Return of the Media Five

By Maya Sonenburg

Second Prize, New Ohio Review Fiction Contest
selected by Charles Baxter

Featured Art: The Eventuality of Destiny by Giorgio de Chirico

I am this heart, this brain, only these, right now—no other. This is what Susan (that’s her name now) tells herself every morning upon waking. She opens her eyes and sees the flaking ceiling above her, sees the wash of sunlight coming through leaves. She touches her chest, feels her heart beating steadily—no rush of fear—and exhales. She’s alone. She touches her head, hair just starting to gray
and she’s not bothering to color it. “This can be my new disguise,” she thinks, “my new self.” One of the million selves she’s been in the last twenty-odd years. She rubs her eyes and before she can silence herself again, she remembers days when she thought more, remembered more: a million legs all running toward the Pentagon or induction center or federal courthouse. Flowers in the barrel of a
gun. A Viet Cong flag. Giant puppets of Kissinger, Nixon, McNamara. Or their heads atop the bodies of gigantic hawks, perched among the blackened trees of a burned landscape. Bring the war home. A placard of a napalmed child. If people see, they will join us and this atrocity will have to stop. A million hands waving. A million arms, fists raised in salute. They were the million legs and
hands of her—her legs and hands—the million-limbed body of resistance, then revolution. Why does she allow these things to come back to her today? Because it’s spring and her curtains are the color of a daffodil she handed to a child once at a demonstration? She remembers when the remembered voices were always with her, singing off-key but loudly together. She never felt alone. But then suddenly she was alone, amputated from everyone and everything she knew. Most mornings she silences these memories of memories, she manages to.

It’s a matter of self-preservation: if she does not remember her past, she’ll make no slips, allow no one to find her, avoid the harsh slap of the law in the person of a policeman’s hand. For they still behave that way, they do. When she sees it on TV, she must remind herself she looks like—no is—a harmless, middleaged white lady, no Rodney King. Her arresting officer would be younger than she is, wouldn’t remember the 1960’s, wouldn’t even have been born then. She rises, washes her face—most mornings—and with the night’s sleep puts aside, again, the actions and the years on the run and all the melodrama. “Oh, not a million. Don’t be ridiculous.” She’s taken on only a dozen or so personas in all these years: despite the plethora of glossy boxes, hair dye actually comes in only so many colors. Days, she goes on with baking or laundry or typing or childcare or waitressing or whatever other ho-hum job she’s doing, goes on with taking the bus to work and stopping in the grocery store on the way home, goes on with a movie on the weekends, goes on with volunteering at the homeless shelter, goes on with answering when her newest friend uses her newest name. She goes on with showing her fake ID and paying in cash (she used checks for a while but was always scared she’d sign her real name), goes on with moving or staying put as long as she can keep her stories from contradicting each other, as long as no one comes up to her in a bar and says, “Don’t I know you from somewhere,” even when that’s probably just a pickup line, moves on to the next in a string of casual affairs or one-night stands. Sometimes she reminds herself that she could end this, contact a lawyer, retake her real name and her past. The charges, if any, have surely been dropped. Someone could find out for her. Even Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers resurfaced long ago—look at the lives they’ve made for themselves. But then she thinks, “What for?” She’s even been able to testify in front of the legislature, an advocate for the homeless gals in the shelter, with her fake name. Her past is so surely and totally past, the people from her past like puppets with no hands to guide them, the places of her past inhabited by new occupants. She’s landed here, two towns over from the Connecticut town she grew up in, but the landscape has been so utterly changed by bulldozers, subdivisions, Pierre Deux fabrics, strip malls, insurance brokers, real estate agents, and private beaches that she barely recognizes it. Well, so it goes. And the self of that past? Despite this morning’s rememberings . . . would she recognize her?

She rises, pulls on her robe, examines her teeth in the mirror—a totally ordinary morning. Her room opens directly onto the landing at the top of the stairs. Downstairs, she shares the living room and kitchen with the other inhabitants of this no-name boarding house, a dry counterpart to true communal living. Here the inhabitants ignore each other, clean the kitchen and bath of all traces of themselves every day, no crusts of whole-wheat bread sticky with peanut butter on the counters, no long hairs winding themselves down the bathtub drain. The other bedroom doors are locked, everyone either still asleep or gone—she can never keep track of her ever-changing housemates’ patterns. In the kitchen, the air smells of exhaust, dust, pollen. Unlike the window in her bedroom, stuck since the year’s first warm day, this one opens. Outside, the leaves have only just unfolded on the trees but it’s already hot and humid. Your typical East Coast leap across spring, Susan thinks. She remembers spring elsewhere: the chilly Seattle stretch from February to June, the heavy Southern odor of magnolia, rain swept across a Paris street, the month of heat in northern California before the fog settled in, yellow crocuses in the Midwest and the smell of mud, a blanket of rotten snow beneath pine trees at the edge of Penobscot Bay, cactus flowers.

Unusual, someone’s left a mess of the newspaper on the dining table, and she straightens the pages while she waits for her toast to brown, seeks the front page with her usual mix of curiosity and trepidation. It happens often enough—the reappearance of a fugitive on the way to an arraignment—that she feels vindicated in having these emotions. Really, though, why should she feel trepidation? Just because A and B got themselves arrested doesn’t mean she’s next. She remembers the day she found them smiling up at her from the front page, older certainly, still flashing the peace sign. And had that been X’s face in the background, a profile she thought she’d recognized, turned in conversation with a cop. Not an image she wants to pursue. Today she doesn’t find a face or name
to recognize. She scans the stories with scant interest, glances at the date—May 3. “May 3 already?” she thinks languidly. Then more sharply: May 3 already. Her period must be at least two weeks late. It can’t be, she thinks, she can’t have managed—maybe, somehow—after all these years, to get herself knocked up. She recalculates dates, remembers bleeding just as the crocuses bloomed, remembers looking at the muted purple of the flower one minute and a few minutes later at the petals of blood on her underpants. Surely she has to have bled since.

She pushes her chair back from the table and places her hand on her belly. She has felt bloated for a while—since when?—and remembers a strange episode of tummy rumblings and poppings she’d never experienced before. There’s no denying her period is late. Maybe she’s premenopausal? No, surely too young for that. So—pregnant? Really? At forty-two, isn’t she too old for that and all it leads to? Diapers and noise, her own place and a lease in her own name, chasing a naked toddler as he runs through the park gates and then, patiently, turning him from an animal into a human being—she’s seen friends try. A wave of nausea hits her, but she knows it’s fear, she knows it’s fear. Surely she recognizes her body’s response to fear after all this time. Once, she thought she’d be married at twenty-three and have her first child at twenty-five, time for four years of career first. Then she thought she’d marry—some hokey ceremony in a backyard with flowers in her hair instead of a veil—but have no children, she and X so committed to the Movement there’d be no time for children and their lives too dangerous for children to join anyway. Then she expected she’d never marry but still produce a brood of children, all living in some communal paradise. The past dozen years or so, she hasn’t thought about having children at all. And now what? What has she done? If it’s real, what will she do? Terminate? Pass the child along to someone else? Have the child? But she’d have to tell him something about her past: events and ramblings, fear, loneliness and its antidotes, slivers of joy. Some people pass along photographs or spoon collections, one tiny teaspoon for every city they’ve lived in, or the tattered remnants of relatives’ clothes, or jewelry, or hand-stitched quilts, but she would need to find other residues to explain.

Skokie, Illinois—When they first ran, and she joined up with X. Where? It was night. The house of friends of friends of Movement friends. The bed, an ancient iron thing painted white in a dingy room. But surprisingly, the mattress was wonderful, one of those tufted hotel affairs, the sort of thing she remembered sleeping on as a teenager on a family trip to some wedding or funeral. She’d
slept very well there.

Bangor, Maine—her room behind the health food store, a place filled with dusty bins of whole-wheat flour and the sour smell of almond butter left clinging to the lip of the self-grind machine, a roaming dog, wilted sunflowers, and her co-workers, those few left over hippies, filtering summer sunlight through half-closed lids. They sold the grains and produce mostly to each other, the rest of the population having abandoned the hot downtown for the mall out near the airport, with its air-conditioned supermarket, discount clothing store, and giant five-and-dime.

Tallahassee, Florida—the shape of a man’s back—ridiculous to think she couldn’t remember more than that—curved as the bowl of a wooden spoon and the dusky luscious color, too, of worn wood.

Wisconsin—snow outside the window, the white of apocalypse.

San Francisco—her room in the Haight after its heyday, the detritus of a thousand marijuana nights. The very walls infused with the fusty smell, a DayGlo rainbow painted on an indigo background, rolled up black light posters someone had left behind, a mattress on the floor and a sink in the corner. By then she’d stopped smoking weed herself, finding even one toke gave her a headache. From the bay window, she saw the house across the street with its peeling gray paint, a palm tree, a madrona’s smooth red skin. She’s heard new owners have since repainted the houses in bright colors, colors visitors think inspired the Summer of Love, but it’s not true. She remembers empty, fog-filled days after she and X finally split up (despite everything, she still doesn’t allow herself to think his names—his real name, his nicknames, or even his aliases—for fear she’ll slip and he’ll get caught), walking around in a daze, damp and cold in July, pulling on sweaters she found in trash cans. She shaded her eyes against the midday glare when the sun threatened to burn through the fog, gathered her skirt around her legs, slipped her hand into a pocket and brought out the only thing she’d taken of his, a leather key fob darkened with the oil from his hands. Until this point, she kept the past with her. She’d been calling herself Heather for nearly two years, but if someone said “Betsy” on the bus, she still needed to stop herself from turning around. After this she let the past—her name, her memories of her family, her desires, her dreams, her beliefs—drift away.

Seattle—Lucy married Richard. He thought she was a local girl, and actually she had lived in the city longer than he. He’d come straight from college, worked for Boeing. They spent years in the rain, waiting to have the baby he thought would make their lives complete. She grew flowers in their backyard, learning which perennials liked wet and dark, thrived on only two months of sun. In June and September her garden was riotous. They made love in the bedroom overlooking it, and she was sure there’d be a baby. Then October would come, and November, and the sky would lower and she’d bleed.

The commune in New Mexico—was that before or after Seattle? She’s not sure of any of this chronology. She remembers fleeing rain, fleeing Richard’s disappointment and anger, but not necessarily to the commune. Goodness, that must have been the late seventies already, maybe later. The commune with its few low-slung adobe buildings, its teepee of pine logs the men had dragged
down from the nearest mountain, its vegetable fields scratched into inhospitable soil, must have been gone by then—along with its barefoot children sharing books, its men with glorious matted hair, its women kneading bread dough and trying to bake in a wood-fired oven. She’d loved the smell of yeast, the brown dough forming a thin skin that dried on her fingers and the heels of her hands. Or perhaps she’s remembering images from Easy Rider, rather than her own life. Perhaps her escape from rain and Richard was into a movie theater just across town where they were already showing a retrospective of movies about the sixties. She can’t trust her own judgment. But she remembers Buddy Sunflower, the little boy who ran along the top rail of the fence in his bare feet, absconded with hammer and nails and pieces of scrap wood. He’d pull her by the hand, show her stuff he’d made: This is an airplane, this is a spaceship, this is a robot, this is a conveyor belt, this is a car and a truck and a tractor. His mind was of a decidedly mechanical bent and he learned to help the men work on the real trucks by the time he was five. They used his small hands to reach in and do jobs they’d have to take the engine apart for otherwise, and he’d return to the house gleefully covered with grease. When they visited friends with a TV, he took it apart and had it figured out and back together again by the time the visit was over; he’d never even seen one before. “I’m going to be an engineer,” he said proudly to anyone and everyone, but the grown-ups pooh-poohed him. “An
engineer, Buddy?” they said. “They build bombers and oil refineries, they help destroy things,” But he said, “Yeah, airplanes, whooooosh,” and he soared his homemade wooden plane into the air. In the evening, they sometimes sat around the kitchen table and played music, songs of their own making or “Sugaree” or “This Land is Your Land.” Buddy climbed up into his mother’s lap, laid his head
against her shoulder, and took a toke of the joint every time it went around, until his glazed eyes just closed and he was carried up to bed. You could see the dirty bottoms of his feet. She’d teased him about that mechanical obsession, but he’d been her favorite, more than the little girls who ran around naked with only feathers in their hair and got tanned brown as adobe clay; more than the
blond baby who always had a runny nose and whose mother kept him clean no matter what. Even now she wondered how a boy raised without electricity becomes obsessed with planes and turbines and trains and bridges, wondered where he was, the little boy who got high every night to fall asleep.

Denver, Colorado—typewriters. Officially she hadn’t lived in the secretarial pool, but she doesn’t remember where she had slept or taken her meals. She remembers cheese sandwiches for lunch and the rows of desks, each facing away from the door and windows, to minimize distractions. Twenty heads turned every time the door opened. It would have been more efficient if their desks had
faced the door. There was a busy clackety-clack in the room, the steady staccato sound of two-hundred fingers hitting the keys. Other places she worked, the sound was less distinct, and she thinks, perhaps that was because of the altitude, a mile in the air.

The backyard of her parents’ house—tripping on mescaline. She lay on her back under a tree in its full summer dress. Gold outlined each leaf in some fusion of sun and drug. Her eyes had stitched the leaves with that golden thread. And she knew her two friends were seeing things the same way. That for them, too, the achingly blue sky behind the green leaves wasn’t really behind the leaves. It and the leaves and she and her friends were all part of the same fabric. Every once in a while, a startlingly white cloud would pass through her range of vision and she knew this was the physical manifestation of someone else’s thought, the way each particle of air—the cool breeze and the warm sun—and the tip of each blade of grass beneath her were part of some giant thought. But who was
thinking it? Stereo speakers in the windows, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” blasting. She remembers her mother calling from an upstairs window, “Betsy, Betsy, turn that music down!” and so this must have been before she disappeared, even before the events that made her run away, even before she joined SDS and sat through that long dark student strike at Columbia her first year there. And that girl who loved billowing dresses in paisley prints, singing, laying her head on a friend’s shoulder for no matter what, rhubarb pie and pot brownies and vanilla ice cream, is just as strange to her as any of the other selves she’s been.

Daffodils—their yellowness so pure, a funnel of yellow, with a ruffle at the edge. She’s lived in them too.

Telluride—the summer she saw policemen on every street corner and thought they’d arrest her for looking at the sky. She’d heard that happened to some guy in Aspen, arrested for staring up at the sky. “It’s just so blue, man,” he’d told the cop. Marcia had the whole A-frame house to herself and her only responsibility was taking care of a Siamese cat named Shingles. She lived in the basement, though, in a small room next to the hot-water heater. She dragged down a mattress, a straight-back chair, a desk lamp, stapled a dark blue sheet over the window, and only went upstairs after dark. When the guy she was seeing at the time came to visit her, she somehow, without giving away the reasons for her paranoia, convinced him to drive up the long dirt road at night and then back down it again with his lights off. She convinced him he could see by moonlight or even just starlight. “The stars, they’re great, man,” she told him. “You can’t see them when your lights are on. You need to go in the dark, to let your eyes adjust away from the fake city light and get used to nature again.” And then she left Telluride mid-week. The owners were scheduled to be back Friday anyhow, and she left enough food and water for the cat, and she didn’t tell anyone where she was going. Or rather she left a vague note that provided enough information to keep people from worrying without supplying any specifics. She’d become adept at those notes by then—oh, this must have been the mid seventies already. Or maybe it was the eighties—because in her mind, everything is the mid seventies until suddenly it’s 1990 and she’s settled here and then it’s two years later and it’s now, 1992. She knows that her life has not just been clusters of activity punctuated by periods of hibernation, but it seems
that her memories are either tinged with dying communes and the background flash of disco lights or with the sad aftermath of lots of money made and lost, moods she picked up along with discarded newspapers in bus stations. She’d read enough to know what was going on around her. And now the newspaper gets delivered every morning, and there is Clinton, the hope for Clinton, whose fucking around might cost him the presidency. When was the last time she’d had some hope? Or was it desperation?

New Jersey, early 1971, she and X had posed as newlyweds and rented an immaculate suburban ranch house within striking distance of Philly and its Media suburb, complete with new shag carpeting and olive-colored appliances. X had cut his hair shorter, grown modest sideburns, wore “love beads” to parties—an affectation they laughed and laughed at. They were already ex-hippies, Movement people playing straight people who occasionally tried on the costumes of hippies. She’d parted her hair on the side and brushed it shiny, wore square-heeled pumps and suede mini-skirts (not too short) with wide belts. They looked just cool enough, a cool young couple retreating from the city to maybe think about starting a family. They explained away the others: a brother just out of college, a sister between jobs, a cousin on his way back from the Peace Corps. They felt they were taking a risk with that last one but how else to explain his duffel bag, knowledge of Swahili, love of African music. They made sure to play music softly, to drive neither in nor out of their driveway at odd hours, to bring in the requisite groceries in brown paper bags from the supermarket—bags of chips, dripping packages of chicken legs, containers of coleslaw and potato salad in the same tart, creamy dressing—to keep the lawn mowed and the hedges trimmed. Betsy—she was still Betsy then—worked in a doctor’s office, answering phones, filing away patients’ charts. Always the first to arrive, she had a key to the office and easy access to a copy machine.

One day she came home, and the house was quiet, X and the others asleep in their clothes in mid-afternoon. They’d been away all night. She didn’t ask where, something in the works but better for her not to know the details. She had to remain beyond reproach: “Look, man, could we ever do anything bad around her?” With her sweet good looks, smooth cheeks, touch of pale pink lipstick. She walked down the stairs to the basement, stripping off her work costume, ready to add it to the load of laundry she was planning, when she saw the cardboard boxes and opening them, the files. X found her sitting on the concrete floor, in her bra and the nude-colored pantyhose she hated, oblivious to the cold. “Look what you got,” she said. “Jesus, look what you got.” He pretended to listen to her suggestions for hiding the boxes, for a place to move to next, but he never followed any of them. He leaned back on the couch, booted foot crossed over his other knee, tattered jeans he wore when the drapes were closed, touching his sideburns, running his hands through the thick brown hair already growing out from the straight boy’s haircut. He nodded but he said, “No, that part’s my job. Yours is to copy them. Just copy them and bring them back.”

“What are we going to do with them?” she asked, but he deflected her with sex, easily. She was turned on all the time, even at work, while she talked to some patient asking for test results, and at the same time thought about the files she’d stayed up late reading. Not exactly what they’d been looking for but even better. Jesus Christ, maybe they could bring down the whole FBI, J. Edgar Fucking Hoover too.

After dinner they’d brought the boxes upstairs. She was in the inner circle now, sitting on the living room floor with them, passing around the bottle of wine, passing around the files. She’d read too much to be kept in the dark. “Is this what we were looking for?” she asked as the others whooped and hollered. “I thought we were looking for stuff about the Harrisburg Six.”

“We got that, we got that,” someone said.

The Harrisburg Six—they’d been accused of planning to kidnap Kissinger. What if they’d really been able to do it?! That frog! No! That turtle! No! A toad, a toad! But of course Berrigan and the others weren’t really going to kidnap Kissinger or blow up the heating systems in government buildings—why heating systems of all things? Only the government itself would make up such crazy things, then concoct a case to prove it. But no, maybe not this time. They’d stolen the government’s case, and the defense could be prepared.

On the other side of the room, another conversation: Hey, if we get caught, we’ll be the Media Five. And a laugh. But we won’t, not ever. Not even an alarm system, only in there for an hour. She doesn’t remember who said what.

“Look at this,” someone else said. “They spied on a congressman’s daughter, notes on every fucking march she went to!”

In the files. Oh my god. Look what we’ve found—just what we knew all along. They’re watching everyone and writing it all down—every trip to Cuba, every request for a visa to Moscow, every march—peaceful or not, every draft card burned, every bra burned, had its own photo and memo. We’ve got them. Jesus Christ we’ve got them. Listen to this, listen to this, someone said, read
choice bits out loud.

That spring, she’d come home from work, find the curtains drawn, yesterday’s coffee cups filled with cigarette butts, that morning’s dishes on the floor, papers spread everywhere, and an argument going on about whether to classify a bank robbery by a black militant group with robberies or political surveillance, whether to include draft resisters in political surveillance or create a separate category, because their final release of documents was to include a summary of all the papers they’d recovered—no one said “stolen,” because a full 40% of the documents, the largest category, related to political surveillance, and only two of those concerned right-wing groups while all the others, over two-hundred, concerned groups on the left. The other documents: mostly manuals, and then a smattering of murders, draft resisters, bank robberies, and organized crime. She’d hand over the docs she’d copied that day, to one hand or another, pick up dishes and wash them, cook dinner, usually able to rope someone in to help her.

And yes, she’s not allowing herself to use names and yes that means they’re all becoming one person again which they did successfully that spring as they mailed documents to Senators and all the newspapers, “serials” they called them, just like the Agency did, and wrote letters to peace activists and reporters and even the FBI itself, signed them The Citizens’ Committee to Investigate the
FBI. After working their day jobs, they’d come home and work that other job, reading and sorting and analyzing documents, until they all, except her, gave up their day jobs. Then they’d all end up in one bed or another, or some of them in one bed and others wound together in another. That was that living room, that bedroom, until she came back one day two months later and saw that all the boxes were gone, and then that X and A—the other woman, deceitful diva she’d called “sister,” with her guitar and her Joan Baez songs—were gone too. Just the other guys were left and they wouldn’t say a word, busy packing up their leathers and guitars, bottle openers and pipes, and asking her would she please contact the real estate person and let him know they had to move out, handle cleaning up the place and getting their deposit back because she was the only one who could do that, the only one who was straight-looking enough, and then they walked out the door and gave her some PO box to send the deposit money when it came and please send cash, they said. You’ll want to use cash from now on too. And of course she did because, by God, they’d bring down the whole fucking FBI with this information. And looking back on it, they very nearly did. Hoover canceled Cointelpro that spring.

So she hung tight until the lease on the house was up, told the neighbors her husband had been transferred, but they came into the office one day, three guys in suits and very short hair, and asked to speak to her privately in the doctor’s consulting room. They called her “Miss” even though she had that gold band on her finger. She played up to it. When they asked her what type of copying machine they had in the office, she said she didn’t know and fluttered her eyelashes. “Oh I can never remember things like that,” she said. “Sometimes I can hardly remember which buttons to push.” She giggled. She knew damn well what machine it was and she’d watched the Xerox technician fix it enough times to know how its innards worked too.

Then they asked about G. Could she tell them his whereabouts? “I really don’t know,” she said. “He just needed a place to stay when he came back from Africa. He was in the Peace Corps, you know.”

“He was never in the Peace Corps,” they said. “And I think you know that.”

She chose to ignore the last remark. “Oh dear,” she said. “Oh dear. You just can’t trust anyone, can you?” Eventually he’d been caught, plucked from a drum circle on Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, just when she was starting to relax. Funny how she and X are the only ones left out here . . . The men kept asking about G and A and B and X, and as she deflected and deflected, she wondered when they would ask about her own membership in SDS—a lapsed membership she reminded them when they finally did. She kept her cool. The SDS was all behind her now. It was so passé, wasn’t it? She was
married and working and hoping to start a family. She knew she didn’t need to worry about X: he was clean. He’d never officially belonged to anything. Sweet boy, reluctant revolutionary—at least when they started, before he started saying, “We’re a collective. Our lives need to be exemplary.” And she, she could play the part of the reformed flower child for the FBI, for her parents, for as long as it took for them to lay off, until she could call the payphone set aside for Monday mornings at ten, and hear his voice again, hear him say he’d gotten his shit together and left the diva and now she could join him. When they asked where her “husband” (they leaned into that word with insinuation) was, she
insisted that he’d been sent to Louisville and gave them the address and phone number of a Holiday Inn. The insinuation funny because he was, in fact, her husband—she had the certificate to prove it. “Oh no, Ma’am, he’s not there,” they said. “And I think you know that.”

“Oh dear, oh no, not . . . ” she said, collapsing in a paroxysm of overlapping real and fake tears, and just wouldn’t stop weeping.

“So you suspected . . .”

“Yes,” she interrupted, “that gal at his office. Can you find him for me?” And she kept weeping, not because he was really supposed to be in Louisville but because she knew that one day, one day soon probably, she would not be able to find him.

Now, when she emerges from the drugstore on her way to work, the pregnancy test inside a white paper bag, she allows herself to remember those moments of triumph and fear for the first time in a long long time. Two blocks later she enters a department store. Once a splendid palace of consumerism, it’s seen better days. The ladies’ room is still magnificent however, its private stalls each equipped with a wash basin set into a marble counter, and she heads right there. Up the escalator, close the door, down come her jeans and underpants. With trepidation, excitement, hope, she pees onto the plastic test strip, and in the ensuing three minutes of waiting, she thinks these things: other rooms, lost locations, reduced histories, the room where she was hit by a man, the room where she first hit a man, the room where she wept for her mother’s death and later wept because she could not go to the funeral and still later wept because forever she’d be the ungrateful daughter, the room where she washed lingerie, the room where she washed lettuce and spun it in a basket so that water droplets splattered the walls, the room where she got socked in the eye by love, the room where sunlight became solid, the room that reverberated with the sound of rain, the room where the wind nestled in the corners and then struggled to get out again, the room where she made friends, the room where she said goodbye to old friends, the room where roaches armied up and down the walls all night, the room where butterflies loved her, the room where her cat gave birth, the room she’d painted yellow, the other room she’d painted green, the room long ago she’d painted purple not realizing what that dark color would do to her mood, the rooms of forgiveness and blame, of pity and rage, of calm breathing and horror, nightmare rooms and fantasy rooms, the rooms of desire and fear.

When the blue line appears, Betsy knows her son (already she’s sure it will be a boy) will need to know all of them. If X reappears, finds her out . . . No, she’ll need to set the wheels in motion for re-emergence into her own life on her own.


Maya Sonenberg’s story collection Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters is the recipient of the 2021 Sullivan Prize in short fiction. Previous books and chapbooks include Cartographies, Voices from the Blue Hotel, 26 Abductions, and After the Death of Shostakovich Père. Other writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, Electric Literature, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM. She teaches at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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