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époque press
pronounced: /epƏk/
definition: /time/era/period

In each life, trouble wafts in like smoke, sneaking under closed doors. You hardly make it out at first, until it overpowers. The world becomes what you can see through singed lashes. It’s upon you before you summon the instinct to flee. It steals what you thought you owned, until finally you understand. You thought it was yours, but you were wrong. It doesn’t belong to you. It never did.

     Brodie. His eyes were the color of soil, and the roots of trees. When I lay down on top of him, I thought I could feel all the way down to the earth’s dense hot core. His career as a life coach fit him. Questions were his currency. There was no rising inflection at the end of questions, just a patient silence. No small talk with Brodie. It bored him. Only intensity, ripping open scars with bluster. Questions like: who betrayed you? What are you running from? Or the question he asked me: “What do you want out of life?” I fell for him like a burning log rolling downhill.

     I told him about the dark corner in the attic in my home, the one I shared with my husband and son. Empty white canvasses aching to be doused with color and brought to life. Cast-off brushes lay like duck quills shed in spring.

     “What’re you waiting for?” Brodie asked.  “By the way, Bertha, would you like to have coffee?” He pointed towards his apartment door. Sex with him was a pretty thing, like a sparkler on the fourth of July. It wasn’t sex I was after. It was the heat of Brodie himself. He let me spoon him and wrap my arms around his soft round belly, a hairy pillow of flesh, an imperfection. He had no embarrassment. Brodie was simple. “Do what you want. It’s your life.” The arsonist in me awoke. I threw the match, hypnotized.

     Never good at secrets, I told my husband Anders everything. After the confession, indecision. I broke up with Brodie and then went back to the affair and then broke up again. He was patient, for six months, until he wasn’t. “I give up,” Brodie said. “I don’t like this feeling. I care for you, but not for this. It’s confusing. And I’m always left hungry,” he said, tapping his belly.

     I remember reading a poem by Galway Kinnell about duck hunting. Truth told, there are very few poems I like and even fewer I understand, fewer still that I memorize. “Duck hunting is a game like any game,” are the last words. “When it’s over, it’s all over.”


*               *               *


The snow really started piling up on route 30, somewhere around Tupper Lake, and my son and I got quiet as we felt my ten-year-old Civic starting to skid. As I pumped the brakes, the car found some traction on the road to stop the swerve. This time it worked, but we had thirty miles left. 

We’d been in the car so long we no longer smelled the ends of sandwiches in waxy wrappers, the mildew smell of coats half wet in the back seat. Near Albany we’d stopped at a sub shop where the guy at the counter, probably just a little older than my son, gave him a wink as he placed the sandwiches down on the tray.

     “Try,” said the guy, nodding his head, extending the sandwich. I observed his fingers brushing my son’s hand.

     Josh took a big bite. “Epic,” my son said. “Dope.”

     I felt like an intruder in this dance. “Awesome,” I said.

     The two young men exchanged a look and laughed. “Ma, you’re so twenty twenty-two,” said Josh. It was March second, twenty twenty-three.

     “Let’s eat the rest in the car,” I said. “We’re late already.”

     We'd driven two more hours when the storm hit out of nowhere. Today was the last possible audition date for Clarence College School of Music. If we were late, Josh’s options would seriously dwindle. Josh procrastinated on applications; his grades weren't exactly stellar. He’d decided to stop taking Focalin for ADD a year ago. And then there was the distinct smell of marijuana that wafted into the hallway as I passed his bedroom door. It wasn't all the time, but it had become more frequent in the last year.

     I steered our car into the center of the road and tried to follow the tread of cars who had gone before me, avoiding virgin snow.  “Don't worry, we’ll get there,” I said, forcing a cheerful note into my voice. 

     Josh, at seventeen, could be as quietly observant as my ex at times, a master of brevity. “Not good Mom.”  The faint imprints of snowflakes disappeared on the windshield the instant they splattered. Swerving, I barely avoided hitting a sedan that had been deserted, stuck in the middle of the road, no sign of passengers.

     “I think we’re shit out of luck,” Josh said.

     “We’re not giving up,” I said. “Did you call the school?”

     “No one is answering. Maybe they all went home.” 

     A veil of condensation on the windshield obscured my view. I kept pressing the button to make the wiper fluid squirt at regular intervals.

     “I’m squirting blue stuff like a geyser,” I said, “and it still doesn’t clear.”

     “Don’t say ‘squirting like a geyser’ Mom. That’s like the name of a porn video.” 

     I pondered this one – of course he watched porn, I’d expect that at his age, but this was one of those uncomfortable conversations I’d never had with him.  When Josh was born, I promised myself I’d be a cool mom. Turned out I was just a slightly cooler version of my own parents when it came to sex. Nine degrees of hopeless instead of ten.

     Baby Joshua Moses had dimpled cheeks and wide set blue eyes. My pretty boy, I called him. Moses was not for the biblical figure, but for Grandma, my favorite artist. In her footsteps, my art teachers criticized me also for being obvious, naïve, with a love of simple quaint representations. Beautiful had become a bad word in art when I went to college. Pretty was worse.

     I gave up painting to inhabit a portrait that Grandma could have etched. A small house on a tree-lined street in a suburban enclave. Anders fashioned custom furniture for wealthy customers. We were in one of the best school districts. Anders went about paying the king’s ransom, while I signed up for mom and kid ceramics, boy scout den mother, volunteer for class parties, teen hiking club Mom, and perennial parent escort for school trips.

     Josh grew to have the soft good looks of a boy band star – sweet, even features. His eager smile was equal parts invitation and shyness. I dare you to get to know me, said his eyes.

     What did Josh see as he checked himself out in the visor mirror? All morning he clicked it up and down, as if a vastly different image might appear as he applied skin-toned make-up.

     I recognised the impulse to mask oneself. I had a cleft lip as a child. Although surgically corrected, I had a thin line of scar tissue that ran from my nose to my upper lip. I nervously bit at the soft layers of skin, tiny rips. Josh imitated, picking at things - blemishes, hangnails, always scratching.

     He once had a unibrow. I taught him how to tweeze. He took this art further and enhanced the arch of his brows, thinning them to the point where they were two spaghetti strings, happening to land above his eyes. 

     His unique fashion sense might be the cause of some grief at school. Despite my efforts, he wasn’t popular. He wasn't a natural at any sport and didn't pretend to be a fan of any team. Today, he wore two earrings, one a feather, another gold and pearl. His dark blonde hair, highlighted to match the color of cashews, hung dramatically over one eye. A small tattoo dotted his left wrist, a design he created himself, incomprehensible to me. His father had given permission. I had no choice but to approve, because this is the rule among divorcing parents: give in or lose. 

     Ahead of us, I saw outlines of objects. For a few breathtaking seconds I couldn't see anything at all, just the sterile vacuum of white. Soft thuds of tiny snow pebbles on the windshield were the only sound. 

     “I think they call this a white out,” I said. “Like a blackout, but white.”

     “I think they call this the white light, the one you see at the end of the tunnel right when you're about to croak,” said my son. 

     I slowed the car to ten miles an hour.  “Can we listen to some music together? Maybe that will take the edge off,” I said, my own knuckles white on the steering wheel. My son, the long sought-after product of fertility enhancement, an expensive product of artificial means, gave me a wry look. One spaghetti string was lifted, to say: we’ll never agree on what to listen to, will we? 

     “Why try, mom? You don’t listen to anything created after nineteen seventy-eight.”

     “Not true,” I said. I found Radiohead on Spotify. We needed something soothing, contemplative. “2007,”
I said.

     With Covid, Josh had enjoyed years of staying at home. When he had the choice of in person or zoom, he chose zoom. He would watch Tik-took videos while attending a class, slick enough to turn his camera off. He wore pajamas all day and never made his bed. Days could go by without showering. 

     Yet, before the divorce, Josh didn’t sleep till two in the afternoon on weekends. He didn’t have that sullen expression. His words didn’t lead with sarcasm. Now his friends were off limits for conversation, even their names were a secret if he could help it. An unpredictable anger would erupt over things. An explosion would rock if I asked him to clean his room or put his socks into the washing machine. 

     A memory surfaced as I drove. An outline, as if emerging from the landscape, barely visible under the veil of white. The incident.

     To start, it had been a surprise to hear at school conferences the uncomfortable descriptions of my child’s difficulty following rules. Josh was diagnosed in fifth grade. We thought meds were the answer. Grades improved, yes, but there was upset stomach, weight loss, difficulty sleeping and a crash when drugs left his system, symptoms we blithely ignored. We were enthusiastic. Josh could concentrate. He was a bit of a loner, but we thought that would change.

     When Josh was in eighth grade, cleaning his room, I came upon a pair of soiled underwear in the back of his closet. Dark stains mixed with a burnt red. Stains that looked like blood. I asked, and it took two weeks to get anything from him. Finally, he told me.

     “Tim grabbed my hair and pushed my face into the toilet bowl and started flushing. It must have been Kevin that pulled down my pants. And then, they started hitting me. I think one of ‘em used a belt. And then one of them stuck something in.”

     I tuned into Radiohead music to stop remembering the details. The casual cruelty of middle schoolers was no secret to me. I'd been in middle school myself once, with an imperfect smile. But this was … so much worse. There were conferences with school staff. Threats of legal action against the two boys. The feeling of a pickax in my gut when I woke up after sleepless nights. Therapy. Six months’ worth, before Josh bailed.

     After a long investigation by the Assistant Principal came the verdict.

     “The two boys deny it. There were no witnesses. And your son, he’s known to have some problems. Doesn't he have an individual education plan? Take psychiatric medications? And if something happened, could it have been consensual?”

     I didn’t believe it for a second. “I know my son,” I yelled. I remember trying to grip Anders hand, and how he held his fingers loose and pulled away. At moments like this, he avoided touching me, and I felt the space between us grow – a void that multiplied with every second he chose to avoid my touch.

     “There's nothing else we can do,” said Anders. 

     After, I refused to uncurl when his hands found me at night. Turning away became a habit. Over time, I packed away the story of Josh’s incident into a memory suitcase, out of sight. It was so ugly, I convinced myself that maybe, after all, it didn't happen.

     Radiohead’s music was slow, pure, and simple. “Forget about your house of cards, and I’ll do mine,” sang the lead. I felt the heat of that, the burn of the words, and the warmth made its way up my neck and stung my eyes. I turned the song off. Breathe, I thought. Think about Josh. About today.

     Josh had begun with classical instruments: piano in elementary school, progressing to violin and even a whirl with the cello. When adolescence hit, he picked up a guitar. Later, he supplemented this with his own electronic music. He spoke of his electronic creations in a language I could not even try to understand. He patiently tried to explain acoustical waves, sine waves, square waves, installations and microprocessors. I nodded my head emphatically as his spoke. I never really understood the how of it all, just that he was making music, that he had found something to love.

     Josh was the one thing Anders and I agreed on. We laughed together about Josh's latest catastrophe. Josh at two entering the family party with no clothes on. Josh upside down on the tree, pants caught on a tree limb. Catching Josh lip-synching, putting it on Facebook when he was too young to object.

     Love. It was never perfect between Anders and me. He spent our years together trying to un-make me.
He wanted to fashion me from head to toe in the way he wanted, like the wood he sawed and polished and
filed to perfection, then fit it joint by joint into its other pieces, everything sinewy, perfect, useful, oiled, practical, and nothing extra or over the top. Classical and minimal. I tucked away my rough edges, but along with the makeover, the more perfect I became on the outside, the more passionless. There was less of me left by
the end.

     In the quiet of the ride, I offered a suggestion. “Hey. What about this,” my standard beginning for unwelcome suggestions. “Look - use the time. Ok? Sing your song,” I said. “Practice. Just the singing part, no guitar for now.”

     Josh’s guitar was in the backseat. The audition demanded one classical guitar piece, and for the second applicants had personal choice.  He was planning to present his own original composition, one that he performed with his group Roadkillz, which was a cyber-punk band. When I asked what that meant, he explained in one word, “futuristic.”

     He had a musical score on his phone, all prepped. The micro processed electronic accompaniment blared from his cell phone. Josh began. I listened as his song got louder and less melodic, far from the harmonious strains of Radiohead.

     “Flush with flesh, bourbon in a flask, fight fight fight, we’re all fucked anyway.” 

     When he finished, I could see him search my eyes.

     “I'm proud of you,” I said. “it's really unique.” I clapped when he finished, although I had to immediately put my hands back on the wheel.

     “No, you don't,” he said. “I can see you're lying. Your eyes get twitchy when you lie and your voice sounds fake, more phony than usual.”

     Breathe, I thought. “You don't get to tell me that,” I said. “For one, I'm your mother, and for two. I wanted to be an artist too, a long time ago, I wanted to paint, and I don't know what happened, but…” Lack of ambition, inertia, procrastination, I could have added. Having a child. I continued. “I don't care if you don't believe me, but I am proud, because. Because you’re doing it. You're trying. You're really…”

     “Let's just not talk, mom,” Josh said. “I don't want to hear about it. Don’t embarrass yourself.”

     It went on like that till we turned onto route 56, when the snow turned to slush, a mix of icy bits with rain, and then within minutes pure rain.  As suddenly as it began, the storm was over.

     Josh leaned forward in his seat. “Can’t believe it.”

     “I’m gonna make up the time,” I said, pushing on the gas pedal.

     “Mom, be careful, it’s worse sometimes when it's black ice on the road,” said Josh. I pushed the gas a little too hard and felt the car lurch forward.

     “I know how to drive,” I said. I held back for a moment. And maybe I am embarrassing. Ok, yes, but you're spoiled. And you know what? I did it to you. And I hate how you act.” I had just enough resolve to hold back from mouthing the words in my head: “I don't like you very much.” 

     “Who asked you to like how I act? I didn't ask to be spoiled, whatever that means,” he said. Then the rehearsed phrase, “and I didn't ask to be born.”

     We pulled into the parking lot and Josh’s hand was on the door. “Look,” I said. “I just want it to go ok. I’m just nervous. Overwhelmed. If the director doesn’t let you audition, I’m going to scream. You won’t recognize me. Who is he anyway? If he doesn’t take you, his mistake. I scoped him out on social media. All he really seems to care about are rescue beagles, the right to gay marriage, whether certain books are being banned in Nebraska, Also - no kidding - how underpaid all the professors are at state colleges. And then I listened to his concert work on you tube.  Awful, pure and simple. He seems to have more passion about bathrooms for non-binary persons than about music.”

     Josh laughed at me. “Well first of all nonbinary bathrooms are important.” He sniffed and tilted his chin. “I’m nonbinary. Most people I know are nonbinary. At the least the ones I like. And second, I haven’t heard you put this many sentences together in a while. You've been a zombie for a long time.” And then: “Stop, mom we’re here,” and let himself out the door. With a kind of skip, Josh was swallowed into the gray institutional building with the sign Auditions Here in big letters.

     I felt as unprepared for what was to come as my old Civic in the snow.


*               *               *


Spring has arrived. The ground is wet with the last of melting snow. Last night I had a dream that I still had a son named Josh. I remembered the feeling of a puddle of water at my feet when my water broke. I remember the afterbirth that gushed out of me after he made his entrance into the world. I remembered the first time I bathed him; how tiny he seemed as I poured the cup of sudsy water over the top of his head.

     Today Shuwa and I were together in the Civic. I was giving them a driving lesson. I made them stop the car to look at a stream of water falling over a cliff. It was the same stream that had been just a trickle months before. The heavy snow and ice had melted, creating rivulets that poured from the mountains down to our suburban valley.

     They checked their phone compulsively, spinning, glancing, scratching a blemish on their cheek. Suddenly they stopped and stared. “Ma, you won’t believe it,” they said.

     “Wow,” I said. “Did you get in?”

     They were quiet. “It’s ok to cry,” I said. My love for this child is different than any other love I've felt. It’s a waterfall, roaring over a precipice. A force powerful enough to sculpt the face of a rock, it cascades to an unknown place. Tumultuous and terrifying, I can only trust it will take me where I need to go. We interlaced fingers and I felt their warmth, the softness of a musician’s skilled and sensitive hands, the tough calloused fingertips.

     “Yeah,” they said, “I made it.”

     Brodie had asked me a question: “What do you want out of life?” I see the stillness of burnt meadows, ashy remnants. It will be long before anything will grow again over the scorched terrain.

     What do I want? It’s hard to dream. I love Shuwa, but I grieve the child I birthed.

     What do I want? Shuwa has decided to keep their middle name. “Quirky of you to name me that,” they said. Grandma Moses didn't hit her stride until she turned seventy-eight. Maybe it’s not too late.


Jacqueline Kaufman is a student of Fiction Writing through Gotham Workshops. Her story “Day Ninety-Three” recently appeared in the e-anthology, “The Sun Still Rises,” through She attended fiction classes with E.L. Doctorow and Charles McGrath at NYU. She published “A Question of Weight,” in the Minetta Review at the age of 22. Jacqueline has an M.S.W. from the University of Denver.


Of the story featured here, Jacqueline says:


‘The main character in this submission wrestles with desire, love, and the difference between them. The title reflects different experiences of connection through the significant relationships in her life, including her relationship with herself. Desire, confusion and transformation are explored.’

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