second star to the right

(and straight on till morning)

Ari Koontz, Issue 02
@arioctober


I stole my name from a star the human race will never touch, one hundred and sixty-six light years away. It was not bequeathed to me through heritage or whispered through my umbilical cord, nor did it fall upon me from the velvet night sky; I picked it out myself and tugged it down with impatient hands, pressing it tightly to my chest and then running barefoot to my bedroom before it could slip loose and flutter away. I tucked it carefully underneath my covers and watched its light dance around me, illuminating the folds of my skin and the undersides of my fingernails. When I fell asleep, it burned into my curves and my edges, silent sparks nearly setting me ablaze—and I knew that I had finally found a part of myself to call home.

*

This is something I have noticed: the universe terrifies more often than it inspires. There’s a reason we spent thousands of years believing this planet was flat—the vastness of the alternative is too much to fit within the collective human consciousness, let alone individual comprehension. We have always made space into stories to make it easier to stomach; it’s far easier, far safer to look up and sew the distant pinpricks of light into shapes and figures and guiding ghosts than it is to accept the chaos and heat and impossible distance of a trillion whirling suns. Even those who study these mysteries are driven by the need to categorize, to explain, to define in measurable terms. Admitting how little we know about the stars is dangerous, because it means admitting how lost we really are.

        I am not immune from this fear. For the first several years of my life, I tossed and turned through endless nightmares in which comets and black holes descended upon me, and even after these dreams faded I kept my head down and my windows firmly shuttered at night. I was fine with the glow-in-the-dark stars plastered on my ceiling, but I had no interest in their distant cousins flickering beyond the clouds.

        When I was ten years old, my family took a trip to the shores of Lake Michigan during the Perseid meteor shower; it took an hour of convincing before I agreed to come along and watch, and even then only with the reassurance that I could go back inside after ten minutes. At midnight, I found myself shivering underneath a thin rain jacket on the beach with my toes buried in the sand, looking across the silent water and trying to summon the courage to look up.

        Finally I squeezed my eyes shut and leaned backward, then opened them again slowly to meet the night sky. Almost immediately, I felt like I was suffocating. The darkness was swallowing me; the rock fragments bursting into flame against the invisible atmosphere made my feet unsteady and my knees lock underneath me. It was too close and too far away all at once. It was too much fire and energy to be contained in a singular place and time, and yet there it was above me, ripping seams in the warm darkness.

        I was terrified—and I could not look away. This is the true power of the vastness of space, of the strange shimmering fabric bolted above our heads. We cannot look away.

*

How, then, do we live with these fears? How can we reconcile ourselves with infinity?

        I have been lost inside of my own universe, my body, for almost as long as I can remember. Like the stars, contemplating the shape and size of myself feels almost life-threatening: it is the edge of an unfathomable precipice, a multitude that is better seen from a distance and best not seen at all. To walk past the mirrors with eyes squeezed shut is the only option, because the alternative is to get caught in the reflection and stare in heart-beating terror, paralyzed by my own reality and unreality. I know too well the persistently imperfect lines of myself, and I know that refusing to look does not make them any less real, but what other option did I have? Dysphoria, cannot be made into a story, and it does not come with an instruction manual.

        I suppose this is why I finally turned back to the stars—not because I wasn’t afraid, but because I learned that there were worse things to be afraid of. Because when you cannot trust yourself with your own body, it’s easier to trust anything and everything else. You seek solace in the unknown because it has to be better than the known facts of every inch of you.

        After a childhood of shivering away and averting my gaze, I spent my teenage years looking up in wide-eyed fascination, falling in love with constellations and nebulae and letting them fall in love with me back. When I felt myself threatening to crumble, it was the stars that held me in place, that gave me something to hold onto and vanish in. I stayed up late tracing my fingers along the edges of the night; I doodled galaxies on my shoes and checked my phone’s space app every night to see which bright objects were watching over me as I drifted towards unconsciousness. Under my breath, I fervently whispered the overused yet vastly comforting cliche: we are made of stardust. And somewhere along this hesitant yet earnest trajectory towards that unreachable multitude, something sparked me into slowly beginning to believe that perhaps the dust inside of me meant I, too, could be a strange sort of beautiful. Without realizing it, I began to take the first tentative steps toward finding a way back to myself.

        I understand now—or at least, I hope I do—that these stars mean fear and bravery all at once. They mean loneliness and they mean love. They mean persistence in the face of impossibility, and they mean that we all have a place within the disorder of everything we do not understand. When I look up, I find that I cannot hate the small/large/quiet/loud body I live in, because it is made of the exhalations of comets and it is meant to last forever. I am past, present, and future; I am fallible and infallible; I am made of stories and science, and I can never be fully explained.

*

41 Arietis is the brightest and most powerful object within the Aries constellation, which is the zodiac sign that marks my date of birth. It is also a remnant of multiple now-obsolete constellations, defying the constraints of time and escaping classification, existing in multiple forms at once. Depending on which stories you believe, 41 Arietis is part of a ram, a bee, a lily, or an unending and random tapestry of hectic light. To me, its shape is all of the above.

        I found this star when I was 15-years-old, still searching for something to hold onto. At first I jotted it down in a journal, earmarked as a possible character or vague destination. I still don’t know why it stood out to me, one in thousands, but I felt something tugging me towards the light, the name—a faraway glimpse of an identity I had only just begun to untangle. I put away my pen and fell asleep, but that light stuck with me, and a year later I realized that I had found who I was going to be. A name, after all, is nothing if not a beginning.

        Somewhere coded into the depths of our consciousness, there are a string of chemical instructions that tell us to be afraid of the unknown. And yet, at some point, we decide to chart the stars anyway, to attempt to find answers that we know can never truly be found. This is what I fear: the star hidden in between my sheets. The brilliant blinding sun that will someday implode, shattering its universe into pieces and my body along with it. The traces of dust embedded in my veins, and the body it commands. I am fragile and uncertain, and I am infinitesimal in this interstellar infinity, and there is so much about myself that I am still struggling to understand. But I am beautiful, too, and this is the only universe I have.

        In the words of Walt Whitman: I and this mystery here we stand. This, at last, is where I belong.

Read this piece and more in our issues!


IN SKOGSKYRKOGÅRDEN

Jordan Makant, issue 04

I see an old Swedish woman on her knees
by a gravestone. There is a small towel draped
over her left shoulder. At her left side there is a bucket.
In the bucket there is soapy water and a brush. I watch her
take the brush and scrub, slowly at first, then harder
and faster, harder and faster. She sees me watching her.
I nod. She nods in return. I smile slightly. She does not smile
in return. I imagine asking her why she cleans the gravestone.
I imagine asking her if she is okay, knowing her efforts are
in vain – no matter how hard she scrubs, no matter how well
she cleans, no matter how often she visits, what lies buried still
decomposes, becomes one with the earth; even the gravestone
will one day surrender to the dirt. I say nothing.
Later, I go back. She is gone. I look at the scrubbed stone,
read what is written there. I begin to talk to the dirt. I say,
I found a flower earlier. I brought it for you. Here.
I place the flower in the soil. I imagine an old woman smiling.


our store used to be an auto body shop

by Marigrace Angelo
@marifullofgrace, issue 04

oil pools iridescent on the pavement
while a woman on the street is fighting
with the meter maid;
the grey mist counts as rain here,
and everyone’s mood is sour.
I run across the street to the
café-slash-bike shop to grab a coffee;
instead, I leave with an oat milk dirty chai
and a vegan sausage sandwich.
hell, it’s york blvd after all,
and I’m already part of the problem
maybe I’m tired of fighting the problem
from my keyboard when I’m off the clock,
tired of nodding from behind the counter
at the short-banged white women
telling me that they are getting
priced out of the neighborhood
while I ring them up
for a two-hundred dollar blouse
tired of gritting my teeth
when they muse that they’ll
just buy property
in huntington park and watts
because “I just need a place to live”
but everyone needs a place to live
especially the people already living
in huntington park and watts.
maybe I just want to lean into it for a day.
maybe I just want to feel what it’s like
to buy a café breakfast that costs
an hour’s worth of my wage.
it feels like I’m barely scraping by.
I grab the packages left at jesse’s
while we were closed,
run back to the store
open the grates
and start the day.

Honey and Venom

Jennifer Crow, Issue 03
@writerjencrow


Honey
, you whisper, as though I’m dressed in it
breasts and thighs, as though
a slow fountain trickles through me
and licks at my lips. How sweet
of you to pretend not to notice
my crown of bees, and the hum
of rage that has settled on my shoulders,
a mantling of busy destruction.
Kiss me with your envenomed lips,
let your fang pierce the tender skin
of my belly, like a magician
turning something soft
into flying shards of glass. Honey,
you whisper, and I shatter
into queen and swarm, ready to die
for vengeance, for the hive.


Becoming

Savannah Stoehr, Issue 03
@vulcansmirk

My skin was a suit several sizes too small.
I’ve got stretch marks on my hips, arms, thighs, chest—
all the places my body couldn’t quite hold me in.
I will not tell my twelve-year-old self
just how long it will take
for her body to feel like home;
how many loves, labors, losses,
how many scars, chosen and not,
how many modifications this vessel will undergo
before it’s beaten into a shape she can withstand.
I will not tell her how many years she will spend
haunting her own house,
scrabbling at its walls for a foothold.

Sometimes, I think I was yanked from the world
before I ever got to set foot in it.
Sometimes, I think my life thus far has been one long DMT trip
with me standing on the threshold, staring out,
imagining what it would be like to be.

I will not tell my twelve-year-old self
how long she will stay planted in that doorway.

I’ll tell her this:
the sun rises
regardless of whether you believe in it.
You were born in the dark, and you think it’s all you know,
but you’re missing something.
You were born in the dark, and you fear the break of day—
you fear it will break you; you fear it won’t,
but in the end, you will only be grateful
and awed
when the light finally touches your skin.
When the dawn finds your stretch marks,
you will find yourself in love.
You will find yourself in a house,
weathered, scarred,
lived-in, ancient, and still there.
All at once, you will be,
as though that last forgotten switch finally flipped—
the circuit will close, the current will come,
and you will not wish to be anywhere else,
because you have built a home
of your own flesh and bone,
and you missed something:
you’re missing nothing.

I will not tell my twelve-year-old self
of the turbulent days ahead.
She already knows, and what she doesn’t
she’ll weather nonetheless.

I’ll tell her this:
Such a strange feeling,
the sudden rushing tide
of corporeality overtaking you.
You won’t know you’re a ghost
until you’re shocked back into life.

By Any Other Name

Ari Koontz, Issue 03
@arioctober

[sharp]

I am in the kitchen chopping vegetables, broccoli and shiitake mushrooms and cabbage and carrots, the smell of soy sauce perfuming the air, when my mother comes in and starts crying. She sits at the small table near the doorway and she is wearing her favorite sweater and I can hear her chest heaving with the sobs before I turn around to see her lips pressed together while the tears prick the corners of her eyes.

       What’s wrong, I ask, putting down my knife.

       Her shoulders shake as I walk over. I just don’t understand why you don’t like who you are.

       There are three weeks left before I leave again for college and my mother is here in the kitchen crying as I put my hand on her shoulder. This is the second time in my life I have seen her like this.

       What do you mean, I ask.

       Your name, she says, and I knew somehow before she entered the room that this is what she would say, what was always coming. It’s special. We picked it out for you, and it has history…

       As her words trail off into fragile sobs, I am thinking about how I hope the soy sauce won’t burn and how I should open a window once this conversation is over. It’s not that I don’t like who I am, I say finally. And I know it’s an important name to you. It’s not about that.

       Then what is it about. She’s started to collect herself again, but I can see in her eyes that I have hurt her deeply and I know that there is no undoing it. But I can’t make my own hurt leave, either.

       I shrug. I let go of her shoulders and return to the stove. It just doesn’t fit me right.

       There’s a thick silence for ten full minutes. I add the vegetables to the wok, stir them into the sauce, prod at them and refuse to look up. The broccoli is almost completely softened when she finally speaks again.

       I’m sorry, she says. It’s just hard for me. I’m your mother.

       I know. It’s okay.

       I love you, she says, and sits there for another moment before shaking her head and getting up from the stool, leaving the kitchen. The floorboards shudder and moan behind her.

[wrinkles]

This is what I know about my birth name: it belonged to a great-great-great-grandmother who neither me nor my mother ever met, and it was not chosen for me until the day I was born. My parents wanted to meet me before they decided what to call me; they wanted me to be a surprise, which I suppose worked out somewhat literally when I decided to enter the world three weeks before my due date. I was small and wrinkled and that name felt just right to them as they cradled my head in the artificial glow of the hospital room. If I had been given any say in the matter, I’m not sure I would have objected—I was too tired at the time to care.

       The name they wrote so carefully on my birth certificate is German in origin and has two possible meanings, one of which is simply ‘work,’ not very helpful in my cautious yearning for metaphor. The other meaning, however, is ‘rival,’ which I must admit appeals more to my writerly sensibilities: at times I feel quite at odds with my old self, when the name appears on my bank statements and a sudden wave of cognitive dissonance makes me briefly forget where I am. When I sign my chosen name out of habit on important forms and have to start all over again. When I open cards addressed to someone I’ve begun to wonder if I ever was. It’s so easy, especially in the narrative of identity that recent discourse has created, to see your origin as your enemy. What have I been doing if not running away from that ghost at full speed?

[forward]

She sends the recipes I request to my old email account, which forwards automatically to my new one. I reply without switching back and she says, Oh, you have a new Gmail? and I say, yeah, but I’ll still get stuff here if you forget to use that address. Later I remember that this noncommittal attitude is my first mistake: if I don’t ask her explicitly to make a change, I can’t expect her to do so. This is, however, easier said than done—mostly because if I don’t ask, I don’t have to feel the sharp disappointment when she forgets it anyway for the seventeenth time.

[roses]

When I first started school, I wore a dress or skirt every day for two and a half years. I can’t say exactly what it was about the sleek, swirling fabric that fascinated me back then, or even remember what it was like to look into a mirror and jump for joy. Except, well, dresses are beautiful, aren’t they? And I was beautiful, too—something I remember mostly from the photographs—a tiny bundle of energy, blurred around the edges as she spins around the kitchen without stopping until she falls over onto the tile floor and gasps for breath between peals of laughter.

Some of the dresses were solid colors, others patterned with stripes or polka dots; some were cashmere and some velvet like the deep red one I wore to The Nutcracker at least three Christmases in a row. I loved them all, but my favorites were the ones decorated with flowers—roses and daisies and dandelions that matched the ones I pulled from the backyard garden, plucking the delicate petals off one at a time. When I wore my flowers, I wore everything I loved most about the world, and in that way a dress could become a suit of armor. But softer, prettier. Armor that didn’t deflect the sword so much as embrace it.

At some point, I’m not sure when, I found out that dresses were for girls. Of course I already knew this, but there’s a difference between when you just know something and when you suddenly understand it. A few days later, I decided it was time to switch to pants, and the beautiful things were tucked away at the back of my closet—brought out reluctantly for family portraits and weddings only.

[angles]

Do not misunderstand. When I look to my younger self, she is she, because that’s who I was to me back then. I wore dresses, I had long hair, I wanted to be a princess or a benevolent witch when I grew up. But when my mother flips through the old scrapbook pages and says to me, it’s harder for me to call you Ari in these pictures than it is to call you that now, is that wrong, I shrug my shoulders and without meeting her eyes answer, it’s not wrong but I would appreciate if you would try not to say that to anyone else. Please don’t say this to anyone else.

[official]

In the place where I now live, about two hundred miles from home, an official name change costs $167.00 and requires only a piece of photo identification, a court hearing, and a single page of paperwork. As long as you are not a registered sex offender or changing your name for fraud-related reasons, there are no questions asked and no standards to meet. I am told that it takes less than ten minutes of a Friday afternoon for you to be freshly minted, brand new, certified for all intents and purposes as though you have always been the person that you finally decided to become.

       I could print the paper today, proclaim my intentions and sign on the dotted line, and set up a hearing for the end of this week. After that, it’s just a matter of contacting everyone important: my bank, my employer, my landlord, my phone company. I would have to get a new passport and a new state ID. But I could do it, if I wanted to. I’ve had the file open in my browser for at least six weeks. Staring at the blank fields and wondering why I can’t just make myself commit, even though I know why. I know who I want to ask first.

       One of my friends who has only ever heard my chosen name had theirs legally changed two months ago. They said the hearing took less time than the walk from the parking lot to the courtroom, and, at the end, one of the clerks gave everyone in the room a foil-wrapped square of dark chocolate. A little something sweet for your special day.

[roots]

Upon further reflection, maybe ‘work’ isn’t so meaningless to my identity after all. To understand who I am, to create a self that is not contradictory to everything I have been but rather grows outward like the rings of a sturdy tree, takes a lot of work indeed. The trouble is, sometimes those rings are imperceptible until a branch is snapped from its trunk.

[maybe]

An imagined scene or maybe a dream: I am two or three years older than I am now, and I’m home for a short visit, maybe the holidays. I have a real job. I have stories published. My mother reads my name in a literary journal and she does not weep. There’s a suitcase in my hand, and I am not nervous to open the front door because all the lights are on.

When I step inside, the house smells like the best kind of warmth and goodness, there must be something in the oven, and she’s standing right there waiting for me. She envelops me in her arms and holds me against her for three of her heartbeats (I can hear them, we’re so close) before releasing me and taking a long look.

       It’s so good to see you. I’m so glad you came.

       It’s good to see you too. What are you baking?

       She smiles. Come and see, and I follow her into the kitchen. Everything is as I remember it except for a few new drawings taped up to the fridge. There are three cookbooks resting on the granite countertop and several dirty bowls in the sink, and then I see it at the end of the counter, the masterpiece that makes me stop in my tracks: a two-tiered cake, frosted with a hundred tiny roses in every color. My birthday—it must be my birthday that I am here for.

       I know I’m not supposed to let you see it yet, she says, a glimmer of pride in her eyes, but what do you think?

       It’s beautiful. I take a deep breath. Wow.

       It’s chocolate with raspberry in the middle. Do you still like raspberry?

       Of course I still like raspberry. The cake looks like all of my childhood birthday parties rolled into one and my mouth is already watering.

       Don’t be ridiculous, I say, stepping forward and pulling her into my arms. Raspberry is perfect. I love you.

       I love you too, she says, and I do not feel small.

       Later, when we cut into the rainbow buttercream, the only sound in the room is that old, familiar song, wrapped around my name like soft hands lifting me up to the light.