Zoe Contros Kearl was born in New Jersey, raised in Texas, and educated at NYU. She is a poet and writer now based in Miami, FL.
Néha Hirve is a graduate of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. When she created this issue's cover photo, she was a year out of NYU and getting a Masters in Photojournalism in Sundsvall, a small town in the north of Sweden, at Mittuniversitetet. She’d wake up, eat knäckerbröd with Kalles Kaviar for breakfast, go to class until five, sometimes grab a beer, and then go home. There, she did some reading to get inspired, and then as the sun set, she would head to the school’s media lab to use the tablet for her graphic designs. As she was usually the only person in the building at that hour, she would play music as loud as she wanted, having an illustration party until one or two in the morning. Néha sacrificed hours of sleep for her craft. She took every ounce of energy — an energy that for most people is nonexistent at the end of the day — and poured it into creating a vision. And given the final result, the sacrifice and labor seemed well worth it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Natalia Lehaf: You have a background in film at NYU. Did your studies impact your graphic design work at all?
Néha Hirve: I think that being a cinematographer at NYU taught me to see light and colour. My graphic design work heavily involves light and colour, most of my illustrations are set in the night time where the light makes itself present in strange ways. I think I always had the scenes inside me, but NYU gave me the tools to express them. I see things more cinematically since NYU. I also think more about narrative in my work.
NL: Do you have any pieces you can pinpoint as examples of that?
NH: Well, the piece with the bear (“It's hard to reach out to you...”) is an example of that. I recently moved to the North of Sweden and I took a camping trip with some Finns in the Höga Kusten (high coast) and that's what inspired that piece. Spending the night under those trees, such tall trees, I could really feel a presence in the history of that area. My work doesn’t necessarily have a fixed narrative or "plot" in terms of a beginning, middle, or end, as a film would, per se. But they're definitely a moment in a larger personal narrative. I like to leave it to the viewer to construct that larger narrative for themselves. My titles are sort of alluding to a larger story, too; they add another layer to the scene.
NL: I wanted to ask about your tag lines for each image, actually. Where does the inspiration stem from? Is it the same place as the inspiration for the image?
NH: They're maybe snippets of a conversation I overheard once or a song or sometimes the warped memory of a song I’ve heard long ago. I always come up with the titles after the image, and usually they just fit with the overall feeling and atmosphere of a piece. For the most recent piece, it was sort of a joke — I'd been listening to a song by the Tallest Man on Earth on repeat for the entire process (which had something similar to that line in it), which took about 30 hours, and felt like a thousand years.
NL: Do all designs usually take that long?
NH: They're taking longer and longer. I am an impatient person, so my initial work I'd rush to finish; they'd take a few hours at most. Then once I started settling into my style, which is very detailed line work and hatching, I learned to get into a sort of trance state and really enjoy the labor of it. Once I discovered I could do it all in Photoshop, my canvas size became unlimited. So yeah, they're pretty tedious to do!
NL: Oh dang.
NH: Yeah, you need to be a bit obsessive to do this, I think.
NL: Are you able to work on other projects while in the middle of a design, or do you only focus on one project at a time?
NH: I'm also a photojournalism student, so there are a lot of creative projects vying for my attention, so I focus on just one illustration at a time. I have a long list of ideas and images, but once I get into a project, I can't work on another until I finish it.
NL: I know that you are getting a Masters in Photojournalism in Sweden. Where are you pursuing your degree? How long is the program?
NH:I was born in India. I grew up in India, in the USA and in Switzerland. I only moved to Sweden a few months ago. The program is two years long.
NL: And are there certain stories you wish to tell via photography rather than film or graphic design?
NH: I'm inspired by my dreams, my memories, and the things around me. Right now, the woods and the sky are heavily featured in my work. The trees here are different, the light is different. Being so close to the Arctic Circle really changes the quality of the twilights. And after five years in New York City, I'm finally seeing the stars again.
NL: That must be nice. What is your favorite medium to work in?
NH: I love working with ink and paper. I love the physical mark that it makes, and I come from a long background of scientific diagram-drawing, which I find very relaxing. There are disadvantages to that though, so I recently switched over to an all-digital workflow - a Wacom tablet and Photoshop. It's a steep learning curve, but it allows you to correct your mistakes non-destructively!
NL: Is there any story you are trying to tell with your work? Any message?
NH: Although most of the pieces are a bit surreal and unsettling, I want to evoke a feeling of a very distant memory or dream. Although the exact memory itself isn't defined or necessarily describable in any words, we all wake up from dreams whose emotions and colors are vivid and real. Even though they can be unsettling, we re-remember them over and over to get a 'hit' of those emotions and colors. I want to create this sense in the viewer. In a nutshell I would call my stuff "memories of dreams." I had all these dreams when I was a kid, of being outside, of being under the moonlight and looking in on lit up windows and longing for that comfort and warmth.
NL: I know you are in Hungary right now. Has this experience affected any of your work thus far?
NH: I actually just got back to Sweden. I was on the Hungarian-Austrian border photographing and documenting refugees. I think that this experienced definitely changed me. We met thousands and thousands of refugees being funneled through the border, paradoxically made invisible. I'm working on a photo-essay about that experience, but I think it will also inspire my illustration. There were trains that would pull up in the dead of night, and literally two thousand people would climb out in silence.
NL: Wow. That's intense. I'm excited to see what these graphic experiences inspire in your upcoming work.
Chelsea Window #1
Windows focus our view onto an image, perhaps different when our line of vision is changed, but a single image nonetheless. Does perspective matter if you’re only being presented with the same glass guarded picture again and again? Yes. Looking down 23rd street here, I focus on a memory. What I see in her is very direct, and almost toy-like. I can tinker with this view. I can focus on the black car, and be sad; focus on the red awning and be mad; or focus on the nothingness surrounding what’s focused. I choose to ignore what is apparent. I take this picture while in a comfortable relationship for 3 years from the 21st floor of the apartment building I live in.
Chelsea Window #2
Windows constrict our views - sometimes onto a grey image where there is no escaping that bleak outlook. It’s hard to see anything but what is right in front of you, and looking away to the black outreaches only seems more hopeless. I’m focused but also trapped. I’m depressed in my apartment on the 21st floor, and Chelsea looks ugly--vicious even. The only option is to remain in this box and hope my perspective changes soon. This window is less of a lens, and more of a cage. I take this picture as a depressed and single 21-year-old, a month away from what would have been 4 years in a relationship.
Chelsea Window #3
Windows magnify our views on the everyday world around us. Chelsea takes me by surprise this afternoon. The monotonous blue skies and humid weight of the skyline are greeted by a purple sunset that caresses the tops of buildings. For the first time in weeks, the window on the 21st floor seems like it’s inviting me to see a bigger picture. There’s freedom and hope in this skyline. She had tricked me earlier—life isn’t the dark box it seemed to be before. There is a reason to look up, and no reason to look down. I take this picture a couple weeks after the last, healing slowly.
Chelsea Window #4
Windows don't matter at all. Our view is strictly what we want to see, no glass can distort or control that. If I want to see something, then that’s where I’ll look. Windows are clear for a reason - so we, as humans, can see whatever we want, at all times. The 21st floor allows me to see everything in The City—in her—but I choose to simplify that view. What matters is the emotion; the shapes I have lost and the colors I have gained. Maybe the window is trying to protect me from what’s on the other side, but I need to feel that visceral pain to grow. And I have felt it. I took this picture at the peak of my relationship, but now looking back, it foreshadowed something both ominous and beautiful that was going to occur. The biggest loss and gain in my life to date.
Chelsea Window 0
You were the best.
I needed your sex.
Focused and lost,
I was in pain
You were out of
Like a sunset,
Only hides the ugly.
You’re so ugly.
There’s a joke in my family that I was only made aware of recently, and it’s that I am going to wind up being like one of the sons from Step Brothers. Living with my parents well into my thirties. Unemployed. No car. Not married. The list goes on. My brother Willy P probably told the joke to my mother and she probably laughed because she thinks it’s true. Right now, at least, I think she thinks it could happen. In addition to freelancing and working in retail, I am looking for that ever-holy full-time job. And when it comes, glory will be upon us. Yet for now, everyday I must convince Mother, “Yes, I applied to many jobs today. Yes, I reached out to people on LinkedIn. No, Mother, I can’t apply to that job, I can’t afford a car. There’s only $80 in my bank account, $37,000 of which belong to my student loans.”
Sometimes I watch Full House at night. It’s not a great show, but I remember it being on in the background when I was very little – maybe three years old. Then, when I was in middle school and had the house to myself before anyone came home, I would eat a ham and cheese Hot Pocket and watch reruns. Now whenever I watch an episode I always have my computer next to me, convinced that as long as Final Draft is opened, I am still writing.
I feel like a disappointment to my parents and a broken record to my friends – I mean, how many times can you make a joke about having no money? As much as we need comedy to relieve pain and forget our woes, hearing the same joke over and over again becomes depressing. There are only so many times you can chuckle about Uncle Jesse’s hair or Kimmy Gibbler’s feet until you feel like you’re trapped in a mental institution.
So instead of remembering the good old days through corny sitcoms, occasionally I will turn to Unsolved Mysteries and visit the stories that scared me in my younger days, and to be honest, still do. That’s the thing about comedy – there’s a setup, and then a punch line, and not much else left to the imagination. But with mysteries, the story is never over until it is officially solved. When I get creeped out by something that had the same effect on me ten years ago, it’s almost like time has never changed.
For those of you who were not fortunate enough to be brought up by the school of Robert Stack, Unsolved Mysteries ran from 1987 – 2001 and brought to life the disturbing stories you heard on the news. It terrified even the most skeptic of viewers, and the opening theme certainly didn’t help. I still suffer post-traumatic stress when I hear the music followed by Stack’s spine-chilling narration reminding us that we might be able to help solve a mystery.
The show was extremely successful in finding criminals and reuniting families with their lost loved ones, or at least bringing some sort of closure involving a missing person’s whereabouts. And what separates this show from the copycats on Investigation Discovery and similar networks is that Unsolved Mysteries actually seemed dedicated to helping victims and families. What is on TV today is edited so heavily with campy special effects and overly dramatic narration and performances that it appears to be purely for entertainment, making a melodrama out of unfortunately real events. Whereas Unsolved Mysteries told the facts without flair, what you see today are basically TV movies in disguise – they have the actors smiling sinisterly into the cameras breaking the fourth wall, and each commercial break ends in some dramatic tune. Unsolved Mysteries treated each episode like a mini-documentary usually no longer than ten minutes. They interviewed eye-witnesses and loved ones and gave all sides of a story, so although they claimed at the beginning that the show “wasn’t a news broadcast,” it kind of was one, but with Robert Stack’s charm. Today, stories that would have taken Unsolved Mysteries eight minutes to tell take an hour, presumably so that networks can make advertisement money, but by the time you’re on the third commercial, you’ve already said “Screw this,” and have looked up what ultimately happened on your phone. It takes you out of the story, in contrast to how Unsolved Mysteries dragged you in and chained you to your chair. Today’s shows have no intention of bringing justice to families. They are only interested in making a profit off slightly titillating stories that happened to average people.
Coming home from school on half-days when the show was on Lifetime and being scared out of my wits, Unsolved Mysteries taught me many lessons that have shaped how I approach life, which I would like to share with you:
1. Don't use an ATM at night
There was one case about a young man named Matthew Chase who disappeared after going to an ATM to deposit a check from work. Records show that he was able to make it to the machine, but that he had attempted to take out a large sum of cash. Authorities thought this was suspicious, and when they looked at the video footage of him at the bank making the transaction, there was a man standing inches away from him. They believe that this man was Chase’s killer, and that Chase was requesting such a large amount to alert the bank of his situation. His body was discovered weeks later and his killer has never been found. This case always scared me because of what a sucky situation it was – he only had an hour left to deposit that check; that’s why he left in the middle of the night to do it. So by waiting until the last minute but also not wanting to get murdered, you risk not having any cash money. I saw this episode long before I was depositing checks, so what stuck out to me the most was how vital it is to be aware of your surroundings. One time when we were little, Willy P and I were staying at our dad’s house and we decided to walk to the corner store to get some Stewart’s. I noticed out of the corner of my eye a truck following us, but didn’t think anything of it. Allentown, NJ is one of those towns where once an out-of-towner enters, they get lost, even though it’s really just one road. I think some people get confused and think they are in Allentown, PA. That’s why I didn’t think anything of it. Then as we walked out of the store and back to our house, I noticed the truck slowly following us from behind again, stopping whenever I glanced at the driver. I said something to my brother, who at the time was still puny and eye-level with me. He got out one of the root beer bottles to use as a weapon, and even though this guy probably could have had at least had a knife or gun, he drove away. I always figured that because we were aware of his presence, we may have scared him off. Instead of going home, we went to our neighbor Pat’s house, so that if he were following us and wanted to kidnap or murder us, Pat would be the decoy. She and her boyfriend were both twice the size of us – maybe even three times, and instead of kids they just had a stupid St. Bernard that was born on September 11, 2001 and barked all the time and always got into our house somehow. It wouldn’t have been a big loss. Being aware of our surroundings definitely paid off, since we weren’t killed, and that was owed in part to Unsolved Mysteries.
2. Don't partake in fighting with strangers
One major lesson I learned from Unsolved Mysteries is to not fight with strangers unless absolutely necessary. You don’t know what they are capable of and most of the time what you are fighting over is not worth it. A sad example that comes to mind is the “Texas Most Wanted” episode, which also happened to be Matthew McConaughey’s first onscreen performance ever. He is ripped in it. So hot and so much Texas. Anyway, this episode always stuck with me not only because of how disturbing it is, but it was the first time I experienced a blacked-out face – you know, when someone wants to be anonymous so they are interviewed in silhouette. This scared the hell out of 13-year-old Rachel, but I’ll elaborate on this in my following bullet point. In this episode, McConaughey plays Larry Dickens, a father who witnesses a man (real name is Edward Bell) masturbating in front of children playing in the street. He chases the guy away from the kids while his mother calls the police – but then Dickens steals his keys to try to keep him there. Bell then shoots Dickens, Dickens stumbles into his garage where Bell follows him. His mother leaves him (with the garage door opened!) to call an ambulance, and Bell returns with a rifle to finish the job. We are reminded how unpredictable strangers can be, and when avoidable, we should leave dangerous people to the professionals. Like when I am at work and a difficult, uneducated, crack-head hillbilly excuse of a woman yells at me that I am being rude for asking her to not sit on the stairs, which I only ask her not to do because I don’t want little kids to fall over her and lose their teeth as it looks is what happened to her, I let Rockefeller security know of the situation because they got my back and we have a secret handshake and they most likely are better at fighting crazies than I am.
A similar case detailed a woman who was on her way to work and behind a truck that was swerving and acting obnoxious. If someone on the road is being aggressive, try your best to avoid him or her. Very few things in this world are worth taking a bullet for, and getting to work on time is not one of them. When the woman tried to pass him, the driver blocked the road, got out of his car and shot her. The woman asked to remain anonymous, but somehow online I found out her name was Janice Katilius. I think other news sources at the time may have used her real name. I checked up on her. I like to check up on these people sometimes, make sure they’re doing okay. I act as a silent guardian, watching over them via social media and keeping them out of danger without them knowing. According to Facebook, Janice is doing well.
3. Do face your fears, no matter how dumb they are
The anonymous faces freak me out – especially if the person alters his or her voice to protect their identity and uses a really dumb fake name like “John.” I can’t explain one hundred percent why this creeps me out. When I first saw one of these interviews in the segment aforementioned, I was paralyzed the whole day, like I had seen a ghost myself. We had a half-day at school and I was home alone, so I called my mom, and she goes: “Let me get this straight. You heard a story about a guy jerking off in the street in front of little children, who then murders an innocent man trying to stop him, and you’re afraid that someone hid their face during an interview? I’m working right now. I’ll see you at 6.” For me, it goes back to this psychological fear that what you can’t identify is threatening. I could write an entire memoir about my anonymous-face-phobia, but I will say my fear was slightly put to bed – maybe tucked in but not put all the way to sleep – when I was reading about this one case, the Las Cruces Bowling Alley Massacre. In 1990 at a bowling alley in Las Cruces, New Mexico, four people were murdered at gunpoint and three others were injured. One victim “Ida,” was interviewed anonymously, but in an interview revisiting the tragedy 20 years later, she showed her face. It was interesting to see the face behind the silhouette, but was also rewarding to see how she has been able to move on by the seemingly small act of revealing her identity.
4. Don't communicate with ghosts because they don't play by human rules
If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it, especially if ghosts or demons are involved. Spiritual entities don’t play by human rules. In my opinion, the scariest paranormal case the show ever profiled was called “Tallman’s Ghost,” where a family was haunted by a demonic presence after purchasing a bunk-bed. Their kids kept getting sick, things kept getting moved, and everyone kept envisioning the house catching on fire and the family being murdered. It became so unbearable to live there that they had to move out. Now, there may be very little you can do about a haunted house or buying something that you don’t know has a negative energy to it. But if something doesn’t feel right, always trust your gut, because it will only get worse the longer you wait. For example, my dad’s house is haunted. I’ve never actually seen anything while I was wide-awake, but before my stepmother came in and started touching all my stuff without permission, my belongings were always getting moved around. In the middle of the night I can hear footsteps when I can also hear everyone snoring. My brother claims that once a door slammed right in front of him for no reason – which I believe because that entire night he wouldn’t leave my side, when normally he calls me names like “Retard with an NYU degree” and “500 pounds of bird shit” and goes his own way. Then early one morning, a woman was in my bedroom asking me if I was waking up. I told her I was going to go back to bed. A few hours later I yelled at my stepmother for being in my room, but then I realized the woman I was talking to looked nothing like her. The same thing happened a few months later when I was home sick with bronchitis. Now whenever I’m there, my bed always shakes at 1 in the morning. It doesn’t feel like it’s threatening me, but it doesn’t feel welcoming, either. There’s not really much I can do about it, since I didn’t buy a haunted bunk-bed or anything, but I do my best not to engage and simply ask to be left alone. Sometimes it works. If anything, it has really given me a liking to sleeping in the same bed as someone else, that way I don’t feel as on my own.
5. Don't hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers
Unfortunately, the United States isn’t Sweden or Norway where everyone is happy and trustworthy. We don’t have free healthcare or education and people are generally a lot more enthusiastic about killing strangers. It seems pretty obvious not to get into the car of someone you do not know. But let’s say I’m in a really good mood, and that one day I miraculously have the money to own a car. Unsolved Mysteries taught me not to take a chance on that hitchhiker who has a really convincing story where he’s just got to make it to this one place really fast. In the segment profiling the murder of Dorothy Donovan, her son, Charles Holden had picked up a hitchhiker who claimed he needed to see his sister because she was giving birth. Holden agreed to give this man a ride, but when the stranger became violent and left the truck for a brief moment, Holden was able to speed away. As he was arriving home, he noticed the stranger lurking around his home. He then called the police and when they arrived, they found his mother stabbed to death. I was always curious in this case whether or not the killer (who in 2006 forensic evidence confirmed was a man named Gilbert Cannon) had stolen Holden’s wallet and knew of his address or had just by some bizarre coincidence broken into the same house. I could never find any information about the bizarre outcome other than that Cannon claimed he was high and went into her house because it was the only one he found without a light on. Either way, when you open your car door, you open yourself up to a world of weirdos.
6. Don't have an affair (but also don't live in a small town)
I’m not very good at dating, and I think part of that is because as a teenager, I was afraid the person I might date might have another significant other, who might get jealous and then might try to kill me. In the case of the “Circleville Letter Writer,” a woman named Mary Gillespie and other town residents of Circleville, Ohio began to receive threatening anonymous letters detailing their personal lives. Gillespie was targeted for allegedly having an affair with a school official (that was according to her, untrue). A booby-trap had been set up along her bus route, and after receiving a threatening phone call, her husband Ron stormed out of the house, only to be found dead in his car. Mary’s brother-in-law, Paul Freshour was accused of being the murderer because it was his gun used to set the booby-trap, though he maintained his innocence. When the letters continued to be sent while he was in solitary confinement, they finally released him.
The writer sent a letter to Unsolved Mysteries when the segment first broadcasted in 1994, warning them not to get involved. People stopped receiving letters around the mid-‘90s, but Ron Gillespie is dead, Paul Freshour (recently deceased) spent ten years of his life in jail for a crime he was clearly not guilty of, and hundreds of people lived for decades in fear. Whether or not any of the allegations were actually true, this case always made me want to be a faithful girlfriend, in the event someone wanted to hold anything over my head. It also made me realize that in small towns people are way into others’ businesses and that’s not how I would like to raise my at-the-moment-non-existent children.
7. Be smart about one-night-stands
Some of you are out there and having one-night-stands, but without Unsolved Mysteries, you might be unsafe. In the segment called “Burning Bed” (of no relation to the Farrah Fawcett made-for-TV-movie) we learn about Megan Curl, who was tied to her bed and set on fire by a man who she had brought back to her apartment after a night of dancing. As horrific as this incident was, it inspired me to come up with a checklist for bringing back a guest of any sort to my place of residence:
- Have I met this person more than once?
- Have I had more than two drinks & if I have, is this something I would do without two drinks?
- Are my roommates home?
- If I do not have roommates, does at least one person know my whereabouts?
- Does this person seem weird? (Now, if everybody could answer this question correctly, no one would ever get murdered, but again, trust your gut.)
- Do I have an exit strategy if things go wrong?
Megan did have a neighbor-friend looking out for her, but sadly this was not enough. When dealing with strangers in your home, one can never be too cautious in taking the necessary steps to not being murdered. And not getting pregnant. And not getting AIDS. Use protection. If someone’s face makes you want to throw up when you are kissing it, it is okay to say no. It is also okay to never have sex.
I owe my life to Unsolved Mysteries; without it, I may have been too cocky to partake in dangerous activities, and I maybe would have died prematurely or worse, have been stuck in an unhappy marriage living in the Midwest. Here I have some tidbits that I have gathered from multiple episodes, where I don’t have a personal anecdote for them at the moment, but my story is still yet to be written.
- Don’t become a prostitute; you can always just become a dancer.
- Don’t play with a Ouija board.
- Drugs, sex, and money are at the heart of many crimes so choose your actions wisely.
- We don’t have reason to be afraid of UFOs just yet, although Roswell is pretty scary.
- People can still be reunited and justice can still be served even when all hope is lost.
It seems kind of weird to be nostalgic about a show that profiles the darkness in humanity, but I think it’s a way to connect the past to the present and acknowledge that we are the same person all throughout our relatively short lives. The families who are missing loved ones never forget them, but they learn how to cope. The victims of murders are so much more than just what their final moments were – they were people who, like us, sometimes thought too long about whether they should make dinner or get takeout, or if a T-shirt could go one more day without being washed. And it helps me realize that the down-on-her-luck 23-year-old Rachel is still the awkward teenager who is afraid of a creepy show on Lifetime, and will one day be the retired old lady annoyed that after decades, it is still unavailable to stream anywhere online.
This collection of photos was taken over a time period of three weeks, during a vacation in Portugal. Although they span the southern tip and northern shores of the country, they all include meaningful substance to me. From the town my mother was born in, to my absolute favorite place to visit as a child, I can look at these photos and instantly return to a memory created there. I think that is my favorite thing about photography; the ability to capture and share the perfect scenes life brings me to.
Photographs are memories. They are sights. They are smells. They are sounds. They are my time capsules for things I don’t want to forget. With my camera around my neck, I have developed a new way of looking at the world. I have fallen in love with light and the details that most people overlook. I have learned there is beauty everywhere; you just have to find it – a concept that can, and should, be applied to every facet of life.
Stephanie DeSousa is a current graduate student pursuing her Doctorate of Physical Therapy. She believes everyone should find three hobbies they love: one to make you money, one to keep you in shape, and one to be creative. Photography lets her be creative. You can see more of her work on her website.
You’re not supposed to ask an Alzheimer’s patient, “Who’s this person, what’s his name? Do you remember him?” It insults them, but Nana never had that reaction. She giggled and sometimes remembered I’m Rachel; other times she called me Debbie or Linda. Debbie is my aunt. I have no idea who Linda is.
My brother Wil and I spent most of our time before kindergarten at our grandparents’ house in Holiday City, a quiet retirement community in Toms River, New Jersey. The houses were all pastel-colored one-storied homes with neatly kept lawns like the neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands. I went on walks with my grandfather and was always annoyed at how he would stop and chat with any neighbor who was sitting on their porch, taking out garbage, getting pulled out on a stretcher. I can’t remember my grandmother ever going outside unless she was with someone.
I remember her mostly in the kitchen, in a floral apron always equipped with tissues. She kept her silk white hair out of her face with dozens of bobby pins. Her dark skin was wrinkled like paper. Her eyes, though brown, had blue linings on their limbus. Sometimes she played Go Fish with us. When one of my favorite Beanie Babies ripped, she sewed it back together like it was nothing. She taught me how to write a Z in cursive.
When I was 9, after my grandfather died, Nana moved into my father’s house in Allentown, NJ, where Wil and I lived half the time after our parents divorced. We had to share my bedroom while my dad rearranged the house. I remember they argued a lot, but I don’t remember about what. I think most of them were misunderstandings. Her catchphrase for a while was, “May the Lord strike me down!”
At our dad’s in the summertime, Wil and I spent the days with Nana, since we didn’t go to school in Allentown and didn’t know anyone within more than a block radius. We had a neighbor, Pat, who was super awesome and always bought us toys because she hated her teenage daughter. Plus, she let us swim in her pool when she wasn’t there. (I liked Pat until I was 15, when she got drunk and insisted that she rub sunscreen on my badly sunburnt legs. That freaked me out.) Around noon, Nana would trot next-door and tell us lunch was ready, and we’d beg for five minutes, and she would say we weren’t even supposed to be there anyway. She never understood that Pat allowed us to trespass.
Nana and I would watch That’s So Raven on her bed. She got a kick out of Raven for some reason. She called her “the girl.” We watched American Idol, too. She spoke so highly of Randy Jackson. She would go, “That one, that feller, he’s reasonable. He’s the nice one.” The Twilight Zone was reserved for New Year’s Eve, when SciFi ran marathons (before they changed their name). I was glued to the TV for the episode “The Eye of the Beholder,” even though Nana called out the twist at the beginning. She chirped up, “Isn’t she actually beautiful and they’re piggies?” I was amazed by how smart she was when I saw the ending.
On her birthday in 2005, I won the lead role of Gertrude McFuzz in our school’s play, Seussical the Musical. (Some people will tell you Gertrude is not the lead, but they are wrong. She is the most important character in the whole story.) Wil and I came home from school and couldn’t find Nana anywhere. She was always in the kitchen making dinner when we came home. Her bedroom door was closed, so I peeked in. I saw her sitting in the dark with the TV on. She wasn’t paying any attention to it. I turned on the light.
“What are you doing in here?” I asked.
She lifted her head and her eyes slowly lit up, as if it took her a moment to come back from a sad memory. “Oh, hello.”
“Happy birthday! How old are you?”
“Too old,” she chuckled. Wil made a b-line for her remote control and then her forehead for a kiss. He put sunglasses and a tiara on her and insisted that I take her picture with my nifty new camera phone.
“Hey, Nana, guess what? Rachel is going to play a stupid bird onstage –“
“Shut up! I’m telling her. Nana, I’m going to play the lead bird in our school play.”
She clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “My little actress!”
Over the next few months, she began giving me a lot of her possessions. She had a little knickknack of a Japanese boy, a knickknack of an old man reading a newspaper called Good News. A couple kissing on a bench, a candle with a dog next to a fire hydrant. They all showed up on my dresser one day and I thought maybe it was Wil pulling a prank on me without actually knowing how comedy worked. But when I tried to return them to her, she shook her head.
“No, no, I want you to have them.”
“Why? Don’t you want them?”
“I want you to have them.” She handed me a book called The Tragedy of X. I had never heard her talk about books or movies or anything that she had read or watched on her own. It prompted me to ask her what her favorite movie actually was.
She thought a minute. “I can’t remember the name… Judy Garland. She’s a girl. It’s in color. Some of it.”
“Do you mean The Wizard of Oz?”
“Yeah. That one was good.”
I pestered her that entire day with questions about her past. It hadn’t occurred to me until then, at 13 years old, that this woman knew everything about me, (even how I liked my peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches) yet I barely knew a thing about her outside of being my grandmother. Unlike my parents, or even my grandfather, who always made sure their stories would live on through Wil and me, Nana never spoke anything about life before 1992. All I knew about her childhood was that she was the youngest of five kids and hated her older sister, Jenny, who one time (allegedly) held her head under a faucet. That was all I knew of her life before my birth. I tried to get more out of her:
“Was the Great Depression tough?”
“Huh? Yeah. I played baseball.”
“Did you like Elvis?”
“Don’t stand so close to the stove.”
“You’ll catch on fire.”
“I’m nowhere near the stove! Can you still speak Italian? What does fongool mean?” I asked, knowing full well what it meant.
“It means put plates on the table.”
On March 8th, 2006, she woke up and complained that her stomach hurt, but we were running late for school and I told her to feel better. My father called later to tell Wil and I that she went to the hospital for an ulcer.
My play was later that week. “Will she still be able to see me be Gertrude?”
“I don’t know, Rachel.”
She didn’t get better later that week, that month, or that year. She was in the hospital for the whole summer and then was put into a nursing home. Every time we visited, Nana became less and less of the woman I had known for fourteen years. We used to sit in the cafeteria because the rooms could get stuffy and, depending on who Nana’s roommate was at the time, smelled like either urine or too much perfume. Whenever I would say that I felt bad with her stuck there, my dad would say in the kindest way possible that it’s her own fault for not taking care of herself. I thought she took care of herself okay. She liked Oreos and Entenmann’s pound cake, but I never saw her eat in excess. In fact, even when she was in the hospital and couldn’t be fed without help, she still offered everyone her food. When she couldn’t speak, she would pick up a soggy piece of bread and hold it in front of me in case I wanted it.
I fed her in the nursing home because she was too weak to feed herself. My dad and my brother used to roughhouse with each other in their seats, which made me angry because it seemed disrespectful. But at some point I no longer minded it. Maybe this is what we would be doing if we were at home. Maybe this makes it feel more like old times. My dad wasn’t as close to Nana as he was his father, but I know in his own way, he cared about her. For a while, every visit her wheelchair would be so dusty you could write the Bible in it. Each visit he would speak to management and say something needed to be done, and nothing ever was, until finally Wil and I heard him through the walls ripping the manager a new one in his office. Her wheelchair was spotless after that.
There were these two sisters in their 60s who were always there visiting their 100-year-old mother. Every single time we visited, no matter what day of the week or what time of day, they’d be there. They were the only people Nana would talk to. It was a relief that she had a place to sit and she wasn’t alone. They told me I was a good granddaughter, feeding my grandmother like that. But one day, the three of them weren’t there and we never saw them again.
“So, Nana, who’s this?” my dad would ask, pointing to Wil. Unlike me, who, with the exception of puberty, has generally looked the same throughout life, my brother has never looked like the same person for more than 6 months.
“Hummm… Bill,” she guessed.
“Your son? That’s me,” he teased.
She smiled, thinking she was correcting him. “My man, Bill.”
The three of us shared a laugh and she joined in. Even if she didn’t get it, it was just nice to see her laughing instead of crying that she wanted to go home. I think our biggest laugh together was one time I asked her if she had a bellybutton. I never knew the whole story, but apparently after she gave birth to my aunt, her bellybutton had to be removed, or something. I’m not positive if that’s even true or if she was, as she would say, “pulling my leg.” Either way, I asked her if she had one, and she goes, “I don’t know, let me check,” and lifted her shirt all the way up, exposing her breasts to us. We all lost it, and that time I think she knew what we were laughing about. The first boobs Wil saw were his grandmother’s.
That’s how visits typically went until I was 18 and heading off to NYU. Though she couldn’t hold a conversation before, she soon couldn’t even answer basic yes-or-no questions. I visited her the day before I moved to New York and found her wheeling aimlessly around the hallways. She didn’t understand that when I tried to take her into the cafeteria, we were visiting her. She didn’t know who any of us were.
During spring break of 2011, when the rest of the world was busy torturing Rebecca Black, Nana had to go into the hospital again. I didn’t pay much attention to how serious my dad was making this time sound, since he’s the kind of guy who every time someone has a cold, he’s preparing their eulogy. But it soon became clear that for once my dad’s exaggerations were realistic. We all knew what was around the corner.
On March 19th, 2011, my mother took Wil and I to see Nana. We found our father beside her. She was hardly recognizable. The nurses wrapped gloves around her hands to keep her from pulling tubes, but when they were off, you could see her long, yellow nails. Her hair that she had once meticulously kept in bobby pins was greasy and strewn about, and her fragile body was mangled and twisted in sheets and tubes. On her stomach was a giant unshapely bump that stuck out about 10 inches. I just assumed it was more tubes and ignored it.
“You guys know what that is?” my dad asked.
Wil shook his head, and I answered confidently, “Yeah, just her tubes.”
My dad responded, “Her stomach. That’s her food. But she has no more muscle, so it all just sits there.”
“Okay, stop talking.”
“You remember Alien–”
“SHUT UP!” I screamed.
If my dad’s girlfriend hadn’t been in the bathroom, she would’ve yelled at me to respect my father, and how I’m ungrateful. But thankfully she wasn’t, it was only my parents, Wil, and what was left of Nana. I looked in her eyes, and she returned back a conscious gaze that I hadn’t seen in years. She cupped her hand under my chin and announced loudly and proudly, “I love you.”
The next day she was asleep for the entire visit. My dad and Wil went to the cafeteria to eat, but I wasn’t hungry, so I stayed in the room alone with her.
I took off her glove and held her hand. It was cold. For a long time, I sat in silence wondering how long it had been that they were downstairs eating. I wondered about how maybe Nana had already seen that episode of The Twilight Zone and she wasn’t really a genius after all. I thought about how I would never have one of her world famous peanut-butter-and-jellies again, even though it had already been years since she made one. I guessed it was already too late to ask the truth about her bellybutton.
I gently squeezed her hand. “Hey, you know what, Nana? When I was in 8th grade, you missed the performance of the century. I was Gertrude in Seussical. I can sing you a song if you’d like.”
I fixed up her blankets and sang quietly, since this was a private show: “There once was a girl-bird, named Gertrude McFuzz…”
I had to catch a train back to New York, since spring break was over. I took one last look at the woman who taught me how to write a Z in cursive and left. I never saw her again.
Rachel Petzinger is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her webseries, Dear Rachel, just debuted its second season.
Here is how you embalm a body: first, undress it and lay it down. Massage it carefully. The limbs will become stiff soon and you wouldn’t want them to freeze in an awkward position. Close the eyes and glue them shut. If they look sunken, stuff a little cotton behind the eyelids. Close the mouth. Make an incision under the left clavicle and insert two tubes: one to pump the formaldehyde in, one to drain the blood out. Be sure to get both tubes inserted snugly into major arteries. Begin pumping. The process will take several hours. Keep massaging the limbs and torso to make sure the fluid is evenly distributed. When done, be sure to powder the sewn-up incision with makeup so it doesn't show. Dress the body. Some especially leaky bodies require a plastic layer between the skin and the clothes. Cut the clothes up the back, pull them tight across the chest of the corpse. Make the face up. Do something to the hair.
This, according to late night internet searches I've been making for the past three hours. It might not seem the best thing to be googling late at night, but I couldn't help myself. It’s dark in my room, yellow light from the window casting a dim stripe across my legs. I move a lot when I sleep, tangling the sheets and leaving dark sweat stains. Tonight I woke up dreaming I was at an open-casket funeral; expected, as always, to kneel and pray to the corpse.
The first corpse I saw was Aunt Mary, a distant relative who lived down the South Shore. The undertaker went overboard with the makeup – blue eye shadow, blush, scarlet lipstick. They tried to do up the viewing room to look like a normal home that just happened to have a coffin in it, but the fabric on all the chairs felt antiseptic and scratchy and the wallpaper had a plastic sheen. You were supposed to ascend this little staircase set up next to the coffin, kneel, and say a prayer to the body. I kept my eyes screwed shut until the last "Amen," then opened them and looked at the blank face until my mother's touch pulled me away.
On the way home, some of the family that had driven down together stopped at a fried clam shack off Route 24 in Bridgewater. There were four around the table - my mother, my aunt Ann, our first cousin Ellen, and me. That Loretta Lynn song was playing, "Stand By Your Man." The place had a TV showing college football, glistening cakes rotated in a glass vitrine. The waitresses wore aprons that cut off above the knees.
After a beer or two, Ellen took to talking about her upcoming divorce (Boston accent: more divahhz than divorce). She had enormous breasts that heaved as if to emphasize her speech. Her hair; shiny, black, was cut short and hairsprayed into a glossy, motionless trapezoid.
"He's an asshole," she said. "I married an asshole." Her husband Billy (not the father of her children, that was Jim, who'd died of M.S.), had been cheating on her with the receptionist at the flooring company where he installed tile. Ellen's friend Joanne had told her Billy was running around behind her back. "I know where she lives," Ellen said, "so I got the kids in the car and we went over there to show her the kind of family she's breaking up."
My mother and aunt caught each other's eyes across the table. They had gone to college and married men they met there.
"And we got there," Ellen said, "And Billy's there! In his clothes, thank god, the fucking rat."
"Oh Jesus," my mother said. She gestured at me.
"Well, it's an education," Ellen said. The waitress set three baskets of fried clams down in the middle of the table. "Anyway," she said, "I couldn't very well stay with the cheating bastard so that's that. Asshole." She crunched a clam in her mouth, I got a whiff of cooling fry-oil and perfume.
Ann said, "You did the right thing, babe." I kept my ears open.
"Aunt Mary," Ann went on. "She was a beauty when she was young."
"Yeah," my mother said. "She looked like Sophia Loren or something."
"But the mouth she had!" Ellen said, pushing a basket of clams towards me. I ate one. "Only time I ever heard anyone call someone a fried rat's asshole, that's for sure."
"But she was a looker," Ann said.
"Fat lot of good it did her. Her first husband was a homo, her second husband was in the mob, and her third husband was Jewish."
"Ellen," my mother said, sharply.
"Didn't say he wasn't good to her ‘til he died, the sweet thing," Ellen said.
"The mob?" I asked, perking up.
"Yeah," Ellen said. Big guy named Victor. That would have been around '72-'73, right?"
Ann nodded. "Yeah, must have been. I remember him from when I was about ten."
"He set her up in this big house in Jersey with white carpet," Ellen said. She had diamonds. She showed up to Christmas Eve in a Lincoln."
"Didn't it end with him in jail," my mother asked.
"Yeah," Ellen said. "Dad told me they got him for taxes, but I remember someone drunk on Christmas Eve telling me he shot some guy and threw him in the East River. She and I both. Boy, can we pick'em."
Now, I live by the East River, on the Brooklyn waterfront. Late evenings in summer, the park is breezy, the water silver, the sky orange-pink. The river seems to flow in two directions at once – wavelets on the surface skitter north with the wind, underneath, rolling swells swim towards shore. Where the crests meet, they do a kind of two-step. On the bank, boys with bicycles sit smoking, bored dogs sniff at tall grass; in the background, a three-legged water tower hovers menacingly, looking like a monument aliens might have left rusting, waiting for their return. Black fabric billows loosely off half-finished condo towers.
It was just last night, there, that this latest sleeplessness began. At first, the body just looked like a piece of driftwood or something, a shopping cart, maybe. A fixed-wing plane buzzed overhead, the thing in the water floated closer. I got up, and walked out onto the pier to see what it was.
The thing coalesced into the shape of a person. "Is that someone swimming? Gross." I heard some girls say, smoking cigarettes off the pier railing. Then the chilling, terrible limpness of the arms became visible, the head lolling freely with each swell of the river.
Swollen, distended, blue, the body floated towards me. The man had been muscular, with the body of an athlete, but water had bloated the fingers into fat sausages, pulled the slack skin up off his torso so it twitched nervously with each change in the waves. The distended penis floated on the surface. I heard the girls scream as the body approached the pier feet first, the last thing I saw before it dipped underneath were the eyes – open, green and glassy – and the loose, rotting jaw.
When I was a kid, lying in bed and failing to fall asleep, I looked up at the windows that rose up to my left and imagined strange men trying to break in. I'd have already checked the locks. I usually managed to convince myself that the burglars would be stopped, or at least temporarily immobilized, by the window blinds - how, I thought, could they squeeze through the clanking tin slats without being noticed? Surely by the time they snipped away a kidnapper-sized hole I would have time to scream, to run out into the hall and slam the door behind me. Tonight, I lie awake again, thinking of Aunt Mary’s body in her coffin: lips lined, hair fluffed, cheeks stuffed to unnatural plumpness, fists clenched around a cross. I think of my grandmother, who was cremated; her casket rolling along a conveyor belt into the ovens. I think about how bodies are embalmed, the clinical violence of it. There is nothing to do to a corpse. You stuff it full of chemicals, you burn it, you float it in the river. At least the swimmer kept some fish alive, I think, and then I am asleep, at least until the next morning. You take it day by day by day.
Taylor died. I don't know how, or when, exactly. But he is, in fact, dead, and never coming back. I know this because I saw it on Facebook.
We called him "Black Taylor." It was the kind of joke that faux-liberal white teenagers raised in rural Vermont would find funny. Black Taylor wasn't black, but he wore a lot of white t-shirts and loose jeans and loved rap music. He was an amateur rapper himself.
He became fast friends with one of the RAs, which is what the Governor’s Institute of Vermont called their camp counselors. I don’t remember the RA’s name, but he also loved rap music. One day the RAs were allowed to teach their own class, and this guy taught a class on the history of hip-hop. He was also a semi-pro birdwatcher.
It was 2007. Facebook wasn’t really a thing. I only got one because my friend Bailey had one, but all of my friends were still on MySpace. The people I met at the Governor’s Institute were a little older than me - thinking about college, about SAT scores, about sex. I thought about those things, too. The difference was that those things were actually happening to these people.
They all used Facebook. When they weren’t off in the woods making out, they would spend their free time huddled around the few internet-connected computers in the student center. They wanted to know what their friends at home were doing. They felt removed. I felt removed, too, but from the people in front of me, as I stood on the edge of groups and watched them talk and laugh like they had been friends for years when in fact they’d only met days ago. I laughed when they laughed, pretending to feel included.
There was a White Taylor. White Taylor was white, blonde, very skinny with bulging eyes. The popular joke was that he was a crack addict. White Taylor wasn’t White Taylor just because we needed some to complete the nickname yin-yang. White Taylor came from a rich family. White Taylor was going to Bates. White Taylor wore polos.
This was the Governor’s Institute of Vermont on Current Issues and Youth Activism, where we knew enough about racial inequality to make the joke, but never had to confront the realities of it outside of our bubble of white privilege. We were literally up on a hill, at the School of International Training, looking over Brattleboro, Vermont, the city that proclaimed that it would arrest George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for war crimes if they ever stepped foot in city limits. We were morally and intellectually superior. It was implied and we believed it.
I walked in on Black Taylor taking a shit. The dorms we were staying in had communal bathrooms. I pressed open the door to a stall and there he was: backwards baseball cap on his head, loose jeans bundled at his ankles, and his eyes staring at me from his throne up on the hill.
I apologized and backed away into my own stall, right next to his. He laughed. We made awkward small talk. I was done before him, washed my hands, and left. It was the only private interaction we had together, the only time he had really acknowledged my existence in any significant way.
And then Taylor died.
Not right away, but eventually, the same way all of us will. I found this out a few years later, on Facebook, when one of our mutual friends from the Governor’s Institute left a message on his wall. Miss you. Can’t believe you’re gone. Taken before your time. His wall was full of messages like these; some just short sentences and others long essays on their friendship. All addressed to someone who would never read them.
And now they're gone. His Facebook was deleted at some point by a friend or family member.
At the end of the Governor's Institute, there was a bonfire. A girl with a guitar sang Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." Someone played along on a fiddle. It was a tired song then, but the circle of teenagers around the fire, me included, sang under their breaths. It was an amazing experience, we told each other. We would never forget it. We'd stay in touch. Facebook me!
I only found a few pictures from that camp on Facebook. One had Black Taylor standing right in the middle of a big group, me included. He was standing with his chin in his hands, looking up towards the sun.
He used to be tagged in the picture, but he's not anymore.
Adam Cecil is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is the managing editor of this zine. You can find more work at his website.
Statement from the Artist:
There's that quote, “Those who do not know history's mistakes are doomed to repeat them.” This implies a kind of cycle: make a mistake, forget it, let time pass, make the mistake again.
In these three recountings, I am hoping to shed a different light on that cycle. Historians are always using that quote to defend the study of history as a path toward advancement. What I never hear anyone talking about is the small comfort of living a life made up of the same mistakes.
That, yes, I concede there is something nauseating about watching myself screw-up the same ways again and again. It's like a carousel, simultaneous nostalgia and hyper presentness, that awful, “Oh no, here it comes again” feeling.
But there is also the soft warm comfort of the familiar. Knowing the name of my mistake gives me a sense of control over it. A pleasure in watching and recognize the same disease destroy me again and again.
I guess I'm asking the same question Camus did. Can a Sisyphus, a man doomed to the same fate forever who cannot learn from his past, be happy? I picked these three moments because I believe they feature the same mistake and to varying degrees the speaker in the poems offers some enjoyment in making the mistake.
My goal with these poems is to explore a mistake-driven life as one simultaneously filled with celebrated investigation.
- Joseph Anderson
For Fear of Being More Afraid
I was a light no when I put the gardenias in my hair but no because of the ants and no to wear my red canvas pants and no and he kissed me under the trampoline and might well be him because I mean I asked him with my face to ask me no and then he asked me the place I would no to say no my light and fist. I put my arms and wish around him no and drew him down to me no so he no could feel me wholly and no tomorrow would change today no and his heart was a small horse and no I said no I will no. And no the apple cider had fermented too long and no we were drinking vinegar and scrapping the mold off of the sauerkraut and I thought no we weren't small fruits that just grow sour together but no I wasn't sure.
My father was teaching my sister to drive. She would not make left turns for fear of swinging too far out and colliding head on to another car. After the eleventh right turn we had surrendered to my sister's silent square dance. We became surprised that anyone had ever considered right turns safe and were more surprised that no one had joined us. We felt small when passing the same dog tied to a tree. He had shortened his own leash by walking in circles. I went along on a date between her and her boyfriend at the time. They were eating ice-cream and trying to pretend what was not real was still there. They were trying not to surrender their small dream of happiness, quiet conversations, mason jars filled with strawberry and rhubarb, early light, and the music that provides the mirrored vocabulary of the future. They were pushing around the melted ice cream in their cups and trying not to exist anymore.
We refilled our coffee cups and sat in silence. I wondered why you kept coming, and knew things would be bad when you left and wondered if you did too. You fell asleep in your chair. It was awfully cold outside. I thought how for both of us this was our first real winter. This was the first time we could see the clouds fall apart through the sky and recollect on the streets and sidewalks. You said I didn't have to walk you home. A minute after you left I ran after you and we scared each other again. We walked in silence back to your street. We were slowly realizing that everything: the sidewalks, the mugs, the exposed lightbulbs were the results of someone's hands and someone's time. And that the someones were just as us: young and small and that they probably did not like making the mugs and the lightbulbs and the small plastic trees that go on birthday cakes. We were looking at our own hands and wondering if there was any other way to spend our time.