This issue is dedicated to my wife Svetlana.
Love you forever. Now and always.
These are stories of love. Not necessarily romantic, sexual or erotic love, but stories of an intense feeling of deep affection.
Please vote for your favorite stories in the poll below. The winners get cash prizes.
by Claire Polders
The night I met her she was wearing all white, as a ruse perhaps, for she was no angel. One look into her eyes and you knew: flammable, ambivalent, relentless.
She was shaped like an angel, though. A tall, lithe frame and pliant limbs. Hair that welcomed light. You could easily imagine wings sprouting from her shoulder blades, powerful wings that would lift her into the air.
She wanted to be a dancer, she said, so I figured she’d be lifted into the air often enough, wings or no wings. Classical ballet, she said, Swan Lake. Her words were born from a dream.
But that was before the steel grey car soared around the corner and jumped onto the sidewalk where we stood talking, light-headed, not willing to say goodbye. The bar had closed by then. It was a homeless night in late March.
They kept her in the hospital for nearly nine weeks. Whenever I visited, she found her charm in looking bored or attacked the wheels of her chair with a spoon, trying to bend the spokes. Together we made up stories about the pig who hadn’t stopped. How he would meet his end, squealing.
On the day she was released, I took her into my arms. I had trained for this. My arms were not wings, but they were strong and skilled. She was wearing all white again on my request. It was a whispering morning in early June.
I took her to the water’s edge and lifted her into the air. We waited and watched. On the quiet lake, the swans swam toward us, one by one, eager to meet my dancing love.
Putting Baby to Sleep
By Leonard Kress
And then I fall into a small depression, a hole that’s shallow enough so I can still see the world over the edge. It’s more like an indentation in the ground of my daily life, one I have to climb out of every day, several times, to accomplish the slightest task. It’s exhausting at first, but I find that I can build up some muscular or psychic endurance, as if my day begins with a brisk run up a hillock or a twenty-minute session on a treadmill adjusted to a seven percent incline. After a few weeks, it seems normal enough—easier, of course, than waking up in the middle of the night to rock my baby back to sleep. Because this is surely the bigger challenge. The initial stages are easy: pick up my bawling baby and hold her in my arms, her tiny head nestled between my chin and neck like a violin. Then slowly and deliberately lower myself into the rocking chair. This is a delicate stage because my baby is always about to enter a calm state, and if I jerk down too quickly into the seat, she’ll wake up. This usually happens because it’s a very low and tiny seat, probably owned by the small old lady, the wife of the organist—the former inhabitants of this house. All those days and weeks of climbing out of my depression are helpful in this regard—my thigh muscles are more toned than they’ve ever been and I view this lowering as a controlled squat. Once seated, the rocking begins, slow and rhythmic like all rocking, always leaning a little forward for reasons which I can only attribute to genetics. It’s as though my rocking is actually some sort of dahvening, something I imagine my grandfather and his ancestors enacting, even though my very limited exposure to religion and my father’s total rejection of religion confuse matters. I’ve only seen Orthodox Jews dahven in movies, and I’ve always been struck by the awkwardness of the gesture–compared to the svelte, sleek, controlled movements of yoga practitioners. I wonder, though, if they had prepared for this kind of rocking-back-and-forth prayer by doing squats—making sure to bend their knees and not lock them in place, which is what they all seemed to do. Or if they had allowed themselves to fall into the kind of mild depression that I often slip into, then they would learn to keep their knees loose as a way of preserving energy, making it easier to climb out of the hole so many times a day. But I suspect that their strict adherence to the Law made them view both depression and uncalled-for physical exertion as violating God’s promise to them. I, on the other hand, think about mountaineers and their permanently bent knees, their perpetual ascent and descent. I have become a master, then, not at prayer, but getting my baby to sleep, itself a kind of prayer.
Leonard Kress has published poetry and fiction in Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex, Thirteens, Braids & Other Sestinas, and Walk Like Bo Diddley. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens College in Ohio and edits creative non-fiction for Artful Dodge.
A Woman Told Me This
by Catherine McNamara
A woman told me this: when her lover died, she went to the church and sat in the second-to-last pew, where she knew she would attract little attention for they had been colleagues for a stretch. At the front of the church stood the man’s wife with her shredded curls, and the two sons whose foibles and brushes with the law and opulent tattoos she knew as intimately as those of the children she’d never had. Did she feel robbed of a life? He had told her that she would. That one day it would seize up inside of her, the wish to uproot all he had ever planted in her, every gasp and cell and flourish of his liquid and the burning of her skin and parts. He had told her she would want to eviscerate her own bowels to be emptied of him, and remove her heart from its safe cage as a wild native, splashing it to the ground with its torn tubes. Her lover had been a dramatic, vital man who liked to toy with their darkest entwined currents, especially as he stroked her hair in bed, or his knuckles drew across her belly.
The woman told me these things, adding that the embrace of this man was the only thing that she would take from this earth.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris at twenty-one to write, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. Her collection Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Her work has been Pushcart-nominated and published internationally, appearing recently in The Collagist, Lunch Ticket, Flash Fiction Magazine and Literary Orphans. Catherine lives in Italy.
Marjorie Eats Our World
by Jason Teal
I’M FINE, BUT YOU APPEAR TO BE SWALLOWED. Marjorie doesn’t chew our homes; she makes cud of our impossible life. Burps for room.
The grass is green, normally, but Marjorie flakes pink wax between crashing tree sounds, stomping gardens none of us will pick anymore, footprints cupping swamps of industrial skin. I hate you and Marjorie for butchering our life. I should’ve listened to Mom and ditched you at prom, but I swore you could change. How we met is a wonder, odds stacked against us, snobby in-laws and war tanks and unparting traffic. I remember we lived in the same dormitory and I knew you could be somebody, maybe, at least in student government. Instead: no one, all of a sudden, glued to the couch and stoned. Frenzied or dependent on drugs. The uppers. Disarming henchmen in your video game.
Now swollen Marjorie storms Arch Street, moaning between bites of gated communities. No no, I’m fine, but I wasn’t fair to myself. I know your jiggly, milky-white center down to that embarrassing birthmark shaped like a fish, what you called a fading bruise our first time together.
I’m fine with the birthmark, but we were breaking up anyway, awake and in the middle of angry sex. Then it happened, the rashy hand of Marjorie plucked you up. Earlier, you mumbled Stop, this isn’t working at all; talk nasty like a dirty bitch, but I pretended I didn’t hear you: Some eighteen-wheeler spilled over on the freeway next to the house we’re renting, doused vagrant Marjorie in toxic waste, sprouted her to planet-sized and starved. Immediately the neighborhood sounds ripped apart, as if an earthquake or a fire ignited.
I’m fine now, but I’m on the ground, still naked in bed, the bed intact, my leg twisted in pus. I’m going nowhere fast, but out there is Marjorie, giant, wreaking havoc on our world. She’s eating our world. Okay, I’ll be honest: You bankrupted us, bet unemployment checks on the Browns and lost, swearing This is their year after a 4-1 start. Stop believing you’re sacred. Your sacrifice means nothing. Is it hard to breathe in that sticky mouth, the air throaty and bubbling with sores, plopped between teeth and rocking like a carnival ride?
Marjorie’s mouth grinds through safer and safer neighborhoods, but I’ll say it before you get too far away: The satisfied grunts of Marjorie ruin everything, but I’m glad you were swallowed, sorted by Marjorie’s colossal sweating hands.
Jason Teal is a writer and editor living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He is a founding editor of Heavy Feather Review, and is pursuing his Master of Fine Arts in Fiction at Northern Michigan University. He hosts the 2016-17 Bards & Brews Creative Reading Series with Andrea Scarpino, 2015-17 U.P. Poet Laureate. His work appears in Quarter After Eight, Eleven Eleven, Electric Literature, Knee-Jerk, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other publications.
by James Valvis
Here’s what I learned when I lived in a motel in that seaside town:
1. It’s lonely in winter when the tourists are away, but lonelier in summer when they are there.
2. In those summers, tourists arrived in trim bodies, smelling of suntan oil and sweat and salt water, wearing white skin and regretting it. They carried towels in wicker bags, a novel poking out. Their pale ankles padded by in flip-flops, and they wore large dark shades like insect eyes. We called them “bennies.” I don’t know why. Maybe mountains had snow bunnies and we had sea bennies.
3. In winter, after they left, the bennies seemed like ghosts, as if they’d never been there, as if we’d imagined them to compensate for missing loves in our lives. When they left, they took everything, left not a trace. Everything about them and their summer seemed footprints in sand, washed away by waves or wind.
4. If anything remained, it was their absence. Like walking into a home where you believed family would be waiting and instead finding your house empty: gone, all the laughter you expected; gone, the lasagna you figured would be in the oven. Or maybe it was like the room after a house fire: one wall collapsed, exposing the room to rain, and all that remained were black charred beams and silence.
5. Only it wasn’t silent. The surf continued to pound, pound, pound, and through cold mist the year-round arcade sang electronic nothing into the boardwalk cracks. A distant thunderclap could be heard. A lonely Styrofoam cup flitted across wooden planks on its way to next summer.
6. I only ever fell in love with one benny, only once let the sea’s romance beguile me. This means I was a model of restraint. Ghosts are easiest of all horrors to fall for, and their thirst for blood is greater than other monsters, zombies, vampires. They have no flesh; they have to start somewhere.
7. She was pretty and fifteen. She was there and gone in a week. We met twice. She never showed for our third scheduled meeting. All that winter, I walked the boardwalk hoping she’d return, hoping she’d know I would return to that spot every day. I sat on our bench looking at an empty sea, steel gray and angry with salt, hammering sand like a drunk carpenter who is frustrated with a nail that won’t drive straight into the wood. She never returned. She went home. I was not home. Someone else was home. She took her place among the ghosts.
8. When the bennies returned the next year I no longer believed in ghosts. Or rather, I believed a ghost couldn’t ever be anything but a ghost, a benny was always a benny. By the third year, I knew to look through them and they did likewise to me.
9. The ocean, the thing that drew us all, raced toward us, then away, toward us, then away.
A Womb of Her Own
by Eric D. Goodman
My embryonic fluid warms me, massages me, keeps me calm and comfortable even when I can tell that the motion from outside should be jarring. Mom’s jogging. Were it not for the liquid around me, I’d probably be covered in bruises by now, the repetitive up, down, jump, rebound, flight, impact. My womb is nature’s perfect package, proof that ingenuity did not originate with the human mind. No engineer or designer, stylist or artist, could create such an exquisite dwelling. It’s a cozy habitat, an affectionate hug. Mom’s feet and ankles will be sore, might even suffer damage manifesting itself in arthritis, foot ache, or joint stiffness. But for me this is a cushy ride.
Mom is running now.
I don’t hear any birds or cars or outdoor sounds, only the chatter of voices, machinery, and light music. No scent of trees or flowers, just the smell of sweat and metal. Mom must be at the gym, on a treadmill. Mom’s heartbeat has elevated and it pounds like a bass drum. Her breath is deep and fast and heavy. Even suspended in liquid, I’m thirsty, as though my body knows it needs water. Within moments, the running stops. Mom drinks and the water rushes in and cools me. Soon after, I hear the sound of water pelting Mom’s body like rain. After her shower, Mom dips into the pool, where everything seems to be masked in another layer of insulation, as though Mom herself is in a large womb, inside a body slightly warmer than her own. I feel Mom begin to relax. Mom needs a cozy place to settle into, insulated from the stress and demands and complications of the outside world. A womb of her own.
Eric D. Goodman lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he writes about wombs, trains, and animals gone wild. He’s the author of Tracks: A Novel in Stories (Atticus) and Flightless Goose (Writers’ Lair). “Womb of Her Own” is an excerpt from Womb: A novel in utero, being published by Merge in March 2017. Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com.
Girl on a Hobby Horse
by Peg Alford Pursell
When my romantic relationship of fourteen years broke, I learned many new unnecessary things. The way dust accumulated in a pattern on the floor of the empty closet. The texture of silence, how stirring the long-handled spoon in the soup pot echoed in the kitchen. The scent of the shower water bereft of the man’s soap. Though a psychologically literate person, I didn’t know what my actual feelings were. Yet I wanted to hold onto something from those burned-out flames of desire.
In an illusion of coincidence, my grown daughter returned to stay with me while her apartment building was being renovated.
Always things coming together and falling apart, she said.
Her head shaved, she dressed in saffron and crimson robes like a monk, and her skin emitted a glow. She wore a look of bewilderment that didn’t express her personality. I remembered her as a girl riding her stick horse through the hilly yard, galloping on her own two feet, her flame of hair in a tail behind her.
Only dogs and babies love unconditionally, she’d once said.
She moved into my sewing room and created a pallet of thin blankets, where she slept, upon the hard floor. The days passed; her round cheeks thinned and grew pale. She carried bruised bags under her eyes, dark eyes that burned in her face.
We had in common a strong meditation practice, mine perhaps stronger only by a longer history, and we experienced the same vanishing of time as we sat. But lately I had begun to doubt the veracity of the practice. I no longer experienced a sense of oneness with the universe.
One morning I came across her outside sitting in lotus, the white arches of her feet gleaming in the dawn, her long eyelashes resting on her cheeks like flickering shadows.
All day she would sit in the garden.
I was filled with desire for such certainty as she.
I would not meditate, I decided. Each hour my refusal strengthened. Late afternoon, I tried to nap. When I closed my eyes I discovered I could barely remember what my ex looked like. Behind my closed eyelids objects appeared as streams of particles disintegrating. Everything decomposing. I rose shakily, a sudden need to make sure of my daughter.
At my approach, she sat blinking mildly at the streaked purple clouds, the rose bushes flaming in the setting sun, the evening sky shutting down around her.
She spoke to say she loved me, a deep crack in her voice.
I saw the truth of her loneliness, of her striving to banish desire. We were the same and different, fearing what drove our animal selves, and we neither loved unconditionally nor maybe even knew how to live as loving beings.
I placed my hand on hers, her tender parched flesh stretched over bones. She made a sound between a sigh and a repressed sob. I wished it would rain, to quench something.
Peg Alford Pursell is the author of the forthcoming book of stories/hybrid prose, Show Her A Flower, A Bird, A Shadow (ELJ Publications, March 2017). Her work has been published in VOLT, the Journal of Compressed Arts, and Forklift Ohio, among others. She directs Why There Are Words, a national neighborhood of reading series, and WTAW Press, an independent publisher of exceptional literary books. www.pegalfordpursell.com
Saturday Night in Spring
by Monique Bos
A woman stands in front of an open window, washing dishes as expectant love songs play. A woman who baked cookies for her neighbors, including you whom she’s had a crush on for months, and left them in gift bags on front steps. A woman who’s free to love, who knows how. She stands at her window. A man who might be you brings her flowers, or serenades her with his guitar, or rings the doorbell.
Some other woman, some other man, some other life.
In mine are only the crusted dishes in the cooling water and the empty window.
Monique Bos’ short fiction has appeared in Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal and several anthologies, and she reviews mysteries for Publishers Weekly. She holds a master’s degree in literature from Pennsylvania State University and teaches first-year writing at Georgia Southern University.
Lora Vysotskaya resides in Dnepr, Ukraine. Married, two children. She’s been performing image manipulations on her iPad, using only a single finger, for 2.5 years. This hobby is an important part of her; bringing creative ideas to life brings her joy. She dreams of a good computer with Photoshop installed that would give her unlimited creative potential.