From the Outside In
by Janki Patel
I gaze at the girl standing in front of me, keenly observing her gauche stance. Her hands are placed casually on her hips, and she stands nonchalantly with her weight on one foot. I take a quick note of a vermillion circle placed at the center of her forehead, an anomaly amongst her smooth brown skin. I do not stare too long, afraid that my interest will offend her. Rolling my eyes away, I glance down at my watch and realize that I still have ample time before I must leave to teach Gujarati, my mother-tongue, at the local Mandir, Hindu temple. My eyes focus on the girl again. She is around my age, twenty or twenty-one, and she is wearing a kurti, a traditional Indian attire that volunteers of the BAPS organization adorn during weekly spiritual assemblies. She is bold, choosing to embrace her Indian culture amongst a society that encourages assimilation.
My eyes now meet her eyes. I watch as she connects her eyes with mine dead on, not shying away at this increased attention. I spot the veiny wrinkles around her eyes. The tired eyes are the result of yesterday’s grueling religious fast. She is still a bit dehydrated from not drinking even a drop of water. Each fast was another battle with her mind, another struggle, another victory. Eat. Don’t eat. Take a sip of water. Wait until tomorrow. Just do it. She tolerated. This girl was not afraid to abide by the values that she had accepted.
Her hands move to her wrist, grazing over thread bracelets. They are nadachadis, sacred threads to commemorate the religious vows she has taken. One is thick, braided, and faded-red as it has withstood the test of time. Her daily workouts have caused the bracelet to become fairly loose, loose enough to dangle into her palm but sturdy enough to remain on her wrist. She vividly remembers the instance when this nadachadi was tied around her wrist. In 2014 during Diwali, the Festival of Lights, she had taken a vow to refrain from eating at restaurants, one of the hardest vows for an adolescent Hindu to abide by. As she looks at the thread that is now perhaps days away from falling off of her wrist, she is reminded of the many occasions on which she resisted peer pressure and her own temptations to comply with her promise to God. With each passing day, the dangling thread comes closer to its end while her vow gains another day of resilience.
I now look at the five fingers on her right hand. I am taken back to the time when I was six and my mother had held my fingers in her hand. She had shaped my fingers into a fist and one by one uncurled each finger. Five fingers, she had said. Each one stands for something different. As she slowly uncurled my fist, she began stating the purpose of each finger. Family, friends, education, career. My pinky was left curled. I redeemed it myself, naively asking, what does this one stand for? She smiled. One day, you will determine that yourself. Fifteen years later, I have defined my last identity: religion. I look at the girl’s pinky finger in conjunction with the bold vermillion mark on her forehead. She too is a dedicated Hindu.
Our eyes break contact as, abruptly, she looks down and glances at her watch. I find myself doing the same. 10am. It was time for me to go to Mandir; today, I was to teach Gujarati vowels. I take one last look at the girl and let out a soft sigh, as my fingers flicker to the light switch of the bathroom and press down, diminishing the mirror and my reflection out of sight.
by Cristian Pintor
I dragged his body out of the thick and dark rainforest which I had known my entire life. My grunts and panting accompanied the orchestral symphony of the jungle. The songs of birds and the chit-chatting of monkeys jumping from branch to branch; all seemed to go silent as I got closer to the border between the jungle and the beach. The animals stood as spectators, looking down from the safety of the trees, at the sight of two humans struggling to run away from something they were unaware of. The sound of the jungle was soon replaced by the roar of waves slamming into the shore.
One final pull and a loud grunt helped release our bodies out of the jungles’ mouth. I looked behind me and saw a small canoe sitting on the shore, next to a woman’s body. It had been decapitated and gutted out as a desperate sacrificial attempt. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, catching my breath before I continued to carry his body again towards the canoe. My feet dug into the sand deeper than they normally would as I struggled to reach the canoe.
When I got to the canoe, I momentarily laid his body on the shore and pushed the woman’s body to the side. Her body splashing into the waves and the blood that had not drained out of her body stained my hands. Her guts were washed away by the waves and into the sea. I kneeled beside him and wrapped my arms underneath him. I lifted and placed him in the canoe.
When I turned around, I lifted my head and looked towards Citlaltepetl, as it began to expel a large cloud of smoke. A chaotic cloud of birds left the trees as they shook and swayed. The canoe wobbled. I felt my body weaken and my eyes began to swell but I also stood in amusement at the sight of the volcano’s fury and its power. I grabbed the paddle and threw it in the canoe and pushed the it into the sea .
While peddling, his eyes opened and he began gasping for air.
“Ikal!” I yelled his name and crawled towards him.
“I need water, I’m thirsty,” he whispered into my ear.
As I reached into my small pouch, I felt a sudden but subtle warmth on my back. When I turned around, Citlaltépetl had erupted. A massive black cloud had spat out of the volcano’s mouth, rapidly reaching out into the clouds, pushing them out of the way.
My heart began to pound while I held onto the canoe, nails carving the wooden surface. For a few seconds the explosion looked peaceful. Large pieces of rock were thrown out of the volcano’s mouth and more flocks of birds were fleeing the frightening scene. We had left our home, and everyone else who had decided to stay was now boiled to death by the hot ash running down the volcano’s body.
“Teyacapan, you—” I heard Ikal yell at me.
His voice was interrupted by a loud shockwave. The ocean waves suddenly picked up and our canoe was pushed away by them. My body was thrown to the back of the canoe, landing on Ikal. Citlaltépetl was furious. His eruption let out loud voices, hisses and shouts, like that of the demons the old priests talked about. The path for its destruction had already been paved long before it had awoken.
We had escaped the formidable horrors of chaos and panic from the fear that the world we lived in was destined to perish. When our society became aware of the danger that our future did not exist, all minute traces of hope were dissolved and carried away with the wind.
Citlaltépetl had been awoken by Ah-Puch, an underworld god who was angered by the relentless efforts of humans to change the course of the universe. Our kings tore out the hearts from hundreds of scarified lives to please the Gods. Lavish festivals were celebrated every day to honor them. Yet after mountains of heartless bodies and almost bankrupt royal families—our destiny had already been written the day our world was created. We had become too selfish and arrogant by believing we owned the world. Instead of saving it, we had unleashed catastrophic consequences and our gods were angered by our actions. Angered by our pride and our selfishness, when instead we were created to be humble and serve our creators.
The source of our society’s thread was millions of miles out in space. When our world had been created by the Gods, our bodies molded from dough made from white and yellow maize and blood from the Gods themselves, our end had also been written on that same day.
When time in our universe began, and the calendar dialed its first second, a large and uninhabited planet was expelled from its planetary system millions of miles away from us. Its journey through space would end when it collided with our planet. Marking the end of our world, and therefore our universe. The Gods created and recreated the world every time our calendar made a complete cycle. It was our destiny. But this fact wouldn’t be discovered by our culture’s most respected priests. It was our astronomers who predicted the wrath of our creators.
Naran, meaning “lunar eclipse,” was the name given to the rogue planet. Perhaps in denial that this planet was incapable of eradicating us and would instead result in another total eclipse, just like when our moon flirts with the Sun every so often.
We sat in silence, the small canoe being carried away by the current. A mist had covered the flat sea and it became so thick I could not see him. I could feel the silence build up, the small waves caressing our boat, the paddle bobbing from side to side and gently grinding against the wooden frame of the canoe, and the faint summer breeze flowing through my long hair.
“Are you there…?” he finally muttered out, breaking the silence.
“I am” I answered with a forced reply, mumbling out the few words I could.
“Okay.” He sounded annoyed and I knew why.
We had abandoned our home, but we knew it was in vain. This was something we could not run away from. I laid my head on my knees, clinging to myself.
“You’re a coward, just like everyone else!” Ikal cried out, his voice filling out the vast sea and what was left of the world.
“I rescued you! I saved your life!” I yelled back.
“For what? Do you think we are going to be pardoned? That our lives are superior to thatof the gods?” He moved closer to me.
“I didn’t want to be alone… I wanted to spend my last hours with you, Ikal, my brother.”
Before our city had erupted into chaos and war, Ikal was to be scarified as a desperate attempt by the priests to save our world. He was one of the few people who was not afraid and would rather die an honorable death and wait to be reduced to ashes during the collision of the planets, than to flee or be scarified. Unfortunately, his wishes were not granted, as he had been captured by the King’s soldiers and taken to the Kukulkan temple.
On top of the temple, he was laid on the altar, the priests and the royal family were present and the main priest held a sharp dagger in his hands. At that same moment, before the dagger pierced through his heart, Citlaltépetl awoke. Every one stood still.
During that moment as the panic-struck crowd kneeled in prayer at the sight of Citlaltépetl, I ran towards Ikal and rescued him. His body was already beaten by the soldiers and he could not walk because his feet were crushed.
“Well, now you have company. Just don’t try to save me out of this one,” he looked at me and grinned.
During nightfall, Naran finally makes his debut. It slowly rises out of the horizon, glowing in the dark. Its titanic body shows off the blue and white stripes that cover it. It is still thousands of miles away but it is already bigger than the moon, as the moon sits in front of it, in almost a trembling fear-like state. We both sit up; the glow paints our faces blue and Naran’s face is reflected on the ocean’s surface. It is so peaceful. By now we are hundreds of miles away from what once was the civilized world. We could just be the last humans in the universe. The hours fly by and Naran simply glides across the sky.
“Do you think it could just be a flyby? Why isn’t it getting closer?” I ask Ikal.
“This shouldn’t be happening…” he hisses.
The past owner of this canoe had loaded it with food and supplies meant to last a couple of weeks. I was lucky enough to have found it and lucky too that she was murdered while she also attempted to escape. We’ve been adrift for four days now and with each day, Ikal becoming more anxious and at the same time distraught.
Tonight, the sun set like every other night. I was right about the flyby but instead of Naran simply passing by, it has returned. It made its first loop around our planet and now it was ready for its second. This time it appears as if it is heading right towards us: no loop.
“I knew they weren’t wrong. I knew it!” Ikal shouts in excitement, as Nuran becomes bigger at the passing of each hour. I am getting immensely nervous and am having trouble breathing. Ikal ignores this and looks up into the heavens to thank the gods.
“Thank you, thank you!” he brings his hands together while facing Nuran.
“Stop it!” I become filled with rage, and push him into the water.
“You’re not changing anything!” he yells at me while holding on to the canoe.
I remain in my seat, still. Ikal is performing a prayer ritual, and Nuran seems to pick up speed.
“Do not be afraid, we’re here together. We are the last humans in the universe,” he says. He is holding my hands. I squeeze them and look up into the sky. Nuran eclipses the moon, and the calendar completes another cycle.
From Behind the Dumpster with Love
by Giovanni Centeno
I wipe the snot from my nose along the back of my hand and shift my body back onto the rough cement wall behind me. I will wake up with cuts tomorrow morning, but for now I can’t feel it—in fact, I can’t feel much of anything, except for the muffled buzz of the stereo system pulsing through the walls of the club I had rushed out of, and the heavy dizzy weight of my body against the wall. I have been vomiting for the better part of an hour, at least that’s my guess. I know it will not be long until Nic finds me. After seven years together, he knows the routine by now. The drunken fiancé tango where I play the supporting role of lovable drunken mess and he plays the suave and caring hero who saves the day. The entire thing is so cliché I can’t help but roll my eyes, even here alone in the dark. But he loves being the hero and I love him. This time I’m not making it easy for him, though. He has to find me out here in this alley behind the club, in the dark, propped against the wall, next to this dumpster.
My best work yet. Two hours tops, I figure.
Nic has gotten very good at his part, but then so have I. I am, after all, an artist. Well, at least I had been at one point. God, how long has it been since I even touched a brush?
I sigh and tilt my head backwards. The sky is dark purple and clear. I look for stars but the sky’s vastness seems to warp. It melts around me and makes me nauseous again. I close my eyes, pull my head down and begin to breathe deeply from my nose. I smell the warm humid air, a hint of salt of the nearby ocean, the earthy lukewarm contents of the dumpster beside me, and a hint of mint. Not mint, but menthol cigarette. Camel Crushes, like I used to smoke in college. Back when I was creating, and energetic, and single and happy.
I roll my head towards the scent at the entry of the alleyway and that is when I see you. Bathed in a florescent pinkish orange glow. Standing alone, you are tall and lean with dark eyes and hair, wearing a short sleeved maroon Hawaiian-printed button up. A silver chain nestled in the tuft of chest hair peeking out from your shirt, and I can’t help but stare as you take another drag. Your Freddie Mercury mustached upper lip and stubbled jaw make you look like a younger version of a bad 1980’s porno actor, but in all the right ways.
I take a big inhale and maybe it’s the sight of you or the cool smell of menthol but I swear I can feel happy memories churning up inside me, burning their way up. Except I am wrong—it’s vomit. I double over and watch as it comes out slow, hangs onto the corner of my lower lip and drips a wet trail onto my shoes and pants.
My head is spinning but I can recognize bits of the cake I had made for Nic’s promotion celebration dinner earlier tonight. It had turned out perfect, a first for me, and it may seem dumb but for a second, I thought I could actually do this. I could bake Pinterest cakes while sipping white wine in cashmere socks. I could zest lemon peels for perfect martinis and stop after just one. Now all that remains are the small white curds mixed with tequila and stomach acid on my shoes. Please let that be the last of it, I think.
I try to stand straight and watch as my shoes disappear behind the small mound that is my growing stomach. This shirt is too tight and I do not have the will to hold in my gut anymore. I know I look ridiculous, a doughy thirty-two year old man stuffed into the tee shirt of a band I do not know probably designed for teenagers. Shit, I am almost old enough to have a teenager. Jesus Christ. The conversation from the car drive to the club replays in my head.
“Just something to think about,” Nic said. “Ana from accounting did it, and she said she could even help us in finding a surrogate.”
It was just a conversation, but I saw how his face lit up and felt him squeeze my hand tighter. I mean, he is right—he is always right. This is what people do.
I look back over at you, still standing alone smoking your cigarette, watching intoxicated pedestrians as they stumble off into the night. You probably recognize the band members on my shirt, even though their faces are distorted, stretching wide across my stomach. You probably don’t wear socks at all, and have never even heard of Pinterest. You probably read Judith Butler while sipping black coffee and are full for the rest of the week, completely satiated on ideas, no food required.
You can’t tell now, but I used to be like you. Once, I only ate canned tuna for a week straight and stayed up every night chasing a vision I had of an old woman I had never met. She was vibrant and nurturing and her face never translated to the canvas correctly. She has since grown fuzzy in my memory, but I know you would have loved her. Nine years ago, you would have loved me. I know it. We would smoke and lie on top of each other listening to your rare record collection. You probably had the best record collection. And we would just lie there with dry mouths and red eyes wrapped up together in the smoke and basslines, not doing anything but feeling everything.
We would shamelessly steal scenes from the movies without even realizing it. I can hear the soundtrack now. It is something loving and sad, not because we are sad but because we need something to ground us. To tether us down before we float off into space, and you understand that. We understand that. This has to be destiny, but not now, not like this. You are too late.
Vzzzzzzzzzzzt, vzzzzzzzzzzzt, my phone begins vibrating through my front pocket. I had forgotten about it. I fish it out and Nic’s photo flashes on the screen. About time. I fumble my fingers around the device to silence it, but it slips out of my hand, falling into the mushy pile of drying vomit below. I hear a wet splat and it continues to vibrate, rattling its way across the puddle.
A startled rat shoots out from underneath the dumpster, running across my right foot and down the other end of the alley. The weight of its plump little body on my foot is enough to make me yelp and jump, falling back onto my ass, bumping my head against the metal dumpster hard enough to slam the lid shut.
The metal clang echoes through the alley for a moment, and then I hear, “Hello? Is somebody back there?”
Oh God, it’s you. Shit, shit, shit.
I stop myself from getting up and remain still. My heart is pumping triple time. I hold my breath. My eyes are wide and my jaw is clenched. Please do not come over here. Please.
“Hello?” I hear footsteps crunching gravel, getting closer.
Even your voice sounds amazing. You must sing in a band. I feel the seat of my pants begin to dampen, soaking up the sour contents below me. Oh, Jesus Christ, somebody stop him.
Skreeeech, the club’s exit door flings open and bangs against the wall, filling the alley with faint baselines and murmurs of the conversations within.
“There you are!” says Nic and I have never been so happy to see him. “Oh my god, what the hell are you doing out here?”
I look up at him with drooping eyes and silently lift my hands towards him. He wins.
“My poor baby, you are such a mess. Let’s get out of here. I want tacos.” He pulls me to my feet and wipes my face. He is warm, solid and soft and I let him guide me through the dark club to the parking lot.
At the taco shop, I rest my head on Nic’s shoulder, and feel my body relax. The world is spinning slower now. I look at the wall and realize the maroon wall paper is the same as your Hawaiian print shirt. I breathe in Nic’s cologne, catch a faint taste of menthol and let sleep fade over me.