Posts Categorized: Sneak Peek
A Unified Drone Theory
We built our first drone a month after the car crash.
You were having trouble walking because of your back, and I couldn’t sleep because of my head, so late one night I ordered us a kit online. Our first drone wasn’t much, just a frame the size of deck of cards, four plastic propellers, and a basket for cargo. I used it to send you things from the second floor and spare you the climb up the stairs. First, an old picture of us I found under the dresser. You sent back a dirty poem you wrote on the back of an overdue electric bill. Our drone hovered beside me while I grinned and penned my response: our initials inside a heart.
Our next drone was bigger, studier, able to withstand the bumps and knocks that sent our first drone to shatter on the floor. With some practice, we learned to fly it out the front door and circle the house. Winter had settled in by then. The cold outside always found its way through my hat and into my stiches, starting a migraine that could last all day. A recent fall on our icy walkway had set your rehab back weeks. We attached a small hook to the drone and sent it to the mailbox. Instead of risking the daily trip, we let our new toy fetch the mail for us. Watching the drone thrum through the living room window with our mail each morning, we smiled slyly to each other, as if we had just performed a magic trick.
We built dozens of drones as we waited to recover. A drone with a high-definition camera flew above our rooftop to show us our house, our snow-covered neighborhood, our wrecked car still sitting in the driveway where the tow truck left it after the accident. Nimble racing drones careened through our hallways: lithe and quick, they loop-de-looped and barrel-rolled, wove patterns around our furniture, spun pirouettes then stopped abruptly in place, all at the slightest flicks of our thumbs. We dog-fought battle drones over our front lawn each night, then collected the scattered pieces to rebuild again.
As we slept, a jet-black security drone patrolled our property, alert for any danger. It watched for trespassers, burglars, and murderers; the threats television had taught us to fear that had never come. If only we could have built a machine to warn us of ordinary disasters instead: balding tires, black ice, one drink too many. Although we agreed the crash was no one’s fault, that we’d both had too much to drink, that either one of us could have been driving, I was the one driving. It was my fault. You forgave me again and again.
Our health declined; our drones improved. Soon, they could do anything. Quarter-sized drones swept through our hallways in swarms, their formation tight as a squadron of fighter jets. I droned you your morning coffee when your back hurt too much to leave the bed. You droned me Excedrin all the way from the downstairs medicine cabinet, dropping the pills beside my water glass with a precision that made me smile through my headache. We droned each other love letters. We droned each other shopping lists. We droned each other curses and complaints. We droned each other reassurances and hope.
At night I dreamed of a unified drone theory, an alternate model of matter made entirely of miniaturize machines. In my dreams, drones shrank in scale, from miniscule to microscopic. Interlocking engines replaced our atoms. Drones too small to be measured drifted among the ether that even smaller drones composed. Passing through obstacles as easily as ghosts, they carried their cargo and messages onward without the hindrances of gravity, space, or time.
I don’t believe in a unified drone theory, of course. The machines we make are toys, no matter how complex. But at times, I wonder. I wonder about a unified drone theory when a migraine begins pounding in my temples, and all the medicine I take does nothing, and I know that I have hours of agony ahead of me to think about how I should have been more careful with the car, with you, with us. If only I had been more careful. If only I could undo it all, take everything back, and start again. I know that I deserve all the pain that is coming, and more.
How else can I explain what happens next? I open an eye, and from the bed I see you standing in the doorway. I have sent no message, but there you are all the same: out of breath, wincing from the stairs, a hand pressed to the small of your back, your own pain just beginning. You have come to lie down with me, to forgive me one more time, to suffer through the worst together.
And For By Grace an excerpt
For my mother’s family Sunday tradition meant Sunday prayer. For the first meal and the last they would gather together, link hands, and say a series of prayers—the Shepherd’s Psalm, The Lord’s Prayer, and everyone’s own selected Bible verse. Her father, like many of the men in the family, was a preacher and I assume this practice came from him.
After my mother was married and had started a family of her own, she stopped doing the prayers except for the few times she would drive me back to North Carolina. Our visits home were rare, every other year at most, and because of our distance and the amount of time we were always gone, our return always held a certain significance. Out of all the family, my mother was the only one who left. While a teenager she’d taken out a map of the state and circled colleges as far away as she could go. She picked one, and during her first year there she met a future Army man, married him, and then moved even farther away. “I wasn’t going back there,” she used to tell me whenever I asked her about this time in her life. “I would have done anything to get away.”
I watched her as she shifted in the driver’s seat, her anxiety becoming more visible as we got closer. “You should start memorizing a verse now,” she said. “Don’t embarrass me.”
Her father, a man I’ve never known, had long since died, but my grandmother had remarried another who was also a preacher, a man who could recite the entire Bible by heart.
“What kind of verse should I pick?” I asked, taking out my own Bible and flipping through the pages. I glanced at all the sections I’d highlighted from previous Sunday scriptures, trying to find something that would work.
“I don’t know, just pick one,” she replied sharply.
A painting hung on the wall of my grandmother’s kitchen where we gathered for prayers. The painting depicted a white-bearded man who sat at his own kitchen table. He was hunched over the table’s edge, his hands clasped together and placed in front of his forehead. His eyes were closed. He prayed.
On the table in front of him was a loaf of bread, a slice of it already having been cut, most likely from a previous meal. Nearby was a metal bowl of possibly soup or oatmeal to go with his bread along with a book, which one would assume at first to be a Bible, but was actually a dictionary. Next to this a knife lied flat.
A loaf of bread, a bowl of soup, a dictionary. The simplicity of it all made the image seem somber, poignant. The man prayed for his meager meal, grateful for what God had given him.
There is a story I must tell you, but in order to do so I must tell you another. It is that of Eliza Cook. While a slave to Dr. James H. Cook, Eliza gave birth to seven of his children. After slavery ended, James Cook’s wife wanted Eliza gone. Perhaps she was full of shame for her husband’s indiscretions, or maybe it was jealousy, or spite. Whatever the reason, she demanded her husband force Eliza off the property. Cook submitted to his wife and Eliza, a woman who found herself with nowhere to live, nowhere to go, and with seven children to feed, turned to the Freedman’s Bureau.
In North Carolina, the bastardy laws required every unmarried woman with a child to name the father within three years of the birth of the child. The law also required fathers to support their illegitimate children or face imprisonment. In Eliza’s case, she’d been enslaved during her children’s infancy and was unable to testify to their parentage. She argued that a new law be made to address situations like hers—women who’d been enslaved but now were free and who, according to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, should be entitled to the same rights as white women. With the help of the Freedman’s Bureau Eliza took James Cook to court to force him to support her and all of his children.
Within my family there’s been a story handed down through the generations. It’s of a black woman named Leanna Brown who, like Eliza, had a relationship with a white man. The relationship produced two, possibly three children. In the census records for 1880, she is listed with these children on a farm nearby his property. On the census, each of the children carries her last name, but somewhere between then and now something peculiar happens. The surname, at least for the boy, is changed to that of his father.
Eliza’s case brings forward the possibility that like her, Leanna did take the father of her children to court in the hope he would acknowledge them. Like Eliza, it is possible she showed a sense of agency during a time the world wanted her to have none, and so it is possible that maybe he did relent and claim them.
At least, this is what I start to think, but then I remember the rest of Eliza’s story. The court argued that the Civil Rights Act didn’t apply to her situation and thereby didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court. They refused to hear her case. Cook, having won, evicted Eliza and the children from his plantation and they were left dependent upon the Freedmen’s Bureau to survive.
My grandmother would eventually give the painting to my mother as a gift, but my mother didn’t want it so she threw it away without telling her.
“The picture depressed me,” she said afterward. “I couldn’t look at it. I wish now though I’d kept the thing. It could have been worth something.”
The name of the painting is called Grace and was actually originally a photograph taken by Eric Enstrom. After the photograph was developed and printed, Enstrom’s daughter began hand-painting copies in oils and selling them in her shop. Travelers stopping in the town of Coleraine, Minnesota saw the framed picture through the studio window and were taken with the image. One after the other got sold and the picture’s popularity increased. In 2002 the image became Minnesota’s official state photograph. Eventually Grace became one of the most reproduced religious images in the country. It is in homes all across the country—above their dining tables, on the living room walls, small photos placed in wallets and purses. What my mother hoped was rare, significant, was just a copy of a copy, reproduced hundreds, if not thousands of times.
No matter how much I practiced, halfway through the Sunday prayers I’d falter, forgetting the rest of the words. I’d mumble through the rhythm hoping no one would notice, then we’d finish and get to the verse and by then I couldn’t remember which one I’d picked. I’d stall, letting the others go, hoping during that span of time I would remember, but it would come to me and I would open my mouth to find I had no words to say.
“Jesus wept,” my grandmother whispered. “Just say Jesus wept.”
Jesus wept. The shortest verse in the Bible, said by Jesus after seeing Lazareth’s sister’s grief. Even though Jesus had come to raise Lazarus from the dead and there was no reason for his tears, he bore witness to Mary’s sorrow and was moved by it. Her pain brought on his own.
My grandmother said the verse again, urging me to repeat after her, but my mother interrupted. “No,” she said, gripping my hand tight. “She has her own verse. She can say it. Hurry up now so we can eat.”
Unrelenting, my mother would make me stand there until I said it, and the rest of the family would patiently wait, and so they all stood firm, silently still. I swallowed hard, glanced up at the familiar painting, and then somehow I remembered.
“For it is by grace—for it is by grace you have been saved,” I began.
The hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by a white, British man by the name of John Newton. Newton was a slave trader. The song was inspired from an experience Newton had while sailing his slave ship back home. During the night they’d passed through a violent storm and Newton had woken to find his ship filling with water. He prayed to God for a “great deliverance” to save him and his ship from the ocean’s depths. His deliverance came and Newton wrote the first words to his hymn from the experience.
Newton renounced slavery five years before the publication of “Amazing Grace.” He became an evangelical minister, of all things, and the hymn echoes his regrets over his involvement in the slave trade. The “Amazing Grace” spoken of alludes to God’s forgiveness of Newton’s sins. “I once was lost, but now I am found,” the first verse of the hymn goes. “Was blind, but now I see.”
During the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney there was a point where President Obama paused, then he bowed his head. A brief silence followed, and as he lifted his head back up he began to croon the first few words of “Amazing Grace.” The crowd roared in response. Never mind that later he would be criticized for using a hymn written to describe God’s forgiveness for a man’s participation in the slave trade. No one thought of this now, instead the audience stood. They clapped their feet and cheered as he sang to them the well-known hymn. In a moment of black pain it was a call to rise up. It was a balm meant to soothe a wound open for far too long. It was a way of saying—we will get through this, together we will come together and heal in the ways we’ve always done. We will exhibit God’s grace and get through and, and perhaps, forgive.
“What is the thing you couldn’t forgive?” my mother asked me once. “Like, how far do you believe forgiveness goes for a person? Because I think it’s not the same for everyone.”
We’d gone out for dinner, one of the few times in my memory when she had a little money to afford it. The question had come out of nowhere, and I supposed she asked it as a personal musing and had not meant for me to respond.
“Are you talking about dad? For leaving? For the divorce?”
“What? No, I’m not talking about your father.”
“Who then? Your father? Is this about him?”
I’d regretted asking her the moment I said it. She was always dodgy about her father, and the few details I knew about were always told when she’d let her guard down. I’d hoped that maybe this time she’d finally tell me everything. I settled back in the booth and waited for her to say the words.
“Just forget it,” she answered, then took a long sip of her coke before telling me she didn’t want to talk anymore.
A few weeks earlier, I’d sat on the opposite side of the bathroom door listening to my mother grimace in pain. “Are you okay? What’s wrong? Should I do something?”
“I am going to have my tubes tied,” I heard her say to herself. “No, I am going to have them taken out and burned.”
It’ll be years before I’m able to thread this story together, before I fully understand the context of these events and their relationship to each other, and when I do I will be angry at everyone—at my father for leaving, at the man who would not leave his wife, and at my mother for all of what she never said.
The Taj Mahal an excerpt
It was Mallory who introduced us in the first place: at the shopping mall, then her party.
It was winter; I was visiting from L.A.
“L.A.,” Mallory said. “Wow.”
There was nothing wow about it. The hospital had put me on leave—something about “indecent behavior.” As far as I was concerned, I was the best OB/GYN they ever had.
“You’ve unraveled,” Dr. Barnes said. “The rest of the staff feels uncomfortable around you.”
“On what grounds?”
“On the grounds that you exposed yourself to Dr. Rosenberg.”
“I did no such thing.”
“You offered him sex.”
“That’s preposterous,” I said, glaring. “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
Then I took off my blouse.
It wasn’t always this way; in high school, Mallory was the adventurous one. Mallory was the one who got drunk off rum punch and Strawberry Boones. Mallory was the one with the tattoo; now she wore rust-colored sweaters and khaki-colored slacks, looking, at thirty-two, like the type of woman we swore we never would. We ran into each other at Target, on a Saturday afternoon. Mallory was pushing a shopping cart.
“Sabrina? Is that you?”
After high school, I had become glamorous while everyone else in my class had faded out of their glamorous time. Mallory included. She had a thick waist, loose skin; her blond hair had faded to brown. Meanwhile I was bronzed like honey, my hair the color of an espresso bean. I wore extravagant clothes, too. The night of Mallory’s party, I wore a raspberry cocktail dress from Neiman Marcus.
But it was meant to be a casual party.
I told her there was no such thing.
The party was typical: cheese boards next to a platter full of crackers and grapes. Mallory had strung up Christmas lights—colored ones, not gold. All night long she chased me around the house carrying store-bought appetizers and boxed red wine. She introduced me to her friends. They were the usual sort: the type of women who wore Christmas cardigans over stone-washed jeans. Their makeup was of the drugstore variety. Probably they were schoolteachers or nurses and probably they were afraid of me because I was a surgeon. A specialist. A God.
Sabrina lives in L.A. Can you imagine?
They couldn’t imagine. They couldn’t imagine that a week ago I had gone to a dive bar and popped a Klonopin into my mouth—then gone home with the DJ. His name was Yousif, and the next morning, four hundred dollars went missing from my purse. They would never understand me, these women, so I smiled at them, and nodded my head, and answered their questions about the traffic in L.A., and then, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I opened my bag and popped another Klonopin into my mouth. Then I started drinking. When I returned, Mallory had opened a bottle of champagne. Happy holidays everyone! I imagined spilling it on her floor. I wondered if she would get on her hands and knees to clean it up. I was thinking about this when Mallory’s boyfriend walked into the room, opening a can of beer, and suddenly, just like that, I began to think of something else.
I had no boyfriends of my own: I’d hoped Dr. Rosenberg could be my boyfriend. One morning we were sitting in the doctors’ lounge when I happened to show him a book I had read on giving really good blowjobs. Dr. Rosenberg had laughed, but later, when I showed it to him again, he didn’t seem so amused.
“I’m with a patient, Sabrina, and you’re being very inappropriate.”
Mallory’s boyfriend would have laughed. Mallory’s boyfriend worked for a tire shop called: Geeks on Wheels. He had a finely trimmed beard. There was something intriguing about him. He wore an Illinois sweatshirt over jeans. He had a dab of Brie on his chin. He stood near the cheese plate and avoided conversation. After a few moments, I walked over to him and spilled my drink on his shoes.
“It’s okay,” he said. “They’re not fancy like yours.”
I laughed louder than necessary.
“I’m Sabrina,” I said.
“Mallory’s friend, right?”
“Classmate. We went to high school together.”
“Right. I’m Dave.”
“Dave,” I said. “The boyfriend.”
“Well, Dave-the-boyfriend. I could really use a smoke right now. Know where I can make this happen?”
He pointed towards the kitchen.
“Back porch. You’ll see a life-size cutout of Santa Claus. You can’t miss it.”
“That’s where I’ll be.”
I could sense him watching me as I made my way into the kitchen, onto the patio beyond. When I stepped outside the giant Santa Claus was staring me in the face. The backyard was silver with moonlight and the branches were stripped bare. After a few moments, I heard the squeak of a door.
It was Dave-the-boyfriend. He was holding a beer. From an open window I could hear someone suggesting a game of Taboo.
“It’s supposed to snow tonight,” he said.
“I like the snow.”
“I guess you don’t see much of it where you’re from,” Dave said.
We were silent a moment; then Dave sat next to me and stared at my cigarette.
“I can’t. Mallory wants me to quit.”
“Mallory’s not here.”
“Aren’t you some kind of doctor? Shouldn’t you be condemning this?”
“I’m an OB/GYN,” I replied. “Are you pregnant?”
“Then as far as I’m concerned you have nothing to worry about.”
He took the cigarette from my hands. His nail beds were dirty. I found this irresistible. After lighting up he exhaled a plume of smoke; then he closed his eyes.
“God, I needed that.”
“Remember,” I said, crossing my fingers. “It’s our little secret.”
We stayed like that for a while, Dave and I, until the cigarette was finished and the evening turned cold. Then he flicked the cigarette into the bushes and brushed off his jeans.
“I better get back inside. Don’t stay out here too long.”
I followed him inside. Mallory was in the kitchen, opening a bottle of champagne. She looked even larger than I had remembered; her waist had ballooned. “My god!” she said, pouring me a glass of champagne. “You’re shivering!”
The thing about being an OB/GYN is that everyone wants to talk to you about their vagina: how to get pregnant, how not to get pregnant, how to get rid of embarrassing smells.
“Your vagina is like a self-cleaning oven,” I said. “Stay away from harsh soaps.”
The women flocked to me. They admired my shoes and my bag. They asked me about my makeup—I told them it was my natural glow. Then Mallory linked hands with Dave and paraded him around the room.
“It’s supposed to snow tonight,” she said.
“So I’ve been told.”
“So what brings you in town? Are you visiting your parents?”
My parents were dead; they’d died in a car accident last year. Nobody knew. When the clinic put me on leave, the first thing I did was purchase a last-minute fare to Urbana, Illinois. Then I got drunk in my room. I planned on sticking around for a while, putting the house on the market. I did not plan on running into Mallory or Dave.
“I’m just home for the holidays,” I said. “It being Christmas and all.”
“I see,” Mallory replied, going back into the kitchen.
Dave was staring at her, narrowing his eyes. I wondered if he was in love. Then I realized that nobody who loved somebody would smoke a cigarette behind her back.
So I opened my bag.
“Let’s smoke another one.”
Someone had decided to play Christmas carols on the hi-fi system and there was a game of charades in the living room and so no one noticed when Dave and I slipped out through the back door. The night felt colder; Dave offered me his coat. His sleeves were rolled up and I could see the tattoo on his arm.
“I have a tattoo,” I said.
“Yeah. But you can’t see it.”
“Because it’s on my vagina.”
He spit out his drink. We sat down in front of the life-sized Santa Claus and Dave was looking at my legs. Suddenly I wasn’t so cold anymore.
“I hate Christmas,” I said.
“I’ve never heard that before.”
“That’s because you’re dating Mallory.”
“Which reminds me,” Dave said. “Back there, inside, you said that you and Mallory were classmates.”
“I asked if you were friends.”
I stared at him quietly, smashing my cigarette onto the steps. Then I narrowed my eyes.
“You’re not just a mechanic, are you?”
“I dropped out of law school.”
“Because I’m an idiot,” Dave said, putting out his cigarette. “And because I thought I was in love.”
He went inside to get more beers and we drank them one-by-one, crushing the cans. The music grew louder, and every few moments there was an undulating cheer. Dave was getting drunk; I could tell. His eyes had glazed over. Meanwhile I was barely buzzed. On a normal night I had a whole bottle of wine to myself. Sometimes I would get so drunk that a piece of forgotten memory would return to me in the middle of the night. Once, I had woken up wearing someone else’s brassiere. I was thinking about this when an idea suddenly sprang to mind. I grabbed Dave by the arm.
“Let’s get out of here. Let’s go for a drive. No one will know.”
“I don’t know…”
“I’ve got ecstasy,” I said, dropping my voice to a whisper. “And marijuana.”
Suddenly there was a loud crash from within the house. Mallory was screaming about the turkey. She began running around the kitchen and calling Dave’s name.
But it was too late.