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‘Good With Boys’ by Kristen Iskandrian: ZYZZYVA No. 109, Spring/Summer Issue

If you wanted a boy’s attention, you had to get it. You had to take it.

After dinner, I kept my eye on Esau. His mother was talking to Ms. Green and the two other parent chaperones. With a few other boys he headed toward Ornithology, which was fortunate, since it was adjacent to the Mineralogy wing, where I wanted to spend my time. I had some money to spend in the gift shop tomorrow and I was definitely going to get a few new polished rocks and minerals for my collection. Some agate, maybe. I did not want to lose sight of the educational purpose of this trip. I knew, deep in my bedrock layer, that Esau Abraham would come and Esau Abraham would go. I knew I had to keep a firm hold on my interests outside of boys. I stood looking at an exhibit containing necklaces of jade, peridot, and pink topaz, right next to the clusters of Mississippi pearls so creamy they seemed edible, and I felt stirred, filled with longing.

My desire for boys and my desire for certain other things—often inexplicable, sometimes beautiful, frequently plain, occasionally attainable, like a tiny plastic fifty-cent notebook charm complete with even tinier pencil, for my charm bracelet; sometimes not, like these exquisite jewels that came from places in the earth that no longer even exist—were knotted together as intricately as a DNA double helix. I wanted and wanted and wanted. I believed, like my great Aunt Jill, that objects had the power to protect me from harm—the harm of loneliness and my own impermanence—and I believed that boys had the same power.

My little voice told me, take what you want. Take what you can. Heal in the long shadows of the taking. My little voice and Aunt Jill’s little voice, maybe, were the same.

I realized I was standing with my hands and forehead pressed to the glass. I heard a few people enter the room and then Esau’s voice, “Adam— wait up!”

“Where are you guys going?” I asked, straightening up.

“Adam wants to go to the dinosaur room, right?” Esau asked. Adam was a shy boy, shyer than Esau, and obsessed with Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m not sure we’re allowed upstairs. I think we’re supposed to stay just on this floor,” I said, unsure of why I was taking the rule-abiding position, especially since I was planning on breaking a few unspoken rules later that night.

Esau looked at Adam. “I could ask my mom,” he said.

“Let’s just go,” I said. Being alone with Esau plus Adam was better than being alone without Esau. And it was fun to take the lead, exciting. “We can pretend we didn’t know.”

The three of us walked quickly to the lighted exit sign. I opened the heavy door to the stairwell and held it for Adam and Esau. I saw Mrs. Abraham craning her neck behind a few kids wandering between Botany and Mineralogy, looking, surely, for her son.

We hurried up a flight of stairs, laughing, which was the sound of our nervous bodies trying to expel their nervousness.

The Vertebrate Paleontology wing was cold and very dimly lit. We fell silent immediately upon entering, tiny insects beneath the impossibly tall ceilings. The air smelled liked stone—no, like bone. For a minute we stood there without moving, just inside the entrance. I felt a tingle in my body like a sustained high note, like I myself was an echo chamber for our collective giddiness. This would be a double trespass, I thought to myself. Once for being a forbidden area, twice for being an ancient era. We were moving through time in two directions, forward and backward. I wanted to be in charge of this moment, of being in this ideal place alone with two boys, like some better version of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of my all-time favorite books. Surely it wasn’t too much to ask, to believe, that here under the spell of these skeletons and this flattering lighting they would both fall in love with me, and that although I would choose Esau, we would all remain friends and vow to undertake future adventures together. What good was a relationship, after all, with nobody around to witness it?

Order your copy of Issue No. 109.

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‘Alfonso’s Shadow Gets Away From Him’ by W.S. Di Piero: ZYZZYVA No. 109, Spring/Summer Issue

I dreamed my shadow left to find
its way alone. It jumped the moon
in a puddle by a curb and leaped
its greasy shadow leaping there.

It climbed a house and curtained down
upon a family of flesh-stalks gathered
by an almond tree, talking politics.
It eavesdropped on the uselessness.

I let it gleefully go as if it were
a thing of the past, its fortunes shot,
or a prayer or hymn or curse I left
in church or at the farmer’s market

where plums and pomegranates shine:
go, my shadow, and unbenison them.
I’m glad to live without you. Fasten not
your drear promise to me again.

Order your copy of Issue No. 109.

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‘Appetite’ by Victoria Patterson: ZYZZYVA No. 109, Spring/Summer Issue

Claire and I met at a party to celebrate the launch of her husband’s second book. My husband and I had moved from Colorado Springs to Los Angeles two years earlier, and an unsophisticated aura surrounded us, having both been raised in conventional middle-class Republican families. There was a certain type at parties like this: intellectual, vocally liberal, slightly bohemian, creative and with good taste, and quietly and mysteriously moneyed. I was watchful and impressed.

My husband, Jeff, taught history at a high school, most of his time consumed by a yearbook commitment he’d been pressured into taking, and I was on maternity leave from a secretarial position, though I’d quit soon to stay home with our newborn son, David. Jeff had heard about the party through a friend who hadn’t shown, and there was no one else we knew.

Displayed on a stand at a table where the book was being sold, Material Promises was more than 700 pages long, the cover a profile photograph of a somber and bearded and younger Richard, fist at his chin. Published by an academic press associated with the private college where he taught, his books were classified as experimental fiction. At that time I admired anyone who’d crossed that impenetrable threshold to publication and I hoped to meet him, though I didn’t yet want to think of myself as ambitious.

Richard sat at the corner of the living room, and I passed David—less than one month old—to Jeff. I made myself walk over. Though Richard gazed in the other direction, an almost imperceptible tug at his mouth led me to believe he knew I was there. I opened my mouth to speak, but in near synchronicity his head went back and his eyes closed and then he touched his eyelids with his fingertips as if in distress, so I retreated.

“Did you talk to him?” Jeff said.

I grimaced, letting him know he was no better at networking than me, and I took back our fussing son.

“Over an hour left,” I whispered, shaking my head no, wide-eyed, as Jeff gestured to the front door. We’d agreed to last at least two hours at the party.

Later I was breastfeeding David on a couch in a private den, his little leg poking out from the blanket that enclosed him at my chest, listening to his mmm-hmm-mmm sound, when I saw Claire studying a small landscape painting near the open door. She wore a simple black dress and absentmindedly fingered her jade choker, her hiccupping daughter facing her chest in a Baby Björn, splotchy legs and arms wobbling with each hiccup. Claire looked closer—and closer still—until it appeared her nose might touch the painting.

I knew she was married to Richard because I’d watched them earlier. She was affected with him and vice versa: they seemed to encourage it like a performance, both using the words “my love” with a condescending edge and an unnerving frequency. (“Pass me my drink, my love.” “Of course, my love. Here you are, my love.” “Thank you, my love.”) She was pale, elegant, and younger than Richard. I wondered how she remained so passionately thin—her figure like a boy’s—when like me she’d recently given birth.

Even before she turned and saw us—with a surprised step back and a smile—I knew she and her daughter would join us at the couch. And she did, unhooking Lily from her carrier and propping her forward on her lap, one hand at Lily’s chest and neck, tapping her back with the other. “Beautiful,” she said, glancing back at the painting. “The rest”—she gave a dismissive hand wave, while still supporting her daughter.

“Isn’t this your house?” I said.

“Oh, hell no,” she said in amusement and then added seriously, “It belongs to a colleague of Richard’s.”

For a long while we silently watched Lily bobble with each hiccup, a bubble of saliva forming at her bottom lip. The only other sound was the rhythmic patting of Claire’s palm against Lily’s back and David’s breastfeeding hum. Then Lily’s hiccups stopped and soon her head drooped in sleep.

Claire placed her at the couch between us, with Lily’s tiny arms and legs splayed. Claire and I shared notes: ages of babies (Lily three weeks older than David), our ages (both of us in our late twenties), and our birthing experiences (still viscerally recent and traumatic).

Then David drifted to sleep, his mouth barely tugging at my nipple, little ticklish nibbles. His leg shook outside the blanket, a convulsive twitch, and then he stilled, his mouth fully releasing my nipple and his leg and body leaden against me.

With both our babies asleep, our conversation became deeper, freighted, based on the profundity and strangeness of new motherhood and our mutual need for companionship. We talked about how we’d been mothered (hers a competitive intellectual Episcopalian, mine an anti-intellectual born-again Christian), and how long buried memories of our childhoods now came unbidden and unwanted. She paraphrased Germaine Greer, saying that once a woman has a child, her capacity for suffering deepens. We agreed that what we felt for our newborns was larger and more passionate than any love affair. Our marriages, our first loves, and our closest familial relationships paled. And how after we’d given birth, we’d both felt an uncanny awareness as if we were, as she phrased it, “at the center of an abyss.”

Purchase your copy of Issue No. 109 here.

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Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases

1. A Press Conference

It’s January 2013, and I’m watching some political theater on C-SPAN’s website. Senator Charles Schumer leans over a podium in a Senate pressroom. His glasses sit low on his nose, and he looks more like one of my great uncles than someone reading a policy statement to assembled reporters. But he and seven other senators have hammered out an immigration reform proposal, so this is News. “We still have a long way to go,” he says, “but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough.”

I take Senator Schumer’s announcement personally. Over the years, I’ve known many people who’ve been in the United States when the law said they shouldn’t be. I’m a public interest lawyer, but I’m not talking about clients. My list includes friends, my husband, and even my father’s mother and aunt, who as teenagers landed at Ellis Island with documents that weren’t their own. Crowded in the steamer’s steerage hull, they must have wondered, “Will it work?”

My great-aunt and grandmother’s papers weren’t doctored or stolen, though—they’d switched with each other. Aunt Mary had stopped growing after falling from a tree, and her family was afraid she’d be rejected at the border as physically defective. Her parents decided she should pretend to be younger, hence the paper switch with my grandmother, her younger sister. The trick worked. My grandmother and Aunt Mary both made it into the U.S. and wound up working in the garment factories. My grandmother, who could sew anything, left the garment shops to raise her family, but Aunt Mary kept working, sealing box after box, inserting slips of paper atop the folded clothing: “Inspected by Number 9.” When finally it came time to retire, she asked my father for help with her Social Security application and handed him a clutch of documents. Each showed a different birthday. My father settled on one, and she started getting her checks.

“She was such a dear woman,” my father says. Holding his hand just above his abdomen, he adds, “She was only about this tall.”

I never met Aunt Mary, so all I know about her is that she was a tiny, unassuming woman who once did something brave and illegal, abetted by my grandmother. People leap into acts such as these when they know the rules don’t favor their survival but they want to live anyway. I have many friends who, like Aunt Mary, did whatever it took to get into the U.S. They plodded through the desert, scrambled over fences, convinced border inspectors at the airport that they were coming as tourists, not to stay. One friend spent the night in a safe house in Tijuana, where she met women who were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador and had traded sex for rides all the way through Mexico.

Then there was an acquaintance who told me his family’s story through choking tears. He and his brother-in-law were entering the country at El Paso, because both lived in the United States with valid papers. The rest of the family was crossing illegally, away from the border checkpoint. “Whose bag is that?” the officer asked the man and his brother-in-law, seeing a purse left on one of the seats.

“My mother left it by accident,” the brother-in-law said, as if she’d forgotten the bag while sending the young men off on their journey. “A woman never just leaves her purse,” said the officer.

But, in the rush to cross with the coyotes, she had left it in the van. His face red with panic, the brother-in-law explained, “I haven’t seen her for fifteen years.” He’d been living in central Washington, and she in a small town in Jalisco.

The officer took pity and said, “Hurry and find her before she gets caught.”

This family was lucky, and some other friends of mine have been lucky, too, falling through one trapdoor or another in our immigration law. They got their papers and eventually became U.S. citizens. But many of my friends haven’t had that chance. They’re still waiting.

So when I see Charles Schumer on my screen, I hope he understands. His proposal comes with a catch, though. The border would have to be stamped secure before anyone could get their papers. By June 2013, Senator Schumer and his colleagues have come up with a bill, which includes border enforcement metrics and timetables; an amendment adds fencing, high- tech surveillance, and electronic identity checks in workplaces—hardly a surprise as the title of the bill starts with the term “border security.”

But perhaps the tripwires and sensors are props in a border security dream, rather than a depiction of border security reality. As I write this essay, I run an online search and pull up images of the border that show corrugated metal fence cutting through the desert. That fence is the picture we put to the word “border,” helping us believe in it as something real and constant, if vulnerable. It provides a place for the border, which the border needs if it’s going to mark the line we think it marks. We want the border to be clear and provide clarity. For almost twenty years, though, I’ve been trying to figure out where the border is and what it does, and I still don’t know.

2. Seeking Asylum, Filling Out Forms 

I didn’t grow up thinking of my family as refugees, but of course they were.

“They didn’t want to be drafted into the czar’s army,” I was told, or, “pogroms,” or “Grandpa’s older brothers and sister were revolutionaries.”

My family came with the stink of oppression on them. By the 1960s, we were upper middle-class, and I assumed that all American families followed this trajectory: the arc of the moral universe bends toward the suburbs. In those suburbs, my parents retained a sense of liberal responsibility. My father, a doctor, joined the nuclear disarmament movement and gave sidewalk talks on the medical effects of thermonuclear war. My mother opposed U.S. Cold War military interventions and on a file cabinet placed a bumper sticker that read, “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam.” It wasn’t really, but from this I understood that El Salvador was more than just a far-flung place.

In the 1980s, El Salvador was steeped in a civil war in which the Salvadoran government committed massacres, tortured and disappeared its victims, fired on demonstrators, and murdered priests, nuns, and union members. I learned from my mother that our government was sending military advisors and supporting government death squads, which she thought we shouldn’t do. People were streaming from El Salvador by the tens of thousands, but my mother didn’t tell me about these refugees, because they weren’t arriving in the Philadelphia suburbs. I wouldn’t meet any until years later, when I helped a few apply for asylum.

That happened in 1994. I’d recently graduated from college and moved to Seattle. My boyfriend—now my husband—had come to the city from northern Mexico, and he found an apartment above the restaurant where he worked. The building was shabby, with second-story front doors along the balcony, motel-style, and access to the interior hallway (and laundry machines) through doors that opened directly into the apartments’ bathrooms.

I was working as a receptionist, and one day I saw a poster for an organization called the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), which provided legal services to immigrants. I called to see about volunteering. “We’ve got a training coming up,” the executive director told me. “Come by on Saturday.”

A paralegal, Julie, gathered us in the office’s dim conference room and taught us the basics of asylum law, showed us how to complete the forms, and told us what questions to ask the people we’d interview. She seemed to know everything. She explained that the circumstances of these asylum applications were unusual. Because the U.S. had backed the Salvadoran government—pressed it to continue the war, even—Salvadoran refugees had a very hard time getting asylum when they’d reached the United States. In fact, in the 1980s, immigration officials denied 97 percent of Salvadorans’ applications, even with all the murder and torture: bloody Cold War politics. Refugees and church groups sued, and the government finally agreed to give them another chance to apply.

The next weekend, I started interviewing applicants. The NWIRP headquarters was packed with men, women, children. I called the next person on the list into one of the offices and started asking all sorts of questions to make the application as strong as possible: the more terror a person had seen the better. But my interviewees didn’t easily produce stories of brutality. When I asked, “Why did you leave El Salvador?” they usually said, “Well, because of the war, like everyone else.” I didn’t know how to get them to say more, or know if there was more for them to say.

Across the hall, Julie stood in another office, tilting toward a seated client. She was saying, or I thought I heard her say, “Don’t you remember anything? You must remember something.”

She had a way of shaking out recollections. Maybe the Salvadorans’ memories lay beneath a tough rind of trauma that needed to be torn open. Or maybe they’d come to see horror as ordinary, not worthy of note. Either way, I learned that you can’t tell what people have been through by just looking at them. None of the people I interviewed came in maimed or disfigured, except for one man who was missing the top half of his middle finger. Instead of the digit, he had a smooth blossom of knuckle. He hadn’t lost the finger in the war, though. It had been lopped off when he’d reached his hand out of a moving car and caught it on a wire. I took his fingerprints for the application, and Julie told me to write in “missing finger” in the box where the print should have gone. The man and I shared a laugh over that. I was twenty-four when I did those interviews. Since then, I’ve met countless people who’ve been through hard things. I’ve met gay men raped by police in Latin America, Jamaican sugarcane cutters nickeled and dimed by rich growers in Florida, a woman who shot her stepfather, a woman who killed her own child in a drug fury. You learn to speak with people about difficult experiences.

But in 1994, all this was new for me. I began to get the hang of it, and when a Salvadoran interviewee said, “I just left because of the war,” I’d ask, “Did guerrillas or soldiers ever come to your house? Was anyone in your family ever killed?” And sometimes this helped people remember, and they’d say, “Oh, yes, there was that time …” I wrote in the answers, and in my memories I picture my interviewee and me in the dusty air of a dingy office, leaning over the application to review it together. The word “alien” appeared on the application in clear black letters, but I didn’t think of the Salvadorans as aliens. If an army bombs a person’s town with weapons provided by the United States, aided by training in the U.S., doesn’t that person have a relationship with the United States? How can we talk about that person as an alien, if there’s no border between us that really counts?

3. Making Our Map

And yet we have maps that neatly mark the boundaries and make them real.

But: there are parts of the United States that don’t appear on most maps of the United States. Pull up a map online, and you’ll get the contiguous forty-eight with Alaska and Hawaii shifted to the southwestern flank, as if pushed there by a finger of godlike proportions. You don’t see Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or the other “unincorporated territories” of the United States. Although these places belong to our country—whatever the word “belong” may mean—the godlike finger has not moved them within our sight line.

RoughRider-pic

Which takes me to a photograph I’ve downloaded from the National Archives. In the photo, Teddy Roosevelt stands atop San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898, surrounded by his Rough Riders. They’ve just overrun Spanish forces, having advanced behind a line of Gatling gun fire. They moved, in Lt. John Pershing’s words, “as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees.” Now they’re posing for a photograph to portray their glory. That’s fine as far as capturing the triumph of that battle goes, but the photo also raises the question of border control. Because of the Spanish American War, the U.S. border was shifting again, and no one knew where it would make landfall.

It was the end of the nineteenth century, and the United States had taken it upon itself to liberate Cuba from Spanish tyranny. By the war’s close, we had a new set of territories, among them the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. President McKinley couldn’t locate these places on a map, but the country still had to decide what to do with them. Should they eventually join the U.S. on equal footing with the states? Should they be treated like nations-but-not-quite-nations, as with the American Indians? Or should the U.S. just cast the new colonies off right away?

These questions concerned the identity of the United States, a country founded on the idea of self-rule, and they weren’t easy to answer. Political leaders and legal scholars began developing proposals and examining the Constitution, while Congress held heated debates. The Anti-Imperialist League roused a crowd of ten thousand at its convention in Chicago, where Massachusetts Senator George Hoar warned the country against descending into “the modern swamp and cesspool of imperialism.” At that point, he thought we still had hope.

But scholar Abbott Lawrence Lowell, future president of Harvard, where he was a professor of government, believed this hope was misplaced: the anti-imperialists had misperceived the essential nature of the U.S. “(T)here has never been a time, since the adoption of the first ordinance for the government of the Northwest Territory in 1784,” he reminded his readers, “when the United States has not had colonies.”

Yet Lowell still saw something different about the new possessions that meant they couldn’t just be fed into the country’s mill of expansion. “The settlers in the West carried with them the laws and customs of the East, and the precious habit of self-government,” he wrote in 1899 in the Atlantic Monthly. Puerto Rico and the Philippines: they were filled with people different from those settlers, who were us. They had no history of self-rule, and, being insufficiently civilized, couldn’t bear the burden of it. It would be “sheer cruelty” to foist it on the Filipinos, Lowell warned, and even for the Puerto Ricans, “self-government must be gradual and tentative.”

The year Lowell’s words were published, my family lived in czarist Russia. We weren’t yet part of this us. Still, in 2014, I can sit at my desk, sort through Lowell’s article, and wonder, as an American: what was it like for us to question the nature of our country in the wake of those foreign invasions? A century later, we have more experience with this sort of thing. We know that occupying Iraq for eight years doesn’t mean Iraq is part of the United States, and it doesn’t mean Iraqis become Americans. We can enact our will on people without feeling like those actions shift our borders. This wasn’t always so clear, and the debates continued. In 1901, fruit merchant Samuel Downes walked into this open question when he attempted to receive a shipment of oranges from the Port of New York. Downes was a founding officer of the city’s Wholesale Fruit and Produce Association and a donor to the Five Points Mission. Probably he was a businessman of some influence in the city.

However, when he tried to get his oranges—thirty-three boxes shipped from Puerto Rico—he learned that customs was charging him $659.35 in import duties. He protested: Puerto Rico was part of the United States. But the customs officials didn’t agree, so, instead of letting his oranges rot, Downes paid the duties and hired a lawyer, Frederic Coudert, who’d been gathering test cases to take to the Supreme Court. Coudert planned to argue that Puerto Rico belonged to the U.S., and the Constitution barred customs officials from treating it any differently.

Much was at stake in the decision—and not just national identity. Oranges and other commodities meant big money, so while almost no one knows about Downes v. Bidwellnow, the case was a national event back in 1901. When it got out that the court was about to announce its ruling, spectators swarmed into the courtroom, eager for the decision.

The justices issued a ruling that continues to confound. For one thing, the decision had no clear majority and was cobbled together from a series of concurring opinions. For another, the justices decided Puerto Rico may belong to the United States, but that doesn’t make Puerto Rico part of the United States. In the decision’s most famous phrase, Justice White called the island “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense,” and I don’t know how any cartographer could express that paradox on a map, godlike finger or not. At any rate, Samuel Downes wouldn’t get his $659.35 back. The duty remained on the oranges, which were foreign.

But what about the Puerto Ricans? Were they also foreign?

This takes us to the case of Isabel González, chronicled by legal historian Sam Erman. In 1902, González sailed to New York in search of her errant fiancé, who was working at a linoleum plant on Staten Island. When she landed at the Port of New York, she was pregnant—making her sexually suspect in addition to racially undesirable—so port officials wanted to block her from entering as an “indigent immigrant.” She found herself in the middle of the debate over the status of Puerto Ricans, and she took a position, arguing that she was a United States citizen. Even after she married her fiancé and became eligible to enter the U.S. through this marriage, she kept it secret so she could pursue her case.

A federal appeals court declared her an alien. Coudert, Downes’ lawyer, wrote, “(A)s the law stands to-day, we have a new and seemingly paradoxical legal category of ‘American Aliens.’” He represented Gonzalez before the Supreme Court, arguing, Erman writes, that because U.S. citizenship really didn’t guarantee much in the way of rights, there was no reason to deny it to the Puerto Ricans. The court wasn’t willing to go that far. It declared that González wasn’t an alien, but she wasn’t a citizen, either.

It took fifteen years for Congress to extend citizenship—statutory citizenship, meaning not guaranteed by the Constitution—to Puerto Ricans, and President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill on March 2, 1917. Later that month Puerto Rico’s appointed governor, Arthur Yager, appeared before the island’s legislators and addressed them as “fellow citizens of the United States.”

“I welcome you into our great national family with high hopes,” the New York Timesreports him as saying, and I imagine him standing grandly at the podium, arms spread wide in imperial embrace.

That November, Governor Yager gathered at San Juan’s Municipal Theater with his daughter, the president of the House of Delegates, and other political and military leaders. They were there to draw eight thousand draft numbers for World War I, making a public ceremony of conscription. Miss Yager picked the first number. The Puerto Ricans went off to war, but the island still wasn’t fully part of the United States and isn’t to this day. You may find Puerto Rico on some U.S. maps, at the tail end of a string of Caribbean islands. It will be marked as “Puerto Rico (U.S.).”

4. Origin Stories

No matter what dangers my family escaped in the early twentieth century, they couldn’t have predicted the greatest danger, which probably would have consumed them had they stayed in Europe. Just as there are still Jews despite genocide, there are still Indians. (When I was a child the idea of an Indian seemed magical to me. In one of my earliest memories, I’m sitting with my family at a Phillies game in Veterans Stadium, plastic seats crummy with peanut-shell dust, when my father says, “I think that man over there is an American Indian.” I searched for the Indian in the stands, but if I saw him I don’t remember it; I recall only the feeling of fascination and surprise. There were still Indians! Now I wonder if some Nazis dreamed of the day that a few leftover Jews would fascinate rather than repel—but I shouldn’t stretch this comparison, because like unhappy families each genocide is genocidal in its own way.)

We could ask many questions about our American genocide, among them questions about borders. On state maps now, sometimes you’ll see the boundaries of reservations marked out, and sometimes you won’t. This points to the unsettled status of Native nations. They’re sovereign nations, but they’re also tangled up in jurisdictional confusion—among the tribes, states, and federal governments—that compromises self-government and, to outsiders, may make them seem like something less. One example is that tribal courts may not prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes in their territory. When the victims are Indians, the federal government is supposed to handle these crimes, such as rape, but it has a history of overlooking them, so it’s as if every non-Native American on a reservation carries diplomatic immunity. In 2015, the law is changing. Native courts will be able to try non-Indians for some crimes of intimate violence against Indians, which seems like a good development, but it doesn’t make jurisdiction entirely clear—jurisdiction and territory still won’t be the same thing, as we often assume they are.

It’s impossible to separate violence from the writing and rewriting of borders. In 1831, amid machinations to expel the “Five Civilized Tribes” from the South, the Supreme Court decided it couldn’t hear a case brought by the Cherokees, who were challenging Georgia’s right to extend state law to their territory. The court’s refusal to hear the Cherokee claim rested on an interpretation of geography. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “The Indian Territory is admitted to compose a part of the United States. In all our maps, geographical treatises, histories, and laws, it is so considered.” And so, the court determined, the Cherokee represented not a “foreign state” but a “domestic, dependent nation” lacking the right to sue Georgia in U.S. courts. If a border existed between the Cherokee Nation and Georgia, in this instance it couldn’t keep Georgia out.

I’m looking at another photograph from the National Archives. It depicts the delegation led by Spotted Tail, a Sicangu Lakota leader, to Washington, D.C. The official record indicates the photo was taken sometime between 1871 and 1907, but since Spotted Tail was killed by Crow Dog in 1881 the date range must be too broad. I don’t know who else appears in the photo or what Spotted Tail and his delegation were doing in D.C. I’ve only just learned that he ever existed, and all I see in this photograph of bygone Indians—with their moccasins, blankets, braided hair, and pipes—is a representation of inevitability, which is my fault and not theirs.

Spotted-Tail-pic

Spotted Tail was born eight years before the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia decision. Crow Dog, the man who killed him, was born just a couple of years after. Both came to live on the Great Sioux Reservation decades later, following years of war. Spotted Tail had been imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth after fighting in the Sioux War of 1855. Traveling to the fort under military guard, he passed by so many white farms and towns that he came to believe there was no way to defeat the United States. Crow Dog had fought against the U.S., too, and he also had to make his peace, although I can’t fathom how complicated it must be for a person to negotiate with a society that has committed genocide against him.

The peace treaty that created the Great Sioux Reservation (and set its boundaries) was a nation-to-nation agreement, but it put the U.S. government deep into territory that supposedly wasn’t within U.S. jurisdiction. There would be a U.S. Indian agent on the reservation and an agency office, along with a school, buildings for a carpenter and blacksmith, and provisions to turn the Indians into farmers.

In the end, Crow Dog and Spotted Tail both wound up living here and assuming roles of political leadership. Crow Dog became a tribal police captain. Spotted Tail, a chief, carried a rifle and threw his weight around. He removed Crow Dog from his position twice, and Crow Dog may have suspected Spotted Tail of pocketing tribal money. There were factions, differences of opinion, tactics, and maneuvering. This is what I understand from my reading, although I can’t really understand—I’d have to travel to a different time, language, culture, set of politics.

But I can get a sense of the difficulties. Spotted Tail, Crow Dog, and other leaders had the railroad expansion bearing down on them, the crushing forces of assimilation policy, the U.S. Indian agent right there in his office, boring the American state into Lakota territory. Crow Dog is perceived as being less willing to make concessions to the Americans, Spotted Tail less reluctant.

Yet it will always be a mystery why, exactly, Crow Dog killed Spotted Tail that day. Spotted Tail had attended a tribal council meeting at the Rosebud Indian agency, where the council was planning another D.C. delegation, which Spotted Tail would head. When the meeting disbanded, he mounted his horse and started home. He saw Crow Dog crouched next to a wagon, apparently tying his moccasins but really lying in wait. Crow Dog raised his rifle and shot Spotted Tail through his left breast.

That’s one version of the event. In another I’ve read, the events go like this:

Crow Dog was fixing a bar above his wagon’s axle, while his wife, Pretty Camp, waited in the wagon with their child. Spotted Tail galloped toward them, stopped, and drew his pistol. Pretty Camp yelled a warning, and Crow Dog fired.

In both versions, the tribal council met the next day and, according to legal scholar Sidney Harring, ordered a payment to Spotted Tail’s family of $600, eight horses, and one blanket, which settled everything as far as the Lakota were concerned.

But even if they thought the case was closed, the story continued. In the killing of Spotted Tail, Harring explains, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) saw a test case for pushing its policy of assimilation and establishing criminal jurisdiction in Indian country. The BIA pressed the Attorney to prosecute Crow Dog—the idea being that he’d gotten away with murder—and he was sentenced to hang. With his legal fees paid by the BIA, Crow Dog petitioned the Supreme Court, and once again the court had geographic questions on its hands. Did the treaties and federal statutes allow the federal government to cross the border and convict one Indian for the murder of another? The court said they didn’t. As “aliens and strangers” in Indian country, they lived by their own laws—a victory for tribal sovereignty.

But the victory didn’t last. For one thing, a different sense of geography had taken hold among the citizens of the United States. “The Supreme Court has rendered a decision which will startle most readers,” the New York Times announced. “The decision is that there are persons living in the United States and not subject to the jurisdiction of any State or Federal Courts.”

I can’t imagine Crow Dog believed he was living in the United States, and he wasn’t, really—he was in Indian country—but it’s striking that two sets of people can look at the same piece of land and understand it so differently. This case, maybe more than any other, shows how much the history of the border is also a history of imagination. It’s a matter of who has the power to impose their imagination on the other.

The BIA and white reformers, who wanted the Indians fed into their civilizing machine, didn’t let the Supreme Court have the last word. They worked the legislative process, using Ex Parte Crow Dog as fodder. They had the Major Crimes Act slipped into an appropriations bill and won criminal jurisdiction after all, kicking off another reworking of geography. Ten years later, Congress decided to turn the reservations into individual plots, with “surplus” land to be sold off. The Supreme Court gave its approval in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, which permitted Congress to reach into Indian land to administer it as it saw fit. Ninety million acres were absorbed into the United States, reservations rendered patchwork.

Through separate legislation, the Great Sioux Reservation was divided into several smaller reservations and whittled down. Crow Dog continued as a traditional leader, joined the Ghost Dance movement, and for years refused to accept his allotment.

I thought this would be the last I’d read about him, and then I came across a New YorkTimes article from 1903. That was the year my grandfather was born in czarist Russia, the Supreme Court decided Lone Wolf, and the year after the U.S. defeated the Filipinos’ war for independence—a good time for empire. Crow Dog was about seventy and had just left the Rosebud Reservation for New York City. The Times headline announced: “Indians Call on Mayor; Mr. Low Cordially Greets Crow Dog, Who Bears Honors as an Assassin.”

Crow Dog had joined a delegation of fifteen Indians in traditional dress, and they stopped in on the mayor on their way to Coney Island, where they’d perform that summer for the city’s heat-drenched masses. An interpreter handled the introductions in the mayor’s office. “This is Crow Dog,” he said, “who assassinated Spotted Tail, chief of the Arapahoes, some years ago.” The mayor shook Crow Dog’s hand and, after enjoying the company of the costumed Indians, “bid them all adieu.”

5. Borders and Bodies

My favorite constitutional amendment is the fourth, which protects the people from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Bill of Rights overall limits how government intervenes in our lives, but the Fourth Amendment feels most personal, most visceral, because searches and seizures involve state incursions into our homes, our belongings, and even our bodies. The Fourth Amendment also works a kind of legal alchemy on the border, changing its substance.

In 1983, Rosa Montoya boarded a plane in Bogotá, having first swallowed eighty-eight balloons filled with cocaine. She carried in her body the balloons, potentially small bombs of poison, into the airport in Los Angeles. When she landed, she was questioned by customs officials, who locked her up for about twenty-four hours, until they got a warrant and a doctor performed a rectal exam. The doctor fished out the first of the bags, and the rest she passed. Her case wound up before the Supreme Court.

For Justice William Rehnquist, writing the majority opinion, Rosa Montoya was a criminal who during her detention refused food and drink, refused to use the bathroom, retracted her consent for an X-ray, then falsely claimed to be pregnant. Justice William Brennan, in his dissent, paints a different picture. He mentions the snapshots of Rosa Montoya’s children that she extracted from her purse whenever someone new entered the lockup room. He discusses the strip-searches she endured and writes that, when told she couldn’t leave until she excreted into a waste basket, she responded, “I will not submit to your degradation, and I’d rather die.”

I don’t know anything more about Rosa Montoya than this. But ultimately United States v. Montoya de Hernandez isn’t about her. It’s about what the government can subject a person to at the border, where usual Fourth Amendment protections don’t apply. That’s why the court found her detention reasonable, and why to this day people can find themselves locked up at the border, hours on end, with no idea what they’re suspected of having done wrong. I’ve become used to the idea that the government has more power at the border and people less, so stories like these don’t surprise me, and sometimes I find myself more astonished at people’s outrage when they’re put through extensive questioning than at the treatment itself. It’s the border. What did you expect?

To shake me back to reason, it takes a lawsuit like one filed by the ACLU of Texas in December, 2013. The ACLU’s client says that, after a drug-sniffing dog jumped on her at the border crossing, she was strip-searched, probed anally and vaginally, shackled to a hospital exam table and probed again, given a laxative that made her defecate, and put under X-ray and CT scans. She asked the border agents if they had a warrant. They told her they didn’t need one and asked her to sign a waiver if she didn’t want to be billed. She refused, and the hospital sent her a statement in the thousands of dollars. At every step, the men who searched her found no drugs.

Does the border mean that strange men can put their fingers in your vagina, again and again, without your consent? In his dissent in Montoya de Hernandez, Justice Brennan raised a warning about this kind of abuse—although he may not have imagined abuse of this magnitude. “Indefinite involuntary incommunicado detentions ‘for investigation’ are the hallmark of a police state,” he wrote, “not a free society.”

There’s another element of strangeness that isn’t acknowledged explicitly in the Montoya de Hernandez decision. The border that Rosa Montoya was trying to cross wouldn’t show up on the map as a border. It’s somewhere in the L.A. airport, not at the line between Juárez and El Paso, or at Peace Arch International Park, which links Washington and British Columbia. In legal terms, border points such as those at airports are called the “functional equivalent of the border.” They also include territorial waters, spots where roads coming from the actual border converge, UPS sorting hubs, etc.: places that aren’t exactly the border, but close enough.

In other words, to conduct a border search or detention you have to be at the border, but where is the border? On this question, one court has explained, “the border is elastic.” What’s important isn’t that the search takes place at the border but that the person or thing being searched be associated with the border. There’s a three-pronged test to see if this association exists. It asks: Can we be reasonably certain the person/object crossed the border? That the person/object didn’t materially change since crossing? That the search was carried out as soon as practical? Then there is the “extended border” doctrine, with its own approach. These are the kinds of legal tools that, after some time in law school, you begin to see as entirely reasonable. And maybe the tools do make sense, but at some point the inquiry should begin to feel a little metaphysical.

The border is elastic, like a rubber band? Such an idea should make the phrase “border security” evaporate into fantasy.

But if it’s a fantasy, it’s enacted in real life. The ACLU has identified a “Constitution Free Zone” radiating one hundred miles from the border. In this zone, law enforcement sets up checkpoints and patrols bus and train terminals, asking people for papers. And legal scholar Jennifer Chacón has written about border powers washing into the interior, becoming part of everyday policing. In Arizona, with their “papers please” law, state legislators have been explicit in their belief that everyone should be prepared to show the badge of their belonging. But they don’t really mean everyone, and the Supreme Court has held that government agents may consider race when deciding who to stop near the border. So, maybe the border isn’t just a place but also a trait some people take with them wherever they go.

6. Being and Not Being

Since three of my four grandparents passed through Ellis Island, I think of it as a symbol of belonging, but it also stands for a strange idea: that a person can be in the United States without being in the United States. In the 1950s, this happened to Ignatz Mezei, whose story is documented best by law professor Charles Weisselberg.

Born in Gibraltar, Hungary, or somewhere else—it’s never entirely clear—Mezei had moved to Buffalo in the 1920s, where he lived for more than twenty years, working as a cabinetmaker, selling war bonds, serving as an air-raid warden, and so forth. In 1948, with Europe still in turmoil after the war, he traveled to Romania to see his dying mother, but Romania denied him entry. He wound up stuck in Hungary for nineteen months, unable to obtain an exit visa. When he finally got the visa, he headed back home from France on a steamer, but immigration officials stopped him at Ellis Island. The government had received a confidential tip that he was a subversive. There would be no hearing in which he could argue otherwise. The attorney general declared his entry “prejudicial to the public interest” and ordered him permanently excluded.

Detained on Ellis Island, Mezei endeared himself to the people in charge. He fixed things—the pool tables, the couches—and later the guards and officials remembered him fondly to the New York Times, calling him “a nice man.” While he tinkered and waited, the government was looking for another country for him. “During his detention,” the Times reported, “he was twice put on French Line ships for return to Europe, but was rejected by England and France.” Hungary didn’t want him, and various Latin American countries didn’t, either.

Throughout, Mezei asked to be let back into the United States, where he was but wasn’t. He filed five habeas corpus petitions to at least get a hearing, and finally he won the fifth. He left Ellis Island under a $3,000 bond, and reported to immigration officials in Buffalo every week while his case continued. During this time in Buffalo, legally speaking he remained on Ellis Island, waiting to see if he’d be able to cross the border into the United States.

The government appealed the grant of habeas and won in the Supreme Court: because Mezei hadn’t entered the United States, the decision went, he didn’t have the same rights to a hearing as if he’d been in the country. It didn’t matter that he’d been detained for so long on Ellis Island, the court said, because “harborage at Ellis Island is not entry into the United States.” The time he spent out on bond in Buffalo didn’t count, either.

After the court’s decision, Mezei headed back to the island to resume his indefinite detention. A photo in the New York Times captured him on this journey: a man in late middle age with graying hair and a neat mustache, dressed in a suit with vest and tie, framed between two bars aboard the ferry. He looked almost jaunty, but the caption called this his “journey to nowhere.” He’d brought along “a bag of upstate apples in one hand and his tools and clothing in the other.” He still struggled with English and, through his Hungarian-speaking attorney, said, “I feel as if I was walking to death.”

His case got press attention. Finally, the U.S. attorney general decided to let him go before a board of special inquiry. The hearing revealed that Mezei’s life had some complications. First, there was a criminal conviction. Back in 1935, he’d bought seven bags of stolen flour and received a ten-dollar fine. His wife attempted to explain: he’d thought she’d ordered the flour, it was a mistake, but no matter—the conviction made him excludable. Then there were the political activities, namely his participation in the Hungarian lodge of the International Workers Order, which had been placed on a list of subversive organizations. Mezei denied being a communist; the government produced witnesses—one later revealed to be a paid perjurer—who testified that he was. On April 19, 1954, the board declared him a security risk, and it seemed he’d be on Ellis Island forever.

In August, though, the Justice Department granted him parole for reasons unknown. As a parolee, Mezei left Ellis Island and boarded a train for Buffalo, all still without legally being in the United States. Even in western New York—where, banned from the Carpenters Union, he subsisted on bottom-of-the-barrel jobs—he took the border with him and never managed to cross over.

A few years ago, I saw that Mezei’s name had come up in the case of seventeen Uighurs, Muslim refugees from China who’d been scooped up in the war on terror and imprisoned at Guantánamo. There they spent year after year in grim isolation, even after the U.S. government determined it had no authority to keep them locked up, because: where to send them? They couldn’t go back to China, which they’d fled and China was pressuring other countries not to take them. So, the Uighurs proposed making their lives in the United States, and why not? The U.S. had reached into Afghanistan and taken the Uighurs. The Obama administration considered the proposal, but the politics got messy. Elected officials from both parties objected, and then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Associated Press that Americans “don’t want these men in their neighborhoods.”

The Uighurs sued and won a favorable ruling from a district court judge, who ordered them released into the U.S. The victory was short-lived: the appeals court reversed with language that chills. “An undercurrent of petitioners’ arguments is that they deserve to be released into this country after all they have endured at the hands of the United States,” wrote Judge Raymond Randolph. “But such sentiments, however high-minded, do not represent a legal basis for upsetting settled law and overriding the prerogatives of the political branches.” In this settled law, he included the decision that would have kept Ignatz Mezei confined to Ellis Island for the rest of his life, without so much as a hearing; many scholars had considered Mezei a legal relic.

I read Judge Randolph’s words and find them astonishing. Shouldn’t the Constitution protect these men—refugees from Chinese repression—from perpetual detention in a prison camp? No, said Judge Randolph, pushing the Uighurs beyond the edge of the Constitution. Despite recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the rights of Guantánamo prisoners, he declared that “the due process clause does not apply to aliens without property or presence in the sovereign territory of the United States.”

In this case, I don’t know how to think of the border as anything but a bald exercise of power and a heartless practical joke.

The Uighurs aren’t on Guantánamo anymore. Their lives being not entirely their own, some were sent to Albania, others to Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, and the last to Slovakia. In 2012, two were shipped off to El Salvador, the country that started me wondering about the oddity of borders.

7. Arrive and Forget

It’s the spring of 1992, I’m in my maternal grandparents’ apartment in Philadelphia, and my grandmother is commenting on the Haitians: specifically, the boat people we’ve seen on television lately, bobbing in overloaded vessels as Coast Guard officers lean from sleek cutters, poised for rescue.

In his working life, my grandfather was a neighborhood pharmacist who’d vaulted himself into the lower middle class. Now my grandmother and he live in a tidy apartment filled with family china and ceramic bowls generous with Pearson’s Coffee Nips and other wrapped candies.

“They’re so ragged looking,” my grandmother says of the Haitians, who are risking their lives to reach the United States.

The Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has been overthrown, and paramilitaries are beating people, killing them, taking over opposition radio, broadcasting threats on its own station. From what my family and I know of Haiti, this kind of violent repression is nothing new; we remember the days of the Duvalier dictatorship, before Aristide’s election, and in my mind I recreate an image of Michele Duvalier, slender and elegant wife of dictator Jean-Claude, smoking a long cigarette as her family flees to the airport in their Mercedes. But the boat people are not elegant, and my grandmother asks, “What can they possibly do here?”

She’s forgotten that she comes from boat people, too. She was born in the Lower East Side in 1908, months after her family landed, following a journey that must have involved trains, worrying, waiting, and bribery, all before the trip over the ocean. They traveled steerage, which reeked of vomit and shit, and they must have reeked themselves when they emerged into sunlight and squinted at their new city. They didn’t have a penny to their name. When my grandmother learned to speak, she learned Yiddish first. What did her family do here in the United States?

I suspect they did pretty much anything they could. They sewed and haggled. They were people in transition, and it’s this transition I see when I look at historical photos of the arriving Jews. I see both their dark foreignness and the Americans they will someday become, two inseparable qualities. For me, that’s the best of the United States: the constant change and renewal, not necessarily a Puritan move toward perfection as much as a fortunate inability to be a single, unchanging thing, no matter how much we may try to fix that. My family slipped past the border before it was drawn against them in 1924, when Congress said no more Jews.

Almost seventy years later, when my grandmother and I looked at the Haitians in their boats, we saw black people whom our government was trying very hard to keep from becoming Americans. I didn’t know then that it had been presidential policy since 1981 to have the Coast Guard net the Haitians before they hit our shores—in fact, before they even reached our territorial waters. Over the years, this policy took different forms. For a time, the Coast Guard was warehousing Haitians on Guantánamo, leaving them to languish in tent camps, if it thought they’d be persecuted in Haiti. The rest the Coast Guard ferried back. Then, in 1992, President George H.W. Bush decided there was no more room at Guantánamo and ordered that, from then on, all Haitians be sent back, refugees or not.

It seems to me that at the heart of Bush’s executive order lay a border control problem as—or even more—complex than the one he was trying to solve. The order announced that the United States had no legal obligations to refugees outside our territorial waters—their rights began only at the border. But what about the power that the U.S. exercised in the name of law enforcement? This didn’t stop at the border. The Coast Guard traveled into the high seas, stopped foreign boats, questioned passengers, demanded papers, and forced the Haitians back to Haiti.

Reaching Port-au-Prince, the Coast Guard had to hose some of the returning refugees off the boats—because the refugees knew what they were facing. As a writer for the Miami New Times, Steve Almond reported the stories that some repatriated Haitians had recounted to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. They told stories of the military hunting returnees down, herding them onto trucks, shooting them to death. Many fled again.

Haitian community groups sued the administration. In March 1993, the Supreme Court heard the case challenging the new executive order, and the plaintiffs argued that the government was barred from repatriating any refugee, regardless of where it stopped them. The court ruled that the refugee statute and the U.N. treaty on refugees gave the Haitians no protection in international waters and also set no limit on what the U.S. government could do there. The relevant law, the court said, is “completely silent with respect to … possible application to actions taken by a country beyond its own borders.” Only Justice Harry Blackmun dissented.

I first read this decision in the 1990s and still struggle with it. The U.S. was venturing as law enforcers into a place where refugees had no rights. Was it a lawless zone or not? I know people will say this question is naïve. The government was dealing with reality, a challenging refugee crisis, etc.

But that’s not all that’s real. When the Haitians were heading toward Florida, I was a twenty-two-year-old college student and understood nothing about Haiti. I certainly didn’t know that, by 1992, Haiti and the United States had a “long, torrid relationship,” in the words of journalist Amy Wilentz. I don’t think that relationship began only in 1915, when the U.S. invaded Haiti, ostensibly to save it from chaos only to occupy the country until 1934 and establish what historian Donald Cooper called a “thinly-disguised military dictatorship.” Still, the occupation is a pretty significant element of our relationship with Haiti—the starting point for “treat[ing] Haitian governments, at best, as rubber stamps for U.S. policy and for American businesses working in Haiti,” as Wilentz argues—and yet something few Americans know anything about.

This is another thing about the border: it veils what we see and what we know, even about ourselves. It protects our sense of virtue, creates a world in which we can act as empire while believing that we don’t. So, if our law regards Haitian refugees as “strangers,” it may be telling the truth, but they’re only strangers to us; we aren’t strangers to them. And maybe my family and I carry the border, too, but not like the people who are racially marked by it. We’ve assimilated it into our Americanness, so that it changes what we see, and we don’t recognize any part of ourselves in the Haitians anymore.

8. Adorning the Fantasy

When I read the map-making judicial opinions, I fall into their funnel of logic. The justices examine statutory language and precedent, and their conclusions seem inevitable. In the Haitian repatriation decision, Justice John Paul Stevens devotes several paragraphs to discussing whether section 243(h)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act applies only to the attorney general or to the executive branch more broadly. Congress carefully drafted the statute, so the distinctions are important if we are to have a government of laws. I walk through the parsing of language and feel the weight of statutory grammar—I’ve drafted legislation, so I know the details matter.

But then I step away from the decisions, and rather than retaining their logic they become patches in a jagged whole. This is the opposite of what occurs with a pointillist painting, where distance produces clarity. Justice Henry Billings Brown seems to experience this incoherence, if for just a moment, in his opinion in Downes v. Bidwell, the Puerto Rican oranges case. He is reviewing the history of the country’s expansion, and he spends page after page examining the legal framework. He looks at the Constitution and its amendments, along with various treaties and statutes. Legally speaking, how has the country brought in new states and territories? His attention to this question is scrupulous and stultifying. Eventually, he turns to the case law and concedes, “The decisions of this court upon this subject have not been altogether harmonious.”

Although, let’s not be coy: this is about power, not just textual interpretation—power braided of words and violence. The words unleash the violence, American hoses pressing down on Haitians, washing them into the hands of military assassins. The Supreme Court said this was legitimate; the border put the Coast Guard beyond law. We used law to escape law. I want to ask how we can make sense of this, though I also don’t want to ask. There is a way to make sense, but that sense comes with its own brutality and silences.

It’s been more than a year since Charles Schumer announced the bipartisan immigration reform proposal. The Senate passed a bill, but nothing is happening in the House of Representatives; border security is a priority for Republicans, we hear. It’s important to Democrats, too, but neither party means border security for people who aren’t us.

I can’t imagine that Crow Dog, on his way to New York City to perform his Indianness, believed that the borders of the United States had provided him national security, or much security at all. And what about the Uighurs, who’d escaped persecution in China and initially had seen the American troops as liberators? “We were happy when we were handed over to the Americans,” Abu Bakker Qassim told the BBC in 2012. “They usually help Uighurs.” This time the American government didn’t help. It banished the Uighurs to a dismal detention camp on Guantánamo and then cast them out to Albania, Palau, and other places they had no reason to know anything about. The border didn’t protect them at all. It’s not “high-mindedness” to say that border security—or the meaning of the border itself—is a matter of perspective. It’s nothing so abstract.

The border isn’t a place. It’s a tool we put to use. As I write, the border is on the move, doing its work. Border Patrol agents and state troopers are roaming highways, demanding to see people’s papers, and the border is moving with them. The agents are sorting who belongs from who doesn’t. But the border doesn’t just divide us. It also connects us in ways that can be brutal, like a torturer’s line of electricity. It ties us to the Uighurs we confined in Guantánamo and the Haitians we repatriated. When I interviewed Salvadorans in Seattle, I saw the weight of the border on them: we can do what we want in your country, but you don’t belong here. The denial of a relationship is part of the relationship. So, it makes sense that we’d want to think the border is elsewhere, confined to a distant desert. We can adorn this fantasy with troops and electronic surveillance and place faith in it. But I doubt that will give us border security. Even in our most vivid imagination, we have no idea what a secure border would look like. We’ve never seen such a thing.

Julie Chinitz has worked in public policy and community organizing since 2000 and is the former policy director at Alliance for a Just Society in Seattle. 

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‘Poem for Noguchi’ by Matthew Zapruder, ZYZZYVA No. 108, Winter Issue

One morning I summoned the giant tome
it arrived by means so magical
I just put my open hand
down on it like a cloud
rests on the roof of a dark museum
full of stone teardrops
so smoothly carved they could not
have come from anywhere
but Obsidian Desert or an island
in the Emerald Sea he alone
by his dual nature could echolocate
in those stones the reflection
of whatever about your shadow nature
you need to discover with unstable
certainty flickers while outside
the wells in the garden
forget dark attachments and remind
each other in the soft afternoon language
you are on an isthmus
like a hero from a novel
you have journeyed there by train
to become contemporary
as rare blue mountain flowers
other bodies are with you too
in a small dark room you are together watching
the same movie about his life
on a loop until the city
full of innovative playgrounds
he never built fills us
and again at last we are each
a child wandering this time happily alone
among the harmless shapes
that know whatever calm people know

Order your copy of Issue No. 108.

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‘Revision’ by Mar Colón-Margolies, ZYZZYVA No. 108, Winter Issue

He began with the clinic in the desert. And with the sneer on the face of the man he wanted to call the Reverend, even though the man was a doctor and the sneer actually a smile. Erek thought about this distortion as he typed his notes in the airless room of the tiny house. Outside, it was very hot. He could hear the faint sounds of a radio blaring and disembodied words. Neighbors, maybe, or memories, working their way into what he wrote.

***

He wrote about the population and the spread of cities when he did not know what else to write. He scribbled, Eight of the thirteen fastest growing cities in America are in Texas, but he knew that this sort of fact didn’t matter to his article. A highway bisected his new city. At its eastern border, to accommodate urban sprawl, the highway became an arching metal ribbon, boned from the air and bolted into overpasses that had existed before. On either side of it there were shopping centers with big-box stores, and restaurants, and bars laid out in thin, parallel strips. At night, when the heat left the air bit by bit, the streets downtown filled with drunken college students, families and workers catching the bus. Erek saw men wearing cowboy hats and young people in flannel shirts, their forearms scaly with tattoos. He saw a sign for a store that read “Double Shot: Liquor and Guns” and he started to laugh. He tried to write about what he saw, tried to summarize the setting, but everything he wrote came out glib, made him sound like an interloper.

***

He drove south on the highway till the landscape changed. The clinic was large and square and white. He was met at the entrance by two women and a man. He was taken through clean halls that cut at expected angles. He had his reporter’s notebook and pen; he had on old jeans and an unremarkable shirt. He kept his press ID in a plastic folder. But no one at the clinic asked him for credentials.

The doctor who ran the clinic, the Reverend, Erek called him in his mind, was tall and lean with bright, obsequious eyes. He wore his hair clipped short and spoke in smooth, solicitous sentences. He held Erek’s gaze with an unblinking, ample stare and called him Sir. His arms barely moved at his sides when he walked.

Erek watched him move through the halls of the clinic he had built out of nothing, and listened to him talk about what it meant to him to show women the geography of their wombs. It’s important, the Reverend said, to show them the babies they want to terminate. “They’re small as beans,” he said. “They’re beautiful.”

***

On the first day, Erek saw the rooms—the space for patient intake, the nursing stations, the ultrasound machines with their oblong wands. The waiting room held clean, comfy chairs and a coffee machine on a bar stacked with Styrofoam cups. There were bright posters on the walls of women and girls wearing etherized smiles. A plate of cookies sat on one of the tables in the middle of the room.

He left the clinic at 5 p.m. He thought about the law as he drove. About not being able to terminate a pregnancy unless you submitted to  the internal ultrasound and to verses, spoken after the wand was inserted, on the value of life.

He drove toward a blur of distant lights. He had to break over buckled pavement when he pulled off the highway and into the parking lot of a gas station for food. Inside, he spoke a Spanish he’d all but forgotten.

***

Erek went through many drafts before he found the right approach to an article. He worked off shorthand notes and a tape recorder, which he listened to at his desk, in the kitchen, sometimes when he drove. He liked to listen to the hours of tape. He hoped he might pick up something in the interminable interviews; that hearing the words again might help him know where to start. Or, if not that, that the voices would put him back in the room with the Reverend and the nurses and their fervent gazes.

***

Erek wrote out four columns:

LAW REVEREND MONEY RELIGION

The interstices held a story different from the one he imagined.

***

Erek knew he would live in Texas for four months while on assignment. He knew he would write a profile of the Reverend and the recent legislation that gave the Reverend his mandate. Then Erek thought he would go back to New York.

***

Erek was a thin man with olive skin, wiry hair, and round glasses. He was a successful journalist with important prizes to his name. He had smoked for eighteen years and recently quit. He had loved one woman for a decade and many, with resignation, in the decade that followed. The woman he loved, Magdalena, lived in Texas, and that was really what brought him west.

***

He had called her the night he arrived. He had parked in front of the small rental home and gotten out of the car. He had noticed starlight and the sounds of insects. How the air smelled clear and a little smoky. He didn’t bother to unpack. He took a shower and changed, and then he called Magdalena and asked if they could meet. She told him about a place she liked. Her voice echoed on the line; everything she said sounded twice. He heard the voice he remembered, one that was firm, low, a little teasing, and then the echo came, heady and high-pitched, making him pause before he agreed.

***

The place she suggested was a bar across the highway, away from downtown. At first he thought he had the address wrong. The area looked desolate, with only cactus and short cedars between the bar and the road. The interior of the place was painted in faded strips of red and white. There were men inside and a few women. They seemed absorbed in conversation or in the football game on the television mounted above the bar. None of them looked at Erek, even though the door slammed like a shot when he entered. The bartender was watching TV and pouring pints, leaning back against the lip of wood behind the bar and swallowing beer. The scene made Erek feel strange and exposed, like he should brace for a fight. He knew it was an absurd thought, but the fact that he was alone in the bar, and in Texas, really, put him on edge.

He stood back against the wall by the entrance and pretended to watch television. Magdalena arrived late. Her black hair was wet. She held her keys in her hands. She looked unsurprised when she saw him alone, trying to look nonchalant. He put his hand on her back and kissed her cheek. “You like this place?” he said.

“Why not?” She waved at the bartender.

Erek bought them drinks. They moved to the back room, which was outfitted with pool tables and darts. Erek looked at the pictures on the walls—a rodeo poster, a framed sketch of cattle grazing. He tried not to study her face. Her skin looked lovely and dark, her cheeks a little fuller, but she looked good with extra weight.

“How was the drive?” she said.

“Long.”

“How many hours did it take you?”

“Twenty-six. I listened to books on tape.”

It made her laugh. “I can’t imagine you doing that,” she said.

He shrugged and took a sip of his beer. “It’s the truth.”

“What did you listen to?”

“Self-help.”

“Come on.”

He grinned. She shook her head.

“You should see the place I got,”he said. “It’s small, but it has some land.”

She didn’t say anything.

“You should see it.”

“You don’t have to put it that way,” she said.

Order your copy of Issue No. 108.

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‘Artificial Islands’ by Earle McCartney, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

fall-2016-1Oh, I have suffered with those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel, who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her, dashed all to pieces! —Miranda, The Tempest

The day began with the smell of coffee and the sound of my father knocking around in the kitchen. I pulled aside the curtain to find the big dipper shining bright above the meadow, a pearly patch of sky marking the spot where the sun was about to come up. I listened. Refrigerator door. Rummaged silverware. A sheet of tinfoil ripped from the roll. My father was making sandwiches. I screamed.

The rabbit ears on my TV trembled. This was my brother, Richard, walking like he wanted everyone to know where he was at all times. The door swung open and there he stood, fully dressed, backlit, a hostile figure made of darkness.

“Spider,” he said. “Wake up.”

I made a show of shielding my eyes from the light. “I’m awake.”

“Good,” he said. “Then go back to sleep.”

“But I’m up now.”

“It’s early,” he said. “You were screaming.”

“I was?”

He examined with disgust the segment of my room laid bare by the light from the hall. With his foot, he closed a book that sat open on the  floor. “I’ve got a big day ahead of me,” he said. “Go back to sleep. No more shouting. No more nightmares.”

But I had no intention of going back to sleep. I counted to a thousand, giving Richard time to settle into breakfast and to tell my father that I’d had another nightmare—I’d been having them all summer, ever since my grandfather died—and then I pulled out my ponytail, rubbed my hands all over my hair to make myself look extra unsettled, and joined my brother and father in the kitchen.

My father leaned against the counter sipping coffee from a teacup, the portable radio at his elbow murmuring the marine weather forecast. Richard held his face about an inch above his cereal bowl, mouth open, spoon in hand. From his frozen expression, I knew that he could see what I was up to.

“Miranda, honey,” my father said. “Are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’ll be all right.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” Richard said.

“But I don’t think I can get back to sleep.”

“No, no, no!”

My father glanced at the stairway. You could run a lawnmower through the kitchen without waking my mother, but still he lowered his voice to say, “You know what? Why don’t you come shark fishing with us after all.”

Richard put down his spoon with a clatter. Before he could argue, I ran upstairs to get dressed. I’d laid out everything the night before: bathing suit, shorts and shirt, baseball cap, old sneakers. From under my pillow, I retrieved my lucky pen knife. Richard could have trumped me by waking up our mother, who’d already declared that nothing good could come of letting an eleven-year-old insomniac go shark fishing. But I knew Richard wouldn’t tell. He was my older brother and a constant adversary, but he was also a man of honor.

We drove to the marina with Butch’s boat looming in the rear window, jostling over every bump, seeming as impatient as we were to get where we were going. While Butch backed the trailer down the ramp, Richard and I crossed the gangway to the floating dock. With great satisfaction, I watched Richard run his hand along the rail, unsure of his sea legs. He took up a position at the dock’s edge, knees bent, hands out, looking ready to receive a hiked football. The boat came squealing down the rubber rollers, but before it got to Richard, Butch stepped in and took hold of a cleat on the stern. I caught Richard frowning at Butch’s back like he was considering pushing him in.

He came and stood next to me, distancing himself from the temptation. “You’re going to be hot in that stupid getup,” he said.

I wore black shorts, black sneakers, a black hat, a black T-shirt. I always wore black.

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I like to be sweaty.”

“It’s my birthday,” he said, “and you’re dressed like a freak.”

“What does your birthday have to do with it?”

“You shouldn’t even be here. Do you have any idea how dangerous these sharks are? Butch, tell her how scared she should be.”

“We’ll be lucky to make it home in one piece.”

The boat lifted off the trailer, and the name Melody bobbed in front of me. My father hoisted himself onto the dock and handed Richard a rope that he’d tied to the bow. To me he said, “Don’t listen to these jokers. They’re just trying to frighten you.” His soggy loafers slapped against the planks as he and Butch loaded the coolers.

Richard sulked. He sighed. He cast the rope back and forth like a whip, like he meant to teach the water a lesson.

Butch said, “Cheer up, Junior. Without your sister here, you’d have nobody to terrorize.”

When my father offered me a hand, I ignored it and jumped aboard. I took a seat on the little shelf between the gunwale and the engine cover, where I could watch the water behind the stern begin to boil. Butch took hold of a corner of the cabin and shoved us off, his calves bulging as he walked the boat down the dock like a strongman pushing a railroad car. As we cleared the end, he leaped aboard and stood on the prow, tenting his hand above his eyes to gaze across the flat, grassy meadow. Through the early morning haze, I could just make out what he was looking at: the cooling tower for the nuclear reactor on Artificial Island. It sat on the horizon ten miles away, disgorging a crooked column of clouds.

“Is that sucker spooky or what?”

As Butch spoke, my father spun the helm to bring us around. Butch regained his balance by grabbing the aerial. “Christ, Dick,” he said. “It’s too early for a swim.”

He climbed down to take the wheel and offered me a wicked look—me alone, not my father or brother. I was his audience. I could see that. And having me as an audience, along with the thrill of nearly falling overboard, seemed to inject Butch full of something wild. He cracked open two beers, and before we’d reached the end of the no-wake zone, he floored the throttle. Melody reared back and roared. I held onto the gunwale as we jumped through the last line of floats and entered the maze of the meadowlands. We cleaved the slicks, shattered through the shallows, flew around bends with chop pounding the hydroplaning hull like it was shooting it full of rivets.

Everything—the islands, the foxtails, the old pilings, the dead trees—moved past us faster than the cooling tower, which squatted on the horizon like a cauldron, its row of white warning lights winking at me. Butch saw me looking, gave it a nod and yelled, “I always feel like it’s watching me!” Then he cut a turn so close to a buoy that I could have reached out and had my arm ripped off.

When I looked again, the cooling tower had dissolved in the haze. We left the meadow for the bay, and the world’s ragged edges fell back. There was a sudden opening into brightness. The horizon was a line pulled tight, dividing blue from blue—and as we hit the chop in the open water, much of that blue turned white. The inboard screamed as it dug in, and a jet of white water leapt up behind us, crumbled from the top to spin and scatter. Butch squinted at me through a rainbow in the vapors, smiled, and opened up the throttle even further.

Between the walls of froth and the lifting cabin I could still make out a segment of horizon. I used it to steady myself as we lifted and plunged. As I watched, a long, low shape, black above red, materialized out of the haze. A supertanker. We were nearing the shipping lanes. Now, yes, I was afraid. Long after we’d left the enormous ship behind us, we hit its wake. Melody was a cabin cruiser, maybe twenty feet long, no bigger than my bedroom. As we dove into each trough, the plunge sent plumes of hard water soaring out to fizz against the next rising swell. On the deeper dives, my body left the seat, and the physical disorientation felt like madness. Butch laughed, clenching a doused cigarette between his teeth. My father gripped the canopy prop as he sipped from a dripping can of beer, beads of water quivering on his glasses and in his moustache. Richard stuck his arms into the spray to splash saltwater on his face. I held onto the gunwale for dear life.

Through all this, I kept my free hand clenched around the opening to my hip pocket, pressing my pen knife tight against my thigh. The movement of the boat, all the soaring and plunging, had me worried that my knife might fall overboard. My grandfather had given me that knife the day he died. I never should have brought it with me.

 Order your copy of Issue No. 107.

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‘Kabul’ by Fatima Bhutto, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

fall-2016-1At first, when the doctor told Soraya, she did not believe her. The vomiting, the taste of metal on her tongue, the way her toes had swollen, making her feet look fat and ugly—all those things should have told her.

Told her for what? She had been trying to keep him; since she felt him slipping away from her, losing interest, she had been trying to fall pregnant with his child.

“Are you sure?” Soraya asked the doctor in the small, white office. The doctor wore a headscarf tightly around her moon-shaped face and her hands smelled of the talcum powder from her gloves. Two months, maybe three. The doctor did not look at Soraya when she spoke. She lowered her eyes. She knew the girl was young; there was no wedding ring on her finger. The doctor eyed the slim girl lying down. She had no thickness around her hips, no strength in her to bear a child.

Soraya’s mother sat on a plastic chair at the foot of the plastic bed and clapped her hands together.

Shukar,” Mrs. Azizullah said, tilting her head toward the cracked ceiling. Her short brown hair was set in round curls and not a strand moved as she spoke to God through the ceiling fan. “Shukar, now we have him.”

“You see how his eyes drift when you speak to him now?” Soraya’s mother had warned her. “You see how he has that far away thinking face on? He’s thinking of her, of the woman he left at home.”

“Not at home, madar,” Soraya corrected. “He met her after he had left his home.”

“Home not at home. Girl not a girl. Doesn’t matter. You see, look at him. He is thinking of someone else.” Get pregnant, her mother said. Get pregnant before he leaves you.

They all knew he would leave her anyway.

*

Soraya first saw him on the balcony of his house, one story tall. He was standing against the black metal railing, holding a glass of cold tea in his hand. Soraya was walking past with a girlfriend. She saw him immediately. She knew he was foreign. Tall, handsome, and foreign.

Soraya smiled. “Slow down,” she whispered to her friend. “Shoo,” Paro said, hushing Soraya for interrupting her story.

Soraya stopped and bent to the ground, as though to tie her laces, her long hair grazing the dust. “Stop walking,” she repeated to her girlfriend through clenched teeth.

“What are you doing?” Paro said, looking down as Soraya’s hands danced above her bony feet, ticking the skin. “You mental or what?”

But the man on the balcony couldn’t see from up there whether Soraya’s shoes had laces woven through them or not. (They did not.)

“Shoo,” Soraya whispered back, a softness in her voice. “I just want him to see me.”

He saw her.

She slept with him that night. The first time they talked, the first time he walked her home, the first time she told him her name and he, Sheryar, told her his, was also the first time she let him kiss her, touch her, her long hair between them.

“I can’t breathe,” he said, moving a handful of her dark hair from his mouth as she writhed her body over him.

“Can you feel me?” she asked, moving against him.

Everywhere, he replied, parting her hair and pushing it to the side.

*

It had been two years that he was away from home. First two years, then three, and then before he could count to four the years started jumping, two at a time until—by the time he landed up in Kabul—it had been seven, eight years.

“Don’t come back,” Sheryar’s mother said on the poor telephone line from home. “Don’t come back just yet,” Sheryar’s mother said to her son in exile. It wasn’t safe for him here. It wasn’t safe for a young man. Stay abroad, she said, echoing thousands of other mothers who thought abroad was close enough for people to return from. Like other mothers, she didn’t know that after five years or ten, abroad was too far a distance to breach.

So Sheryar stayed away. He studied law as an undergraduate and did well. With the money his mother sent him, he passed the bar. But then his visa ran out, so he left London behind. London, where he had burgers and milkshakes in Covent Garden on Sundays and danced at Annabel’s on Fridays. Where he bought food from greengrocers who wore green-and-white striped aprons. London, where everyone was a migrant of some kind, where everyone was a refugee far from home.

But Sheryar’s visa finished and he could not get a new one, not without going home. So he travelled south slowly, stopping in Italy, in Greece, and in Istanbul for three of those long seven or eight years, and where he met a girl and fell in love.

Even now, when he thought of Ela, his chest constricted. He felt her absence in the hollow between his third and fourth ribs.

“Was there someone before me?”Soraya asked when she caught Sheryar drifting. She watched as Sheryar turned his body away from her, as he crossed his legs to create space between them, and ran his fingers across the crown of his head in slow circles.

He drank whiskey at night and when he had too many, he sucked on a cube of sugar, holding it in his teeth until it melted into small grains on his tongue.

“Are you thinking of her?” Soraya asked questions like this only to hear him lie, which he always did, too kind to tell her yes. Yes, he was thinking of her. Yes, there was someone before. Yes, yes to everything Ela.

Sheryar shook his head and bit down on a sugar cube.

“Good,” Soraya said, holding her stomach before she even knew. “Good because you can’t leave me now. It’s too late.”

You can’t leave behind a family.

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‘Big Boss Bitch’ by Adrienne Celt, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

fall-2016-1The woman began as an idea, as so many women do. She couldn’t be entirely beautiful, because that would stretch credibility too far. She couldn’t be ugly, either, though. A face with just enough lines that on a man it would be called rugged or handsome; but let’s put a little makeup on to smooth the edges, hmm? For clothing a pantsuit, and sometimes a skirt. Recognizable brands made invisible through smart cuts and conservative hemlines. And let’s make sure she smiles. A little razzle-dazzle. You can see how her husband found her pretty, once.

We picked out our woman in Oklahoma. Six weeks of traveling throughout the MiddleWest before we got results. Casting would’ve been easier in California or New York, but these days people always look for the provenance, and why include an elitist factor that will just have to be explained away? This girl screams Real America, the way a cheerleader would in the last quarter of the game. She was runner-up Homecoming Queen, 1979. Now she helps her dad run a cattle ranch; the grass is so green it’s blue, so blue the horizon bleeds into the sky.

That is, she helped her dad. Until she started helping us.

We picked her up off the street. She was walking around looking for a leather worker to repair a pair of stirrups. “He switched storefronts,” she said. “Can you believe it? Same sign, same everything, but move it down a block and a half and I can’t pick the damn place out. Been coming The Sheridan Press here for the past twenty years.” Her laughter was self-effacing, aw-shucks, and revealed a few too many smile lines beside the eyes. But these could be handled with a deft concealer brush. We asked if there was someplace we could go talk. About what? she wanted to know. A proposition. What kind? Well. How would she like to serve her country?

*

It doesn’t take a lot of persuading to get someone to accept a mantle of power. We were counting on that. And also on the fact that she wouldn’t read too far into the fine print before signing on the dotted line, and didn’t have too many ideas for what needed to change in our great nation. General concepts, inarticulable feelings: great. A new day for America. Stand up for the little guy. It was convenient that she still used male pronouns; not everyone does. Even people you don’t expect to be vehicles for inclusivity slip and say “they” instead of “he,” though the grammar books won’t back them up. One less thing we would have to coach her on. She teared up a little when we told her she was just what the country needed, and that, too, is a talent that can’t always be taught. Just enough emotion at just the right moment. Powerful, but soft. Like a blanket that’s put through the wash a hundred times, a thousand.

*

Our job is to give the people what they’re clamoring for. In moderation, of course. Figure out what they desire and then turn it into something they actually need, like those terrible chocolate chip cookies your mom makes with grated zucchini inside. The people wanted a woman, but they didn’t understand in what capacity. So many different kinds out there, and only us to find the right one. Welcome, open, elusive, chagrined. She wanted to be president, but only after we told her so.

The campaign trail was a dream. A few hiccups in the primaries from those on our side of the aisle who couldn’t see the bigger picture. But once we hit the main stage, things clicked into place. Sometimes after giving a speech she’d start to walk away from the mic and then turn around, flashing a last grin for the cameras. We hoped it would trigger some vestigial supermodel response, a little glimmer of unattainable warmth between the thighs. The newspapers called her a strong woman and a force to be reckoned with, and she was quickly spoofed by variety shows and ambitious comedians. Her name was in the headlines every day. We hardly had to try.

*

Now, we aren’t sure exactly when people started looking to their politicians and expecting to see a mirror, but these days that’s the game we’re playing. Everyone knows it. People turn on the TV and want their better selves reflected back. It can be a boon: much easier to find someone folksy than a genuine visionary, a policy miracle. An empathetic, systematic, deep-digging go-getter with both eyes on the prize. Not to mention the grace to get through all those interminable dinners with foreign dignitaries while carrying off couture.Even a well-fitted tux can start to feel restrictive after a few roulades de marmelade avec une glace vanille, if you know what we mean.

(As a side note, this is one area of diplomacy we identified early on in which women actually shine brighter. They have generations of experience saying, No, it looks lovely, but I couldn’t possibly, well maybe just one bite. Like how women do well in submarines because they’re designed, as it were, for interpersonal conflict resolution. It’s a scientifically proven element of nurturing.)

But the mirror. The mirror. At last the country figured out that anyone could hold one, and they began to get tetchy about it.They wanted to project their dreams into the nethersphere by ticking off a box in a booth—which we admit is a beautiful idea. But it takes planning to make it work. People drop mirrors all the time. They crack.We needed something scratch proof, not too heavy, classically designed. The pride of Inola High School, OK, and a prize-winning member of 4-h. Pliable, friable, and a decent physical specimen. Don’t judge: they look at physical fitness when choosing the crew for those submarines, too.

There were no problems to speak of until we got her into the office, and even then we were distracted by the early flurry of activity. An indepth special with a bevy of design blogs showing off the new Oval and discussing her selections from the National Gallery. A sit-down with the most sentimental evening news anchor talking about how young she was when she lost her mom, and her own struggles with raising three children at the same time as managing so many heads of cattle. “Heads of state, now,” the anchor joked. Madame President laughed, that same unpretentious chuckle that made our knees weak outside the Stop-n-Chop cafe.

Still, we should’ve seen the signs—no one wants to talk about family planning right after dinner, while sipping a postprandial highball. Her target demographic was people with televisions; there were certain types of female she could be for them, but not every type. Maternal, yes, but only a mama bear when it came to protecting the country from outside threats of the sort we’d earmarked. Easier to pretend that she’d never had a period or bought a box of Tampax—that was one benefit of a post-menopausal candidate, even if it lost us points on sexual charisma. Better to let her appeal be a little bit confusing. A girl in a mink coat who smells like dad’s cigar. A show-jumper who doffs her cap at the end of the rodeo and lets her hair tumble down onto her shoulders while she sweats.

One day, in a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, she made a joke about breastfeeding in the War Room. Afterward, there was whispering in the hallways, interns giggling in pantyhose and bad suits. We snapped and told them to get back to work, and they did—but all the girls had a little extra pep in their step. Some unrecognizable jus as they imagined, even as a gag, something they’d never before thought possible. The boys looked nervous. We couldn’t blame them.

When we talked to the president about taking care with what she said around impressionable young staffers, she didn’t share our concerns. “Kids,” she snorted. Her mannish laugh relaxed us. The distinct impression she gave was of someone thinking something dirty, but not quite ready to say it out loud. Still, when we complimented her brooch she gave us a strange look—one we’d never seen before. It didn’t get any better when we said it must be hell to spend so much time in heels. “Hmm,” she said. Then she told us she wanted to go on Crossfire.

She stretched her concept so slowly that, at first, we didn’t even notice. The morning of the White House Christmas Party she walked into a briefing without any makeup, and snapped at a page who told her she looked tired. “Have to show up as a clean slate before they make me camera-ready,” she said. “Boy, are they going to layer it on. Damned if I’m going to wash my face twice just to give you the illusion I’m well-rested.” Little things added up, and we brushed them off, as we would the dandruff on her shoulder. Lovingly. Sometimes with Scotch tape, or one of those lint rollers they sell in the impulse aisle at Target, though she smacked our hands away. At a rally we’d been careful to position as “church-going” instead of specifically “pro-life,” she made everyone cry with her story about a hometown girl getting pregnant too young and still graduating from high school on time. But then, at the last minute, she turned thoughtful. “I remember,” she said, “how that girl came up and told me she felt like her body didn’t belong to her anymore. She thought life was sacred, of course, but she asked me, isn’t my life a little sacred, too? And I said, Oh honey.” The room was quiet. Then the president smiled, to tentative applause.

It wasn’t so much the things she did: pummeling Congress for weeks until they introduced a bill to enforce the testing of rape kits; visiting with dignitaries in flats instead of the shoes that slimmed her ankles; taking meetings while her husband was out of town, so he couldn’t offer a veneer of approval for those—not us!—who thought he should. No. It was the fact that she wouldn’t listen to us when we offered gentle corrections. “The American people don’t want—” we began. And she said, “Hogwash. My name’s the one they checked off in the voting box.” Later that week she  gave a national radio address with no lipstick. Yes, it was radio, but we were all in the room, and a photographer was present. On our request, he shot the whole event without film.

OK, we thought. OK. We can fix this. We pep-talked our reflections, slapped ourselves on the cheek to stimulate creative thinking without that jittery aftereffect you get from too much coffee. We did a little bit of cocaine. At about 4:00 a.m. one of us lay back on the couch and looked up at the ceiling, making one of those fingerboxes people use when they want to indicate they’re looking through a camera. Directorial as all hell. What if, he said, we had her, but it wasn’t her?

We all laughed. The pot had really loosened us up, and only made a few of us too sleepy. The caverns of our minds were open, the walls throbbing and glistening with portent. Potential. I mean, the directorial one continued, we have the tech, right? For some reason this was a really funny sentence and we all started giggling again, and couldn’t put a lid on it for at least fifteen minutes, at which point the room grew silent as the gravity of the idea settled over our shoulders.

We did have the tech. We were pretty sure.

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‘Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy’ by Kaveh Akbar, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

You’re in a car and crying and amazed
at how bad it feels to do bad things. Then

you’re in a hotel bathroom with blood
on your undershirt and the smell of a too—

chlorinated pool outside. You know
one hundred ways to pray to the gods

rippling beneath that water. Confess, tangle,
pass through. Once your room is dark

they come inside, dripping wet. When you show
them the burnt place on your arm,

they show you the bands of flesh cut
from their thighs. You suck their tongues,

trace the blisters under their wings. It’s so lucky,
this living forever all at once. When you turn

on the lights, you’re inconsolably
glad. You could stop this whenever, but why?

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‘Stealth’ by Etan Nechin, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

Just around the time of my tenth birthday, I got a gas mask. In fact, everybody did.

My dad and I went to the collection point to bring them home. He signed a few papers, gave his ID, and we picked them up from the woman near the exit. She was wearing a gray uniform that made her look tired and bored, and it probably was boring sitting in a classroom all day handing out gas masks to people she didn’t care about.

Each mask came in a big brown box that my dad told me not to open unless the guy on the news with the large tinted glasses said so, but as we came into the house he opened one of the boxes so we could all see it for a moment. It was black and big, had two large openings for the eyes and had a new car smell, only more personal. Then he stored the masks on one of the shelves in his large concave studio, tucked in with the glass, wooden palates, rocks, and tools. After that, we had some cake.

I wanted to be the one who put the masks away, but I couldn’t because I was barefoot and shards of glass were strewn all over. And besides, he told me a studio was no place for a kid, only for men. The other thing that defined that period of my life apart from getting a gas mask is that I truly believed that all people were artists: all men had large concaved studios where they would listen to the radio or have friends come over to sip mint tea with leaves picked straight from the garden and served in cracked porcelain cups that they found at the flea market at the end of the day when vendors just wanted to get rid of their merchandise.

All the men I knew were artists, and all the old women chain-smoked long-stemmed menthol cigarettes and cursed and gave out stale candies. I believed everybody was a painter or an actor, sculptor, stained-glass artist, and potter because those were all my friends’ parents and all the people I knew, or my parents knew, which meant I knew by association. I was never allowed to sit in the studio and draw or write or play with toys, only deliver messages from my mom, although sometimes she would just go out to the front door and yell, and he would yell back, especially around dinnertime.

Every day I would take the school bus from the village to the comprehensive school where I met a lot of kids whose parents didn’t live in my village, but for me they were artists nonetheless. My friend Dan’s father was an artist who grew bananas, and the mother of the girl I was in love with, Naomi, was an artist who spoke with other people about their feelings. And Nimrod, the kid with the green-gleaming football shirt, had a dad who was an artist, but nobody knew what he did or where he was.

At recess we would all huddle in the corner on the far side of the soccer field. It was getting to be winter so we collected old blocks and made impromptu chairs for our little gang. Shmaya would take out his heavy worn sticker album and show everyone his latest acquisitions. I didn’t have an album but I did have a bunch of stickers that I would put on my notebook or the tape deck that my Uncle David gave to me when he came to visit from the States.

The stickers came in packets of four, with a piece of gum that had the color, and taste, of an eraser. All around the school you would see them lying on the pavement, waiting to be stepped on by an unsuspecting teacher or student.

That day Shmaya revealed his biggest find yet—it was General Schwarzkopf, standing in front of large screens, adorned in medals, smiling bullishly. His complexion was a dead green due to the faded, cheap façade of the sticker and it reminded me of how Iraq appeared on TV.

“What did you trade for it?” Ruvie asked.

“Two Russian Mig 21s, a Reo truck, two English Tornadoes, and James Baker.”

“You overpaid,” Ruvie glazed over us with a haughty look of a savvy auctioneer, “by a James Baker.”

Shmaya looked straight at him, unimpressed.

“Yalla yalla. As of now, I’m the only one in this school with a Schwarzkopf, and I already have a two James Baker’s at home. AND, the last time I saw your album, you didn’t have either.”

Ruvie seethed. “Well, my brother’s friend has all the collection and he’s much older that you and he said he can get more. So I’ll get mine in no time.”

Observing their little sticker-arms-trade tête–à–tête, I wondered how much James Baker was worth in the United States, where my uncle lived, and if nobody would trade planes for him, what would people do with all those stickers of him.

Ruvie scurried off, stomping through the damp field towards the class on the other side. We flipped through the album which was filled with airplanes, generals, tanks and politicians but in the middle of it there was a large gaping hole, a void so big, it eclipsed everything else one could get—even Saddam Hussein.

It was the Holy Grail of the sticker collection: the American Stealth Bomber.

Shiny and sleek, its amorphous, polygonal shape divulged some of its mystique. A chimera-like entity, the missing Stealth sticker loomed over the album, oppressive in its absence. It was a real piece of art, like those black and red steel sculptures you see in public gardens. My mother called those sculptures “kinetic”—my mom was an artist who taught art to the kids at my school. She didn’t make art, instead talked about it in long stirring words that seemed to me as beautiful as the pictures in the art books strewn throughout her classroom.

In this piece of art there was an artist who flew the plane all the way from Maryland or Pittsburgh or Huntington, West Virginia to Baghdad, but nobody has ever seen one, Shmaya told me. He was talking about the plane, not the sticker, even though we scoured the skies—and the local grocery stores.

The next day, on the bus to school all of us was staring through the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the planes flying to Iraq.

“I saw one!” Yoni yelled.

“It’s just a cropper,” Ruvie said.

“I’m pretty sure it was a Mirage,” Yevgeni said.

“I’m pretty sure you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yoni retaliated.

The bus weaved its way across the field roads and dropped us off and we spilled like paratroopers from the door, jumping one by one on to the curb.

Nobody was still or silent during history lesson. The excitement of things to come was too palpable. We passed notes to each other, some were about the planes, some were about the fact that Sigal was now officially Yakir’s girlfriend, some were about how the lesson was boring and how Ms. Gilat always smelled like stewed lentils.

Napoleon and his army was nothing compared with a band of countries fighting in Iraq: America, England, France, Denmark, and Australia allied to topple one man.

Just as the ruckus was threatening to topple Ms. Gilat, the classroom door swung open and a man in a khaki uniform came into the room.

We all hushed up immediately.

“Kids, this is Sergeant Druker. He came to the school to go over what you need to do in case of a missile attack.”

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‘Hotel Bar’ by Ruth Madievsky, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

Somewhere a dog is eating chicken bones
from a trash can, picking at
the gristle, the shards of bone
sharp enough to conquer
an intestine, and somewhere a liver cell
is dividing too quickly,
the palm of a hand
is meeting the face of a child
and I don’t know why that’s happening, why
the sound of flesh
against flesh is so satisfying,
the way taking off your bra
at the end of the day is satisfying, the unhook
and the exhale, the whole enterprise
pulled out through the sleeve
and tossed onto the bed or tossed
at the person in the bed,
and somewhere a person is in bed
with her mother,
who is crying because she can’t
lie in bed with her mother,
and somewhere a grandmother lives in a wall,
doing whatever it is
that people who live in walls do, and I wonder
if that’s similar
to what people who live
in the ground do, and how that’s similar
or different from what
people who are ash
do, and somewhere a man
who feels like ash all the time
is dragging a grocery cart
through the spice aisle,
and somewhere a woman
who fantasizes about leather
is pulling chicken bones
from a dog’s throat, speaking the shared
language of suffering,
all those silent syllables
flickering between them
like so many lightning bugs, like embers
from a fire someone’s boyfriend
is stoking
before returning to bed
and going down on the person in the bed,
whose body is like a hotel bar,
offering heat and darkness and
liquors that taste different
depending on the day, the time,
the person removing
the stopper, and somewhere
a woman is taking a break
from singing
into despair’s microphone,
and somewhere a man isn’t waxing the floors
of his self-loathing, his wrists
intact, the amber vial
still married to its childproof cap,
a song without words
on the radio, enough tea leaves
for a second cup.

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