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Muscle Memory: A Case History

Illustration by Cat Finnie

Mariam I. Williams | Longreads | July 2018 |5794 words (28 minutes)

Age 35

Juan, my physical therapist, is teaching me how to feel.

I have a back injury. The disc between my L5 and S1 vertebrae, the lowest vertebra in the lumbar spine and the top vertebra in the sacral region, herniated when I slid down a metal pole and landed on my butt during my second — and probably last — pole dancing fitness class. I was 32 at the time. Despite six months of physical therapy, the pain returns, always near the time of year of the original injury. I overestimate myself, leap too high, tread the elliptical too long, turn too quickly, twerk, and the muscles in my back spasm until I can do little more than lie on the floor, stomach down, and cry. The doctors say the spasms are my body’s way of protecting itself, immobilizing me to prevent further injury.

I’ve been in Juan’s care for the past few months. He’s my third PT in three years, and from day one, he’s been certain I can return to doing the activities I most enjoy without reinjuring myself. I just have to retrain the muscles.

“I had some trouble the past couple weeks,” I tell him on my first visit to his office in almost a month. We’ve decreased the frequency of my sessions because my healing has progressed. “And since you trained me to stop engaging my abs all the time, people ask me if I’m pregnant.”

Juan laughs at me openly. Then, as I describe the sensations I’ve experienced since our last meeting — dull aches around the spine, sharp pangs in the oblique muscles as I twist my torso, shakiness in the shoulders from muscle fatigue, stiffness when I fold forward — I notice Juan close his eyes, just as he does when he presses his fingertips to my abs, back, or glutes to test that the correct muscles contract as they should when I perform an exercise he has assigned. Juan has stationed me in front of a mirror only once. He wants me to be attuned to my body, to know what is right and wrong for it and for me through the way my body feels.

“The body must relearn that the necessary muscles will turn on and off when needed. You’ll get there,” Juan encourages.

I know Juan is right, that with every exercise he has me perform for four sets of 20 repetitions, my brain is memorizing my body’s movements, recording mechanics of motions that will teach me to move in ways that keep me injury-free, to feel when I have shifted my toes even one degree out of proper alignment. Yet it is difficult for me to believe my arrival is possible. I have learned to trust neither feelings nor the body — even the heart.

Age 28

I stopped trusting my heart four years before the back injury, when I was 28 years old, convinced God wanted me to marry Brian, in love with Nathan, and terrified of being wrong either way. When I was convinced but not sure, when I was not feeling the peace that other Christians had told me comes from absolute certainty. After I had already dumped Nathan twice in 18 months. Before I knew Brian and I were in year four of what would turn out to be a five-year on-again, off-again relationship, and he had spent the past two months trying to coax me back “on.”

On the night I chose between Brian and Nathan, I heard Jeremiah 17:9 — The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it? — in my head. I replayed it as I had heard it in several sermons spread out across preachers, churches, and years: with musical crescendos, rhetorical phrases, and questions a congregation answers in classic Black Church call-and-response style:

Preacher: You think it’s love at first sight. You “felt” something.

[Congregation responds with laughter — some sardonic, some nervous.]

Preacher: And you go after them because, “I just know God put me at the mall right then as they walked by!” But all God did was give you eyesight, and all that man or that woman was,was fine.

[Congregation lets out extended falsetto, “Wooh!” or firm, full “Teach!”]

Preacher: Some of y’all married right now to somebody you can’t stand and God didn’t design for you, and it’s somebody you never would’ve been with if you had just asked God in the first place before going after that man [Congregation: Well…], going after that woman [Congregation: Say that!], trusting your feelings, following your heart. Don’t you know the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked? Who can know it? Who can understand it?

I asked myself these same questions as I considered the superficial — how even my mother, with her high standards of appearance, said Brian and I looked good together as a couple. Our fashionable lens frames complemented each other’s, his dark skin and insistence on neckties balanced my light complexion, blond Beyoncé weave, and penchant for cowrie-shell jewelry. I considered the serious — how the previous year we had each written separate and almost identical descriptions of our expectations of marriage. I thought about the challenges of our long-distance relationship, of seeing each other only twice within the past three years, of the nights I spent alone and crying because, for whatever reason — work emergency, a car accident, him declaring I didn’t make him feel loved enough — Brian missed another planned rendezvous. I considered Brian’s past two months of calls and poems, his high-pitched voice mournful. Then his tears and reminders — So Nathan talks to you all day, just like I do? Real love is hard to find. Nothing worth having is easy. You said you wanted us to be “a spiritual power couple,” remember? And finally, his ultimatum: Email Nathan by midnight tonight saying it’s over, and copy me, or we are done — for good.

Jeremiah 17:9 would override both the advice a therapist gave me in college to actively listen to my gut and every book and article I had read since then about how to make better decisions.

According to the therapist and the books, you can discern your heart, hear your gut, decipher a Morse-coded right way by applying a test: Lie on the floor. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Relax your body completely. Place one hand on your stomach, the other over your heart. Alternatively, hold two fingers to the neck, over the carotid artery. With hands in their proper positions, let your lips utter your options in a simplified form — one sentence or less. Do not recite the pros and cons of each. Do not envision your life unfolding with one choice or the other. Just speak it.

Don’t you know the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked? Who can know it? Who can understand it?

On the floor of my apartment, I spoke a name into the ether. “Brian.” My pulse was too hard to feel beneath the muscles that had tightened. My stomach felt as though I were starving on that August night, only an hour after dinner.

“Nathan.” Facial muscles were not supposed to be involved, but the ones around my mouth curled up. My stomach fluttered, pulse strengthened, yet my body felt the same way it had one year before, on a park bench in Lexington, Kentucky, when I rested my head on Nathan’s chest, listened to his heart beat, felt happiness I was afraid to name.

Lying on the floor, I heard the preachers.

You love him. You love her. So you convince yourself sleeping together okay, even though you’re not married. You forgot, the heart is deceitful above all things. What you’re feeling for that person is probably in your body and you can’t let carnality lead you — ’cause the body will change, and your feelings will change. But the Word of God doesn’t.

The preachers’ voices planted what-ifs. What if Nathan weren’t a 6-foot-1, bald, muscular martial artist? What if he weren’t the finest man ever to show me attention, if I didn’t check out his ass as he walked away the same way he peeped mine? So what if his baritone makes me shiver? What if I had just followed the rules and never had sex with Nathan or Brian? Brian was my first lover and wanted to be my last and only. He understood the guilt of desire and held my hand through it. He’d been in my life for so long; so what if Nathan is only an hour away and everything is easy with him? But Nathan is distant this time, cautious. You’ve returned to Brian twice; Nathan told you he won’t let you hurt him again. But what if Nathan keeps coming back just because it’s physical?

“Call Nathan and tell him it’s not working out this time,” I said out loud. “This third chance he’s given you. Don’t offer an explanation — or do. Tell him God said — shhh. Too much thinking will mess up the test.” I felt the fight-or-flight response engaging.

You know the Word: Present your body as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing unto God. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then —

“Trust Brian is the man God wants for you.” My facial muscles collapsed. The pain that comes from emptiness moistened my eyes, loosened mucus. I sat up to spit it out of my throat.

— you see, something else happens first; you can’t trust feelings, and magazines, and Oprah, and TV, and what everybody else is doing, you have to renew your mind — then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is. His good. Pleasing. And perfect. Will.

The heart is deceitful. Feelings change. And I was seeking perfection.

Age 11

I first learned my body was wrong in a doctor’s office.

“I’m concerned about her weight. You see how she has that pregnant look?” I heard the doctor say this to my mom as I sat on the exam-room table, hoping I would be finished soon with the physical my middle school required before I could try out for the dance team.

I stared at and squeezed what my family always called everybody’s “meat-meat” and tuned out the rest of their conversation. Just before school started, my aunt — my only skinny aunt — had taken me shopping and said, “Don’t tell me we have to move you up another size,” when she saw my stomach pushing out against the zipper on a denim skirt I thought I could still fit. Despite my aunt’s bluntness, the doctor’s words shocked me. I hadn’t known it was that bad, even though I was aware I didn’t look like other girls my age. All I had cared about with regard to my body up until that point was that the clothing covering it looked stylish and that my body could move as well as any other girl’s, or better. I felt good about both aspects. My grandparents bought me almost anything I wanted from Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs, dance teachers had placed me in the front row for routines since I was 3, and I won dance contests at Girl Scout camp. Suddenly, at 11 years old, a doctor alerted me that I was so big, I looked like I had another person growing inside me.

There is something arresting about honesty, the way an encounter with the truth about yourself moves you to change. I had gone to the dance team’s summer clinic — sort of a pre-tryouts audition/reality check — before the physical. I wasn’t the biggest girl at dance team clinic, but out of more than 200 girls, only a few were larger than I was. Ashley Stevens, a white girl I had gone to school with until she moved away in third grade, wasn’t one of them. She had been thin back then, but now she was precise; she came back bragging about having a 17-inch waist. To me, she looked fragile. Nicole Kurtz, also entering the sixth grade with me, looked normal, I thought — flat chest, thighs that didn’t meet when she walked, slight swoop for soon-to-be hips; not so small she might break, not anywhere near so big she looked pregnant — and she moved in ways I wanted to move. Nicole took lessons at a professional ballet school and had danced in The Nutcracker with the local ballet company since she was 7. Her fouetté turns were fast, sharp, and perfect, her grand jetés like splits in the air, but she could also body-roll and butterfly with so much funk the black girls — including me and the coach, who carried about 80 percent of her body weight in her thighs and behind — were stunned. After the clinic and the physical, I wondered if losing weight would help me get my splits off the ground and make my body-roll look the way it was supposed to.

Between the physical and the first day of school, I came across a diet called the Alaskan Special. I don’t know how the diet ended up in my hands, printed out on plain white paper with purple-tinted ink, but it promised weight loss fast, so I was determined to do it. My mother, probably thinking I would grow bored with the plan, neither encouraged nor rejected it, so the diet commenced. Day one: Eat only fruit. Day two: Eat only vegetables. Day three: Eat both fruits and vegetables. Day four: Eat “the cleansing soup.” I followed without straying the first three days, but day four was broth with too many vegetables I hadn’t heard of. I lived in Kentucky and didn’t know then that I shouldn’t have expected to find these ingredients in any grocery store in the land of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s colonel, so by the time my mother and I made it from the store to her car without celery root, I was crying.

My mother asked me what was wrong.

“I need the …” I managed to eke out through gasps and dripping snot.

My mom had had enough. “Stop it! We don’t know where to find this stuff, and we can’t afford it anyway. There will be no more Alaskan Special!”

So I went back to eating bacon and eggs for breakfast; grilled cheese or hot bologna sandwiches for lunch; sloppy joes, beef stroganoff, or chicken à la King cooked in butter for dinner — except on Sundays, when we ate my grandmother’s fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans cooked in ham, broccoli casserole with lots of cheese, Rice-A-Roni, and tea my mom slow brewed and always put the right amount of sugar in, without measuring. And I got my daily treat of frozen cookie dough.

I didn’t make the team, not that year or seventh grade or eighth grade. A part of me blamed my body. Some of the girls were shapely, looking closer to full-grown women than 11-to-14-year-old girls. Some had body parts that jiggled uncontrollably under their purple spandex uniforms. But none were fat or overweight or big-boned or heavyset or thick or seemed to have “meat meat” on their stomachs. Even if I could have danced like Nicole — and very few girls could, even the ones who made the team — I knew I wouldn’t have looked right in that uniform.

Age 21

“What God gave you isn’t pretty,” Dr. Paul said, peering at my teeth. He was the bluntest dentist I’d ever been to. Though he crossed the boundary between hard-to-hear professional opinion and rudeness, I didn’t feel the sting I had felt in the pediatrician’s office when I was 11. This time, I knew. The dentist I had seen throughout childhood made an annual appeal from when I was 9 until I left for college: “You really should think about braces before you get any older.” The orthodontist he had referred me to took a deep breath and asked permission to be frank before saying, “Basically the rest of your teeth have grown in so close together that they’ve pushed the front teeth out to make room for themselves. I recommend extracting four of your molars, wiring your mouth shut, then wearing braces for four years.”

Nearly every kindergartner I tutored twice a week for my work-study job at a literacy center had asked me, “Why are your teeth crooked?”

Dr. Paul said I had “a beautiful bridge” on the bottom row, but the top, where my two front teeth slightly folded in toward each other like a book attempting to close, “is ugly.” Like the breasts that ceased to grow past my fourteenth birthday, the stomach and hips covered with marks that prove they stretched themselves far past their intended stopping points, and the ass that denied its blackness (“You got a white girl booty,” a black female classmate told me in high school), my teeth had betrayed me. My top teeth grew in crooked, but an accident when I was 8 years old — my face colliding with another kid’s cheek during a game of blind tag — exacerbated God’s meanness. Unlike the fad diets I began at 11 to alter my body-shape heredity, however, Dr. Paul could fix cosmic cruelty. And unlike previous years, my mother finally had enough cash for the remedy. I would give Dr. Paul the money, and he would saw off my tooth enamel and replace it with several layers of hard resin.

I have learned to trust neither feelings nor the body — even the heart.

When I returned to the office one week after the consultation and sat in Dr. Paul’s chair, my entire body recoiled, cringed, and jerked away from drills, needles, gauze, even his rubber-gloved hands.

“We don’t have to do this today,” he said. He set down his tools, removed his mask, and waited.

God, what do I do? I heard nothing.

My body told me to run.

But I didn’t ask my body what to do.

What if running is the wrong choice? What if my mother never has the money for this again? What if my graduation photos are ugly? Money for cosmetic surgery is a blessing. God, what. Do. I. Do?

My body told me to run.

I heard nothing.

The next month, my graduation photos were beautiful. The little chip on the right front tooth where dental floss broke the inferior resin wasn’t noticeable to anyone but me.

Dr. Paul fixed it at no charge, but I would forever question my decision to stay in his chair. Was that God speaking through my body? Did I remain in God’s perfect will? Does God always tell people to stay when they know they should leave?

Age 31

The  man I woke up with was singing, “Jesus is on the main line, tell him what you want. Call him up and tell him what you want,” as I lied on his couch, read the verse of the day from my Droid’s Bible app, and thought to myself, “Jesus, I want Nathan.” Nathan was not the man singing. Nathan, I could then say with certainty, was the man I would have followed, had I followed my heart when I was 28.

With the song still in my head three days later as I drove to my gynecologist’s office, I told Jesus, “I want Nathan, still. I want my gynecologist to say there’s nothing wrong. I want to believe your answers to my prayers. I want to stop ruining what you promised me. I want to learn my lessons faster. I want to stop feeling like this is punishment.”

You prayed about this, I reminded myself. It was in passing that I prayed — perhaps while changing clothes or on the treadmill — but in earnest. “OK, God. I’m almost thirty-two. Nathan is engaged now. Brian’s not the one, either. So please, tell me if I have a husband and family in my future. If the answer is no, that’s cool, but you gotta let me have casual sex.” I meant sex that was different from what I’d had with Brian or with Nathan. Sex that wasn’t confusing or naïve, that didn’t result in, or from, feeling.

The first night at the apartment of Not Nathan, a man I’d met six months prior but spent all of two dates with, I couldn’t do it. Not Nathan kissed my neck, lifted my shirt and bra to kiss my stomach and breasts. He unzipped my shorts, removed them and my panties in one swoop. He shifted my legs to spread them on the love seat we shared, knelt down, and slid his head between my knees.

I thought about how good a man’s tongue had felt there every other time. And it wasn’t for lack of skill on his part, but that God-yes rush of pleasure didn’t happen. Smelling my own scent on his face didn’t make it happen. Seeing a man close to my type — dark skin, bald, taller than me, fit enough — naked, fully viewing what I literally had dreamt about a few nights before didn’t make it happen. Telling myself, You’re a grown woman. Make it happen, didn’t make it happen. I had bargained with God, and I thought my prayer was answered. I simply couldn’t have casual sex. That meant what I wanted was still waiting for me.

There is something arresting about honesty, the way an encounter with the truth about yourself moves you to change.

But a week later, there was enough desire, enough will, enough wetness, to act. I ignored what I had thought was God’s\answer of “Yes, you will marry and have children,” and followed my body. And three days after Not Nathan and I had sex, I was in my doctor’s office. Nothing hurt; there was just bleeding. Not like menstrual blood a woman can feel her body expelling. “It doesn’t even show up on a panty liner, but it’s there,” I told my doctor,  “on the toilet tissue,” mysterious and bright scarlet.

I had never bled from sex with Brian or Nathan.

“You used a condom?” The doctor asked, scribbling on her chart.


“Then I highly doubt it’s an STD or STI. Was he a particularly large man, or had it been a while since you’d had sex?”

“Yes and yes. Three and a half years.” I didn’t tell her the merging of our bodies felt as technical as a biology book’s description of sex.

“That probably explains it, but I’ll look anyway if you’re still concerned.”

I lay on the table and placed my bare feet in the stirrups. My doctor spotted a tiny abrasion on the vaginal wall. She told me it would heal on its own.

“In the meantime, no tampons, no intercourse. But there are other ways.”

“Got it.”

“And when you do return to vaginal intercourse, continue using condoms, especially since it’s a new relationship.”

 If only it were that, I wanted to say.

Three weeks after leaving the doctor’s office, it’s midnight, and I’m driving Not Nathan’s car to pick him up from an airport two hours away. When I leave his apartment in the morning, I’m wearing the tiniest pair of jeans I’ve ever owned. They are my benchmark, my proof: I can weigh below 130 pounds. Not Nathan’s hands slide up my waist and back as he kisses me goodbye once, twice.

“I have to go. Gotta hit the gym today.” I poke my stomach to the left of my exposed navel.

He raises one eyebrow, takes in my body, then looks me in the eye. “Girl, ain’t nothing wrong with your body.”

On my way home, I relish the lust that produced his compliment, hunger to hear it again. It is the highest praise.

Age 32

Church isn’t the place most people take an HIV test, but it was World AIDS Day, and the pastor decided to show solidarity with the cause by inviting a nurse from the Department of Health to provide free HIV testing for every member interested. He said he and his wife got tested that morning, “and all is good — praise God.”

The last time I’d had an HIV test, I was 22 and applying for the Peace Corps. I had never had sex of any kind then. I had never even kissed anyone. The nurse sped through the risk assessment questionnaire — it was quick, since all my answers were no — then asked, “So why are you getting tested?”

“Peace Corps application.”

“Oh.” She rolled her eyes and told me to roll up my sleeves.

Results took several weeks then. I waited without waiting. I returned to the clinic to pick up my test results. As I was leaving, a jolly woman at the front desk gestured to a basket on the counter and offered, “Baby, you want to take some condoms with you?”

“No thanks.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.” I smiled and skipped out of the office.

There is something freeing about certainty. To make a declaration in your mind, even without uttering it out loud or letting it take deep root in your heart, is to walk through life holding a magic lamp that clears dense fog along your personal path for miles ahead. Through nods of agreement with promises my college friends made, through joining in on their amens after the Bible’s purity verses, through guilt, through the convenience of not dating anyway, I silently said, I will wait until marriage to have sex. And at 22, I skipped out of that health clinic.

At 32, I waited about five minutes for the results of an oral swab test. It still didn’t feel like waiting. I took the test to be an obedient congregant. The nurse and I talked about the weather, how much she enjoyed the 8:00 service at my church that morning, the room we were in and how beautiful its décor of poinsettias and garlands was. “The fireside room, it’s called,” I told her. “Usually guest preachers wait here until they come into the service.” Most of my answers to the “Have you evers” were still “no.” Most of them.

I didn’t know Brian’s status. I had asked and believed his answer. He was the only man I had ever trusted in that way.

Brian and I never used condoms — never. Not even after I was with Nathan during an “off” time, and a woman Brian was seeing at the time sent me an email telling me she was sure he was gay because he couldn’t get excited about her. I, on the other hand, had rarely seen him flaccid, so I figured he just didn’t want her, and I was safe.

Brian was safe. And familiar. He was never my fantasy, never the man I wanted, never my heart’s choice. But he blew out my first magic lamp at a time that I needed it darkened, when I needed to discover and experiment with sex and touch without feeling lost. And he replaced it with another light — one just as bright but more colorful, more encompassing. Brian showed me that I could have sex, and God wouldn’t punish me but would still love me.

But what would God let me get away with if love, commitment, or monogamy were absent from the relationship? If I only wanted pleasure, what would God think?

Age 33

I’ve been seeing my physical therapist for about eight months, and I’ve figured out her goal is to make my muscles so fatigued that by the end of our session I cry.

Today she’s gentle. She massages my back and glute muscles with her hands this time, instead of kneading out the spasmed tightness with her elbows. I’m her last patient of the day and the only patient in the room. We’re going over the activities I’ve tried this week and any pain I felt while doing them. I got through 30 minutes of Zumba. Lost a lot of flexibility in yoga. I’m up to 15-second planks on the TRX.

“I tried something else recently that I don’t usually do,” I add.

“What?” she asks.

“Sex.” I cringe as I say it. This conversation is confidential, and my PT is a professional, but she is also a Catholic. Not a lapsed Catholic, she speaks highly of her parish. The radio station in the office is normally set on either a Top 40 station so clean I nicknamed it “Radio Disney” or on the Christian rock station. My intake forms show that I’m single. I don’t want to hear the silence Christians give other Christians when they disapprove of their behavior but are in a setting that demands politeness or professionalism.

Do I really need a PT’s approval for sex? Will she be more understanding if I explain that it started with burgers?

The scene: Me and my friend DJ — 35, medium brown, attractive, male, an Army vet who, save for his close-shaven fade, looks too easygoing to ever have been in uniform — waiting for a table at a restaurant serving burgers whose calories he suggested I burn off with sex.

“That’s not just me trying to be inappropriate,” he said. “I’ve heard it can help with back problems, you know, because of the release.”

I had heard in DJ’s suggestion a chance at redemption. It gave me hope I could be the woman he had seen when he met meat a professional networking event about two months before my injury. DJ told me he had watched me for almost half an hour that night, waiting for a moment to talk to me.

We tried dating then. I told myself my allure for him was sexual, but I felt girlish and awkward the first night we had sex. The dress I had chosen for the evening — a floor-length pink halter sundress that accented my shoulders and made my A cups look purposeful — couldn’t outwit my afro puffs and the permission I had secured from my mom to leave the house at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday. Me: “Hey, I’m going out. Can you move your car? You’re parked behind me.” Her: “Going out where?” Nearly a year later, I still wanted to live up to the potential of the woman DJ first saw. A grown woman could enjoy just a release.

I say none of this to my PT. I cringe and wait.

“Oh, yeah, that’s okay.” My PT’s massage shifts to a rub. “Just keep the positions pretty standard. On top or on your side will probably be most comfortable for you. But yeah, of course, sex is fine. The release can even be good for you.”

 Of course sex is fine. In the four years since I broke up with Brian, no one has said this to me. In that moment, it feels like sex may always be fine, that years of awkwardness, of hating my body, of hearing that on my wedding night desire will return untamed after years of resisting it are gone. That the sacroiliac joint is functional, the pubic muscles will relax every time I open my legs. That the heart has forgotten its muscle memory.

Age 35

I’ve just told my doctor that the pain in my back resurfaces at about the same time every year, near the date I slid down a stripper fitness pole and ruptured a disc. The doctor, a resident at the teaching hospital Juan recommended for muscle manipulation therapy, let out an involuntary squeal and told the med school student interning with her that what I’ve described fits Dr. Robert Fulford’s theory about the body having memory.

In his book Touch of Life, Fulford writes, “An anniversary of an illness can make you recall the past memory of your pain and the details of your life since then, the bad as well as the good. Something about this process is weakening. … No one has a clue why this happens, but it’s my guess that traumas get imprinted either in the nervous system or in the muscles.”

Or, as my doctor summarized for her student, “Body remembers trauma. Pain comes back around the anniversary of the trauma.” Then she turned back to me, sitting in the examination chair. “Now I’m going to ask you something that will sound a little strange. Sometimes pain shows up again on an injury’s anniversary because the body wants to remind us not to return to whatever we did to cause the injury in the first place. I want you to think about that as I ask you, do you need this pain?”

I think about my life before the injury, before I knew the location of my L5 and S1 vertebrae, before the Notes app became my pain journal.

Before, to be exact, six days before capping off years of two to three hours in the gym, six days a week, with a spinal injury — I had sex with DJ for the first time, even though I’d had a feeling it was a bad idea. Even though I had felt juvenile. Even though I had felt, at 32, I was never going to be grown enough at what I was trying to do.

Dr. Fulford believed “the mind creates reality. Any discord or disharmony that is permitted to exist in the mind is likely to produce an unfortunate effect in the physical body.”

This pain is a reminder, an imprinted memory: the fear of happiness in a heartbeat, the freedom of certainty, the imprisonment of seeking perfection — all are there, dwelling in the muscles and the nervous system, from heart to perineum, from brain to spine.

This pain is a reminder: I overestimate myself. I stretch too far. Enjoying noncommittal sex, maybe enjoying all sex, without guilt, is unrealistic. Whenever I’ve come close to letting go, the pain is there, reminding me to dismiss desirability, dismiss the body’s wisdom, that the heart is deceitful. Do you need this pain?

 “No. I don’t need it.”

On the table, the doctor folds and twists my body into pretzels. I hear cracks and pops. Feel them, too.

The healing is not immediate. The pain is a reminder, and forgetting it will require another year of visits, a lifetime of care and awareness of my body. But at that moment, I know: I do not need godly love to be this way. I trust my body’s wisdom. My heart is certain.

* * *

Mariam I.Williams is a Kentuckian now living in Philadelphia where she creates narratives affirming black womanhood. Her work has been published in Salon, The Common, Nothing to Lose but Our Chains: Black Voices on Activism, Resistance & Love, and other outlets.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Smell, Memory

Chanel N°5. Illustrations by Tamara Shopsin

By Rachel Syme

Racquet and Longreads | January 2018 | 11 minutes (2,800 words)

Our latest feature is a new story by Rachel Syme and produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.

Tennis, to me, smells like chlorine and white sage and tuna fish. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the courts always wheeze dust when you walk on them and the dry heat shimmers off the net in the middle of summer. Our family belonged to a tennis club, but not the kind with rolling hills and security gates—instead, our courts were somewhat dumpy and gray, down near the university area filled with tattoo parlors and ratty cafés that seemed progressive in the ’90s for their hummus-forward menus. The club was made mostly of cement and gravel and funnel cakes, and its pro shop featured six-packs of tube socks and fresh cylinders of key-lime-colored balls and not much else. It may very well be fancier now, but my family stopped paying dues two decades ago.

We moved to the base of the mountains when I was 13, and my father now plays tennis every day at High Point, a gym filled primarily with active seniors and women doing Zumba. When he does go downtown to play, he meets my brother at one of the college courts near the hospital, where my brother spends most nights sewing throats back together as a resident in facial surgery. My father, who also cuts people open for a living, started playing a lot more tennis when my brother became a doctor; it is how they communicate wordlessly about what bloody traumas they’ve seen during the day. I imagine hitting something really hard back and forth is useful in this regard. Read more…

How Mary Karr Teaches Her Students About Memory: A Short Excerpt from ‘The Art of Memoir’

Memoirist, essayist and poet Mary Karr is often recognized as being the author with perhaps the single greatest responsibility for the resurgence of memoir in bookstores and on nightstands in recent decades. In her new collection of essays The Art of Memoir, Karr presents readers with a book-length craft talk which, true to her style, ranges from allusive to acerbic to profound, all in the span of a page. In the following excerpt, from the opening of her first chapter, Karr uses a little deception and a judicious ‘fuck’ to make a point. Read more…

The End of Poker Night

Illustration by Missy Chimovitz

Mindy Greenstein | Longreads | March 2019 | 17 minutes (4,228 words)

Poker Night was sacred in my family, even though the game couldn’t start until Motzei Shabbos — the departing of the sacred Sabbath. Arguments were as likely to break out in Yiddish — my first language — as English. Most players were Holocaust refugees residing in Brooklyn like my parents. The rest were American-born Jews, that is, the ones who “didn’t know from true suffering.” A group to which I belonged, as Ma often reminded me during my surly adolescent years. Most of the refugees were observant Orthodox Jews, like Dad. The rest were more likely to be irreligious, like Ma.

I was 6 years old in 1969, the year of my earliest poker memory. Shabbos had just ended and I had a plan. Ma had recently bought me a quilted light pink robe dotted with small dark pink and fuchsia flowers that I loved more than anything in the world. She’d taught me to loop the dark pink quilted belt asymmetrically on the left side of my waist, like the movie stars did, she said. I felt like Cinderella in that robe, or, more specifically, Leslie Anne Warren’s Cinderella from the movie. Maybe prettier, even. So entrancing that my parents and their poker buddies would forget to deal the first card.
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After the Tsunami

Annykos / Getty

Matthew Komatsu | LongreadsMarch 2019 | 24 minutes (6,092 words)

This piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center. 

Ichi (One)

Obā-san tasted ash. Yes: ash and dust. Her youngest son’s kanji and hiragana on paper could not assuage the bitter news the letter delivered: that her youngest son would not return from America to his hometown of Kesennuma, Japan. He would stay to marry the American woman who carried his child. Dishonor. Shame. Betrayal. And I was the ash she tasted: the end of the pure line of the Komatsu name. Nothing more than an accidental flutter in the brine of my mother’s womb.

My grandmother would not have considered this metaphor of the sea, despite the proximity of her home to it, the wind-borne scent of the waterfront fish market and processing plants mere blocks away, burbling down the streets, seeping through the window and door cracks of her home. And beyond, the vast blue-gray of the Pacific Ocean, heaving and rolling the life it contained. She would not have thought of the sea’s power to both create and destroy.


A soccer ball washes ashore on Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska. On it, handwritten script in permanent marker that identifies its origin as a grade school in Rikuzentakata, Japan, 30 minutes north of Kesennuma. Its owner, Misaki Murakami, survived the tsunami but his family lost their home. It is a personal effect recovered from his home. On one of the panels are kanji characters inscribed by a classmate that read Ganbatte. Good luck.


I can only imagine what changed Obā’s heart. Perhaps it was my grandfather. According to my father, Ojī was more sympathetic. It was Ojī who responded to my father’s letter to say that he understood. Or maybe the simple need of a grandparent to hold her grandchild eroded her pride. But these are all, in a way, little fictions: my American need to emote in conflict with a Japanese inclination to accept.

Regardless, Obā and Ojī came to the United States. I wonder what they thought when they held this chubby black-haired infant boy, whether they struggled to pronounce my English first name. What it felt like to stare into the deep, brown eyes of a grandchild whose blood ran mixed. Or if any of this mattered at all.

What I do know: When Ojī and Obā journeyed halfway across the globe to the unlikely destination of Duluth, Minnesota, they didn’t know my parents arranged to leave me with a family friend at the beginning of a cross-country road trip across America that doubled as both honeymoon and getting-to-know-the-in-laws. When Ojī said goodbye to me, he wept. It was the last time we were together and the only time my dad saw his own father cry. My grandfather  died in Japan, in 1987.

The only Japanese uttered in my home was spoken into the telephone on holidays. On those days, I rushed to answer the phone in the hope of hearing the voices of my Japanese relatives. Moshi moshi, came the greeting. When I answered in English, the caller usually responded, Ahhhhh… Toshifumi-san?

Dad, for you.

If my mother answered, the single phrase she knew: Chōttō matte, kudasai. One moment, please. I would sit on the brown shag carpet speckled with gold and red and yellow, my back to the heat vent, shirt lifted so the hot air blew up my skin and ruffled the black hairs on my neck. The book on my lap stayed open to the same page as I listened to one half of a conversation, mouthed words whose accented syllables I will never utter with any meaning. A pause for the delay, then the muffled return. A smile, a laugh, an imperceptible head bow from my father.


A Canadian finds the rusted hulk of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on the shores of British Columbia and traces its license plate to its owner, Ikuo Yokoyama. Photos of the bike reveal a year at sea: spokes rusting away and missing, corrosion widespread across a frame whose gleam has been replaced with a forlorn absorption of the light that reflects upon it. Yokoyama resists an outpouring of internet-fueled financial support to restore the bike and repatriate it. Instead he asks that it be preserved in a museum as is, a memorial to what was lost.


During a precious summer break from the Air Force Academy, I joined a family trip to Japan. Eager to show the Japanese I’d picked up over two years of college classes, I greeted Obā. My father told her that I knew Japanese now, that she should speak to me. We sat down in the living room of the small family home in Kesennuma. The air was heavy with the smell of the nearby ocean, mothballs, dust, and paper. But when she spoke, I could not understand.


Here is a list of Japanese words. Tsunami. Pronounced “tsoo-nah-mee.” Translation: “harbor wave.” E. Pronounced “a-ay.” Interrogative. Translation: “What?” Hayaku. Pronounced “hi-yah-koo.” Translation: “hurry.” Hashitte. Pronounced “hah-shht-ay.” Imperative. Translated to English: “Run.”


Ni (Two)

At 2:46 p.m. on Friday, 11 March 2011, a 100-mile-long section of the Pacific tectonic plate 19 miles deep thrusted beneath Japan. Richter scale needles twitched. Japan shifted eight feet east. The Earth shuddered off-axis. The seabed rose, lifting the ocean above it by 25 feet. All that water had to go somewhere. And it did — away, in a series of waves that raced west at 86 miles per hour. The tsunami made landfall roughly 45 minutes later on the shores of my father’s hometown of Kesennuma in northeast Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture.

My 11 March dawned no different than any other. I woke up and checked Facebook over coffee. My sister posted something about a big earthquake in Japan, but the family was fine. Big earthquake, Japan: happens all the time. I didn’t think much of it during the 45-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina, to Shaw Air Force Base, NPR now revising the magnitude, the Richter climbing. I paid it no mind during my 12-mile run before work. It was spring in South Carolina, flowers opening under a rising sun, the air heavy with their dewy scent.

The tsunami made landfall on the shores of my father’s hometown of Kesennuma in northeast Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture.

It wasn’t until after I showered and changed into my uniform that the narrative unraveled. I turned on the car and the radio cascaded breaking news of a large tsunami in Japan. But even then, I did not think of the risk to my father’s hometown, a fishing city in northeastern Miyagi Prefecture directly in the tsunami’s path.

At work, I punched a code into a keypad and walked through a door into the cubicled space I shared with close to 50 other officers. The room was quiet, all eyes glued to the televisions on the wall. I looked over my shoulder and from the second floor of the Air Forces Central Command Headquarters, I watched 22,000 Japanese die.


In the years that follow 3/11, I will often open my laptop to type “Japan Tsunami” into a search engine. In a half second, tens of millions of results cascade down the screen, many of them videos.


No phones were allowed in my office. I left to use the bathroom, checked my phone: a missed call and a voicemail from my mother: Matt, call home. My gut twisted.

My mother answered. They were driving from their home, nestled in the green pines and gray popple outside Duluth, to an aunt who had cable. My parents had never paid for cable television — considering it either unaffordable or unnecessary. Now, for the first time in their lives, a luxury became a necessity. The internet was too slow; they needed to see.

Yes, I’ve seen the news, I said. But Lauren posted something on Facebook. Everyone is fine.

No. Uncle Kazafumi called from his office in Kesennuma — it lasted eight seconds — to say he was okay. Then the call ended.

And he tried to call him back?



Nothing. Dad can’t get a hold of him, or anyone else.


11 March passed. Friday. 12 and 13, Saturday and Sunday. Monday, 14 March. Still nothing. I watched the same scenes looping on the office televisions.

A coworker blurted, “I’m just waiting for some Japanese person to show up on the TV and yell, ‘Godzilla! Godzilla!’” Someone nearby laughed mirthlessly.

The morning of the 15 March, my youngest sister, Lydia, received the news from our cousin in Tokyo. She spoke no Japanese and his English was broken but somehow he conveyed the news.

My uncle and aunt had survived. Tokuno Komatsu, our grandmother, was dead.


Sendai, a city two hours south of Kesennuma: Empty cars wash across the airport tarmac. The reporter flying above an ocean-covered Minami-sanriku: Where have all the people gone? Rikuzentakata. Ōshima. Ishinomaki. Miyako. Natori. And finally, Kesennuma, now burning an orange horizon of flame into the black pall of night.


Ten days after the tsunami, I boarded a flight to Japan. The U.S. military mobilized a relief effort called Operation Tomodachi. Friend. I called in every favor I had to deploy as a  Tomodachi rescue planning officer.

Before the flight, my father told me that he was proud that a member of the family would be in Japan to help. He asked what I’d be doing there, but I didn’t know. I told him I sold my language abilities hard, maybe oversold them. That I was worried. Don’t worry, he said. It will all come back.

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The flight from Dulles to Narita International Airport was all but empty. Once aboard, I reviewed old Japanese textbooks and watched Harry Potter once in English, then twice in Japanese. I tried to sleep, but nightmares woke me with linguistic versions of the naked dream: Me, aside the American general to whom I’ve been assigned as a translator. His Japanese counterpart speaks a torrent of Japanese, then pauses to look at me and await the translation. The American nods intently, casting ever-increasing looks my way. I recall one word in 10, try to divine meaning from inflection and posture. My mouth works, but the words do not come.

The bus ride from Narita to Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo bore no witness to the quake and tsunami. No billboards hung precariously, no cracks split the roadways, and the lights were on. It was as if nothing happened at all. At Yokota, I disembarked to a cold, snowy night and entered a hangar to process into the Tomodachi task force. Airmen, clad in multiple layers, walked between different stations in the hangar, pausing at powered space heaters to warm themselves in the frigid night. I thought of the thousands of Japanese shoved into tiny makeshift evacuation centers. I imagined how they huddled, warmed only by blankets and each other.


Yokota fell away from my window of an Air Force HH-60G helicopter as it lifted off and flew east. I needed to see affected Japan for myself. It wasn’t until we were out over the ocean, flying outside an imaginary bubble around Fukushima that I did.

Rivers of debris from the tsunami appeared on the surface of the Pacific and streamed to the horizon, a flotsam road of shattered wood and plastic. We flew low, eyes out and scanning for life. The last survivor had been pulled from the water a week prior, but we hoped despite the odds, knowing we were far more likely to spot the dead.

A crew member saw something, and the helo banked hard. Over the intercom, he admitted it was probably nothing but worth investigating. Lower, slower, we orbited until the rotor wash beat the sea into mist over what turned out to be a white sheet rippling into the depths.

The farther from Japan, the larger the debris. Refrigerators and freezers. Orange tiled roofs bobbed in the blue and gray, impossibly buoyant. The wall of a home, the glass of a window somehow intact, offered a view into the saltwater beneath. All of it surrounded by a mass of splintered wood.


The shivering woke me again. I blinked into the darkness of the Sendai Airport first class lounge and pressed a button on my watch. 0300. I retreated further into the insulation of my puffy coat. Snores came from airmen off-shift from their post on the airport roof. Periodically throughout the night one would return and hand off a radio the size of two stacked laptops, then pop a sleeping pill while the other ran air traffic.

It was supposed to be a short visit, an hour or less. Just enough to make contact with the senior officer on the ground and determine what, if any, help I could provide as a planner. But the sound of the helicopter was only audible long enough to make radio contact with the airman on the roof: Tell Major Komatsu that we have to return to Yokota. We’ll be back when we can.

The cold shook me awake every 15 minutes until I stood up at 0600 and crept out of the dark room and into the daybreak of the terminal. Behind glass windows stories high, I wandered the vacant space, pausing at the vendor stands. The airmen were initially ordered not to take any food, but soon after they arrived, vendors themselves showed up and told them to take what they wished. The stacks of dried cuttlefish and shrimp-flavored crackers vanished, leaving only inscrutable books of manga and the assorted comforts required to heel the modern traveler. I lifted one of the books and perused a few of the oddly colored pages, taking in black and white lines of manga from back to front. I set it back in its place and looked out the glass.

Refrigerators and freezers. Orange tiled roofs bobbed in the blue and gray, impossibly buoyant.

In between the east end of the runway and the coast, a road once connected Kesennuma with Sendai; I’d made the drive twice during family trips. Now, I thought about packing my ruck, stuffing it with MREs and walking north, picking my way through the detritus until I reached my father’s hometown. My grandmother lay in the freezer of a morgue. The old family home, gone. Dozens of extended family — great uncles and third cousins and aunties once-removed — missing.


The morning of 27 March, I sat in my room back at Yokota alone after a run inside the confines of the base perimeter, under the pink-white beginnings of the cherry tree bloom washing the country from south to north. A rebirth of spring, of hope, of all things green and full of life.    

Three hundred miles away, my relatives cremated Ōba’s remains.


Our rescue helicopters and crews went home, the work of finding and extracting the living long over. Only the dead remained missing, and the Japanese government politely declined U.S. military support to the search. My job as a rescue planner turned to playing games of what if. What if an American aircraft transporting radiation measurement crews crashes inside the Fukushima no-fly zone? Who will rescue them and how will we coordinate between Japanese and American operations centers?

These questions could only be answered in conversation with my Japanese counterpart at the Japanese Rescue Coordination Center, located 53 minutes down the Ome train line, on Fuchu Air Base. When we met in the lobby of the Japanese Air Self Defense headquarters building, a fellow American officer acting as my linguist introduced Okahashi-san. We smiled and bowed, then he presented me with his meishi (business card) in the manner I learned in my sophomore Japanese class at the Academy: Both hands present, both receive. Study the card, then place it only in a chest pocket; never, ever in a disrespectful pants pocket.

Fatigue lined his face and eyes — Okahashi-san has worked twenty hours every day since the tsunami. Lt Col Okahashi said something, smiled and gestured toward an imaginary flat surface a few feet off the ground. He sleeps on a cot in the back of the Rescue Coordination Center.

As we ate pork katsu at the Japanese dining facility, I attempted Japanese the best I could. I explained my last name, and when I said Kesennuma, he said, haltingly, “Your daddy. From Kesennuma?” Yes, I said. He simply frowned, lowered his eyes, shook his head and said no more.


Cell phones document the tsunami’s arrival in Minami-sanriku from ground level. A woman’s voice reverberates across the town, alternating with sirens to warning the residents over a citywide loudspeaker system. Impossibly, it continues even as the tsunami piles into the streets and people scream to those who’ve not yet made it to high ground, continues even as the ocean continues its inexorable rise. Until it falls silent. And all that remains are the cries of the Japanese who have survived.


When I met my Japanese cousins for dinner, I’d been asking my father for weeks to arrange for me to visit Kesennuma at the end of my deployment. I missed my stop on the train from Yokota, had to double back at the next, then wait at the eki for the only cousin who spoke any English to walk from the restaurant. All around me, life streamed through automated ticketing gates amid the wall of sound that is a Tokyo train station during evening rush hour. And yet, not so far away, their countrymen were digging through rubble with their bare hands. Posting desperate signs for missing persons.

We did our best to converse around our sukiyaki. They showed me pictures from Kesennuma. The old family home, gone. My uncle’s two-story office, first floor hollowed by the tsunami. My uncle, passed out on his floor with an empty bottle of whiskey nearby. Uncle drink lot now.

When I asked my cousins about my request to visit Kesennuma, their eyes dropped and they picked at their food. Mizuki — the English speaker — pulled out his phone. We call your daddy. He dialed, spoke Japanese when my father answered. I could not interpret Mizuki’s body language. He handed me the phone. My father talked around the question — his mother’s death, the family shock, the loss of the business and deaths of two employees, the destruction, how his brother wouldn’t say no to my visit but wouldn’t say yes either — until I interrupted him.

“Dad, what’s the bottom line?”

“Culturally, they would lose face if they said no. But the timing is bad.”

“I’d be a burden.”


“But I have to make the decision.”

“Yes. You will have to tell them you do not want to go.”

“OK, then. I’m not going.” I handed the phone back to my cousin, and the relief on his face told me everything I needed to know.


Of the 12 million tsunami videos, I will not watch them all. And yet it will be too much, as well as somehow not enough.


On my last day in Japan, I sat with the Air Force colonel who led my shift. He was a pilot without a cockpit anymore, his jet long mothballed. He’d flown a desk for years now, he said as he smiled and removed his glasses; this was his last hurrah. Then he asked about what drew me to volunteer for this. When I told him, he fell silent.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We should have found a way to get you to Kesennuma.” Then he handed me his card, thanked me for what I’d done, and I walked out of the operations center for the last time.

Before boarding the bus to Narita, I walked to a nearby cherry tree whose branches drooped under a blooming mantel. It stood above a patchwork of dirt and a browning white carpet of fallen blossoms. I found a living flower within reach and pinched its green stem, careful not to disrupt the delicate petals above it. Once free, I carried it two-handed; one pinching its base, the other cradling the bloom in my palm until I was back in my room. A book of devotions lay open on my desk, a gift from my parents. I placed the flower in the book, closed it.


San (Three)


2018. The shinkansen pitches us north from Tōkyō, picking up speed until the bullet train hits 200 mph and the endless series of the Tōhoku region’s ubiquitous rice paddies visible through my window blur green, flickering as dike-top roads come and go. I have returned to hear, yes, but also to touch. Taste, smell, and once again: see.   

We strategize. Three of us: my father, the linguist I’ve hired, and me. A cousin produced the name of the rest home where my grandmother perished: Shunpo. A classmate worked at Shunpo on 3/11, but my cousin is unwilling to connect us. So the linguist puts on her fixer hat and determines the former manager not only survived, but rebuilt Shunpo in a new location and now speaks internationally on tsunami readiness. It’s as good a lead on determining how my grandmother died as we’re going to get. Anticipation builds as we get off the bullet at Ichinoseki for the drive to Kesennuma until I’m straining against my seatbelt and we finally get where I could not go seven years ago.

I have returned to hear, yes, but also to touch. Taste, smell, and once again: see.

Kesennuma. No longer confined by glass or screen, I step from a cousin’s car in front of the vacant lot that was once 2-13-16 Nakamachi-cho. My father and he speak quietly in Japanese. The home I remember. His home. From where I stand, I could have reached over the street’s gutter and touched the house’s wall, perhaps taken in that odd mothball scent that seems to accompany my few memories of the texture of the place. But there is nothing but the tang of salt air in between me and the violet dusk of a sun long since set behind the hills of tall pine that mark Kesennuma’s western edge.


The tsunami is everywhere.

Blue placards on buildings show its maximum height with typical Japanese simplicity: a horizontal line and measurement in meters, in white lettering. Buildings still slated for demolition next to the orange-brown of cleared earth. Construction signs and workers and new roads unimpeded by human artifice. Signs along the sides of the road that undulates up and down through the endless series of ria (“bay”) that pocket the Sanriku coastline mark the tsunami’s maximum inundation points. Dystopian reconstructed landscapes behind massive seawalls that stretch across the horizon. The “Dragon Tree” of Kesennuma — a gnarled pine that survived the tsunami only to later die and be preserved where it stands on the cape of the Iwaisaki area of the city. The “Miracle Pine” of Rikuzentakata: the sole remaining tree of an estimated 70,000 that made up a coastal forest, eventually felled by the saltwater left in the ground by the tsunami, then preserved in detail at an estimated cost of 150 million yen (close to 2 million dollars based on the exchange rate at the time). O-tsunami, the survivors say, applying the honorific “o-” prefix because they cannot adequately capture in words a full integration of all senses. It roared. Smelled of salt. It burned, pulled, swept.

It was incomprehensible in a way that can only be assembled by a comprehension of  what it left behind.


We climb a path beneath old-growth pine and cedar until a panorama of the city reveals the tsunami’s reach, still clear, even now. Gray and green mark the untouched. Yellow earth, the scar of the destroyed, the still-being-rebuilt. My cousin guides my father and me to the family gravesite. A light breeze, cool with the ocean across my skin, the sound of traffic. The smell of needle and ocean. I grasp at the sensory through the mantle of jet lag and culture shock, hoping to hold on to this moment. My father stands in front of a polished granite marker, brings his palms together and lowers his head to offer a silent prayer.

It’s been a decade and a half since I last saw my Aunt Fumiko, but her face remains cherubic, her skin pale and smooth. She apologizes for not having the snack she recalls as a favorite: a mix of salted peanuts and chili-flavored rice cracker crescents. She looks thin but well. I show her pictures of my family. When I produce an app on my phone that lets her see my infant daughter at that very moment sleeping halfway around the globe, she smiles.

Kawaii, ne. So cute.

She tells me that the earthquake found her in the midst of shopping. When the world ceased shaking, she felt an overwhelming urge to immediately head home. Something horrible was going to happen. She followed her instinct and drove straight to the new house, three miles inland from the old one that no longer exists. Her son called at about 3:15 p.m. after seeing tsunami warnings on the news. Obā was at Shunpo, but my aunt thought it would be safe. It had two floors, a good flat roof, was a fair distance from the ocean. She worried about my uncle, whose office was on the downtown waterfront at the tip of Kesennuma Bay.

Read more…

The Problem With Nostalgia

Sascha Kilmer/ Getty, Unsplash, Illustration by Katie Kosma

Michael Musto | Longreads | March 2019 | 8 minutes (2,048 words)

Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be was the hilarious title of Oscar winning actress Simone Signoret’s memoir in 1978, and it’s truer than ever. Seeing the past through rose colored glasses is an increasingly myopic process, especially as technology makes giant strides forward and former modes of communication resound with an astounding obsolescence. As I handily crank out articles like this on my computer and shoot them to my editor via email, do you really think I miss the days when I had to type out a piece on a ratty Smith Corona, make changes with Wite-Out, scissors and Scotch tape, and then hand deliver the thing — sometimes in a blizzard or rain storm — to the publication, only to have to redo the whole process when a rewrite was required (after pre-Google fact-checking took up to an entire day)? Do you somehow assume that I long for a return to the time when I was terrified to leave the house because I could miss a business call? (In the ‘70s, answering machines were not prevalent and cell phones hadn’t yet been invented.) The time when I would regularly cut calls short — even with my own mother — for fear that someone more important, career-wise, might be trying to reach me? (There was no call waiting. You had to pray that anyone who’d gotten a busy signal would try again and again. And not talk too long.) Some survivors and observers longingly look back at eras like that as “a simpler time” and “a more personal moment,” but for a writer like me, it was actually a personal nightmare.
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Los Angeles Plays Itself

AP Photo/Reed Saxon

David L. Ulin | Sidewalking | University of California Press | October 2015 | 41 minutes (8,144 words)


“I want to live in Los Angeles, but not the one in Los Angeles.”

— Frank Black


One night not so many weeks ago, I went to visit a friend who lives in West Hollywood. This used to be an easy drive: a geometry of short, straight lines from my home in the mid-Wilshire flats — west on Olympic to Crescent Heights, north past Santa Monica Boulevard. Yet like everywhere else these days, it seems, Los Angeles is no longer the place it used to be. Over the past decade-and-a-half, the city has densified: building up and not out, erecting more malls, more apartment buildings, more high-rises. At the same time, gridlock has become increasingly terminal, and so, even well after rush hour on a weekday evening, I found myself boxed-in and looking for a short-cut, which, in an automotive culture such as this one, means a whole new way of conceptualizing urban space.

There are those (myself among them) who would argue that the very act of living in L.A. requires an ongoing process of reconceptualization, of rethinking not just the place but also our relationship to it, our sense of what it means. As much as any cities, Los Angeles is a work-in-progress, a landscape of fragments where the boundaries we take for granted in other environments are not always clear. You can see this in the most unexpected locations, from Rick Caruso’s Grove to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Chris Burden’s sculpture “Urban Light” — a cluster of 202 working vintage lampposts — fundamentally changed the nature of Wilshire Boulevard when it was installed in 2008. Until then, the museum (like so much of L.A.) had resisted the street, the pedestrian, in the most literal way imaginable, presenting a series of walls to the sidewalk, with a cavernous entry recessed into the middle of a long block. Burden intended to create a catalyst, a provocation; “I’ve been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it’s always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city,” he told the Los Angeles Times a week before his project was lit. When I first came to Los Angeles a quarter of a century ago, the area around the Museum was seedy; it’s no coincidence that in the film Grand Canyon, Mary Louise Parker gets held up at gunpoint there. Take a walk down Wilshire now, however, and you’ll find a different sort of interaction: food trucks, pedestrians, tourists, people from the neighborhood.

Read more…

Baring the Bones of the Lost Country: The Last Paleontologist in Venezuela

Photo courtesy of Ascanio Rincon / Tachiraptor admirabilis illustration by Maurílio Oliveira / Collage by Katie Kosma

Zoe Valery | Longreads | February 2019 | 18 minutes (5,011 words)


— Orocual tar pit, northeastern Venezuela, 2007 C.E.

Ascanio Rincón was standing on a veritable fossil paradise when one of his students brought to his attention a tooth that was sticking out through the dirt. The site presented innumerable shards of prehistoric bones that had been fortuitously unearthed by a steamroller digging a trench for a pipeline. After assessing the value of the site, the young paleontologist stood his ground to protect the tar pit where millions of fossils have been preserved by the asphalt, eventually forcing the workers to redraw the course of the oil duct. When he cleaned around the tooth that was embedded in the trench wall, he found that it was attached to the skull of a creature that the steamroller had missed only by inches. He looked at the eye socket in disbelief: “A saber-toothed tiger was looking at me in the eye,” he recalls. This specimen would constitute a groundbreaking discovery for Rincón and a landmark for the field of paleontology in Venezuela and at large.

To this day, Richard Parker — named after the tiger in Life of Pi — remains one of the most remarkable findings in the country and one of Rincón’s dearest fossils. The sabre-toothed tiger has shed light on a migratory wave during the Ice Age that the scientific community previously had not been aware of. Due to the current mass migration of people from Venezuela, Rincón is one of the only scientists left in the country tapping into the overwhelming wealth of fossils yet to be uncovered at the Orocual tar pit. Like most of his colleagues, the eight students he had trained have all left the country, joining 3 million other Venezuelans fleeing the rampant economic crisis, creating what has been described by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as the most dire refugee crisis on the continent. Rincón is an endling — the only extant individual of a species — in his field: the last vertebrate paleontologist in Venezuela.* Read more…

Magen David and Me

Getty / Unsplash / Collage by Katie Kosma

Marya Zilberberg | Longreads | February 2019 | 16 minutes (3,886 words)

​I don’t think my father ever took off his Star of David necklace from the day he put it on in the infancy of the Carter administration. It was always there, resting in a copse of chest hair, a silver target in the V of his open shirt collar. I never asked, when he was alive, what it meant to him, but I imagined he had started to wear it simply because he could, having just escaped more than four decades of oppression in the U.S.S.R., where he couldn’t. Or, perhaps, wouldn’t. ​

The necklace had first belonged to me; my parents bought it for me when I was 14, when we were in Rome awaiting our entry visas to the United States. I had only recently learned of such a thing and its significance when my mother’s cousin Zhenya came to visit us in Odessa from Moscow just before we emigrated in August 1976. I had never before met this cousin, and when I first saw her what jumped out at me was her weird hair, a brown helmet of large immobile waves with a dullness I’d associated with dolls. Thankfully I had by then acquired some tact and didn’t blurt out my first impression. Zhenya wore a necklace, a darkly patinated metal circle, smaller and thinner than a penny, about the size of the old Soviet kopek. Into it was etched a shiny six-pointed star. When I asked my dad what it was, he said, “A Magen David,” the shield of King David, a symbol of the Jewish people. Although his matter-of-factness surprised me, I didn’t press him, thinking I must be missing something.

By the time we were readying to leave, I had spent almost half my lifetime with the awareness of being a Jew, though with no clue as to its larger meaning. At 7, I took a ballroom dance class at the Palace of the Pioneers because my mother thought it might instill some grace into my otherwise clumsy build. At the end of the first lesson, our teacher lined us up against a bleached wall, boys in white shirts and brown pants sagging from their scrawny frames like laundry on a line, girls with pigtails tied in exuberant white bows the size of parachutes, all performing a silent ritual of respectful attention. She instructed us to bring to the next class information about our nationalities. When I asked my parents about it that evening over dinner, my dad, staring into his bowl of soup, said, “We are Jews.”
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You’re Just Too Good to Be True

Hulton Archive / Getty, Collage by Katie Kosma

Kavita Das | Longreads | February 2019 | 27 minutes (6688 words)

New York City, 1980

Mommy and I had a deal. On our twice-a-week, 45-minute drive to speech therapy, I practiced singing South Indian Carnatic songs, the ones she grew up playing on the violin, and on the way back I was allowed to listen to anything I wanted. So, as soon as we hit the road from our house, she prompted me to begin with sa-pa-sa. Sa is the equivalent of do, the starting note in Western classical solfege, and pa the equivalent of sol, the fifth note above do. Singing these fifth intervals helped ground me in my pitch before I began any song.

Once that was done, Mommy picked from songs she had already taught me during previous car trips, or began a new one. She quizzed me on which raga, or key, it was in, and then we sang the scale of that raga together. Unlike Western keys, ragas might have different ascending and descending scales, which struck me as hazardous. Even if I knew my way up the mountain, taking the same path down might send me careening into a ravine of shame. Then, she began tapping out the talam, or the time signature, on the steering wheel of her deep blue Chevy Horizon hatchback, while navigating through traffic, and I followed along, tapping it out on my thigh or on the vinyl seat next to me. I began to sing. When I forgot a lyric or the melody, she piped up and sang alongside me, and then chided, “Start again and this time concentrate, and sing it correctly.”

We went from one song to the next as we made our way from our home in Bayside, Queens to Albert Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx, driving over highways, crossing bridges, stopping at lights, paying tolls. Sometimes we arrived at speech therapy mid-song, and then afterwards, when we got back in the car, instead of switching to my choice, per our deal, Mommy made me finish the song first, which meant I only got to my music when we were halfway home. So, I learned to gauge how close we were to the medical center and speed up my singing so that the end of the Carnatic song coincided with our arrival. This way, the whole car ride back was just for my music.

As soon as we were back in the car, our seat belts fastened, I popped in my favorite tape. It was “The Ultimate Engelbert Humperdinck,” one of the only non-Indian music albums my parents owned, by the first Western musician I was allowed to listen to. I loved everything about him and his music. He spoke to me, an almost-5-year-old who felt she already knew a thing or two about the world — having visited India, Japan, Hawaii, and New Jersey; not to mention endured the pain of multiple surgeries and the monotony of speech therapy for a cleft palate, and the loneliness of being an only child, who was not so much misunderstood as not understood, receiving quizzical looks whenever I spoke. He knew me and cared deeply for me — it was all there in the beautiful lyrics of his songs, and in the way he crooned them just to me. His voice oozed with feeling. It was as smooth and sweet as the caramel squares my grandfather loved so much that he asked me to climb a chair and sneak up to the candy box and fetch him some more.

My absolute favorite song off the tape was Killing Me Softly. Listening to it, I felt as if I was all grown up, sitting in the audience at a small café. I was the person he sang about, who comes undone by the lovelorn songs of a soulful troubadour. I sang out with abandon, the windows down, drowning out city noises. Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, killing me softly with his song, killing me softly. My mother continued to drive as I sang my little girl heart out all the way back to Queens.

I had named my dearest possession after him — my nubby pale blue woven blankie, which stayed steadfastly at my side as I played, before I carried it to bed each night, and which in turn carried me to my dreams. And when my 5th birthday rolled around, and preparations were being made for my party, I instructed my mother to invite Engelbert Humperdinck. My mother assured me that an invitation had been sent to him in England, where he lived and where my parents used to live before they migrated to the U.S. I was so excited, I ran around our basement swinging from the foundation poles, which usually served as the villains I lassoed as Wonder Woman. I could barely believe that in just a few days, Engelbert Humperdinck — I always called him by his full name — would be here in our basement. I wondered what to wear. None of my Indian stuff. Perhaps my powder blue shift and jacket, trimmed with white faux fur. It made me look like a lady, just like the long silk gowns my mother had gotten stitched for me in India. My powder blue number was a hit when I wore it in Japan — while we were snapping photos of the sights and surroundings, Japanese young women were asking my parents if they could snap photos of me in the photo-finish outfits Mommy bought, hand-stitched, or had tailored for me.

I decide that when he arrived, I would give him the frosted flowers from atop my Carvel ice cream cake, a token of my selfless love and admiration. I hoped he would sing Close to You — my second most favorite song, with perfect lyrics for celebrating me as the birthday girl. On the day that you were born the angels got together, And decided to create a dream come true, So they sprinkled moondust in your hair of gold and starlight in your eyes of blue. Well, hair of black and eyes of brown, but I still believed he meant me since Engelbert Humperdinck himself was no blonde-haired blue-eyed being.

I had taken out the album liner notes from the plastic cassette case so often to stare at the two jacket photos of him that the case had broken. He had a head of shiny blue-black hair that cascaded in waves over his smiling face, culminating in two sturdy pillars of sideburns. It reminded me of Daddy’s hair. Unlike Daddy, though, he didn’t have a mustache, which meant he wouldn’t scratch me when he kissed me on the cheek. His nose was pointy, but not too pointy, and his honey brown eyes seemed to twinkle at me like stars from the nursery rhymes I’d learned seemingly so long ago. Now that I was a 5-year-old, I had graduated from nursery school to kindergarten, from nursery rhymes to love ballads, and from imaginary play friends to real-life music idols. I imagined us holding hands, going to the park, and, of course, singing duets together. And sheepishly I wondered if maybe, when I grew up, we could get married. When Mommy and Daddy weren’t around, I pressed my lips against his in the jacket photo, the way I had seen grownups do in TV shows. I never saw any of the Indian uncles and aunties do it, but I knew it was something other grownups — white and Black — did when they loved someone. When I closed my eyes to make a wish, I sometimes focused on a Barbie doll, but other times I hoped for the chance to kiss Engelbert Humperdinck for real.
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