Khun Nee

“You want make baby?” Khun Nee asked me.

“Yes,” I replied, climbing onto her treatment bed. It was my second day in Chiang Mai, and my twin sister hadn’t wasted any time booking me a fertility massage.

“I’m worried that something’s wrong. That I won’t be able to …”

My words trailed off as Khun Nee drummed her fingers lightly over my stomach. “You will make baby.”

The next morning my stomach felt like someone had punched me in the gut a thousand times.”

I relaxed into a smile. Khun Nee’s fertility treatment had worked for my twin, and now, I hoped, it would work for me. “You the same as your sister, same problem, both blocked. I make you smooth, like I did for her.”

Throughout our lives, people asked Brooke and me if we could feel each other’s pain. We always told them no. If Brooke twisted her ankle, I wouldn’t experience any phantom pain myself. It wasn’t so much a simultaneous sensation as a general understanding of the kinds of ailments that befell us. It went more like this: ‘You know that pain we get, the one in our upper backs?’ And the other would nod, knowing it well. Or: “Do you also get a rash on your chest in a cold wind?” “Yes,” the other would respond, and then give advice on how to treat it.

Yet it didn’t always work this way. Living in different countries had changed us. I got a skin pigmentation malady from the piercing sun in Dubai; Brooke developed a mysterious series of sore throats when she taught English in Japan. Parts of my face inexplicably swelled during the dry season in Indonesia. Brooke’s mosquito bites got infected in Cambodia. She broke her wrist from a fall while running on the uneven paths in Chiang Mai, while I fell off my bike, cycling home from a wine tasting on the backstreets of Adelaide.

Our experiences in these places changed us as well. I learned to cook cheap meals in expensive Australia, while Brooke could always afford to eat out in Chiang Mai. I went camping and bush walking. I began to think of driving a hundred kilometers as a relatively short distance. She learned Thai, hailed songthaews to work, and visited temples on a daily basis. And now here we were, both in Chiang Mai, her with a fourteen-month-old son, my beautiful nephew, and me desperate for a baby of my own.

During the year Brooke spent trying to conceive, I had no advice to offer. Without experiencing this yet myself, I was failing to provide my twin insight into our health. I unhelpfully offered the same pointless platitudes as everyone else: “Don’t stress!” “It will happen when you stop thinking about it!”

As a vegetarian, she started to eat meat to increase her iron levels, and I did too. She took Clomid to stimulate ovulation, went for acupuncture treatments, and vigilantly charted her cycles. Nothing seemed to work. Then somehow, deep in an Internet search rabbit hole, she read about Khun Nee’s fertility massage treatment in an online forum and made an appointment. Two treatments and three months later, she was pregnant with her son.

Aware of Brooke’s difficulties but mindful of her presumed cure, my husband and I entered into our own baby-making process with some trepidation. Were we setting ourselves up for failure? After six months, the answer seemed to be yes. As soon as I booked my flight to Chiang Mai, Brooke made my appointment with Khun Nee.

“Sor-eee,” Khun Nee intoned, pressing harder on my stomach and sensing me squirm. I felt as though she was pushing aside my organs and reaching through to my backside. Determined to withstand the intense pain, I firmed up my stomach muscles. Brooke hadn’t warned me about the agony of this ‘fertility massage.’ Perhaps I was more blocked than her, or less able to withstand the grinding and squashing of my insides. But Brooke’s experience gave me courage: if she had done it, so could I. Meanwhile, Khun Nee was breaking a sweat, her breath hard and heavy, injecting her calm, forceful vigor into me, I presumed.

If Brooke hadn’t tried this treatment first, I wouldn’t have gone through with it. I had never heard of a fertility massage before, and would have assumed Khun Nee was a fake. But thankfully I was spared that anxiety. I marveled at the stout woman before me, in her loose clothes, her wiry black hair pulled back by a thick head wrap. This was the woman who helped create my nephew, who might be able to heal whatever prevented me from conceiving thus far.

“I change the energy inside you. Make it flow, so sperm can get in.”

I smiled and nodded through a grimace of pain.

“I like you,” she said. “You must tell me when you have baby.”

“Yes,” I promised.

When she pronounced the treatment over for that day, I lay on the cot for what seemed like a long time. I felt grateful to be there, in this village forty-five minutes outside of the city, with my sister and her family waiting for me at their home, bursting to take me to a new noodle place for lunch, then to make merit at a temple, and finally to stroll through the Saturday market so I could buy more trinkets for my home back in Australia.

Eventually I must have risen and dressed in a mild trance. Disoriented, I made my way into the living room, where Khun Nee said I would need at least five more treatments. I booked my next appointment for the following day and handed her the equivalent of sixty dollars in Thai baht. It was no great hardship for me, but not insignificant either.

The next morning my stomach felt like someone had punched me in the gut a thousand times. My sister called Khun Nee to explain that I had to cancel my appointment. I couldn’t imagine going through that again in my state. But despite this setback, I was elated. I took the soreness I felt as proof of the change inside me. I clutched my stomach, letting this shift take hold, and by the end of the day, the ache had subsided.

I saw Khun Nee a week later. She went through the treatment again, and by the end she pronounced me smooth: healed. Her treatment had worked so well, I didn’t need any more sessions. I asked her how long it would last. Would I become blocked again in a few weeks or months? She didn’t understand, and only told me to make baby fast.

One month later, as it turned spring in Adelaide, I lay in our backyard on an old camping mattress in the first sunshine in a long time, gazing at the pregnancy test with two lines.

We took a trip to Chiang Mai when my daughter was four months old. At the end of our stay, Brooke, my daughter and I visited Khun Nee. Still wearing the same thick head wrap, still a soft bundle of energy, I marveled at the improbability that this healer from the north of Thailand was the one who led my sister and I toward pregnancies, to the children we now couldn’t image our lives without.

When Khun Nee treated my sister and me again, she unblocked Brooke, but told me that I was still smooth, that my post-birth healing was near perfect. I don’t know what causes my illnesses and health to resemble my sister, or what causes our differences. But our matching experiences with Khun Nee confirm that Brooke and I are still the same deep down, no matter how far apart we travel or how much where we live dictates our health, our daily experiences and the ways we raise our children. Wherever we are in the world, this bond will continue within us, and within her son and my daughter. I’m grateful Brooke found the treatment that allowed her to conceive, that she found a way to move from blocked to smooth, and showed me the way too.

Jillian Schedneck is the author of the travel memoir Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights and runs the website Writing From Near and Far. She holds an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in Gender Studies. She lives in Adelaide, South Australia, with her husband and daughter.



Ode to Thrash Metal

There I was, marching down Dolores Street, shoulder bag containing three bottles of nausea medicine slung over my back while Metallica’s “Of Wolf and Man” blared from my headphones. The infusion ward at San Francisco General Hospital was my destination. It was the summer of 2009. I was thirty years old. Inside my body a band of rogue blood cells had formed a meatball-sized tumor near my heart. The only physical indications that I was battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma was my cropped hair and the faint yellowish-purple bruises on my left forearm where the chemo was injected. My zealous love for thrash metal was forged that summer.

In heavy metal, especially thrash metal — a faster, more aggressive permutation that derived from formative bands like Black Sabbath, Diamond Head and Motörhead — I found the fierce, powerful, and unrelenting music I sought.”


“Of Wolf and Man” was my fight song those Friday mornings when I stepped out of the house. My spirit roared to the song’s nasty staccato riff that sounded like fiery dragon breaths, the thundering snare, and the opening verse about a wolf running through the morning mist in search of a fallen lamb. My eyes were alit with determination and anger as I listened to the song. I was the wolf. The predator. Mr. Hodgkins — the tuxedo-wearing, middle-aged man with a derby hat I had personified as my disease — was my prey. Marching past the Victorians, taquerías, shops and murals ornamenting the Mission District was like my long walk into the squared circle with imaginary boxing gloves laced around my hands. No punk-ass, deathmonger motherfucker was going to take me without a nasty fight.

Back then, the only metal bands I listened to on a regular basis were Black Sabbath, Tool and Metallica. I owned exactly one Megadeth song. Bands like Slayer, Anthrax, Exodus, Sodom, Kreator and Death Angel had not infiltrated my music library. Their music didn’t course through my body until the post-cancer years that followed.

In my mind, it’s simple to understand how this shift sprouted. Our world became a slightly more frightening place once my body was ridden of cancerous cells. I inevitably saw myself as a more delicate being. I had to be cautious of the thoughts and assumptions my mind had produced about our turbulent world. If I had concluded, long before my blood cells went haywire, that human civilization is a largely self-destructive construct, it couldn’t be all that surprising that my bodily vessel developed a self-destructive disease. There is a part of me that wants to die — a part of me that no longer wants to witness the suffering around us. But once I was diagnosed with lymphoma, I discovered a burning, instinctual will to live that I did not know I possessed. It has continued to burn since the day my oncologist told me I was cancer-free. Once post-cancer life ensued, I felt I needed to develop an armor to keep my body from relapsing and I just so happen to believe you are what you listen to (among other variables).

Enter Slayer.

Enter Megadeth.

Enter Judas Priest.

In heavy metal, especially thrash metal — a faster, more aggressive permutation that derived from formative bands like Black Sabbath, Diamond Head and Motörhead — I found the fierce, powerful, and unrelenting music I sought. I found the frenetic speed, musical virtuosity, gruff vocals and soaring screams that pulsed within my blood. And so, I became immersed in a musical form that was blunt about the bleak, dark world of man — a genre of music rife with songs about death and destruction. The music mirrored the world I saw, the world I read from our history texts and newspaper headlines. Like any music we fuse to our heart, it spoke for me.

Now when I find myself at the gym, working out to keep my body strong, to help keep Mr. Hodgkins away, the dual guitars of KK Downing and Glenn Tipton, Chuck Schuldiner’s searing solos, and Dave Lombardo’s pounding drums drive me as I cycle on the exercise bike. When I pedal at a frenetic pace, I stare ahead with the same pissed-off-ness that helped to propel me through that cancerous shitstorm. Now I often bang my head to the brutal beat while I’m cycling, my body in communion with this music I can’t imagine life without.

Thrash metal is no longer my battle call.

It’s my survival music.

Juan Alvarado Valdivia’s work has been published in The Acentos Review, The Bay Bridged, Black Heart Magazine, Somos en escrito and is forthcoming from Origins Journal. His book, ¡Cancerlandia!: A Memoir, received an Honorable Mention for the 2016 International Latino Book Award for Best Biography in English. For more information, check out his website at


Looking for White Deer

After five miscarriages, I stayed pregnant with my first daughter. Driving from New York City to my mother’s summer house in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I noticed a spotted fawn crossing the road in front of me.

“Stay with me,” I exhorted this baby; the fawn a symbol of all I hoped.

To see a white deer is to be startled, overcome that such creatures exist in our world, like the door in the back of the wardrobe that delivers the Pevensie children to Narnia. The rare sight compels silence and surrender. These creatures seem one step removed from unicorns, but real.”

I have always been slightly deer-obsessed.  I love spotting deer from the passenger seat, particularly as light leaches from the sky and the deer come out from wherever they’ve gone all day, munching apples, bending their necks, grazing calmly in fields, leaping across our neighbor’s hedge, white tails lifted. I never tire of them and I routinely avert my eyes when I see one, limbs splayed awkwardly, lying dead on the side of the highway. It seems wrong that creatures of such grace can be struck down.

When I was in fourth grade, I had to leave the science movie about a starving deer herd. As I sobbed in the company of the school secretary, she comforted me, murmuring that I was sensitive. Years later, I listened to a student explain that one deer fed his whole family for the weekend.  I relented slightly in the face of practicality and poverty, but I remain sensitive and deer-crazed.  Fawns represent hope. And white deer, my favorite, represent wonder.

In Native American culture, all-white animals of any species are considered sacred. For me, white deer feel inexplicable, exquisite. DNA or genetic mutations seem too rational an explanation for their beauty.  In the times I have been fortunate to see them, I’ve felt transformed, too, as if I have born witness to something rare, the way I felt when I held one of my babies in my arms for the very first time.  Awe and wonder.

That summer of the starving deer herd movie, my mom and I pulled off the road, crossed to a guardrail and saw one. Elegant and unperturbed, she stood, glowing, in the middle of a herd of at least fifteen other red deer. To my Shakespeare-besotted fourth grade self, she was Titania, Queen of the Fairies, waiting for her Oberon. I pretended we were looking down at her court, she, the obvious Queen.  Calmly, she moved her head to follow the antics of one silver fawn and one red fawn gamboling around her — clearly her own twins. Dusk deepened, hills forming a natural theatre around this clearing full of Queen Anne’s lace and clover.  Cue the fireflies. Then, the stars. It was spectacular. Mom and I stood, silent, awe-struck as the evening cooled. We breathed in the magic quietly, together.

Later, I saw a huge white, red-eyed buck prancing unsteadily in a neighbor’s yard. He unsettled me; albino deer are not always healthy. The white deer I seek are all-white deer with white tails and dark eyes, not red-eyed albinos. They appear from time to time in the piece of Pennsylvania where we spend our summers. We go looking, following a whisper that one has recently been sighted, each expedition laden with hope, an inhale of possibility. Sometimes the best moments come during the quest, in the thrill of expectation.  Some summers pass without any white deer, though I am always on the lookout.

To see a white deer is to be startled, overcome that such creatures exist in our world, like the door in the back of the wardrobe that delivers the Pevensie children to Narnia. The rare sight compels silence and surrender. These creatures seem one step removed from unicorns, but real.

When my daughters were small, maybe three and five, I heard a white fawn had been spotted way down Allegheny Avenue in our summer community. It was August, late for a fawn, but unable to resist the possibility of seeing the baby, I zipped them into their footie pajamas and set out to look for the fawn at dusk. Like so many moments of parenting, white deer sightings cannot be planned; there’s an element of luck, of being in the right place in the right time. And that Sunday night, we were.

Curled in nest of grass, quite near the road, the late-drop white fawn was utterly unaware that she was visible, a bright beacon.  Her mother was nowhere near. We gasped when we finally discerned the red twin, curled in a nest with its white sibling, so carefully camouflaged in the grasses. How we could have missed it? We marveled that we’d spotted it at all, imagining all the other fawns hidden in plain view we may have passed. For a long time we gazed until my daughters worried that our presence might be keeping the mama deer away.

The girls fell asleep in the car on the way back to the city. I’ve kept the image of those deer twins in my head all these years, braided with memories of our two daughters, who are close in age and miraculous. I imagine the deer mother tucking her babies in together, instructing them to stay put, to stay safe in deer-mother-speak. All mothers mutter those mantras.

My son was born when I was forty-three, his sisters nine and eleven years older. A decade after we’d discovered the bright white twin and its red sibling, I learned about a white deer sighted in a nearby cornfield. My own late life bonus baby was now ten, and went looking, but the deer was a no show. A few days later, I ask the farm stand man who sells fresh picked corn if the white deer was still around.

“Oh, yeah,” he answered, smiling.

“Nine.” he said. “Every night. Regular as a train. Right over there,” he gestures across to the corn field. “A whole line of cars pulled over to watch his rack of antlers.”

The idea of the other cars saddens me. In my mind’s eye, seeing a white deer is a private viewing, less premeditated than being part of a crowd. So much for spontaneity. But, if this deer has chosen a field off Route 42 to graze in, who am I to criticize?  I think we’ll go. I have my memories of the deer queen, of the hidden fawn and her glowing twin in the dusk. I want to give my son a memory, too.

It’s hard to know whether my son will be as besotted as I once was by his first white deer, gripped by her magic and majesty, or unaffected by her charms, having seen seven impossible things before breakfast on his iPad. There’s no telling. Still, we’ll go. There’s always the possibility that a white deer’s daily routine could weave itself into my son’s imagination as its antecedents wove themselves into mine long ago.

Ann V. Klotz is a writer and headmistress in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Mutha, the Brevity Bog, Mothers Always Write, the Feminine Collective and in the anthology What I Didn’t Know published by Creative Nonfiction.
Deer image from old masters 19th century German painting titled “Wooded Landscape with Deer and a White Stag.”



Tastes Change

My 89-year-old mother’s whole world has been reduced to a single flavor: vanilla.


But my mother, who once craved al dente cappellini marinara, lobster tail drenched in melted butter, and the seasonal indulgence of my fresh strawberry shortcake, has lost her sense of taste. “It tastes like nothing,” she says, of most everything.”

This once beautiful and statuesque woman is now drawn, gaunt. As she naps, fitfully, her frail hands reach out and grab for something only she can see; she mouths words I cannot hear to someone I do not know. When I wake her, she is disappointed.

Once, while on her honeymoon, she flirted with Jake La Motta and charmed him, like she did all men. But her looks were deceptive; she had great business acumen. Though she possessed the body of a World War II pin-up model, she became the first female heating contractor in Michigan. Later, she opened a popular clothing boutique in the Detroit suburbs. She could figure sales tax in her head and multi-task like no one else.

She was devoted to my father, and nursed him at home for many years when he fell ill, long past when many might have abdicated that responsibility. But she loved him fiercely, as she did her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Like many women of a certain age, she wouldn’t be caught dead leaving the house without full makeup, dressed meticulously and coiffed just so, with standing manicure and hair appointments each week. How distraught she would be to know that her pillow has permanently flattened the back of her lovely white crown of hair. That her blush, applied lovingly by her well-meaning caretaker, looks clownish on her papery skin.

She worried about weight most of her life. In a reversal of fortunes, it is now her children who struggle with her weight, trying desperately to get her to eat. But my mother, who once craved al dente cappellini marinara, lobster tail drenched in melted butter, and the seasonal indulgence of my fresh strawberry shortcake, has lost her sense of taste. “It tastes like nothing,” she says, of most everything.

The change was gradual. At first, she couldn’t remember what she liked, but if put it in front of her, she would eat it. If left to her own devices, she would forget to eat. Food purchased for her at the grocery store would languish in her cupboard and molder in the fridge well past the sell-by date. Her now-full-time caregiver would coax her into eating while watching “The Today Show” and reruns of “The Price is Right.”

Then came the push back. Food she had dutifully consumed the week before was now unacceptable. Meals at her favorite deli were sent back repeatedly; they just weren’t right. Most foods elicited a grimace, a disgusted smack of the lips, and a pronouncement of “too sweet!” although she would still reliably eat seven-layer cake and challah smothered with jam.

The current phase, after the fall that broke her hip and necessitated a weeklong hospital stay followed by a lengthy stint in a rehab facility, is far more concerning. I drive in from Chicago to visit; my sister gives me a list of food to pick up. Hope-filled, I bring a bag filled with tasty tidbits to her house. I unload the container of tuna fish salad, a chocolate chip scone, a vanilla milkshake. I arrange it on the tray table and try to work my magic, feeding her choice morsels.

“I don’t eat that!” she cries. “You’re trying to poison me!” A proffered bite of tuna is spit into my hand; she closes her mouth to the chocolate chip scone. “If it’s so good, you eat it,” she says, with venom. I know it’s the dementia talking, but I still fight back tears. I struggle to find my mom, the one I knew. She’s in there, somewhere, but it’s a deep dive.

The only thing she accepts is the vanilla milkshake. She surprises me by drinking a quarter of it, her eyes smiling in approval. I make the mistake of relaxing my guard. Five minutes later, the love affair is over; the milkshake is “terrible.” It’s back to her vanilla Ensure on ice, supplemented with protein powder. We turn our backs to her as we stir it in. An illicit act, borne of necessity.

“If I like it, I eat it,” she says with conviction. The problem is that she no longer likes anything, so she barely eats. Only a small bowl of plain ice cream consistently elicits a positive reaction. Her existence, once crowded with love and life, so full of infinite flavor, is now tightly circumscribed.

“She’s making a choice,” the gerontologist tells us kindly. At her age, and in her condition, there’s very little she can still control. Choosing not to eat, despite a vague understanding that the consequences will be dire, is a decision she makes consciously, and it’s one that we must respect. There will be no force-feeding, no tubes to deliver the nutrients she so badly needs. Now it’s on her terms, and those terms are strictly vanilla.

Julie Chernoff is a Chicago-area food journalist. Her work has appeared in Make It Better, NS Modern Luxury, CS Modern Luxury, LDEI Quarterly, Yale Alumni Magazine, and Weight Watchers Magazine.

The Art of Passivity

“Are you gonna be here the next few minutes?”

I look up from grading research papers, the late ones, the worst ones, the ones written hurriedly or were plagiarized, the long, undocumented paragraphs reading like Walter Isaacson, because they could be Walter Isaacson.


Given the abrupt ending to this young man’s life, I wanted to impress on these 16 and 17-year-olds that Horace’s ode had it right: don’t bank on next winter, but rather prune your trees today.”

A shorter, younger, thinner Lance Armstrong wearing a two-day shadow stands in front of me. Flip-flops, Bermuda shorts—or what passes for them today—green sweatshirt, and burgundy baseball cap with an intricate letter logo looking like a T and an S having excellent sex. He is one of maybe 150 passengers waiting at the gate to board the Southwest Airlines flight from Buffalo to Chicago. Before standing, he had been sitting in the last seat in the row perpendicular to ours, two arm lengths away.

“Um, yeah,” I say. I mean, where am I going? My wife, Tia, has just left for the restroom, and we’ll be boarding in ten minutes. She left me guarding her purse and our seats, so I’m stuck here.

“Would you mind keeping an eye on my stuff?” He holds up a lime-green translucent tube. “I just want to go fill my water bottle.”

Without thinking (it’s a habit), I bark, “Sure,” a Golden Retriever trying to please, happy to fulfill expectations, wanting to be liked.

Then he is gone, and I’m staring at what he left for me to guard, his stuff so close I could kick the pair of shiny white running shoes tied to the gray, bulging backpack leaning against a navy blue duffle bag named “Niagara University.”

It takes ten seconds for me to realize there might be a bomb inside any or all of the items, including the shoes. What I’ve done is exactly what a terrorist would ask me to do if he or she wanted to plant an explosive in the Buffalo airport. How many times have squawky admonitions in stations and airports insisted, “Report any suspicious activity to authorities;” “Be vigilant;” and “Wake up and smell the fucking roses.”

Most people today have learned not to ask strangers to keep an eye on unattended bags, and most people have learned not to accept that responsibility. Unaccompanied bags are the modus operandi of low-incentive terrorists like the Boston Marathon bombers. My diminutive Lance Armstrong looked and behaved like he kept up with today’s terrorist zeitgeist, which suggested he was no naïve, long-distant runner who needed to fill his water bottle, but a fanatic bent on drawing an unsuspecting American into his demonic plan.

My imagination’s x-ray vision inspects the backpack and duffle bag and sees hundreds of nails ready to spray across the room, on a cell phone’s launch. Like steel sparks exploding outward from a bursting firework, they spear the flesh and bone of my fellow passengers waiting to board. I turn to look for Lance so I can retrieve him, but he’s vanished, confirming he’s ISIS or Taliban or kook. He successfully picked out the biggest dupe, recognized by his thinning, snowy, Robert Frost hair, button-down shirt, khaki pants, and white canvas tie sneakers. “This moron will accede to anything,” Lance surely sized me up. “He’d conform to the will of a goat.”

The question becomes not “Are there bombs about to explode?”, but “What do I do now?” I go over my options quickly, as who knows when he’ll detonate his artful packages?

Option 1: Sit there and wait for the bombs to go off. I like this option. My death will be quick and painless. Unless, I concede, 3,000 nails find my calves and thighs to nest in, leaving me a paraplegic.

Option 2: The right thing, the correct thing, the legalistic thing: March over to the woman behind the desk who prepares to board us. “You might want to check those bags for bombs,” I’d tell her. What then? Flight delay or cancellation. Robots and/or dogs brought to check the suspicious articles. Stuck for four hours in a neon-lit, two-way mirrored room where TSA agents interrogate me about why I agreed to watch a stranger’s bags, leading to a possible criminal record.

Option 3: Take Tia’s purse and my backpack and seek refuge behind the nearest wall, hoping it’s a supporting wall that won’t disintegrate upon a percussive impact, and listen for the explosion from a position of relative safety. I tell myself this is a coward’s way out, a selfish act of self-survival, a throwing over of my fellow passengers. Additionally, this scenario has me shirking my duty, going back on a promise that, even given to a terrorist, is still a promise that I’d keep my eye on his stuff. And what if I missed Tia coming back from the women’s restroom, only to have her sit by the danger, worrying where I’d gone, the first to receive the bomb’s deathly deliverance? I’d feel really bad.

I run the options through my mind again and again. Which to choose? I turn around again, hoping to see Lance striding back, water bottle filled, a smile on his face thanking me silently for my vigil. But he’s nowhere in sight, confirming his diabolical plan. I have to decide. Do I do what’s easiest, what’s right, or what’s selfish?

If you’ve stayed with this me up to now, surely you guessed that I do nothing. Yes, I continue to sit there, ready to be deafened, then filled with lead or obliterated into shreds smaller and less meaty than shaved beef.

Nonetheless, one benefit results. Three minutes earlier, grading research papers had been drudgery worse than pouring hot tar, but now, simply being alive and not in pain, what once felt like a chore has turned boon; I don’t exactly indulge in the pleasure of grading papers, but it’s better than dying ignominiously.

Of course, a few minutes later Lance returns, his water bottle brimming. Without saying “Thanks,” he sits back down, and I continue grading. When Tia comes back and Lance gets up to board, I’m too ashamed to tell her what just occurred. Not until the next morning, when we’re in the kitchen getting ready to leave for our respective teaching jobs, do I reveal the story.

“That was stupid,” she affirms, then adds speculatively, “maybe he was an undercover TSA agent doing research on how gullible people are. Or maybe he really was a terrorist testing out ploys to get people to watch their stuff.” Then she asked, “Did he get on board the flight?”

He did, I answer. I know for sure he did, because during the flight I had to stand in the aisle while a woman by the window went to the bathroom. Looking at the other passengers, I discovered Lance a few rows back, his burgundy hat still riding his head, the TS or ST logo still a mystery.

That day, in my high school English classes, I tell them the story. They like it because it’s self-deprecating, and who doesn’t like hearing their teacher behaved like an irresponsible coward? But I also tell it because I want to stress the theme of carpe diem. A popular senior at our school was killed the Friday before in a freak parking lot accident, the very day we’d left for Buffalo for our daughter’s graduate school graduation. He’d been riding on the running board of a large, slow-moving SUV when the driver turned sharply. The kid fell off, and given a hundred ways he could have fallen and walked away with scrapes, he landed on his head, was airlifted to a nearby trauma center, and died that Monday morning.

Earlier in the year we’d read the Romantics, Thoreau and Emerson, along with Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. We watched Robin Williams wow his classes in Dead Poets Society reciting “To His Coy Mistress,” impressing students with life’s brevity. Recently we’d covered the Modernists, William Carlos Williams urging readers in his American vernacular to notice red wheelbarrows glazed with rainwater beside white chickens, to listen for the gong of fire engines, and to taste the delicious pear while eating it. Given the abrupt ending to this young man’s life, I wanted to impress on these 16 and 17-year-olds that Horace’s ode had it right: don’t bank on next winter, but rather prune your trees today.

In my honors English class, when I get to the part about Lance’s mysterious logo on his baseball cap, kids started searching online possibilities and holding up their finds.

“Like this?”


“Like this?”


“Is it like this?”

A boy sitting in the front row holds up his screen. I glance down, and there’s Lance’s burgundy hat and logo.

Thrilled, I yell, “What is it?”

“Florida State.”

I study the F, so shrouded by the baroque S that its lower staff gets lost, leaving the impression of a T. Mystery solved.

“If he’s from Florida State,” another student queries, “why’s he flying from Buffalo to Chicago?”

Better to leave an essay with at least one question unanswered, leaving the reader wanting more, asking more.

Richard Holinger’s work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Iowa Review and Boulevard His collection, Not Everybody’s Nice, won the 2012 Split Oak Press Flash Prose Chapbook Contest. He writes a newspaper column, teaches high school, and facilitates a writing workshop.