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Monday, May 25, 2020

The Animal Lover at Seven and Thirty-seven

by Hannah Melin

        When Avery grows up, she will be an “animal rescuer, just like her Mom!” Every adult in Avery’s life is assigned an animal: a kangaroo for her father, a vulture for her mother. For the first week as her babysitter, I am watched cautiously from behind a stuffed lion. After a week of careful consideration, I am labeled a zebra.
        No jokes are made about Erin’s title as a vulture. Erin grins and swings Avery around in a hug when she correctly recites a fact on the wingspan of an African Condor or the lifecycle of a Common Turkey Vulture. Above their television set, framed photos of Avery in diapers are mixed in with fuzz-headed owlets, fledgling eagles, and newly hatched vultures. Foot-long, sleek black feathers are tucked between well-worn romance novels and dog-training guides.
        Avery’s hands are always ready to grip, touch, and pet. She pinches her crayons tightly between her fingers, drawing savannas with thick, heavy lines. The skin that stretches across her palms is porcelain pale, interrupted only by light freckles. Erin’s hands grip lightly. Arthritis, she says, from zoo work. The skin is paper-thin and as pale as her daughter’s. Scratch marks and scars cover her thin hands, running up past her wrist and onto her forearm. The razor-width cuts seem to track decades of self-harm, a conclusion dismissed only by the photograph of a younger Erin holding up her forearm for a massive Horned Owl to perch.
        Avery sinks into the comfy couch, immersed in a Disney movie while Erin leans against the kitchen counter, staring into her coffee mug while I sip from mine. She talks about the latest tragedy at Animal Kingdom: an aggressive male Grant’s Zebra broke out of his holding pen in the night and into the pen of a resting mother and her three-month-old foal. It trampled the foal to death and ripped off the mother’s right ear. She tears up, covering her mouth as she tells me how the mother whinnied and bayed for hours. She’s furious that the locks weren’t strong enough, but she never blames the male. It’s a survival mechanism, she says, to ensure their genetic line survives. A female won’t mate with a male if she has a foal. The male will kill the foal to confirm his own lineage. She’s glad no keepers tried to intervene during his rampage; she’s certain they’d have been trampled. The attack never makes the newspapers and I try not to wince when Avery gives me a crayon drawing of my animal avatar.
        Avery knows to ask owners if she can pet their dogs before approaching. She assures me that she knows lions, leopards, and tigers are all deeply dangerous creatures. She scoops up Rosie, a Chilean Rose-Haired Tarantula the size of my fist, without hesitation. She giggles as the fanged spider walks across her hands. She asks me if I want to hold her. I decline, but I do let Valentine, a six-inch Corn Snake, wrap around my wrist. Once I’m preoccupied with the small warmth making its way to my fingertips, Avery plops Mr. Bojangles, a six-pound Bearded Dragon, on my shoulder. It scrambles on my t-shirt and falls asleep, staining my sleeve with raspberry juice. Raspberries are its second favorite snack, after live crickets.
        Avery’s best friends are carried around with her at all times. A balding stuffed zebra, a lion Beanie Baby, and a dull yellow dog. If she moves from the room, she scoops them up in her forearms and lines them up in their new position. She engages in a constant dialogue with them. If I ask one of the stuffed animals a question, she responds in a squeaking character voice, but her personal conversations with them are one-sided. She speaks to them, pauses, and continues on with a new talking point. She doesn’t see the point in giving them voice when she already knows what they would say. Erin thinks she’ll grow out of it any day now.
        Erin attended a parent-teacher meeting last month, where one of Avery’s teachers was concerned by Avery’s introversion. She’s the same as Erin was at that age, Erin recalls. Erin seems proud to tell me that Avery prefers animals to people.
        Three months later, Snowball, their twelve-year-old house cat, drops dead in front of her food bowl. Erin sobs into her pillow. It’s too much, she says. Such reactions adds to her belief that her husband will leave her. She thinks her ex-boyfriend has been stalking her (“Make sure you lock the doors,” she tells me, “but I don’t think he’d hurt you”). She’s convinced Avery will spend the rest of her life talking to stuffed animals. She thinks she’s going to lose her job because of her arthritis. To not work with animals, she says, that would be worse than death for me.
        I tell my mother what Erin said on the car ride home. My mother has to pick me up when I watch Avery into the evenings. I’m not allowed to drive at night until I’m old enough to get my Class D.
        Avery chases their Pitbull mix around the yard, whooping and giggling. The sun glints off her hair, turning it into a writhing, glimmering halo. She stretches open her arms, inviting the dog to jump onto her and knock her into the grass. The dog does not bite, but he plays rough. Pink ridges rise across her upper arms where his dewclaw scrapes, not quite deep enough to draw blood. He shoves into her side, hard, but she tackles him back, squealing.
        At age seven, the animal lover knows no fear. She does not bother to adjust for the rest of us. She spends recess hunting for garter snakes and doesn’t bother with the comments made about her on the swing set. She lets every creature, ant and elephant alike, crawl into her heart.
          At age thirty-seven, the animal lover learns the weight of these creatures. She lets every one of them into her heart and onto her skin. They leave more scars than she can count.

(The names in this essay have been changed to protect the identities of those featured.)
Hannah Melin is a writer working out of Dallas, Texas. She studied Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida where she worked as the Fiction Editor for The Cypress Dome literary magazine. After graduating, Hannah worked as a literacy teacher for the Peace Corps on islands throughout the Eastern Caribbean. Hannah's nonfiction has been featured in Big Muddy. Her fiction has been featured in Monkeybicycle, Heart of Flesh, Night Picnic Press, and The Metaworker.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Blood on the Stoop--Four Tales

by Evelyn Martinez

Fat maroon spatters cascaded from the second-story entrance of the Victorian house where I lived on 15th Street to the sidewalk, coalescing into a splashy blob at the front curb, almost dry and shockingly vivid against the grungy cement.
We lived one block from Notre Dame Grammar School. My guardian, Antonia, did not trust me to travel to and from school on my own. Class dismissed at 2:45 pm, and I’d shoot out the door, out the gate, and into the beige 1953 Mercury double-parked out front. While the other girls sauntered out in chatty clumps, I’d be tripping over Antonia’s sharp knees to slither into the back seat behind a grumpy Arturo Hill, her current husband. They were old. I was ashamed of them and of myself.
On that afternoon I skidded to a stop outside the school entrance, confused. Where were they?
I waited and waited. Something was wrong and I had no clue how to respond. Daring to walk home was risking Antonia’s rage.
3:30 pm. The last straggling student had rounded the corner. What should I do? Home was just a block away. I took off running. Running like Antonia’s friend Satan was after me. Panicked, almost sobbing, I arrived home to the maroon stain at the curb, more stains on the sidewalk, on the front steps, on the doorknob … there was blood everywhere. The house silent, forbidding, desolate, I banged on the door. I cried. I yelled, “Mama! Arturo!”
I rang the first-floor tenants. No answer. I shuddered on the bloody stoop sensing a brutal assault, a death, my abandonment. I was thirteen years old, but I had lived a regimented life Antonia controlled and had no decision-making skills. Who could help me?
Sister Catherine Dolores, our principal—she’d know what to do. I ran back to school, tore into her office, and blurted out my frantic story. She took my hand and listened. Alarm flickered in her gray eyes.
My emergency contact list contained one name, Dr. Jorge Arguelles, a dentist in San Francisco. Antonia claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of a prominent Nicaraguan politician, the father of Dr. Arguelles. She called Jorge her brother. “Not true,” he had once whispered to me. “Antonia is mistaken.” Nevertheless he “went along” with her story.
Dr. Arguelles and his wife appeared within the hour. We swung by the house—empty, its bloodstains blurred by darkness. They took me to their fancy home in Forest Hill and fed me a snack.
I had experienced their generosity previously, their gifts of beautiful books and art materials. On this evening they conversed quietly but nervously in the kitchen. I cringed under their curious pitying stare.
We knew what Antonia was capable of. I envisioned Arturo slashed to pieces in a knife attack and Antonia behind bars. The Arguelles’ first call was to SFPD. They tracked her to SF General Emergency where she had been treated for severe cuts to the hands. She’d lost considerable blood but refused admission. Once they’d stitched her up, she’d ordered her husband to take her home.
We got back to the old Victorian just as Arturo was easing a wobbly, shrunken Antonia out of the Mercury. His face was pinched and sad. His hands shook. The tale that emerged was grisly, but true to Antonia form. The two had been battling. As usual she grabbed her always-handy butcher knife and went after him. Fleeing Antonia’s crazed fury Arturo stumbled down the narrow stairwell to the front stoop. She caught him and attacked, jabbing at his face and chest—a scenario I was familiar with. But then he did something astonishing—he snatched the big knife out of her hand. Outraged, reckless, she seized it back with both hands, blade up. Antonia and Arturo grappled. She would not surrender her knife even as it sliced deep into both upper palms, nearly severing the fingers. Arturo let go, horrified as blood spurted over the two of them.

From that day on Antonia and Arturo shared a quiet truce. He nursed her with a tenderness that astounded me and made me jealous. Antonia never regained full arrogant control of the household.
Her hands lost the strength to grasp a knife. Her desire to clutch me tight slipped away and she even allowed me to walk to and from school by myself.


Two years prior it had been my blood splattering the front stoop, my ride to the ER. Once I was past docile childhood and capable of both talking back and running fast, the fights between Antonia and me turned vicious, loud, and physical. That evening Antonia locked everyone in for the night. As usual, Arturo was confined to his tiny room, while she and I were secured within the front rooms of the flat. Our area consisted of a living room and bedroom separated by French-style glass doors.
The fight was a typical exchange of threats and demeaning insults. She’d yelled something about my being “la hija de la puta mas grande” and “una maldita, una ingrata.” Storming out of the bedroom, she threw open the multi-paned door. I was at her heel cussing furiously back when she slammed it. Caught in the threshold I reared back, my left arm shielding my face. My arm shattered a glass pane and was slashed to the bone from wrist to mid forearm. I swooned at the gaping cut, the geyser of blood. Antonia grabbed a towel, wrapped my arm, and rousted Arturo out of bed.
The closest ER was at Mary’s Help Hospital a few blocks away.
Terrified, in shock, I barely heard Antonia concoct a story of innocent youthful rambunctiousness on my part. I did not contradict.
The stitching would be done under local anesthetic. As the masked and gowned surgeon approached, I started thrashing and yowling. Angrily he called out, “Hold her down!” They tried and I fought them. Then, gentle hands on my shoulders, a soft soothing male voice. It was a young doctor—an angel, I thought. He cradled my head and stroked my greasy hair. My body stilled and the testy surgeon finished his job. I spent the night at Mary’s Help. It was nice to be in a clean gown in a clean bed in a peaceful place.


Knife fights were routine occurrences during my grammar school years. Antonia kept a rough assortment of men in the house—generally either on their way to prison or just released. I confess the distinction of having visited every state prison in California by the age of nine.
Antonia’s men hung around the rear of the house drinking and smoking. They carried weapons, as did Antonia. She had a stash of knives, hatchets, lead pipes and at least one gun. She shared her arsenal with her male associates. The cops were frequent callers to our home—generally stomping through the front door while one or two of her friends climbed over the back fence and escaped via the neighbors’ yard.
16th Street in the Mission—especially the blocks between Guerrero and South Van Ness were notorious drug- and alcohol-fueled sites of gang and personal warfare amidst a string of sleazy bars and liquor stores. Families and decent folks stayed away after sunset.
We once had a young guy staying at the house—late teens, early twenties. He’d scandalously become involved with the mother of the downstairs tenant. The tenant and his wife were professionals working long hours and the tenant’s grandmother had come to help with their kids. But she spent more time canoodling in Antonia’s kitchen with our young guest—was she in her forties, fifties? One night this young guy succumbed to the temptations of 16th Street, left the house and Grandmother’s arms.
Late that night piercing cries for help from the sidewalk yanked us out of our sleep.
Antonia and I ran to the front window. The boy was crawling up the stoop, one hand pressed to his left side, a stream of blood in his wake. Antonia flung our door open. I crept down the steps and found Grandmother in her nightgown kneeling on the cement, embracing the boy. Perhaps she had tried to drag him up the stairs. I crouched alongside not offering much help.
Meanwhile, Antonia flap-flapped down to the street in her ratty “chanclas” and surveyed it right and left. Assured that no one had followed the boy, she dashed back up to call an ambulance. She forgot about me. I watched, fascinated as Grandmother/lover tried to comfort the whimpering boy.
Something thick and ropy slid out of a jagged hole under his ribs. Grandmother squealed, “Que es eso?” Que te metieron?” She pulled on what looked like puffy rolled cotton trimmed in bright red, and he screamed. Peering closer, “Hay—tus intestinos, mijo!” She quickly started shoving it back in.
Finally, the distant wail of a siren. Then a chorus of sirens. As the ambulance screeched around the corner, she kissed and soothed the boy now passed out in her arms. Antonia tromped downstairs briskly pushing men out her door, grabbed me by the arm, hauled me inside, and turned the bolt.
Stealing one last glance, I saw Grandmother clutching at the boy while her son pulled her towards their flat.
Cops were everywhere. The son—his English clear, precise: “We know nothing, officers. I have seen the young man in the neighborhood on occasion. Never talked to him.”
Antonia in broken, but highly indignant English: “Just a boy I helped out one time. He said his name was Juan. No, he doesn’t live here.”
He was taken to SF General Emergency. Grandmother visited him in the hospital. We heard he survived and was deported. Grandmother’s son sent her back to Nicaragua. The tenants divorced and moved out after a series of nasty scenes. I watched their two small kids being packed off somewhere. They looked lost and miserable, a feeling I knew too well.

The bland faced Victorian on 15th Street thrived as a gang-related war bunker while Antonia lived and maintained health and cash. We who survived there were all battle-scarred, without mercy in our hearts. The most notorious incident—earning a shocking front page headline along with mention of our address—occurred on a Friday night in winter, on my ninth birthday.
Antonia and Arturo picked me up after school and we headed for Victoria Bakery in North Beach to buy my “special” birthday cake (actually Antonia’s favorite), rum with thick white icing. Pink green swirls and pastel rosettes wished me, “Happy Birthday, Abelina.”
Then we rushed home to tidy up the living room. Antonia had invited some of the neighborhood kids and their moms. I was dreading the whole thing and the crinkly too-big dress she’d bought me for the party.
The house, as always, was full of her men friends drinking and carousing in the kitchen and on the back porch. She ordered them to settle down and shut the kitchen door. Then she locked Arturo in his room. The party was a mild disaster. The few invited kids and I stared at one another. Nobody enjoyed the cake except Antonia. Loud rude laughter burst out of the kitchen. The parents looked at one another and hustled their kids home.
There we sat with most of a melting lopsided cake. I wrestled out of the hated dress and jumped under the covers with a book, grateful to be alone and confined to the front rooms. Antonia joined her men in the kitchen in the back of the house. I must have fallen asleep. Sirens wove through my dreams—an odd but familiar lullaby. My lullaby got wildly insistent and I jarred awake. The strident wails were converging on our street. Yet again, cops bashing open the front door. Followed by yelling, stomping up the stairs, the back porch door slamming open and shut. More thumping down the back stairs. Heavy boots running down the hall and out the back.
“Stop, you are under arrest. Stop or we’ll shoot.” I heard a crash in the backyard. Peeping out the side bedroom window overlooking the neighbors’ yard, I saw a man straddling the fence. He was quickly dragged down by half a dozen uniformed cops with drawn guns. The walls shook as they wrestled him down the hall, down the stairs, and out the entryway. I ran to the front window and recognized one of Antonia’s men, handcuffed and flung into the back seat of a squad car. Other cops stuck around talking to Antonia. There was no sign of the other men. Her English was extra poor that night, her voice deferential. “I know nothing.” “No se nada.” She shook her head. She shrugged dramatically.
It made the headlines on all three newspapers—Chronicle, Examiner, and Call-Bulletin. “Man Shoots and Kills Wife in Front of Six Children.” And the crime-scene photo—shocking, lurid. A small flat on Capp Street. A bleak, narrow, untidy room, a door framing tunnel-like darkness beyond. Two tousled beds on each side of the room. Five or six dark-haired children caught by the camera lens—a wide-eyed toddler in draggy diapers, small half-dressed bodies huddling on the cots, clinging to the walls. By the far door a girl about my age pressed against the threshold, eyes downward. On the linoleum floor, from behind the right bed frame sprawled two bare legs, one foot in a “chancla.” The edge of a flowered skirt peeked out. The rest vanished into the shadows.
The body on the floor was the mother of the children, shot to death by her estranged husband who gave his current address as our flat. After a night of drinking he had decided to “have a talk” with his wife, stopping to pick up a gun along the way. The wife became “unreasonable.” Enraged, he shot her to death in front of their children and fled back to our house. Back to 15th Street where he and Antonia were working out a plan when the cops showed up.
I was mortified—and still stunned—at school on Monday. The nuns were extra kind and patient with me that week. Antonia admitted without remorse that she had lent him her revolver: “Didn't think he would do something crazy. But that wife of his was a whore, and probably had it coming to her. Too bad about the kids.” That’s all she had to say.
Arturo, for once, expressed concerns about how his pension funds were being spent. Antonia may have listened. Fewer men came round the house. The murderer was sent to San Quentin. Antonia and I went to see him once or twice. He was released after a few years and headed to our house, but didn’t stick around. I don’t know what became of those orphaned children.
The rest of the blood stains on the plain-faced 15th Street Victorian—a victim in its own right—fell in drabs, dribbles, and smears. The house witnessed suffering—bludgeoned mice, impaled canaries, tortured chameleons, neglected dogs, cats, bunnies and turtles, aborted fetuses, abused humans. Much of it simply categorized as collateral damage in the ongoing war that was Antonia.
I have been drawn back to the house periodically. One day I encountered a young woman coming down the front stairs as I gaped at the dingy shingled facade. I blurted, “I grew up in that house” and joked about it being haunted. Neither of us laughed. She lived on the second floor—where the worst mayhem was enacted. Certain rooms felt oppressive, indeed haunted, she said. People refused to share the flat for more than a few months. She and her new roommate were trying to exorcise these brooding restless spirits, but they were tenacious. The young woman invited me up. I had last been inside that house thirty-three years previously. It could not hurt me. My body grew heavy and my gut twisted as she led me up those familiar grim stairs into the old bedroom, and to the closet that opens up into the attic. Malevolence and its unleashed anguish slammed into me. I knew that what the young women sensed was real. But I was useless to help and wished them luck as I fled down the steps and into the sun-washed street.

The house I grew up in was a two-story dour Victorian with faded tan shingles in San Francisco’s Mission District. My current home is a Hollywood-style bungalow painted a delectable orange sherbet with raspberry trim. It is a half a block from Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I was a helpless prisoner within the walls of my childhood house. I am a free individual within my home. I leave and return as I please.
The Victorian on 15th Street had seven rooms—high-ceilinged, narrow, with stained enamel walls. Its dusty, cluttered rooms had sharp, shadowy corners and lined a bleak hallway. The door to each room had two locks—a latch and a deadbolt. Doors remained shut and locked at all times.
Shabby nylon curtains drooped over the few tall, dirt-streaked windows. Delightfully, the back porch boasted the one large west-facing window in the house. I savored rare moments on that porch soaking in late afternoon sun and sky. My childhood house was bordered by cement cracked, chipped, and devoid of the tiniest green weed.
My home by the ocean is one wide, flowing, light-infused space with no staircases. The only locked doors lead to the outside world, to be opened at my discretion. My back wall is no wall but a series of windows that gaze upon and open into my garden. My front and back yards are lush with blooming succulents and flowering bushes.
Wood, shingles, and plaster do not utter words, but they remember. And if walls could talk? Might not the battered old Victorian groan and splinter into shivery fragments of misdeed and sorrow? My home by the ocean speaks softly, openly of peaceful things.

Evelyn Martinez holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of San Francisco and a Master of Nursing degree from the University of California, San Francisco. She has been a corrections officer, a theater usher, a quilt conservator for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and a family nurse practitioner. She has traveled extensively, and her favorite place in the world is Antarctica. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Charles Carter, Entropy, Rougarou, and Your Impossible Voice. Her essay “If” has been nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Click Here to Chat with an Online Therapist

by Shellie Richards

Concerned about your test score? Click here to chat with an online therapist.
My immediate concern was not my test score, but that an intrusive dialogue box would appear in the lower right-hand corner. Hello! How can I help you today? Only I wasn’t trying to return a pair of ill-fitting sandals or a T-shirt that ran small. I had just finished the test for the Asperger’s Quotient, and my score had me deep in Asperger’s territory. I was in the thick of it. But I was not concerned. I was not even surprised.
In true Asperger’s fashion, I did not want to chat online. I don’t prefer to chat. I prefer to talk about why I am even here to begin with. I want to know about the human condition, if suffering makes us who we are, whether we are alone. I want to know the why of things. Why is why I took the test. Curiosity. Suspicion. And so I answered fifty questions about my imagination, about counting things, about comfort.
I texted my results to my sister, a therapist, who, assuming I’d share, told my parents. I hadn’t planned on sharing. My family members denied my Asperger’s test result the way some deny climate change. But I kept thinking about my imagination, about counting things, about comfort.
In the gospel of Mary Magdalene, she has a vision; her spirit is floating above her lifeless body, and her mind speaks—You are leaving? I never saw you come. Her soul replies, I served you as a garment, and you did not know me. I think my imagination serves me as a garment. I do not know it, but it is a protective cloak.
For years—eighteen—I rocked. In my bed at night, I’d get on all fours, plant my head in my pillow, and rock until my long, curly hair was matted, or until I collapsed on my side, too sleepy to continue. I found this greatly comforting, but to visitors who could see from the sofa, it was disturbing.
What is wrong with her?
They asked out of curiosity or concern or neither.
I also rocked in my dad’s recliner. I would sway back and forth, taking deep breaths, meditating or unthinking. According to pediatricians, rocking is a self-comfort activity. Sometimes self-comfort is the only kind. So I would sit, firmly planted in the gold and brown tweed recliner, my naked toes barely touching the ground but enough to wear the shag carpet as thin as tissue. My mother moved the recliner around, but no matter. I made more spots while I listened to the scratch of the stereo, the diamond needle dragging across the black vinyl over the dust motes to the music. My choices included Dylan, The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones. I liked Paint It Black or Sympathy for the Devil. Sympathy sounded nice.
            My dad doesn’t remember the bare spots in the carpet. Only the rocking.
I waited until I was eleven years old to speak at school. Until then, it was only “Present,” “Please,” and “Amen, Alleluia.”
“You can be far inside, or you can be far outside,” Jon Arno Lawson writes. I was both. I walked to the beat of a different drummer. At least, that’s what my mother told me. I listened for the drumbeats for the longest time after that. Dylan. McCartney. Jagger. I never heard them. Perhaps because I was in lockstep with the drumming.
Yes, I count things. Ceiling tiles at the dentist. Slats on blinds at the home store. Windowpanes at work. Pictures on a wall at a restaurant. Or maybe the empty tables and chairs, the number of waitstaff as they scramble with pitchers of water, or the number of cooks tossing pizza dough in the air. Cars at stoplights, people in lines, noodles on my plate. Always, I count.
In my early twenties I landed a job at a local university. On my first day, my boss—the only person I was obliged to talk to—was out. I sat at my desk, mostly silent, across from the departmental mailboxes—all seventy-five of them. It was a hub of major activity; people checking mailboxes, opening letters and interdepartmental envelopes, inquiring about each other, meetings, students, and of course, introducing themselves. Beyond hello and my name, no words came out of my mouth. Only the quiet flurry of thoughts and ideas that constantly crowded my brain. After a few weeks, my coworker, who was both sweet and wise, turned to me and said, You’re gonna have to start talkingIf you don’t speak up, these people will run you over. In my life, no one had ever suggested I talk or that speaking was a means of self-defense. The idea that not speaking somehow exposed me was enough to frighten me out of my comfort zone. I began speaking, and speaking led to talking, to arguing when necessary, to speaking truth to power, to calling people out when needed—to a transparency that has been nothing short of freeing. If I’m being honest it’s a switch that I turn off and on as needed—my default setting is still wallflower. But thanks to my coworker, I have a choice that never existed before.
I recently attended a luncheon that included students, their families, and faculty. I volunteered to stand outside and direct guests to the room where the celebration was being held. I was alone and without obligation to engage in conversation with strangers. It was glorious until I realized that I was counting the people in the hallway and taking inventory of brisket and turkey club sandwiches at the luncheon. (Though consciously recognizing that I was counting did nothing to assuage my frustration over counting sandwiches that were constantly taken by guests and immediately replenished by the caterer.) A colleague, realizing I felt trapped by my social hobgoblins, came over with a student to talk about her job prospects. And though I was nervous, my burden felt lighter, less evident, and I was grateful for the instincts of my fellow human.
Sometimes the weight of silence is a lovely blanket, sometimes it is crushing, but it is always invisible.

Tonight, I will attend a large wedding reception and I will likely listen to gregarious people toasting and wishing the newlyweds well, and though I wish them all the happiness in the world, I prefer to raise my champagne in silence. It is who I am. I prefer to observe—even though at age fifty-one, I feel as though I’ve pushed through my inclination to disappear into the wall, to watch while others talk, to “unspeak.” I speak when it is important, and sometimes because I am nervous. But I speak. I have verve I didn’t have before, and even though I don’t always give voice to it, it is there, unrelenting.
People with lots of letters behind their name assure me that the Asperger’s Quotient test is the gold standard for a gateway screening. I’m not sure whether I passed or failed. I suppose it depends on whether I prefer in blending or standing out. The quiz asked a lot of questions that seemed to me spurious. What did it mean, these questions about things so natural to me? I am an introvert with a vivid imagination who likes to count things. Where was this going? 
There are bigger things, it seems to me. Are we alone? Does suffering make us who we are? What is the why?
I wonder.

Shellie Richards currently edits scientific manuscripts and teaches technical writing at Vanderbilt University. Her writing has appeared in Cream City Review, Oatmeal Magazine, Bending Genres, Bartleby Snopes (where it was awarded Story of the Month), The Chaffey Review, among others, and she has work forthcoming in the Coachella Review. Richards holds an M.A. in English from Belmont University and will complete her MFA in 2020. She lives in Nashville with her family and three scruffy dogs.