Prepare Yourself


The raviolis were enormous, their bulges gestational. Angie wanted to make a joke about them, but as far as she could tell, glancing around the living room at the other women, she was alone in her observation. Even Wallace was straight-faced, stuffing bites into her mouth. This evening they were at Wallace’s Stanford friend Chloe’s house. The hostess chooses the book, and Chloe had chosen an Elena Ferrante novel, The Days of Abandonment: hence the Italian-themed ravioli.

These private school mothers got so competitive about the food. Sunny, the last one to host, made Korean sushi from scratch. Tonight, woman after woman had arrived bearing extravagant desserts. One brought a chocolate flourless cake from Tartine, the expensive bakery in the Mission where lines always snake down the block.

“Do you have a gravy boat?” It was the kind of book club where people posed such questions. In other words, it was way too fancy for Angie, who, on her copyeditor’s salary would never blow $65 on a gluten-free cake.

Artwork by Elizabeth Wood

Angie found many of the women annoying, particularly Meredith, the pregnant one, who, upon arrival, said, “I confess, I didn’t make it past page 40. But I wanted to see all of you!” laughed as though she’d said something clever, and popped melon wrapped in prosciutto into her mouth.

``Do you have a gravy boat?``

But Wallace she liked. Wallace, who was six feet tall and—unlike the rest of these women, who presented their lavish desserts and ate only a spoonful—had heft to her. Angie had met her in the self-defense class she’d started taking a few months back. It wasn’t a one-time, learn how to go-for-the-groin-then-run kind of class. She attended three evenings a week. One class they might practice defending against an attacker with a knife; the next class, an attacker with a bat; the next class, an attacker with a pistol. Their instructor, Kane, even took them out to his car once to practice going up against an attacker who pops up unexpectedly from the back seat.

When it was Wallace’s turn, even though she’d witnessed Kane pop up behind five women prior to her, she froze in place; her long, freckled hands clutched the steering wheel. She emerged from the front seat sweaty and shaking.

Angie had been intrigued by Wallace for weeks. She was so attentive, mirroring Kane’s self-defense moves as he demonstrated them, planting her feet, making T-crosses with her braced arms. And tough. Whenever they were paired together, Angie always went home with painful bruises, which Kane applauded. The techniques they were learning would be useless in real life if they were afraid of physical combat.

That night in the parking lot was the first time Angie saw Wallace rattled. It emboldened Angie to ask, afterwards, if Wallace wanted to get a quick drink.

As was typical for their book club, nearly an hour ticked by before any real discussion began. Chloe started by reading a short passage, the scene in which the protagonist is trying to have sex with her musician neighbor, who can’t get it up.

Sunny said after, “I’m just going to say it. This book disgusted me. The language is so vulgar. And the sex is just vile.”

Meredith said, “Damn. I stopped reading too soon!” and laughed again. Most of the other women laughed with her.

As the sun set, Chloe got up and lit several brown pillar candles, but Meredith said, “No offense, that scent is turning my stomach. You know how it goes. They make their demands before they’re even born.” She rubbed her hard belly and smiled.

This was Meredith’s fourth child, and all three of the others attended the same expensive private school as Wallace’s and the other women’s kids. Angie had looked the school up online, and when she saw the tuition, she was surprised by her anger. Meredith’s kids had made an appearance at the first book club Angie attended, the one Meredith hosted. The oldest one, a girl of about thirteen, took the wine bottle from Angie’s hands and said, sarcastically, “What a cute label.” In contrast, when Angie woke too depressed to get out of bed, much less make breakfast, her daughter, Alice, eight, made breakfast for herself and Angie both—strange concoctions like last weekend’s “salad” of yogurt, grapes, and spinach.

“I thought I was going to have a fucking heart attack,” Wallace said that night after the intruder in the car exercise, swirling her glass of straight-up rye.

Angie wondered. That class had been less traumatic than most, almost silly. Kane startled the way a jack-in-a-box does, cranked and then bursting through its lid. When it was her turn in the front seat, Angie fought the urge to giggle. (The night they practiced fending off an attacker with a knife, Angie had to drink two scotches to go to bed, and even then, stared at the ceiling, on high alert, hearing noises everywhere. That night she had crossed her battered arms over her chest in the way Kane demonstrated as safest for taking cuts: no arteries exposed). Angie wanted to ask what freaked Wallace out—what had “triggered” her, to use that awful group-therapy word. But she suppressed the question. Any woman motivated to learn self-defense three evenings a week, ninety minutes a session, had her reasons, and unless Wallace was a spiller, like Angie’s sniffly sister Lynette, she probably didn’t feel like sharing them.

``Any woman motivated to learn self-defense three evenings a week, ninety minutes a session, had her reasons. . .``

Chloe blew out the candles: the yellow spots of their reflection disappeared from the eighteen-foot glass pocket door behind her. When Angie had arrived, Chloe demonstrated how the door slid all the way into the wall. They’d stood on her redwood deck, admiring Chloe’s succulents. One flower bed was full of herbs, labels indicating mint, parsley, French thyme, Italian thyme. Chloe snipped stalks of basil for her tomato and mozzarella salad. The hot tub, also redwood, was sheathed by silver vinyl. Chloe was friendly—not a bossy narcissist like Meredith—but nonetheless Angie had wanted to snatch her kitchen shears and puncture that vinyl covering. Stab, stab, stab, like Kane with his plastic knife.

Sometimes Angie fantasized about which book she would assign the club, should she ever host: something post-Apocalyptic and violent, where the capitalists are rounded up and cower, wringing their hands.

Wallace said now what Angie had privately thought. “To me, it seemed true to life.”

“Which part?” Chloe asked.

“All of it,” Wallace said. “Her husband cheating on her with a much younger woman. His abandoning her for the much younger woman. Her anger. Her fear. Her paranoia. The grim sex, too.”

A couple of the women, including Meredith, looked at Wallace with pity.

Meredith said, “I felt embarrassed for her. I mean, pick yourself back up and move on.”

Angie spoke then. “What do you know about that?”

Meredith shifted uncomfortably. Her hand went to her belly again, like checking a pocket to make sure what was deposited there hadn’t been lost.

Angie said, “I thought you said you didn’t read it.”

Meredith cleared her throat. “I read enough.”

When Wallace had invited her to the book club, Angie had initially declined.

They’d been having a drink again after class. A new woman had come to that night’s class, and when she’d been paired with Wallace during an exercise, she’d asked Wallace to “go easy” on her. The woman had been wearing expensive-looking yoga pants and a burgundy velvet leotard. Wallace had not gone easy on her. The woman screamed when Wallace struck her in the forearm with the hard edge of her hand. When she complained that she was going to have bruises, Wallace laughed at her, and Kane, who normally preached that they needed to face their worst fears, took the leotard-woman gently by the arm and told her that perhaps the Saturday morning class would be more her pace.

When Angie had said, “I’d feel like a party crasher,” Wallace ignored her, too. She’d written down the month’s title and the hostess’s address, put her hand on Angie’s and said, “One tip: cover your bruises. Those bitches are not going to understand.”

Now, Angie pulled at the cuffs of her long-sleeved shirt, studying Meredith. Narrowing one’s eyes, Kane told them once, improves focus. He wanted to equip them not merely to fend off blows, but to spot the attack coming in advance. “Forewarned is forearmed,” he’d said, as if he’d invented the phrase.

Meredith’s face—pretty but squashed, with bulbous, light blue eyes—reminded Angie of the Himalayan cat Jim had bought her as a wedding present. She used to comb its silky fur with a special brush.  

Another life.

From the therapy sessions she’d done at the university, discounted because conducted by a PhD student fulfilling her required hours to get her license, and from the PTSD recovery group she’d attended before switching to self-defense, Angie knew this truth: part of the reason she disliked Meredith was because she reminded Angie of her former self. Smug, presenting her failings (not having read the month’s book pick) as if they were charming, Meredith imagined herself to be safe. Angie wanted to get in Meredith’s face the way Kane sometimes did in class, and snarl, “Prepare yourself.” She wanted to present her forearms to Meredith, and watch her eyes widen as she read all they had to say.

Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared in Hobart, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Superstition Review, Threadcount, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is the fiction editor of Atticus Review and lives in Tucson, Arizona. 

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and is forthcoming in 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, Word Riot, and many other journals.

Elizabeth Dejure Wood is an illustrator and artist living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The Girl with Colitis Goes By

Illustration by Alice Carmen
Illustrations by Alice Carmen
Illustrations by Alice Carmen

In the morning you make black coffee, eat a plain piece of toast, and stare out the kitchen window. From your vantage point, you can see through the window of the neighbors’ house next-door. They’re having breakfast too. You watch them closely, as if you’re in a Hitchcock movie. (Like the one about a man convinced his neighbor is up to no good). You are Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair. Only you have no wheelchair, no binoculars, and no Grace Kelly. Still, you stare out the window looking for clues.

Clue #1: The woman reads a newspaper and wipes her nose on her sleeve.

Clue #2: The man drinks a glass of orange juice and eats bacon off the woman’s plate.

Clue #3: The little girl looks up from her cereal bowl and waves at you.

The little girl waves, almost frantically, as if she is trying to tell you something. The woman looks up from her paper and meets your eyes—but her face says, if only I had put up curtains.

She is your ex-wife.

While it’s hard for you to tell the story, you stick to the script, like an actor rehearsing Chekhov. Every detail matters, and you do not change a thing.

The woman, Beth, left you four months and three days ago, for the man, Curtis: a professional bowler from Australia. Curtis was your once pathetically single neighbor (you both agreed on this). You and Beth would run into him sometimes, coming and going with groceries (or what may as well have been bowling balls in bags). You exchanged polite “hello’s,” but you tried never to engage. You said he seemed like the kind of guy who might talk your ear off until you were forced to lie about where you needed to be. Beth said there was a Neanderthal quality about him, like he had been living alone for too long, and had lost all sense of appropriateness and decorum. Only one of you was right, considering Beth was clearly clubbed and dragged like chattel to live in Curtis’s cave.

When your friends, Mark and Carol, invite you out for drinks one night, and ask “What happened?” in unison, you tell them the same thing you tell everyone who asks: “I thought we were happy.” It’s the most you can say without your voice rising or cracking. You calmly pull from your Heineken bottle and think, come on, keep your shit together. You nibble on fried calamari, explaining that, at first, you thought she was joking. You leave out the part when she yelled, “Jesus, Nick, when are you going to grow the fuck up?” Or the part where she says, “You are so emotionally disconnected, it breaks my heart.” Or the last message she left in a soft but resigned voice: “I love you. But you really don’t know a damn thing about my life. And you never even thought to ask.”

You ask Mark and Carol if they think Beth is crazy. Like, certifiably crazy. They nod, politely looking away at a police chase on the flatscreen TV above the bar. You tell them you’re always getting women wrong.

“Always wrong…” you mumble to yourself above the din of sirens. You grab a cocktail napkin, dab at your eyes, and to stop those pesky ducts you repeat your usual mantra: Fuck her. Fuck her. FUCK HER.

The first thing your new therapist Vicki tells you is that you didn’t do anything wrong. She tells you it just comes down to communication and people don’t always communicate what they want. “It’s the number one reason most relationships fail,” she says, like she’s the keynote speaker at a conference.

You mention how much you hate Brad Pitt. When she asks why, you tell her you think he’s always trying too hard. “At what?” she asks, and you tell her, “AT EVERYTHING!” She says maybe, just maybe, he reminds you of yourself. She says sometimes what we dislike in other people is exactly what we dislike in ourselves.

Illustration by Alice Carmen

As she tells you this, you think to yourself, Vicki is surprisingly sexy. I want Vicki. You picture her bent over her pristine white couch as you pleasure her from behind. You picture her begging you not to stop as she calls out your name.

When she tells you your time is up, you don’t move. Instead, you begin to sob uncontrollably. In a shrill, almost girlishly high voice, you tell Vicki it kills you to watch Curtis eating breakfast and laughing and smiling with your wife and daughter while you watch like it’s a reality TV show. If only there was a remote for you to change the channel. Vicky wants to know why you insist on watching them in the first place. Vicki wants to know why you wouldn’t just change the channel, or better yet, smash the TV with your bare hands. “Metaphorically speaking, of course.” She holds the door open for you, puts her hand on your shoulder. For a moment you think there is an opening here. It closes quickly, when Vicki tells you she thinks it would be best if you came back two, maybe even three times a week.

When you first met Beth she was making jewelry in a tiny shop just off Mulberry Street on the Lower East Side. On the way to your favorite bakery one weekend, you got up the courage to say hello. Her easy smile, slight build, and auburn hair drew you in. At dinner that night, you talked about war, and music, and the hipsters you both mistook for homeless people, and Fellini movies, and about muses, and how there aren’t any anymore. She said it was because women were relegated to not being artists back then, and had to inspire, instead. You liked that she was an artist. You found that inspiring. 

To impress her, you told her you were a semi-famous keyboard player from a semi-famous eighties band. She didn’t seem impressed and had never heard of the band. You were slightly disappointed and Googled yourself to show her pictures. She thought you were the cutest one by far. She loved your hair and wondered how much hairspray it took to keep it so… big. She told you she saw a tree frog in her backyard that morning, it changed its color to look just like the tree it clung to, right in front of her. By the time the chocolate pot-de-crème arrived, you were in love.

Back at your tiny cottage-slash-music-studio, you drank two more bottles of red wine and played Beatles songs for her on your old Korg.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies, somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, the girl with colitis goes by…” you drunkenly sang to her. You wanted to make her laugh more than anything so you improvised. “She was a gay stripper…it took me sooo long to find out. But I found out!”

“That is so not the way that song goes!” Her voice soft and tired from too much wine.

“Are you sure?” you asked, jingling the piano keys like a lounge singer. “Otherwise we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

She leaned over, holding your cheeks in the palms of her hands, kissing you hard. Her lips were a symphony. An orchestra of feelings you had never felt. Your hand slipped onto an A minor flat on the keyboard. It sounded like a prelude to a Duran-Duran song, so you belted out “Hungry Like the Wolf” and with each chord that strikes your memory, you realize you should have kept kissing her. You should have always kept kissing her.

Three years into your marriage she stopped kissing you. You went to the dentist for a teeth cleaning, just in case. You stopped eating garlic. You bought mints and flossed twice a day but you grew apart. Now she and your daughter live next door. When she pulls into her new driveway right next door, you can’t help but blurt out: “Hey, Beth! How does it feel to be a bowling trophy wife?” She gives you the same look of disdain she gave you at her lawyer’s office when you asked if she wanted to grab dinner sometime.

“Don’t be an asshole, Nick,” she says and slams the car door.

She is carrying grocery bags filled with flour and sugar and blackstrap molasses and fresh blueberries. You will miss her homemade pastries. You’ve decided if they ever knock on your door and ask for a cup of sugar you will not give it to them. No matter what kind of strudel is involved.

You teach music and social studies at the local high school. In your Cultures of the World class, you ask a group of sleepy tenth-graders, who haven’t yet discovered the wonders of coffee, what makes a culture. You prattle on about how diverse cultural groups use their geographical environments and resources to maintain physical, social, and economic structures. You can’t help but think of Mr. Australia making the most of his geographical resources by stealing your wife. As you get to the chapter on colonization, you discover a warm, salty mist coming from your eyes. You save yourself and your dignity by putting on an old PBS documentary about race and class in America, and slip out the door quietly.

In the hallway after lunch you run into the pretty blonde algebra teacher you kissed a few weeks ago after a staff softball game. In the passenger seat of her car she leaned in, her lips warm, her breath milky. At some point her hand had inched its way down inside your pant leg. “Why, Mrs. Robinson,” you joke, not only because she’s older, but because you can’t remember her first name. Darlene? Darla? Denise? You try not to be too charming or smile too much. You don’t want to invite possibility. Still, you fuck her in the backseat of her Prius. As you drop her off, she invites you to a potluck dinner on Friday.

“I’d love to,” you tell her, “but I’m all out of luck.”

After school, you pick up your daughter from piano lessons. She has heard a joke and asks if you want to hear it. “What did Beethoven do when he died?” she asks putting on her seatbelt.

“What?” you ask, feigning an alarmed sincerity.

“He de-composed!” She says, laughing a hearty, guttural laugh like her mother. You laugh too and tell her not to quit her day job anytime soon. “I don’t have a job.” She says, like a question.

“Yes you do,” you tell her. “Being the best daughter in the world is hard work.”

Illustration by Alice Carmen

When you drop her off she insists you come in and say hello to Mr. Pickles, a flea-ridden, stray cat you found and both nursed back to health last summer. According to her, Mr. Pickles hasn’t been too happy here. “I don’t blame him,” you mumble quietly so she doesn’t hear.

Like Mr. Pickles, your curiosity gets the better of you and you go in. Unlike Mr. Pickles, you have a knowing feeling that you will end up in a tree and not be able to get down without the help of emergency services.

Inside, the house is overgrown with bowling trophies. They are tangled on mantles and strewn across bookcases. A few tall ones are anchored on the floor like garish sculptures. You notice right away that they are mostly second and third-place finishes. Through a large mirror with a giant silver bowling ball emblazoned on it, you notice Mr. Second Place standing behind you. He is drinking a beer like he stepped out of a damn commercial. There is a vacation-like quality to him—as if he’s been on a cruise ship too long. “Hiya, mate,” he bellows. “Quite a collection, eh?”

You turn to see him admiring his own hall of mediocrity instead of addressing you. You, on the other hand, can’t take your eyes off him. You’ve never seen him this close up. You study him. Like a mole that might be skin cancer, he is changing shape right in front of you. He is ruddy all around. His face, his neck, his forehead, even his voice is full of crevices. You can see how someone could accidentally fall in. His eyebrows are thick and wiry. His unshaven facial hair reminds you of bristles from an antique brush. His earlobes are long and his hair is thick and unkempt. What the hell does she see in him? It can’t be his cheap aftershave. You decide it must be hidden away in his accent. So, you listen as he talks.

“No hard feelings about the old lady, eh, mate?” you hear him say.

“Hard feelings?” you say. You didn’t mean for it to be a question.

“Yeah, mate. The heart’s a funny thing, isn’t it?” He turns and looks directly at you for the first time, drumming up what appears to be sincerity.

“Is it?” you ask, never intending to start a conversation.

“Yeah, these things just happen I reckon.”

But you are thinking the exact opposite. You are thinking it must have taken an awful lot of planning. A lot of late night phone calls and clandestine meetings at bars or hotels or (God forbid), bowling alleys. Maybe even your favorite bars. It’s a small town. Were you being warned cryptically on cocktail napkins or with songs from the jukebox? You recall hearing Johnny Cash on heavy rotation.

Your daughter interrupts. “Daddy, want to see my room? I have a new goldfish named Burt!” She tugs at your hand.

“Not now, Sweetie,” you say, staring down his worn, leathery eyes.

You try not to picture seedy hotel rooms but you do. You imagine him asking if they have an hourly rate because he’s too cheap to splurge. You imagine your ex-wife going along, slumming it because at least he’s not you. You imagine her, night after night, looking out your kitchen window and across the yard at him. Signaling to him. Blowing kisses at him. Her eyes saying, I don’t want this guy, I want you, a thousand different ways. Were you in the background, roasting a chicken? Asking naively, “who wants more potatoes?” Suddenly you are getting warm. Your face is flushed. You can’t feel your hands. Your ears are ringing.

“No sense in getting your knickers in a bunch, is there?” he says, guzzling the last of his beer and still talking with that goddamned accent.

Illustration by Alice Carmen

Somehow you end up on the floor with Mr. Second Place in a headlock. You clamp your forearm across his neck. Your leg is wrapped around his hip. You are tightening your grip. He coughs and spews. He is very red. He is getting redder.

Your daughter is crying and yelling. “Daddy, stop it! You’re hurting him!”

Later that night, as you get ready for bed, an old Beatles song keeps playing in your head: Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes, and she’s gone, it continues to repeat. You try but you can’t turn it off. Like your mind has a mind of its own. You begin to worry that maybe this is what insanity feels like. Luckily, you are seeing Vicki on Tuesday. And Thursday. And Saturday. As you fall asleep, you imagine her throwing off her heels, and undressing for you slowly. Her blouse first, then her pants, her underwear. She tosses her bra on the floor and straddles you. You wrap your arms around her ample, firm hips, pressing your head against her heart. She is an oak tree in a storm. She runs her long hands through your hair, holds your head up towards hers and whispers, Poor, sweet boy. Poor, poor, Nicky.

In the morning you make black coffee, eat a plain piece of toast, and stare out the kitchen window. Crumbs from your dry toast fall into the sink. Their tiny bread-bodies crash onto the hollow shores of stainless steel. The neighbors are having breakfast too. The man and woman are arguing. The woman appears to be crying. Her head bent slightly as if each tear needs a reason to fall. The little girl looks up from her cereal bowl and gives you a faint smile. Like she is trying to tell you something.

Pamela August Russell is the author of B is for Bad Poetry out now from Sterling Publishing. The Los Angeles Times says “It may not be Walt Whitman, but Miss Russell’s verses are often a whole lot funnier.” Her short stories and poetry have appeared in several anthologies including Virgin Territory and most recently Nothing Moments. She lives in Los Angeles near the freeway.

Meet The Rational’s Fiction Editor

Fiction Column Intro by Ella Whiten
Illustration by Ella Whiten

Rational readers:

I think fiction is an essential means for understanding the relationship between individual lives and the collective experience of personhood. The stories that we tell ourselves and those around us –– “in order to live,” as Joan Didion puts it –– are shaped largely by social, political, and cultural contexts (for better or for worse). All of this is to say that ideas expressed through literary fiction can shatter and rebuild us anew, and what’s more: they can change the status quo.

In this section of the Rational, you will encounter all manner of aesthetics. Writers will sometimes transcend form and genre. They will convey a deep sense of greater purpose, setting our hearts racing and minds ablaze, while connecting us each to the other—regardless of time or circumstance.

I hope to bring you thought-provoking work; stories that may occasionally cause discomfort, especially when we explore themes regarding race, sexuality, and gender. I hope these writers challenge you. I hope they remind you that words, and our narratives as women — no matter how clouded, quieted, or totally effaced they oftentimes may seem — do, and will, prevail.

How to Write a Letter

The night before, wander under a sky full of crashing stars and a gibbous moon. Kneel down in the dirt until your hands and knees become earth. The next morning find paper and a pen that feels like an extension of your soiled hand. Begin by marking the date; anthropologists two hundred years from now will thank you. Open with the word “Dear,” pressing down, because you mean a dire kind of dear, as well as his first name. First, ask a question about the condition of his well-being—examples include, How are you? and Are you broken, too? Mention your own body only in passing; Canadian geese traveling south, a distant V.

Remember the anthropologists and make a note of the weather: a grey fog hiding a churlish sun. Write briefly about yourself in sentences you haven’t been able to say on the phone. Examples include, I drank and drank until the room was a warm, dark hole and I miss you. Try not to smudge the page with your dirty fingerprints or tears.

Move to a new paragraph. Indent. Mention the decathlon you saw on the news and how you felt about it, but avoid politics. This is a kind reminder that no one is concerned with your female perspective on political matters. List your errands for the day. Share a cheerful secret.

How to write a letter by Danni Gillespie
Illustration by Danni Gillespie

Ask another question, one that will require him to think before responding—examples include, Are you looking forward to summer? and Do you still love me? Follow up with how your family is doing and enquire about his, never mind the nights you peeked into his parents’ bedroom window.

Leave your desires out, how sad you are. Remember a letter should be a happy thing, and what would the anthropologists think?

End with a salutation. Examples include, Warm wishes and I’ll never be the same without you. Sign your name.