made my mistakes, but now I’ve moved on. I was right, but also wrong. First line treatment for ADHD is stimulant medication. Amphetamines, to be precise. The drugs I used to abuse on the street were nearly identical to what a doctor would prescribe me had I been diagnosed with ADHD at a young age.

I wasn’t born in this country, and neither were my parents. We came here from a refugee camp in Kenya. I was 7 years old when I my family landed in Atlanta, Georgia. I watched cartoons to learn English & American Culture. School was hard, but I am a quick learner. I soon was coming home with awards and being moved up in grades. My parents were proud, but they also reminded me that failure wasn’t an option. As the oldest son in an African Immigrant family, the pressure was on me to save the family. I never had a childhood in Africa (war will do that to you). I was sad to learn that I was expected to be even more mature in America.

There’s a lot about this country’s healthcare system that my parents were not equipped to understand. Because I seemed so smart and capable, no one thought to get me tested for anything. If I complained of being tired all the time, I was told that I was still young. If I wanted to feel real fatigue, try working a double shift at the Marshall’s factory like my parents did. I was always a good son, and eternally empathetic, so I told myself I needed to try harder. I don’t blame my parents for any of this. They did the best they could with what they had. They just wanted a better life for me. They couldn’t have known what they didn’t know until they knew it. I love them for all the ways they supported and encouraged me. I don’t think I would have become as skilled in so many aspects of life if they hadn’t pushed me. I wonder what life would have been like if I’d gotten an early diagnosis. I tend to think things would have been easier, but what about the downsides?

I recently watched a Good Morning America segment on the former NBA player Tony Snell. He was getting his son tested for autism after a teacher noticed classic spectrum traits. As he sat in on those sessions with his son, he found himself identifying with many of the diagnostic questions. That led him to discover, at age 31, that he was also autistic. The GMA interviewers asked him if he’d wished he got that diagnosis earlier in life. Tony said no, definitely not. Paraphrasing, he said something along the lines of: ‘People would’ve put limitations on what I could or could not do. They would’ve put me in special classes and discouraged me from pursuing my NBA dreams. They might’ve said that’s just not something someone like you can do.’

I immediately found parallels to my own life. To make it to the NBA, Tony needed endless determination and countless hours of practice. He needed grit and self-belief. He had to push himself well beyond his limitations or others’ expectations. When I got sober, I did it cold turkey. Quitting the hardest drugs known to man requires endless grit and self belief. Returning to college after 10 years away from higher Ed required grit and self-belief. Finishing an MFA degree as a recovering addict with undiagnosed disabilities required (in my mind) even more determination than it took to find my way to sobriety. I often ask myself how much easier life would’ve been had I gotten an early diagnosis, but I rarely think about how much more limited my outcomes may have been.


I worked as a medical interpreter for several years when I first moved to Minneapolis. A line I would often interpret, in the emergency room of a children’s hospital, was “you can’t bring your kids here for primary care. ER’s are designed for acute care, not long-term follow-up. You need to find a regular doctor and take them there for checkups.”

It was then that I realized how, all these years after we’ve been in this country, many of my people still struggle to navigate this country’s fraught healthcare system. This isn’t their fault. Even people who’ve been in this country for generations struggle to navigate it. I understand that is by design, that it ties into capitalism & money-hungry corporations disguised as hospitals. Having worked in hospitals, I understand how the bottom line is often more important than the patient. As Omar Little used to say: the game is the game.

The game doesn’t leave room for people like me. It forces us to go undiagnosed and struggle to make something of ourselves while carrying unseen burdens. Had I known I had ADHD, that I was Autistic, when I was a child… I probably wouldn’t have ended up nearly overdosing on the streets of Seattle for a good 5 years. I may have accomplished a lot more with my life. I may have gotten married and had a family by now. A mortgage, retirement plan, college fund. Golf slacks, nigga. Stock options and PTO.

But I’m Muslim, and though I lament the failings of this country, I understand that What-If’s are the devil’s playground. I believe in pre-destiny, which means there is nothing anyone could have done to change how my life played out. And I accept that. It’s not always easy, but I accept it.

I see how things played out in my life and how they continue to play out for younger versions of me. I feel it is my destiny to write, not for accolades, but to share my story. In doing so, I hope to help people avoid years of pain by getting the right supports. I know that’s a very cliché thing to say, in this influencer era that we live in, but it still bears worth saying.

Perhaps, if I my body & mind’s needs had been met, I would have been a more positive person who didn’t think so negatively of the world, even as a child. But there’s no way to answer those kinds of questions. What I do know, without a doubt, is that stories save lives. A friend told me recently: your survival story will someday serve as a roadmap to someone else’s liberation.

Perhaps I needed to go through what I did so that I could share my story with others. There aren’t very many of us (Somalis, or children of immigrants) who are brave (or stupid) enough to pursue writing as a life. It’s not easy to reject the trappings of this world when your people desperately need you to make it, to lift them out of poverty.

Perhaps a lot of people have gone through exactly what I went through, but how many of them are writers? Or: how many of them have been stubborn enough to continue writing, even when years of effort produced no tangible (I mean, fiscal) results? We may never know. All I know, for sure, is that I am honest to a fault, I love writing, and I’m always telling my story to strangers.

It may be shortsighted to make a direct connection between all the pain I’ve endured and the fact that I’m a writer now. Did I endure the pain just to become a writer, or am I writer because of the pain? Either way, I’m in a position to help light the path I’ve walked for those who may be at its beginning. Here, watch out for this pitfall. There, be careful of that monster’s lair. Turn left after the next curve. Be kind to yourself along the way, beloved.

Things went like this until, one day at the doctor’s office, I got a high blood pressure reading. I was 40 pounds overweight and my blood pressure was high. I had them run a blood panel to see what my cholesterol was saying. Just as I suspected: it was higher than I’d ever seen. Oh shit.

I asked the doctor what could cause all this, and how can I change it?

Smoking, eating fast food, and stress are all known contributors to these things, Said.

I looked for a camera in the room. Surely this was a prank?

My lifestyle was a direct result of this hellish job, these uncertain circumstances. Not knowing if I would have classes to teach from one semester to the next, my health insurance always in danger of being pulled, getting ready to apply for unemployment as an employed professor? It weighed heavy on my heart, on my body, and my creative practice had been thrown out the window in favor of survival. I was numbing pain & stimulating my brain just to do my job.

Hanif Abdurraqib, in his collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, titled an essay “Brief Notes On Staying // No One is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die”

I did not feel like dying, but I certainly wasn’t living. And I was so depressed that thoughts of no longer wanting to exist couldn’t have been far away. I made a decision, right then and there: YOU MUST CHANGE YOUR LIFE (shouts to Rainer Maria Rilke).

I had been diagnosed with ADHD for almost 2 years at this point, but I was scared to give medication a try for several reasons.

One, my addiction history – what if it was a slippery slope and I ended up right back in The Darkness? Two, and perhaps just as important: the cultural stigma in my community of taking medication for anything mental health related.

These things had held me back, but I figured, look: I’m self-medicating in extremely unhealthy ways. So, what the hell did I have to lose? Why not give medication a try? Why not reach out to an ADHD specialist who will monitor my medication side effects and give me guidance until we figure out something that works? And so, I took the leap…

I met a Nigerian brother who had a small clinic which did ADHD medication management. I looked him square in the face and said I need help, but I am scared. I laid out my past experiences with drug abuse in painful detail. I shared all my fears and asked for his advice.

He put it to me like this:

                                    Brother, I commend you for your honesty and self-awareness. Your concerns are valid, but let me play devil’s advocate. You were at a different place in your life during the addiction years. You were young and had no idea of your disabilities. You assumed that your dropping out of college and turning towards drugs was due to personal failing. You didn’t make the connection between school struggles and undiagnosed ADHD. You were forcing your body to do things it wasn’t capable of. I’m sure you see the COLLEGE DROPOUT section of your life as the fall, but what were your high school years like? You said you started struggling in middle school and your grades never matched your intellect. You told me you were depressed in high school and barely made it to college. We have to look at the bigger picture here.

            Now, let’s look at where you are in your life. You’re in your 30s, have been sober for over a decade. You went back to school, got your BA, got your MFA, published A BOOK which was a major award finalist while you were still in grad school. You did all of this with no medication. You told me yourself that you’re still healing from the pain of those experiences. You asked your body for everything it had, and then you took some more. You have accomplished incredible things, by the grace of God, and you are at a different place in your life. You have too much to lose – you’ve worked entirely too hard to just throw it all away now.

            Here’s my suggestion: let’s get you started on a stimulant medication. The non-stimulant class is too similar to antidepressants, and you’ve told me how many terrifying experiences you’ve had with those. As long as you can be honest with yourself and with me, and you take the medication as prescribed, and you watch your diet/exercise/sleep, I don’t think anything will go wrong. Worst case scenario, it won’t work and we’ll get you off the meds. We’ll try something else. But look at the alternative. As you said yourself, you are self-medicating in unhealthy ways. If these meds work, and I am confident you will be responsible in how you take them, they could change your life in ways you can’t even imagine. How does that sound?

I listened carefully and let it all soak in. I agreed with him. I was scared, but I was more desperate for solutions. I agreed to give it a try. I prayed to God for assistance. I asked Him to keep my steadfast and to protect me from relapse. I had tried everything else. Now it was time to give meds a chance. Internalized stigma about meds be damned. I was drowning, and this sounded like a life raft….

///             ….             ….               ///

and this is how the world ends

Ramadan, 2023

2 weeks of fasting. 2 weeks w/o adhd meds. 

I’ve completely regressed into my worst self.

Sugar cravings every night. Random mood swings. Inability to start or finish tasks. Distracted constantly. Sabotaging relationships I’ve worked hard to build. Overthinking EVERY THING. Poor impulse control. Lethargy. Hard crash after socializing.

Poor organization. Opening a new browser tab & forgetting what I wanted to search. Snapping on people when they ask too many questions or try to socialize with me when my social battery is drained. Negative self-view. Less optimistic. More worried & scared (especially about money). Going on spending sprees (even if I can’t afford it). Falling apart. Falling so far. Fell.

A few weeks back, I started this article and called it HOW ADHD MEDS CHANGED MY LIFE. I stopped writing because something felt missing. Now that I’m back to The Old Said, Unmedicated & Ornery, I see the perspective I was lacking. 

I forgot how hard my life was before I found these meds. How impossible it was to sustain momentum, or relationships. How I constantly dumped my weird feelings onto anyone who would hear me. Most of the time, it pushed people away. Maybe that’s what I wanted, or maybe The Fear made me do it. Thing is, you can’t constantly leak your worries to everyone in your life. Even if they love you, humans only have so much capacity. They will tire, and that’s understandable.

I’ve had poor self-esteem & negative self-worth for most of my life. I assumed I was born to live that way. Getting on ADHD meds, finding the right medication & dose (which is a journey and a half of itself), has changed my life. I cannot stress this enough.

My life changed so drastically, so quickly, that I forgot what it was like without them. I realize that sounds rather like addiction, or dependence, but you have to remember: the ADHD brain is not like other brains. We deal with chronic under-stimulation. A lack of dopamine or some shit. I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. I hear words and wrangle them.

What ADHD meds did for me was balance out the lack of dopamine. Make more of it available to my brain so that it could function how a brain is “supposed” to function. I put my body through hell just to get through the day without my falling apart. Even the best of medicines comes with side effects. It hasn’t been easy, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

It was not an overnight fix & I had to make MAJOR life changes for the meds to work. Strict wake-up & bed times; clean, healthy diet; regular exercise; GALLONS of water per day; rest days scheduled into my med routine. I worked with an ADHD specialist to help me troubleshoot side effects & move up to the right dose when I was ready.

Living with untreated ADHD is like playing life on European Extreme Mode. Except no one tells you that your brain is working overtime just to fail twice as hard as people who seem to be exerting only half the effort you are.


Now that I’ve been off meds for a few weeks, my body is returning to The Old Way — self medicating with stimulus seeking (anything to get a quick boost of dopamine). Food, caffeine, sugar, endorphins.

I’ve been sober since 2012. All I have left for stimulation is food & caffeine & exercise. I really can’t do any of that during Ramadan. My body has been pushed to its limits by the combination of fasting, dehydration & sleep deprivation. All I can do wait for month’s end.

I’ve noticed myself seeking more sugar at fast break time. Keeping sweet snacks nearby. Hanging out at my coffee shop more, even though I can’t drink any of it. Wanting to commit sins, but not following through, for fear of God in this Holy Month.

I am at an impasse. My life has quickly fallen apart and all it took was 2 weeks of not taking my meds + my body being stressed by the rigors of this month. I feel like a Bad Muslim when I think to myself “I can’t wait for Ramadan to be over.”

It’s not Ramadan I want to end. I love this month & am grateful for its transformative nature. It’s just that my body *quite literally* needs that medication to function as an adult.

When non-ADHD people take ADHD stimulants, they get high. They feel euphoric & do wild stuff. When we take ADHD stimulants, we feel like (what I imagine) the rest of you feel like. The first time I took meds, I looked up and immediately knew this is how the rest of you feel.

I was mad as hell. You Niggas just WAKE UP like this? Overnight I found I could have full, productive days without crashing at noon. I made small talk with strangers while standing in line. I built a social life where I met with friends in person. Hit up the gym at 6pm. In bed by 9. Asleep by 10 or 11. Up by 8am, fully rested. Rinse and repeat, even on weekends.

I had never thought that kind of life was possible for me. When friends told me about their typical day, I’d get sad and think “must be nice.” 

Nigga. All I needed was the right medicine.

I had an uncle who told me once, right before I snapped on him, that I was fine but probably needed some type of medication. He wasn’t sure what, but something needed addressing. I’m sure he meant well, but I don’t do well with unsolicited advice.

I took it in the worst way possible: Are you saying I’m broken? Do you want to put me in your group home with the other broken, medicated people?


There was a lot of context for my outsized reaction. At the time, he owned a series of group homes that specialized in Somali clients. They provide a culturally relevant approach for people who need to be under long-term care, with medications. This all sounds great in theory, but in practice… it’s a lot. I had tried to work for him at one of those group homes and I fell apart. I couldn’t handle the overstimulation, but I was also bothered by the whole setup.

The fact that my uncle made obscene amounts of money from this endeavor, and that people who had similar life experiences as me were effectively trapped there… stuck on medication for years, eating the same old food, having every aspect of their life micromanaged… it really bothered me.

I remembered a time, back in Seattle, when this same uncle came to scout a location for a new group home. I was extremely depressed at the time, laying on a mattress on the floor. He came in and casually appraised me. His voice always had a robotic quality to it. I was in so much pain, and all he could see was a new business opportunity. Something about that bothered me, and I guess I always looked at him through that lens. Exploiting sick people for personal gain, ain’t that the American dream?

The other side of the argument is that if he hadn’t created culturally specific group homes, those same clients would end up in white institutions that didn’t understand their needs with nuance. A lot of the clients had complex diagnoses that needed a lot of support. I now work in the disability sector, so I see how hard it is to help people within the narrow scope of State regulations. There are so many agencies and rules and systems and so much and. It is less than ideal even in a best-case scenario.

I also realize that I’m too close to this issue to have objective thoughts on it. Being autistic makes it hard for me to hold opposing/conflicting views at the same time. I tend to see things in black and white, as all or nothing. It’s hard to see shades of grey. Every autistic person is not like this, because there’s no such thing as an autistic archetype, but I know it’s true for me. I have more compassion for my uncle these days, but back then I only felt attacked. Like someone wanted to fix me. I once heard Ross Gay say: “to fix means to mend, but it also means to kill [as in euthanize an animal]…” I wonder why this world wants to fix us so badly?


3 of the biggest blessings of my life: coming back to Islam (thank you, Allah); getting sober (drugs are hell); getting my right diagnoses (Autism + ADHD). 

Being Autistic with ADHD is a unique experience. I have friends who are just Autistic and friends who are just ADHD and friends who are both. The combined experience is something I’ll struggle to make sense of for years, but I am not ungrateful.

In many ways, I relate more to ADHDers than to other Autists. The ADHD has a propensity to take over my life, while being Autistic is more of a background feature. Don’t get me wrong – I still struggle with sensory sensitivity (eating in a busy restaurant is one of my worst fears). Social situations are still challenging, but that may have more to do with an under-stimulated brain than it does with Autistic vs Allistic communication patterns. Could be a little of both, but I’m no scientist; just a dude trying to write his way to a place of understanding.

Prior to ADHD meds, I had chalked up most of my issues to being Autistic in an Allistic world. And I was not wrong! However, I completely disregarded how many parts of functioning in modern society are hampered by ADHD.

What the hell am I trying to say? I’m running out of energy. 

My nigga, long story short, ADHD isn’t what pop culture has led us to believe. It is complex & subtle & overwhelming. It looks like personality traits. It looks like a Broken Brain. It is simply a shortage of dopamine in the brain. Therapy helps, but all the therapy in the world won’t change the fundamental issue. 

I was against meds for a long time because of my bad experiences + cultural stigma. Now I can’t picture my life without them. I was NOT living life before this. I was riding the waves from one crash to the next. I was falling apart smiling & accepted it as my life.

I know how all this may make me sound — perhaps like an addict. Brother let me tell you: I’ve been to the deepest depths of addiction. It nearly destroyed me. I clawed my way to sobriety & learned to live a sober life. I rekindled my faith in God (by His Mercy) & put my trust in Him. I went from college dropout & hopeless addict to Published Author with a Master’s degree. A Keynote Speaker & College Professor. Always giving back to my various communities in any way that I can. I am grateful.

I know what it means to have nothing — I lost my country at the age of 3 and watched my younger brothers’ births inside a refugee camp. I learned to be an adult before I ever knew childhood. I have lived no less than 17 lives in my 35 years on this earth. I know what I am, what I am not. Perhaps I’m still an addict and perhaps I don’t care.

Medication isn’t for everyone, but I know they help me live a life worth living. 

Alhamdulillah for everything, even this.

I’ve done too much explaining. Here’s a poem:

                                                I can hear the sound of papers rustling

                                                On the other side of the room

                                                In this busy café, filled with noise

                                                I can’t process which part of the noisescape

                                                Is most overwhelming to me right now

                                                All I know is the barista in front of me

                                                Wonders why I’m looking out the window

                                                Instead of sustaining eye to eye contact

                                                All I know is these big bay windows

                                                Let in too much light, even on cloudy

                                                Days I wish life was easier, or made sense

                                                Days I wish I didn’t exist, forgive me Lord

                                                Nights I awake in a cold sweat, bad dreams

                                                Seen people burning, hope it’s not me, I pray

                                                I see heaven one day, screaming for forgiveness

                                                On Judgement Day, pleading with my Lord like

                                                Dear God, did you not see the ways I suffered

                                                On your earth, at the hands of Your creation?

                                                I beg thee, beloved Lord, forgive all my sins on this

                                                Most hallowed of days, when the sun is just inches

                                                Away from our sweating bodies, and the earth has been

                                                Flattened like a scroll, and the humans rush from left

                                                To right and plead forgiveness for the sins committed

                                                Against one another, for they know that this day is unlike

                                                Any other day which came before it, and now, just now

                                                All they can hope is that they lived just right enough

                                                to walk into Heaven, even if it’s a hard walk

                                                All I can hope is that my few good deeds and my

                                                Endless inner breakage, the tears shed, deep grief

                                                I hope it’s enough to lift me from that eternal fire

                                                I pray for this, and dream it, and write it, every day

                                                This was meant to be a treatise on being Autistic + ADHD

                                                It turned out to be a prayer and a wish, a hope everlasting

/////

Said Shaiye is an Autistic + ADHD Somali Author, Photographer, Professor & Disability Advocate in Minneapolis. He is represented by Mariah Stovall at Trellis Literary Management. His debut book, Are You Borg Now?, was a 2022 Minnesota Book Award Finalist in Creative Nonfiction & Memoir. He has contributed essays to the anthologies Muslim American Writers at Home and We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World. He has published poetry & prose in Indiana Review, Texas Review, Obsidian, Brittle Paper, Pithead Chapel, 580 Split, Diagram, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota, where he was a Graduate Instructor of Creative Writing, as well as a Judd International Research Fellow. He was a 2023 Loft Windows & Mirrors Fellow. He can be reached at www.saidshaiye.com.

 

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Janine Blue

Intake: 4/4/2018. Brooklyn, NY 

Diagnostic Criteria
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)
Bipolar I Disorder:

911 Caller: There is a guy walking around. He looks like he is crazy but he’s pointing something at people that looks like a gun and he’s like popping it like he’s pulling the trigger. He’s not pulling a trigger but he’s making a motion as if he is and there is something sticking out of his jacket.

Dispatcher: Ok, is anybody injured?

911 Caller: Nobody is injured.

Dispatcher: Ok, give me one second. Ok, help is on the way, I just have a few more questions, ok?

911 Caller: Uh-huh.

Dispatcher: You said it looks like a gun?

911 Caller: Yes.

A distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood, and increased goal-directed activity or energy lasting ≥1 week 
  1. Officers arrived at the scene around 4:30 p.m. and saw a man matching the description callers gave. In a news briefing later Wednesday evening, NYPD Chief Terence A. Monahan said the man “took a two-handed shooting stance and pointed an object at the approaching officers.” When asked whether the officers accounted for Vassell’s potential mental illness when they encountered him, Monahan responded that “this was not an [Emotionally Disturbed Person] call.”
(any duration if hospitalized), present most of the day, nearly every day
    1. The victim’s father, Eric Vassell, told the New York Times on Wednesday that his son had bipolar disorder and had been “sick for a long time.” Neighbors and local police officers also said they knew Vassell to be mentally ill and to drink heavily. Vassell had been taken to the hospital several times in recent years for mental health treatment.
Characterized by the occurrence of 1 or more manic or mixed episodes (the manic episode may have been preceded by and may be followed by hypomanic or major depressive episodes, but these are not required for diagnosis)

911 Caller: Hi I’m walking on Utica Avenue in the direction to…yeah walking away from Eastern Parkway towards Empire Boulevard. There’s a guy in a brown jacket walking around pointing. I don’t know what he’s pointing at people’s faces. I don’t know what if it’s a gun.¹ It’s silver.

Dispatcher: You said Utica Avenue and Eastern Parkway?

911 Caller: I’m walking in the direction towards Empire Boulevard.

Dispatcher: So, Empire Boulevard?

911 Caller: Right. I’m walking on Utica in direction towards Empire Boulevard. I’m between Carroll and (Unintelligible Dispatcher/Caller audio overlapping).

911 Caller: I’m sorry. (Unintelligible Dispatcher/Caller overlapping).

911 Caller: He’s an African American guy. He has on a brown jacket.

Dispatcher: Brown jacket?

911 Caller: Right. He’s pointing a thing in people’s faces. He’s wearing blue jeans and black and white sneakers and a black hat.


¹  Officers later determined that the object Vassell had pointed at them was a pipe with some sort of knob on the end of it.

During the mood disturbance and increased energy or activity, ≥3 (or 4 if irritable mood only) of the following:
A. Inflated self-esteem or
grandiosity
Four officers, three in plainclothes and one in uniform,
B. Decreased need for sleepfired 10 rounds, striking the man,
C. Pressured speechwho was later identified as Saheed Vassell.
D. Racing thoughts or flight of ideasThe officers then called an ambulance,
E. DistractibilityNYPD Chief Terence A. Monahan said,
F. Increased activityand Vassell was taken to Kings County Hospital,
G. Excess pleasurable or risky
activity.
where he was pronounced dead.

Sources

Blumberg, A. (2018, April 6). NYPD Releases 911 Transcripts, Footage Of Saheed Vassell’s Final Moments. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/nypd-911-footage-saheed-vassell_n_5ac7eb73e4b09d0a1193ce18

Purse, M. (2022). Types of Bipolar Disorder Episodes According to the DSM-5. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/bipolar-disorder-episodes-380392

 

Janine Blue lives in Illinois and is a PhD candidate studying creative writing. Janine’s prose and hybrid work intertwine feminism, police brutality, queer culture, and critical race theory. As a Black female, her intersectional identity is embedded into her writing regardless of the medium or subject matter. You can find her at janinewrites.com and on Twitter @JeblueWrites.

 

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