Issue 1

ceo-issue-1-cover-pageA Woman

by Rachel Noall

My mom did everything society expects a woman to do.

She graduated from a good college and met a cute boy.

Married young, a kid before 30, and one more soon after.

Hard worker, climbed the ladder and still made dinner most nights –

a go-getter for sure.

A good lady, a thoughtful friend, and supportive daughter.

I have checked off a few of these, but not all of them;

got a scholarship, played sports, graduated on time,

but I met cute girls instead of boys.

I am definitely not a year away from getting married,

and I can’t say for certain I’ll ever pop out any babies –

haven’t ruled it out though.

I work hard, three jobs, another unpaid,

a hustler for sure.

Perhaps a tad lost, but a woman all the same.

picture1

Photograph

by Sandy Croomer
In this photograph

I am fifteen and a woman

with curves I have not quite

fit into yet – hips still narrow

and waist still rib-thin,

thighs lacking the roundness

a man could grip, and at my feet,

the leaves of shucked corn,

all green and crisp, and in my hands

the yellow cob like a prize I’ve won

at the county fair. I don’t remember

the reason my mother took

this picture, though I suppose

it was to remember me in the bud,

tight like a flower plucked before bloom,

ready to spread in a mason jar of water.

This was two years before I wed,

before the first baby and the fullness

my body would know.  The shape

of my future is spelled in fat letters

written in the sky above me.

Harvest, it says, in an ink that faded

over the years, like the corn silk I braided

and used as a bookmark to hold

my place in this ripped-down world.
Love Poem

by Sandy Croomer
A child really can cry all night, her breath

wheezing and wrapped in wails, her face

the red newborn face I remember gasping

for its first brittle air. No one mentions how it hurts

to slice the lungs with oxygen, how cold and white

the light really is. I remember how I held her

and cried too, and for the first time said

everything will be all-right, determined to make it so.

But now I want to say I’m not sure if anything

can be made right, if I have the power

to do anything for the now twenty-three year old face

pressed into my chest, this no-longer-a-child,

always-a-child face wounded with a serious wrong.
This is the night I stand on the porch

while the humid blackness swells

like some dead thing in water, and the film

in my throat is hot and curdled like milk.

This must be what drowning feels like,

lungs heavy as wooden oars.
Let me start again. A child really can cry

all night and I must let her, and let the words

I want to say crystallize on my tongue and dissolve.

Because the next breath will come hard

and I have to let it. Because the next moment

will settle like a leaden weight and I have to let it.

Because my words won’t be peonies blooming,

or bluebirds slipping nimbly into flight,

and I have to let them be the hollow echo

of hawk’s hoarse cry and hope that morning

will come fast and brilliant and brave, and that love

will make some kind of difference in the end,

even though it doesn’t, right now, it doesn’t.

 

As Told by Ryan Gosling

by Kayla Haas

Crazy Stupid Love

It’s three rows back, three seats in, that’s our spot for the movie. I’m late because being late is your thing and my thing is scooting to the edge of my seat, craning neck back, and looking up at Ryan Gosling eating a pizza.

He’s folding crust, stretching out cheese into loose strings and pumping it back again into saucy lips.

“I want pizza,” I joke, and you shift beside me, uncomfortable. I’m bad at behaving.

I tear up at the end of the movie. Ryan pretends acid is being thrown in his eyes—what a family man. You can tame a player with the right color hair.

“Bitch deserved a lot worse,” you walk out of the theater. I twist red hair around index, tight.

Drive

Your room, dark, smells like cigarette smoke and your breath is musty on the back of my neck; it raises fine hair.

“Watch this,” you breathe. And press closer to my body, wrapping an arm around my waist.

And I do, I watch as Ryan sweeps Carey Mulligan into the dark corner of an elevator, leans in, kisses, presses, pushes into her, and blocks her face from the camera with a shoulder.

“Watch this,” you say, and I feel hardness against my thigh.

Ryan slams a body on the floor and stomps, stomps, stomps, stomps on a skull until I hear the cracking of egg shells and feel a twitch.

The elevator doors close shut on Carey.
Blue Valentine

We have our earbuds in and you’re huddled against me at our parent’s house. The laptop burns my thighs but it feels perfect for this movie.

Ryan and Michelle Williams can’t have an adult conversation. That’s the theme. In the end Ryan is throwing medical charts on the floor, pushing doctors, and says: “I’m a big man. I’m a big man.”

He is a big man when he punches a doctor in the face out of jealousy. He’s a big man when Michelle fights back—scratches eyes, pushes palms into his cheeks, fingers in his mouth. She’s easy to push away.

“She promised she’d stay. It’s her own fucking fault. He only wanted her,” you jerk out earbuds and lock yourself in my bathroom.

I finish the movie and cry but I don’t know why. It might be because you’re in the bathroom, throwing up out of disgust. It might be because I know I’ll lean down next to the toilet, rub your back and apologize. It might be because you will ask if I’ll ever do that to you.

I’ll promise that I’ll never leave.

 

I am the Bored-Eyed Courtesan

by Lana Bella
I am the bored eyed courtesan,

whose manicured fingers

lift a silk hand fan

resting it over my right cheek just so

as strangers sidle by.

My old dreams sleep on the other side

of the crimson panel screens,

where soft voices rumor

in intimate refrains

and lupine bird claws track through

the plush Oriental rugs.

I often used to say that I need

only to trace my tongue

across the amethyst depth of

a man’s prayers to unseat his halos,

but like a fitful flight of bird,

I always lapse halfway into

the blue bottom of his generous

absinthe,

as the ill-belongings of urgency

slick between my thighs

and primordial desire leaves

empty in flecks of his five o’clock shadow.
Out of the tall glass bay,

the sunlit boulevard carries inward

a constant hum that

breaks open like inviting yolk,

yet, I couldn’t budge my indifference

any more than a frenzied collapse could

shake me,

because you see,

here, inside this private boudoir,

this is my dance in a cordon

on painted feet,

this is my ragged air.

any more than a frenzied collapse could

shake me,

because you see,

here, inside this private boudoir,

this is my dance in a cordon

on painted feet,

this is my ragged air.

 

Heartbreak 2x

by Rachel Noall
The weather was warm, despite it being late April in Ohio. We sat on the deck, the sun still kissing the treetops.  Despite the warmth, the wrought-iron table felt cold against my elbows. I buried my head in my hands, wishing so hard for a do-over.
When I was four, I came home from preschool and proudly announced to both of my parents that I had a girlfriend. They laughed. It became a story they told at parties – to family and to strangers. Little did they know, I was speaking half-truths at a young age.
My stomach turned, the knots squeezing tight. I kept imagining that if I fell over, writhing in pain, that they might just love me again. The wishing did not help though, and I never did fall over.
I grew up in a good family. I lived in a house on a cul-de-sac. I always had pets, and a cool little brother. I only ever went to private schools. My grades were stellar. I never got into any sort of trouble, and have literally no memories of being spanked or grounded. I played all of the sports, and at sixteen was on my way towards navigating the college recruiting process. This was not supposed to happen to someone like me. I was not supposed to be someone like me.
That day in April, none of my accomplishments mattered. It all went away, splintering into a thousand tiny pieces, obliterated with a few words spoken by a confused sixteen-year-old. Suddenly, I became an object of interrogation and mistrust – what a fall from grace.
“When? Where? Why? How long?” The questions hit me hard. I sat there and trembled with honesty on that rare warm spring night. Words were thrown at me. I imagined that is how a boxer might feel, when they are getting their ass beat in the ring – that is how I felt. Everything hurt – I was ready to tap out.
I was fifteen when I had my first kiss with a girl. The tingling feeling you get, when you kiss someone, was new to me. It had never happened before. It was fall; we were surrounded by red and orange hues in the woods, and it all felt right. A week later, we had our first date. I joined her at a high school football game under the lights on a brisk Friday evening. We stood close, leaning up against a railing, holding hands in secret.
“How did this happen? Did she pressure you?” The prying questions, assumptions, the yelling and tears, the selfish way that this impacted them. What about me? I tried to articulate, but I would not get the words right until years later.
Everyone noticed.
Eventually, I was called into the office at the Catholic school I had been attending since first grade. A wonderful woman, one I am always happy to see, put her hand on my shoulder. It had been the first loving touch from an adult that I had felt in weeks. Her eyes were sincere as she asked, “You doing okay Rachel? A few people are a bit worried about you.” I choked back tears, trying to swallow the ache in my voice as I spoke; its quivering always betrays me. I was so angry with myself. Was I really that easy to read? Had I let this spill over to one of the only places where I still felt safe?
I nodded, told her, vaguely of course, that I was figuring some things out, but that I would be okay. She reluctantly let me leave her office. The pained look in her eye – I still remember it, and despite my lack of speaking to her about a single detail, she made me feel loved.
Coach Jimmy noticed. I knew he would. When you spend time with a mentor, the way I did with Jimmy, you get good at reading one another. He also noticed because I rarely missed a groundball. He abruptly stopped practice, and came strutting out to me at shortstop, a bat resting on his shoulder. Leaning in close, he put his arm around me. “Rach, what they hell is up with you?” he said candidly but with concern. I do not remember exactly how I replied, but he probably saw the crocodile tears welling up in my eyes. Hell, maybe he even knew that I had been carrying on a secret relationship with very distant, much younger, cousin. Taking his place back at home plate, he hit me a ball. I made sure not to miss.
Soon everyone forgot, because I learned to suck it up.
I did not forget, but I did push it down so far that it only came out at night under the covers and accompanied by tears.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Another sunny day, about three years later.
We sat on the splintery wooden picnic table in the park where I began to fall in love with you, little by little, years ago. The first time we came here, I had thrown my shoes off, plunging into the creek and slipping on slimy rocks. I remember splashing you – I was a terrible flirt. Only a summer before, we had come here one night after a softball game, and had made out in the dark for hours on this very table. It had been a place of lovely memories – a place where I had grown up.
You were trembling, your face smeared with snot and the red color that comes from violent crying. Somehow though, calmly, you dismantled me piece by piece.
“I can’t be with you. I can’t do this. I have an army of siblings. I can’t. I can’t tell my family.”
We had spent the last two weeks on vacation together on that lake in New York, soaking up the sun’s rays and enjoying love. Both in college, but five hundred miles apart eight months of the year, we took advantage of every moment we could spend together, even if it meant your whole family would be present.
I made sure not to stare too long when other people were around. I carefully kept my hands to myself, even when I drank too much Triple Sec late into the night. I actually talked to your Father about the incredibly conservative book he had been reading about marijuana, and pretended to agree with his views, even though I am a downright liberal.
Over a year prior, our first “dates” were spent in my basement. We watched six full seasons of Degrassi that summer, and slowly but surely, we got closer. I would put my arm around you when you began to drift into sleep. You would grab my hand when something scary happened. Eventually, your hands found their way around my waist, before we had even pressed play on the TV. Hopelessly, I fell in love with you, a girl who I thought was straight. It was not until one night in my garage, as we said goodbye for the night, that we actually kissed.
“I just can’t, Rachel. I need to say goodbye to you.”
So I stood there, looking at you sitting on that bench in the park, where we shared so many memories, and asked myself, “What had I done wrong?”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Two instances, years apart – it was never that I had done something wrong. It was that I was wrong. I was the thing that was wrong.  A component of me, hard-wired; a thing I proclaimed proudly at age four led me down roads that I did not yet have the tools to navigate.
In my chest, my heart beats on, mended by experience, perhaps by my own maturity and time away from the hurt. It still broke though, my heart, more than once, and you cannot ever forget what that feels like – when it is you that is “wrong,” when it is you that is not enough

 

Saddle Brown and Fireflies

By Lana Bella
The saddle brown

warms your heart but

miserable in your eyes.

Slim wrists give shadows

on an old farmstead,

like fluted sunlight grew

gaunt and pale over

dense treetops.

Where the neighing

ekes out from aviary dark,

you slip with the mares

into their diurnal habit,

rippled with the curiosity

of hay freshness

and moon-washed hills.

Fingertips rise like crescent,

ever moving, ever changing,

marking at the points

where you catch fireflies

between palms.

saddle-brown
Deleting Henry

by Iris Schwartz – Fiction
It was the least sexy sentence she’d ever heard: “Hold yourself open for me.”
Was he a low-tech gynecologist? (Imagined advertisement: Cut-Rate Gyno: No speculums. No need! Just hold yourself open.)
Mindi snickered. Henry was her fiancé, and just this week he’d taken to uttering that horrible combination of words. He requested top ninety percent of the time, and looked past her face the entire three minutes he was inside her─as if expecting foxier babes to cruise through the bedroom.
As if a prettier woman would put up with his jackrabbit fucks. Messy lip-locks. Perfunctory foreplay.
Why did Mindi? She’d met Henry, a cable TV repairman, at a “Curvelicious” singles dance. Droves of horny men, more often than not fat-fetishistic, scouting out “large and lovely ladies.”
For weeks after they met, nothing but compliments, Broadway plays and musicals, dinners at three-to-four-dollar-sign restaurants. Took a little time for Mindi to realize they’d wound down to lunch or a snack at nondescript diners, then yawn-worthy sex at his place. Followed by Henry handing her two twenties for a cab home.
Mindi wanted a man to pay attention to her. Listen to her problems. Take her places. Make love to her with ingenuity and stamina. Not care if she put on weight. Hmmm. One out of five.
“Hey, Minds! Ya comin’ out?”
Mindi pictured herself about to exit his apartment, stopping to say, “Henry, hold your door open for me.”
“Minds!” Henry couldn’t sleep until he “got relief.”

How was he her fiancé? Had they set a date? Had he given her a ring? Hell, he hadn’t given her an orgasm in two weeks! She remembered the day, two Saturdays ago. He’d made no mention of her purple negligee, or her black-and-lavender feather boa─new, expensive purchases. He hadn’t even bothered to take them off, just pushed material out of the way to poke at her breasts and vagina.
“I’ll be right there.”

Mindi took her toothbrush from Henry’s medicine cabinet. She brushed her teeth, then inspected the dental tool. It was a foldable, flimsy item Henry had bought for her. She tossed the toothbrush into his garbage bin.
Mindi grabbed her clothes from the back of the bathroom door, got dressed, and walked out of the bathroom.
The TV was on in his bedroom. Her fiancé’s shriveled penis spilled out of his shorts. Dried semen appeared on his stomach. Hog-like snorts erupted from his distended mouth.
She snapped a photo with her I-phone.
“Minds?” Henry rubbed his eyes and stared up at her in the unwelcome light.
Mindi left the apartment without his cab money. Held the door open for herself. Pressed the button for the elevator. She’d probably trash the photo.

 

mermaids

Mermaids

by Marina Montenegro
From the lifeguard stand,

the whistle blows,
warning of something spotted

swimming in the waters.
The beach goers retreat

to pull their children away.

– the hunt begins.
In the ocean,

my fin glimmers as

turquoise and violet scales

catch the summer sun’s light.
“Evil!” they shout. “Shark!”

I turn to see where they point

but I am alone in the water.
And when I’m gone,

They’ll declare the world safe

while continuing to say

mermaids do not exist.
To All the Men My Mother has Loved

by Lauren Bush
I picked up a book of poetry

from my mother’s nightstand,

and the first poem was underlined–

your name written

on the side with a date reaching

through the years to a time

before I was a glimmer

in her eye. The dried flower

stuck in the yellowed pages

dropped to the floor,

and when I picked it up,

it crumbled in my hand.

Venus Trines at Midnight,

a batch of lovestock: apologies

and letters-to-my-lovers,

extended wailings of the inamorata.

On her fifteenth birthday

she cracked the spine

and syruplanguage spilled out–

coating her in mellowed honey–

all you flies came running headfirst

toward her young embrace.

The honey turned to amber,

sealing you up and like a mosquito

from time gone by

you sit frozen to be analyzed,

studied, and probed.

You deserve to be forgotten

yet I will learn how you ground her down

to the fine powdered

petal on the floor.

 

On disassociation as adaptation for survival: ruination by chronic pain

by Sarah Bingham – Nonfiction
I ponder the role of the epiglottis as I lie on my back. Such a regal-sounding word for a flap of skin that serves a purpose unknown to me. At least my epiglottis does not hurt. It may be the only body part that sends no pain signals today.
I ponder my co-workers who leave work to head to kids’ soccer games, the grocery store, choir practice, yoga class, mountain biking, or mounds of laundry and sinks full of dishes.
I leave work and go to medical appointments, treatments, and the drug store where I have a first name relationship with every pharmacist, pharmacy technician, and store employee who helps out in the pharmacy when the line begins to snake.
I have so many diagnoses I must keep a list of them in my car, in my office, and in my purse, along with pages filled with daily medications, allergies, and phone numbers for doctors. One diagnosis is called interstitial cystitis. You have probably never heard of it. Look it up. It sucks.
I ponder the insanity of healing pain with pain:
–injections to my pelvic floor muscles and vulvar glands, or my “lady parts” as a friend likes to say because the words “vagina” and “vulva” make her pulse pound and neck sweat when she thinks about anyone enduring needles in such areas
–pelvic floor physical therapy with gloves and wands and cotton swabs and draped sheets to give the illusion of privacy in a situation when it is abundantly clear to both people in the room that there is no way to pretend that one of you is not literally inside the other
–deep tissue massage that left purple bruises, some flowering outward like spring tulips past their prime, others spearing deeper like permanently inked fingerprints
–fascial stretch therapy that made me pray for forgiveness for transgressions I never even contemplated, tears dropping from my lashes with every agonizing hip rotation
–capsaicin cream, derived from chili peppers, that burns my vulvar skin three nights a week as if being roasted over a spit and that I dream of throwing away in the middle of the night, suffocating it under the residue of the gluten-free meals I must now also eat, having even the comfort of bread being taken from me
I am on my back for all or part of these interventions, always on the receiving end of probing, projections, prescriptions, or pain. (I left the care providers trading in pomposity and deal strictly with the pleasant ones now.)
What to do with this body I have, not the one that I wanted?
Where is the person I used to be?
Is this me?
During a night with friends some years ago, a board game prompted us to reveal what creature we would want to be, if not human. At the time, I wanted to be a house cat, but I have now learned that they, too, can get interstitial cystitis so I have changed my wish.
I want to be a weevil, a maize weevil specifically, living on a farm free of pesticides. I want to be snugly ensconced in my individual corn kernel with no requirements other than to eat and sleep, eventually gnawing my way out toward the sunlight.
An odd wish, but one I contemplate often while on my back, staring at the always-painted-white ceilings.
A weevil.
A weevil, indeed.

 

The Problem With Family Photographs is That None of Them Feel Real

by Lauren Bush
In my favorite photograph of my mother

she is half blurry with motion.

The sun shines on her golden hair

and she’s turning to the man behind the camera

with a half-grin full of midday booze and laughter.

I like to think nothing troubles this version of my mother.

She’s in her early twenties and her days are nothing

but Oceanside living and immortality.

She’s not bogged down by rent

and addicted to cocaine.

The mother in the photograph was not

so mind-numbingly sad

she couldn’t get out of bed

or clean the house. This mother,

her energy was infectious.

By the time she was mine

she had become so faded

that she and the woman in the photograph

had no resemblance to one another.

Now she’s gone static, never looking up,

pretending like nothing has gone wrong.

There’s a commonality in my household:

capture moments and never talk,

look, or think of them again.

 

The Importance of Spaghetti

by Hannah Johnson – Fiction
If someone asked her she would say yes, she was happy. She finally had a place to live and just yesterday she finally unloaded the last ripped gym bag doubling as luggage from her car. She was no longer scared any time she left the house that someone would steal or break into her car and take with them her last shred of dignity and all of her belongings.

And if that happened, her aunt would tell her that has no choice but to move back home. For Nora, home was not an option. She had a new home, even if she was just renting out an apartment above a stranger’s garage. It wasn’t perfect, but it was finally an actual mattress instead the front seat of her car titled back the half-an-inch it would budge. She didn’t have much but she stuffed every facet of her car completely full so her aunt would know it was final and permanent; she was not going back to Oregon.

Nora still sometimes woke up startled and confused at her new residence in Georgia. Even though she’d been at her new place for a couple months now, every once in awhile she would wake up and have to steady her rushing and pained heart at the panic of unfamiliarity. It happened every single night she slept in her car but mostly because a night guard would tap his flashlight on her window to tell her she couldn’t sleep there.

It was her first time having to practically live out of her car but it wasn’t her first time knowing she wasn’t welcome. When she was little and was sent to live with her aunt and uncle after her single mother died, her aunt made her a bed on the couch. It wasn’t even a nice couch; Nora had to share it with her “cousins,” which were five cats.

But this – this beautiful room that her landlord Grace fixed up nicely with fresh sheets and a stocked bathroom and fridge made Nora uncomfortable. Grace said it was just because that’s how they do it in the south and a Yankee like Nora would have to just learn to adjust.

Nora, a twenty-three-year-old woman, finally had a place of her own. It was the first time in her entire life. No more roommates. No more sleeping on couches – aunts or otherwise. No more of anything except what Nora wanted.

And it felt good.

She would never admit it to his face, but she liked Adam. She really liked Adam. And he was sitting right across the table from her, eating a meal she made. No more takeout, no more frozen or instant meals. She had a place to live, a job, and this guy that seemed entranced by her.

And who wouldn’t be? Nora – despite her knowing how damaged she was emotionally and mentally – knew she was a catch. She was beautiful and she knew it, even if it was in a subtle way. But she was broken. The last guy that sat across the table from her – eating a meal he made because he said for a woman he was surprised she didn’t know her way around a kitchen – destroyed her.

Nora was curvier now than she was then. She knew she put on weight because of him—the last guy. Every meal they ate was flooded with under-the-breath comments towards her like, “you’re really going back for seconds?” or “no dessert for you, pig, haven’t you had enough?” And after being told to put the fork down every day for over a year, Nora actually gained weight from all the eating she did when she was alone.

For a while, once she finally kicked him out of her life, she tried everything she could to lose the weight. She tried dieting, working out, decreasing her portions, everything. It took a long time – and little to no physical progress – for Nora to realize she was only losing weight to please whatever guy showed up next. And now, frankly, she loved her curves.

And Adam watched her as she cut her spaghetti until they were no longer long and perfectly cooked noodles but tiny pieces of perfectly cooked noodles; she made them.

“Do you like your job?”

She slurped a longer piece that she missed and the sauce splashed her chin. “It pays the bills.”

Smiling, Adam moved to wipe the marinara off her chin, but Nora shifted and wiped it off herself.

“I don’t have the luxury of liking my job, Adam. I never really have.” Nora took a large bite, bits of pasta spilling out over her mouth. She didn’t care about eating lady-like or dabbing her mouth or crossing her legs. This was the best meal she had had in a while.

“What does that mean?” Adam’s fork hovered over his food, not because he wasn’t hungry but because he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

“It means,” she swallowed. “That I cannot afford to wait for a job that I like. It took me over a month just to get this job and the only reason why I accepted it was because if I went another week without a job, I would have to donate blood or eggs or my body or anything I had left just to afford gas to get me to the next state. So yeah, my job is fine. It pays the bills. No, I don’t love it but this is the first home-cooked meal I’ve had in ages that wasn’t previously a powder. But actual food I had the money and energy to cook, so it’ll do just fine. “

Nora returned to shoveling the food into her mouth as if he had only asked her about the weather. Because to her this was only weather. To her, there was nothing concerning about anything she said because this was her life. She was only just getting by for so long that now that she had an actual job and made actual money, she didn’t care what it was. This wasn’t a storm she was drowning in but merely a daily northwest sprinkle. And this was the life she chose. No one forced her to pack up her car to move across the country to a tiny town where she had no prospects, she chose to. And she was doing just fine.

Adam cleared his throat. “This spaghetti is delicious, by the way—”

“Damn right it is,” she said with her mouth full. “I’m a great cook.”

“—But I think you should like what you do.”

Nora scoffed. “Easy for you to say, you’re a cop. You knew what you wanted to do. During my interview I had to pretend that all I’ve ever wanted to do in life is file.”

“I’m surprised,” Adam said, taking a bite. “You’re telling me you didn’t always dream of being a file clerk?”

Reaching over for the garlic bread, Nora smiled. Adam was charming. He made her smile and not in a way she was used to. Ever since her mother died Nora became complacent with faking smiles when necessary. Over time her fake, tiny smile became the real thing. But Adam made her smile a real smile. And she wasn’t sure how she felt about it yet.

“You should smile more often, Nora,” Adam continued. “You have a pretty smile.”

And Nora’s smile faded immediately. “So if I didn’t have a pretty smile I shouldn’t smile at all?”

Adam laughed and forked the rest of his spaghetti into his mouth. Although Nora wasn’t laughing – or smiling – anymore, his smile remained as if he didn’t even hear her remark. He stood and took her empty, cleaned off plate. “Would you like some more? Honestly, I haven’t had spaghetti this good since my mom’s.” Nora nodded and when he returned with her refilled plate, he brought a bottle of wine with him. “And, by the way, I think you would have a beautiful smile even if all your teeth had rotted out and all you had were gums.”

“Is that supposed to be sweet?” Nora began cutting her spaghetti again.

Adam grinned. “Why? Do you think I’m sweet?”

Nora rolled her eyes.

“You’re right, you’re right, that was cheesy.” He said, munching on garlic bread. “You know what I’ve been wondering all night?”

Nora’s heart started to pound and she concentrated on her spaghetti. The whole day leading up to this night had been a whirlwind of emotions for Nora. Every part of her wanted to call him up and tell him not to bother coming over. She hadn’t been on a date in years. And even if she told herself over and over again that they were just two friends having dinner, she was attracted to Adam in a way she had never been attracted to someone before. This feeling was new and she wasn’t sure if she liked it yet.  She didn’t have to act on any feeling at all just because it was new and exciting.

Her eyes darted to the wine bottle he brought over. As much as she was anticipating the night, begging herself to ward off any familiar signs of an anxiety attack, she wondered what exactly he was expecting.

The last boyfriend she had became an expert in pushing her buttons. He would use classic lines like, “don’t you love me?” whenever she wasn’t in the mood. He would guilt her until she gave in, and every single piece she gave him, a piece double that size would die inside her. He expected every last piece of her until she had nothing left.

Nora didn’t realize how long she had been staring wide-eyed at the wine bottle until Adam spoke up. “I’ve been wondering why you cut your spaghetti into such tiny pieces.”

Blinking, Nora sat up straighter and shook her head. “It gives the illusion that I’m eating more than I really am.”

“There’s something else I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

Her body tensed and she put her fork down. “Adam, I’m not ready—”

“Can I have the recipe for this spaghetti?”

“—for anything.” Her brain stopped and for a second she felt really stupid. A part of her wanted to apologize to him for assuming what he wanted but then she stopped herself. Either way, she thought, at least he knows where I stand.

Adam nodded in recognition. “I totally get that. Can I still get the recipe though?” After a few moments of Nora staring at him quizzically, he laughed lightly. “It’s going to sound weird but I swear this tastes exactly like the spaghetti my mom used to make and I haven’t had it in years.”

“You know, Adam,” Nora stood, taking her plate and adding it back into the pot for leftovers. She had made enough to last her for a week and she couldn’t wait. Perry was such a small town that the waitress at the diner was starting to recognize Nora since she went in every day, and it kind of freaked her out. “The spaghetti is just pasta and Prego. I added a couple spices but there’s not secret or special recipe or anything.”

Adam’s smile faded as if she had just told him his dog died. He turned away from her and started playing with one of the napkins. Nora sighed quietly. She could tell he was upset but she had never been good at the whole consoling thing.

When her mom died, her aunt – her mom’s sister – pretended to be distraught in public, saying if only they had reconciled beforehand then she wouldn’t feel so bad, as if Nora felt less terrible because her and her mom were so close. Whatever sympathy strangers had left over for Nora felt fake, just simple pats on the cheek or taps on the hands. After a couple of months, Nora retracted from any form of physical contact from strangers and stared deadpan at anyone who expressed condolences while her aunt would wipe fake tears on tiny paper-thin tissues she carried at all times.

Very quickly, Nora learned how to deal with her own problems and emotions without the help of any levels of support. So to see Adam visibly upset made Nora wildly uncomfortable and if it weren’t her place, she would leave. She considered asking him to leave and battled with herself on whether or not it was rude to ask an upset guest to leave or if it didn’t matter because it was her place anyways.

“You know,” Adam started quietly. “I’ve never been able to figure out her recipe.”

Nora sat back down, shifting awkwardly. “Why don’t you just ask her?”

One corner of Adam’s mouth pulled up in the makings of a smile but he forced it away. “We aren’t exactly on good terms.”

At first Nora didn’t understand how anyone couldn’t be close with their mother – she had been best friends with hers – but then she thought of her aunt. Now that she had a choice, Nora wanted nothing to do with the woman who technically raised her and would be perfectly happy never speaking with her again.

Even though it was for a short time, Nora loved her relationship with her mother. She didn’t understand it at the time of course; at the time it was as natural as waking up. At seven years old she didn’t have to consciously force herself to appreciate the relationship she had with her favorite person she ever knew. There wasn’t a single inch of her that even thought it would be possible to live any other way.

That was why when her ex-boyfriend forced his own mother on her all Nora wanted was her own mother back. No matter how nice his mother was and no matter how many home-cooked dinners she made or mani-pedis she paid for, she wasn’t Nora’s mom.

“When we get married, she’ll be your mother now. You can call her mom and you can call her when you’re upset or want to get lunch or anything you want because you’ll have a mother again,” he would say. “We’ll be your family now.”

But Nora didn’t want his family. Who said she wanted a family at all, let alone his family? His family was crazy – crazier than normal, she swore. But she didn’t want that family. Agreeing to even want someone else’s family made her physically sick. Because it made it even harder to leave him when she needed.

When she left her ex, he threatened to hurt himself or worse. And his mother, the one who patted her hand in greeting instead of hugged her; the one who would comment on Nora’s weight not with her words but with her judgmental eyes; the one who never referred to Nora by her name only by bitter pronouns; yelled, screamed, and slapped Nora when Nora dropped by to pick up her things.

Even now, Nora rarely uses the word abuse. She knows what it was, no amount of word-usage changes what happens to her. But whenever people learn that she was in an abusive relationship, they look at her differently. And Nora’s been through that enough.

With her mom, her upbringing, and then her personal decision to drive across the country to a state as far away from people she knew, she got enough weird looks from people. The last thing she wanted was to add, “I survived an abusive relationship,” because the looks would turn to apologies and ignoring of the word, “survive.” People only ever heard the word “abuse” and would treat Nora as if it was her choice to remain in said relationship. As if it was a choice to give in to the fear that controlled every cell of her being and every breath that rushed out of her every time he raised as a threat.

And now Adam was sitting here, not knowing anything about her past or anything about who she used to be – that cowering doormat that she was – and every tiny look he gave her was full of genuine curiosity and kindness.

“And the spaghetti?” Nora asked, finally.

“Well,” he sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “I guess I was just being nostalgic. I haven’t eaten homemade spaghetti in a while and it just reminded me of my mom. It’s weird finding out that this thing you’ve romanticized your whole life isn’t special at all.”

Before she could even stop herself, Nora was reaching over the table and touching his hand. Her hand was sweating from clenching her nerves all day but he didn’t pull away. He smiled at her and gave her hand a slight squeeze. He cleared his throat and sat up more. “Tell me about yourself.”

Nora released his hand and sat back. She hated the broadness of that question and how loaded it was. She felt like there was always a wrong answer to that question. Her lips pressed tightly together as if nothing he said could get her to even breathe a word to him.

He sensed her mood change and shook his head. “Nora, you’re acting like you’re the only one with trust issues.”

When she was little, her mom could sense a mood shift before Nora even knew it had shifted. Before Nora would even think about crying her mom was there to comfort her. And for seven short years, someone read and understood Nora. And in a flash the love and understanding was gone.

Adam was the first person since then that could read Nora and she crossed her arms, trying to ward off any possible signs she could be giving him. She didn’t want to be read. She wanted her emotions and reactions to remain her own, and she was furious that she let herself fall for his charm. As quickly as she had let her guard down, Nora shot it back up.

Adam was a stranger, she kept repeating in her head. He didn’t know her.

“You know, Nora, if you keep acting like you want to be alone that’s all you’ll ever be. You’ll only be alone.” Adam stood. “You’ll never let anyone in and no one will be able to trust you either.”

“Good,” Nora blurted out. “That’s exactly what I want.”

He stared at her for several dreadfully silent moments. Nora stared back at him. She didn’t feel like she owed him anything. Just because he shared with her his story didn’t mean she had to share hers.

And yet, she felt a twinge of guilt. And she hated it. The first time she’s been alone with a guy in years and she felt like she could hurl from these new feelings fighting against everything she made herself to be. She was used to pushing people away. She was used to being alone. There was nothing wrong with being alone. But now she wanted Adam to know there was a part of her that wanted him to really know her. But after everything, it was hard to trust anything she was feeling.

A man with a gun took her mom from Nora, along with the love and understanding her mom gave freely. Now this man, standing in front of her silently and patiently, was giving Nora a different kind of understanding by choice, even though Nora felt she hadn’t given him a reason to.

“That’s okay,” Adam finally said. “Whenever you decide that you’re ready for a friend, I’ll be here.” He walked to the door then paused and looked over his shoulder. “And just letting you know, your spaghetti was way better than my mom’s. It’s the kind I’ll be thinking about for the years to come and will remember with fondness the next time I eat someone else’s spaghetti.”

His answer took Nora aback. She had been quiet, reserved, and even rude. And still this guy was nice to her. Nora realized she could be herself – her pushy, rude, quiet self – with someone and they would still not mind spending time with her. She didn’t have to change anymore. She could be the same Nora she had been, the Nora her challenges had turned her into, without giving away pieces of herself.

“Adam, it’s only pasta.”

He smiled and opened the door. “No, Nora, it wasn’t just the pasta.” And he left.

Nora sat there by herself, smiling to herself, a new smile. A smile just for her, not anyone else. It was one that came from deep within and made her cheeks feel warm. She stared at the door and wondered if she would ever see Adam again.

When she realized she would be okay with being by herself but that she truly wanted him in her life, Nora decided she would call him tomorrow. Or maybe the day after that. With the smile still on her face, Nora walked over to her pot of spaghetti and dished some out into a Tupperware container to give to Adam – if she didn’t eat it all herself.

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