“We’ve exhausted all other solutions,” my protégé, Naya, is saying through steepled hands from the top right-hand box of the Zoom gallery. I’ve known Naya since she was a gangly teen shuffling behind her social worker into CHANGE’s then one-room office in Philly, wearing a too-big Free Mumia T-shirt. I took her on as an intern, trained her as an organizer, put all that anger in service of the movement. Now, she’s directing a historic regional food security campaign out of a sunlit office in Atlanta, the wall behind her a map of Indigenous territories across Turtle Island. My smile pushes the meat in my cheeks right up to my eyeballs.
“You know this isn’t all on me.” I wish my voice didn’t come out strangled, but I’ve been sleeping bad for weeks. Well, really since Luna took off in her red pickup, so eager to get out of dodge she forgot an entire cabinet of artisan gin. Which I’ve been drinking, of course, though it doesn’t stop the loft from feeling like a fresh hole in the gum missing its tooth. I clear my throat. “We’re all cadre here. You know funding caps mean I’ve had to work with less qualified millennials and Gen Z who need a lot of political development.”
“We all agree cancel culture is problematic,” David says from the square below Naya’s, his man bun the center of a slowly spinning digital Milky Way. After his parents were deported, I let him stay with me rent-free and found a pro-bono lawyer for his asylum application while he finished his Master’s in Policy Studies. Now he’s the lead PR guy of a nationwide campaign for an undocumented workers’ bill of rights. No one owes me more than David. He smiles apologetically. “But the complaints about your behavior are consistent. CHANGE cannot sustain this level of burnout and turnover. Frankly, I’m surprised no one’s sued us yet with all the documented stress disorders. You’ve put us in a really tough spot.”
Sweat is starting to carve runnels in my makeup, but I stop myself from reaching for the Kleenex box. I take a sip of gin and smile. Nod and smile. “I understand gratitude is in shortsupply these days.” I stare into the black dot of my camera, the closest thing to looking him in the eye. “But our younger staff needs to understand that it’s an immense privilege to be paid to do what we do. We owe it to our comrades in the global South to hold the highest standards of performance, and as Executive Director that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
It’s satisfying when none of the board members unmutes. My gaze wanders up the wall at framed highlights of CHANGE delegations I’ve been on over the years. Cuban farming brigade, anti-settlement march in the West Bank, women crossing the Korean demilitarized zone, commemoration of the Soweto uprising. That last one Luna had come along for, toting camera and tripod everywhere. Her muscular arms stand out in the crowd against my pale, bulb-like figure. I hate that picture, but she insisted on hanging it up. “But babe,” she’d laughed, “your daddy is a white man. You can’t change where you come from.”
There’s a cough in the upper left-hand box. A line of bamboos sways behind Malachi, punctuated by a trampoline. Since our awkward romps in his closet-sized dorm in Berkeley, which by the way always smelled of wet socks, I’ve gained rolls, lines, cracks, while his skin remains taut minus the pimples that used to constellate his jaw. “I appreciate how you feel. But to your point, Flor’s letter was also sent to our philanthropic partners. We stand to lose more than half our funding if we don’t turn this ship around.”
“Adena. You agree with all this?” I turn to my former grad school accomplice in the last box. Her white neck seems even longer with her curls pulled up in a tight bun. I barely have a neck anymore. Definitely not a partner making six figures advising top Democrats. Or a national swim champ for a daughter, whose tanned arms I can see scissoring the pool behind her.
“Look. Seventy percent of the staff signed the petition to have you removed. It’s just math, Naomi. You can’t lead people who don’t want to follow you.” Her eyes narrow, their muddy green reminding me of, as they often do, the frogs in Oma’s backyard pond in Jakarta where I used to spend my early summers. While my parents drove around West and Central Java with boxes of Bibles in their trunk, I learned how to catch them with my bare hands then flay them to marinate in salty black bean sauce and scallions.
“We’ve already e-mailed you the details of your severance package,” Naya says. “I believe you will find it quite generous.”
“Actually,” I start, and am instantly notified that I have been muted by the host.
“Think about it as a growth opportunity,” David adds, too cheerfully. “You can rest. Evaluate. Figure out what you really want to do.”
My fist lands on the desk, shaking the gallery. A bead of sweat that’s been hanging precariously on the tips of my glue-on lashes explodes in my eye. I unmute, ignoring the burn. “We have to engage in principled struggle with our self-victimizing younger comrades—”
The host mutes me again.
“Thank you, Naomi, for your service,” says Malachi. “We do wish you the best.”
The gallery blips out. Just like that, the faces of four people I’ve considered lifetime companions, family, even, in the struggle to free all of humanity from the chains of global capitalist oppression, disappear.
The first time I wanted to join that struggle was February of my senior year in high school, one week after Nelson Mandela was freed. My AP History teacher, a Berkeley alum active in Students Against Apartheid, had made attending the rally at Sproul Plaza a required field trip. Malachi was the chapter’s vice president then, speaking through a megaphone to a crowd of several hundred. The wind was blistering but even with my teeth clacking in my head, I had immediately recognized his convicted tone, his cast of victims turned heroes in the eternal battle against evil.
Back then, my father was assistant pastor and my mother Sunday school coordinator at the Revelation of Christ Church in Oakland. They’d met when she was assigned as his language tutor while he trained as a missionary in Surabaya. I grew up surrounded by orators, but where they used the music of speech to expound on sin and salvation, Malachi spoke of justice and revolution. It reminded me of a revival, the way faces in the crowd lifted at the glimpse he offered of something beyond the world where our lives blew like chaff, the way our shoulders straightened with resolve. When we raised our hands, the gesture was familiar though instead of opening my palm to receive the Holy Spirit, I was closing it to smash our oppressors. Later, I approached Malachi and was surprised to find him shorter than me off stage. I was even more surprised by what we had in common: his father was a Baptist minister.
For years, God had provided me with a system for prioritizing, which kept my life tidy if unremarkable. I have no childhood memory of slumber parties, pets, beach days. Movies and everything but family (read: Christian) radio were off limits. By five years old, I was reciting entire chapters of Proverbs from memory to the church’s congregation of several hundred. Later, while my friends went on dates, I was leading bible study classes, singing for the praise and worship team, and on weekends, touring with a puppet theater that brought Jesus to sick kids in hospitals all over northern California. With Jesus in my heart, I didn’t need to be beautiful, smart, or interesting; I shone with the truth of eternal life.
Malachi both understood and undid all that. He taught me about the role of Christianity in Western colonialism, the decadence of the liberal hegemony, chains of exploitation in the global capitalist empire, and the redemptive tradition of socialism. I’d had no inkling until then that faith, like water, could change directions. At home, I started asking questions like, why did God protect the Israelis from their tribal enemies but not the Indigenous peoples of North America from the Europeans? My father told me it was sinful to try to understand the mind of God. My mother made me wash my mouth with dish soap.
After the call, the board moves swiftly to babyproof the organization. In my remaining weeks, Adena steps in as Interim Director and locks me out of our files, accounts, and listservs. She cancels my work trips and updates all the Zoom meeting links without me. I’m assigned busywork, like writing project briefs no one will read, and filling out the exit interview form I had developed based on Mao’s Combat Liberalism, which focuses on generating productive self- criticism. Not helpful in this case, since I’ve done nothing wrong. I know it. They know it. All of this is theater to show the changing of the guard.
The board sends out a public letter announcing my transition to ostensibly “pursue long- neglected interests” and thanking me for my years of “dedicated service.” My inbox is flooded with well wishes, congratulations, see you on the streets! In response, I post more frequently on social media to make sure they know I’m still relevant. I’m not the sharpest thinker or most compelling public speaker, but by crafting my own posts from bits of analysis shared by influencer-level comrades, I end up with a noticeable uptick in double digit engagement among my 2,078 Twitter followers and 3,583 Facebook friends.
With my Google calendar suddenly blank, I offer one-on-ones with the CHANGE staff, except for Flor, to discuss their areas of political growth since I won’t be around to mentor them anymore. Most of them don’t respond. The rest decline. Their loss.
At least I’m not the only one who feels disoriented by this new tide of fragility politics. The comrades who come over with gifts for my transition – scented candles, a day pass to a Korean spa, Frida Kahlo-themed handkerchiefs, bath salts, a home nail care kit – they get it. How are we supposed to raise a new generation of militant cadre if when we critique younger organizers they call us abusive, and when we offer a different perspective they call it gaslighting? My peers nod enthusiastically as they sip herbal teas from handmade ceramic mugs I brought back from Tijuana last year, when I had a video made of our team organizing with residents of the migrant camp near the border wall. From an aerial view, the stained multicolor tents planted in mud looked like a massacre of flowers. Afterward, our social media following went up by a not insignificant two percent.
I also continue to monitor the staff’s personal accounts to make sure they aren’t posting anything that could be damaging to CHANGE. After Trump was elected, for example, one of our API organizers complained on her Facebook about white allies. I had to make an example of her because not only are many of our donors white, but broad generalizations like that are just unhelpful. We need to be bringing white people in, not pushing them out. For my previous vigilance, I’m rewarded by a stream of snotty kids, napping pets, sketchy baking experiments, and memes with affirmations like you are your ancestors’ wildest dream.
There are also, of course, the deceitful selfies, no matter what their captions say about body positivity, that make me pinch my arms and belly while I scroll away at my desk with a glass of Suntory Roku just out of screenshot.
The truth is, I have let myself go these past few years. I’ve been on the road so much that whenever I was home, all I had energy for was catching up on Project Runway. If Luna had her way, we’d have been hiking and jumping off cliffs into lakes every weekend. I was often bewildered by her energy, but then I’d remember that she was a freelancer – she’d say, “artist” – who controlled her own time.
Those final months, it had been impossible to get her to touch me. Then I found out she’d met someone while filming a project on factory temp workers for The Inquirer. I forgave her. Found a bilingual therapist to do our couples counseling so she’d feel safe communicating her issues. Showered her with gifts, like the bottles of fancy gin, many of which came from obscure craft liquor shops I’d asked Flor to track down in cities where I was traveling for work. She left anyway. “You’re the smallest person I’ve ever met,” was the last thing she said to me before slamming the truck door, leaving me on the curb in a cloud of exhaust fumes still holding her copy of the talking points I’d written to explain the unraveling of our eight-year partnership to mutual comrades.
So, I cut out grains and start exercising again. There are tons of free Zumba workouts on YouTube, though I prefer the ones with groups doing it together. Every day, I wake up early, drink a cup of green tea, brush my teeth, make my bed. I’m especially glad that I’d ordered the quilt that has one of Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits printed on it even though Luna said it was tacky, the one with the cat and monkey on her shoulders, because it reminds me to be alert and resolute.
I take my vitamins.
I restrict my snacking to unsalted sunflower seeds.
Twice a week I touch up my roots and wear a pore-shrinking facial mask for twice the length of time instructed.
The morning of my last day at CHANGE, my phone blows up with notifications. Someone’s posted Flor’s letter on the web, and within a few hours, it’s snowballed into over a thousand retweets and several hundred reshares on Facebook.
As my Executive Assistant, Flor had complete access to my work e-mail. She’d copied and pasted some of my sent messages in her letter to make it look like I’ve been harassing specifically BIPOC staff. It’s ridiculous since most of the staff – all of whom I hired – are BIPOC. I do regret the twelve back-to-back emails I sent to one of the Latinx organizers while they were on bereavement leave, but Flor conveniently left out that we were coordinating a mass assembly, an organizing school, and three national policy tables at the same time, and that this particular employee has a habit of missing deadlines so of course I had to be vigilant. Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, all those fuckers, they’re never off the clock.
It’s time to end white supremacy in the nonprofit Left, writes one of the re-tweeters.
I refresh the screen.
Cancel EDs anyway their just pawns of the 1%, writes @trufemmesr3volt who on a double take, I realize is a member of CHANGE.
By 10AM, #NAOMIBYE is all over my networks on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, paired with my headshot from the CHANGE website. Someone had added a text bubble next to the fist I’m holding up: JUST ANOTHER KAREN.
My thumbs fail to draft a response. I know there’s no stopping it, this asteroid burning through the webs I’d so carefully knitted over the past three decades. At 11:20AM, I receive a text message from Adena, asking me to shut down my social media accounts immediately and attend an emergency board meeting starting in ten minutes.
The board looks grim. Malachi has his UC Berkeley hat pulled low over his eyes. Adena is still in her bathrobe. David’s man bun is disheveled, which makes the galaxy behind him look like it might be imploding. I barely had time to throw on a blouse on top of my pajama pants and dab on some lipstick. Without foundation, I feel like everyone can see every hole in my face.
“Do we know who posted it?” says Malachi. “Does Flor know?”
“It’s not her,” says Adena. “She’s the one who called it in.”
“She could have faked an account then called you to avoid suspicion.” Naya is calling in by phone. Before she mutes herself, I catch a baby crying in the background.
“It doesn’t matter who posted it!” David yells, then catches himself. He smiles apologetically. “That’s the risk anytime you circulate anything in writing. You can’t control how big the circle gets. The point is –,”
“We’ll take care of the damage control,” Adena cuts in. Ugly pink spots are blooming all over her giraffe neck. “Naomi, you just need to stay off the grid for a while, ok? Like a month. These things always blow over, but we can’t have contradicting statements.”
I hear a wail, then a train passing by.
“We sent a public announcement about her leaving already,” Naya says. “Do you think people might think we were trying to cover it up?”
I almost jump at the sound of my own voice. It’s completely calm. I reach for the Kleenex box, but find that I don’t need it. My hands and face are dry. “Say you were aware of the problems, and that you tried to pursue every means of course-correction internally because you didn’t want to distract from the mission of CHANGE. Say that ultimately we agreed my leaving was the best thing for everyone and the organization, but out of respect for all my years of service, you wanted to do it in a way that was kind.”
The Zoom is quiet. Out of the corner of my eye, I try to glimpse Frida, but I didn’t have time to make the bed before the meeting started. Instead, I’m caught by the cat’s olive-green eyes, the black pits floating inside them. My heart starts banging around in my chest like a trapped boomerang.
“Thank you, Naomi, that was very helpful. You’re right of course,” Malachi says. “That was a comradely thing to do, given the circumstances.”
“It’s really the least she—,” Adena starts but I can’t make out the rest, the train is so very loud, like it’s in the loft, like I’m just under it.
It’s whistling now, or maybe crying. Maybe there’s a baby on the train, or the train is just what my heart becomes when it’s one long uninterrupted sound, that’s certainly possible, right, babies do ride trains, a heart can carry the oppressor and the oppressed and mothers and fathers and bibles and bottles of gin, there’s so much of everything making sounds like metal dragging itself all over itself, but there’s one that stands out, that’s gotta be Adena, right? Banshee, we used to call her, because when she got on the megaphone, man, you better have earplugs on.
I love hospitals.
I love how they smell like someone did something bad, but it got cleaned up right away.
I love their orchestra of beeps and clatters and murmurs and coughs and creaking and moans and swishing and thumping.
I love how they make you feel like you’re important because you’re breakable.
That’s the one thing I miss about church. The Saturday mornings my theater group would file out of the youth pastor’s bus van with our freshly combed puppets. We had a different set for every hero; Jonah, Daniel, and David were the most popular. Our message was always the same, that faith could overcome anything, but I think what the kids liked about the stories was that they were about people who ended up alone, somewhere they never imagined – the belly of a whale, a lion’s den, the crosshairs of a giant. They were people who had to become something other than whatever it was they had been prepared to be.
David had called 911 after the board saw me collapse on Zoom. I faintly remember fan blades circling dim balloons of light. A gloved hand strapping an oxygen mask on my face. I shimmy deeper under the scratchy green blanket and fish out my phone. The elderly super who let the paramedics into the loft had tucked it in my blouse pocket while I was catatonic. When the paramedic told me, my first thought, was, I should get Flor to order flowers for her. My next thought was, Flor caused this whole fucking mess. Flor is an asshole.
I’m in the hospital, I text Luna, ignoring the slew of messages in all caps with multiple question and exclamation marks from David, Naya, and Malachi (not a beep from Adena) asking what happened, if I was ok, should they send someone over to pick me up.
Minutes go by, interminably.
What? What happened??? It’s the first time she’s responded since I wished her a happy birthday two months ago.
They were scared it was a heart attack.
They’re keeping me overnight for observation. Still in Mexico?
Yeah. I read Flor’s letter. What are you going to do?
What I want to say is I wish Flor were here, so I can smash my phone into her skull.
Idk. Go on a cruise.
Don’t do that. Whatever you’re going through it’s not the ocean’s fault.
Well why don’t you tell me what to do then, o wise one.
The curtain to my left creaks open. It’s the nurse. She asks how I’m feeling, but informs me that the bed is needed for another patient before I can respond. A couple of hours ago, the ER doctor had told me it was “just” a panic attack and that I was fine to go home. It’s disappointing, really. The narrow space inside the blue curtains feels so manageable. Here I’m Jonah. Out there, I’m the whale, bleaching on the sand, trying to breathe while beaks and pincers tear at my skin.
Less than thirty hours later, I’m parked across the street from the house in Cleveland Heights where my mother lives. Where I lived. The red door and brick façade seem not have weathered at all. Yellow and pink rose bushes snarl around one side of the porch; the lawn looks freshly mown. She’d put a down payment on this house by selling Oma’s, the one with the pond, almost immediately after Oma died. I was nine. I haven’t been back to Indonesia since.
I wouldn’t have come back here either, if last night, while soaking in the tub and deleting my social media accounts inside a personal bubble of lavender-scented resignation, Luna hadn’t finally replied, go home, go see your mother, which would not have convinced me, ever, since this was a fight we had had a billion times, because her mother was taken during Pinochet’s regime and likely dropped from a plane onto the sands of the Atacama and she could never understand why I would avoid my mother, who, in her words, is “safe, alive, and right fucking there,” but then the electricity went out, and I had to climb out of the tub, clutching my lighter which thankfully I had with me because I had used it to light the aromatherapy sticks, and feeling my way, dripping, to the bedside drawer where I keep the candles, the darkness was so total, even the streetlights were out, that I was stubbing my toe all over the place, so tired I didn’t think of flicking on the lighter until I was already almost where I needed to be, that exactly when I did, I tripped, and the flame fell on the quilt still bunched up on the bed. By the time I put it out, shins bleeding from crashing into furniture on my run to the kitchen for the water pitcher and back, there was a hole big enough for me to pull my head through right in the middle of Frida’s neck, where the hummingbird hung from a necklace of thorns. My eyes were adjusting to the dark so I got dressed, grabbed my wallet, and called a Lyft to the airport because I couldn’t stand the thought of looking at the damage with the lights on.
I drop my phone into the glove compartment then turn off the rental Accord. In the side mirror, my face is mottled, there are dark pockets under my bloodshot eyes. Greys are peeking along my side part and my bright blue hoodie has permanent purple blots from when Luna and I painted the balcony railing last summer. Not how I want my mother to see me after fifteen years, but there’s a good chance she’s not home, judging from the empty driveway. It’s barely noon on Sunday after all. The garage, I’m guessing, is still packed floor to ceiling with my father’s things. I’m almost knocked down crossing the street by a group of girls whizzing past on their bikes. Their firework of giggles makes a kind of stinging inside me.
At the front door, I freeze, holding out my key. I haven’t stood here since the Thanksgiving after 9/11 when I had decided to bring home my first girlfriend. After moving to Philly for college, it was the only time I made an exception to the rule of dropping by only when I happened to be in the Bay for some work-related reason. My girlfriend had agreed to keep up platonic appearances so we could spend the holiday together. My mother made turkey fried rice, turkey bone broth, cold steamed turkey salad, and turkey potpie with a side of pickled chilis. We watched reruns of Touched by an Angel and helped her set up a life-size nativity scene on the lawn. The next morning, she walked into my room, arms full of our freshly folded laundry, to my face buried in my girlfriend’s cunt. I can still see the red quilt strewn on the floor like a person unzipped, feel the slam of her bedroom door in my gut.
I put the key in the lock and turn. Luna always said I kept it on my key ring because I was waiting for the right time to come home.
Inside I automatically slip off my sneakers. A few steps into the living room, I went back and put them back on. Everything looks the same, if more faded, sunken in on itself. My mother has made an art of preservation, and I feel like a visitor in a museum I’ve been to so many times I both don’t care to look and can’t help but notice the changes. The green velour couch in the living room has bald patches, but the blond wood coffee table is still stacked with a tower of Christian Life magazines. Still no photos on the walls, just a visual biography of Jesus. Infant Jesus on a bale of hay. Young Jesus in the river with a dove hovering above him. Grown Jesus stirring a pot of water into wine. Jesus on one knee, washing the feet of his (male) disciples. Jesus with thorns, bowed and whipped. Zombie Jesus walking on water. In the kitchen, a talking rice cooker the color of a pumpkin is the dining table’s new centerpiece.
Walking past her bedroom, I glimpse the chessboard painted by sunlight streaming through a gridded window on the all-white bed. Growing up, I was never allowed in this room. It used to enthrall me, movie kids leaping into their parents’ bed, wiggling themselves between mom and dad because they keep seeing monsters in their closets. I think those scenes mean to tell us something about the parents’ characters, that they are safe, caring people. The parents smile and stroke their children’s hair, never believing that the monsters might be real. That they were the ones who made those monsters. Even as the monsters begin to wear the faces of their children and their home falls to ruins around them, they stand there, round-mouthed, in disbelief of their little Tim, their corrupted Julia. My parents never made that mistake.
A familiar gravity pulls me to the end of the hall, where my hand curls around the knob of a white door, which according to the house blueprint, leads to the master bedroom. I’ve ever only known it as the chapel.
One week before my high school graduation, I came home from school to a line of cars parked in front of the house. It was strange; my parents never had guests other than the Pastor. My mother opened the door while I was still crossing the yard, her mouth a dark red line. She turned around when I got close. I understood I was supposed to follow her.
In the chapel, a group of men were seated in a circle in the middle of the permanently overcast room. I recognized the Pastor, Youth Pastor, Praise and Worship Coordinator, four deacons, and my father, who sat in front of the massive cross of olive wood hanging on the eastern wall. The long table that usually halved the room had been moved against the white muslin curtain along the back wall, which hid a glass sliding door to the backyard. My mother took the last chair in the circle, opposite my father and in front of the antique cabinet filled with his theology books and nearly encyclopedic collection of various versions of the Bible. “Please sit, Naomi,” he said in his sonorous bass which often made me think of a trench in the ocean floor. He pointed at the middle of the circle. Out of habit, I sank knees first into the lamb-white carpet.
He held a book, which I mistook for one of the abridged bibles until I saw the ink stains on the olive-green cover. My father thumbed it open. “April 17. Today, I let M inside me. It only hurt a little, then it felt—” His voice faltered. “How could you do this, Naomi? How could you to this to us?” He looked at me with tears in his vague blue eyes.
The air grew thick as a swarm of locusts.
Then a sound came out of me like the brakes of a train going too fast.
I leapt at him and he fell backward on his chair, me clawing for the diary, finding only his neck and face. An army of hands dragged me away, pushed me down flat on the ground. Gobs of spit landed on my arms, my back where my shirt had escaped the waistband of my skirt, as wave after wave of tongues, ululating, crashed and merged over my head. The carpet burned my cheek. I heard my mother’s demand, quiet and irrefutable, “He that spareth the rod hateth his child.”
Something heavy and metallic slammed into my shoulder blade.
I must have struggled then, but what I remember is static. Vast, edgeless, empty of lions or giants, even the memory of prayer couldn’t survive there. I looked for my father’s feet in the forest of feet. Licked his blood from under my fingernails. In a bar of light under the curtain, my diary lay open, surrendering my transgressions to what felt like the whole world. I was a scribbled-out page on which the belt buckle fell, again, then again, writing its own story in bone.
My mother doesn’t seem surprised to find me lying starfish on the Persian rug covering the now wooden floor of the chapel. Behind me, there’s a spotless cream sofa facing a flatscreen TV mounted where the cross used to be. An ergonomic chair by the long table that’s been set up with a computer and above which hang my framed head shot – the one from the CHANGE website that’s become a Karen meme – and high school diploma, mailed home after I missed the last week of senior year and graduation. Only the curtain over the sliding door remains the same.
“Have you been here long?” Her hair, cut in a bob, is still black, probably naturally, since Oma also had hair like that. She’s thinner than I remember, the cheap flowery blouse hangs like a tent over her frame.
“Sorry I didn’t call to warn you,” I say, sitting up. What I wanted to say was, I thought I had escaped this place.
She’s staring hard at my sneakers, brow twitching with the effort to keep herself from pulling them off. There are liver spots now like islands floating on the backs of her bony hands. Hands that after the chapel locked me in my room and let me out only to use the bathroom. Hands that knocked twice a day when food was left on a tray outside my door.
“When did you change this?” I ask, raising my chin at the room in general.
She sat down, crossing her legs.
I could have climbed out the window, if only to get to a payphone to let Malachi know what had happened – he didn’t have my phone number or address because we couldn’t risk my parents filing statutory rape charges if they ever found out who he was – but I didn’t. The next time I saw him was eight years later at the Battle of Seattle. He never asked why I disappeared. I never told him that for weeks half of my body looked and felt like a five-year-old’s imitation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. That I stayed in my puke-stained sheets for weeks while my parents tore into each other across the hall. I was nursing something hard and glimmering, a new god.
“You’ve gained a lot of weight,” says my mother.
“You stopped wearing your wedding ring,” I reply.
Her face remains impassive as the morning I finally found my door open. Her in the living room, surrounded by empty cardboard boxes. We spent the whole day packing his things.
“I just mean you look healthy.”
I laugh because she’s lying. Because I am the damage my father cannot look at, and she won’t apologize for. Because I have gone on to damage others.
“Have you eaten?”
“No.” Thirty-six hours without sleep plus all the months of tossing and kicking, waking up while it’s still pitch black to no resistance in bed, no Luna pushing me back to my side, rush into me like a solid wall. I must have swayed because my mother reaches to grab my hand. She pulls back before we actually touch.
“I’ll make you something. But first, you need some fresh air. Come.”
Her steps are silent all the way to the curtain. In all the years I lived in this house, I never saw that glass door open. I never even thought of pulling the curtain aside. There’s a dragging sound, then a breeze furring the side of my face. My mother fades into a dark smudge behind the billowing fabric. I hear a hymn I haven’t heard for ages. Frogs, singing their alien, broken chords. It is the closest sound to God, if God isn’t a ghost, or a father, or the movement, or your wet, beating heart somewhere in Mexico refracting a matrix of light, maybe God isn’t the object at all but the distance you have to go to put some of your pieces back together. Sometimes it takes many people. Sometimes it takes being left behind.
I stand up.
Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of Fire Is Not a Country, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in fall 2021, Salvage: Poems (2017) and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water (2016). A 2021-2022 Amy Clampitt Resident, she has received the Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize and the Leeway Foundation’s Transformation Award. She currently teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and is originally from Bali, Indonesia.