The American Tourist

Written by Winona Wardell
Art by Winona Wardell

I am embarrassed to be an American tourist. I do not want to be seen as similar to the representation of the United States. The representation that caused an Austrian boy to ask me “Have you ever been to a gun wedding in Las Vegas?” I looked at him, waiting for him to laugh. “I saw it on YouTube!” I try to not shrink into the wall behind me. 

Assimilating to the culture of the place that I am in has always been important to me. Standing out as the person with too many bags, a camera around their neck, and a fanny pack around their waist has always embarrassed me. This meant that when I traveled to Italy this summer I worried about my image immensely. I even started wearing dresses, more makeup, tanning, and walking faster. The things I see the graceful Italian women do. Although some things feel impossible, how can someone wear pants in 100 degree heat? It feels like an elite club and I am desperately trying to get in. I want to feel like I belong in a place that everyone admires on postcards, that contains both architecture wonders, and geographical beauties. A place filled with deeply rooted traditions dating back to the medieval period, and world class food. Yet somehow I always seem to stick out. 

In the beginning of my trip, fitting into Italian culture felt like a test, and as a person who can’t say no, I was up for the challenge. But as the trip progressed I was tired of feeling like I was being judged all the time, and the worst part was that I knew no one was judging me. The Italians didn’t care about some American girl, when I was one in millions. So I gave up on “the Italian look” and I carried around the camera I had bought just for this trip, and more importantly, I wore shorts. I learned that cultures are different and that’s part of the appeal to travel. I don’t have to become like another culture to appreciate and respect it.

Two Leave, One Stays

Written by Winona Wardwell
Art by Alleksana

The first leaves quietly. She departs in the humid summer heat, equal parts excited to begin a new adventure and terrified to leave an old one. I oversleep and almost miss our goodbye. She knocks on my door and I let her in, still in my pajamas. I set out her favorite pastries all cut in half, the ones from the overpriced store down the street. “You didn’t have to,” she says with a smile on her face. I just smile in return. I rub my eyes, and wish I was not so tired. I ask about her packing, I make fun of her for packing too much. She hands me a hat of hers that I have always loved, a strange parting gift. I want to explain to her how much I will miss her, or how secretly I am mad that she is leaving me behind, but I don’t say it. That has never been our kind of friendship. We don’t know how to say goodbye, we settle for an awkward hug, our arms hang loosely around eachothers’ abdomen, we were never the type to hug. “See you in a year,” I say. She nods, her face unreadable. The day she leaves is bright, a few clouds in the sky, a good beach day. I wish I had invited her to the beach just one more time. Instead, I watch her walk down my driveway, like I have watched her do hundreds of times before and I know a year is a short time in comparison to a life but for some reason it feels like we are saying goodbye forever.

The second leaves loudly, just as the summer starts to fade into a peaceful quiet fall, as school starts, and the college students filter back into the city. For weeks she frets on what to pack, what she has to buy, and what will happen. I arrange a picnic on a hill, and we watch the sunset and try to find the words that describe how we feel. The evening is perfect, and again I find myself wishing we had done this more. We sit on the hill too long, past when the families leave, and soon only teenagers are left, playing music loudly from their cars.  I tell her a lot of things I wish I had been brave enough to tell the first. She reassures me as she has always done, yet there is an uneasiness in her tone that I hadn’t sensed before. I can read the second better than the first. She is nervous, and I don’t know what to tell her. I have no advice to give, I feel like I have fallen short as a friend. We leave the hill when all we can hear are crickets and the mosquitoes start biting our legs. Our goodbye is long and drawn out. She hugs me tightly, squeezing my shoulders. She reminds me not to forget about her, I scoff, “Of course not, I love you.” Displays of affection were always easy with her. “See you in four months,” I say, before turning and walking away. 

Now fall is approaching. I watch the seasons change and the city settle into a quiet rhythm as I always have. I try to resist change, yet slowly I fall into a new pattern without two friends that I once thought I could live without. There it is somewhat disheartening that the world moves on, this concept has always been hard for me to grasp, it seems like slow movement, and then one takes a moment for granted and just like that everything changes. What was once is not anymore.

While I Await a Lover, I Can Love Bok Choy

Written by Aida Safiyah
Art by Holly Warburton

I did not love myself for a very long time. The pandemic became a vacuum in which I was distilled in this state of resentment and dissatisfaction and recurring reminders of past traumatic experiences. Even now, two years later, I feel I’ve yet to sober up from the shock of it all.

The days were uniform, and I had to confront the two decades of suffering that were haunting me—or die. At some point, I was at the bottom of an abyss now permanently seared in my memory, and the most important question was then presented to me as I laid paralyzed — to pull myself up anew, or to succumb to the destructive hate I had unknowingly grown comfortable with?

I’m choosing the former. Not ‘chose’, because it is a choice I have to actively make day after day. Sometimes I become hesitant, and the temptation of comfortable negativity would be so enticing, but I would sigh and think about the life I want to build and remind myself of this line from a poem by Warsan Shire —

I’ll rewrite this whole life and this time there’ll be so much love, you won’t be able to see beyond it.

So I had learned the necessity of loving myself in my early adulthood. Nothing original. ‘Learned to love myself’ instead of ‘learning to love myself’ because I’ve decided that loving myself is not necessary. Yes, it was, but no longer now. Now I understand that I, and my life, have value. On the days I love myself, I’m grateful I possess so-and-so qualities, and it adds to the value that I have. On the days I loathe myself and feel like a worthless sewer rat, still, my life has value. Whether I love myself or not does not matter anymore because I understand my life has value regardless. Yes, axes of oppression and discrimination and generational hardship and the way things simply are—that largely made me the hateful person I was—still exist to this moment, but changing my perspective from “I’m a horrible person” to the more somatic and escapable “I feel horrible” has liberated my mind greatly.

I have zero interest in being in a relationship.

I perfectly understand wanting one. But to me, it’s just like any other endeavour, which would either happen as a silent surprise, bulldoze its way through my life, or gradually be built by my own decisions. I have so many other wants, I want to be an educator, and share what little—but fascinating—that I’ve learnt in life. I want to love the Earth at places I haven’t been. I’ve only experienced Malaysian shophouses with beautifully haphazard interiors and I’ve only breathed Malaysian petrichor, and yet I am so in love, still, so surely the world outside can offer more love. I crave those experiences too, in my dreams, daydreams, in my decision-makings, just like how I dream of a proverbial apple of my eye.

I understand the concept of having your person, but chance reigns over all of life. ‘Right person, right time’ is a simplified observation of how randomness dictates a lot in life. So within these parameters of chance, and with the power that I have, will I ever befriend someone who would understand love the way I do? Someone who would understand that ‘you complete me’ and ‘you complement me and in our parallel, complete solitudes, I choose to accompany yours for a long, long time’ are different, and someone who would also want the latter? I’ve been in love, of course, and the light that floods in when you look at a maybe-lover is absolutely breath-taking, but I’m yet to assign that light more value than the illumination I receive when I’ve read a transformative piece of poetry. Or when I laugh with my friends. Love is still love. Light is still light. Of course I’d enjoy having my person, but it’s not so I could be given chocolates or flowers or suffocatingly be categorized under the mundane and gendered label of ‘girlfriend’, but rather, to have someone who would grow with me as I deconstruct and unlearn all that has weighted my existence, and learn what would grant me lightness. Someone who would sit with me in attentive silence as I ask them, What are the current state of your hands?

I sometimes mourn the childhood years in which I should have learned about love in the world. As far as I remember, even my admiration of my surroundings as a child were scientific and calculative. As if rambutans, too, would dislike the ‘me’ I had to offer, and inevitably turn away. Now, I find love in the crunch of leaves under the soles of my cheap sneakers as I take a walk. I find love in observing catastrophically messy families in restaurants late at night. I find love in the colours and scents of watermelons and mangoes, and how they grow from the Earth, and they taste so different from each other. The world is very human and I love all that is human, even the ‘uglier’ parts. Of course, I’m not saying that loving a person is the same as loving the ocean or loving bok choy. What I’m saying is, while I await the appearance of a lover, I can love the many ways I can understand the sea. The many ways I can cook bok choy. And love it very much.

I’ve decided I’m a lover, and alive, and I’m steadfast in my understanding of how love is elemental. Open arms from a grandmother, from a friend, from the Earth, from someone’s eyes — they all feel equally loving. When the chest opens up, it all feels gloriously the same. As if this common denominator love that underlies all forms of love is something undeniable, ever-reliable, and belongs to you. Belongs to me. It does. I’ve decided to befriend this patience and wonder that makes life worth living.

Lost and Found in Sea

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Adriaen Coorte

She had found the seashells by accident. When she was younger, she used to spend her evenings building sandcastles, chasing crabs and learning to write alphabets on the sand only to watch the sea wash away the distorted letters. The memories come lapping in waves with the shells she holds in her hands.

She picks up the natica from the matte plastic box and runs her finger over its smooth shell. She recalls her futile attempt to paint its glossy surface purple and gold, an incident that her friend Anjani had laughed about for days.

Scallops dominate her shell collection. The texture of its ridges with its repeated rise and fall like waves themselves. In every rise and fall, Leela saw the waves. She could be listening to a violin recital, the highs and lows of a beatpad or her own heartbeat—they were all waves from seas she had not yet discovered.

The banded tulips were always her favourite. They weren’t as enormous as conch shells, and would easily fit in the spaces between her fingers back then. She’d pour water into its curved hole, shake it, and pour it back on the wet sand. Anjani and she had become friends over banded tulips.

“You’re looking for banded tulips?” Anjani had asked, shy smile and bright eyes. “You can have mine!”

“Friends?” Leela had asked. They’d sealed their friendship with a mutual thumbs up and a fist bump.

What could’ve been a breezy summer reminiscence felt like drowning in a maelstrom of tainted memories. 

Other shells, including a single murex and numerous whelks, are also in the plastic box. They all carry hazy memories she can’t quite remember or let go of. She does remember writing BEST FRIENDS on the sand using a stick. She also remembers disappointment crashing over her when the sea swallowed the words whole. 

She shuts the box close.

She blamed chance for her finding the seashell collection shut closed in her murky attic. The second time, she admits full responsibility for hunting down old photographs and regrets the fact that she does not regret it.

When she flips open the album, several grinning faces welcome her. There are photos of a large group of friends, Leela and Anjani next to each other in almost all of them. Although she’s lost touch with the others, it doesn’t hurt as much as drifting away from Anjani. Anjani’s family stopped coming to the shore after the summer of 2017. Her’s followed in 2019. All the families who once lived in the coastside had gradually migrated into the nearby cities.

She continues flipping the thick pages. There’s a picture of Leela and Anjani when they were eleven showing off their nails, each painted in different colours. In Anjani’s backyard, swinging with her younger brother. Anjani wearing Leela’s mother’s earrings, her frizzy mane framing her tiny face. Sandcastles and plastic toys, the waves and footprints,  headbands and sundresses, friendship bands and satin flowers and sunsets she can’t remember.

She doesn’t know whom to blame.

A week later she visits the beach. She wants to go back to the coast, go back to her childhood home, lie down in the sand and bury herself in its roughness. She doesn’t want to tell her parents she’s driving to town, she can visit with them again later. For now, she wants this place all to herself.

Nowadays, their town is more of a vacation destination than a residential area. She navigates her car across streets she has memorised. The turns—left first, right next and then straight until you reach the parking space for the beach—all come to her despite all the time that’s passed.

There are other people here, all tourists. She can hear their distant laughter, squeals of glee from splashing water at each other and the cotton candy vendor’s announcements. But none of that matters. She walks to the beach, runs to the sea.

The breeze ruffles her hair in the same way her father does. There’s sand in her toes, water washing her feet and salt air kissing her face. This is the sea in all its majesty welcoming her home and Leela wants nothing more than to capture the emotion unfurling in her chest and contain it in the insides of a hollow seashell.

She crouches, looking for fragments of calcium carbonate in the sand. Her childhood comes rushing back to her,her fingers knowing just where to look. She doesn’t know how long she spends on the beach, but ends up collecting three angel wings, several alphabet cones, a unique murex and two little limpets. She can see the sun setting from the corner of her eyes, a pale orange blending into the blue sea, and promises she’ll leave when she finds at least one banded tulip.

She wades a few feet into the water and feels the waves gently wash over her. Sinking her hand into the sand, she watches the setting sun as her fingers scour for shells. Nothing. She lets the ascending waves wash over her before pushing her fingers into the sand once again. Again, no luck. She hears the security guards blowing their whistles, letting the visitors know they aren’t allowed into the waters anymore. She tries a few more times until one of the guards personally asks her to leave.

The sun was no longer visible in the sky. Darkness descended over the beach, the stars and the moon swimming in the sea. A vice grip tugs at her ankles with every step she takes away from the waters, away from the sand. 

She clutches the other shells she collected firmly in her hand, allowing them to indent her palms and yet, she feels empty. She stops at the zone from where visitors were allowed to watch the sea at night and closes her eyes. 

“You’re looking for banded tulips?” she hears someone ask from her left. 

She twists her neck to face the one person that knows how much she loved banded tulips. Anjani. She’s an older version of the girl who once wore Leela’s mother’s earrings, ones that would fit her face well now.

Leela is unsure of how to deal with the void separating them. The years they’d spent apart from each other, making new friends—it stretches in front of her. Whom is she to blame? The parents for leaving the town? Or each other for not keeping in touch? How accountable could she hold eleven-year-olds?

“I picked one hours ago,” she says with a guilty smile, stretching a palm with a single banded tulip. “You can have it.”

“Friends?” Leela asks.


They both laugh, the void in between them filling up with the sound.

I ran into you in the halls

Written by Jessica Liu
Art by elizabethaferry

I ran into you in the halls the other day.

Shit, was my first thought.

I ducked into the bathroom quick. Took a few deep breaths. Calmed my turbulent heart rate. Walked out. 

Why the hell were you still standing there?

You waved to me with a huge grin. You idiot.

“Hi,” you smiled, so casual, so jolly, so stupid, so you. “Where are you going? Let me walk you somewhere.”

God, I hate you.

My no thank you’s blurred into my yeah sure’s like they always did when you were around. 

Somehow, we ended up walking side-by-side, like we did at Little Tokyo and Old Pasadena. A million memories, captured in film, of late night walks and late night talks replayed in my mind.

“I’m actually lost. I’m looking for 3091,” I confessed, scanning the room numbers.

“Isn’t it, like, the second week already?” That all too familiar lopsided smile. 

“I’m not the best with directions,” I replied. 

I remembered all the times we went on the Metro together, the way you knew how to get anywhere, but still stubbornly refused to help me out because my utter lack of navigation skills was amusing.

I remembered the time we got lost on the way to the Union Station. 

Did you remember the time we got lost on the way to the Union Station?

I opened my mouth to ask you how you’d been. I halted my breath with a sharp inhale. 

Why did this feel so normal, so easy? Why did it feel so natural?

Silence. I was so scared of saying the wrong thing, the right thing, to let a hint of wistfulness peek through.

Because what if I fell again? Just like before. A little at first, and then suddenly crashing down, all at once.

I could hear my breathing behind my mask. It reminded me of the night you asked me to meet you at half past ten. It was later than I had ever been out. I should have been terrified. Sitting under a tall palm tree, shivering in my airy top, slipping on your purple hoodie, my warm breath painting watercolor clouds in the sky every time I spoke.

A side-ways glance. Eyes meet. Look away.

An accidental brush of our arms. Flinch away.

I really, really hate this.

You looked different. You looked good. You’d gotten a haircut, put on some actual pants, even thrown a ratty leather jacket on top. 

Foreign. All I remember thinking. Foreign.

The sight was nearly enough to bring tears to my eyes. 

I admit, I hated your old sense of style, mostly because it was non-existent, loved roasting you on your questionable haircut, and teased you on your habit of wearing the same crusty shorts every day no matter what the occasion.

But all of that was you. All of that was what I knew.

It wasn’t the 3-month absence, a you-shaped hole in my life that hurt so bad, marking the absoluteness, the permanence that I so desperately wanted to avoid. Rather, it was seeing you again that day, in a new light, in a new place, as a stranger.

“You always said you weren’t a leather jacket guy,” I said, cursing the longing note that bled into my words. 

I looked up at your face, searching for something, anything, that I might recognize.

You laughed, shrugging your shoulders. But you didn’t say anything.

Why didn’t you say anything?

Was I kidding myself, torturing my heart by hanging onto every word, every glance? Reopening old wounds by entertaining scenarios that only played out the way I wanted them to in my dreams?

Our footsteps echoed against the empty hallway. A clock ticked above. 3:06. I was late to my English class.

Someone walked by us. You smiled at them. 

You always gave out smiles too easily, like you had an unlimited supply stored away. That used to bother me before. 

If you looked at everyone like that, then how was I supposed to feel when you looked at me like that? From underneath your dark fringed lashes. With a twinkle in your eye, like you were trying not to laugh, or make a joke that I would have definitely taken offense to. 

How long would you haunt me as a what-if, as a never-was

3095. 3093. 3091.

“There it is,” you said.

I grabbed the door handle.

“Alright, bye.” I never looked back. 

I had art class, and my paint brush glided over the cream canvas, leaving behind beautiful stains of color. 

Indigo and lavender daydreams faded into the gray of a distant and fleeting memory.

Thrill Seek

Written by Rigby Celeste
Art by Kássia Melo

I fill the void with more work. Add an extra class and keep my normal shifts at the restaurant. Solder metal, then bind a book, then run some prints through the press. I find myself speaking so ecstatically I think I see my words dance along the perimeter of the loft. I think I can catch my running thoughts. For 30 minutes straight, I monologue about my “soul aching for solitude” to my best friend. Afterward, we both agreed I am becoming very enlightened and doing great work. Great walk! Spend more time processing feelings in bed. I am doing it all on my own! But at the same time, I find myself drawn to the loft at any sign someone else is home. 

Again, I exist in paradox. All my emotional freshening-up clashes with my cacophonous daily schedule. Though I speak the words, my body is not restful. I check the box on my taxes, but I am not independent. I am back in regular chaos, the place where I feel most control. I am back to skipped heartbeats and stress headaches. I am back to where I first was, where I belong.

When I last got my heart broken, I went to therapy and healed the parts of me that wanted to be neglected. Up until now, I’ve chased; I’ve thrill-seeked. I wanted what I couldn’t have, and I became especially attached to anyone who wanted me back. With enough rounds of CBT I began to probe at these bad habits, asking myself why I did them and how to stop them. I tackled my issues–meditated habitually, challenged my negative perception, and asked for help when I just wanted to scream. Reflecting, I feel like I’ve done everything right. But in all my self-improvement, the quality of my life faded into a boring lull, not unlike the periodic drip of a faucet. 

I don’t know what to do with myself anymore. I did work to curb my greed for attention, and quit thinking about love. But when I stopped falling in love, my life became painfully boring. On nights when I’m extra-emotional, I choose to lay down with this bored feeling instead of running off to the closest destructive habit. When I am reminded of the past, I avoid spraying text after text to anyone who will listen. Instead, I ground myself in the present with mantras like “I am here now”. And when I succeed, I still feel unnerved. With all this grounding, I have no momentum from moment to moment. Truly, this feeling is the stupidest struggle in the world. I want to be bad, I want to be the villain again. But for the first time in my life, my body refuses–because I know the pain I’ve felt. I still struggle. When I can’t get myself worked up about this boy I love, I think about what my ex might be doing. Even though his social media is public, my hands refuse to type his username in the search. What is time for if not to yearn? What am I if not bad?

10 things I want to tell my younger self

Written by Jessica Liu
Art by Pixabay

10. Sunscreen. Three finger lengths. Every day. Rain or shine.

9. The easiest and tastiest sandwich recipe you’ll ever need: 2 slices of whole wheat bread, fig jam on the bottom, mayo on the top, turkey, brie, arugula, top with salt and pepper and enjoy. 

8. Don’t be afraid of being alone. In middle school and high school you are going to be spending a lot of time in the library during brunch and lunch. That’s okay. You’ll find your people eventually, and don’t let them go. Good friends are rare, and friendships can fade so easily. Put in the time and reach out to people you want to hang out with. Ask them to go on a walk, a picnic, grab boba and lunch, go thrifting, anything.

7. Prioritize academics, but don’t push yourself too hard. It’s not worth it to take 6 classes and burn out 5 weeks into the semester. Focus on learning the course material, not just passing, and don’t make school your entire personality, because that’s just pretentious and really annoying.

6. Phoebe’s a shitty friend and you need to stop letting her treat you like a doormat. 

5. Be kind to your body. Please. It’s your only forever home, so take care of it. It labors every day to help you run, walk, move, dance, laugh. Stop punishing it for not looking like something it was never meant to look like. It’s beautiful, so beautiful, and deserves more than Coke Zeros and midnights hunched over toilet bowls.

4. He hurt you, and you’re allowed to take all the time you need to let go. Healing should never be rushed, and honestly, I think it’s beautiful that you are able to care so deeply for another person, to open up wholly and vulnerably, choosing to trust them with your heart even if it means the possibility of them shattering it into ten thousand pieces.

3. Your parents aren’t perfect. They’re just people, and really, really flawed people at that. They love you, but sometimes don’t know how to. Forgive, but don’t forget. Love them, but never blindly.

2. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. No one in the world has hurt you like I have, and you didn’t deserve any of it. I wish I could take back my words, hurled at you in school bathroom mirrors. All those 2am’s you spent, falling asleep with muted sobs, and I kept silent through it all. 

1. I love you.

Birthday blues

Written by Jessica Liu
Art by Suzy Hazelwood

Today is my birthday: April 6. It is currently 3:02 pm as I am typing this. I am still on campus, sitting in front of the library on an uncomfortably hard plastic chair underneath an umbrella, one of the few places I can find that manages to shield me from the sizzling sun. Southern California is weird. Yesterday it was chilly, about 60 degrees, and today it’s 98. The weather really needs to make up its goddamn mind.

Anyways– I have always felt a sense of melancholy on my birthday. Ever since I could start remembering things, I really don’t think there’s ever been a birthday where I haven’t cried. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but I’ve sort of just accepted it.

Nostalgia is an emotion I have pretty often and it tends to hit exceptionally hard on my birthday. It’s a weird thing, to get one year older, to have grown a couple inches taller, a bit smarter (questionable), and a little more mature. I’ve always been someone who likes to look back in time, rather forward. Though it is probably untrue, I always feel like times were better in the past. I miss the days where I was young and ignorant, naively blissful, and innocently optimistic. As I’ve grown older, cynicism has hit me like a bowling ball. I worry that I am going to be that one nihilistic middle-aged lady that people cannot stand to be around because she’ll be a Debbie-downer. 

I have just turned 16, not at all close to becoming remotely middle-aged. But honestly speaking, I do think a pinch of cynicism is good, like cautionary pessimism, to protect my heart from unattainable expectations. Which brings me to my next point.

My expectations are far too high. I am extremely hard on myself, and push myself to overachieve and go above and beyond when it comes to anything, including celebrations and gifts for people that I care about. This in turn translates to also having steep expectations when it comes to others. I recently took a love language test, and surprise surprise, one of my love languages is gift giving. I really don’t want people to drop hundreds of dollars and buy me expensive gifts. What means the most to me is something thoughtful, perhaps something handmade or cooked, that shows that they care about me and have paid attention to what I like.

There still is something nice about your birthday, though. I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection lately. I think birthdays breed introspection. Today I woke up, thought wow, it’s been another year. What a crazy year. Not my best, not my worst, but one of growth. The COVID-19 pandemic took up half of the year, which I took advantage of to up my fashion game and complete my first semester of online university, filled with Zoom connection issues and frantic 11:58pm Canvas assignment submissions. So many people that started the year off with me aren’t around anymore, and I hope they’re doing well.

I met someone this year, for the first time in my life. He sort of fell into my lap because I was not in any way looking for someone. His birthday was late last year, and we celebrated it on a quiet night, smiling at each other in the playground of our local park. The first time we talked, he mentioned that his favorite baked dessert was chocolate lava cake, which I took a mental note of, as well as the fact that he always complained about his lactose intolerance. The night of his birthday, I called him out on a walk, and we had mini chocolate lava cakes in glass ramekins, and I reassured him that I had used dairy substitutes. Time seemed to slip through my fingers like the fine grains in the kiddie sandbox we dragged our feet through, and my mom was worriedly texting me, as it was 12am already. He walked me home, thanked me twice, and gave me a hug. At the time, nothing had ever meant more to me.

He’s graduating in a month. I haven’t talked to him in 16 weeks. And I wish him nothing but the best. Funny to think I used to believe he was the one. Sometimes I still do. And that’s okay. Life just doesn’t work out the way you want it to sometimes. I stared at his green online dot on Messenger this morning, wondering if that happy birthday text would come in. It never did.

I lost a lot of friends this year. I changed schools, which might have played a role of some sort, but I honestly saw it coming. The friends I lost were already drifting away, and this year I realized that I have been spending time with people who make me feel emptier than if I was just alone. So I’m learning to be okay with letting people go. It’s painful, but better than trying to force a connection when it’s not there.

I’m slowly becoming more excited to grow up, and for once I am looking towards the future with anticipation and cautious optimism. Losing people I cared about and depended on emotionally this year has made me realize that I really just have myself. That was scary, because I didn’t believe in myself or my capabilities. 

I threw myself into writing, using blank Google docs and the iPhone Notes app to jot down thoughts and emotions that had become too overwhelming to keep inside of me. The bottled-up words that spilled out prevented those feelings from leaking out of my eyes or in the form of a frustrated outburst.

This year was a journey. Rocky, dreamy, giddy, unpredictable, definitely not perfect, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Happy birthday to me.

Depression Dust

Written by Rigby Celeste
Art by Karolina Grabowska

Depression convinced me to hole up in my apartment. I didn’t sleep through my days, like the movies have you believe. I tried to maintain a small routine. I checked in on my classes; though, I had no work to hand in. I made food for myself, but only convenient stuff, stuff you can microwave. I fed the cat. Nonetheless, my days felt empty. Only one part of my routine genuinely felt productive: When the monotony of my waking life overwhelmed me, I could kneel in my kitchen, pull the bottles of disinfectant from under my sink, and clean.

I would start with the rag, the one with fleur de lis indented along its length, woven like a plush paper towel. I pulled it along the length of our plastic counters and repeated. My first pass was dry. As the rag approached the cliff of the counter, individual specks of dust and crumbs and basil leaves rained on our linoleum floor. I made my cleaning process precise. I’d start in the corner where our cooking oils were kept. I picked up each slicked bottle one at a time and transferred them to the center of our stove. With effort, I could reach into the pockets of gunk where the counters met the wall, then pull all of it together and down it would fall to our checkered floor. 

Next, to the stove, where I’d replace the oils to their home and transfer the burner covers to the newly dusted corner. The crumbs on the stove were usually big. Expect uncooked pasta bits, plates of dried tomato sauce, and rat-gray indeterminate specks. Instead of the flat length of my rag, I would roll it up to give it some bulk. Down, down, down all the food would fall.

Once the stove was clear, I passed my rag along the open area next to the stove. On inspired nights this counter could shoulder tiny bowls of prepped onion, garlic, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, anxious vegetables anticipating the rush of hot oil. The next morning, I would be the one-man clean up crew. The clutter would often spill over to the far right counter in the kitchen. The counter: our patient friend. He held open boxes of cereal, unlidded bouillon, and packaging my roommates forgot to throw out. In order to express my love for him, I lidded the jars and placed boxes in the cabinets. I wiped him off until he was dust-free.

Though my counters were now spotless, the floor became victim to the crumbs. All of the dust and kibble that my rag pushed landed down below. Bits of food and plastic skirted to the far reaches of the ground. Now, my duty was to sweep it all away. I used the broom to tease the corners of the room. I could gather the bits all together like I did on the counters, but instead of discarding off an edge, I pulled it into the dustpan. Weightlessly, I’d drop the dust into the trash.

After sweeping, I finally reveled in the joy of spritzing disinfectant. It would go everywhere! For a moment, I was a child again, in a swimming pool with a squirt gun aimed at my cousin’s head. When all I could breathe was sterile citrus, I would put my bottle down and scrub. All of my frustrations and anxiety would channel into my rag. It would twitch along the surface of my counter as my wrist dug into the murky sections of my counter. When I found something stuck, I would imagine my arm dipping into the volume of the counter. I could curl my wrist, press my palm, then allow the pressure to roll through my muscles until it hit my tricep. I Press, press, press, until the spot went away. Finally, I’d step back and admire a room that practically sparkled.  In the long months of uncertainty, between depression naps and cleaning, I attended therapy. My therapist emphasized routine. What does your perfect day look like? Now I do that. On my perfect day, I wake up and before my body could switch on, I am already on my routine: wiping, then scrubbing, then sweeping. I used the same rag every time. What once was elegant in its bleach white had become green-gray with pockmarks of bright oranges and blacks. It was no work of art, but each hue stood as a trophy of a time I came and I conquered. It was not the dirt that I heroed, but the slew of white noise that replaced my brain. For at least an hour I had coherent thoughts: dust, then sweep, then spray.

Fever Break

Written by Rigby Celeste
Art by Cottonbro

I feel as if my lungs have collapsed. I am the loner in the corner of the library who jumps when they breathe. Each inhale stabs the left of my chest and I skip my next, as if my breath swallowed itself. My body is shutting down. Swollen lymph nodes around my jawline spread my neck into a trumpet. The base of my skull houses tender lumps I mistook for spider bites. My throat has inflated inside me, barricading my swallows and breaths. Can a shut down body still operate?

I cope with immersion in another world. At the hospital, I live inside the stories of Faulkner, Salinger, and Kafka. As Gregor acclimates to his hard shelled body, I acclimate to my fever state. My senses are skewed by congestion and a high body temperature. Under attack of a virus, my body produces soldier white blood cells en masse. The excess of immune cells swell the skin. The perimeter of my body expands, and I fail to adjust to the inflation. I feel like a passenger in the body of a balloon animal.  

In an abundance of caution, I am banned from visiting work, friends, or school. I am alone most of the day, only obligated to isolate. I have time to look closer around me. Yesterday I saw a car driving backward in the street. No one could do anything about it. The couple in the seats sat slumped and blank faced, like they were watching a B-rate movie.

To settle the nerves, I tell myself I am not breaking. I buy the lozenges the doctor prescribed. I take medicine. To keep the days from blending together, I make a routine out of my home pharmacy. In the morning, I suck the throat drops and in the afternoon, I take DayQuil. When the DayQuil wears off–around 4pm–I take my Tylenol. When I decide the sky is too dark for me to be active, I swallow some NyQuil and hope I don’t wake up until it is time for tea. But without fail, I wake up so stuffy I can’t breathe, so swollen my head aches as it pivots on my neck, and so sore I swear my muscles are a forest on fire. I fear the day I wake up morphed, like Gregor. Suddenly I am an ashen shadow of a forest. Imagine my skin alchemized to bark. Imagine my fever becomes the fire that minimizes me to dust. I am all singe and burn. Gone are my limbs, gone goes my heart. 

Nightmares are pounding at my perception, so life seems more disordered. I dream of a domesticated snake, loosed by its owner. Abandoned, the snake is forced to make a home from litter in the reeds. It tests its caution; It rolls its body across the peat. Shivers. The snake is reinvigorated: a wild creature finally connected to habitat. Its body orients itself to branches and mineral caves it had only known as plastic imitations its entire life. Finally adjusted, the snake curls into a log in ecstacy, when from the brambles scutter seventeen deer ticks. Deer ticks with a direction toward body heat, with hook teeth that claw through the luxurious leather of the scaled python. Ticks, the fat parasites who make homes in their food. The longer they gorge on the snake, the larger they swell. And all while the snake is drained, the ticks keep watch on the sky, fearing the swoop of a woodland fowl who might feast on their skeletal bodies. 

I wake up in fright, and sweep my skin for bites or lumps. As I come to, the panic crystallizes to pain, and I go through my medical routine again. Swallow the logenze and spoon down cough syrup. Somehow, I am not relieved. The virus which infected me is not large or living like an insect, but I am surely drained. Drained from the fever, drained from the paranoia. Yet I am uncertain said paranoia is linked to my fever. My sick days are the same as any days in the past two years: bored, isolated, and deranged. I lived a whole life before I wore this broken body. No swells, no burns, no nightmares. I was once a young dancer, a set of muscles clenched en pointe. I was an artist with intuitive hands. I ate lunch beneath trees, surrounded with laughter. Once, I was a body in rhythm with a crowd. My chest used to pound with anticipation of another body to love. I used to love. I used to be real.

I comfort myself away from this epiphany: I am not lonely, I am metamorphosed. I am the released snake. I am reunited with home in the soil. I love my rock cave. Again I swallow the syrup and the drops and the tylenol pills. I can make this work. I try to revel in the verdure, but I am cautious of ticks around the corner. I feel like a target: a tick meal. I simply must settle, must orient myself to my new home and this new normal.