“For Those Who Don’t Fit Into Boxes,” by Shagufe Hossain

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Growing up
I never lived
in houses with lawns or little gardens or backyards,
with weeping willows or wooden benches.

 I lived,
sometimes,
in a city
where pedestrian walkways,
‘footpaths’ they were called,
were resting places for those who couldn’t afford rooftops
over their heads.

 I lived in apartment buildings,
boxes stacked one on top of the other
to save space
in overpopulated cities—
in lands
dominated,
sliced up
with sharp blades of politics, religion and language
and distributed
like a decadent dessert (not enough)
amongst gluttons, never satisfied.

 But these spaces for living?
They constructed and constricted
and made it difficult to breathe
in boxes,
with each wall
closing in,
a divide,
made of those very same blades.

 Now these boxes stand
stacked one on top of the other
with one wall, standing tall,
the wall of class
(check box: rich/poor)
one wall, standing tall,
the wall of gender
(check box: male/female)
one wall, standing tall,
the wall of body
(check box: abled/disabled)
one wall, standing tall,
the wall of beauty
(check box: fair-skinned/dark-skinned)
one wall, standing tall,
the wall of knowledge
(check box: valid/invalid)
Mighty walls, standing tall, solid
with edges like blades.

 I lived,
sometimes,
crossing over to the other side.
But these walls with their sharp edges
would cut into my flesh
so I grew up
wounded,
bleeding.

 And these boxes?
They worked
for those who lived in black-and-white worlds.
Lazy minds, refusing to see colours or greys,
fitting themselves into moulds
as others saw fit,
gift-wrapping themselves in societal expectations
and presenting themselves
(happily?)
to a world
that was ready
for no more.

 But not you and I.
You and I
stood either somewhere in the middle, bleeding,
or outside,
in a corner
of a verandah
looking at the skies, limitless,
using boxes with pinholes,
projecting realities,
our own,
to capture the essence of life.
Breathing.

 

these words by Shagufe Hossain were inspired by the work of Marcin Wolski

“View From the 20th Floor,” by Jo-Ann Zhou

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content warning: abusive relationships

When the tiny rays of light were desperately grasping at the sky, when almost all the lights in the city beyond had turned black—that was when he came alive. His wine-stained teeth, the colour of dried blood caked into the crevices, would start to quiver as finally his lips moved at a rapid pace. At last, I would think. At last he is here. Here was the version of the man I liked and knew: interesting, articulate, prone to philosophical rants about metaphysics. He shone so much brighter than the version of himself with clean teeth—the version that only appeared when the sun was up, when the sky was too blue and bright—timid, uncertain, unwilling to express much more than the occasional nod by way of emotion.

I don’t know what drew me to him. Maybe it was because he was smart in ways that I wasn’t, and a few years older, and so completely unlike anyone I had ever met. I might never have met him if we hadn’t lived in the same building. He was funny: witty funny, laugh-out-loud-and-snort-with-laughter funny, but only in private when his teeth were stained from wine as we watched the sunrise from his window on the 20th floor. Sometimes when we were with his friends he was funny, but that was after three pitchers of beer, when the bar floors were sticky. As everyone else’s words began to slur and grow fuzzy, his would grow sharp.

In the daylight, we didn’t talk. He avoided me. He didn’t know how to talk to me without a glass in his hand. I don’t know what the view looked like from the 20th floor under blue skies. He would message me after his first glass in the evening, still not quite the version of himself that he would become a bottle later, but loosened up enough to ask for my presence. I probably should have known then that the bottle wouldn’t just make him funnier and louder and more confident.

I probably should have foreseen that after the first bottle, his hand would start reaching for the stapler, or the lamp, or the phone—knuckles white, hand shaking—as his wine-emboldened voice told me to get out or else. I don’t remember fighting. I just remember feeling utterly bewildered as we went from one moment chatting calmly and looking at the view of the sunrise to another where I was running out the door, wondering if the stapler might make contact with my head once my back was turned.

I’m glad I didn’t stay. We never really talked about why. Sometimes, after it was all over, I found myself back on the 20th floor. I would stand in the doorway with a million unasked questions—but then I would turn around and take the elevator back down to my apartment on the 5th floor. His door remained un–knocked upon and my questions all unanswered. Then I stopped going to the 20th floor entirely.

After I moved out of the building, I would look up to the 20th floor every time I walked past. I would think about how happy I was that I never found out what the view looked like from that window over the city when the sky was blue. A few years later, they built a new, taller building right in front of his window, so I suppose that view is gone. No one else will ever see the way the lights twinkled just so when the sun was coming up, glinting on his teeth stained the colour of dried blood.

these words by Jo-Ann Zhou were inspired by the art of Marcin Wolski

“Considering.”: New Prose by Tristen Sutherland

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Once upon a time, there was a man on a ledge. Well, not a ledge. A balcony. Every day at dusk, like clockwork, the man stood on the balcony, staring out into the blue hazy expanse. Sometimes, he looked down, considering the 20-story drop. Sometimes, he considered jumping. The man had everything he’d ever wanted. His apartment was beautiful. His job was prestigious. His car was automated. And, yet, he considered the 20-story drop from his apartment balcony.

 Once upon a time, there was young girl who would watch the man on the balcony, like clockwork. She would watch him standing there as he considered the urban twinkle of lights. She had frizzy hair and no freckles. She never understood why. All the people she knew had freckles and wore their hair in long ponytails. The girl’s mother had given up on combing through the girl’s hair years ago. Now, it sticks up in all directions, with a bow neatly placed by her ear as if to say, “Truly, we tried.” Once, the girl gathered the courage to ask her parents why she had frizzy hair and no freckles and they didn’t. Her mothers just glanced at each other, considering.

 Once upon a time, on a particularly blue day, the man stood on his balcony, considering. The girl watched him. She noticed that his hair had gotten wilder and his dark eyes seemed more… Determined? Anxious? Afraid? The man looked across the horizon. It looked like the ocean, shades of Prussian blue, cerulean and hints of ochre swirling in and out of each other like a Van Gogh painting. His achievements would never change how people felt about him, the man finalized. Cursed with no freckles, frizzy hair and chestnut skin, he was hopeless. He considered. The girl watched attentively. The moon was full and its white light competed with the industrial glow of the city. The man tried to convince himself that the drop would be like jumping into the ocean. Quick. Easy. Painless. He considered. The girl began to worry. She thought of the man as a friend, her only friend with frizzy hair, no freckles and dark skin, like her. But the man was finished with considering. He took a deep breath and scanned his surroundings. This would be the last time he’d look at the horizon this would be the— He noticed a girl with frizzy hair and no freckles standing on a balcony next to his peering back at him.

 Once upon a time, there was a man about to jump off a balcony. But he couldn’t. Not that night. Because a girl with frizzy hair and no freckles on a balcony next to his reminded him too much of himself. Instead, the man and the girl stood on their balconies, looking off into the Van Gogh sky. The girl was too nervous to speak. The man didn’t know what to say. So, there they stood, calm in each other’s presence. Calm. Of course, it wouldn’t last. The girl would go back inside to loving parents, who would never understand why the girl wanted freckles. The man would go back to his apartment, knowing that his skin would always hold him back. But in that moment, they were both calm. A unique unspoken solidarity was shared. So, there they stood. Considering.

 

 these words by Tristen Sutherland were inspired by the work of Marcin Wolski

 

On Looking and Being Seen: “For Young Girls,” by Eileen Mary Holowka

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Content Warning: Depression and creepy insect stories

Maggie used to write stories in the attic. That was back when she was a child, when she wasn’t allowed to leave the house and instead spent family gatherings curled up in strangers’ jackets on her parents’ bed. She would rub her face into them and try to find a home in each of the different scents: winter smokers, damp lavender, a flooded basement. She would rifle through the pockets, stroking keys to guess where they belonged and reading crumpled receipts.

These days she had trouble writing. There were too many parties to attend and they always took days to get over. She still rubbed up against strangers’ jackets but it never gave her the same joy. These days, the smells were too familiar and all new possibilities seemed to end with every touch.

Sometimes Maggie went home with the jackets. She liked the homes and the jackets more than the people inside them, but they were her only excuse in. Most of the time they would have sex and some of the time she would bleed after. It was a symptom of some condition she hadn’t been able to diagnose. It became a kind of performance art piece, bleeding onto other people’s beds. They were never appreciative of her art.

Maggie built sets. Mock kitchens with only three walls and trees with trapdoors. It was a dream job on the way to what she hoped could one day be economically sustainable. She moved around theatres invisibly, in all-black outfits that doubled as formal wear, and spent rehearsal breaks hiding in the wings watching the actors bicker like they were in a play.

The best part about casual sex was locking herself in the strangers’ bathrooms, before she had let them down with her leaking uterus, to go through their cupboards. She loved the belongings and rituals of others, finding out where they kept their extra toilet paper or whether they Q-tipped their ears. She never took anything or moved it out of place, just looked. She figured it would make her a better artist, or make her like that particular stranger better. She tried to imagine what a future in their home would look like, but it was always better the less she knew.

The doctors kept telling her there was nothing wrong, but they scheduled her an ultrasound anyways. The technician pressed down on Maggie’s full bladder while they both watched the screen. Maggie eagerly looked for something, a cyst or a tumour, as if it were a fetus. But there was nothing there, not even a child, to explain her problems. She walked out of the hospital past husbands and their swelling wives and felt more infertile than she’d ever felt in her life.

Her journey home was slow and heavy, despite or because of her emptiness. Even the trees were barren, she noticed. Autumn made her want to call her ex. She touched her phone, but it turned off as soon as she tapped his name. She had no idea where the bus stop was without Google and it took her an hour to walk home. It was dark and damp, and she looked into the lit-up windows of other people’s houses with longing. She called him later that week, several times until she got past his voicemail. When he heard her voice, he paused, and hung up.

The printed ultrasound results came the same day. Everything was fine, but sounded deadly. She read the paper aloud to Anne over Skype. Apparently there is fluid in my cul-de-sac. Did you know you had a cul-de-sac in your uterus?

That explains your pain, Anne replied. Cars keep getting stuck.

Imagine the tiny little houses.

Little moms and dads.

God, even my diseases are domestic.

Maggie liked her parents and visited them often. They would cook her more food than she could eat and fill her full of enough tea to make her bus ride home unbearable. They tried to get her to clean her toys out of the attic, but instead she just hid in the back and watched spiders build webs around her Barbies. She didn’t have the heart to throw them out, nor the desire to clean them, so she just watched instead.

The attic was full of garbage treasures: VHS tapes of dance recitals and episodes of I Love Lucy; Mom’s broken mint green typewriter; her grandmother’s wedding photos. Maggie’s dollhouse sat in the corner near the window, covered in mud from where the roofers had gone wild. She used to imagine herself as the prettiest doll and would dress and undress her mock self for hours. Doll Maggie had always been intelligent and composed. She went to parties, her face always painted into a smile.

Maggie was scared to touch her doll self, even to save her from the wreckage of shingle bits. She had never intended to stop playing, but eventually everyone else did and the lonely, imaginative Saturdays became guilty pleasures, with an emphasis on the guilt. She knew that when she grew up she would call herself Margaret. She just didn’t know when that growing up would come.

As a child, she was good at being seen and not heard. She could never keep up with her family’s political conversations and figured she must not have any opinions. She told her father her theory and he laughed her down. She decided to drop that opinion as well.

Maggie brought a man home to her parents once. He was tall and professional and liked to put her down. She could see the confusion in her mother’s eyes, as she placed the plate in front of the man like some kind of offering. She could tell her mother would rather throw it in his face, but was trying to treat her daughter like a woman. Maggie would have preferred to be chastised like a child and she felt like one as she made eye contact with her mother and shrugged.

His name was Douglas. He always told her she was a good listener, but mostly he was just a good talker. He was a writer and told Maggie she should be a writer too and that he could edit her work if she liked, because it could use some editing. He called her Margaret, said it was a good writer’s name. It sounded so good in his mouth that she felt obligated to keep kissing him. She adored him and he adored her, except when he didn’t.

So I just googled it, Maggie texted Anne, and it says the cul-de-sac is also called “Pouch of Douglas” cuz of some guy named Douglas who “discovered” it I guess.

OF COURSE.

Even my insides belong to dudes.

Dudes named Douglas. Had to be a Douglas.

It’s always a Douglas.

The last time Maggie and Anne Skyped, the internet began cutting out in the middle of their chat about depression. Anne’s comforting words fractured into alien xylophone fragments and Maggie broke down laughing.

She hadn’t always been so sad. She read that birth control could be making her this way, but the doctor said that was just part of the deal. So she stayed on the meds and took selfies instead. Except they never looked beautiful or poetic enough, like Anne’s. Instead they were unnerving, lacking the adequate amount of performance for the camera.

Early in her career, Maggie had tried acting. She was excellent when she had to play a quiet school girl, but unconvincing when she tried the role of a confident lesbian. She realized she was only good at performing herself, her own intimacy, and went back to facilitating the public intimacy of others instead.

During her long distance relationships, Maggie always watched herself on the screen, instead of her lover. Her own tiny image was too distracting. Her long-distance self was cold and hard and contained behind glass. These days, she was somewhat softer. At least, she leaked.

She rarely brought men home but, after watching an episode of Sex and the City, the idea of having sex next to the open window appealed to her. It wasn’t the lovemaking that made it so enticing, but the idea that the neighbours might be watching, thinking of her as some sort of Samantha sex-goddess and wishing for her life.

As a teenager, Maggie had worked in her father’s office building where she’d spend the morning filing papers and the afternoons staring into the windows of the apartment building across the street. She’d map out the tenants’ rituals: the old lady’s lunchtime smoke, the child’s after-school milk and cookies, the perfectly trimmed bachelor’s quick change into evening clothes. She always hoped she might catch them looking back her way, but the window was likely reflective.

On one of her dates, she took a guy to an art gallery, but ended up coming down with diarrhea. He gave up on her after she spent too long in the washroom, and sent her some sort of inflammatory text about her thighs, or ass or something. It was her gut saving her, she realized, because after she recovered she stumbled into a Nan Goldin exhibit she knew he would have ruined. She spent two hours in the room, gazing at other people’s wounds, and crying. She went home knowing she should write down her thoughts, but ended up in bed instead, with an old recording of Judy Garland covering Singing in the Rain playing in the background on her parents’ passed-down wedding gift television set.

The next date was even more hopeless. She spent hours preparing, trimming her pubic hair into the toilet with safety scissors and wondering if other girls had better methods. However, as soon as she met him, she knew it was over. His profile picture beard was gone and he kept calling her Meg. She smiled and pushed through it, walking 16 km across the city with him until she finally came up with an excuse to leave. She went home and watched Rear Window on loop until she fell asleep.

Most nights before bed, she would scroll through Facebook, Twitter, /r/Relationships, and YouTube to watch the lives of others. Sometimes she would comment, but normally she just acted as a witness, eager to see a glimmer of emotion, something beyond herself. In the mornings she scrolled through Instagram, pretending that what she saw were just static portraits, but inevitably identifying with and reading into every one.

One night, an ant crawled into her ear while she was sleeping. At first she thought the crunchy popping sound was some kind of air bubble, but she was unable to pop it. She fished around for awhile before deciding to look in the mirror. Its tiny black legs were just visible as they reached around for a way out. She stared in icy panic, suddenly wishing for her mother or a roommate who could pull it out of her. The responsibility of the task ran over her like spilled milk, mundane but devastating, as she forced her trembling fingers towards his tiny body, burning her eyes open so she wouldn’t lose him.

Afterward, he crawled around her fingers and she watched with a kind of respect, understanding now that he had wanted to be there even less than she’d wanted him to. She put the ant on the windowsill and crawled back into her bed. Her room was yellows, blues, and beige and smelled of her home. On the walls hung postcards and letters from her friends. It was kind of lovely, she realized, this place entirely her own.

The next day, the subway was stalled due to a suicide. She took out a notebook and began sketching the man sitting across from her. She sketched his pale face and sunken features, shaping them into a story. He looked on the verge of breakdown, as though he had just suffered some great loss. She ripped out the page and passed it to him, a gesture of friendship, empathy, or just mutual boredom.

He took the picture from her and squinted at it, shaking his head.

What’s this? he asked.

A drawing I did of you, just now, Maggie answered, smiling.

This isn’t me, he said, and the subway started again.

 

these words by Eileen Mary Holowka were inspired by the art of Marcin Wolski

On Heteronormativity, High School: “Easy”

word by Alisha Mascarenhas

colour by Tomasz Kartasinski

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The bend in her legs is relaxed; easy.

She folds one beneath the other, waiting for the night to set in.

The loop in each clean, white hightop precise and dangling with that quiet anticipation that comes after sucking back the frenetic bubbling of the first beer. Giddy elation that rises to the sternum.

From where I stand in that hot pit of a parking lot all I can read on her body I feel in my hands: blunt fingers softening into the pinch of polyester jacket pockets.

All my life taught how to be seen by men, I don’t know what it is to look at a girl. I never gave myself permission. I want to know how to look without inhaling her; to let my gaze settle on her whole being; the space she inhabits and the retreat of a sleeve that licks her inner forearm.

She won’t look at me. At home with the other queers I’ve found ease in a different norm. Ambiguous friendships warmed by late night snuggles on that long, blue couch in my apartment, kisses on the mouth and other quiet affections. Sometimes sex.

But to her, I’ve decided, I’m someone to compare haircuts and outfit choices with. She might squeeze my hand later, or borrow my jacket as we walk home. We might share a cigarette and she won’t give a second thought to what’s passed between us. To her, I’ve decided, I’m another girl and she won’t ever look at our intimacies as anything other than sweet, dry and easy.

If she calls, it will be easy. The gesture only half thought through as she decides what to do with her Sunday afternoon. Not the tense thrill of an inhale that catches at the throat. Not the fleeting imagination of all the ways our bodies might move against one another. I’m a girl. We are girls. She’ll talk about boys. Girl talk. Girl love: not a boy-girl kind of a thing.

She won’t need to think about what to wear or how she smells. She might take a shower just to clear her head of the day; show up at my front door with her hair disheveled to eat ice cream at the kitchen table as I shrink into the wall across from her, afraid that if I get too close I might feel her breathing.

When we part, she’ll give me a little squeeze. Like a friend. Like girls do.

From the author: “I wrote this as a commentary on how systemic narratives of heteronormativity seep into the ways girls are taught to relate to one another and to their desiring selves. It is a response to how friendships between girls are mediated by romantic relationships with boys: constricting the kinds of intimacies that are permissible. I chose to use the words “girls” and “boys” to speak to a process of revisiting an adolescent self: a critical time during which heteronormative scripts can be particularly forceful.”