Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

VSR Digital Archive

Looking Up

Home, 5:37 pm EST

She was supposed to call. Wasn’t she? Hadn’t they talked about it, or texted about it, just earlier that week? She had said she would call at 5:30 on Thursday. Was it Thursday? Yes, it was Thursday, she had marked her calendar that hung on the wall next to the picture of their old German Shepherd, Rufus. Her daughter had given her the calendar for Christmas, well over a month ago now, when she had been home for break. Each month was a different picture of them: together at the park holding sweating cups of iced coffee, standing side by side in front of a Broadway marquee, sitting on a twin bed in her half unpacked dorm room on her first day of college. Her favorite was July, a picture of them in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. The petals are billowing around them like a delicate pink tornado, and their flushed cheeks are pressed together, their smiles so close it could’ve been one big, toothy grin.

February, the month it was open to now, was a picture of just her daughter, sitting cross-legged on a bench reading a fat, scholarly looking book. Her pen is poised over the page, lip bit in concentration. She seemed warmed under the golden wash of midday sunlight. One of her new friends must have taken the photo, she thought to herself, looking at the glossy paper that now reflected the fading light coming through the living room window. Yes, it was definitely Thursday, and she had definitely promised she would call on Thursday at 5:30. Her phone buzzed, and she checked it, an excited smile spreading quickly, but it was just an email from her husband. 12 Things New Yorkers Don’t Know About the Subway, the subject line read. Steve had probably sent this to Anabel, too. She could never tell if Annie thought her new husband was endearing or cheesy or both. He wasn’t featured in the calendar.

Now it was 5:45 and Annie still hadn’t called. She went outside for a smoke. Steve didn’t know that she still smoked. She sat down on the chilled plaster of the front stoop and looked out onto the quiet TriBeCa street. This is where Annie had learned to ride her bike, wobbling up and down the short expanse of sidewalk while she held onto the frame, steadying her little girl until, finally, she let go.

The sun was setting now. Late in the day for February, she thought. It was unusually warm today, almost 65 degrees, and she didn’t need a coat sitting outside, taking drags from her cigarette. Annie used to hide the packs when she was younger, burying the little paper boxes in her closet and insisting she didn’t know how they got there. Now they joked about it, even though she knew Annie worried. She liked that she had this joke with her, that Steve didn’t know, that there were still things that were just theirs. Even if it was just her smoking habit. 

She looked down at her phone. No new notifications. The sky was being filled in before her eyes, like someone behind the clouds was taking a wide brush and painting big, sweeping strokes of color on their canvas. The blue had turned velvety purple mixed with fuchsia and deep navy and burnt orange and the feeling of light buoyancy. She remembered the game she and her daughter used to play, where one would close their eyes and the other would try and describe the sky without using the names of the colors. It’s like that car that’s always parked across the street. Baby blue? Yes! Then Annie would giggle in that intoxicating little girl way that would fill any mother up to the brim. She hadn’t thought about that game in a long, long time. The memory of that sweet, small girl, with her short pigtails and open face made her eyes well, blurring the different shades of the clouds, making them all bleed together. Beautiful. She wanted to show her daughter the sky that had taken the color of their bizarre neighbor’s ever-changing dyed hair. She took a picture and another drag. The smoke from her now stubby cigarette drifted skyward, dissipating amongst the spilled paint in the heavens. She opened up a new message, chose her photo, and sent it. Then she put out her cigarette, taking one last look up at the changing sky, and went inside.

 

Connecticut, 5:37 pm EST

She sat in the dining hall, absentmindedly pushing chickpeas around the soupy balsamic remains of her salad bowl. It was a loud, fluorescent, and overwhelmingly large place, and she and her friends were grouped tightly around the table, heads pushed close, talking about the pretentious kids in their film class. We get it, you’ve seen Citizen Kane, you’re, like, so smart and cultured. There was that ever-present buzzing noise that came from somewhere above them, somewhere deep in the pipes and machinery, which wormed its way into Annie’s brain. Soon, she started to have trouble focusing on the ins and outs of Coppola’s filmography and could only hear the ringing bouncing around the walls of her skull. The balsamic was suddenly too bitter, too acidic, burning her throat. The table’s grown-up conversation soured as it hit her ear, now sounding childish, like little kids playing pretend, stomping around in boots much too large for their tiny feet.

She said she had homework or something, taking her bowl and empty cup to the dish station. She was trying to get out as fast as she could while still being polite to the dining hall staff who endured far too much and also nodding hello to what felt like every person she made eye contact with. She finally escaped, pressing the whole weight of her body against the two huge double doors, falling out into the dimming twilight. She breathed deep, filling her lungs with the crisp air her city body could never quite get used to. It had been warm that day, even though it was February, and it had seemed like every single person on campus had taken the opportunity to fuck homework and just lie on the quad instead, soaking up the rare sunlight in too-soon shorts and flowy dresses. It was growing colder now, though, as the sun set. She stood on the stoop of the oversized collegiate building and watched as the sky changed. It held the same colors as that painting in the common room of her dorm, she thought. 

Then, she remembered. Godammit, she had meant to call her mom at 5:30. She really had, but then her friends had wanted to get dinner early so they could go to the some comedy show that evening, and Annie didn’t want to argue or even worse, be left behind. Plus, her mom was always crying when they talked on the phone. She missed her, of course, but there’s only so much crying a daughter can take. Her mom was constantly crying— at commercials, strangely specific ABBA songs, and whenever their old dog, Rufus, was mentioned in passing. And she would’ve cried had they talked on the phone, and then she would’ve put Steve on while she got a tissue, and Annie would have to ask about his day and how is Mom and did you catch that article on the downsides of rent control in The Times? So it was easier sometimes to just not. 

But now, as she gazed up at the sky that looked like someone had painted with only the brightest shades of watercolor, she remembered that game they used to play. It looks like Mrs. Doyle from next door, with her hair that’s always dyed different colors, she would’ve said. She feels her phone buzz in her pocket. It’s a text from her mom, and yet another email from Steve. She opens up the text, and it’s a beautiful picture of the sunset taken from the stoop of their home. It looks just like the one here, blooming over the rolling hills of campus, but different, somehow. There’s a message along with it. Just look up.

jingjing

晶晶           

jingjing

a name that

belongs to me

in a language

which does not

belong to me

 

i can’t even

recognize the characters

of my own goddamn name

one that pushed me out

into the world and

abandoned me

on the streets at 11 months

only to reappear

in government agencies

when they ask for

my full name

because all they see

is my skin

my hair

my eyes

my birthplace

 

they question

my citizenship

my americanness

my identity

as if they are the first

to wonder

what i am

 

they’re not

 

at 10, i lay awake

wondering if

i was white enough

 

at 14, i lay awake

wondering if

i was chinese enough

 

at 19,

i am too tired

to care

 

jingjing

you have chased me

for my entire life

but i’m done running

 

now i turn back

open my arms

and we collide

On Commission

Somebody told me once paint them a picture and they will love it for yourself 

So I agreed and made it dapple sun shines in on winter grindstone surface like the frozen moon

Monolith of purpose made to crush the necks and hands of me for trying to paint it all at once

It pays to take your time when hurting snow is falling said to me

This painting here is not a grindstone not because of you

We see the figure you have sketched in pencil lying in the corner

Take me back to your apartment I wish to see the life you draw

Upon to create empty floor where moon hangs circle empty full

And chalk can break a thousand organs over a cup of clocks and chimes that move together like two lungs when breath complains about his love

And chalk can taste me in apartments one you drew with grindstone lovely

Why would this painting be allowed to prove my love for anybody

I merely tried to captivate the space above my crown and look how you have done me wrong

Narrator must interject and notice here the lies she told

She and he and we must lie the moon is soft but still is cold

A Vague Blueprint

I choose to be

a placemaker,

an architect

whose only materials

are a rise in the voice

and a pile of words –

broken, orphaned little things

that ignorant people call lies.

Ignorant people who cannot feel

the difference between potential and

progress, who see no use for second

chances. I refuse to build labyrinthine

palaces for the many-mouthèd gods with more

words than they know how to wield. I will not carve

monuments of stagnant ideologies out of a precious and

dwindling resource. I will write in rooms and windows –

simple, but strong; so when the forces of time and chaos

come to claim their ransom, I can walk away knowing that

even if my practical walls are razed, there will remain a basement,

in which there is preserved, in vinegar or jam, a tiny fig of honesty.  

Sterile

“It’s about time.”

“I must say he’s never looked better.”

“Haven’t seen him out of cargo shorts in a decade.”

“Good riddance.”

By midday, the gathering around Bill Thorton’s coffin had grown to the size of spectacle. Guests peered over each other’s shoulders, craning their necks to compete for a glance at the man. His suit had been tailored to perfection with cufflinks to match, emerald set against silver, glimmering every so often in the afternoon light. His face had a touch of makeup, and someone had clearly gone to great lengths to tame the few patches of hair that formerly stuck out at odd angles on his scalp. His brawny hands, usually clenched in fists of rage, were gently folded on his chest.

Mr. Thorton had been murdered three days prior. No one was particularly bothered by it. He was an older man, recently retired from three decades in the “home hauling” business. He worked for Henry’s House Haulers, a local business aimed at people who don’t like change and have far too much money to spare, who would rather strap their house to the back of a truck to be carried cross country than putter about choosing between new kitchens. Bill Thorton drove the truck, and after years of taking up far too many lanes of traffic and getting convicted in several road rage incidents, he had developed a bit of a mean streak.

“The road didn’t do it to ’em; he was always a bit of a jackass,” remarked Tommy Owens, who was quickly scolded by his wife. He soon had an audience by the snack table.

“I’m serious,” Owens said, “I knew ’em since we were in elementary school over on 

James Street. We caught a seagull in the parking lot one day after school. Before I knew it he took out a pocket-knife and started hacking the poor creature to bits.”

Mrs. Wilson rolled her eyes. She lived down the street from Mr. Thorton on Culver Road. He lived alone in a house inherited from his mother, a mid-century one story that he kept in good condition. He had a temper, and was known to take it out on the children who played tennis down by the cul de sac. If the ball came anywhere near his front lawn, Mr. Thorton would come barreling out from the garage, snarling and shaking his fists. His nostrils would flare as he bellowed at the children, who shrieked and giggled in fear as they turned on the spot and ran, throwing their rackets down in a clatter. Mrs. Wilson had witnessed the act one time when she came to call the kids home for supper. As he emerged red-faced and spitting, she caught his eye. His mouth curled into something that resembled a smile, and she could have sworn he gave her a wink. 

“The man had his troubles, but he was no sadist. Not like whoever the devil did him in.” replied Mrs. Wilson.

“Well, better ’em than me.” smirked Owens, 

“Who knows Tommy, you could be next!” called out Jim Ford, drunkenly, from across the room. 

Everyone flinched at the suggestion. Mrs. Thornburry, who always cried at these sorts of things, burst into tears. 

“I hear they’re looking for somebody over in Plymouth.”

“That’s what they said about the last one, but I thought the guy they were checking out was out of state last week.”

“That’s what they think, but maybe he popped back over for one last hit.”

“Gentlemen, perhaps now is not the best time for this kind of talk.” said Andrew Doyle, appearing with a tissue in hand for Mrs. Thornburry, who accepted it gratefully. 

“‘Ay, Doyle, how much you makin’ off these services?” replied Owens.

“Not nearly enough, Mr. Owens” said Mr. Doyle, the owner of the funeral home, as he scoured the floor, picking up discarded napkins and a cheese cube that had dug itself into the oriental carpet. 

 

This had been the third funeral in the last two months where the guest of honor had met the same untimely end. A rather un-liked member of the town’s population would go to sleep one night, not knowing it would be their last. They would be found—days or weeks later—lying in bed with their throat cut in a perfect U. “Precise, deliberate, and immaculate,” the police called it. 

Every so often that afternoon a child made their way up to Mr. Thorton’s coffin—standing on their tiptoes to get a better view—searching his newly polished corpse for any signs of the horror it had experienced at the end. The body was, at first glance, perfectly ordinary. It was only if you looked a little too closely, stuck your head far enough toward the coffin at just the right angle, that you might catch a careful bit of stitching midway down the neck. There lay a second smile: the spot where, with absolute precision, Mr. Thorton had been cut open. It was a rather tempting sight, and several times that afternoon Mr. Doyle had appeared just in time to scoop up a child about to topple in.

“Well, Thorton’s in much better shape than Ms. Furman. I heard she didn’t have an open casket because the cats ate half ’er face off by the time the police got to ’er,” Owens 

guffawed. His wife elbowed him. But he kept going.

“Somebody here knows somethin’ they ain’t lettin’ on, right Jim?” 

“Right-y-oh Tommy,” slurred Jim Ford, who was on his sixth plastic cup of wine.

Mr. Doyle eyed the two gentleman, and Mrs. Wilson wandered over to the windows to join the group of gossiping mothers, who had begun to lower their voices.

“Did I tell you what Timmy saw that night?”

“No, but you let him out?”

“I had to—he’s been driving me crazy all cooped up. I let him take the dog out around the block.”

“Jesus, Karen, don’t you live right by Thorton’s place?”

“Yeah, I know. The police gave me hell for it, but Timmy swears the night it happened he saw a long, black car speeding down Culver.”

“What a thing for a kid to see.”

“The police pressed him, but Timmy swears it was some kind of a limousine.”

“A limousine? Whose getaway car is a limousine?”

“Beats me. Anyway, there aren’t any limousine companies around here. I know because Amanda wanted to rent one for the senior prom last year. We had to go all the way to Newport to find a service.”

“Who knows, maybe some nut-job went crazy driving those rich Newport folks around and came down here to burn off some energy.”

Mrs. Wilson sipped her tea, taking in the scene unfolding around her. Jim Ford had finished his seventh drink and was starting to teeter. Owens’ wife had completely lost control of her husband, and he began to froth at the mouth. 

“There’s somethin’ fishy goin’ on in this town, and I am not gonna just sit here ’n let it all go to hell,” said Owens as he threw his arm around Jim Ford to keep him upright.

“Yeah, one of you just ’fess up already,” slurred Ford in agreement.

“How do we know it’s not one of you that’s been doing it?” replied Karen Pinkerton, head gossiping mother and a woman whom Mrs. Wilson recognized from several PTA meetings—she had a knack for contributing at the most inappropriate times.

Owens didn’t seem to have a good answer prepared, and his cheeks flushed.

Jim Ford was now staring at his empty cup, perplexed as to where all the wine had gone.

A vein started to bulge out on the left side of Owens’ neck, and just before he sputtered out another profanity he was intercepted by Mr. Doyle, who suddenly appeared from across the room.

“I think you’ve had enough for this afternoon, Mr. Ford,” he said, taking the cup from the guest’s hand and setting it down on a nearby table. 

As the sun sank below the horizon the guests began to trickle out. Owens half-carried Jim Ford out the door, and they staggered together while his wife followed behind. The gossiping mothers took a final look at Mr. Thorton, sighed, and trailed after the crowd. Mrs. Thornburry let out one last heaving sob, then the room was empty. 

Mr. Doyle began straightening up, putting chairs back in their proper place and recovering discarded programs. He picked up one of Mrs. Thornburry’s tissues that had 

missed the bin, and as he stood up he caught eye of Mrs. Wilson, standing alone in front of Mr. Thorton’s coffin. He walked over and stood beside her, about to ask her politely to leave, when she spoke.

“Do you think he felt it when it happened? Do you think he knew it was the end?” asked Mrs. Wilson. Mr. Doyle paused, and then answered.

“I’m not sure. I’d like to think that whoever did it knew what he was doing, knew how to do it properly that is…so that it wasn’t a…struggle if you will.”

“‘They’ knew what ‘they’ were doing you mean,” replied Mrs. Wilson.

“I’m sorry?” said Mr. Doyle, perplexed.

“Well it could be a woman, you know,” chuckled Mrs. Wilson. “We can get as fed up as you lot, and oftentimes for better reason.” 

 

Mr. Doyle closed the windows and shut the blinds, wheeling the coffin to the back room, where it would be taken for cremation in the morning. He took off his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and walked downstairs to the garage. 

Parked inside was a long, black hearse. The back of the hearse was filled with coffins, stacked haphazardly, and Mr. Doyle reached for one on the bottom left side. He heaved it out and let it fall to the ground. He stuck his hand inside the wooden box, pulling out a pair of white towels, stained with red. He put one to the side and slowly began to unfold the other, pulling back the corners until they revealed small scalpel, painted with strokes of a similar color.

Mr. Doyle inspected the knife carefully, peering at the flecks of dried blood dotting the hilt, picking at the red splotches with his fingernails. Unsatisfied, he brought the coroner’s tool over to the sink and put on a pair of gloves. Filling the basin with hot water and various solutions, he began to scrub. Imperfections melted away as he dunked the scalpel in the tub again and again. The liquid turned magenta, and the room filled with steam. Long into the night Mr. Doyle worked, polishing and re-polishing the blade, lifting it up to the light until it shined.

The Goof

Inspired by The Man-Moth by Elizabeth Bishop

 

The goof climbs from the sewers, hair matted

with cheap alcohol and pigeon scat. 

He has a skittish grin that violently 

shakes the confines of his formless face. 

 

Don’t leave your clothes in the laundromat. 

With the mildew comes the goof. 

He climbs out, fingers snapping, 

Flannel swinging from his shoulders. 

 

The goof will inch up your garbage disposal. 

He will lick your plates clean with a greasy tongue. 

He will shatter your bowls. 

They are the scalps of his friends. 

 

The goof will not stop screeching during the movie. 

He crawls along the floor, eating scraps of 

popcorn, ice cubes, raisinets.

He has the finesse of a seasoned pick pocket. 

 

“You stupid, stupid goof. Go back to your sewer. 

Here, have a dollar store wind-up toy, you bumpkin. 

I don’t like you, goof. Not one bit. 

Skidaddle!” 

 

Say something like that to the goof. 

He will leave, head slumped, defeated. 

But he will certainly reappear. 

When headlights strobe through his gutters, 

 

He will be back.

Bones of an Incomplete Soul

It must be odd for my mother

To have a white child to hold

To see it grow up in a poisonous land

With pockets of silver and gold

To speak in the beautiful language

The one that she holds so dear

But it only blinks twice, and then blinks again

Wishing it was able to hear

 

It must be odd for my father

So easily burnt in the sun

To carry a daughter, so golden and bright

To watch her little feet run

She embodies a vibrant culture

One that he can’t understand

Her words are a maze he must figure out

Her voice as slippery sand

 

It must be odd for my parents

To create a person in whole

But have her be half of everything else

Bones of an incomplete soul

 

It must be odd for the child

Living in a gray tone

Rich with the past, but stuck in the now

So full, and yet so alone. 

Useful Dust

I kick around the dust pile

that breathes through my stereo

its indifference and grace

nothing kept silent for a while.

when there was nothing left to say

we hid the breasts of chicken from our kin

they didn’t bother to raise the tin lid

little drops of honey like dew flew away

all this happened months ago

and the captain tips his hat

angled adjacent to the Albatross leg

we reached we reacted inside it was hollow

screaming innocence like a blue 

like you two come on and shake

the leaves twirl thickly and quickly

a whale’s dreams coming true

tell the youth they don’t like to mix

the muffled sounds from the stereo

thinking “By God! I’ll have a taste!” 

and pour down their throats the words thick.

Sounds on 47th Street

There is a horrendous roar outside my window

like that of a desperate train

squeaking against the rail to come to a stop.

To pick up the hopeless people for another day.

The friction sparks,

like the billboards yelling across the street

with light, fragments, frames by the second.

Squeak, roar, howl,

There is endless sound outside my window.

Voices over voices travel feverishly into my left ear.

And into my right ear,

The heater screams every frantic hour.

 

Release me.

Of the unpleasant world of sound.

Release me.

Of your foul composition,

and your ceaseless reminder

of my incompetence to cope with

you, sound, purposeless conversation,

gossip at lunch, and songs too fast for my hair cells to grasp.

 

Release me from your life,

Your life, the one standing by the light

from which a deep male voice repeats, “Wait,”

every half a minute

obnoxiously.

Release me from your wait,

I shall advance without the help of waves,

all alone.

Untitled

if the mountains call for me

remind them of

the time they turned their backs

as I raced through the wind,

knuckles white and vision glossed.

toss their offer into the most shallow waters

and 

watch the droplets ricochet.

if the mountains call for me,

pick up on my behalf;

please, 

tell them that 

I am now home.

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