AWAY

Written by Anne Marie Ward
Art by Meritt Thomas


Why don’t I go to a peninsula in Belize? There is nothing for me here. Melodramatic, but truer than anything I have ever thought; I’m sure. I look up travel doctors in the surrounding metro area. The CDC recommends a number of vaccinations for travelers to Belize, notably a rabies shot, as it might be tough to get swift treatment if exposed. I wasn’t going to be spelunking, sure, but didn’t want my brain melting after a nip from a stray puppy. Of course, antimalarial drugs, chemical-treated clothes, mosquito nets. Wouldn’t it be the rainy season this time of year? Prime mosquito time.But this isn’t some random home in a rural town; this is a curated beachside community for digital nomads, converted from a luxury resort–all cashing in on the sudden influx of remote workers from the pandemic, charging for dorm rooms and wifi and shuttles to a grocery store at the monthly price comparable to a Manhattan studio, maybe even cheaper in some cases. The carefully-curated digital-nomad-elite-hostel situation insists that people must stay for three weeks or more; they really want to focus on building a community.

My Dear Doppelgänger

Written by Anne Marie Ward
Art by Anh Tuan To


“[…] two Popsicles are talking to each other. One accuses, ‘You’re more interested in fantasy than reality.’ The other responds, ‘I’m interested in the reality of my fantasy.’ Both of the Popsicles are melting off their sticks.”

–Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts


A doppelgänger moved into the spare bedroom. Some icy thing that looked identical to you but couldn’t possibly be. Maybe a sophisticated android replaced you in the night, dropped into the apartment by an actor of some shadowy government-adjacent agency. It crept through the patio sliding door on silent foot, clasped a hand over your mouth, and left the robot in your place to spy on me. This machine creaked around softly on the carpeted floor, avoiding eye contact and keeping to the edges of every room, while constantly processing various data via Tik Toks on loop in its palm—trying to assimilate. Why? 

Or perhaps, it was your same physical body that had been overtaken by some entity, like a demon or a parasite or a previously unknown prion disease. This entity–whether spiritual or biological– allows you to go through your habitual routine, putting you on autopilot as it slowly wastes your brain, gnawing holes through the lobes. One day, you might suddenly collapse, and strange liquids would ooze from your orifices, causing you to choke and gasp like a mad dog, mouth gaping open and shut like a koi, as those around you looked on aghast. Surely, this is why there was no longer any light in your eyes when you glanced in my vague direction, plus a vast flatness in every syllable you uttered to me—a tiny monster was eating your brain!

Really, you just dumped me.

Okay, deep breath. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.


Some comic relief:

Wanna hear a joke? Okay, so, a girlfriend begs her boyfriend to go to therapy to improve their relationship because she feels that he has no communication skills, and she is not capable of teaching them. Men aren’t often socialized to talk about their feelings. The boyfriend rolls his eyes and nods but makes no plans for counseling. His family was skeptical too, crinkling their noses, an aunt even asks, “Can’t he just talk to us?” After many years of begging, the boyfriend finally acquiesced and booked his appointment. The girlfriend was so excited and relieved; she couldn’t wait to begin learning more about each other! Mine into deeper emotional layers! During his first session, the boyfriend talks with his new therapist about the best way to end this relationship. She was right after all: what an improvement to things! He was finally able to communicate that he wanted to leave her on the way out. 


There is a delusion called Capgras syndrome, where one can become convinced that someone familiar has been replaced by a double or has been altered in some way. Most often this delusion is seen with those suffering from various psychiatric disorders, brain damage caused by dementia, or other neurodegenerative diseases. Capgras is thought to be caused by a brain’s recent inability to properly characterize and recognize faces, a type of face-blindness. Some seriously complicated memory-processing-neuroscience at play.

But here, now, in this sense, I wasn’t actually deluded, because I knew you weren’t truly replaced by an android or possessed by a demon, but boy were you doing a good job at making me feel like you were. Suddenly, you seemed so different. I no longer recognized your body language, your shape in the dark, the sound of your footsteps, the particular light and warmth in your big eyes vanished. I couldn’t find the happy creases that usually flanked them. A dozen friends texted, asking, “Why is he doing this? I can’t believe he is acting like this.” Neither could I. But you’re not truly a doppelganger… right? Right?


When had you been replaced by a version that didn’t love me? Did this version have an agenda? An endgame? The hair stood up on my arms and my stomach dropped when I approached you sitting on the couch, texting your new favorite coworker while smiling at the screen, and told you, “Doppelgänger, it just doesn’t seem like you have any love for me anymore.” And you agreed and ended things. You gently cried, sniffling. And I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. 

My mom thinks you had been replaced much earlier than that, at least by the previous Spring. She claims she called you half a dozen times from the east coast in the two weeks before my birthday to plan something—a surprise, a cake—but you never called her back. However, your response was that you got me an iPad when I asked for one as a gift; who needs reciprocated love and affection when you can receive an iPad? You maintained that you received not a single one of her calls. 

According to you, doppelgänger you, you had been replaced much much earlier than that. I only learned this when I did the most “crazy girlfriend” thing I have ever done and read your texts after your strange behavior. I have to admit, the optics aren’t great for me here; I’d become a misogynistic trope incarnate. Crazy emotional ex-girlfriend going through your texts. I apologized for that, but it doesn’t make it okay behavior on my behalf–

I would also like to acknowledge that I was far from a perfect partner, and I struggled greatly with mental health. I am sure that I hurt you in a thousand ways, and I wish you would’ve told me more often when I did. I am so sorry for that. I was and continue to be a young and dumb bitch. I am sorry for hurting you. I hope you believe that I was constantly trying to be a better girlfriend for you. My therapists can vouch for me, at least in that small way–

—However, reading these texts did expose a number of lies that you had told about me and the intimate details you shared about me to your coworker who you would start fucking. According to you, when speaking with this coworker:

“I should’ve ended this relationship
a long time ago. I was unhappy at home with her,
with family, always at work to distract myself. I
basically threw a dart at the indeed (sic) job
wall and just mass applied and found Kansas
City. I came here to start over and learn how to
not suck.”

So why did you ask me to leave my home for you and your job? You seemed to understand that you needed personal growth when you said that you “want to learn how to not suck.” That text also suggested that you wanted to wash your hands of your old life months before moving, over a year before the breakup. Perhaps you also thought it was a Hail Mary pass for our relationship. But it seems like it was just more convenient for this version of you who no longer loved me. Afterall, you don’t need to love someone to have her help you move, clean the apartment, schedule training and vet appointments for your dog, or cum inside her even when she was kinda tired.

 Because people are complicated, it was probably both your need for convenience and because you were hoping it would make things better between us. Regardless, it still was much more selfish than leaving me in Jersey. 

My limbs shook with adrenaline while I read your texts to her. I read them aloud to you, voice buckling under pressing sobs. You needed to acknowledge how you betrayed me, disparaged my struggles with mental health, and made fun of petty things like my driving. I screamed at you in some Hyatt or Comfort Inn or Marriott in Indiana about how you betrayed me, and then you started kissing me and initiating sex. “Let me do this. Please,” you purred while removing my pants. 

This wouldn’t be the last time after our breakup you would say in my ear: “You always know what to do.”

 It was only after I stopped wanting to kiss you and asked you to wear a condom that you stopped initiating–a week later, a month later?–and the cool distance between us became something more sinister and hostile. 

In the morning, we had to finish driving home and tell our families it was over between us. With all the lights off in the hotel room, I couldn’t see you super well. I heard our lips and your breath; I smelled the hotel-sheet starch and air-conditioning and your body. I wondered that night, did I ever even know another version of you? Perhaps, it was always only this one, this stranger insisting and cajoling with his eyes flashing a strange light in the dark. 

Kansas City, Missouri

Brain-Eaters

Written by Anne Marie Ward
Art by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash


“I don’t know what my body is for other than just taking my head from room to room.” -John Mulaney, Kid Gorgeous

  Recently, a New Jersey man named Fabrizio Stabile was admitted to the hospital after developing a blinding headache and passing out. CNN reported that soon, his doctors diagnosed him with the incredibly rare and deadly condition called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), inflammation and deterioration of the brain caused by what is more commonly known as the Brain-Eating Amoeba and scientifically known as Naegleria fowleri. 

These critters live in warm freshwater. In the United States, they are most commonly found and contracted in the South. Stabile contracted the microbe from a contaminated water park in Waco, Texas, which was partly shut down for inspection after this ordeal. He died a few days after the onset of severe symptoms, after he collapsed mowing the lawn, after the health professionals tapped his spine and found the amoeba swimming in his clear spinal fluid. Too late to successfully treat.

Often, N. fowleri is diagnosed postmortem. It’s almost always fatal. The condition is incredibly rare, but since the occurrence is not below 0, it occurs 100% more often than preferred because of the lack of successful treatments. 

With the last few cases, albeit not all of them, physicians have had some success in treating patients, often children, with a newly-developed, powerful antimicrobial called miltefosine. They combine miltefosine with a cocktail of other antimicrobials, a breathing tube, a drug-induced coma to protect the brain, and prayers. They continue to run tests periodically, hoping to see amoeba no more.  A Florida teen survived in 2016, as well as two children treated with miltefosine some years before. Although, the one boy survived with brain damage. The only person to survive without this drug was a man in California in 1978, and they can only conjecture that was because he had a less-aggressive or weakened strain. 

Fabrizio Stabile was not so lucky, and while it might’ve been too late to treat, those close to him really tried. His family and friends already started a GoFundMe to raise money for the life-saving drug, as he lay dying.  Now the GoFundMe acts as a way to raise awareness about PAM, having raised a little over half of their original $50,000 goal.

I. Work Dreamscape

Written by Anne Marie Ward
Art by Håkon Grimstad


Odes swabbed from my cheek, shifting between my toes, pressed up against glass so that it smudges:

  1. Work Dreamscape

WHILE present at a virtual meeting sent through an email link, which has dozens online where only 3 speak, I crave violences: (1. melty, creamy convenience store chocolate, caramel, nougat licked and sucked from salty palm creases, under dirty nails, off the inside of a crinkly, ripped wrapper nearly forgotten in the center cup-holder, all swaddled tightly in the plasticky ambiance of a very hot car. 2. Prominent purple bruises on blanched breasts distinctly shaped as individual splayed fingers round the ruddy areola. Surfacing, tender, early the next morning, hidden beneath a 27-hours-lived-in top until much later, well after leaving the subletted walk-up East Village studio [near the spindly, fruitless trees adorned year-round with blue Christmas lights woven through their branches]. 3. Limited-fund liquidation to fuck off to the Balkans without notice, rub sweet almond oils on unprotected skin (a frightening shade evolutionarily meant for locations where opportunities for Vitamin-D-synthesis are scarce), dip toes in the Adriatic, and imagine the eastern Italian coast that’s just out of my eyeshot, skin burning in hot sand. 4. Carcinoma, and a sense of safety/accomplishment, and clogged nephrons, and a spectrum of personal relationships and high A1C be damned–) bc who can bear to plan beyond the next complex 96 links of 15 mins?

Bones of a Teenage Saint Are in Ohio

Written by Anne Marie Ward
Art by marek kizer on Unsplash

cw: reference to sexual abuse


“Lord, our God, you graciously chose St. Dymphna as patroness of those afflicted with mental and nervous disorders. She is thus an inspiration and a symbol of charity to the thousands who ask her intercession.

“Please grant, Lord, through the prayers of this pure youthful martyr, relief and consolation to all suffering such trials, and especially those for whom we pray: [Here mention those for whom you wish to pray].

“We beg you, Lord, to hear the prayers of St. Dymphna on our behalf. Grant all those for whom we pray patience in their sufferings and resignation to your divine will. Please fill them with hope, and grant them the relief and cure they so much desire.

“We ask this through Christ our Lord who suffered agony in the garden. Amen.”

Saint Dymphna Prayer, found on Catholic.org 
https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=177

In Catholic iconography, Saint Dymphna is casually gorgeous. Often depicted wearing a rosewood babushka with white lilies cradled in her arms, or occasionally a small medieval crown alluding to her noble lineage, she has the delicacy of an old-Hollywood beauty, always wreathed in a bright halo. Dymphna is blonde, a type like a Tuesday Weld, a Dorothy Malone, an Ann-Margaret. Dymphna is startlingly pretty, upsettingly pretty. Her complexion is warm and luxurious: golden and rosy and peachy cream pressed against a whole rolling field of the lilies she holds to her chest or flanked wide by a sapphire sky of dazzling stars. One could easily forget, based on these artistic depictions, that her father beheaded her by sword when she was 15 years old for refusing to fuck him. One could be forgiven for forgetting or not guessing that she was a teenage sexual abuse and murder victim. She probably did not look like Tuesday Weld, but it wouldn’t matter if she did, because she was 15 and beheaded. God. Today, you can pray to her bones, relics, in the National Shrine of St. Dymphna in Massillon, Ohio, the patron saint of those affected by nervous disorders.

Cimetière de Montparnasse

Written by Anne Marie Ward


On a wet April afternoon in the South of Paris, Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s tombstone was speckled with kisses instead of moss or lichen blooms. Little pink and red open mouths with the odd deep purple hue, mostly around Sartre. Existentialism groupies. A bouquet of multicolor spray roses with tiny tight buds lay on the front slab. This grave and many others had rocks and shells and Métro ticket stubs languishing in the bad weather. Was it predicted to rain that day? Had the weather app mentioned it as I departed that morning from the hideous youth hostel near Bastille? Oh, but what a cinematic atmosphere–this serious amount of rain and deep overcastness– contrasting with the designed greenery. My head filled with dreamy notions, like I was graveside with a black trench coat and umbrella next to a perfect pile of dirt in a Hollywood movie.

Then, I was next to Sontag’s grave, the hood of my raincoat at the top of my vision, exposed sections of hair sticking to my cold cheeks as the rain oscillated wildly between a drizzle and a torrent. I clutched the laminated cemetery map that hung on rings by the entrances. A big slab of obsidian marble with a gold serif font: 

SUSAN SONTAG

1933-2004

Her stone was dusted in a dense, sodden layer of tiny flowers and pollen and filaments, all the debris trees shed in the spring when they are trying desperately to start something new. A single, soaked letter pinned to the grave with tiny rocks, of blue ink and faintly lined paper that looked like it was torn from a journal. It thanked Sontag for her essay, “On Photography,” in sprawling half-script. Sontag had made this woman’s life brighter, better, even after death. My eyes welled up from the poignancy; I just couldn’t take it.

III. My Financial Advisor Trips

Written by Anne Marie Ward
Art by Gary Fultz on Unsplash


Buy non-USDA-certified-but-still-organic blue heaven/heavenly blue morning glory seeds on the internet. Expert advice from the comments and reviews: Yes, these are those seeds, the ones googled; soak these untreated seeds in a water bowl overnight to increase bioavailability. These saturated seeds should help treat the cruel mystery of cluster headaches, which victims say is like a cattle prod through the orbital, a thunderclap behind dewy eyelashes, and past the shadows of veins. One’s head becomes sweet, soft bark of a peachtree charred by lightning at storm break, again and again. Or also maybe use the seeds as a psychic antihistamine to expand your “consciousness,”– a full-body prayer honoring attempted decades of kneecapped research while condemning succeeded decades of lousy research, first. Try not to eye-roll protectively. Unbutton the cynicism and peel it off, and even if it gets stuck around the shoulders, be gentle. This woo-woo is overlaid on a goofily earnest wish to look at cells stained violet on a slide and understand what they mean when held to the light: To release some emotional swelling, ennui, curb the chronic vibrant fantasies of banging one’s forehead against the nearest hard surface–that punctuate one’s waking hours– until bone breaks through. Where are the blue blooms? The heavenly blues? Teardrop seeds nestled tiny in a palm, shifting in the creases. Soon—watch satiny purple trumpets and satiny white trumpets briskly climb lattice, speeding rapidly,  delicately vined, only to shy their faces away when the early sun rises too high. 

Fembot

Written by Anne Marie Ward
Art by Victoria Strukovskaya on Unsplash


Spironolactone, 50mg, taken once daily 

A heart failure medication, which also helps suppress male hormones.

An anti-androgen, anti-androgen, anti-androgen: an interesting side effect that can be manipulated. Antiandrogenic activity that can be used to treat hormonal acne in women. It has also been known to make breasts swell and tender, to make body hair thinner and head hair thicker.

I was prescribed 50 mgs to help with my hormonal acne, the painful, deep acne that forms in a beard pattern on my cheeks and chin.

I imagined it turned me into some kind of fembot, a hyper feminized being, some modern incarnation of an ancient fertility goddess, a statue portraying previous incarnations dug up in the hot earth of the Southern Levant. Some kind of creature with clear skin and wide hips and tender breasts like a walking flower in bloom.

I was assigned female at birth, and suddenly, I would become a hyper-realized idea of my gender and sex; this is what I imagined as I researched the prescription.

II. a. Final 6 months in the ICU

Written by Anne Marie Ward
Art by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash


(Imagine they/you lost the bet—[through some bad luck on a genetics x  environment x lifestyle x lack of healthcare roulette, your kidneys get fucked by IgA proteins and immunity]—then are struck w/ the contradiction of a persistently rising fever after a significant brain bleed [from high blood pressure from fucked kidneys] after one weekly dialysis sesh: your body attempts to protect you, kill invaders climbing the walls. It begins to pull out its own bricks, a hyper reaction of shivering and sweating, like a cassette frantically spitting out its tape—denaturing its proteins, I mean—and hospital-grade ice blankets cost like $10,000 in intensive care to force the fever down, like taking a $10,000 pencil and trying to re-spool the cassette’s tapes before it is lost. Chilled lobes and systems on ice as manual reset, chased by drug-induced coma that lasts days/weeks/months longer than the doctors can explain… All of this, to preserve your life in increments of the next 15 x the next 15. Avoid multiple systems’ failure as cause-of-death typed on their copy of/your official certificate, tucked in a binder for your adult daughter to find as she goes through old paperwork before a move.)

Intrauterine Dream

Written by Anne Marie Ward


“Beautiful uterus!” The ultrasound tech trilled, eyebrows raised high. The monitor showed that it is triangular, with no scarring, no sign of the occasional variance of rabbit ears or heart shape.

A heart-shaped uterus sounds lovely, poetic, like a biological valentine with hormone-laced trim tucked inside a corporeal mailbox. Rabbit ears sound cute, bunny-esque, a sweet little animal curled up and tucked in a soft pink den pulsing with gentle sleep–but these anomalies are not compatible with IUD insertion, the ultrasound tech explained. My inverted triangle-shaped womb works for IUDs. 

That was one of the concerns:  Maybe my uterus wasn’t a good fit for Paraguard. After I came back for my 6-week post-insertion checkup, they found it halfway out of my cervix. I had to schedule reinsertion with an ultrasound guide; they had to make sure I was anatomically compatible with the device. That’s why the ultrasound tech was commenting. 

///

“Oh dear,” the OBGYN, Dr. X,  peered past the speculum, “Yep… I see it coming through the cervix.” Forceps suddenly in hand, she pulled the IUD the rest of the way out. “You’ll have to come back for an ultrasound insertion… and we’ll have to do a pregnancy test. Right now. Um, we need to make sure you’re not pregnant. Right now.” Her voice had the stilted flatness of stifled alarm. “Wait here, the nurse will be back for a urine sample.”

“You really didn’t feel anything?” The very pregnant nurse asked incredulously with a thick Eastern-European accent. 

I shook my head as she handed me the urine cup and escorted me to the bathroom. My limbs were sparkling with anxiety, little insect bites all over the surface of my skin, and my heart was beating in my hands and ears, tears welling in my eyes. 

“Oh, bad luck! Normally when an IUD expels you feel bad cramping. Don’t worry, it probably just happened! It will be okay. It will be okay…”

Urine collected, I sat rattling my leg in the chair. I called my boyfriend, a tear running down my cheek, “Hey, what’s up, gorgeous?” We might have a big problem. Phone pressed to one cheek, I collapsed my head into my other hand, falling inward. “It will be okay; we’ll work through it. I’m here for you.” He was doing his best to be supportive and reassuring, but I still felt alone. Alone with my body which suddenly reminded me it was ultimately out of my control. I was bitter that he would never feel this particular alienation from himself, even though I know that these realities are not what we choose. He didn’t have procedures and medicine and follow-ups to keep his life on track, in this way. I was so frustrated and resentful.  I bit my lip and squeezed my eyes shut as hard as possible, thinking of the last six weeks and all the years to come.

///

The first IUD insertion was unexpected. I went for my annual checkup and pap smear, but also to get my hormonal implant removed from my arm. It expired this year. It was a dystopian little device, a tiny rod the width of a lollipop stick, that they inserted under the skin of my arm close to my armpit. It would continuously release hormones to prevent pregnancy. It was convenient: set-it-and-forget-it for three years. However, it had seriously messed with my periods–making them super long, close together, but also sometimes short and sporadic—very irregular. My hormonal acne on my jawline also got worse. Huge, swollen, painful cysts popped up on my chin, pulsing like they had their own cardiovascular system. It wasn’t the best for me, but I liked the convenience and efficacy of it. I also knew a handful of other women who got it inserted and had no side effects. 

“Since you’re getting the Nexplanon implant removed today, did you have in mind what you wanted to do for birth control now?” Dr. X tried to distract me while she cut the device out of my arm. I explained that I wanted to do the copper IUD. I wanted something that was long-term and didn’t require maintenance, and since the hormonal implant had given me annoying and inconvenient side effects, I thought I would do the non-hormonal IUD, as it also lasted the longest. I assumed that I would have to come back for insertion. However, they were ready to do it immediately.

They prepped me for insertion following my checkup and pap smear. “Don’t tell your boyfriend about the IUD strings,” the nurse advised, “while you should periodically check in the shower to make sure they are still there and haven’t seemed to move, if you tell your boyfriend about them, he might get paranoid and think that he can feel them. It’s better to avoid the trouble.”

Dr. X said aloud everything she was doing as she was doing it: “I’m using the speculum to open up your cervix. I’m using this swab to clean and sanitize the area. You’re going to feel some cramping as the device goes in; that’s normal. Please relax your muscles and wiggle your toes. Breathe.”

The pain radiated through my pelvis and down my thighs, sizzling like something electric. Sweat gathered on my forehead, my butt, the backs of my said sizzling thighs. All my muscles clenched, despite me trying to relax them. I found that I was holding my breath; I needed to breathe. The pressure in my abdomen made me afraid I was going to lose control of my bowels on the exam table, as the cramping in my lower stomach made me think of a large laxative dose hitting me suddenly and urgently and excruciatingly. 

“Are you okay?” Dr. X studied my face, my color, my eyes, worried I was on the verge of passing out. I nodded, happy that my mother would be driving me home, though. Yes.

She nodded. “You’ll need to come back in six weeks for a follow-up. In the meantime, You might feel some bad cramping for the next few days. Take a Tylenol and maybe use a heating pad. Okay? Schedule the follow-up with reception, and I will see you in six weeks! You did really great today!”

///

All the turmoil for nothing, the scariest ten minutes of my personal past five years, but I wasn’t pregnant. The Eastern-European nurse burst into the room suddenly, as I rocked nervously in my chair, to tell me the news. “Not pregnant!” I let out a huge breath of relief. Oh, thank goodness. I walked to the front desk receptionist feeling buoyant but fragile, a bubble landing on an extended fingertip. Voice shaky, I told the receptionist, Dr. X wants me to have an ultrasound-guided IUD insertion ASAP, with whatever doctor is available next available. I got an appointment with Dr. Y for the beginning of the following week. My bladder did not have to be full for this ultrasound, the receptionist informed me, sounding far away, fading.

///

Can I get one of those snapshots of my beautiful triangular uterus?  Like people get of their fetuses? As if fetuses don’t look like found-footage of cryptids roaming the isolated southern Appalachians, or intelligent but hostile extraterrestrial life leaked to online forums. I didn’t think this with animosity, just a little humor, because human bodies are just so, so weird.

The tech laughed at my silly request, but I was only half kidding. I would love a grainy pic of my womb to hang on my fridge next to coupons for my beloved herbal teas and last year’s Christmas cards. It’s not a self portrait I would normally get to see; there is something surreal about seeing my own internal cogs, my wiring exposed. 

She squirted more jelly on my belly and took a look at my ovaries. The right one is much smaller than the left, making it hard to find–”Just natural variation, assured the tech as I got dressed later after the whole procedure was over. 

But now she said, “I’ll get Dr. Y and the nurse and let her know we are ready for the insertion. It should be much better this time around!”