Issue #84 Guest Editor Edan Lepucki is the author of the novel California, which will be published by Little, Brown next month. She's also the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, and her stories have been published in McSweeney's, Narrative magazine, and Storychord. A staff writer for The Millions, she blogs at italicsmine.tumblr.com.
by Madeline McDonnell
I'll start with the scar on my wrist—
That pink circle placed like a lady's watch face, midway between radius and ulna. I look at it, as if to check the time, though I know it is not a watch, though I know I am not a lady. I got it one late night heeling up the hill and home. This was after college, and I was living with my parents still, though they were surely asleep, my mother deep under until the wine left her system, my father’s breath whistling through his mustache. I was with someone. Let me walk you the rest of the way, he said, but I said, No, I’m fine. And I embraced that faceless someone sloppily, and I turned, and I fell on my arm. My pink watch has no band. It keeps track of years instead of hours, fading as they pass.
Issue #84 soundtrack: Hannis Brown "Above the House"
A white zag, a child’s drawing of lightning, storms across my right kneecap. I don’t remember this particular zag’s source, though I think mint juleps were involved. Three thinner, whiter lines, blown horizontal, sleet across the underside of my right wrist, from when I forgot my key and punched through the storm door (of course it wasn’t locked, just stuck). A serration has besmirched my left sole (if not my soul!) ever since I woke one morning several Junes ago, content as only an amnesiac can be. I yawned, I stretched. I stepped upon the cold floor and winced. I must have removed my high shoes on the walk home the night before, but how many steps had pushed the glass deeper? I sterilized a sewing needle with a yellow lighter that had appeared as if by magic in my purse, and I magicked the green shard out. It had once been something else: a beer bottle; a salt shaker; the stained windowpane I’d watched on childhood Sundays. After all: I had been something else too.
I limped for a day. Is it any wonder that I began to take the car to the Lonesome Ballroom, ignoring my husband’s objections?
Circles, zags, serrations. Broken capillaries, meandering across the bridge of my nose like lines on a sun-faded road map. Dilated follicles like little red towns, marking those twisty red roads. This faint facial cartography will darken with time, unlike the maps I’ve left on the dash. And these are just the defects that show. There are other sorts, defects that defected: bitten lips and tongues that healed after a week, grapes that rotted away to nothing in my breath, vomit that dried to nothing in my hair. Once, Henry, my husband (have I mentioned my husband?), went to bed early while I stayed up late, watching Funny Face for the fifteenth time and drinking discount cabernet. I’m not sure how many gulps or glasses or bottles I’d had when it dawned on me that I might acquire Audrey Hepburn’s bristly sweetness, her melancholy shrewdness, if I were to ape her arched brows. I staggered to the bathroom. I pulled and plucked. The fingernail clippers were a bad idea, but luckily hair grows back.
So, in addition to circles, zags, serrations, and lines, let us add missing hair. While we’re at it, why not append missing brain cells, missing memories? To say nothing of the defects that remain inside, nascent in my liver, in my nerve fibers, in my muscle tissue, my brain. To say nothing of the defects in my heart.
The AA “Big Book” defines beginning as the moment of admission. But I always knew my life was unmanageable. I felt it in my stomach and throat. I saw it on my skin: the tiny pink watch and the zigs and the zags translations of a code written within. Little Jenny Woof, my next-door neighbor freshman year, enlightened me on this point years ago.
In addition to loathsome Orgo (which sent her to our shared bathroom every morning to retch until Lisa Bellavista banged her way in), Jenny took Biology 470 that first semester. On Friday nights, she would slouch in the threshold of the room I shared with Lisa and say, “You’re so lucky you only have to, like, memorize pictures.”
“Mm,” I would answer. I was sitting at my desk, no doubt bent over those pictures, which at that early stage would have revealed classical columns: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. She wasn’t wrong to scoff at my labors, so little Jenny went on. “At least I’m learning a lot in Genetics. I understand now why that has no appeal for me.” She tipped her chin to indicate the hallway, its beery glow and sour sudsy smells, its muffled noise of mingled boomboxes.
I indulged her. “What do you mean ‘that’?”
Jenny’s eyes widened. “I just think we’re lucky. We don’t have the gene that’s turned half this campus into hopeless alcoholics.”
Despite Jenny’s scorn for the pictures I studied, her own books were crammed with artwork: pentagons labeled Adenine and Thymine; squiggles identified as Phosphate and Deoxyribose; curly birthday ribbons purporting to be RNA polymerases; tight, bright springs claiming to be DNA. Flipping through her Bio text, I’d imagined those springs coiled inside my mother, supercoils tensed within my grandmother.
“Really,” Jenny said. “We’re just lucky. We’re not virtuous.”
Lisa, who lay on her back on her narrow bed, one foot suspended so that she could paint her toenails Violet Violence, laughed. “What about personal responsibility?” She pronounced the phrase as if it were more ridiculous, even, than Jenny. “You know, nurture?”
“No, but, see, even behavior goes back to biology eventually,” Jenny said. “We’re just lucky we have good genes.”
Like Lisa, I laughed at little Jenny, whose good genes had granted her skin so translucent purple blood vessels charted her cheeks, but not because I didn’t trust her knowledge of genetics. I’d barely ever had a drink, but on Friday nights—as I forced myself to study, allowing myself one Ritz Cracker with peanut butter for every five pages read, listening to the sounds of my classmates drinking in the hall, the blurring music, the chiming bottles; the sad, bare, barely distinct words—I could feel a coiling inside, a nascent throbbing at the wrist, a flash of light pain at the knee...
Madeline McDonnell is the author of a tiny collection of three stories, There Is Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out (Rescue Press, 2010), and a novella, Penny, n. (Rescue Press, 2013). She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. "Code" is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, My Name is Betty Black and I Am..
Esmé Shapiro is a freelance illustrator and a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. She was born under the palm trees of Los Angeles, but now resides in a small cabin in Hudson, New York. Visit her website at esmeshapiro.com. She blogs at esmemakes.tumblr.com.
Hannis Brown writes music for chamber ensembles, free jazzers and for multiple layers of himself. His compositions have been featured at the Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on VH1, MTV, ABC, Sundance Film Festival and live on WNYC's Soundcheck. He's also performed at POP Montreal and in various venues and art spaces in Brooklyn and Poland. In November 2013, Brown was a featured performer at Carnegie Hall with his new-music collective Hotel Elefant and in May, the ETHEL String Quartet premiered his "Exercises in Breathing," music for hyperventilation. When he's not fiddling with soundwaves, Hannis programs Q2 Music - New York Public Radio's online station for modern classical and experimental music. Visit him online at hannisbrown.com.