✧ Winner of the 2022 Ned Stuckey-French Nonfiction Contest ✧
Selected by Grace M. Cho
My mother’s house is tucked away in a half-circle of trees which feed into wooded patches. All paths lead to the sand pits at the end of the road, and those sand pits spill into even more walking paths, cutting through Sudbury like veins of green blood. My sister is in the kitchen getting stoned, my sixteen-year-old cats are too old to greet me but not too old to remember me. I head to my bedroom last, not wanting to deal with the emotional weight of bright blue furniture and music posters warping on my ceiling. Later when I turn off the lights, I see there are glow-in-the-dark skeleton stickers on my bureau, messy glowing stars on the walls, a sentence written in crisp lime-green pen, words dimmer, turning into formidable shapes. I have to remember to wash the mirror, to strip the walls of my exes’ letters and scrawling.
The room feels different without the rug. I can’t imagine what my mother must have thought when she excavated beneath each piece of furniture. Paint-stained, navy-blue knotted rug, I wonder who ripped you away from the wall. Cheap shaving razors, bought for under $5, packets of gauze, rolls of ankle bandage fraying at the ends. Sewing needles, promise rings from my exes, tampons, and popsicle sticks, I wonder why she didn’t say something. Perhaps the blood smears were long gone; perhaps she perceived each item as miscellaneous, dropped behind my nightstand during a young and drunken stupor.
Hours later, I’m feeling sick in the yellow bathroom. The tub is the color of old mustard, spotty in some corners from fungus. There are multiple pumice stones, organic shampoo, and a purple razor with a clear body. I crouch down in the bath and the motion calls back the hundreds of times I’ve knelt in other tubs, taking my life in my hands, sometimes relapsing while crying, other times just holding the razor in my hands like a colorful plastic bird, all teeth and no song.
When I tell my therapist I’ve been trying to construct a black light with layers of tape and violet permanent markers, she suggests I take a hot shower. I don’t have the energy to explain to her that the bathroom is the last safe place for me to be. Instead, I tell her I will be fine, I’m not going to relapse. I head into the kitchen and lay down on the cool, cracked tile floor, watching as ants enter through a hole in the screen door. Everyone is out, so I’ve got the place to myself. I like to think that if a haunting were to begin, it would start in the kitchen. My bedroom, sure, could house poltergeists, but the brunt of my emotional discourse comes from being in kitchens. I wonder why there aren’t more ghost stories about chefs and servers. Perhaps it’s because we’re already walking around half-alive. I can’t excuse those of us with passion for prestige, knowledge of gastronomy, a glossy and spotless home kitchen within which one can experiment. We’re in the industry because we’re already haunted. We were sculpted through yelling into pin-point perfect staff. When I tell people at work I’m battling an addiction to hurting myself, no one is surprised. Later I’ll put someone’s beer on my shoulder, just to see if it helps alleviate my new phantom sores, now scabs.
The restaurant will have been closed for three years this October. I drive past its empty husk on my way to the bookstore, trying to distract myself from the memories hanging over town alongside an oncoming storm. I’m irritable, feeling like my mind hasn’t been able to rest since I’ve returned. Even though the threat no longer persists, I still feel as though I’m a twisting screw between flight, freeze, and fawn. I think about my body in that space, back pressed to racks in the freezer while I pressed palms to my eyes, suppressing tears after a guest yelled at me. My elbows on the metal tables in the back, eyes glossed over as I watched the chefs frosting autumn-themed pastries with sweet creams, their scarred hands slowly twirling spoons in a roux, a pot of macerated berries, deep pots of bone stock slowly reduced to half its contents and size. One presses his hands between the silver skin and red flesh of a fresh fish, jiggling oysters only to pry open their mouths, revealing small crabs who look more like aquatic spiders than anything else. We didn’t have meals together so the servers would sneak pieces of calamari and fried zucchini off guest’s plates, whispering whoops as their manicured pinkies brushed crispy rounds into ramekins, stored upside-down and hidden behind a bin of crab cake sauce tubes. I was trying to heal back then, a term that still begs questions in my mind. What would be the end goal? Surviving, or never hurting myself again, I wasn’t sure. But I had a wine key, and I wasn’t afraid to use it on my shoulder whenever the panic attacks rang so loud in my ears, clouding my eyes and dizzying my head.
We were constantly touching each other back then. Servers pressing hands on each other’s backs and shoulders, as if to say, I love you but I’m in the weeds right now. One night, when service had slowed down, I entered the open kitchen to find the bartender bench-pressing one of the thinner, younger waitresses, her body draped across his shoulders, her laugh echoing through the building. I hated how jealous I was. Why couldn’t he be bench-pressing me? I had to remind myself I was afraid of heights, that I couldn’t hit my head as I had childhood epilepsy and the threat of heights still loomed.
I bring my notebooks with me to the sea, carrying a backpack for several miles of spring tides. I focus my mind on hidden oyster crabs, whose bodies were gray, but I remember as blue or purple. I remember enormous lettuce leaves, the smooth surface of hard-boiled eggs, the scars on his hands, the way the counter pressed into my collarbone. Amber lights, enshrouded red lamps, rouge rugs, hungry guests. Groups of servers with tight buns and tattoos leaned over plates of creamy wine sauce, sweet and savory risotto dishes, a filet mignon so red its center could be mistaken for a semi-precious stone. Everything became a space for containment, and these spaces were always full of hands. I think about the time my mother, young and in a deep sleep in the pink room, woke up to an invisible someone tugging at her leg. Seconds later, the phone rang in the kitchen; her uncle had died. I wonder if all hauntings begin this way, a gentle tugging of a dreamer, or perhaps a nudge given to someone barely awake. Am I haunted, checking over my shoulder in every room of this house, or am I losing the threads between where my body is, and where my body was. In all the dreams I had in the pink room, not one brought me warnings. I would learn, much later, the term: inherited trauma. It’s impossible to explain whether I have inherited her trauma, or if we have the same pain, both suffering the heaviness that comes with the chilled, cavernous feeling in your chest when you tell someone what happened and they don’t believe you. Or they refuse. Either way, the self falls apart like wet tissue, the body—my body—aches, and the ideas of sex—the idea of anyone touching me ever again—becomes unbearable. I touch the heated metal on the prep line and disassociate during the rush.
I became hyper aware of the color red. After it happened, and he came to the restaurant and sat in my section wearing those goofy golden-rimmed glasses, I hated seeing his strong hands gripping beer glasses in a way familiar yet different. He couldn’t clutch the glassware too tightly, otherwise it would break. He had no problem gripping my wrists, leaving marks that wouldn’t disappear for a week. That night, I went into the kitchen and accidentally smacked my hands against the food lamps, hot rods shining bright red. My scars came easily, skin peeling apart from accidental burns. I didn’t relapse until I was away from work, attending a low-residency M.F.A. program and having a panic attack in the bathroom of a Marriott. That’s always how things seem to go, don’t they? At least for me, falling apart in bathrooms feels familiar, safe even. It doesn’t seem to matter whose bathroom it is. If I can sit in the tub, I will lose myself in the crisp warmth of a meltdown.
The restaurant was all warm tones: deep rouge floors, honey-hued walls, tiles in the kitchen the shade of cooked lobster. We were all bodies and no thought those days, bumping our hips into each other, small taps on the arm as if to say, I’m in the weeds but I still love you. Those days, I could barely three-plate-carry. I was coming into work buzzing off three iced coffees and weed. My guests were exes, teachers from high-school, bullies who’d grown into startlingly kind adults. I worked my way from host to busser, food runner, then server. Managers tried to train me behind the bar, but I couldn’t stop crying from the stress. I wish someone had taken me aside and whispered language into my ear. I would have traded anything to know words like trauma, maybe symptomatic, or coercion. I had no idea there was something wrong.
I thought it was normal I couldn’t breathe, thought it was normal to continue bleeding after having sex. A small piece of me, a soft, decaying animal muscle memory, knew some part was in pain, and on nights when I could feel the dinner rush in my cheeks and throat, I would take my wine key to the restroom and relapse until my breathing slowed and my vision stopped blurring. No one tells you how pain will make you sharp-eyed as a hunter, animal or human, doesn’t matter, it’s about blotting away blood, it’s about aiming for spaces the others won’t touch. I’d always forget, though. Once, my manager lovingly clapped me on the shoulder and I cried out, body shocked. When he asked what was wrong, I fed him lies about being weak and unable to carry trays of those thick and navy margarita glasses. You’ll get over it, he said, jovial.
You loved your family’s pool, a jelly bean shape lit up aquamarine at night. I remember snatches of green necked beers, your shorts somewhere on the steps, a handful of compliments. The night was warm. I didn’t feel a warning. I don’t remember how we got into the basement. My mind fractures, braiding together the pool, the walk, the lights out, the bed, blurring time. I think there was a horror movie on TV, with a dollhouse. Characters were screaming, there was blood, there were dolls, you asked if I wanted to see your drawers full of secrets—metal. I was hyperventilating, but you only stopped when I started crying.
I want to beg the walls for their histories. I want to remember exactly what happened. I want my mind to be sharp as a paring knife’s point. When I replay the evening, I am a phantom floating above the two of us. I examine different angles of the bedroom, remembering everything was blue and black as a trench. I don’t remember how I got back outside. First, my mind separated from my body. Then, my body became hyper focused on falling into as many small pieces as possible. I start wearing braces to work, I pretend I have muscular pain until the scars fade.
I worry a dull memory makes me unprepared. When I tell my manager what happened, she asks me for proof. Friends I’ll later meet ask why I wound up in that situation at all. I start compulsively saving receipts, old pills, sand, a piece of pizza crust wrapped in an old mask. I’m pressing my body into my journals when I bleed. Everyone says I need proof, proof, proof.
Back in New York City, far away from familiar Massachusetts backroads and wet leaves coating the sand pits, there is a blue room next to a pink room, next to a pale gold room. If you unsealed some of the doors, whose surfaces are coated with years of paint, you’d be able to run from the living room to the bathroom, five spaces back-to-back. Living in Manhattan is no different, and when a manager locks me in a room behind a room behind the front of the store, I begin to question the safety of inside-spaces.
My grandmother doesn’t believe my mother was abused. They temporarily tear their relationship in half, screaming at each other down the long, forest-hued hall. Lining the walls are dull green and yellow photographs of my family in Guayaquil, Ecuador, holding lizards and holding each other’s hands. The living room has bronze masks and a small crystal elephant. In the back of the apartment is my great grandmother’s room, my abuelita who has a stolen cross hanging on her wall from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Draped over its wooden arms are knit flowers, pictures of me, my cousins, my sister. My grandmother has Christ statues all over her bureau. She calls me from the bathroom, whispering and crying that my mom can’t hear her talking to me. I can feel my throat getting tight, not sure what to say to either of them. Later I’ll learn stories of how my grandmother left Ecuador after her family starved her. Maybe we could break the cycle, but first we’d have to talk to each other without screaming.
I used to take breaks from the restaurant to visit my family in Manhattan. It’s harder in the summertime to hide food in my shirt and bra. Instead, I take a cloth bag and order triple-decker turkey clubs from the bodega down the street. I hide chocolate Pocky sticks and glass apple juice bottles, bags of glow-worm candy, and cheap concealer, the powdery kind which falls apart when I smudge it over my scars. Back in the apartment, I hide my food in the back of the fridge, wedging the sandwiches behind my grandmother’s Gatorade bottles. I text the chefs and they tell me the restaurant is falling apart without me. I’m selfish, so this makes me happy. I don’t want anyone else to be successful unless I’m there to alleviate their stress. I’m the one to carry the burden of the shift. I listen as the kitchen staff tell me all the secrets in the second walk-in fridge. Fist pressed to my chin, I nod, trying to understand why it’s crucial we don’t change our beef provider. I listen to stories about how management is falling apart at the seams. I use my foot to toy with the cement-filled drains, another secret problem I’m not supposed to know. Waiting tables has helped me become better at acting. I can put on any face I want to prepare myself for the day ahead. I start mimicking people’s tones, I mirror their eye contact and hand movements, I don’t learn until later this is a result of my complex trauma, and I’m only fawning so no one hurts me ever again.
Though the apartment is coated in solid colors, I only manage to dream in black, white, and gold. I dream I am walking down the hall to get a glass of milk. Halfway through, I pause outside the pink room—the dangerous room. What appears to be a never-ending staircase opens into the floor, lit by hazy gold and silver lights. When I try to enter the secret staircase, I wake up. The pink room has old pipes which echo haunting melodies, like someone shaking pennies in their fist. I fall back into dreams of the closets opening into a room filled with needles. I don’t find out about what happened to my mother in that room until I am much older. Are spaces speaking to me, or do I only wish they were? When not home-home, in-the-woods home, open-wound house holding its breath, I am missing berry compote reduced to half its size on the stoves in the back-of-house. I began writing a story about a fictional restaurant in my grandmother’s apartment, a shadow of the original, where walk-in refrigerators are all connected to create one chilled experience. I write about food that isn’t real, like blue apple eggs, which contain ghosts and can’t be cut without a proper knife. The food in this kitchen is unreal, surreal. No matter what I do, I’m thinking of your presence strangling my prose. It is unclear if I am still manipulating the truth as an act of survival, or if my mind has caved in on itself and this is all that’s left.
I try to excavate poems from my mind, I try to explain what happened. Their alphabetic centers twist into daydreams of heads of lettuce, wet and dark green, stained dupe receipts, a new server notebook with a crackable spine, chef’s recipes hidden among bookshelves, blue light of a diner, grease pencils, angry letters, candy spools, cracker crust, New England oceans, fisherman’s stew, gauze on my fingers, my grandmother’s discarded pearls in buckets, blue clover, the private nettings of algae hearts in parking lots, swan calls playing through a faded red radio drowning in the kitchen sink, there are sycamore trees, low drama and thin farewells, knives with their handles, red egg yolk twists, bodega cats keeping track, paws and thumbs, empty jars, cinnamon and thyme, red carpets, fungus, we’re sleeping beneath tables, talented turquoise shells, tripped mussel lungs, now ragdoll lettuce, rain, a blue mystery freezer, animals asleep at your station, lime rinds in locked boxes, plastic doors, blue bins, stuffing, lilac crab bundles, warnings, bird calls, burnt bread and richness, it’s autumn and the onions are on fire, I write about dolls, there’s duck breast without duck, glaze, a morning, a muscle, milk crates and jokes, blue grief and blue lobster, old apples, ribeye centers, shaved truffle, maybe doorbells, vanilla lattice, trustworthy carrots, fraught flowers, fighting in the bathroom, display cases and expensive wine.
My friend and fellow server invites me to her barn to hang out while she works. There are three ex-racehorses lined up in their stalls, excited to see her. The youngest has soft brown fur and a tendency to bite. He swishes his tail, agitated, as she works on his mane. I hang out in one of the empty stalls, staring out the window at the late afternoon sun. When we head out to the arena, it’s close to early evening. I am nervous about the woods encircling us, wondering if we’ll see any of the Eastern wolves. There are crows sifting through the grass, and her greyhound run rings around us. When I tell her what happened, she says she’s not surprised. In fact, this same man tried to abuse her sister. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, so I only nod in response. I haven’t been sleeping, overtired from late nights at the restaurant and arguments with my mother. I realize we’re all in varying states of grief, but I’ve never been good at speaking, so when the conversation drops, I let it. Besides, what else is there to say? I could tell her I’ve been having nightmares and intrusive thoughts of body parts turning into toy dinosaurs and slinkies, but she wouldn’t understand. My mind unravels on its own time.
SAMANTHA MOE is the recipient of a 2023 St. Joe Community Foundation Poetry Fellowship from Longleaf Writers Conference. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Whale Road Review, The Indianapolis Review, Sundog Lit, and others. Her poetry book Heart Weeds is out from Alien Buddha Press and her chapbook Grief Birds is forthcoming from Bullshit Lit in April ’23. Her full-length Cicatrizing the Daughters is forthcoming from FlowerSong Press.