UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI

Letter from the Editor

Dear reader, 

This is not a joyful time to be a writer in Florida. Books bans have swept the state. Marginalized folks face severe restrictions when it comes to their health and safety. And yet—yes, there is a “yet”—I’ve fallen in love with this state.

I first stepped foot in Florida to pursue writing. This strikes me as rather ironic now, but I’ve developed as a writer here all the same. In my time at the University of Miami I’ve grown to adore Florida’s rare beauty and rich culture, and I’ve also struggled to square this love away. I’m not alone in this, and indeed our contributors miraculously delivered an issue that expressed the good, the bad, and the ugly of Florida. Our poets sing the praises of Florida’s lush greenery and simmering heat in “Dracula in the Everglades,” “Camping Sonnet,” and “quiet.” Meanwhile, our South Florida-set stories banty sharp dialogue that conjures Jennine Capó Crucet’s How To Leave Hialeah. The whole of Florida is represented here in lurid color and I can’t help but think of how Lauren Groff terms the state: “an Eden of dangerous things.”

I’m also thrilled to introduce Sinking City’s next editor-in-chief, Swetha Siva. Swetha is a rising second year MFA student at the University of Miami, and already she’s received one of the program’s most prestigious awards. Our readers will truly be in excellent hands with Swetha.

Now, I’ll leave you to peruse Issue #14 which is, against all odds, joyful.


With love,

Megan Ritchie

Coming Out

by Madari Pendas

Ofelia doesn’t tell Alejo that she has access to his internet history. Why would she? It’s the only way she can find out what’s really going on with her seventeen-year-old son. Last month, he looked up “Are my moles regular or cancerous” and “NYC housing” and “How to find an agent?” And the month prior to that he Googled “Panic attack or heart attack???”

She enjoys having insight into her son’s life, seeing his personality through his searches, what phases he is going through, and learning what he fears. Ofelia believes people are most themselves when they think no one’s watching.

It’s why she’s always loved that John Quinones show, What Would You Do? Ofelia wept during the episode where they filmed how restaurant goers reacted when no one showed up to a six-year old’s birthday. It’s false–and a little manipulative–but shows the truth about people. Some didn’t stop eating. One guy laughed. But many walked over and sat with the boy, singing to him as his cake was brought out. Another episode that left Ofelia cold was a son coming out to his parents at a Denny's. When the parents reacted poorly, almost all the other diners defended the boy.

A year ago, Alejo had been searching “How to come out?”

It wasn't a surprise for Ofelia. Eso se cae de la mata. She’s known this fact since he was five years old and demanded to be taken with Ofelia to the nail salon. With his thick legs dangling over the edge of the seat, he’d flip through Cosmo and Ms. Magazine. For his ninth birthday, he asked for a wig to imitate Celia Cruz. To be cute, instead of shouting "Azucar!" Celia’s catch phrase, he’d yell, “Sal!” It eventually became his motto to convey all manner of displeasure.

Ofelia had looked up “How to support son during coming out?”

All the sites and forums said to let him tell her when he’s ready, to do it on his timeline, and not to interrupt. On a forum for mothers of teenagers, one user (BigMomma787) wrote, “This is the most important moment in their life!!! So be niiiice. It’s not about you. >.<”

Of course, Ofelia would be nice. Whatever that meant. She knew she wouldn’t scream at Alejo or kick him out of her house. She’d be understanding, kind, the model of empathy.

After having perused the forums for a while, she got the sense that most of the mothers on there were Gringas. They were huffy, arrogant, quick to condemn, and quicker to cry when called out. Ofelia stopped visiting the site after a woman complained that her son was developing an accent due to their Dominican nanny. Sal!

* * *

Ofelia packs two suitcases for her trip to Havana. Her plane leaves in three hours. Her sister is throwing a small quinces party in El Vedado in a palader that’s usually reserved for tourists, but due to some broken pipes and asbestos has been closed to the general public.

“Mami,” Alejo says, knocking on the door frame of her room.

“Mhm,” Ofelia says without turning. She can’t get the zipper to shut. She uses every trip to the island to bring her family things they’re missing. Last year she was heralded as a queen for bringing them an air fryer.

She takes out the Black & Decker toaster oven and tries again. She rearranges the contents of the luggage, taking out some clothing, but the toaster is still too large and makes a lump on the surface. She tries again.

“¿Dónde pongo esto?” She holds up the toaster. “¿En mi culo?”

Alejo walks and sits across the suitcase, at the end of her bed, near the San Lazaro shrine. He holds the top flap open, sliding the zipper side to side, while she searches for a spot for the toaster. “Can we talk?”

“Yes,” Ofelia says. “Humans can talk. Parrots can talk, too. Your cousin, Lazaro, told me once his dog talks to him.”

Alejo rolls his eyes. “Wow, you should be on the Tonight Show.”

“They can’t afford me.”

After taking out a week’s worth of panties, Ofelia is able to fit the toaster. “¡Eso!” But now she wonders if she can go a week with one pair of underwear. She’ll wear several pairs on the plane, she figures. Or put some knotted up pairs in her jean pockets. She stifles a laugh when she imagines herself using one as a scrunchy.

“Mami, I’m serious. Can we have a grown-up conversation?”

Ofelia resists the urge to say that we’d need two grownups for that, chamaco. He’s sensitive and a bit humorless like his father. Everything is serious or grave or urgent. “Okay, talk. You have my ear–only one, the other needs a tune up.” She can’t help herself.

He takes out notecards from his back pocket and clears his throat. He’s going to do it, Ofelia thinks. He's going to come out. She checks her watch. She has time. In three hours, they could do a lot. She doesn’t want to rush him or blurt out I’ve always known, papo.

Alejo swallows. “Sorry, give me a second.”

“Okay. One, two–”

“Can you be serious? God!”

“Sorry.”

Ofelia has told him that having a sense of humor helped her survive her life in Cuba. Telling jokes was the only way to endure. A mal tiempo buena cara. But Alejo doesn’t care.

“I’m here, listening,” Ofelia says. “Sorry.”

“You are forgiven.” He looks over his cards, shuffling between two.

She wonders if he’s scared. Does he think she’ll hit him? Threaten to kick him out? Maybe one can never really know. Someone can be kind until they’re not. She wishes he could sense how much she adores him and wants to support him. If he saw her internet history, he’d see: “How to pay for NYU” and “remortgaging house?” and “Can Florida prepaid be transferred?”

He swallows. “I’m going to get a glass of water.” He strides out of the room, then down the hall.

“Mijo! You remember I have a flight, right?”

She hears the fridge door open and close–probably not closed all the way. Sal! Then hears his chancletas slapping against the bottom of his feet as he returns.

Alejo returns with a Crush soda and plantain chips. He settles back into his spot. The luggage separates them on the bed. “Okay, one moment.”

“Absolutely.”

She loves how formal he is. Every time he answers the phone he says, “Good morning” or “Good evening.” If Ofelia had co-workers, she’d tell them about her little professor son. When she’s cleaning someone’s house, she sometimes talks to the cats, if the owners have any. “What are your kids like?” she asks the tabby that lives in the two-story Tudor in the Gables. “Mine takes me for granted too. Not feline good.”

Alejo re-orders his cards and clears his throat. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you–”

Ofelia’s phone rings.

She holds up a finger to Alejo. “It’s your titi ‘spera.”

She walks out of the room, closing the door behind her, and into the hallway. On the hallway wall are pictures of Alejo taken at Sears when he was three years-old. He was all head at the age, like Bobble. In one photo he’s a little sailor and in the other squished between pumpkins and hay.

“Hello?” Ofelia says.

“Oye, I’m calling to make sure you’re at the airport.”

“I have three hours.”

“Ofelia, look at the flight number and time again. Vez. Por esto te tengo que llamar. It’s always the same with you.”

“One second.” She sounds like Alejo, then goes to her purse in the living room and digs for the boarding pass she printed yesterday. “¡Me cago en diez! Okay heading there now. Bye.”

She doesn't give Nivea a chance to gloat or criticize. There’ll be plenty of that when she lands in Havana.

Ofelia rushes into the room.

Alejo’s re-reading one of his cue cards. He looks like he’s going to give a big presentation about Mitochondria and how it's the powerhouse of the cell. There's a vulnerable cuteness to his posture, his back bent over the cards like he's cowering.

“I have to go.” She lifts the suitcase off her bed.

“You got the times wrong again?”

Is this a thing? Does her family talk about how forgetful she is behind her back? Ofelia thinks it must be true, but if it is she'll probably forget this realization. Maybe she already has.

She hurries to the front door and pulls out her phone. She checks the Lyft rates. Ofelia has a soft spot for second place. It’s why she prefers Burger King over McDonalds and Hulu over Netflix. When you're in second place you have to try harder, really win people over.

“Mami.” Alejo follows her to the front door. “I wasn’t done. You’re really going to leave in the middle?”

“I…have to get to the airport.”

He’s worked up so much courage. If she leaves now, will he tell future therapists and partners about this? My mom was so homophobic she just left in the middle of my coming out. Like, she didn’t even want to hear it. What a hag!

She checks the arrival time on the app. She turns to him, “What?”

“It’s fine. We can talk when you come back.”

She wonders if he’s told his father. They’ve gotten closer these last four years. Juan is more involved now than when Alejo was a baby. It’s easier now. The boy has already been raised. Sometimes she catches them talking on the phone at night. But what about? Ofelia ponders what her son could have to say to him that he couldn’t say to her.

She looks at her phone then back at Alejo. “Want to come with me to the airport?”

* * *

She expects the Lyft driver to be silent and give her and her son some privacy, but the man talks about Venezuela, his family in Caracas, and what’s happening with Juan Guaidó.

“You can whisper,” she says to Alejo. “I can also read lips–that’s how I learned your papi’s social security number.”

He doesn’t laugh or smile. “I don’t know why I even came. This is so dumb.”

“What if you just show me the cards?”

He rubs his chin and pulls on the few scraggly hairs that are growing. “No.”

“No?”

“No.”

If she tells him she knows, she might give away the fact that she has access to his internet history. He may never trust her again. He leaves in a year for college, and she doesn’t want him to feel like he’s fleeing. It should be a mournful departure, not an escape.

“Whatever it is, you know I’ll love and support you,” she whispers, grabbing his hand. “Always.”

He nods and doesn’t push her hand away or recoil. A good sign, Ofelia thinks, very good. Then she wonders if and how he came out to Juan. Was it casual and easy, revealed over wings at Flanigan’s? Did he just say it like a Shakespearean aside? In some part of her heart, she believes Alejo loves his father more than her. She thinks this is a universal truth for all boys.

They pass signs for Miami International Airport. Ofelia will be there in ten minutes. She wants to know what he has to say, otherwise she’ll spend the rest of her trip wondering what will be waiting for her when she comes home.

The driver stops talking and focuses on merging into the departures side.

“You know,” Ofelia begins. “There are certain things a mother knows…” Ofelia fingers the pink rosary under her blouse. She feels she sounds vague, cliche, like she’s repeating the tagline to some daytime soap opera. Una madre siempre sabe. ¡Los domingos en Univision!

“What do you know?” Alejo asks. A dimple forms in his forehead as he looks at her.

“I’m only saying–señor, we’re flying Delta. We have to go to that door. What was I saying?”

Alejo moves his hand away.

“I think I know what’s on that card,” Ofelia admits. She’s trying to make it easy for him, less scary. She wants him to know she’s loved him all this time, knowing who he is and that nothing will change. “Mijo, I know.”

Alejo presses the cue cards into his chest. “…Know what exactly?”

It’s hard. She’s coming out for him. Ofelia feels a heat on the back of her neck and on her forearms. She takes a breath. “I know you’re gay, Alejo.”

“Who’s gay?” the Lyft driver asks.

“Pablo Alborán,” Alejo replies.

The driver sucks his teeth. “Claro. All he sang were love songs. Pssh."

Ofelia tries to touch Alejo again, but he scoots away. “Please say something. This doesn’t have to be hard.”

“What’s hard?” the Lyft driver asks.

“Parallel parking,” Alejo says.

“No, that’s not that hard,” the driver replies. “It’s super easy. I do it like every day.”

Ofelia is thinking about booking a later flight. She doesn’t want to end the conversation like this. She wants to understand why her son is so upset with her–she can feel his anger radiating towards her from the other side of the car. For a moment, Ofelia wishes she could hop on to the mommy forum and ask what to do at this goddamn moment.

The Lyft driver parks, and Ofelia opens her door. “Come on.”

Alejo shuffles out, not helping with the two bags.

The Lyft driver closes his trunk and smiles, revealing a gold molar. “I give you five stars, you give me five stars, okay? Okay!”

Ofelia knows she needs to check her bags, go through security, and take the skytrain to her gate. Is it too late?

“Alejo, say something.”

He shakes his head. When he looks up, Ofelia sees his eyes watering. What would BigMomma787 tell her to do? Be niiiiice?

“That wasn’t it,” he whispers as if they’re still in the Lyft. “Here.” He passes her the notecards. She reads quickly, not waiting for the voice in her head to pronounce the words. Alejo is not coming out of the closet. He's written that he will not be going to college next fall.

“Are you serious, Alejo Alejandro?”

He nods.

“You can’t!” Ofelia says.

She folds the cards.

She wishes she could destroy them, throw them in the air dramatically, but that’d be littering. She’d feel like a fool picking up tiny scraps of paper. Even if she did, they'd still exist. Alejo's words would still exist.

“You said you’d support me,” Alejo pleads. “You said that.”

"That was before I knew this." Ofelia checks her watch.

Alejo stands with his arms akimbo, watching as she struggles to carry the luggage from the curb. "Aren't parents supposed to love their kids unconditionally?" he asks.

"Aye."

"Aye what?"

"Okay, start killing people and see how much I support you. There are limits to a mother's love."

"I'm not killing people! What's wrong with you?"

"What's wrong with you?" Ofelia says.

She wonders if he told his father this.

Did Alejo test the waters with the easy-say-yes-to-everything-parent? Or did Juan coach Alejo on how to talk to Ofelia? That man probably told Alejo to approach Ofelia while she was in a hurry. What does that man care if Alejo goes to college or not? It’s easy to be supportive when all you care about is being perceived as “cool” and "Mr. Fun."

"Mami, say something."

“You have to go to college. That’s it.”

Ofelia stacks her duffel on the rolling suitcase and grabs the handle. She rolls towards the double doors.

Alejo follows behind. “It doesn’t make sense. Everything I need to know is online.”

“So you want to go to Google University?” Ofelia marches in and scans the area to orient herself.

“Degrees aren’t what they used to be.”

"What do you know? You haven't gotten one, Alejo."

"Neither do you."

She pretends that comment doesn't hurt her. She keeps her face neutral. She knows she's not dumb. Ofelia wishes she could say, based on your searches education would do you some good, but she can’t. Instead, she looks around the airport to check her bags. The AC is turned low, and she feels her sweat drying on her back and neck.

Ofelia sees where she needs to go.

She moves quickly towards the line–she still has forty-one minutes before boarding. She can do it. The airport's not too busy. And she's not afraid to cut people in line.

Alejo continues following her.

“Mami! It doesn’t make sense to go to school for acting, when I can just, you know act. Lots of people have done it. It would be real world experience. It’d be a waste of time to sit in a classroom for four years, when I can be out there, auditioning, working with directors, and learning about the business.”

“And if it doesn’t work, what’ll you fall back on?”

“Oh my god! You can’t think like that!”

“Well, one of us has to think!”

“I can manifest my future.”

Ofelia turns to him. “I shouldn’t have let you watch The Secret.”

He is definitely his father's son, she thinks. That man would argue a wrong point for hours—and when he did learn the truth, he'd argue that Ofelia didn't do enough to educate him. Sal!

They reach the Delta bag check area. The line moves quickly. There are only two people in front of Ofelia. A couple. They'll be processed together. It'll be fast.

"Mami! Are you listening?"

"That's the problem. I'm listening."

She felt more prepared for Alejo to come out then this. She can’t support this. Do parents have to support every dumbass decision their kids make? All the forums focused on support and encouragement, but what about correction? What about when you know your kid is wrong? What if your son, who you love more than life itself, is a dummy?

“Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t go to college,” Alejo says.

“When you’re rich, college doesn’t matter, mijo. Nothing matters if you have plata. For people like us, college opens doors. For what's-his-name, doors are already opened. Can’t you see the difference? It's easy to be fool with money.”

Alejo huffs. “How do you know he’s rich?”

“I’m guessing, but I’m probably right. People like us, pobretones, can’t just live off whatever acting job comes by. You need money to be a bohemian. Go on Google U and check.”

“You’re making a lot of assumptions.” He clicks and taps on his phone for a few seconds. He reads and then sighs. “Whatever.”

The line moves forward.

Alejo is still looking at his phone.

Ofelia thinks he’s throwing away his future, opportunities, and respectability. She gave up college to come to the U.S. at nineteen. She had dreamt of being a linguist–she hoped to one day study tenseless languages like Yucatec. Ofelia loved language, its etymologies and changes and corruptions. She wanted to learn how one could talk about the past and future without tenses. Was their relationship with time different? Was it just one continuous present? Or an extended past? Had she studied and worked for the military as an interpreter and writer—one of the few jobs available in her field— she wouldn’t have been allowed to leave Cuba. she would have been part of the professional class, too “valuable” to be allowed out.

Her hope is for Alejo to be somebody–to never have to make do or pinch pennies or depend on the charity of others.

“Gyllenhaal's parents weren’t even that rich. They only had like two houses.”

Ofelia turns. “What about NYU? That's such a good school.”

“I…can defer.”

“Defer? Defer?” She says the word so many times, Ofelia feels like she's saying da fur? “Miggy, you have the chance to make money, to have a title, stability. You can teach acting–oh at a college, and go to auditions, too. You can do local theater. Teachers in Florida get a good pension.”

“I don’t want to be a teacher. That’s lame.”

“How is that lame?”

He bites his lip. His father used to make a similar expression when he had been caught bullshitting.

“Mami, it’s my future. My future.”

“¡Cállate!”

Why didn’t his search show he was thinking about not going to college? Did he know she was spying? Or did he look it up on his high school’s computers during his free period? Or did he not want the Internet’s advice? Maybe testimonials or blogs would have given him cold feet. Maybe he was avoiding any information that could have taken the wind out of his sails. He probably would have found his own forum of struggling actors.

“Acting makes me happy. It’s my passion!”

“Alejo, I make $23,000 a year. Do you think that’s a lot? Shut up. Don’t answer. It sounds like a lot to you because you don’t know anything, but–it’s not. You have…you can be more. You were born here. You can–”

“Ma’am!” a stern voice calls from the counter.

She looks at Alejo. “Think about what I just said. Don't just think about a different way to make your point.”

He rolls his eyes.

Ofelia sighs and goes to the front desk counter.

"You're cutting it close," the clerk says apathetically the way one observes a storm on the horizon.

"I'll make it."

She checks her two bags and wonders what Alejo’s father told him. As the bags are loaded on the revolving belt, she thinks she can hear his voice, his critics, and the unearned confidence with which he spoke.

Did he say it was okay to not go to college? That he didn’t need it? Or did he go on one of his FOX news inspired rants about how feminized college campuses have become?

The man seemed intent on opposing whatever Ofelia believed. He would have said the sky was orange just to disagree with her.

Maybe he knew how much it'd hurt her if Alejo didn't go to college. Perhaps he had drafted his arguments to place a permanent anxiety within her. More worry than she already lived with. A new type of concern.  He'd know she'd never sleep well again wonder if Alejo has enough money to eat three times a day or if some producer is trying to follow him up to his room.

“Have a good flight!” the young woman from the counter says.

Ofelia laughs. “I’ll try.”

Ofelia and Alejo silently walk together to TSA. Her Reebok sneakers squeak on the waxed floors as they shuffle down the long corridor, past the Auntie Anne’s counter with the sweet cinnamon scent that makes Ofelia's stomach grumble and curse her diet that has her eating like a hamster.

After passing the third currency exchange kiosk, Ofelia stops. Then Alejo stops as well.

“Is this why you’re having panic attacks?” Ofelia asks. Suddenly it makes sense. The roped-off entrance to the security checkpoint is six feet feet away. A security guard leans on a stanchion, checking people’s IDs and boarding passes. She's close enough to smell the guard's Old Spice cologne.

Then she regrets asking the questions. Alejo's nostrils flare and he tilts his head to the side like a detective who's finally figured out who-dunnit.

"Never mind," Ofelia says, pointing at the TSA entrance. "You can WhatsApp me later."

Alejo sucks his lips inward, jutting his chin. “How do you know I’ve been having panic attacks? I didn’t say anything…” He pauses, as if working the problem out in his head. “I never mentioned panic attacks to you. I’m like one-hundred percent certain.”

“I really have to go.”

She’s revealed too much. Ofelia grabs her boarding pass and turns. She shouldn’t have said anything. Sal!

In that moment, she forgot what she was supposed to know and not know. Everything happened so quickly, and the realization came over her body like a seizure, an impulse, a knee jerking towards the sky after being hit with a mallet. She didn't mean to say it aloud.

"Don't walk away," Alejo demands. "Don't leave."

Ofelia stops. She makes eye contact with the check-point man, then turns to her son. "I already checked my bags."

"Oh okay," he says sardonically. "Can't lose a bag."

Ofelia thinks she can play it off as a joke or say his father mentioned something about it to her. But Alejo knows they don’t talk. She doesn’t even greet him when he comes by the house to pick Alejo up for his weekend visitations.

“Mami.”

“Alejo, I’m in a hurry. You could have come with me.”

“I didn’t tell anyone about…how did you know? Did you go through my stuff?”

“I–of course not–Alejo…”

“Tell the truth!”

“I…I mentioned it because you looked like you were–you looked like you were going to have one at the counter.”

“What?” Alejo looks at the floor. “No, but that’s not how you said it. You said I’d been having panic attacks.”

He’s right. She had used the perfect progressive tense.

“Alejo, let's talk about this when I get back. It'll only be a week.”

“Wow. Okay.”

Ofelia remembers a controversial thread on the mommy forum about spying on your children and going through their things. Some said it was a gross invasion of privacy, others said it was necessary with moody, taciturn teenagers.

One woman had said if Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold’s mothers had spied, maybe Columbine wouldn’t have happened. The thread was shut down and deleted a few minutes after that comment. It couldn’t be found in the site’s archives either. It was gone.

Alejo grabs Ofelia’s hand. “Are you just going to keep lying to me?”

She could. She could say she misspoke. Or deny, deny, deny. But the anxiety is keeping her from forming clear thoughts. Her mind feels like an overpacked suitcase. The truth is easier. It’s simple. It doesn’t need preparation or massaging. It’s always there, ready to come out.

“Sometimes,” Ofelia starts, her voice cracking, “sometimes, you don’t tell me anything. I have to go on Facebook to see what’s going on with you or ask one of your friend’s moms. You never tell me anything.”

Alejo shakes his head and releases her hand. “So the truth finally comes out.”

He would be a good actor, Ofelia thinks. He’s always had a flair for dramatics. He used to fake faint in the kitchen when Ofelia read through his disappointing middle school report card. I’m being persecuted, he’d say, my enemies are numerous.

So the truth comes out, she repeats in her head. The phrase sounds over-rehearsed, copied from elsewhere, unnatural to the moment and time. Maybe that’s the type of acting he likes, melodramatic and with that strange Transatlantic accent.

“When you have kids of your own–”

“No one tells everyone everything,” Alejo says, one hand on his hip. “Do you tell me everything?”

Ofelia furrows her eyebrows. She's tried to train herself out of that expression to avoid wrinkles—more wrinkles. “Well, no, pero–”

“There are lots of things you don’t tell me, and I don’t pry or snoop. Why can’t you treat me like you would anyone else?”

A woman over the PA system announces the boarding call for Flight 102 with nonstop service to Havana. It’s too late. There isn’t time to go through TSA, walk to the sky-train, and make it to the gate. She has to get her bags back or onto another plane. Sal!

"You don't respect me," Alejo says, shifting his weight to the other foot. "You don't. Dad's right."

“It’s different. It just is.”

“Right I forgot, I'm an alien,” Alejo says. “Great talk, Mami. They should invite you on podcasts.”

“That’s rude.”

Her skin is hot, and her mouth has a metallic taste. Everything is going wrong.

He’s always been good at cutting right through her, knowing what would hurt her. Every child knows how to piss off their mother.

Ofelia wonders if she can change her ticket or get a refund. Sometimes she feels out of place going back home, like she’s not from there anymore. Her cousins say her accent has changed or they laugh at her when Ofelia complains about the heat; they look at her like they look at the tourists. Ofelia could just send money–probably more appreciated than her company.

She looks at Alejo. His face is red, and his gaze is low. Is he going to cry? He’ll run off to his ugly-ass daddy and vent about her. His father will stoke that hate. She can’t leave things like this between them.

She motions for him to follow her as she searches for the Delta customer service counter. Moving distracts her from the knots in her stomach. “What do you want to know about me?”

"I don't want to play your dumb game," Alejo says. His shadow falls over Ofelia. He's keeping close.

"This'll be your only chance."

Alejo hums while he thinks, then asks, “Why’d you leave my dad?”

“Nope.”

“Okay, why don’t you talk with Tia Anaivis?”

“No.”

“When did you lose your virginity?”

“Mijo!”

He smirks. “Fine, uh, why do you always kiss food that falls on the floor before throwing it out?”

Ofelia smirks. This one she can answer. She went hungry plenty of years in Cuba, especially during the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, El Período Especial. So much food is tossed, half-eaten, or unwanted because of a few brown spots. She’d rather eat until stuffed than scrape a good meal into the trash. Or cut around the mold rather than let it go into the bin. She likes making the bread look like a jigsaw puzzle.

“It’s sacred.”

“Okay,” Alejo says. “Whatever.”

They wait in line together. There are three people in front of them. Ofelia doesn’t want to leave things like this. She doesn't know how to change his mind or even give him some hesitation. It’s a mistake. It’ll cost him the good future he deserves. The good future she deserves.

“Amor,” Ofelia starts, “you can’t do this. Take it from a vieja, you have to think ahead. A degree can set you up–”

Alejo sighs. “My dad said it was okay.”

Ofelia tries to stay calm, but her heart’s racing and a headache radiates behind her eyes. He’s trying to provoke her. Pit them against each other like he used to on Christmas and Día de los Reyes Magos.

“A degree can open doors–”

“He said I was being an independent thinker.”

“Mhm.” Ofelia cracks her fingers, pushing on each bent digit with her thumb. The fingers look like knights kneeling before their king. She stops herself from insulting his father. “I understand what he means, but–”

“He said he was proud of me for making such a mature choice.”

“Your father wishes he had gone to college. You think he wants to spend his day underneath cars?”

Alejo sucks his teeth. “You’re not smart, Mami. You just don’t get it. You’re just repeating the dominant narrative.”

She knows she's not dumb, but Alejo's confident lilt makes her doubt herself. Maybe, she thinks, she is stupid. “The dominant qué?”

"The voice of the culture or society," Alejo explains.

Ofelia’s woozy. She hasn’t eaten all day and she can sense a mareo coming on. Her blood pressure's dropping and she just wants to get on that plane, but it's too late for that now. She'll settle for him agreeing to do a campus visit. She steadies herself on the stanchion.

“Don’t be so dramatic, Mami.”

“Get me a water, please.”

He jogs towards a vending machine near the currency exchange. Even if she says no, he’ll probably still do whatever he wants. Maybe he’ll lie to her, send her stock photos of football games and dorm room parties, and make up a course schedule. She’s seen how good he is with Photoshop. He could make a fake degree to try to fool her.

Maybe he has to fail to see her point of view.

Alejo returns with an Evian bottle and hands it to her. She takes several sips, crunching the plastic in her hand.

“That was a dollar fifty, by the way.”

“You know with a college education you could have money for lots of water bottles.”

Alejo rolls his eyes. “Hilarious.”

Ofelia sighs. Maybe failure will be the only thing that he responds to. “If it doesn’t work out–the acting thing– then will you go to school?”

“Yes!”

“Promise me, Alejo.”

“Yes, I’ll go to school if it doesn’t work, but it will.”

“Three years, then school.”

“Four. Maybe six.”

“Promise me.”

“I cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” Alejo’s giddy and shakes his fists with enthusiasm.

“Okay.” Ofelia grinds her molars. Some failure, she thinks, will do the boy good. He’ll learn how hard things are without a title or credentials. He’ll see the world for what it is and how it treats people who aren’t seen as capable or competent.

“No more spying,” Alejo says, “It was just my computer right?”

“I promise, baby. It was only on your laptop.”

If he ever becomes famous, will he tell this story in interviews? Will he laugh with Diane Sawyer–or whatever peppy blonde replaces her–and thank only his father for believing in him? He supported my dream from the jump. My mother, on the other hand, took some convincing, Diane! Or will he blame her for giving him such a strict timeline? I almost ended up in a nine-to-five like every other putz!

“Just on my laptop?”

Ofelia smiles. “Of course. I’m not tech savvy enough for anything else.”

“That tracks,” he says, “I’m going to order an Uber. Have a good trip. Say hi to Titi for me.”

Ofelia nods and kisses his plump cheek, pressing her lips into his beauty mark. “Bye, papo.”

She wants to call his name, ask him whether he’s gay or if he’ll come out some other time. She opens her mouth, then closes it.

Ofelia readjusts, moving her legs to avoid blood cloths. Maybe not everyone has to come out, she thinks. When a truth is obvious, perhaps, it doesn’t need declaration. Instead, it can be a series of recognitions. It puts the work on the other person, to pay attention, listen.

* * *

Ofelia has to wait around the airport for her bags to be taken off the original plane and be brought out. She is on stand-by for the evening flight, the last one, to José Martí Airport. Alejo left after their talk at the counter. He didn't want to waste the rest of his day waiting around MIA.

On her phone, she pulls up the spying software. She can deactivate it remotely, learn to trust him, but what if something awful happens to him later?

Ofelia read all the #MeToo stories as they came out in 2017, horrified by the things actors were coerced into doing for art–not even for art’s sake, for a mere chance at making art.

What if it happens to Alejo?

What if someone takes advantage of his enthusiasm and naivety?

Would he tell her?

He probably wouldn't. Ofelia leans in her seat, smelling the diesel fuel in the air. Out of shame or guilt, he'd hide something like that. She can't delete the spyware. It's her only tether to his life, to his truths. If she knows what's going on with him, she can help him, give him what he needs. He'll understand some day.

She opens the spyware app on her phone and sees Alejo typing to his father. She watches the text bubbles. The three dots rise and fall. Rise and fall, like a child’s steady breathing in the night. A message from his father comes in:

How’d she take it?

She waits for Alejo's reply. The text bubbles appear then disappear. Is he unsure of how to answer?

What will he say?

What truth will come out now that he thinks she's not watching?


Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer and visual artist. She received her MFA from Florida International University, where she was a Lawrence Sanders Fellow. Her work has appeared inCraft, The Masters Review, PANK Magazine, and more. She is the author of Crossing the Hyphen (Tolsun 2022).

Dad

by Dane Gebauer

Dad was crying. Sobbing, really. Back heaving, head in hands, big fat splashers leaving saline stains on the kitchen table. Mom dropped a clump of tissue into his lap. “Please, David, really,” she said. Dad sucked in some spit and looked up at me. Then he got on with the wig out. I was twelve, thirteen, something like that. The wig out had to do with the store: family business, little shop on a South Miami side street, he sold loafers to South American diplomats. The store wasn’t doing too hot. The chain stores and malls must have been killing him. But Dad wasn’t much of a businessman, either. To him it was still 1970. The shop was dusty, the inventory was outdated, he refused to set up a website. He thought the internet was just a fad. I hated him for crying like that, balling over a poorly run shoe store.

Mom wanted to sell the store. Dad didn’t. It was his store, basically. David’s. They sold the house instead. We moved into a smaller house in a different neighborhood. In the new neighborhood there were cats everywhere. They hunted lizards and pawed at the screen doors and sat in trees with their tails hanging off the branches. Dad loved the cats. He went out and bought cat food and after work he’d spread the cat food in a line across the driveway. Then he’d sit crosslegged on the pavement, light up a joint, and watch as twelve cats munched the cat food until it was all gone. Mom didn’t like the cats. She was allergic and made sure they never got in the house.

“It’s abnormal, the way you are with those cats,” she said.

“Come on,” Dad said. “They’re my little friends.”

A neighbor warned Dad about the cats. He lived across the street from us and had a truck on cinderblocks in his driveway that he was always fixing. There was an American flag in the back window of the cab. Everyone in the neighborhood called him Chief. He was your run of the mill white guy. Chief told Dad not to get too attached to the cats. I was out in the yard, picking up fallen palm fronds and rotting mangos, throwing them in a trash bag.

“They get squashed every now and then,” Chief said. He had on a safety-orange long sleeve shirt and gigantic cargo shorts. “Kids really fly down this street, so.”

Dad was wearing Gucci horse-bit loafers, no socks, and brown trousers that tapered to an end above the ankle. A little black cat was at his feet. Dad’s legs were skinny and white.

“I find it’s best to just leave them be.”

“Okay, Chief,” Dad said absently. “I’ll do that.” He was so high. Then he waved goodbye to his gnarly old neighbor even though the guy was still standing right in front of him. A complete non sequitur wave. I ran over and said thanks. Dad was in a forward fold letting the cat bat and lick his knuckles.

“Just be careful,” Chief said.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

* * *

My parents made just enough money at the shoe store to be able to send me to a fancyass private school in the Grove. Mom made sure that I was aware of the investment they were making in my education. “Twenty thousand dollars,” she said. “Twenty thousand dollars for a year of high school.”

Dad was looking down at his plate: mushy broccoli, brisket with brown sauce.

“Would you prefer the quality of his education be worse?”

“Eat your meat.”

“It’s dry.”

Mom clenched her jaw. Her hair was pulled into a frizzy black and grey bun. “I used the same amount of sauce as always.”

“Just because it’s covered in sauce doesn’t mean it’s not dry.”

Whenever Mom cooked, Dad complained. If she made greens, he’d throw a fit. If the potatoes touched the chicken, he’d whine. Or if the beans mixed with the rice. “I just don’t like it when the foods overlap.” He was always removing this or that ingredient from a dish. It got to a point where Mom hardly cooked real meals. Dad had turned her into a toaster oven attendant who served him dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and frozen tater tots. Then after dinner he’d go and OD on a jug of vanilla ice cream. Plain vanilla only, he didn’t like the other flavors.

“How is school, Cam?”

I told them. Math wasn’t going so well. I liked my elective, a class on the psychology of horror movies. I was reading Frankenstein in English.

“I read Frankenstein,” Dad said. “I used to read so much.”

“And now?” Mom said. “News, news, news, golf golf golf, news news news.”

Dad sucked on his fork and closed his eyes. His hairline was just starting to recede. He told me about all the heavy books he used to read. He’d read the Beats, he’d read Philip Roth, Huxley, Jack London, Faulkner. Some of the authors’ names I’d heard before, others I hadn’t. They sounded important. The problem was, Dad said, he couldn’t remember them anymore. Just the names of the authors remained, and maybe a title or two. But he’d read them, he’d definitely read them. He sounded idiotic to me. And sad. He’d read all those books and it’d amounted to nothing. “You smoke too much pot,” Mom said.

I told him what I thought: that there was no reason he couldn’t get back into reading again. Just like there was no reason he had to be so whiny about the food.

“And Hemingway,” he said. “I read a lot of Hemingway.”

* * *

Mom died a couple years after I finished college. I was working as a barista on the beach. I think that if my parents had been poorer I would’ve done better for myself. Not too poor, not poverty poor, but a little less money would’ve given me a lot more direction. Then I would’ve had an excuse to snag one of those money jobs. Like finance. A job in finance. I could’ve been managing assets, doling out private equity, analyzing futures at some hedge fund, and from the balcony of a cubist apartment I’d thank my parents for depriving me enough to make the unscrupulous pursuit of money the center of my very being. But then again, most of the kids I graduated from Blinton with are in finance now, and none of them had deprived childhoods.

It was melanoma. My understanding had always been that a melanoma diagnosis was a breeze, no big deal. I quit my job at the coffee shop. With Mom gone, I expected Dad’s life to become a shitshow. Mom had basically functioned as his help the last thirty years. Part of me wanted to let him crash and burn. A man in his mid sixties should be able to cook for himself, grocery shop for himself, wash and dry and press and fold his own clothes, remember to take his medicine, and take out the trash on Tuesdays and Fridays, right? He was a child. Mom was not entirely blameless. She’d allowed him to remain a child. After the funeral, Dad didn’t ask, but I ended up moving back into the house with him.

At no point did Dad seem particularly wrecked by our loss. His loss. Time to time he’d come home from work and say that the store wasn’t the same without her. And that was true. Mom spoke Spanish. She’d crack jokes with the customers’ wives. Dad didn’t speak a word of Spanish. “My brain just doesn’t get foreign languages,” he said. His regulars stopped showing up. All of a sudden, his clientele was different: he used to serve the locals, and now he was selling to New York sugar daddies who wanted something nicer than Steve Maddens to wear to the club. I helped out at the store. My main priorities were keeping the showroom dust free and well-lit. The back inventory room was a nightmare of cardboard shoe boxes. Dusting was easy. Keeping the store bright wasn’t. I didn’t remember it being so dark before. It was almost as if the alignment of the earth and sun were out of wack, so that the sunlight no longer slanted through the storefront window like it used to.

I didn’t have many friends. A lot of them had moved out of Miami, to New York, or LA. A few of the kids I’d gone to college with had stuck around, but over time each of them got sucked into their own world. Nico, for example, was a childhood buddy, a pretty good graffiti artist in high school. He’d been pulled deep into the NFT/crypto world. I texted him, asked what he was up to, if he wanted to get together sometime. He said he couldn’t, no time, he was working on a piece, he was creating a collection, the idea was to make it a free collection, the piece serving as a key into the ecosystem, the goal being to build it into a business (I didn’t know what it was), the funds being raised through the genesis collection which would go towards hiring an actual staff. That was that. Another friend went to Peru, did ayahuasca, started selling kundalini yoga training packages for three grand a pop. Another was doing slightly jingoistic political commentary on YouTube.

I was in my own world too, I guess, down south with Dad and the cats.

It was a three-bedroom, one-story house: my room, Mom and Dad’s, and a guest bedroom which Dad had turned into his office. There were boxes of papers in there, a desk with a computer and a TV, an old sign from the store announcing a sale. Dad would rip his big green bong, recline in his comfy desk chair, and bask in the glow of his dual screens, which blasted him with his nightly entertainment: gameshows, golf highlights, talking heads. I hated that bong of his. It reminded me of the cartoonishly big bongs I’d hit in high school.

Every now and then I’d try to talk to him.

“I miss Mom,” I said one night. I’d made cut up hot dogs and beans in a baking dish and thrown it in the oven. Dad liked hot dogs and beans, but he hadn’t touched it yet because it was too hot.

“Cam, let’s not talk about that, okay?” He massaged his temples with his pointer fingers.

“But I want to talk about it,” I said. “Who else am I supposed to talk about it with?”

Dad let his fork clatter on the plate.

“Well, I don’t want to,” he said. “It’s a major bringdown.”

“Very mature attitude, dude. Way to be well-adjusted, man.”

His face twisted into a pouty sneer. For a second I thought he was gonna swing at me. He didn’t, but I wished he had. Then I would’ve been able to hit him back. Instead he kept going with the whine routine.

“I don’t want to talk about Mom and death and cancer and hospitals. Cut it out, cut it out.”

“But we never talk about it. You completely fucking ignore the fact that she’s gone. It’s like it doesn’t matter to you as long as there’s someone making you your Bagel Bites.”

Dad put his knuckles on the table.

“I said I don’t want to talk about it.” He was working his way to one of his full-blown meltdowns. “I don’t want to focus on the NEGATIVE. What do we get from focusing on the NEGATIVE? Can’t we keep it POSITIVE?”

He got up and walked away from the table. Then he came back to retrieve his plate of beans. He went into his office and slammed the door.

* * *

We got a few cold days that year, down in the fifties and forties. I loved those cool days and nights. You could shut off the AC and open the windows. That didn’t happen very often.

Dad came home from work wearing a puffer jacket, a scarf, a knit cap, mittens. He shut the door behind him, rubbed his hands together, and went, “BRRRRRRR,” like he’d just come in from the tundra. He was in South Miami. It was 52 degrees Fahrenheit. He put his bag down and took off his cold weather gear.

“It’s freezing out there,” he called.

“It’s nice,” I said. “Not so hot.” I closed the cupboard and opened a package of hamburger helper. Dad came into the kitchen. Then he froze mid-stride and let out a little scream. A little scream like a hysterical woman in a movie from the 1940s, just before she faints.

“THE WINDOWS ARE OPEN.”

Dad ran over and slammed the kitchen window shut. I was getting mad. I wanted to call him a bitch, but I used the word “baby” instead. He wasn’t paying any attention to me. He flew out of the kitchen and went around the house shutting the windows with melodramatic flair.

A few minutes later he was under a blanket on the couch with a portable heater at his feet. The portable heater was a little black square that started smelling like burnt hair when it was plugged in. I made the hamburger helper. Around midnight Dad came out of his room in his pajamas. He was moaning. It was too hot. He couldn’t sleep. I walked down the hall and turned the AC on to high.

The next morning was still cold. Dad had gone out and started the car an hour before he had to leave. He wanted to let the car warm up. When he went to leave, the car wouldn’t start. He hadn’t turned the car all the way on. The engine hadn’t been running. The battery had died.

“Do you know how to jump start a car?”

“No,” I said.

Dad wanted me to go ask Chief for help. I was embarrassed to go over there but I did it anyway. I knocked on Chief’s door. He came to the door drinking coffee out of a to-go mug with a picture of a helicopter on it. I explained the situation.

Chief chuckled. “Yep, I’ll be right over.”

I thanked him. He asked me if he should bring his car over. I stared at him.

“You need a car with a working battery to jump start a car with a dead battery,” he said.

“Oh, right,” I said. “Yes, please.”

Chief drove his truck across the street and parked it a few feet in front of Dad’s old red Jetta. He got out of his truck holding red and black jumper cables. He was wearing his usual huge cargo shorts, and his t-shirt had the same logo as his to-go coffee mug, the helicopter with the rappelling commandos.

“Hey Dave,” Chief said. “Cold?”

Dad was wearing his scarf so it wrapped around his neck, his chin, his mouth. His knit cap had a fuzzy little ball on top of it. “I don’t know how you’re out here in shorts,” Dad said. “Just looking at you makes me cold.”

Chief narrated as he went about jump starting the car. He emphasized that the positive lead should connect to the positive terminal. He held up the red cable clamp. “This is your positive lead,” he said. “This red one here. Positive goes to positive.” I was trying to learn his words. I looked over at Dad. He was letting his teeth chatter and thumbing his phone. When the car started, we said thanks. Chief unclamped the leads with a warning about hydrogen gas, sparks, and which lead to unclamp first. He gave me the cables. “You keep these,” he said. “For next time. I got a bunch of em.”

Chief backed the truck across the street into his driveway.

“You weren’t even paying attention,” I said.

Dad looked around like I might’ve been talking to someone else.

“Was I supposed to be?”

“Yes,” I said. “He was trying to teach us something useful.” I felt like I was dealing with a crazy person. Like I had no right to be angry at this man who was so clearly insane. That feeling lasted until he crossed his arms over his chest and started rubbing his sides like he was fending off hypothermia.

“Of course I don’t know how to jump start a car,” I said. “Of course I’m living at home and have no idea what I’m doing. I have you for a father. You smoke pot, don’t take care of yourself, you can’t control your emotions, you can’t fix a car, you can’t run the store. You’re fucking incompetent. You can’t even deal with a little cold.”

Dad squeezed his eyes closed. He was trying to shut out all the nastiness, all the mean talk. The Jetta was rumbling. He got in the driver’s seat and before he closed the door he said, “Well Cam, if you ever have kids, you can be a perfect role model and show them how to jump start a car.” He pulled the door shut and put the car in reverse. Backing into the street he nearly clipped the mailbox.

* * *

That night I walked back from Publix and Dad’s car was in the driveway. I opened the door and he was at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, sobbing.

He craned his neck when I came in. His eyes were little red buttons set deep into the folds of his face. He was bald, skinny except for his hanging gut, and I’d just gone to the grocery store to get him his fix of ice cream sandwiches and nacho cheese dusted potato chips. Weirdly, a sense of relief came over me when I saw that he was crying. Maybe he was thinking about what I’d said that morning. I’d been cruel but maybe it’d been necessary. Or he was thinking about Mom. Maybe the moment had finally come when the seventy year old man starts to deal with the adult human emotion: grief. Your wife of forty years died. The mother of your child, your son’s mother, my mother. She’s gone. You acted like a spoiled brat, a preteen tyrant, for a good chunk of those forty years. You complained and smoked pot and ate shit and didn’t learn Spanish even though you had a Spanish-speaking wife and lived in Miami, Florida your entire life. But better late than never. I won’t hold it against you. You’re seventy years old but you can still grow up.

I put my hand on his shoulder. He’d sweated through the linen.

“What’s going on, Dad?”

“I saw…”

He snuffled. I went over to the countertop, ripped off a piece of paper towel, handed it to him. I got a can of his diet soda from the refrigerator and placed it on the table. My hand went back on his shoulder.

“What, Dad? What’d you see?”

A picture of Mom on his phone? A petulant-ass text he’d sent her? An old friend of hers at the store, who spoke about her lovingly?

He got the shakes out of his voice. “There was a cat on the street.”

I removed my hand from his shoulder.

“The little black one with the blue eyes. His legs were totally crushed and his eyes were still open.” The shaking took hold of him again. The sobs came in heavy screams. He propped his elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands.

“I didn’t see a cat out there.”

“I called Animal Services. They came and got him. ” More wailing.

The realization caught up with me: the tears weren’t for Mom. He wasn’t going through some delay-fuse reckoning. Nothing had changed. The tears were for a feral cat, squashed on the side of the road. He hadn’t cried like that for Mom. He hadn’t cried at all when Mom died. For his store, waterworks. For a cat, he was weeping. For Mom, nothing.

“I’m sorry Dad, but…”

I couldn’t get anything else out. I couldn’t hang a lifetime’s worth of anger on a clause that started with the word but.

“When I saw him like that, with his little blue eyes looking at me, I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to blow my brains out.”

I stepped away from him. He wasn’t really talking to me anyway.

* * *

I moved out a little while after that. I found a place on the beach for cheap. I went back to working at the cafe. A few shifts a week, I made iced matchas with oat milk for girls with big asses. I started a master’s in psychology. I dropped the program after a semester, out four grand. I quit the coffee job a second time because I found a better paying gig taking care of a blind Dominican man who lived in Allapattah. I read him his mail, drove him to the pharmacy, tidied up his house. Eventually he moved in with the rest of his family and didn’t need me anymore. I went to Berlin.

If my life were a painting, it’d be a bunch of squiggles, totally abstract. You’d have to squint at it to try to see in it a form or underlying logic.

When I was out of money I came back to Miami. I moved back into the cheap place on the beach. When I was really out of money I went to see Dad.

He was selling the store. After all the years of Mom wanting to sell and Dad holding us hostage with his sob shows. After forcing us to sell the house to keep the store afloat so we had to move into the shittier house with the cats. At last he had gotten hip. I didn’t think he deserved that much credit for coming to the obvious conclusion that David’s Shoes was more trouble than it was worth.

“You don’t want to take it over, do you?”

“No.”

We were eating at a place off Bird Road we’d been going to since I was a kid. I hadn’t seen him in a year and three months. A year and three months wasn’t long enough to forget how brutal it was to go out with him. He’d had a problem with the chair, too low, the table, wobbly, the red wine, too cold, and the burger was to come no lettuce, no tomato, no onion, no pickle, just well done patty atop a sauceless bun.

“Then please don’t criticize my business decisions. Thank you.”

Our food came. Dad inspected his plate. Everything seemed to be in order. He chomped into his burger. Chewed. Then he frowned and spit the meat back onto the plate.

“Oh for fuck’s sake.”

“They used the sauce.”

I flipped the bun over.

“There’s no sauce. Look. No sauce.”

“I know they used the sauce.”

I groaned.

“What do you care?” he said. “I’ll send it back.”

“Please god no,” I said. “You’re acting like a child.”

“I like what I like and I don’t like what I don’t like. What’s the problem, man?”

I groaned again.

“The problem is that it’s childish. Bitching and whining when you don’t get what you want is childish.”

Dad snorted. “You’re lecturing me about being a child, but you just asked me if you can move back into your old room.”

He seemed satisfied with himself.

“Just please don’t say anything to the waiter,” I begged. “Please don’t. She’s had enough.”

“Come on,” he said. “They love me here.”

He extended his arm and summoned the waiter. She came over. She was wearing black leggings and black sneakers with huge cushy soles. She spoke English with an accent.

“Any problem, sir?”

Dad had his fingers interlaced and was scrutinizing his burger. He looked up at the waiter.

“I just want to make sure that the burger was made without the sauce,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “I said to the chefs. No sauce.”

Dad pursed his lips.

“Okay, but I think I still taste the sauce a bit.”

I buried my face in my hands.

“If you want, I can take it back.”

“That’d be great, if you don’t mind.”

I looked at Dad from between my fingers. “You’re really gonna make them make it again?”

“What, Cam?”

“It’s no problem,” the woman said. She reached down and grabbed the plate.

Dad said, “See? It’s no problem. It’s groovy, babe.”

I spoke to the waiter in Spanish and said sorry for bothering her so much. My dad can be a little crazy. She smiled and put her hand on Dad’s shoulder. She replied in English.

“It’s really no problem,” she said. “I remember you guys used to come here lots. I’ll be right back.”

* * *

I moved back in with Dad, into my old room with all the middle and high school memorabilia taped to the walls. We had a big sale at the store, one of those everything-must-go jobs. Everything didn’t go. A lot of girls in tasseled jackets and art deco sunglasses came in, hunting vintage. They scoped out the leather boots and wingtips but didn’t buy anything. We gave a lot of the inventory away, then cleaned out the store.

Dad didn’t have much to do anymore. He stayed in the house most of the day, in his office. Smoking weed. Coming out occasionally for a snack while the TV glowed in the background. Dad spent his days like I spent my days when I faked sick in high school and got to stay home while he and Mom were at the shop: under a blanket, high, with something mindless on the tube.

I took care of the house and submitted resumes to online job postings.

The one hobby Dad still had was the cats. He fed the cats daily. He had names for his favorites. They’d line up at the front door in the morning. He’d let them in and they’d lounge on the rug while he ate his Rice Krispies.

I didn’t mind the cats. But they ran away whenever I tried to pet them. They weren’t squeamish with Dad. He could pick them up and scratch their bellies.

Dad had bought a big yellow A-frame sidewalk sign that said SLOW DOWN—THIS IS OUR NEIGHBORHOOD. He put it on the street in front of our driveway. He’d also bought three others that said CHILDREN AT PLAY—SLOW and staked them into the ground at the edge of our yard. The garbagemen complained about the A-frame sign in the street. They said they had to get out of the truck to move it in order to use the arm that grabbed the trash bins and catapulted them into the hopper. So Dad had to move the sidewalk sign onto the uneven grass where it wouldn’t be as effective. The signs he’d staked into the ground stayed where they were.

Then it happened. I was up early taking hits of Red Bull. Dad was still asleep. I knew it’d happened from the sound. I heard what was probably a blacked-out Dodge Charger rip down the street. The roar stopped and I heard the car idling. Morning radio was blasting out the car windows. After a few seconds the sound of the engine tore back to full volume and the morning radio disappeared. I walked outside.

The cat was down the road a ways, closer to the neighbor’s driveway than it was to ours. But Dad still would have seen it. I glanced back: the light in his room was off, the shutters shut. If he’d been up and heard, he would’ve known right away, too.

The sun was coming up. It was the middle of summer. The neighbors had made heaps of old sofas and stained mattresses at the end of their driveways. I went up to the cat slowly. It was a splotch of orange fur. Its body was half torn, half scrambled into the concrete. The tail was untouched and fluffy. I recognized it. It was one of Dad’s regulars. Loopy. The bugs were screaming in my ears.

I ran to the house and grabbed a shovel from the garage. I went back to the cat and carefully scraped it up, making sure to not leave anything on the pavement. I looked around. At one end of the street there was a four way intersection with a traffic light. The other way, the street came to an end. Then there was a patch of grass, a wall of bamboo, and just behind the bamboo, a massive terraced wall bordering the interstate. I ran down the street. I pushed the bamboo apart with the edge of the shovel and threw the cat into the bushes. I ran back and stashed the shovel in the garage.

The house was cool and quiet, the AC humming. I latched the front door behind me. Dad wasn’t up yet. I knew he wouldn’t be for a while.


Dane Gebauer is a writer and teacher living in Miami, FL. He received his MFA in fiction from Columbia University, and when he’s not teaching, he’s working on a series of Miami-centric short stories.

Tender White Desk

by Ariel Joy So

My old boss never used “!” to assert himself, never a flinch
of changing inflections. This was supposed to be
about the dentist, how I unwittingly grind my teeth
during sleep. I watched a cop’s body cam: crying crying
blonde girl; a defensive defensive white male. But I am
a Nobody. If you think women are prone to hysteria,
I’ll call 911, to wait for a dead body to appear.
A public comment read: it takes seven times to leave.
Like a cat, I survived all nine lives. Cry me a river! “River Flows
In You”—a song my ex ruined, the way his invisible hands
played it on the piano, unending notes sprawled over
my body, invasion of ‘I.’ This goddamn river
of Lethe, where he pretended to dip
his toes in, yet came crawling back.

 


Ariel Joy So is originally from Hong Kong and has lived in Singapore and the United States. Her poetry has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Moot Point Magazine, Some Kind of Opening, Quarter Press, Bee Infinite Publishing, Protest Through Poetry, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Poetry from Columbia University.

God’s Gavel

by Stacey Park

Well? He waits. On God, I swear—
on God, I submit. I swell with devotion

he wants but nothing I admit penetrates
his heart. But he loves this ritual, my waning

breath and his grip on the gavel. I play
the guilty party, perform contrition

so real my eyes well to flood us before
he could bang the verdict.

Isn’t this getting old? The birds trill
above, bored of the same exhibition,

as we drift in a river of my own making,
while he insists we go again.


Stacey Park is a Korean-Canadian writer living in Southern California. Her work has appeared in Decomp Journal, The Underwater Railroad, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Baltimore Review, Portland Review, and elsewhere.

We Fell in Love & All We Got Was This Dystopia

by J River Helms

There are no secrets left: my mind a gallows that won’t relent.
                 Houses across the street sink slowly. Clouds & trees transpose. The receiver
emanates nothing next to my ear. I take my tea with the last of the honey. We
                 wake to ghosts each night, pace the garden in turns. Can’t figure out how to avert
obsolescence, to keep anything alive. Is it dawn or dusk, sweetheart? We’ve
                 run out of road & besides, our car hasn’t cranked in months.
Repair’s impossible: I open the hood over & over & nothing
                 gives. It’s clear that we belong elsewhere but there’s no
discernible way to navigate. The knife slips again in the kitchen &
                 I begin to wonder if I’m doing this on purpose, what I’m surfacing.
My beard has never been this long. Shovel over shoulder, you surveil the
                 edges of the yard at night & my latest trick is sleeping near — but not too
near — the fire. The inventors have all gone. The trains stopped running. I
                 stopped walking through my favorite graveyard alone. Seasons shifted.
If I’m no longer a container for grief then what? Calendar’s been wrong for weeks.
                 Only so much I can eviscerate in an honest day’s work. Such nothing, you say:
nothing left. Eclipses every evening now. Take our meals in the street to watch.

 


J River Helms (they/them) has published poetry and prose in Copper Nickel, DIAGRAM, Fairy Tale Review, New England Review, Phoebe, Redivider, and Sonora Review, among others. Machines Like Us, their first collection of poetry, was published by Dzanc Books in 2016. J has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and lives in Houston, TX with their partner and two pets.

Camping Sonnet

by Emily Rose Miller

I came of age amongst woods and marshland with campfire ashes
in my hair. I ran through fire rings' thick smoke; it wafted higher
than the cypress trees' swaying moss. I haunted pineneedle-covered
limestone, white dust coating my worn shoes the way queer loneliness
coated everything those days. But I wasn't alone, just afraid.
I heard voices laughing muffled in tents atop chalky earth
but like a cautious deer every laugh seemed a bullet
intended for my conquered hide. There was no room under the humid,
open sky for a kid like me, half girl half unnameable swamp creature
with a monarch uttering in my stomach every time I looked at a girl.
Under dry palms I almost felt content, but I was the purple swamphen
building twisted mangrove nests in barren roadside estuaries.
Or the cane toad, too confused to hibernate in Florida’s increasingly sweltering
winters. Or both, maybe, meant to be home and not belong.


Emily Rose Miller (she/they) graduated magna cum laude from Saint Leo University where she received her BA in English and is currently earning her MFA in creative writing at the University of Central Florida. Her work has been published in Capsule Stories, PopMatters, and Red Cedar Review, among other places. Find her online at emilyrosemiller.com, on Instagram @emily.rose.miller, or in real life cuddling with her cats.

Dracula in the Everglades

by Joshua Aelick

You turned the air vampiric
a lanky princeling in dark coat and tails
backing me against the boardwalk rails.
My refusals were as good as pyrrhic;

you wanted to drink, suck ferric
juices from me on these untrod trails.
No one will know. A request made male
by its lack of question mark.

The hills—each stricken with a sickly pine tree stand—
bloomed like colonies of warts
from the jaundiced grasses of the chugging lowland.
The bittern boomed his grave rapport.
You asked if I would sooner die than hold your hand.
My mosquito-bitten palms were so raw it hurt.


Joshua Aelick is a bi+ poet from Raleigh, North Carolina, where they are an MFA candidate at North Carolina State University. They previously completed undergraduate degrees in Creative Writing and German Studies, also at NCSU. They are a recipient of the Guy Owen Memorial Scholarship for Creative Writing, and in 2021, they were the winner of NC State’s Undergraduate Poetry Prize and a finalist for the Grand Prize. Their fiction has won honors in the Writers of the Future contest.

quiet

by Lisa Cantwell

that was the summer of dodge and shake, escaping two doors down to zia’s yellow brick bungalow, the bumblebees waggle dancing on the marigolds by the screen door, rusty hinges rattling while rush hour traffic hurtled past, the happy yapping of her three legged corgi named buttons, his welcome parade leading me into the kitchen, the crackling of the transistor radio on the windowsill tuned to a show covering local politics, and zia bent over the stove, cigarette dangling from her lips, she lit the tip with the flame heating up a saucepan of gritty coffee, her left hand with its missing ring finger motioning me to sit, she told me to listen and learn something this summer, poured a cup for each of us, floral saucers mismatched and chipped, passed me the cream, added a splash of sambuca to hers, ranted about city corruption for the better part of an hour, handed me the tribune to read the news to her while she made fresh pasta and sugo, the air thick with the scent of garlic and injustice, until the grandfather clock struck noon, time for her to head to the restaurant, she pinched my cheek, said in bocca al lupo, and sent me back, back across the neighbor’s yard in the august heat, across patches of sun bleached grass growing higher with each step of my dusty white chuck taylors, each step getting hot as an evergreen forest on fire, into my mother’s father’s house where i learned the quiet that summer, learned the ways his hands and his mouth made me


Lisa Cantwell is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco. Her poems have appeared in Ponder Review, december, Welter, The Pointed Circle, and Barrelhouse, among other publications. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and is a winner of the Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize. A freelance theatre director and educator, she lives in Santa Monica, California.

Letter from the Editor

Dear reader, 

Welcome to the new year! 2023 has arrived, ushering in a time of transition evident even in this city of migrants (myself included) who find themselves here for a winter escape or returning home for the holidays. On the University of Miami campus, students walk with a refreshed sense of purpose, and there’s even a hint of a chill to signal the change in seasons. 

Accordingly, much of the work published in Sinking City’s thirteenth issue handles transitions. 

We can see it in Josephine Florens’ “Christmas Tree,” which brings the aesthetics of the past to the gaudy contemporary. Rita Anderson’s “Ghost Towns” and Joanna Acevedo’s “Rules of the Road” remind us of the places we leave behind and those we go toward. And our fiction, as always, is forward-looking in its exploration of our futures. 

In this busy time of transitions, let’s take a moment to look inward. I’ll borrow Roxana Cazana’s words, which are much better than mine: “Traffic lights are the opportunity to sit with yourself for one/heavy second. The opportunity to break inside yourself. To blink and gaze with one eye toward the heart.”

Thank you for sitting here with us.


With love,

Megan Ritchie