“Be The Change…” Interview with model Madeline Stuart

Madeline Stuart

Madeline Stuart, wearing a beaded dress, looking into the camera. She holds a bouquet of flowers. Image from her Instagram. 

Madeline Stuart, a young woman who stands as a role model and advocate for diversity in the modelling world, was kind enough to answer some questions for TROU. Below you will learn more about her work and her views on romance, dating, and everyone’s favourite fairy tale films.

TLM: Would you please tell me a little about yourself and your career for any readers out there who aren’t familiar with your work?

MS: I’m Madeline Stuart, I’m an international model with down syndrome (the first ever), I love to dance and I spread the message of inclusion and kindness throughout the world.  As for my career, it continues to grow rapidly everyday! It started in April 2015 when a photo of mine went viral after I lost 40 pounds. From there I grew all over social media and I was asked to walk New York Fashion Week, Paris Fashion week, London Fashion week and so many more. I’ve travelled all over the world working in the past 3 years and have loved every moment.

 

TLM: What are your sources of inspiration that helped get you to where you are today?

MS: My mum. She is my biggest inspiration! She also handles all the business side of my modelling, so she is such a big help on where I am today. My own determination and strong will also helped to get me to where I am today.

TLM: I saw that you shared a lovely picture of you and your boyfriend on your Instagram page. We, at TROU, are all about inclusive love stories, would you like to share with the readers your own love story, or experiences being in love?

MS: I have been with Robbie for over 3 and half years, I didn’t realise but he had a crush on me for a long time before we started dating, I had a lot of boys that were just friends and I did not really have any romantic feelings towards any of them but Robbie grew on me and I ended up falling in love with him. Now I could not imagine my life without him, we talk every day when I am home and try to talk when I am travelling as much as possible but it is hard with the time difference.  

TLM: Do you have a favourite love story, poem, or photograph you would like to recommend to the readers?

MADELINE AND ROBBIE

Madeline Stuart with her boyfriend Robbie. Robbie and Madeline look into the camera, smiling. Robbie is hugging Madeline from behind. They wear casual clothing. Image provided by Rosanne Stuart.

TLM: What advice would you give to someone interested in dating a person with Down Syndrome, or other types of challenges?  

MS: The same advice I would give to anyone, be kind, be honest, be true. Everyone is the same and everyone one wants to be loved and respected, people with Down syndrome don’t come from a different planet.

TLM: In your opinion, how has the entertainment industry done with representing love stories of people who live with physical or mental differences?  

MS: I think there is lots of beautiful stories out there about people with and without disabilities.

TLM: Do you think social media has helped people become more aware and accepting of those living with challenges?

MS: I think everyone lives with challenges, just because I have down syndrome does not mean I have more or less challenges than you, my challenges may be just a little different sometimes. On the whole, [everyone feels] self conscious sometimes. Do you struggle to get out or bed in the morning as that pillow is just so comfortable? Do you put on weight if you eat too much chocolate? These are all challenges we all face in life

If you are asking do I think social media has made people more accepting of disabilities than the answer is yes, people are scared of those things they do not understand, so the more people see images of people with disabilities the more they realise we are all the same inside and we all have different packages on the outside, just like you and me. I also think it has definitely helped people become more aware of inclusion.

TLM: What are your personal favourite, inclusive or diverse, social media accounts the readers might be interested in following?

MS: I love Melange and Winnie Harlow.

TLM: Many of us grew up watching Disney fairy tales or reading fairy tales where the prince rescues the princess. If you could write your own fairy tale for Disney to make a movie, what would you add or change to make it more inclusive?

MS: I would definitely add more people of diversity, whether they be gay, trans, coloured, different cultures and I would also like to see more strong women because in reality most of the time women are the ones saving the day, looking after the families and running our world.

 

Dislamer – “Madeline Stuart’s answers were written with the assistance of her mum, Rosanne Stuart” 

Learn More about Madeline Stuart here and on her Instagram.

 

“Tell The Truth But Tell It Bent” by Chael Needle

 

blue water
Photo by Matty Cooper on Pexels.com

“Tell The Truth But Tell It Bent”

My first thought when I got brained was that, if I met up with Erick later that night, he would think that James had finally smacked me. I did not want sympathy from Erick. Sympathy kills flirtation—I learned long ago that any talk of trauma early on in any romance chases men away. Some may want to become your brother, if you make the mistake of spilling your guts, but they never want to be your lover.

And flirtation, its lightness of spirit, its gesture toward a future of pleasure, is what I treasured most whenever I ran into Erick at the bars.

I would explain, if I had to, that James did not give me this nick at the edge of my eye. The bookshelf did.

It was still James’ fault, I know that much. I am not completely deluded.

But here’s what happened. James had been sitting at the farm table in the kitchen checking his emails. Something irritated him—I couldn’t tell what—and he bolted up. His chair clattered backward, sending Shelby scampering away on his squat bulldog legs, in that casual, alarmed flight that dogs are so expert at.

I paused to wait it out, my hand holding the small box of chamomile as if it were a brick I was about to place in a wall.

James then grasped his opened laptop as if to carry it away but instead flipped it with a grunty fuck. It did not have height but it had speed and it clonked against the wall. The force dislodged a metal shelf support higher up and one volume of my paperback literature anthologies—The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century— fell and plopped on my head. Then the shelf slanted down, slid off its brackets and clocked the side of my face, as I ducked under a shower of knick-knacks and dove for the floor.

I sat there, stunned. My head reverberated with the impact of the shelf, dull and sharp at the same time, a heavy weight with a delicate edge had dead-ended above my cheek and then had fallen away.

A small blue-clouded vase (unbroken). An apple pie candle (its jar not cracked). Beadwork dolls made by grandmothers fighting against AIDS in South Africa (unharmed). All of us lay scattered on the floor.

James immediately crouched to help me stand up. The intensity of his anger had disappeared, blanked out by the softness of his bearded face. His green eyes were drowsy and looked elsewhere, as if to make sure the furry tarantular anguish of moments ago had been chased out of the room.

“Fuck, I’m sorry, Micah.”

I turned away from his touch.

I apologized and asked him to give me a minute.

I did not want my feelings to be dictated by his schedule. James wanted to help, now. Now he wanted to help, when a second ago he was railing against some personal injustice, not caring who became swept up in his tumult.

He seemed to be set on a timer. Everything seemed to be always counting down—toward then.

Toward zero.

But zero was never the end.

After zero there was another countdown and another zero. Weeks would pass. Maybe a month. His anger persisted. He rumbled like a misfit bomb that did not know it was supposed to detonate only once. I allowed myself on occasion one quiet explosion, if that, usually in the form of a snide remark. Why was he allowed as many explosions as he wanted?

His power was the same kind I had envied in boys growing up—the indulgent tantrums that brought everyone running to gawk or comfort or guide or discipline. Nurture me! That’s what I envied, but early on I was determined not to manipulate anyone, to demand attention, to make someone love me. I wouldn’t be that needy boy who always got what he wanted.

 

I had tried to explain the relationship to Erick, but I had not been very good at it. The more complexity I offered, the more I sounded like a simpleton.

I thought I had known James well enough before moving in. I had taken two of the classes he taught at the university. He offered me his empty basement apartment when I mentioned bullying in the dorms. I lived there for two years before our short courtship, before I carted my boxes upstairs to his floor and dumped my plywood and pressboard furniture, its seams yawning, on the sidewalk. He made space for me. He didn’t rent the basement for three months in case I changed my mind. He cooked crock-pot meals for me. He enrolled me in a health plan after mine lapsed. He put up new shelves, though I resisted—my junk, orphaned vases, scented candles, looked out of place next to his contemporary furniture and silver-framed posters of Cocteau films I had never seen—La Sang d’un poète, Orphée, La Belle et la Bête.

But I soon learned that I could never escape his terror, those times when James would work himself up into a silent, insular fury. It would spike, surprise me, give me no chance to flee. Suddenly, driving back from Saratoga, he sped up to 80, 90, weaving in and out of cars, ignoring my shrieks to slow down. Suddenly, he knocked a wine glass on the kitchen floor and the shards instantly punctured three spots on the soles of my bare feet. Suddenly, at a vegetarian cafe on the way to P-town, he erupted at a waiter and all eyes arrowed toward me. I know the other patrons meant to be sympathetic, but it was humiliating, knowing the question that carbonated their minds, the question they burped into their napkins. How could I be so dumb as to stay?

I told myself it wasn’t that bad. In the two years we had been together, nothing had been directed at me. James had always been raging at the shadows of his father, all those years of religious nonsense like loopy scribblings across a fresh coloring book, ruining the outline of every image on every page with petulant starbursts of random crayons.

I had long ago vowed to help him and I reminded myself, after his outbursts, that love wasn’t simple. We couldn’t just shrug off years of oppression. I told myself this trouble between us was a wedge placed there by ideologies and their henchmen who would love to see a queer couple come apart instead of come together. I wasn’t going to let all those zeroes break us in two.

 

Somehow James knew the exact distance away from me that he needed to be so that I wouldn’t tear up and start sniping. He stood in the doorway of the bathroom as I let cold water run onto a washcloth. The mirror held me in its vacant stare. No lasting blood, just a cut. I waited for him to leave, but he never did.

He was apologetic, his hands holding a bowl of ice that I never reached for. It had nothing to do with me, he explained. He hadn’t even known I was near. (How had he not seen me reaching for the tea?)

He was just frustrated, he blurted, because the rally organizers had once again not listened to his advice.

“I don’t know why I try! I give them my best—for what?”

He then proceeded to explain his strategy about the rally, as if testing out thoughts on me that he would later refine for his true audience.

I worried after his laptop, his writings.

“Don’t worry about that,” he downplayed. “Everything’s in the cloud.”

 

Once, when we were entwined on the couch in a darkness that immobilized us like an icy crevasse, James shared his deepest fear—that some crazie would come for him. He had become a talking head on national cable news shows and well-known for standing up to conservative fear-mongering. He often traveled from Albany down to New York City and stayed in his shared pied-à-terre for his advocacy work. A fax to a radio station, five unsigned letters—he was certain one of the death threats he had received would be realized.

I told James I would take the bullet for him. He thanked me and kissed my temple.

The next day, as we drove toward the Vermont border to visit my family for grilled steaks in the rusty grass-swathed patio in the backyard, I couldn’t shake my panic that he had marked, with his lips, an assassin’s target. But I stood by my silly words. I would take the bullet for you. I don’t know why I had said them. Perhaps I felt I had nothing to offer James except the sacrifice of my self.

 

After our picnic-table dinner, I cleared the plates and left James to explain to my parents, for the second time, why he did not eat meat and that the veggie burgers we’d brought were perfectly fine with the macaroni salad and baked beans.

Ducking inside, I checked on my grandmother as she prepared the dessert. I expected a tower of shortcake, whipped cream and berries. I cringed at what I found being laid out in cartoon baby bowls.

“Gran, you bought the shells from the store? Whipped topping? For James?”

She pressed her fingers to her lips, her eyes wet with apology. “What do we do?”

“You can make the shortcake real quick, can’t you? What do you need? Eggs?” No.

“Milk?” Heavy cream.

“Flour?” Yes.

I bullied her with questions about what I could do to help. She paused, trying to recall what she needed, as if she couldn’t remember the word for “whisk” or “spatula.”

I flung open cupboard doors, yanked open the fridge door and lifted the cling wrap off the bowl of macerating strawberries—they were small, perfect, machine-cut. “Don’t tell me you bought frozen strawberries? Oh, for chrissakes.”

I puddled in despair.

“It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay,” she promised as she stirred the dry ingredients.

I decided the frozen strawberries were acceptable. The fruit was a month out of season, and, if fresh had been served, James would have probably made some comment about how far the strawberries had to travel or how migrant workers were being exploited. Frozen had an upside.

Gran bustled about, peering at spices and dismissing them with a shake of her head, preheating the oven, trying to remember if she should butter the pans. She decided not to grease them and I glared at her, demanded certainty. She trembled when she added the heavy cream to the dry ingredients.

As the shortcake baked, and I opened the screen door to return to James, to save him from my parents’ details about their love affair with big-box stores, my grandmother stopped me by placing her hand on my shoulder. She smiled. “You hang onto that one no matter what.”

 

From our bed, where our bodies did not touch, I rose up and wandered out to the front room and, without turning on any lights, looked at the snow petalling Swan Street below. All my footprints of the past few years, going this way and that, appeared on the sodden sidewalks.

Across the street, the Empire State Plaza—a large marble-encased concrete slab that provided the foundation for a series of tall state office buildings—was all lit up but completely empty. It looked like a set that some sci-fi movie would use to represent the future on the cheap.

His anger. It wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t just walk out of the door. I could go sleep on Erick’s couch, as I had done before. I could find something more than part-time work if I had to support myself. I wasn’t trapped, so I stayed.

But sometimes, like tonight, I told myself it was bad. Although I thought it mattered that he never hit me, the absence of contact seemed almost as bad as a punch because it was so similar to what I had been used to my whole life—not violence, but the threat of violence, not a runaway truck that jumped the curb, knocking my wrenched body forward against a concrete wall, but rather a parade of passing cars, all slowing down to a sneer’s pace. The threat of violence left no evidence. It seemed all the more insidious because there was nothing I could point to except elevated stress levels and, possibly, drops in my CD4 cell counts.

I heard Shelby creeping up behind me, his nails clicking on the hardwood floors. He always knew when I cried, even softly, even in shuttered rooms, and would come and plunk down beside me with his little sourpuss face and commiserate, fur against skin, heat against heat.

When I turned, he peered up at me. I looked down at him.

Fuck your sympathy. Dumb dog. 

I stamped my foot in his space. He scampered sideways and croaked his dismay. I hated myself for taking my anger out on him. I squatted and stretched out my hand. He looked at me, hesitating at the corner of the white puffy couch. Ignoring me, he hoisted himself onto its big cushions. He knew the truth of my anger.

Good for you, Shelby. You’re smarter than I am.

I kept company with my reflection in the window. A half hour passed. My body motionless, my thoughts ran everywhere. Was I being an idiot for even considering breaking up with James? Would I ever meet a more brilliant, successful man, one who was interested in me?

No.

A calendar reminder on my phone awoke like Sleeping Beauty—Erick’s going-away dinner. He was taking at least a semester off, returning home to Kingston to care for his ailing father. I hadn’t forgotten, but neither had I RSVP’d.

I texted him. I thought I might catch him for a drink if he were still out.

The dog had snugged halfway into the blanket bunched up on the couch. He was looking for his cave.

I perched near Shelby and kissed him on the neck. I cried even though I had told myself not to. I whispered to him our special endearment. I lifted the blanket for him and he ducked into his cave, where he could put his back to a wall and only worry over three directions of attack instead of four. Was that the best any of us could do—minimize the angles of violence around us?

 

I showered and dressed and I had already tied my laces and buttoned up my coat when I heard James yell out in his sleep. I opened the door to the bedroom and peered at him in the slanting light. Shelby trotted in past me and hunkered down in his bed.

James yelled again—a desperate wail. I wanted to comfort him as I always did. Rubbing circles on his back usually quieted his night terrors. But, even then, I didn’t know how to enter his dreams and chase away what threatened him. That wisdom lay beyond me.

 

The snowfall had stopped by the time I stepped out. Without boots, in foolish shoes on the iced-over sidewalk, I slipped around a bit. I struck out my arms for balance, for walls that were not there.

A cold wind buffeted me. I sought my scarf in the back seat of James’ hybrid, but the lock was frozen. I cursed. I pounded the window with my fist and rafters of snow fell around my arm.

I shook off the snow as I climbed up Jay Street. Someone, walking ahead of me, had swiped their finger along the snow-tufted windows of every single parked car. I kept my eye on the unbroken broken line.

It was a slow trek.

Though it had seemed late for a work night when I left, I knew that two blocks away, in its cozy amber-lit basement bars and on its sidewalks lined with shoveled stoops, Lark Street would be percolating with the Thursday-is-the-weekend students, the pub-hoppers, the bohemians, the late-dinner legislative aides, all unspooling from time, the clocks of Albany frozen for the night.

Halfway up the block, I paused on a belt of blue-salted snow and checked my text messages. I had forgotten to turn my audio notifications on so I didn’t see Erick had answered me, checking in every time he left for another bar, leaving me a trail of crumbs, geolocated pins in maps.

I texted: “Stay where you are. Be right there.”

He gave me a thumbs-up.

At the top of the block, I crossed Lark Street, slush-tracked, and headed for his last location, the bar that catered to the collegiate party crowd, mostly men and women who liked men and women. This was fine by me. I did not want to go to a bar where I knew anyone.

Erick stood outside, snug in his dark pea coat, hailing me with a small-wave hello, the tiny gesture floating toward my heart like a hummingbird. I longed to be sugar water.

“Chasing after straight boys now?” I joked, as I navigated the hardened snowbank like a timid mountaineer.

Erick reached out and helped me down the snowbank, crusted with ice, melded together like peanut brittle that cracked and crunched underfoot. I felt all the toothaches of Christmas when I crossed, holding onto his cold, bare hands.

“Oh, yeah, straight boys. I just love a man in a wifebeater.” Erick stopped short—I could see my silent face in his thoughts for a moment, until it disappeared like a lit match down a dark well.

“How was your going-away dinner?” I asked.

“My friends love me. Even Nathalia showed up.”

“Wow,” I answered, not remembering why Nathalia might have shown up or not shown up.

“Let’s not go here. Too rowdy.” He pulled me forward, in the direction he wanted to go, and I slipped. He caught me. I could tell Erick could see my bruise even in the snowlight. “What possessed you to wear dress shoes, goofball? You’re going to break your neck!”

He locked arms with me for support and, when he hugged me to his side, and looked at me to make sure I was ready to take the next step, I teared up. I did not want him to leave. I could not bear to be apart from him, even though we were hardly ever together.

 

Erick and I only ever chatted when we happened to meet at Oh Bar, a glossy, tin-ceilinged pub up the block that we both frequented. We’d drink our slender-glassed cocktails. We’d argue about who would buy the next round. We’d smile at each other when a song that we both liked lit up the flat screens. We’d hide behind stacked beer bottle boxes in the back to smoke our electronic cigarettes. Play tabletop trivia. Flirt like hell. Share tipsy kisses. Our time together, a string of moments, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, always stopped short of—more pleasure. Then goodbye.

Lately we’d been having longer chats, a sort of guerrilla therapy, our shoulders tensed against the super-reflective white-tiled walls, tamping the shadows that threatened to embrace each other.

He always pushed me to demand happiness for myself, and, when I apologized for James, he shook his head. I didn’t tell him all of it, but he filled in what I left out. He encouraged me to spend time apart from James. Even just a weekend in Lake George. Take the bus. Have a secret picnic on the beach with a submarine sandwich. (I had laughed, amused by the quaint poverty of his suggestion. Submarine sandwich!)

It wasn’t that bad, I would assure him. I would list James’ accomplishments as a scholar and activist, all he had done to unite the community across the state.

“Who cares? The community doesn’t have to sleep next to him,” Erick countered.

“But his work on trans protections? Funding for LGBT homeless youth? That counts for something.”

“You could do that same work.”

“Me? Who can’t speak in front of a crowd? Who can’t talk to a Republican without telling them to go fuck themselves? I can’t do that.”

“I’m not saying be Harvey Milk. But you can write letters. Tweet. Protest. Put your body on the line.”

I shrugged. “Not really my style. I’ll stick with nurturing someone who can do those things. And James can do those things. His first book is coming out….”

Erick did not follow my detour. “Okay, but, then, what does he nurture in you?”

“Nothing. But that’s not his fault. I have no grand project.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I really don’t. I’m clueless. I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”

“But you will know, soon enough. What are you, twenty-three? My dad didn’t start his antique shop until he was thirty-one, a year after I was born.”

All I could say was “good for him.”

Erick laughed to himself and then pinned a memory to my breast as if it were a boutonniere. “Antique store—my dad unwittingly brought every gay man in the tri-state area to my doorstep. I would spy on them as they browsed. I knew all the back ways through the furniture and the false walls. I knew all the vantage spots. And my spying paid off. I saw two men kiss for the first time in my father’s antique store. I must have been eleven or twelve. It was the lamp room, where chandeliers were hung at every height, always lit. Like a crystal cave. And there they were—two men kissing like there was no tomorrow. The tenderness! The passion! I instantly fell in love with men who are able to show that kind of affection.”

“I would die for that.”

“You deserve that. Your heart is so big. Too big for this world. James doesn’t know what he has.”

I did not respond, at first, and Erick went silent in response to my refusal to yield to his sense.

“I can’t just abandon him. Not when he’s up for tenure. He’s very stressed. That wouldn’t be very kind.”

“It seems to me that he depends too much on your kindness, Micah. He needs your good to balance out his bad.”

“I hate people who say ‘I do’—”

“You have a ring on your finger?” he asked, sarcasm softening his challenge.

“No, I mean, I hate when people make a commitment and then when things get tough they just leave. Like my brother. Like James’ parents. I can’t just abandon him.”

“But if you stay, don’t you think in some sense you’ve abandoned yourself?”

 

Erick and I ended up at the Palais Royale, a decrepit, barely windowed bar off the main drag. It was the same as always—cushioned-and-metal-framed chairs were crowded around linoleum-topped tables on the grimy tiled floor, tall porcelain cats perched above the shadowy bar, strings of lights circled the walls like a thorny halo. Its decor seemed unchanged from the 1970s, except for later additions, like a Dolly Parton pinball machine, her bosom lighting up to ring in high scores, and a jukebox that played CDs, the hits now all ten years old.

As Erick ordered drinks, I decided I would ask him if I could sleep over. Maybe I would find the confidence to ask for more.

Tomorrow morning, James would realize I had not come home. He would suffer through a breakfast without me and leave one plate, one cup, one butter knife in the deep sink all lonely and crumby and dry. He would take Shelby for his walk. He would iron his own shirt. But then I’d be waiting for him when he came home from his lectures and we’d order take-out at night, not to rekindle our sweeter feelings toward each other but to defer the intimacy of cooking dinner together.

I knew I’d be back, but for now I wanted to ride the momentum of a dramatic exit. For now I could pretend that I might not go back at all.

Erick handed me my drink and clinked my glass. The few patrons in the bar were deep into their own conversations or drunken vigils, so we drank undisturbed at the bar for twenty minutes or so. Then a man drifted up to us and hovered between our stools. Slight and small, he looked like he might be twenty but he was probably closer to forty. His eyes—his eyes stared at me from another century. I suspected he was a mesmerist who had stepped out from a dark Victorian stage curtain into candlelight.

“My mother died,” he told me, leaning in.

Yesterday? Ten years ago? It was hard to tell from his hollow tone.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I answered.

“My cousin died.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“My aunt, too.

“My little brother.

“Did I tell you my mother died?”

“Yes,” I said gently, firmly, hoping this litany of death would end soon.

He reached out and touched my bruise with the tips of his fingers. I winced but kept still as if he were a doctor I trusted.

“The man who did this to you—.”

I cut him off when I saw Erick turn his head toward the man. “A bookshelf fell on me. A small one.”

I didn’t brush his fingers, his cracked fingers, away. Sometimes I felt such a need for affection that I went to the barber more often than needed to feel a man’s hands on me. It was an old habit. I had started at fourteen. I had had the shortest hair in town.

“Careful,” I said. “It smarts.”

“The man is cheating on you.”

Cheating? I didn’t see how it could be true. James had voted for an open relationship. He disparaged marriage as a “heteronormative” trap, even as he wrote scholarly articles and protested in support of equal unions. We rarely made love anymore. I sometimes pursued sex with other men, but once I disclosed I was positive their desire often dwindled to quick-nothing orgasms. Sometimes I felt like a comedian in an ancient Roman play, wagging around a fabric erection at a laughing crowd. James seemed to have sex whenever he could, his empire of pleasure boundless.

“The man who did this. He’s already left you for a werewolf.”

“You’re sure—a werewolf?” I looked at Erick to see if he was also amused. “Not a vampire?”

“That werewolf in the movies. The one with the vampires.”

I laughed until the sense of it kicked in. The last of the Twilight movies had come and gone in the theaters.

“He’s left me for Taylor Lautner?” I chuckled. Erick didn’t. “He is hotter than I am.”

“Fuck no he ain’t,” Erick grumbled, angry at me as if I had said something dumb.

“You’re insane.” I looked to Erick, brows raised. Hotter than Taylor Lautner?

The man continued: “He lets the werewolf tear him apart with his claws. He screams and screams. The werewolf comes every night.”

“You…see this?” I asked.

“I see a lot, but most don’t want to know. Tell the truth but tell it bent.”

“You mean, tell it ‘slant’? The poem by Dickinson?”

“Who’s that? One of the Beats?”

I laughed. “Yes, the Beatnik of Amherst.”

Erick shifted on his stool, looking away, trying to end the conversation by ignoring the interloper.

“This is the one for you.” The man placed his hand softly on Erick’s shoulder. “He loves you.”

I looked to Erick, who had twisted his body around. “Well, I love him,” I answered, with a fake brightness I reserved for strange children I sincerely liked.

“You two will be together.”

“Do you do readings somewhere?” I asked, shifting the conversation away from Erick. What might the soothsayer reveal next? That I was in love with Erick and trembled like a schoolboy whenever I watched thoughts arc across his face?

“Used to. People listened then. People dreamed then.”

“Do you have any family still living?”

“My sister. But I disgust her.” He teetered but somehow his eyes remained steady.

“She told you that?!”

“No, but I see. She has her reasons.”

Erick turned to him: “It was nice meeting you, but we’re trying to have a goodbye drink.”

“You two will never say goodbye to each other. Not even if you part ways. The bond between you will never be broken.” Erick listened to him then, as if curious about what tomorrow might bring.

 

“Are you serious, Micah?” Erick stopped drumming his fingers on the donut shoppe counter after I told him I might break up with James. We had moved on to feast on ham-and-cheese croissant sandwiches, warm and soggy from the microwave.

I felt guilty—I often talked through my plans of leaving with kind friends who were polite listeners, who never chastised me later, when I stayed put. But I could tell they thought I was an idiot.

“You’re leaving him? For good?” Erick asked.

“For my good.” I knew what I had to say, even if I didn’t yet believe it.

“Good.”

“I thought maybe I could sleep over tonight—but not on the couch,” I tendered.

A smile surfaced on his face, then just as quickly disappeared, as if dragged to the depths of the sea by a shark. “Hmm. I don’t know.”

I felt deflated. Somehow I had made even friendly sex complicated. I yearned to tell him I was simple. I could be simple. I was simple when it came to sex. I could have mindless fun. I didn’t need to be dripping with drama.

“What don’t you know?” I asked, gently.

I dabbed a crumb from the corner of Erick’s mouth, smiled at him. His dark eyes settled into seriousness. I crumpled my napkin and held it in my fist.

“I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I don’t want to start anything. I won’t be back—till I’m back. We can’t—let’s not start anything. Now.”

His talk of beginnings surprised me. Ever since we first shared a kiss last summer, we both knew that we were on each other’s dance cards, but toward the end of the night. I thought we were only destined to have sex, though—nothing more.

“You’re not taking our friendly soothsayer seriously?” I asked, not wanting romantic love to overwhelm my need for intimacy, a night’s healing.

“I’m not joking. You’re not a joke to me. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“No, I’m glad you did.”

“I love you, brother. But I don’t want you to leave him because of me. I want you to leave for yourself.”

“I know. I know that.” If there was any chance we could be together, I had to appear wiser about life than I was. Staying with James for so long had exposed me as moronic, I feared.

“But I don’t want to ask you to put your feelings on hold. I don’t want you to wait for me.”

“I’m sure you will drive up for the odd visit. It’s only the Hudson Valley. You’re not going to the ends of the earth.”

“No. I need to be there for my dad, 24/7. I’m going to be there until he—”

I recognized the desperate catch in his voice. Why he didn’t want to listen to that man in the bar talk about death. Erick was going to the ends of the earth.

“I’m sorry, Erick.”

“But I know you need me, too.”

“Don’t worry about me. Obviously, I have work to do on myself,” I said, repeating mantras I had heard on Oprah. “I’ve got to learn to love myself first before anyone can love me. And before I can love someone else.”

Erick nodded. “You don’t know how hard it is, Micah. We’re friends and that’s fine. But then we start flirting and there’s nowhere to go with it. You can’t keep taking refuge in me and then go back to him.”

Unable to eat any more, I pushed away my paper tray. I studied how it had been put together, the slots and tabs, the easy construction. “I’m sorry, Erick. I didn’t know you felt that way about me. I hoped….”

“I’m here, in the flesh. Who the hell needs hope?”

I did. I needed hope. At least I thought I did. Hope—I had years of practice, and yet now hope seemed rather bloodless. Erick made sense. Hope seemed yoked to never.

I hoped James would change and love me again like in the beginning. I hoped Erick had the same feelings as I did. I hoped one day I would feel good about myself. Why did it make me feel so at peace, to imagine that love was always coming soon, or returning soon, but never yet arrived? I wanted love to be here. And there was only one way to make that happen—to love now. Love life, as Erick did. Or love the community, as James did. Love myself. I knew it would be the most difficult step I would ever take, to love in the now.

 

A plow scraped past, throwing clumps of snow at our feet. We walked slowly, not yet having to part.

“I have to leave, Micah. My father needs me,” Erick said.

I didn’t know why Erick thought to reiterate his plans. “Of course. I understand completely. You are a very caring person, Erick.”

My shoes slipped on a patch of ice. My arms windmilled and my feet threatened to burst into a little unplanned choreography. I righted myself before Erick needed to pluck me out of a snowbank.

“We should wait. Or am I wrong?”

“No, you’re right. We shouldn’t start anything. I need to get my life in order. I need to find a place to live. I need to finish my degree.”

“Yeah, why is that? What do you have, one more course?”

I nodded. “I mean, I have taken the course. I never turned in my final paper. I have a draft. I just never finished it. The professor gave me an Incomplete, but I just let that lapse. I know—stupid.” My cold hands searched my coat pockets for gloves but I only found one.

“I bet if you had turned in your draft, you would have gotten at least a D and you probably would have passed the course.”

“I know.”

“The professor didn’t suggest that?” We had reached a crosswalk and, though the streets were nearly empty, Erick placed his arm across my chest as he scouted for cars.

“He wanted me to finish the draft. Round out my ideas and put my name to work I felt satisfied with.”

“You know, you can appeal things like this. There’s a process. Who is the professor?”

I was silent a moment before I spoke. “It was James.”

I feared Erick would see how daft I was. I hoped he would see how daft I was. Then I would be irretrievable. Content with nonsense. Beyond anyone’s caring. Alone, with nowhere to go.

“But we weren’t seeing each other at the time,” I added.

“But soon after.”

“Soon after.”

“Micah, he could change your grade with a stroke of a pen.”

“But the ethics—”

“What ethics? Fuck ethics! You tell him tomorrow to give you a passing grade and be done with it. Jesus fucking Christ, all he has to do is say one word and you’d have your bachelor’s.”

“But it is my responsibility to learn—”

“Fuck learning. You don’t need him to learn anything. This is about power.”

I know now I should have never read James’s book manuscript. He wanted me to give him notes, but he was willing to wait till after I finished my paper for his course. I couldn’t wait, charged with such a thrilling task. I didn’t wait. I read, pen in hand, a pen that never touched the page except by accident, leaving stray marks that I scribbled out and annotated with a “sorry!” I found his writing so fecund with ideas, each idea perfectly placed against the next idea like a mahjong game two hours in, the tiles a sprawling continent—I hadn’t known what to say. And when I tried to return to work on my paper, it seemed like one big doodle, a doodle I had worked on for hours and hours. I came to realize some people knew how to tackle the big questions. I did not.

“Promise me, you will ask him, Micah. No, tell him.”

“Yes, I promise.”

I wanted to push Erick, hard. Like you might push a boat off from the dock you are kneeling on. Push him beyond the weeds and the rocks into the open lake. I wanted to launch him away from the stupidity of me.

I waited for him to say it: Something is seriously wrong with you!

But he didn’t say that. He hugged me close, his lips on my ear.

He whispered, “Forget what I said about waiting. Screw it—I don’t know everything. It’ll be okay. Let’s just fuck tonight.”

I felt his grin widen against my cheek. I slipped as we embraced, disentangling myself from his grasping hands. I skated backwards and then stopped.

He knelt and tied my laces.

“These shoes, Micah. What were you thinking?” he asked.

“I wanted to impress you!”

“How? By flailing your arms and legs like a whirligig up and down Lark Street?” Erick joked, as he rose.

I laughed. “But you still like me even though I look like a fool?”

 

We started kissing on his mattress on the floor, pinned on either side by his splayed-open, half-packed suitcases. We spent time touching every part of each other’s body, showing each other his completeness, the wholeness that existed no matter the shape.

But, like a pervy roommate watching through the cracked-open door, violence loitered just outside the room. My gentleness, its obverse proxy—as if I wanted to show, by contrast, that I knew what love and affection could be. I sought to be the opposite of James. My kisses soft and luscious. My embraces deliberate.

Yet I also resisted—my mind willed the door to shut on violence and its prying eyes. Gentleness did not need to be part of the work of balancing. It had a different life, not part of any unequal binary. Gentleness could be nurtured as a singular, beautiful force, less past and more future, less remedy and more prophylaxis.

But even as I stroked Erick, the pain hidden within my caresses was almost too much to bear.

I hesitated, hovering.

Erick sensed my disorientation and pulled me closer to him and yanked down my briefs. I slipped on the condom I had picked up at my clinic, a rather awkward and dry couple of minutes of manipulation until Erick slicked me with lube. He slathered more lube where he wanted me to plumb.

Two of my fingers crossed and delved into him. I put him at ease. He wrapped his legs around me. Staring into his eyes, I sank forward, deeper, my hardness pulsing. And then when he began to kiss my neck I thrust into him with measured strokes, keeping time inside of him. He squeezed my thickening: “Fuck my brains out. Then I’m going to fuck your brains out.”

Later, Erick rolled us on our sides and hugged me from behind, one hand planted square on my chest and his hardness throbbed and buoyed inside me. I had to twist my head to kiss him.

I kept pushing back and Erick kept pushing forward.

I could feel the soothsayer touch my bruise. I could feel the soothsayer touch Erick’s shoulder. It seemed as if the world had married us, at least for that night, if not forever. I floated amid the intelligence of touch.

 

After, long after our breathing steadied, I rose and started pulling on my clothes.

“Where are you going? Stay.”

I didn’t answer at first. “I should go. Get my life in order,” I said, as if I needed to start doing so immediately, as if I hadn’t already started.

Erick grimaced at my resistance. “You didn’t expect me to say that, did you? That I love you. That I want to be with you.”

I shook my head.

“You wanted us to hook up, and then I’d leave town, and then you’d go back home?”

“Something like that. Do you hate me for being shallow?” It seemed somehow obscene that I was covering my body, buttoning, fastening.

“Why? Because you wanted all of this?” He stretched his arms above his head with a sleepy smirk, and, as the entire length of his body tensed and relaxed, it seemed as if every single muscle woke up.

“Fucker.”

“The best fucker.” His face was full of himself. And he never had looked sexier.

“You’re unreal.”

“Stay in my bed. Stay till I get back. Or leave. Do what you need to do. But I want an answer to one question?”

“What question is that?”

“You know what it is.” He clasped his hands behind his head and closed his eyes, as if he might fall asleep before he heard an answer. He spoke gently, earnestly. “Do you love me, too?”

 

Last June, late June, that hot weekend in June when the stores ran out of fans, James and I had been invited to his friend Stewart’s pool party out in the country, at his friend’s lonely house banked by tiger lilies, whose windows grabbed at the sun before it disappeared behind the Helderbergs.

We had been late to arrive. James was perturbed, never liking to keep his friends waiting.

No one answered the door, so we loped around back to the edge of the in-ground pool, which was rocking with waves and laughter as the guests, all men, played a rogue game of net-less volleyball in muscular glee.

Stewart broke from his position and lunged toward the edge of the pool, toward us, bringing with him a swell of water that unfurled across the dry hot cement. “It’s the Professor and Mary Ann!”

It was a loathsome joke but I laughed along.

Everybody shouted hello. I managed a smile, hands on my hips in a stab at casualness. Stewart pulled himself out of the pool and kissed me and James and appraised our gift of strange, imported liqueur with feigned curiosity. James had drunk it every night in Italy when he had traveled abroad to study the Situationists for his dissertation.

I looked elsewhere, at the men, who had returned to batting the beach ball back and forth. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

I followed James into the house as if I too were changing.

“Don’t tell me you’re not going into the pool,” James said in the curtained light of the guest room, as he shucked his pants and rummaged around in his shoulder bag for his trunks.

“I’ll be fine.” I plucked my gray T-shirt off my sweaty chest to let it breathe.

“Christ—the hottest day of the year!”

“I’ll soak my feet.”

“You do this to yourself. The only way to fight body fascism is not to be complicit. You’re smarter than this. Change into your suit and walk out there with confidence.”

“I’d rather not. I’ll be fine.”

“You always embarrass me. Everyone thinks I married a prima donna.”

“We’re not married.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t care what people think.”

“But you do! You’re not going in the pool!” He unbuttoned his blue-and-green-checked short-sleeved shirt. “Look at me. I have a tummy.”

“You have a hairy chest, strong pecs and strong biceps. You look like a cute lumberjack. I’m not a twink or a bear or a muscle god. I look like Ichabod Crane in a Speedo. Tall. Gangly. Painfully pale.”

“You’re going to have get over this insecurity one day. Don’t you think?”

“I think.”

“And I told you to wear trunks that look like shorts, like mine. Hardly anyone can pull off a Speedo.”

“I’ll be fine.”

We returned and there were the usual groans when the others realized I was settling myself into a chaise lounge to read. They had already decided who was to be on whose team.

Their disappointment was brief. They were soon applauding James as he strode out onto the diving board. They quieted as he went through the motions of a dive prep, super-serious. At the last moment, after he launched off the end of the board, he tucked into a cannonball and spanked the water. The blast soaked me.

I fanned my book out to dry.

The afternoon wandered beyond the yard, into the fields, and hid among the sumacs and the sweet pea.

 

Earlier, we had visited my grandmother in the hospital. She had burned her upper right arm on a hot tea kettle, which made no sense, or perfect sense, considering her cognitive decline.

James had brought her flowers, a gigantic display that fanned out like peacock feathers. I thought it was a bit much, an arrangement you might send to a funeral home in your stead.

“Janet? I hope you are feeling better?” he said.

Gran had ignored him and I mouthed an apology, my face turned toward him. “It’s the dementia.”

“I have to tell you something, Micah.” She had clasped my hands and pulled her to me so that I had to crouch over her. She struggled to speak.

“What is that, Gran?”

“I’ve changed my mind.”

“About what?” I sat on the bed but still held her hands.

She paused and then offered again, “I’ve changed my mind.”

I kissed her hands over and over, and held her hands, squeezing them softly. She squeezed me back, pulsing out some code I did not understand. I accepted that whatever she had changed her mind about would not be articulated.

“Gran, I wanted to apologize to you. Last summer, remember the strawberry shortcake? I was mean to you—”

“Oh, Micah,” she said.

“I love you, Gran.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” she whispered, her eyes flitting to James, who was reading Get Well cards on the dresser at the other end of the room.

I understood. What had she counseled? You hang onto that one no matter what.

I unwrapped the submarine sandwich I had smuggled in.

“Look, Gran. Meatballs with melted provolone. We can have a secret picnic.”

She grinned. I wrapped the heel of the sub in a napkin and helped her take the first bite.

 

Out of the blue, Erick showed up at the pool party.

I didn’t know that he knew Stewart, but Albany was so small that I wasn’t surprised.

He grabbed an icy beer out of the cooler and plopped down onto the chaise next to me. I noticed James monitoring from afar.

“You’re not going in for a swim?” I asked.

“I can’t swim and talk to you at the same time.”

“Take a dip and then come back.”

“’Kay.” He set his beer down on the low wicker table between us and bolted up, kicked off his ragged sneaks, unbuckled his cargo shorts and let them drop to the cement. I couldn’t not look at his buttocks, how the tattered fringe of his T-shirt rested against the smooth black nylon of his Speedo as it curved and hugged his big round cheeks.

“Walk away. You’re giving me a hard-on.”

Erick laughed. “What are you, thirteen?”

“No, it’s just that you’re so glorious. Whitman, Cavafy, Spender—they’d all clamor to write poems about you.”

“That’s all I get, some frickin’ poems? Some onomatopoeia? Buzz, bang, blop, bloop?” Erick could be frustratingly cute, even when he is making fun of you.

“You want more than poems?”

He wrestled off his T-shirt and flicked it on his chair. He faced me. “Hell, yeah. I want a man to step up and love me. Someone who sees my heart. Someone who can accept the pleasure I give to him. Is that too much to ask?”

His manifesto dazzled my brain. “I don’t know.”

“Oh, what a party pooper. Crushing my dreams.”

“I’m sorry.”

James loomed into view. He placed a hand on Erick’s bare shoulder.

“He’s always saying ‘sorry,’” he said to Erick, before addressing me. “What did you do this time?”

I soured. “I made a grave error in judgment.”

I only brightened when I saw Erick reach back and start to furiously flick at James’ fingers.

“Ow.” James withdrew his hand.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought I felt a creepy-crawlie on my back.”

And then Erick was off, darting toward the pool, scooping Stewart up off the concrete and flinging him into the water. They horsed around, dunking each other.

“He’s always so childish—and mean to me. He’s so transparent.” James perched where Erick had been sitting.

“Oh?”

“Ageist. Obviously.”

I smiled. For once, I felt I knew something that James didn’t.

 

I did go for a swim. Erick lured me in when everyone else migrated indoors in search of fresh cocktails. The sun had disappeared and dusk spread like kudzu.

I treaded in place, the deep end of the pool. Erick swam around me, half-strokes cutting a ragged circle.

“Help me make a whirlpool.”

“You can’t make a whirlpool in a rectangular pool.”

“How do you know? Ever try?”

“I did a research paper on it. Proved it beyond a doubt.”

“Nothing is proven beyond a doubt.” Erick stopped in front of me. He reached for me and grabbed at my wrists, pretending he needed my help. “I’m drowning. Save me. Show me how you would save me.”

I stared at him, unresponsive. I let the moment pass.

He persisted. “Goofball, why do you play dumb? You know you want to kiss me. You know I want to kiss you.”

I slipped my arms from his grasp and grabbed at his wrists and pulled his smile toward me. We kissed, a rough, not-very-pretty kiss, as the momentum of our bodies overtook us, as his breast collided with my breast. And then the weight became too much. We sank underwater until my foot touched the bottom of the pool. The whole way down our lips never parted.

 

About the Author: Chael Needle is a writer, editor, and teacher living in Astoria, Queens. He serves as managing editor of A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine, and he coedited, with Diane Goettel, the anthology Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U (Black Lawrence Press). His fiction and poetry have been published in T.R.O.U., CallistoChelsea StationThe Adirondack ReviewOwen Wister Review,  Blue Fifth ReviewLilliput Review, and bottle rockets.

“Love” by Brian Whitmore

Love Brian Whitmore

“Love” by Brian Whitmore [Image Description: In this black and white photo, two young men dressed in summer clothes, stand in the middle of the street, kissing. They look happy. In the background, a crowd of onlookers stand behind a metal barricade. In front of the barricade, still in the background, a female police officer looks on.]

Thoughts on this photo, as written by Brian Whitmore:

When I re-posted an old photo called “Love” on my Facebook during Toronto Pride 2018 it was a bit of a surprise that Whitney, an old high school colleague and creator of this very website, asked if she could publish the photo (along with a written piece by me to accompany it). I asked what her I should write about and she said “write about the day you took the photo, what you felt, what you wanted to communicate through the photo…”

 

To be honest the 2016 Toronto Pride Parade, where I took “Love”,  was a long time ago and my memory could be better, but there are some things I can tell you. The day was sunny. It was hot. It was taken in downtown Toronto at the Yonge and Dundas intersection. That was the first summer that I had my brand-new Sony a6000 camera and I looked for any opportunity to use it to document what I saw in the city from my (hopefully unique) perspective. I took many photos during 2016 Toronto Pride Parade, but I can tell you “Love” stood out to me back then, and it takes on even more meaning for me today.

 

For one thing, if I remember correctly, this photo was taken just prior to Black Lives Matter’s attention-grabbing sit-in protest during the parade, stopping the party for about 30 minutes. I remember standing in my prime photography spot at the end of the parade route wondering what the hold-up was and finding out through Twitter what was happening. As a straight black man, I was conflicted about whether the sit-in protest was “the right thing to do”. Why would black and visibly racialized minorities protest the Pride Parade? Would they not be natural allies with the LGTBQ community, especially since there are many that identify as both black and gay? Well, I’ve heard or read different perspectives on that topic that tells me that things are not always so black or white (pardon the pun). If anything, the sit-in should teach everyone that one discriminated group’s struggle for equality and love should be everyone’s struggle for those same things. We should not discriminate based on our differences but love each other because of them.

 

The second thing that stands out to me about “Love” is the smiling police officer in the background looking at the special moment happening before her. Ironically enough, the police have not marched in the Toronto Pride Parade since. It was important to me to get the police officer in the shot to show “how far we’ve come” since the days of explicit discrimination of not just LGTBQ persons but also of other racialized minorities. Well, now when I look at this photo I ask if what I saw in this shot is actually true. Have we as a 21st century society moved past our bigoted past, ready to enter a new post-modern world of rainbows and chocolate? Ask POTUS, ask black victims of unwarranted police violence, ask people living in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood when they don’t hear from a friend for several days. Hell, ask me when I’m walking home at night and I feel compelled to give the white woman ahead of me at least 3 second notice from seven feet back that I’m behind her and that I will be passing her on the left side of the sidewalk. What I saw in this photo originally, that we’ve “come so far”, isn’t the whole truth. What I saw wasn’t what is, but what could be. A preview.

 

The thing about love is that it should not blind us. We have to love with our eyes wide open, seeing the faults in those we love as well as ourselves. Yes, there is love in “Love”, but don’t for second forget that many people still strive to not only be loved but also respected and secure for the other 364 days, 51 weeks, or 11 months of the of the year outside of their pride days, recognition weeks, or history months.

 

I’m glad Whitney asked to publish my photo and asked me to write an accompanying piece. It’s helped to reinforce how some of my world view has evolved since the 2016 Toronto Pride Parade. Yes, I see love in “Love”, but it’s the kind of love that needs to be nurtured and grown, not the kind to be left on the vine to fend for itself. It can and will die. We all must be vigilant in making the choice to love others every day and work to put that love into action, no matter how big or small. If we all do that, we can make sure that what I thought I saw during the 2016 Toronto Pride Parade becomes the truth.

 

About the artist: 
Brian Whitmore is a recovering political staffer who is exploring his passion for creative writing and photography. He is a Xennial who remembers carbon paper and knows how to use an iPhone. He lives in Toronto, Canada.
Instagram and Twitter: @geopoliticus
Photography: https://500px.com/brianwhitmorephotography

“The Tree” by Denise Boehler

The Tree

The tree, I look at Terry, needs to come down

She beams at me, awash in emotional light. Buzzed on Dale’s Pale Ale.

Let’s bring it to Cowie, she burps.

Can I give him back the Swarovski crystal snowflake?

He is standing there, the moment of presentation.

Reaching out to me, handing me the red foil-wrapped box with the gold bow.

To start, hopefully, that Southern boy charm kind of way, a new Christmas tradition.

No, Terry turns, You can’t. It reflects a beautiful, shining moment.

Plus, the depth of your sadness is the depth of your beauty.

 

About the author: 
Denise Boehler is a Naropa graduate with a masters in eco-psychology, and a background in law, real estate, and animal advocacy. She is always interested in finding ways to cultivate communication between people and animals, in being a voice for the voiceless. From homeless dog advocacy to wolf reintroduction to coexistence with bears to saving roadside wildlife, her passions derive from a lifelong love affair with animals. Visit her (wildsight.co or womensight.co) or connect with her on LinkedIn.
on Instagram:

https://www.instagram.com/wildsightbo/

“The Writer, the Magician, & the Psychic” by Alexandria Rose Rizik

The Writer, the Magician, & the Psychic

I looked at the sign — the word Spiritual lit up while Bookstore flickered until it completely dimmed. The inside deemed even more elaborately decorated than I expected — and by “elaborated” I mean foam angels covered in glitter hanging from the ceilings and crystals spread throughout the shelves. The metaphysical shop rested on the outskirts of town. I had driven by a couple of times but never had a reason to actually walk in until now…

“Welcome,” a woman with wide-spread eyes approached me as I entered just past the door. She was larger in width and depth and her hair was a mangy mess on top of her head. She wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into her as she said, “Heart to heart.”

I hugged her back, slightly taken off guard, our hearts lined up as one. Then she released me.

“What can I do for you, honey?” her voice was soft and clear.

“Do you guys do readings?” I spoke rapidly. I’ll admit, a part of me felt weird for even finding my way here — but I wanted to do it. I had to do it. I had to know.

“Yes, we do,” she wandered over to behind the cash register. “Durga Ma is here until three.”

I wanted to ask, Durga-what? But instead I just nodded my head.

“Let me go see if she has any availability,” she continued.

“Okay, thanks.”

She walked away into a small room on the side of the store. I looked around me; a painting of the Virgin Mary with double D boobs was plastered on the wall along with other pictures depicting heaven’s angels in an eccentric manner.

The woman returned a moment later.

“Durga Ma can take you now if you want.”

“Okay.”

I followed her back to where the room sat on the side of the store. It was dimly lit, the walls naked. Only a desk sat there covered in papers, and pictures, and crystals, and cards.

“Hi,” I said to the tall woman who sat in a chair behind the desk. She had puff pastry eyes and short blonde hair. I sat down across from her as — what I assumed to be — the store owner departed back into the store, shutting the door behind her.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Durga Ma,” she said in a quivered voice. But she didn’t appear terribly old.

“Nice to meet you too.”

“What’s your name?”

“Gemini.”

“Oh, like the Zodiac.”

I forced a smiled. I hated when people pointed that out.

“What can I do for you?”

I swallowed down my nerves. I wasn’t one to communicate my emotions or concerns. No. I preferred to keep them bottled up until they melted out of my brain underneath the Arizona sun.

“Well,” I started, figuring out how I address my problem without sounding like some naïve young girl, hung up on romance. “I want to know about a boy.”

I paused, still wondering where I even begin. She nodded at me as if to continue — but I thought she was psychic. Wasn’t she supposed to read my mind?

I’d come for a reason — I wanted closure regarding a situation that still felt up in the air. As human beings, we need closure in order to move on, or at least so it seems.

It all suddenly vomited out of me as if it needed to be expressed after holding it in for so long in order to feel the relief, “There’s this boy that I’m in love with and he’s in love with me too — I mean, he dumped his girlfriend to be with me, he has to love me, right?”

Durga Ma opened her mouth to speak but I was on a roll.

I continued, “Everything seemed perfect but now —”

Lealand’s eyes flashed through my mind, interrupting my train of thought.

I continued, “Now it’s not perfect at all. It’s so complicated that we can’t even talk.”

I finally took a breath… “I just want to know if it is really the end.”

I found myself actually tearing up. I never cried. Except once…when Lealand and I broke up the first time. But I hadn’t let myself cry since. I never even felt tears pooling in my eyes. Always just numbness. As a child, after my parents’ divorce, I learned the hard way that it was easier. It felt weird to feel. I was confused. I didn’t like it. But I did…

Durga Ma’s eyes were wide, probably trying to take everything in. I still was.

“Well then,” she began with an overwhelmed kind of chuckle. My confusion-induced silence was enough of a response for her to continue, “Let me ask you, what do you like about him?”

My mind wandered back in time, leaving only my physical being in the present moment.

 

***

 

Lealand and I had dated back in high school — senior year to be exact. And a big part of my feelings toward him stemmed from the history we shared; he was my first love. As everyone knows, there is something magical about firsts. It all started at a Junior Prom after party. I’d seen him in my creative writing class before — the only class I was exceeding in — but we’d never talked until that night.

Although we both had dates, we ditched them to hook up — I mean, not all the way, but farther than I’d gone before. Maybe that was the first red flag. I hate that term, “red flag”…but maybe it served a purpose.

Lealand and I spent our summer going into senior year as “friends with benefits” — wild nights and wild makeouts, but no actual commitment. I was his first call when he needed some sort of satisfaction. He was mine too. I lied to him when I said, “I’m down for just a fling.” The truth was I was madly in love with him from the very moment that our paths collided into one. And if anyone ever asked what I loved about him, I couldn’t say because I didn’t know. I just knew that I did. It was a connection I couldn’t deny. Sounded cliché, but hey, clichés are cliché for a reason, right? It was the first time that I could remember what it felt like to feel. Maybe that’s what I loved most. He made me tingle, ache, wonder, and think. He made my heart skip a beat now and again whenever he whispered sweet nothings, that felt like somethings, in my ear.

The hooking up, apparently, evolved into feelings for him as well and eventually he asked me to be his girlfriend. It’s funny the way as soon as you label something, it becomes complicated. The fighting was rough, but the sex was rougher — and worth the pointless bickering. I remember the first night we did it. Jesus Christ, I was so inexperienced and he was such a pro. We found ourselves cuddled up in my dad’s cabin up north. My dad wasn’t around growing up. He wasn’t around now either. But he knew how to purchase the love of me and my sister — sometimes it was a designer bag, other times a cruise. This time it was the cabin — since he and his wife were about to sell it, he offered it to Le and I for a night.

It was snowing, something we were not accustomed to in Douglas, so we didn’t exactly bring the proper winter attire. Our winters were more like 60 degrees on a cold day.

“I really liked your short story you shared the other day in class. The one about the teenagers going on a road trip before college,” Le said as we cozied up to one another.

“Really?” I smiled. I wasn’t really good at school stuff. But writing didn’t feel like work. It just flowed for me…

He nodded his head.

“I have this dream road trip,” I began. “I want to start here, drive up to California, up the coast to Oregon, Seattle, to Canada —”

“Canada?!”

I laughed, “Yes. And then from Canada I want to go to Alaska then Russia and tour Europe.”

“Wow. That sounds intense, woman! Maybe that’s why you’re such a good writer.”

“Why?”
“You have a very vivid imagination.”

“Yeah, but I wish I was better at things like math and science. Like you.”

“Eh. It just means I’m logical. That’s no fun.”

“But it’s useful.”

He shrugged his shoulders.

I smiled our lips met in the middle.

We put on a fire. The internet didn’t work and the cable had been disconnected. All we had were conversations and kisses. And kisses turned into nudity. Nudity turned into firsts. Like, I said, there is something magical about firsts. But was it as magical for him as it was for me since it wasn’t the only time he’s done this? But maybe “first” could mean the first time he did it with me. Maybe that made it magical. My over analytical thinking sure hoped so.

But we all know behind every magic trick is a magician who made it look real when, in reality, it was just an illusion. That seemed to be the case.

Time went on, the fighting progressed and the lust, or whatever you want to call it, couldn’t overpower that anymore. We parted ways as we both started college, although maybe our feelings never quite did the same. Lealand got out of here. He’d always wanted to leave this town — and he went as far away as he could. He studied abroad in Europe and no one really heard from him. I stayed in state, only a couple of hours away from home. But I moved on. I met Bryce. He was everything any girl could ever ask for — charming, intelligent, athletic, driven. He had ambition, the kind that everyone knew would take him far one day. As perfect as he was, he wasn’t perfect to me. I didn’t like the way his flawlessness made me feel so insecure. I couldn’t relate. So, I broke up with him and after college, I moved back home and I got a job at the local bar. I didn’t do much with my degree — it was Creative Writing. I wanted to get my Masters but I didn’t have the money — and I didn’t want to ask my dad. I didn’t like the feeling of “owing” him anything as a grown adult. The goal was to write a novel in the free time I had away from the bar. Although, I wasn’t sure about what yet.

Fast forward in time, Lealand graduated and somehow returned back to our big-small town of Douglas, Arizona too. Coincidence? I think not. Fate? Potentially…

It was a Tuesday, Taco Tuesday to be exact. The bar was packed, the whole town splurging on two-dollar tacos and five-dollar margaritas. We were low on staff and I was feeling overwhelmed. Everything was so fast-paced…until I saw him. Suddenly time froze. Everything and everyone around me disappeared. Like I had tunnel vision. He sat there, his hair shorter, his baby face more defined now. Like, he was so built and structured, and had a defined jaw line. I felt like I was dreaming. Like, I was in some sort of time warp that took me back to a time that felt as if it never even existed. But suddenly it was real again. The magician was back and full of new tricks…time travel.

I’ll admit, I was about to turn my head, hide behind the other side of the bar and act like he was a stranger to me. It sounded easier. But my feet guided me toward him and our gazes had already met.

I approached him, a smile made its way to my face and he mimicked. As I got closer, I could see him more clearly now. My body tensed right up as deafening thoughts rushed through my chaotic mind. He was different. Older. More mature. And facial hair. But his eyes — those were the same.

“This is so weird,” I giggled.

“I know, right?” he agreed.

I was slightly embarrassed that our first run in since breaking up was me covered in taco grease, working at a local bar in the same town he left me in. I brushed the hair off my face.

“How’ve you been?” I asked.

“Not bad. You? Still writing?”

“On and off.”

Why was this so awkward? How do two people go from being so intimate to total aliens? I suppose it was all in our heads.

With the expression on his face, I could tell he was just as nervous.

“Can I get you a drink?” I asked.

“Uh, I’ll take a beer.”

I got him whatever was on draft and handed it to him. He went to reach into his wallet for money.

“It’s on me,” I smiled.

“You sure?”

I nodded my head, very sure.

We got to talking. Catching up. He told me he was dating someone but she was still studying abroad in England. She sounded so intelligent and sure of herself. So perfect for Lealand. She was going into law. Lealand was a political science major. All he ever wanted to do was change the system. He loved politics — and was just opinionated enough to fit into that world.

“What time you get off?” he asked.

“Like, three.”

“How about I buy you a drink after?”

“It’ll be really late. You sure you’re down for that?”

“I think you and I have a lot more catching up to do.”

I smiled and agreed.

When I got off, we walked back to my mom’s house. She was working the night shift at the Urgent Care down the road, so we were completely alone. The situation loosened up with a glass of wine intervening our blood streams and suddenly, nostalgia was able to do all of the talking. He sipped on a red blend that I took out of my mom’s wine cabinet, while I found pleasure in a chardonnay, in an attempt to avoid bloodsucking vampire lips.

The night ended with a hug goodbye, but the stars weren’t quite finished with us. We went two weeks without talking and nothing was thought of it. But after I returned home from a trip, something struck me — maybe Cupid’s arrow — and I decided to text him. One thing led to another and he asked to hang out. So, we did. A bottle of wine into the night and next thing I knew, we were two teenagers again, making out on the swing set that sat in the center of my backyard. It was old now and never used. Rusty. But no one ever thought to get rid of it. It was occupied by cockroaches and rodents. Thankfully, we were drunk enough not to care.

“What about your girlfriend?” I asked as he reached his hand down my pants.

“She doesn’t need to know.”

And suddenly, the magician had taken me back to the first night we met, hooking up the night of Prom.

After that night, it was as if we began our little fling all over again while he still had a girlfriend — that he was supposed to go visit for two months. Movie nights, adventures in the park, and staying up late on Facetime was how we spent the next month together.

The day he was supposed to leave to go see his girlfriend was nearing and I knew I couldn’t lose him again — facing the reality that I had never really gotten over us. So, once upon a Friday night while Mercury happened to be in retrograde (which is said to be a time when people from your past can resurface), I asked him to talk.

“Okay sure!” he agreed.

We went to the park — the park that was covered in memories of our past — and talked, but I still wasn’t ready to tell him. So, we went back to my house and had some wine on the infamous swing set.

“Can you tell me now?” he asked as we sat atop the jungle gym, sipping on wine.

Without responding, I gulped down the rest of my wine.

“Okay, keep drinking so you can tell me,” he said.

I laughed, nodding my head.

Within fifteen minutes, we were in my bed and the alcohol was beginning to settle in, intoxicating me with liquid courage.

“Can you tell me now?” he questioned.

I looked at him, my hand on his chest.

The truth was I was scared because although there were obvious romantic feelings between us, he and I had managed to stay friends after everything. After dating and breakups and years and miles, we stayed friends. That meant something and I didn’t want to ruin that.

I swallowed down my nerves and spoke, “I think I’m in love with you.”

His bloodshot eyes were focused in on mine.

“You think you’re in love with me?”

“Yes.” My heart sat in my stomach as I awaited his response.

“I think I’m in love with you too,” he smiled.

And three days later, he broke up with his girlfriend and cancelled his trip across seas. Usually, this is where you’d cue the curtains or read “and they all lived happily ever after” but it didn’t end there — it wasn’t that easy. It never was. The sex was rough, but the fighting was rougher. We were older, not just two puppy-love-struck teenagers without any responsibilities…

“This just isn’t working,” he said the last time I saw him. Just thinking about those final words makes my heart drown inside of my stomach. His logical senses always had a way of resurfacing and crushing my hopeful heart. And just like all magicians, he walked away after the performance with no explanation…

 

***

 

“Four years apart proved that life had taken us through two different tunnels,” I explained to Durga Ma. “We were fighting over things that didn’t even make sense.”

Durga Ma’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. She shook her head and I knew what she was thinking; I was just some stupid girl who believed in love and wishing upon stars and happy endings.

“I can sit here and tell you the future, if that’s what you want, but the truth is, the future is always changing — because we’re always changing.”

I looked at her with saddened eyes; I had come searching for an answer that she couldn’t give me.

“What is your biggest dream?” she leaned forward, her elbows resting on the desk. “Like, if you could have anything in the world what would it be?”

I thought about it. For the first time, I said it out loud, “To write a novel. A successful novel.”

“Well, that’s what you should focus on and if it’s meant to be, everything else — and everyone else — will fall into place in the proper timing.”

I was upset…she didn’t give me the answers I was searching for. Maybe no one really knew the answers though. Even this proclaimed “psychic”.

After my reading, I drove and drove and drove.

Suddenly, I was sparked with an interesting revelation. I found myself at a coffee shop down the road from my house. I realized I had a story all along. I just didn’t have the nerve to write it down. So, I sat down with a notepad and I began…

Once upon a time, in a very magical kingdom, there was a peasant girl who fell in love with the town magician —

I tried to think of the words, tapping my pen against the table. Not all psychics can predict the future, not all magicians can put your heart back together, and not all fairytales have happy endings. But I guessed I could rewrite the ending to this story with a little help of my imagination and this ballpoint pen.

 

About the Author: 
Alexandria Rose Rizik is a published writer and award-winning director, born and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona — where she was brought up by a large Armenian family. 

Her love for writing began when she was a young child and her aunt bought her a journal. She told Alexandria to write her a story and the rest is history. Her favorite part about writing is being able to write the ‘happily ever after’ that doesn’t always happen in real life. 

She received a degree in English from Arizona State University and has contributed articles to publications such as TheBeautyBean.com and a community post to Buzz Feed. She won best female director at London Independent Film Awards for her short film, “Contentment”, in 2017. One of her latest projects is a short film that she wrote/directed titled, ‘The Middle’ — which was accepted into Festival De Cannes’ 2018 Short Film Corner. 
She published her first children’s book, ‘Chocolate Milk’, in 2017 and expects to debut her first novel, ’21 Questions’, in 2019. She also has a published short story, ‘Floral Wallpaper’, in Junto Magazine that she would love to eventually adapt into a film.
Besides writing, Alexandria loves yoga, wine, and family time.  

“Deafness” by Denise Boehler

Deafness

He couldn’t see her

For all she’d come to be

It was all she ever longed for

And with him not to be

His vision his life so complete

Without her he now lives

It was the life she always longed for

And the one for which she grieves

All she asked for was his opened heart

The intimacy lying within

All she wanted from devotion

Was loneliness to leave and nurturing to begin

Something deep inside his being

Blocked the pathway to her calls

Now she walks alone

Feels the pain in her interior walls

She works ever so diligently

At looking deeply, shredded remains

Her constructed self she’s dissecting

Deep beliefs once holding her in restrain

She knows not the direction of her future

Nor the counterpart with whom she might share

She knows the one tender heart held for herself

Is not an organ she can continue to tear

For its ripping open leaves only pieces

Drowns her in her own despair

And as she calls for him, return to my life

In the silence of her mind

Her voice he’ll never hear

For it falls unto ears blind

It is her voice she needs to hear

The one she is making loud and ever so true

The one that calls back to herself, I love, and I see YOU, I am always here.

 

 About the Author: 
Denise Boehler is a Naropa graduate with a masters in eco-psychology, and a background in law, real estate, and animal advocacy. She is always interested in finding ways to cultivate communication between people and animals, in being a voice for the voiceless. From homeless dog advocacy to wolf reintroduction to coexistence with bears to saving roadside wildlife, her passions derive from a lifelong love affair with animals. Visit her (wildsight.co or womensight.co) or connect with her on LinkedIn.
on Instagram:

https://www.instagram.com/wildsightbo/

Editor’s Note: June is worth celebrating!

TROU is turning one and I’m so excited. I am over the moon that this little space in the universe is still here and that you have decided to join in. When I started this magazine my

_Happy 1st Birthday to TROU!

[Image Description: On a pink background a rainbow heart wears a party hat. In blue it says “happy 1st Birthday to TROU” There is also confetti. ]

mission was to provide a safe space to explore love, in it’s many forms, shapes, and sizes. It warms my heart that you have found this space and that you have shared a piece of your love story along the way.

I want to say that we are doing something big here, even though it is still small. Declaring to the world that we are worthy, in whatever way we choose to do so, is important, is daring, is changing the world. You dear reader, are changing the world. I hope these love stories have brought you comfort, made you think, and made a shift in a world that is cruel and unkind toward a more accepting and welcoming place.

June is also a time to celebrate pride, a movement that protests marginalization and celebrates people for who they are and who they love. You know TROU is behind that 100%.

 

So from TROU to you, Happy Birthday and Happy Pride.

You are so loved.

-Whitney