Some years, the theme of SFR’s annual writing contest is flippant, and we get jovial responses that reflect how much fun it can be to write your heart. Not so this year. The theme “I shouldn’t say this but …” evoked some serious and deep reflections. Maybe even the kind you only whisper to your best friend. This is how our hearts are right now. And that’s part of the mountains and the valleys of life.
We're honored that readers from the community showed the courage, vulnerability and creativity to pen their thoughts.
Blind judges picked the same fiction winner as last year's contest, and again we're treated to a sort of tangled romance from Jennifer Edelson in Existential Love Story. In The Burning of Zozobra, writer Tori Shepard grapples with suicide and a beloved Santa Fe ritual. Darlene Goering's Remember is a cautionary tale with just enough left undone.
In the nonfiction category, Isaiah Cisneros gets raw with his personal essay Nowhere Feels like Home, in which he discusses the emotional scars of military service and the definition of masculinity. Mario Gonzales focuses on feminine energy as he tells of his "two Marias" in The Story of Creation. Lastly, Mario Montoya hits on life with humans when you're not exactly what society expects in Use it or Lose it.
Special thanks to all who entered, and we look forward to hearing from more of you again next fall.
First place winners receive $100; second place winners get $50 in gift certificates from Chocolate Maven; third place winners receive gift certificates from Macalicious.
1st Place: Existential Love Story
By Jennifer Edelson
The cedar sauna is pitch black inside, like an ink stain that never dries despite the heat. To navigate, I keep one hand on planks of blistering grooved wood, until I find a flat surface directly in front of me. Evan plops down and pulls me up against his body and the jolt loosens a little air bubble from between my lips.
"Do you love me?" He asks.
I want to say I think so, but don't answer.
He kisses my neck, and my mind wanders from song lyric to song lyric, following a chain of associations. I sing, "Love, love will tear us apart again …" until Evan kisses me quiet. His hands explore fleshy planes of fat and skin. And though I feel him tangibly, in the hot dark sauna, I can't help wondering if he's a figment of my imagination.
My pounding heart fills the boxy room. The space feels like it's expanding, but my skin still puckers in anticipation. Evan's touch is electrifying, and as he lays me back against the hot bench and rests his weight on top of me, my body arches up to meet him.
Evan says my heart is like a motel vacancy sign; sometimes the lights are on, sometimes nothing. That I should care more about who or what occupies each room. It's soul-crushing to think he questions my commitment. He's more a part of me than anyone.
"What are you thinking about?" He asks.
"You're not just some transient lodger," I whisper.
"Yes. Plus, the 'motel' is in ruins. Maybe now it'll shut down permanently."
I want Evan to know he's the only person who makes sense of life in a way I understand. That we may not agree on things like God or children, but that he exists in a way I respect, and that because of it, I admire him. But it's really late and knowing I may never be able to tell him makes me want to run as far away as possible.
Evan kisses me again. His kisses travel down my neck along with his hand, which scrunches up my tee shirt above my stomach. I really need him to know how I feel, so though I only mean to take off my shirt, somehow, he manages to get me naked beneath him. He takes off his own clothes, then takes my hand and shows me his soft spots until all sorts of agreeable emotions come flooding out of me.
In the dark Evan's body makes no sense. Muscle and bone push against tight skin like well-placed padding, defining long limbs and slender torso. Under my fingers they're like guideposts; staking out boundaries between voyage-worthy destinations.
"Don't worry," he says, "I know you're not into it tonight. I just want to touch you."
"You think I'm empty?" I whisper.
"No, baby. I think you're amazing."
Evan closes my eyes with his fingertips and traces a pattern across my upper chest with his index finger, back and forth between the hollows above my collarbone. He recites travel facts from National Geographic as he walks his fingers over my stomach, and it's so sexy.
For a moment, we are one. The ghost in Evan is the ghost in me, if ghost is what it is. Evan knows my ghosts better than anyone.
We move against each other, but my mind goes into hyperdrive. Instead of focusing on Evan's touch, I think about my dinner earlier, about the life my cod probably lived—swimming thousands of miles, chasing Russian submarines. It's upsetting knowing I snuffed out those memories. Just like that, I destroyed another unique, irreplaceable thing.
I think about the difference between me and Jupiter. How she's composed of the same electrical impulses that travel through my body; how I'm made up of the same iron, and oxygen, and energy. It makes me sad. Four billion years of inertia would drive me crazy.
I think about snowmen. How futile it must feel to sit paralyzed while your body melts away, and just when you've started living. I think about petrified trees and the millions of years' worth of experiences they'll never share with me. I think about how small I am, about how little space must care that I'm out here. I obsess about relativity and it screws with my head, because knowing I'm so inconsequential sometimes makes it hard to endure.
I think about ghosts, and aliens, and ESP. How thousands of people can't all be liars, how my inner skeptic excels at canceling out belief. I think about Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac Killer. Did they believe in anything?
I think about how every day, someone dies in a car accident, or drowns in the shallow end of their pool, or chokes on a carrot. How it's all completely random. I worry about people dying from yellow fever and food-borne germs. I worry about environmental diseases. I think about earthquakes destroying California and a 30-mile-wide asteroid hitting earth while I sleep. I wonder if a tidal wave can make it all the way from the beach to the city. Then I realize I really should quit thinking. I'm more likely to worry myself to death, which would be its own catastrophe.
"Maybe we should stop," Evan says softly, interrupting my ruminating. "I can tell you're somewhere else."
"I'm trying," I whisper. "I'm just anxious tonight."
"Try for you," he says sort of thoughtfully. "I'll be here no matter what as long as you're honest with me." He props himself up and rests rigidly on his elbows, feeling around my body for a box of cigarettes. "Open your heart, babe," he says as he sits up. "Whatever it is you're looking for, you'll find it eventually."
"What if I die in a car crash before I do?"
"That's what you're thinking about?"
Evan lights a cigarette. Orange flecking glows in the pitch room, leaving a stubborn imprint. We sit and stare at it in silence for a minute, until his hand searches for me on the wooden ledge, finding a space for his thumb right between two of my ribs.
"What if?" He asks. "You're looking for absolutes that don't exist. Statistically speaking, 94 percent unlikely may be the best you ever get. And I'd take those odds, honestly."
"Statistics are meaningless when it comes to humans. That 6 percent still represents flesh and blood people. And given all the horrible things out there, there's a whole lot of numerically improbable slots to fill."
"That's partly what makes life exciting, don't you think?'
"No, it's too uncertain. What if there really is a right path and I never find it? I need a guidebook," I tell him.
Evan laughs. "Guess you're out of luck, babe. But it's not okay to wait and do nothing until you figure it out. You have to play to win. Meaning is a romantic notion, but it's also pretty academic when it's still just a word."
"I'm going to screw up, Evan."
"If you didn't screw up, I'd worry about you."
I hesitate, because I know I shouldn't say it. "Maybe I'm not the kind of person who can love someone."
"Do you love me?"
Wiping little beads of sweat off my chin, I say, "I love the way saltwater feels when it's tacky and foul after it dries on my skin. And the way sunburned skin feels snug, like it's holding everything inside me together. I love peeing when I've waited for an eternity. I love the smell of hot tar on a hot day. And the way the airport smells all the time, but especially airplane exhaust in winter. I love the way orange and blue look together. I love the words 'discipline' and 'debris.' And I really love Taco Bell tacos. But I honestly don't know what it feels like to love a human."
"This." He grasps my arm gently. "This is what it feels like."
I frown again, then sigh. It's Evan all the way for the win.
"What's really in that head of yours, sandwiched between all your fear and uncertainty? What's so important you can't just lie back and stop thinking?"
The stubby end of my own cigarette burns all the way down to the filter. I take another one out of its box and then scoot away from him, because I don't want to be close enough to feel it when I hurt his feelings.
"I don't think I know how to love you, Evan."
I flick my lighter to see his face better. Tainted by an orange glow, it looks strange and distant—like he sees through me and doesn't exactly like what's behind the veil.
"Do you regret anything?" he asks.
"I regret lots of things," I say softly.
"No." I shrug. "I don't think so."
"You won't at all, one day," he whispers.
"How do you know?"
"Because I do. One day we'll be an epic story. I'll be that enigmatic boy who played the guitar and won your heart over a pool table. Tonight, right here, will be the first time you looked outside yourself and saw it all clearly. The thing is, babe, everyone has to lose it a little to move forward. Someday, I promise you, you'll understand there isn't a thing in this world you'd rather do than live in it with me."
In the dark, as he grasps my hand and uses it to stroke his cheek, I already know in this amorphous way that though the road ahead is my own, I really don't mind sharing. We may be opposites. But we can love each other differently. I just have to find a way to show him I want it to work.
I flick my lighter again and hold it up, meeting his eyes.
If I remember anything about tonight, it will be this moment. The way Evan looks in the glow of my flame. I will remember he looks happy. I will remember that I love his smell—a mix of cigarettes, leather, sweat and wood—and what it does to me. We exchange gazes void of awkward pauses or paralyzing insecurity. It's all there in his eyes. Evan already knows I believe we're an epic story. He's just waiting for me to voice the ending.
Jennifer Edelson is a local artist, writer, former attorney, Bollywood fanatic and pizza connoisseur. You can find her art and some of her writing on all the finest refrigerator doors in New Mexico.
2nd Place: The Burning of Zozobra
By Tori Shepard
We gathered on the bridge and cast half my son's ashes over the edge. God knows I tried to hold him back! We fought, then screamed for him not to jump when he shucked me off, old coat. His hand wrenched out of mine. I cradle the other half of his ashes, and I can never sleep. Unnatural mother.
All the old concerns that were about losing Zack are now about me. That I am too needy and my desolation must come to an end. You'll get past it. "Pull up your socks." I've stopped listening to them. Please be gentle with me about this. My friends have dropped me.
These days, I talk to strangers. One reminded me, "Fiesta is next week." I'm happy to get my mind away from myself and to contemplate the simplicity of the processions and Masses celebrating New Mexico's 1692 Spanish Reconquista. All Spanish still alive when the Pueblo Indians rampaged fled into a 12-year exile, carrying their willow-wood statue of the Blessed Virgin which their Captain Don Diego de Vargas solemnly promised to restore as the true Mistress of Santa Fe if She would lead them back. She was renamed La Conquistadora.
"You remember how we burn the celebrated effigy, Zozobra, first? Then there is a Gran Baile–dancing all night," the excited stranger explains. "Each day we have ceremonies to venerate the statue of La Conquistadora." If I were Catholic, I, for one, would certainly trust the Mother of God—or any other mother who has lost a son.
"Everyone especially loves Zozobra," he says. "He's 'Old Man Gloom' and when he burns, he takes our sorrows with him." I nod. Smile. Zozobra is Spanish for sorrow. He is a 50-foot giant puppet fashioned to be his own kindling. He turns troubles to ash. Setting fire to misery strikes another chord in me. I smile again.
"Zozobra is a great show: He moans. He is made to burn; he's our pain; he is all of our nemeses." Odd that they burn Gloom now at the rich end of summer when the weather is sweetest, no longer bleak and frozen. But that's the way of this town, and tomorrow we will gather in a field for the bonfire yelling "Burn Him! Kill Him!" And, once Zozobra and our troubles are destroyed, the revelry commences: Viva La Fiesta! A week of dancing and drunken songs will burst forth uncomplicated by the morning Masses and candlelight processions. I intend to go. For company, I called Ashleigh to join me.
"No way! I hate Zozobra," Ashleigh said. "It's just a mob scene. Dumb."
"But everyone loves it!"
"I hate crowds!" she said, and I step back. I need crowds. My relationships (even with myself) have slowly shifted so that I can no longer be alone. Ten thousand tickets have been pre-sold.
"Call me if you change your mind," I said. No way Ashleigh can know I have actually pinned my hopes on that trick, trumped-up Zozobra, counting on that newspaper-stuffed marionette to dull the feel of losing hold of my son's hand and his endless scream bursting out, growing more complex the farther he fell into the gorge. I remember it as a searing pitch echoing off the granite sides, echoes compounding his screams, echoes answering those echo-screams until the last hopeful crescendo began the echoes' demise; the echoes, manifold echoes fading. Fading until human ears fail, the tangled sounds cease. Stopped. Except in my head, in my skull bones, in my hairs.
Ashleigh is from Dallas. She never speaks of my terrible loss but she's heard the whispers. "Poor dear …" I still feel rudderless—wandering the streets—finding Zack in each passing car. I admit I'm crazed.
At first, they said, "Get it out—talking is good." Later, they wearied and backed off, murmuring, "Stop beating yourself up." I have been told, "Get a grip on yourself." They accuse me of indulging myself. "It's been over two years."
To comply, I swallowed worthless Ativan, Ambien, Aleve, anything to still echoing screams. Zack became a forbidden word. I could not utter his name. "Get rid of his clothes! Call Goodwill. You'll be so relieved."
I'll be relieved when Zozobra burns …
So, I wrote his name on a prayer flag slip of silk and gave it to man tightening long metal wires, Zozobra's stays. "May I give you my sadness to burn?"
"Yeah. Okay, okay," he said, looking up from his work. He stood, his hand open. He expects people to bring him requests.
"Here," I said, "can you tie it to the wire with the Roman candles?" Before the end, and causing the end, these candles flame and run flashing up the wire, each igniting each, a length of silvery flame to mercifully put an end to Zozobra and his wild moaning.
"Yeah, that'll work. No problem." He took my scribbled silk and tied it. After he did, he smiled kindly at me.
"Death in the family," I said.
"Happens a lot," and he nodded, "yeah, a lot these days."
This night, virtually half the town has turned out. I hear no murmurs about me. No one here knows me and if I need to, I can talk about Zack. Although people often wander off before I finish my story. I talk of my shame, even before they shake me off.
Zack was 17, a difficult age for boys. Sure he was difficult, teenagers are difficult. But mine died. His stuff is still in the house. Skateboards in the shed. Half his ashes … My heart grieves; my plans have not worked out. Nothing drowns the echoes of his scream. I am frozen, hoping for relief when I launch myself among these 40,000 neighbors, their children on their shoulders riding high above for the view. Their children in strollers. Their children who are alive. I follow. Watching.
The Fiesta Queen smiles to all of us, crowned as much for her family line as her black-haired beauty. She stands regally with this year's appointed Fiesta-Conquistador, Don Diego de Vargas, a vanquisher of hearts in his tin helmet. Across the crowd, rock boom-boom music surges. Where are the mariachi? I need songs to help me hound my ghosts. Everyone knows boy ghosts hate mariachi.
Screens pulse colors and video patterns hit me but the boom box droning drags me back to the day on the gorge bridge, to the families driving past—their music pounding. Seven low-riding cars, slowing but not stopping, deaf to the huddle at the railing, pleading, arguing, "No Zack, DON'T!"
Their windows open, they could not hear our shrieking. "Yo!" they signaled, accelerating on the far side, their music pounding the asphalt.
"Zack, come back!"
Two senseless months waiting for the stupid OMI to certify the cause of death. I grew hoarse repeating how he slipped my grip, falling backwards into his scream. How his body exploded. Painlessly, I interrupt. P.A.I.N.L.E.S.S.L.Y. do you hear me?
Ahh, Zozobra! The crowd is restless. BURN HIM, BURN HIM! Get this show off the fucking ground. "BURN HIM!" Zozobra moans, stalling.
I join in. As a mob we call for fire, for cremation. Cremated like Zack after the rescue workers winched up his parts yard by yard up to the bridge and me.
At last, the Fire Dancer comes to execute Zozobra. She flings her torch at him. Fire! Strings of flares run ground-up and my silken ribbon catches. These downward candles spill their sparkles in fountains. But the 50-foot effigy is slow to catch. "Burn him, for God's sake!"
Fireworks. Bright silver tourbillon comets splash the sky in splinters of prism colors. Gold, ruby, sapphire and emerald. Stretching always up, I regard the dazzled sky. I can breathe now. I can almost bear the present. Large golden willow fireworks and dancing butterflies are set off. Next the thunder candles. BURN HIM, BURN HIM. Missiles, parachutes and wheelies tease the crowd waiting for the Hasta La Vista Baby fountain. And underneath the luster, Zozobra burns; his wire frame is now an X-ray. Our sorrows and depression turn to ash. It is exhilarating.
I am floating up.
My brother was sailing one night under the Golden Gate Bridge when he saw a man falling, his clothes flapping like a shot bird. His screams, if there were any, were lost in the roar of the wind and the heavy rushing the water. Charlie came about swiftly. "Take the tiller!" he ordered, and dove into the churning bay tides. On the rise of a wave, he caught a view of the body slipping away, down a trough. His wife threw him a rope and masterfully, they managed the difficult rescue. Was he drowned?
Blankets were brought, they stripped the body, undressed and wrapped him. His carotid artery weirdly palpitated. Charlie shivered, exultant, and tugged his own sodden clothes off. "Unbelievable! Call 911—get an ambulance!" They made for the closest dock.
Hours, days passed. No one knew his name. Splinted and restrained, he shed his coma, and a white room organized into his focus. All heavenly white. He heard choirs, the music of the Spheres. When an angel drifted in, her shoes squeaked like a rubber bath toy. His mirage sickened. "Please tell me I died." He pleaded with her.
"No, you're lucky to be alive, buddy. Damned lucky."
"Lucky?" As soon as he fled the hospital, he fired a gun into his mouth.
I feel like crying. Crying for me.
Zozobra has turned to ashes, the crowd is ecstatic. They were never blood-thirsty. The grand finale bouquet shoots a ransom of jewels, taunting the star-crowded sky now. Forty thousand people cheer, shoulders to my shoulder. The heart-ratcheting thrills will fade tomorrow, lingering in the mind. Like Zack, lost but still in me. His terror screams soften some. They pulse a new note of promised rapture, staking out his bed in the leaves and flowers of poetry, warmed by flames of blistering love. This is all a trick of my mind, more of my madness. I do know that much.
For me, it's less Zozobra than the fireworks. In them I see fresh-dead souls streaming up, flashing back to rejoin the stars of their birth. They light the route. Marvelous that rockets take their splendid colors from Zack's young bones—his potassium makes violet, calcium is the orange, yellow is sodium and iron makes gold. White is his magnesium. I see him abandon my grip, falling, floating into the retreating galaxies; he is part star now.
Yes, even on moonless nights, I pick out shadows under the trees from the light that comes from light years away. Stars are that mighty.
Tori Shepard has a masters degree in writing and has published articles, short stories and two historical novels about Santa Fe, where she has lived since the '70s.
3rd Place: Remember
By Darlene Goering
I woke to the sounds of screaming machinery in the street below. As I opened my eyes, I was relieved to find myself in my own bed that morning. When I woke on those other mornings, I was overcome with dread and unable to hide my desperation. The not knowing was the hardest part. Not knowing how I left the bar. Not knowing how many drinks. Not knowing her name. Not knowing where I put his watch. The nights would remain a blur, long after the awkward "good morning" and the obligatory "I'll call you sometime."
I looked across my dimly lit bedroom toward the windows and the noise, and winced at the sunlight peeking around the curtains. What time was it and where was that watch? I wished I had closed the curtains all the way the night before. That last night. What happened that last night? When I sat up, I realized I was naked. My head pounded as if to remind me to try to remember the night before. My mouth felt like it was filled with cotton. My face hurt. I needed water and some ibuprofen but first I needed to find my watch, the only thing my dad left me.
My clothes were strewn across the room, my wrinkled shirt by the bed, my pants over the chair, my shoes by the window. Everything had the air of being removed with haste and placed without thought. My watch was on the floor by my shoes. I rose to retrieve it, trying not to aggravate my head even more. I moved like my dad used to, after the chemotherapy's aggressive assault on his body. Throughout it all, his mind and spirit had stayed strong, but his body failed him. As habit after one of these nights, I started to berate myself for drinking like I had no need for this body anymore. Like I had given up my life for whatever comes next. My dad would not be proud.
I walked across the floor eyeing my clothes, as if they emitted clues. I remembered buying a round of drinks at the bar for me and my buddies. One round turned into two which turned into I don't remember much more than that.
As I reached down for my watch, I saw the blood spattered on my shoes. That's when I remembered the woman in the bar. I noticed her despite the close crowd and the distracting music. She had the most perfect smile I'd ever seen. I remembered staring at her mouth as she sipped her wine. She wore a ruby red lipstick that left a perfect impression on the rim of her glass. I watched as the shape of her lips shifted with every word she spoke. In my drunken state, I had a sudden urge to kiss her. And that hair, that long beautiful black hair. So black, it reflected blue from the overhead lights. There was a man with her. They were leaning into each other and talking, intimate and flirty, taking turns talking into each other's ear. He noticed me looking at her but I didn't care. I felt emboldened by the vodka.
"Where are you going?" my friend Charlie said as I rose from the table. I downed the remainder of my drink, waved a hand in his direction, and stumbled through the crowd. As I approached her, I tucked in my shirt and pushed the hair out of my face. I wasn't sure what I was going to say to her but I would figure that out when I opened my mouth. What came out is not what I expected.
"Excuse me." It was slurred and wet. I tried to compose myself, tried to stand without swaying, tried to speak without spitting.
"I shouldn't say this, but you are the most beautiful woman I've ever laid eyes on." They had stopped talking to each other. He was glaring at me through thick glasses, which made his attempt at fierceness almost comical. She was smiling.
"I hope this guy you're with," I said as I gestured to her friend without taking my eyes off of her, "shows you the kind of respect a woman like you deserves. If he doesn't, I'll be sitting right over there, waiting for you." I pointed to the table where all of my friends were staring at me, drinks held mid-air, mouths agape.
That's when the man punched me in the face. I didn't see it coming. I didn't think he had it in him. I remember the bright light from the instant pain of his fist hitting me solidly in the nose. The blood on my shoes was my own.
I pushed the curtains aside. The sun was already intense, the room was already too warm. I turned around and that's when I saw her. I was startled because I didn't remember bringing anyone home last night. It was the woman from the bar. I would recognize that hair anywhere. I looked at her still, naked back. Her skin seemed to glow, illuminated by the sunlight filling the room. I didn't remember her name, assuming we were even properly introduced. I had a feeling we didn't talk much, although I didn't remember the sex either. I would let her sleep, maybe make us some coffee. When she woke up, at least we would have cups in our hands to direct our awkward looks. I slipped on my pants and walked around the bed. I wanted to see that mouth that led me to this moment in time.
That's when I saw the pool of blood on the floor. It was coming from her once-beautiful mouth that was now frozen in a scream. I screamed. The air in the room became suffocating. I struggled to breathe, instead, gulping in the thick and rancid smell of clotting blood that filled my mouth and nostrils. I forgot about my pounding head as I stumbled backwards to the bathroom and threw up on the floor.
I stood on shaky legs that didn't want to support my weight anymore. I grabbed a towel from the rack and wiped my mouth. I wanted some water but I knew there would be no washing away the taste of vomit and drying blood, not that morning.
Using the edge of the sink for support, I looked at her reflection in the mirror. She was so still. I forced my gaze away from her and looked at my face. I wasn't surprised to see I had several bruises on my cheeks and nose. I was surprised to see the fresh scratches on my face and neck. I reached up to touch them, trying to trigger my memory. Nothing.
My heart started racing again, this time in reaction to how much trouble I was facing. I have done some inane and even dangerous exploits while drunk. I pretended to be a movie star so I could kiss a girl in a restaurant parking lot. I passed out at my cousin's wedding reception after vomiting on his bride's dress. I borrowed my neighbor's bike and rode it into a lake. I slept with countless women with no intention of calling any of them. But nothing like this.
I took a deep breath and turned around to face her. My head was spinning. I was sure she was dead but I needed to do something. I was afraid to go back into the bedroom but I couldn't stay in the bathroom, surrounded by the stench of vomit and my pathetic reflection.
As I approached the bed, I felt like I was floating. I had no sense of my feet touching the carpet until I stepped in the wet pool of blood by the bed. I cringed as it seeped between my toes. I suppressed my urge to throw up again. I willed my hand down toward her face and pushed the hair away from her neck. She was not as cold as I thought she would be.
I had to call someone. Anyone.
I left a bloody footprint as I walked around the bed to the nightstand to get my phone. I jumped when it started to ring as I reached for it. The caller identification said it was Charlie. He was probably calling to see if I made it home, like he did every time. I would call him later.
I hit the call reject button and pushed the phone icon. I don't recall what I said to the emergency operator. I remember saying the words "not breathing" and "blood" and "so still." I remember looking at my bloody footprint, fading with each step as I paced the room, waiting, not wanting to leave her but not wanting to stay either. I remember the police arrived first, then the paramedics. I remember the questions "what happened" and "how long" and "what is her name." I remember the shame of answering "I don't know" to all of them. I remember watching through thick tears as she was draped with a sheet and wheeled away. Never to smile again. I remember succumbing to being handcuffed and put into the back of a police car while my neighbors gawked and shook their heads in unanimous disgust. I remember the relief that it was over. I remember wearing my watch. My dad would be proud.
Darlene Goering is an up-and-coming writer who is working on obtaining her creative writing certificate from Santa Fe Community College. One of her stories was published in Accolades as part of the 2018 SFCC Katie Besser Writing Awards.
1st Place: Nowhere Feels Like Home
By Isaiah Cisneros
I feel things. Sometimes feeling things doesn't feel comfortable, and I am very aware of how redundant that sounds. Feeling feels uncomfortable.
I'm a New Mexico native. My father grew up working the fields and animals on the lands his family had worked for generations. In his teens and young adult years he toiled in the mines of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. His hands were rough, calloused from years of hard work for little pay. During the summers we would ride up to the local reservoir in his old rusted Chevy to fish. I'd be bouncing around riding shotgun while he would casually steer, occasionally taking pulls from the small brown bottle he carried with him ("It's medicine," he would tell me when I'd ask). We would sit on the bank, mostly listening to the sounds of the water.
I must have been about 7 when he started telling me his stories. Stories about working in the mines, about being in the Army and working the fields with the older men when he was a boy. He would cast, reel in the slack off his line, and tell me how his father would punch him across the face at the dinner table when he, a boy of no more than 9, would accidentally forget to say please or thank you. He would take another pull from his bottle and tell me stories about men being crushed to death by falling boulders in the depths of the mine. He told me of a man being crushed by a rock at least twice his size and how his limbs twitched and fluttered, fading echos from a misfiring nervous system.
I never asked him why he told me these stories; it never occurred to me to ask. Years went by, I grew up, he and I became estranged. I left that small town and created my own stories. They come from the dust of Camp Pendleton and 29 Palms, from run-down cheap motels and bars in California, and from the wastelands of Iraq. I came home and had children of my own, like my father. Also like my father, my marriage ended in resentful indifference. One day I looked in the mirror and saw his face staring back at me. Except this time I didn't see my father; I saw the man he was trying to hide. I saw his desperation for release, his need to be understood. I saw that silent living death, writhing on the bathroom floor trying not to vomit. But mostly, I saw the wall.
I have no doubt that every man has a wall of one kind or another. It comes in sullen silence, plastic smiles, casual avoidance. We carry them like one would carry a backpack. Some days the backpack is empty and easier to carry. Other days the backpack is full and it weighs on you, as if you are carrying the weight of ages on your mortal shoulders. And like a backpack, you feel like everyone can see it, and maybe it is something you should be ashamed of.
You want to drop this load. You want to free yourself of this unseen burden. There are people you know who would gladly help carry this load, who would be there to relieve you of this terrible weight.
But you can't let them. As a boy, you fall and scrape your knee. "Be tough," they would say, "boys don't cry. Be a man." So you don't. You swallow your tears and laugh it off. You laugh it off when you get rejected. You laugh it off when you lose your job. You laugh it off when everything depends on you. When you get your heart broken. When you want to fall to the floor, curl up, and weep like a child. You take your feelings and you put them in a box. Then you throw that box into the deepest, darkest hole that is your ocean of secrecy. You keep them there because boys don't cry.
Suck it up. Nobody cares. Deal with it.
As time goes on, you forget how to cry. You become conditioned to not feel. When you're at war you have to become different. You must be as hard, cold and unrelenting as the wasteland in which you are fighting. If you hesitate during the moment of truth you will come home in a thick black bag with a heavy zipper. After being immersed in that environment, you learn how to turn off your soft side. Within a couple weeks you forget how to feel the loneliness. The soft negative feelings disappear. It is through this hard mental conditioning that you survive.
You wake up day after day, night after night, and somehow you make it home. Somehow you survive the horror and the terror. The wheels of the plane bounce and screech on the runway in Maine and everyone sings a chorus of "mama, I'm coming home" way better than Ozzy ever did. You see your family when you get off the bus, you have that first cold beer and that first American cigarette and nothing has ever tasted so sweet. You find that one special girl and it feels like the first time again. The greens are greener, the water is fresher, and for a moment the war feels like a million years ago. You can finally breathe again.
It doesn't last. They teach you how to kill, how to switch off your heart. You become a merciless weapon, exactly how they want you to be. And when you become no further use to them, they cast you out. There is no simple way to understand how the world works when you have been somewhere nobody understands. It's easy to not feel; it's feeling again that is nearly impossible. Getting my first job felt empty. Being with my family again was meaningless.
When I held my newborn daughter for the first time, I felt nothing.
A decade spent struggling to just feel again. The depression was there, but knowing how to handle it the right way isn't there. The depression becomes rage; at least that you know how to channel. But it comes out on your friends and family. You buy a $13 bottle of vodka at the gas station and half of it's gone before you even walk in your front door. You pour yourself shot after shot of cheap whiskey, ignoring the concerned looks on everyone's faces. Then the morning comes and you feel sick and confused. You are on the floor of a jail cell, wearing that thick green smock so you can't hang yourself.
It all comes rushing back. The bottle, the pills, the gun with a single hollow point bullet in the chamber. "You'll have to shoot me," you said right before they tased you. Now the loss is real: your children, your job, and a possibility of spending three years in the state penitentiary.
Recovery is hard, but admitting you need help is harder. Pride is a bitter mistress and she refuses to let go. You find it eventually. You get help and bit by painful bit you learn how to actually smile again. Maybe all the darkness and guilt isn't everything you are. Maybe you are more than a man on a sinking ship screaming into the storm.
But there is always something worse. "You volunteered, didn't you? Nobody made you do it."
Suck it up. Nobody cares. Deal with it.
I see my father in myself every day. Only now can I understand why he had to share, why he drank. I remember him putting his fists to me and his rationale, while disgusting, is something I can finally conceive.
His stress, his fears, his lost dreams. He could be very well-spoken when he wanted to; he was a charmer. But now I realize he never had an outlet for his feelings because, naturally, he wasn't supposed to have them.
I never understood the phrase "toxic masculinity" until it was broken down for me. Only then did it occur to me that I was emotionally hamstrung as a child. "Real men don't cry," they would say. What they didn't teach me was to expect the breaking point. There was no warning of the isolation, the feeling of falling into a gray void and feeling totally alone. I was never told about the way bad emotions never truly just go away; at some point they will rage to the surface. Why can we not just be allowed to cry, to feel that we don't have to choke on the vice grip of emotions that most of us carry?
A few months ago I wept on the leg of a friend while I laid on her couch, my face buried in her thigh. There was no sadness or grief in it, but there was no joy either. It was stress; it was fear. It was my body finally being able to let go and give itself that sweet fleeting release. Why had I denied myself that for so long? Because it's not ok for a man to be vulnerable? Because it's not acceptable for a man to be the little spoon?
I'm a man. My childhood lessons were taught with belt and fist. My adolescence was a crucible of grappling with trying to be hard when I was too young to know what that even meant. My young adulthood was written in blood and fear. I'm not supposed to say this, but I want to be able to cry and still be a man.
Isaiah Cisneros lives in Los Alamos with his friends and family. Isaiah served in the United States Marine Corps and deployed twice to Iraq in the mid-2000s. He is currently a student at the University of New Mexico. In his free time, Isaiah enjoys hiking, camping and meeting new people.
2nd Place: The story of creation
By Mario j Gonzales
This is the story of creation. A true story of light created by the Marias. It's true like the smoke in dreams. And like ice in winter, the heat in summer. It's real and straight and final. This is how it goes:
The Marias were my aunt and mother who raised me in a small rural California town. The daughters of immigrants, their parents, my grandparents, were born in 1888, and shaped by early 20th-century Mexican morals. Values ruled in iron-fisted ways by family. Dominated by men, yes, but brutally enforced daily by older women like my grandmother whose word was law. Her name was Guadalupe Beltran Rojas and she looked exactly like an abuelita should: small and plump, a long silver braid of hair cascading down to her waist which she wore as a symbol of age and authority. As a young girl, she and her family were forced to hide in caves, to go hungry and eat wild grasses during the Mexican Revolution when the state of Jalisco was war-ravaged.
Experiences like those made my grandmother tough like a stone cutter's grip, as my uncle used to say. Tough and quick-minded, feared and loved, my grandmother's greatest gift was an ease with words. Spoken in rapid-fire Spanish, that gift became a cutting weapon of disapproval. With undiminished velocity, she was critical of any social slight and particularly of any potential disturbance to the family name and reputation.
It should be said now that the Marias lived good lives. Worked hard. Never married but bore children anyway. Something impossible to hide in their small town. Verguenza arrived in the form of family shame which, for my grandmother, was like a disease without social remedy or personal recourse. In short, my grandmother was furious when her daughters became unwed mothers. A fury that lasted throughout her life.
With all this, one Maria, my mother, broke. She said she saw men rain-covered and still, waiting at bus stops for her. She cried nonstop each morning and said her tears were like rain-melted snow stepped upon by strangers. Some days animals in trees spoke to her. They promised love but then withdrew at dawn. My grandmother had no choice but to hospitalize my mother. There she saw light as bright as a thousand suns in the form electric shock therapy sessions. Her mind became lesioned and she lost the memory of what she had done wrong. When she returned home, my mother's memory returned and so there were many visits to curanderos. "You have no reflection," one said in a room dominated by elliptical shadows and a profile of Christ on the cross. Later in the 1960s and well into the '70s, glassy-eyed psychiatrists would prescribe her lithium, heavy-set doctors speed.
The other Maria, my aunt, gave birth to a son at 16. Soon after, adults intervened and the baby was gone. Given away, and she never saw her child again. I now wonder that when she combed my 6-year-old hair and washed my play-soaked face; that when she held me with tender affection, if each thought running through her head and ending in her heart was about her own lost child. She never spoke about it and neither did anyone else until one day when my Aunt Cuca blurted out, "Pobrecita, your Tia. I wonder where her boy is now."
I think about the Marias often. Their lives and all they did and all they might have done without the weight of shame. Robert Louis Stevenson writes that we can "love upon a higher ground." When our virtues are challenged for even if we fail them, the failures will find us better, honest to what is true in our real selves.
I can't sleep and hear the Marias speaking to me in a strong voice, one used before they had become frail, old and sick. The Marias say their foreheads are feverish. I get a wet wash cloth to cool their skin but when I return they have gone. I sit outside. The moon is outpacing the wind and the stars feel like storms whirling at my feet. I think about how the Marias fought and were menaced. How they fought and went weak. How they fought and lost. But they fought to create and having done so understood what loving on a higher ground truly is.
In the Quiche Maya creation myth, the Popol Vuh, a young woman is impregnated when a head hanging from a tree spits on her lap. The unplanned pregnancy angers her father and she must leave. Exiled and alone, she eventually gives birth to twins: the Hero Twins who battle the evil lords of hell in a ballgame and defeat them.
This is the story of creation. The story of light. It involves two women who, over the course of their lives, battled against the lords of hell, the lords of shame. For a while they lost themselves but they knew that our days—yours, mine and everyone's—are laid out before us like a long desert highway. They knew that we are all supernovas about crash on that road. But most of all they knew that when we love truly, the world is given to us whole and happy, broad and starry-eyed.
Mario J Gonzales lives and works in Santa Fe.
3rd Place: Use It or Lose It
By Mario Montoya
Bad Question, Bad Answer
The bus is alive with passengers. It's Friday, during rush hour in the fall, and everybody is anxious to get home. A group of teenagers sit in back, giggling and playing rap music. A baby wails tears over a multitude of conversations. Across the aisle, an old lady is having quiet conversations with herself. The young lady in front of me has earbuds in, ignoring the world by glaring at her phone. The man behind me is whistling, stopping periodically to converse with me. But I never look back to see what he's saying. Instead, I pull my hoodie over my head and look outside. I'm tied to the floor by straps hooked onto my wheelchair, which means I'm not sitting next to anyone. Which also means I'm not obligated to interact with people. I'm in no mood for conversation. Not tonight.
Out the window, I watch Albuquerque pass by, busy with cars and on-foot commuters. Horns honk and sound systems thump on congested Central Avenue, dotted with orange barrels and everlasting closed lanes. The bus stops overflow with people, some there to actually catch a bus. Sirens scream as emergency vehicles push through traffic. A man is ringing a bell on a pushcart, selling paletas for a buck. The city's alive, in full color, but inside I'm gray and dead. I'm in no place for small talk since receiving the news. Through a text message, not even by actual phone call. Mario. It's your mother. I might have cancer. I'll explain. Call you tonight. I erased the text in my early stages of denial, yet the memory of the words remain fresh. They are only an hour old and weigh heavy on me like flash floods. I lost my leg to infection, and family to street life. I'm not sure I can lose my mom to cancer. I've seen enough fatal illness in my 36 war-torn years.
A robotic voice announces: "Stop requested," as if the bus knows how to speak. The air brakes hiss as we pull to the curb, then stop completely. People fill the aisle, ready to get off. A woman yells "Backdoor!" and the driver swings it open. A handful of customers exit single-file. New passengers pile on, first paying their fare, then having a seat quickly. A new commuter is sitting directly in front of me now. He looks to be Chicano, like me, although darker, more like the shade of my brother or dad. I can see he looks hungry, all beanie and bones. He smells like booze and dusty concrete, his belongings stuffed into a large plastic bag. He glances back, nods his head, acknowledges me sitting there, in my chair. He proceeds to spread some of his belongings over two empty seats.
"What happened to you?" he asks me.
It's the wrong question. I pretend I don't hear him at first.
"Hey, what happened to your leg?" he asks again.
"No, what happened to you, bro?"
"An alligator ate it," I exaggerate.
"Osi, there's no alligators in New Mexico."
"You don't know me," I say.
"What's your name?"
"I'm Manny. Will you tell me what happened now?"
"Look, just leave me alone. I'm not in the mood," I say.
"Alright, relax. I'm only making conversation, bro."
He's finally quiet, and for a brief second, the bus seems peaceful and empty, until Manny turns back and asks his favorite question once more: "Just tell me what happened to your leg?"
"What happened to your face?" I blow my top, like I'm swallowing hand grenades. I'm in Manny's face, yelling with no control, spit flying everywhere. A few passengers attempt to calm me down, yet the comments are pouring uncontrollably, like water from a collapsing dam.
"Ask me again, motherfucker," I dare him. "You'll be in a wheelchair next."
"You can't do shit," Manny tells me.
"Say it again, I swear. I'll lose my other foot up your ass."
I shouldn't have said it, but I did. The driver interjects, addressing us through his rearview mirror. "No fighting or get off," he tells us.
We both become silent and still in our seats, looking in opposite directions. We stay that way for the rest of the trip, but I watch the man carefully at every single stop.
Do We Look Hungry to You?
We're in front of Smith's grocery store, like seemingly half the zip code, as if everyone's buying groceries at once. Ghetto Smith's, as it's commonly called. The building is jumping with customers, exhaling people, and inhaling them just as fast. Shopping carts are stacked behind each other like a train at the entrance. We smell bread baking from the parking lot, making my hungover stomach talk. Employees in red vests chat while on cigarette breaks, about 20 steps away from the automatic doors. Near where Mia and I hang out, waiting for my girlfriend, Claire. Mia sits calm and upright, her leash loose in my hand, her coat golden in the sun. She's a proud pit and I'm just as proud of her. I'm doing a wheelie in my chair, wearing the same clothes from the night before, with the addition of dried toothpaste. Not exactly high fashion, but fitting since we're only purchasing brew. I smell a whiff of cigarette and suddenly get a craving.
"Any way I can bum a smoke?" I ask an employee finishing hers, the glowing embers down to the butt.
"Sure," she says, and reaches into her pocket. She hands me a menthol, and a lighter too. I'm not used to the minty aftertaste of Kools. But when you need a smoke, you need a smoke. I light it, return the lighter and thank her. Then I turn away, to enjoy the cigarette and watch the parking lot, in peace. Cars are moving, some parking, some leaving, traffic jammed as two cars back out simultaneously. A blonde lady with a big purse stands at her BMW, one hand at her bangs, blocking the sun. She's wearing slacks and a pitiful look, staring at the entrance, behind my right shoulder. Her eyes are fixated and concerned. Then I realize she's not looking at the entrance at all. She's staring at me and my dog, actually, looking right at us and even through us. I glance over my shoulder, in case I'm mistaken. But sure enough, no one else is there. Even the workers have finished their smokes and returned to work. It's just me and Mia, and her.
She locks her car, then heads towards me. I get tense, wondering what in the hell she might want. She digs into her purse and gets out her wallet. She opens it and produces a $10 bill.
"Here," she says. "Get you and your dog some food."
"What?" I know what she said. But I want to make her say it again.
"Here's 10 bucks for you and your dog."
"Do we look hungry to you?"
"Just take the money and go," she says. "As long as you don't buy drugs."
"Stick that money up your ass, lady."
"Fine. Don't take it, I don't care. Starve to death."
She's not doing this just to be kind. Why is this privileged lady attempting to act charitable? What's in it for her? This isn't about helping us out.
"We don't need help." I respond. "My girl's inside buying food."
Mia also adds her two cents to the argument, barking at the lady from the curb. Of course, I'm lying about Claire getting groceries, yet the lie could bare truth. We need a six-pack and smokes, not grub. But if we wanted food, we could afford it. It's just not our priority right now.
"Whatever. Lazy war vet," the lady says, not loud, but loud enough. Her high heels click on the tile as she struts into the store.
"I shouldn't say this, but kiss my crippled ass, lady." I yell. "Don't waste time feeling sorry for us."
The lady looks forward, avoiding my every word, but I still try.
"I'm not even a vet, you ignorant piece of shit."
This is the assumption most people make and it's understandable. It's a reasonable mistake. At 36, I'm at the right age to have been enlisted in the Iraq War. But I lost the limb at 14, before I could join the military. If not that, some assume it happened in gang violence. I also hear I lost it in a drug deal gone wrong. People seem disappointed when I tell them it was a result of bone infection. They want drama and tragedy. People want war.
What's bothering me most is that these things keep happening, little altercations that escalate into more. It's no coincidence when it keeps happening, regularly, every disrespectful gesture another possible argument. Somehow, I've lost my empathy and patience for humans. I have one leg—people are going to ask. I figure, if I don't exercise compassion for others then I can lose it, like an injured muscle. Use it or lose it, like everything else.
Use It or Lose It
My mother is cancer-free. She tells me this over a long phone conversation. I'm pushing myself to school in celebration, although I'm struggling. The sun warms my neck and shoulders anyway. I'm humming a jazz tune to myself. Nothing has the power to bring me down. I'm almost to campus, when a man rolls up in his motorized wheelchair. He's faster and about to run me off the curb.
"Beep. Beep," he says, slowing down to chat. "Want to race?"
"You'll smoke me in seconds," I tell him.
"Well, why don't you get one of these?"
"I don't want one of those."
"Well, why not? They're easier than pushing around that thing."
True, motorized chairs have benefits, but at what expense? To be confined and reliable on electricity, simply for convenience, feels like another level of giving in. If I can do it, I'd rather do it, perhaps stubbornly. There's something about commuting on my own, able to fully use what's left of me, to control what direction I go. I enjoy the tearing and flexing of my biceps and shoulders, my chest, my neck and my back. The exercise reminds me of the body I still have, able to work, and play, and develop strength. Perspiration drips from my forehead, down my cheeks. I swallow bitter sweat, but somehow it tastes like sweet victory.
"Use it or lose it," I tell him.
But the man speeds off, getting way ahead of me.
Mario Montoya was born and raised in Albuquerque and is a candidate for an MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of New Mexico.
Meet the judges …
Who better to choose the best submissions from local writers than local writers? With over 60 entries to weigh, we invited two notable scribblers from the region to narrow down and select which pieces of fiction and nonfiction SFR would publish this year.
Readers might recognize fiction judge Andrew Wice, a Madroid who has published eight novels and has recently branched into audio production in addition to screenwriting, freelance journalism, haiku poetry and computer games. Available for purchase online is his 2008 novel, To The Last Drop, and forthcoming is an audiobook adaptation of his newest novel, The Object: A Love Story, from Worldwide Audiobooks. SFR also featured the development of an app he created that provides an oral history of Madrid.
We’re also pleased to bring the name of nonfiction judge and native Santa Fean Carmella Padilla back to the pages of SFR. Padilla has written and co-authored so many books about local arts and culture that her own bio doesn’t even count them. An SFR staffer from 1989 to 1991 and SFR columnist columnist for SFR from 1993 to 1998, she went on to see her byline in the Wall Street Journal, Dallas Morning News, Latina, and American Craft. Last year, she edited Borderless: The Art of Luis Tapia, exploring the art and life of a Chicano sculptor who transformed the centuries-old woodcarving traditions of New Mexico to a wholly contemporary art form.