Gutter Truths

Honesty.

The pen doesn’t work. Outside, the rain whispers down onto the road. It murmurs through the gutters in a language I can’t understand: the rain only speaks in truth.

I reach for another pen in the pencil case. The latch was open already, from when mom flicked it while examining the room this morning.

“This is a mess.” Her voice betrayed no emotion, open hand floating over the purple plastic case. The “s” in “mess” stretched across the room.

I bobbed my head, like some scullery servant. “I was going to do it.” I hovered over her shoulder, hands buried in my pockets to keep myself from rearranging my entire life before her eyes.

She sniffed.

To be fair, I always say I’m about to do everything.

-o–sty.

It’s like I’m carving the words in the paper. I try again.

Hon–ty.

I sigh, set the pen aside. The next one is a green marker. It squeals, clinging to the paper.

When I was seven, I clung to her, too, to the idea of her: beautiful, strong, intelligent. I loved her because she let me fight her and I hated her because she was always right. I dreamed of the day when I would win, when I could say “I told you so.” That day, I would prove I was good enough.

Not like this marker. I toss it aside, picking a battered pencil from the case.

Honesty.

The graphite is smooth and clean, gliding across the surface like a ballerina.

I used to take ballet classes. I used to shove myself into white stockings and tight pink leotards, noose a wrapper of scratchy pink netting around my waist and pretend I was girly and graceful and lithe. I would twist my hair into braids and stab jeweled bobby pins into my scraggly brown plaits and accept roses, and then go home and change into my baggy corduroys and tattered long sleeves.

And when I marched into class one day, paint-stained sneakers tracking in mud, and announced to Miss Lily that I quit, my mother stood behind me and nodded her approval.

“You have such beautiful long legs for dancing,” protested Miss Lily.

 “And for soccer,” my mother added, and from the wry tone of her voice I could hear the arched eyebrow. I looked down and contemplated my shapeless blue jeans. And I marched out of Miss Lily’s class and jumped in the April puddles.

-one—

This pen, too, breathes its last.

One week in the mountains—one week finally alone, free from her. One last smile and one wave. And then the awful sight of her car disappearing down the country road, spraying the trees with muddy rainwater. Lying awake that night in the bed that smelled of mothballs, I painted visions of her, grinning, sparkling, listening to alt rock in the last light of dusk. Anything, anything to go back home. Tripping over my rusty Italian, trying desperately to describe this miracle who was my mother. And when she came, the bullies and the pity and the cold misery of nights spent alone in a cabin meant for three faded away, focusing on that one face in the swarm of faces.

Honest

No, not this pen. I shake it and try again. Honest- Hon–ty. The pen that my father gave me, the first pen out of the myriad of pens he always held out to me: spent, exhausted, failed—

Like the day my mother’s English failed her, the day her native Spanish couldn’t match my torrent of angry Anglo-Saxon. The day I spat venom at her from the shelter of my father’s arms and reveled in the awful, hurt expression on her face. I won, I won! And then I was left wondering if this was what winning felt like: the seeping guilt, the palpitating heart, the horrified tongue. Or maybe I was losing, again: losing to this woman with the coarse black hair shining in the sickly kitchen light, to this woman in the red bathrobe, red as the womb that had borne me, to this woman with the warm glowing skin of a sun-dweller, stained and paled by days in the cold and the snow. I’d lost to this woman with the worn face and the tired eyes and a mouth set by injustice.

Ho nest y

I’d lost because my mother is truth: my mother is jarring and real and naked, always victorious because even in this world the truth is never really defeated. My mother learned that truth was stronger than Pelé, that truth is louder than the cheering of the battered old radio, that truth is harder than a soccer ball to the stomach.

I do not play soccer. When we got home that day from Miss Lily’s class, I did not put on my cleets. I sat down and read a book—I read delicious lies, and those lies became me. On nobler days I am a dreamer, but on days like this when the world is dark and the thunder rumbles I know I write lies.

Because honesty isn’t hesitating when friends ask if your mother is beautiful. Honesty isn’t smiling when you’re about to cry. Honesty isn’t saying you hate her and knowing you love her.

Honesty is the language water speaks when it falls from heaven. Honesty is the poem the rain whispers on its way down the road.

And even a skyful of honesty could not describe my mother.


Gutter Truths won a Gold Key for Memoir in the 2020 Scholastic Arts & Writing Competition.

Nothing is Terrifying

The sun is gone, but the night is hot. I sit as far away from the fire pit as I can, fingers tracing patterns in the sand. It’s dry and powdery, and still a little warm. The sparks from the fire jump and fizzle. I feel the flashes of pain as they land on my bare legs. I don’t mind; a part of me even likes it. Fire on bare skin, and I win.

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A Fresh Perspective: A Review of The Mists of Avalon

The legend of King Arthur and the Round Table has been told many times. Over the years, it has been rewritten as the story of an injured American trying to modernize medieval England, turned into a comedy starring shrubberies and flesh wounds, and adapted into fantastical role-playing games. This year has seen a reboot, The Kid Who Would Be King, which features a twelve-year-old schoolboy who awakens the evil sorceress Morgana Le Fay in a game of make-believe. Still, not much has been told about the women of King Arthur—the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters who watched the story unfold. In her high-school series The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley explores the famous legend from a new point of view.

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Trusting Minds: A Review of Graceling

 

“See you later!”

I moved away from the group, re-playing our conversation in my head. Had it gone well? I wondered idly. Did they like talking to me, or were they only being polite? I hoped not. Maybe I was too strange, though. Or maybe I was just overthinking things. I shook my head, trying to clear it, but how I wished I could peek into their minds, if only for a moment. How I wished I could know what they were thinking. What if I could?

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Harmless, Harmful: A Review of Othello

They had me cornered–two adults sitting on the ground, and my friend in between them. I gave them all a bewildered look and sat heavily on the ribbed metal bench.

The man asked the dreaded question. “So, where are you from?”

I wanted to run away screaming, certain I would be here for hours. “Well,” I said tentatively, “I’m Italian-German on one side, and–or, well, I suppose more like Italian-German-American, since—” I broke off. They were nodding at each other in satisfaction.

“We knew you were American. You have the accent,” said the man sagely.

I glanced at them helplessly. “But . . .” I had an accent, but it definitely wasn’t American. “But, ah, I’ve never lived in the US,” I said. They just blinked at me. Inside, I sighed. Why did they assume—even invent—so much based on race?

“You still have an American accent,” said my friend, and I nodded weakly. What harm could it do?

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Helen

She burst into the courtyard. It was quiet; the cobbles glinted in the bright moonlight. Although her feet ached from running, she did not dare take her sandals off. The streets were sticky with the blood of the wounded, even this far into Ilium.

A fountain depicting Poseidon stood in the middle of the courtyard, spurting water from a conch shell in the god’s smooth stone hands. Walking over to it, she sat on the rim of the fountain. She stared into the basin. There was a shard of mirror at the bottom, barely visible in the water. She reached down, pulling up her chiton, and lifted it out of the cold water. It felt icy and unforgiving in her warm hands. It was smooth and curved on one side, but tapered off sharply into a dangerous point. Slowly, she brought it up to her mouth and breathed on it. In the condensation, she wrote a small H.

“Helen,” she whispered to herself. “I am Helen.”

The sound of her own voice entranced her; she hated it and she loved it. It was sweet and silvery, like a bolt of cloth so silky that it is difficult to hold. “Do I love myself?” In the mirror, her ruby lips moved in sync with her words. “Do I love my face? The face that has killed a thousand men?”

She cupped the small shard of mirror in her palm and examined herself. Her eyes were a dark, rich brown flecked with gold, lined with thick black lashes. She moved the mirror and examined her cheeks. They were round and sunny-gold, like the warm hue of olive wood. Again she moved the mirror; this time to her hair. It was dark and wavy, arranged into soft braids which circled her head like a crown. Or a snake, she thought, and moved on. Her mouth was small and plump, like a ripe cherry; her nose delicate, almost fragile.

“I love myself,” she whispered. She put her hand to her head and stroked one of her braids. “I love myself. How can I not love myself? There are men dying for the love of me.”

Men dying. She gazed at the bloody spears lying in the moonlit courtyard. “There are men dying, and still I love myself.” Suddenly, she tore at her hair. “How can I love myself? I am a monster! There are men dying because of my face! Surely, no one loves me!”

Then she caught her eye in the mirror once more. “But . . . I am so beautiful. I love myself.” She stroked her cheek, running her fingers over her skin. Then she dug her nails in, hard, so that five small red half-moons stood out on her face. “Do I love myself? I hate myself! I hate Helen! I hate Helen!”

She clenched her hand around the shard of mirror and cried out as glittering red blood blossomed on her smooth white fingertips. Her voice crumbled into a whimper: “I hate her . . . Oh, I hate her . . . She’s so beautiful—”

A thin rain began to fall; her chiton grew wet and tight around her. It suffocated her; she tore at it angrily. She knew that even huddled on the lip of the fountain-basin, with her clothing ripped and her hair bedraggled, even in the half-light of the rain, she was beautiful.

And nothing she could do would ever change that.

Or was it nothing she would do?

She gave a sigh, straightened. Swinging her legs gracefully onto the cobbles, she stepped delicately over the puddles that were forming amongst the cobblestones. As she stepped out of the courtyard, she threw the shard of mirror over her shoulder.

It shattered in a spray of bloodied glass.


Helen won a Gold Medal for Flash Fiction in the 2019 Scholastic Arts & Writing Competition.

Top Three Books: June 2019

We’ve been all over this month, visiting New York, Paris, and more–including libraries and bookshops. Here are this month’s best finds:

The House of Windjammer, by V. A. Richardson

The heart of the house of Windjammer is in their ships. When their magnificent Star Fleet is lost on a long and fruitless journey to the Americas, fifteen-year-old Adam Windjammer recognizes the beginning of the end. Soon the Windjammers find themselves the target of a brutal plot to ruin them–and as the heir of the Windjammer fortune, Adam knows he is the only one who can save his family. This fascinating novel paints a warm and vibrant picture of seventeenth-century Amsterdam that readers of historical fiction will love.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Marie Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is truly one of the best books I have ever read. Juliet Ashton, writer behind the humorous column Izzy Bickerstaff, is facing a severe case of writer’s block. When she receives a letter from a Daswey Adams of Guernsey, she realizes that Guernsey is a hidden treasure trove of stories, both grim and silly. Readers looking for a heart-melting, feel-good novel will be enchanted.

The Road to Little Dribbling, by Bill Bryson

Twenty years after publishing his famous Notes on a Small Island, Bill Bryson, author of over twenty books, published The Road to Little Dribbling, yet another hilarious and loving examination of Britain. From Bognor Regis all the way down to Cape Wrath, Bryson very loosely follows his invented “Bryson Line” in a wry, sincere, and laugh-out-loud volume that will enchant both new Bryson readers and those who have been following his career since the beginning.

#WisdomForFuture: A Review of A Civil Action

On Friday the fifteenth of March, Greta Thunberg proclaimed another #FridaysForFuture—a day when students skipped school to protest for responsible energy usage and a cleaner, greener planet. I watched videos of thousands of students out on the streets, holding up signs and shouting things like “You’re killing our lungs!” The same day, I accompanied a friend as he passed out flyers at our legislative building. It was easy to believe that we could have some impact on what lawyers and legislators decided. And yet—what if you were the only voice? Would you be lost in the opposition?

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