The Battle of the Sexes

Tennis, especially women’s tennis, has come a long way over the past 50 years. This is thanks to a player, who, at age 11, vowed to change the sport. That player is Billie Jean King, and the match she played in the summer of 1973 has since been called both “The Match of the Century” and “The Battle of the Sexes.” This is the story of an athlete and the tennis match that changed the sport of tennis forever.

As a non-contact combat sport, tennis stands apart as an athletic activity. In tennis, two people duel against each other, often for hours, in a strategic battle of wits and physical prowess using oblong rackets and one green, fuzzy ball.

There are more than 60 million people who play tennis worldwide, making it one of the most popular individual sports. Tennis has also been revered globally for another reason entirely: gender equality. In an athletic world that still suffers from disparity, women’s tennis is hailed as a victory for gender equality. The four Grand Slam tournaments that are the backbone of the professional tennis tour now give equal prize money to men and women. Despite the progress, however, gender equality still remains an issue. After all, Wimbledon (one of the largest and most well-known of the Grand Slam tournaments) only started giving equal prizes to both genders in 2007 after an outcry by Venus Williams. None of this could have happened, however, without Billie Jean King.

The year was 1973, and it was match day underneath the Houston Astrodome. 33,742 people were seated in the stadium, while 90 million people watched on television. Everyone was calling the match the “Battle of the Sexes.” In tennis, the title “Battle of the Sexes” is given to an exhibition match between a man and a woman. Throughout history, there have only been about eight matches that have been granted this title. On September 20, 1973, however, the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was, and still is, the most promoted and renowned “Battle of the Sexes” in tennis history.

With a rendition of the song “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” playing in the background, Bobby Riggs, a male tennis star, was the first to make an entrance. He entered the court wearing a bright yellow and red-striped jacket with “Sugar Daddy” emblazoned on the back. He rode a rickshaw into the stadium surrounded by statuesque women (whom Riggs called his “bosom buddies”). Billie Jean King, the female player, followed closely behind, entering the court on the opposite side, lying on a Cleopatra-like litter bed carried by a pack of shirtless He-Men. The two opponents met at the net and exchanged words. Then, in an act of jest, they exchanged a gigantic Sugar Daddy lollipop the size of small child and a squealing piglet in a bowtie across the net. As Time Magazine’s 1973 article about the match stated, “Riggs was grim, nervous, almost ashen,” while “Billie Jean was stretched taut also, but it was the tension of a superior athlete fully confident of her capabilities.”

Bobby Riggs started his professional tennis career in 1939 as a 21-year-old amateur. Through a display of athletic dominance at Wimbledon, Riggs won men’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles matches, collecting over $100,000 in prize money by betting on himself. Shortly after, Riggs was the finalist at the U.S. National Championships (now known as the U.S. Open) and the runner-up at the French Championships (the precursor to the French Open). In 1941, Riggs played his first professional tennis match, but his career and fame came to an abrupt halt when the United States was drawn into World War II. During the war, no one cared much for tennis, causing professional tennis to temporarily come to an end. Riggs himself was drafted into the Navy, and it was not until after the war had ended in 1946 that he stepped back onto court in the professional tour. Immediately, he emerged on top once again. Although Riggs retired from competitive tennis in 1949, he continued to promote the professional sport and was never shy to boast about his own skills and achievements in the game.

Riggs was small in stature and lacked the overall power that some of his larger competitors had, yet still rose through tennis ranks from his use of heavy court strategy, ball control, finesse, and speed. He often outworked his opponents and pushed them out of position, allowing him to hit some of the sport’s best drop shots in history. His bellicose playing style on the court matched his reputation off the court too; he is infamously known to have been a gambler and a hustler—two things he was good at.

It came as no surprise when, in 1973, Riggs and his (possibly egocentric) promotions of the sport came into the national spotlight after he publicly stated that women’s tennis was far inferior to men’s. He also claimed that even at the ripe old age of 55, he could still easily beat the top women’s tennis players.

To back up his brash allegations, Riggs challenged Billie Jean King, whom he called the “women’s libber leader,” to an exhibition match. King, who was 29 years old at the time and already had 10 major singles titles under her belt, repeatedly refused. However, another player took Riggs’ bait, agreeing to play a Mother’s Day exhibition match with Riggs on May 13, 1973. Margaret Court was 30 years old and the match was attended by more than 5,000 people; however, Riggs defeated Court in a crushing 6-2, 6-1 game by way of his uncanny ability to control and dictate his opponent’s moves with drop shots, lobs, and an implausible amount of spin. Riggs’ victory landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which deemed the match a “Mother’s Day Massacre.” Because of Court’s loss, Billie Jean King ultimately accepted the lucrative challenge from Riggs that would take place on September 20, 1973 and would be known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” This match had a $100,000 prize and the primetime stage on ABC network.

King’s career as a tennis player started in 1968 but was propelled forward in 1970 with the creation of the “Original 9.” Nine up-and-coming women in the sport of tennis, including King, signed a one-dollar contract to join the Virginia Slims Circuit to protest the inequality of prize money given between men and women’s games. Even at this time, King was out to revolutionize the game. Often deemed one of the most well-rounded tennis players in the history of the sport, King was a master of all skills needed to play and win a great game. King was considered tennis royalty and the sport was her kingdom. Her career, which dominated the spotlight from 1966-1975, was marked with 32 (out of her total 39) Grand Slam titles. 12 of these titles were singles, 16 were doubles, and 11 were mixed doubles titles. She was a dominant player with an unmistakable on-court presence, known for her unmatched court speed, power, fierce net play, and an air of cutthroat competitiveness. She held the number one world position three times during 1966-68, 1971-72, and in 1974.

King knew that by accepting Riggs’ “Battle of the Sexes” challenge, she would have to play one of the most important matches in women’s tennis history. She said, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match” and that “to beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”

Before the match in September, during the summer of 1973, she helped create the Women’s Tennis Association and became its first president. She also threatened to boycott the U.S. Open unless it started paying their male and female champions equally, forcing the 1973 tournament to become the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money to men and women. This was contrasted starkly to Riggs, who at the same time, publicly embraced the title of “chauvinist” making statements such as: “She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability [to win],” and “Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order.” The press and the nation ate the drama up, and the match was set to be a spectacle, and only one of two matches in tennis history to play in an NFL stadium (the other being the 2019 Miami Open).

On Thursday, September 20, 1973, King was down 2-3 in the first set. She was playing cautiously, and as Riggs confidently dominated the first set by winning seven straight points in a row, the stadium became electric. The 1973 Time Magazine noted, “The fat cats in the $100 front-row seats, bedecked with signs that read ‘WHISKEY, WOMEN AND RIGGS’ and ‘WHO NEEDS WOMEN?’ sat back and gleefully awaited a rout.” King wanted to win for all of women’s sports. She often said, "Champions adjust," which is exactly what she did on the court.

Adjusting to the pressure, King forced Riggs to play a game that he simply was not in physical shape to play. As he struggled to chase after long shots, King finished points decisively with volley winners. When she noticed that Riggs was out of gas, she brought him to net to maintain her dominance. King pushed Riggs to the back corners of the court, moving him along the baseline with precise cross court and down-the-line forehands and backhands. Before long, she overpowered him with shots that he could not even get a racket on (70 of her 109 points she played were clean winners).

She was up 6-4, 6-3, 5-3. According to Time Magazine, Riggs’ son Jimmy said on a changeover, “Come on, Dad, wake up!” But it was too late for that. It was match point, and the crowd was hushed with a silent anticipation. King returned the serve and immediately started dominating the baseline. Running Riggs around, she suddenly hit a drop shot halfway through the rally, forcing Riggs to scramble up to net. He returned the shot, only to get a rocketing return hit zooming towards his backhand. He reached his racket in desperation, but caught the ball on the frame, sending it into the bottom of the net on his side. At this point, the match was over. King had won, and in so doing, she changed the history of women’s tennis forever.

Looking back, this monumental match combined with the then recent passage of Title IX, ignited a boom in women’s sport participation, inspiring women everywhere to advocate for equal pay in all sectors of sports and in the workforce. In the end, this is exactly what King had hoped to achieve. “Ever since when I was 11 years old and I wasn’t allowed in a photo because I wasn’t wearing a tennis skirt, I knew that I wanted to change the sport,” said King after the match.

The year after her infamous match, King became the first player and coach of a co-ed tennis organization, called World Team Tennis. This organization was the first of its kind, giving equal weight and responsibility to each man and woman competing for their teams. Then, in 1981, King publicly came out as gay, making her the first prominent female athlete to come out. Six years later, King was named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, yet even then, she was not satisfied with the advancement of the sport and wanted to bring more equality onto the court.

After her professional tennis career came to a close, she became the first woman commissioner in professional sports history and continued to work for years as a board member of the Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization she had formed during her playing days. In 2009, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding work towards the progression of sports equality.


For King, it wasn’t just about changing the world of tennis. Her desire for social change extended beyond. “That’s the way I want the world to look: men and women working together, championing each other, helping each other, promoting each other—we’re all in this world together.”

Billie Jean King championed an atmosphere of equality and acceptance in tennis, though issues of equality and acceptance still exist in most sports. Sadly, the professional world of tennis today still falls back into old pitfalls of gender divisions, phobias, and discrimination similar to those that initially sparked Billie Jean’s activism in the sport.

In 2015, Ukrainian tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky made explosive comments about the women’s tour and their players sexual orientations: “You see, on the ATP [men’s tour], we have a normal atmosphere … in the backbone of the top 100 [players] there are definitely no gays. On the WTA tour, almost every other player is a lesbian … can you imagine—half of them. So I for sure won’t send my daughter to play tennis.”

Such narrow-minded comments reflect old habits that have historically bred an atmosphere of discrimination that has plagued professional tennis. Yet, this serves as a reminder. Activists in women’s tennis, and the professional athletic world in general, are taking on the onerous task of promoting equality, inclusion, and acceptance across all genders in athletics. The journey has been long, and it is far from over. But in the words of Billie Jean King herself, “Champions keep playing until they get it right.”

Lights Out Issue | May 2019

Return To The Earth

In the midst of the climate crisis, humans have found many ways to lessen their impact on the environment by changing their lifestyles—but what about once you’re dead? Although it can be uncomfortable to talk about a topic as unpleasant as your own mortality, it can actually be a very worthwhile and even rewarding discussion. Pursuing options to reduce the harmful environmental impacts of your death can not only clear your environmental conscience, it can also help you feel more connected with your body and the role that it plays in the larger ecosystem.

Traditional burial and even cremation actually have pretty profound environmental consequences. According to a study published in the Berkeley Planning Journal, every year in the United States, 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid are put into the ground, which often seep into the surrounding soil, air, and groundwater.

Approximately 30 million square feet of hardwood boards, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete are used each year to build caskets. Not only do these materials leak into the soil in cemeteries, but the harvesting of these resources and the production of coffins also contribute to deforestation and use fossil fuels. Furthermore, a great deal of land is converted from wildlife habitats to cemeteries: according to Susan Dobscha, author of “Death and a Consumer Culture,” all the cemeteries in the U.S. combined take up one million acres of land.

Although cremation has the benefit of taking up less land and resources, it’s still not absolved from harmful environmental consequences. The process emits carbon monoxide, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other heavy metals into the atmosphere, and accounts for 0.2 percent of global dioxin and emissions of furan, a highly volatile compound released from thermal processing.

This is not the final, lasting effect that I want to have on this planet. The familiar motions of burying loved ones and visiting tombstones can be an important part of grieving and respecting the deceased, but we can also find comfort in practices that give back to the earth. After all, we are all organisms in the greater biosphere, so maybe there can be closure in completing our biological cycle. This could be done by very literally giving our decomposed nutrients back to the soil and vegetation, or by donating our bodies to the scientific learning of the human system. Listed below are some options that offset the harmful environmental effects of traditional funeral practices, that could perhaps provide a different type of comfort in our own mortality by bringing new life to the thought of death.

Green Burial

If you want to stick to the tradition of being buried, there are ways to make that process greener. You can reduce harmful effects by not being embalmed, having the grave dug by hand, not having a cement plot, and using a biodegradable casket (cardboard, wicket, or simply an unbleached cloth shroud). These measures allow the body to decompose naturally and return sustenance to the earth. This could take place in a traditional cemetery if you wish to be near already-buried family members, or you could choose to be put in a green burial ground, many of which also serve as wildlife refuges. Just like in a normal cemetery, family members have access to and a say in the design of your plot. They can choose from a variety of wild grasses and flowers to plant on the grave, and they can visit whenever they would like. Similar to the ritual of cleaning and leaving flowers near a tombstone, the opportunity to nurture whatever plant life grows in your place could produce a sense of connection and honoring of your life.

Mushroom Burial Suit

If you want to take your decomposition to the next level, you can be digested by mushrooms! Jae Rhim Lee founded Coeico, a company that creates “infinity burial suits” that are made of mushrooms. Through a process called mycoremediation, mushrooms work to purify many of the toxins found in human bodies. The suit is lined with spores that gradually consume your tissues and transfer the sustenance to surrounding trees through an intricate network of fungi in the soil. With this option, not only can you reduce harm to the planet, but you can also provide important materials to trees. The nutrients that make up your body go back to the very ground from which they came, lending nitrogen and oxygen to the cycles that sustained you in your life.

Become a Coral Reef

It’s not only terrestrial ecosystems that can benefit from your death—you can also help the fish by becoming a coral reef! A company called Eternal Reefs mixes cremated remains with environmentally friendly concrete to make a basketball-sized ball, which is then attached to a beehive-shaped artificial reef and lowered to the seafloor to provide a habitat for marine life. Although it doesn’t have the same positive impact that live coral has, it does provide a shelter that is favored by octopuses, cuttlefish, and countless other fish. It is estimated that coral reefs support 25 percent of all marine life, so they are critical from a conservation perspective. With this option, you can also become a larger reef combined with your family and pets. Although this option still has the harmful effects of cremation, it eliminates coffin production and land use. It also provides a much-needed habitat for species that depend on coral reefs. Just in the last three years, half of the Great Barrier Reef has died, and in the last 30 years, over 50 percent of coral reefs in the world have died.


Also known as water cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis, this is when the body is placed in a solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. The strong basicity and high temperatures of the water cause the body to dissolve in about 20 hours. At the end of the process, all that is left are a few skeletal remains, which are ground up into a white powder and given back to loved ones. From there, loved ones can proceed how they would with cremated ashes, scattering the powder or keeping it in an urn. This option is very similar to cremation, but considerably more environmentally friendly.

Donate your Body to Science

This option does not take up any land, removes the harmful effects of embalming and casket production, and helps the scientific community. The process is a bit more involved than just agreeing to be a possible organ donor; it requires an application through either your state anatomical board or the state university system. In Colorado, it is through the Colorado State Anatomical Board. Almost all institutions nationally accept body donations free of charge, with the exception of the University of Alabama, which charges $750. Even here at Colorado College, we have a cadaver lab where students can study anatomy from people who donated their bodies to science. We also have plastinated human brains in the psychology lab where students can learn about brain anatomy. It may be weird to imagine your body in a lab being examined by students and scientists. However, to me, the hardest aspect of mortality to deal with is the idea that you won’t have a legacy or leave behind a positive effect on the world, and donating your body to science can help you achieve both.

Body Farms

Forensic anthropologists can learn a lot if you donate your body to a body farm. Body farms are facilities where bodies naturally decompose in varying conditions and scientists study the different stages of decomposition so that they can more accurately assess crime scenes and solve cases more effectively. There are currently seven of these facilities in the United States. This option contributes to scientific knowledge that helps bring criminals to justice—your body could help close a murder case. This gives death more purpose, allowing you to leave a legacy of lessened environmental impact, scientific knowledge, and potential justice.


Livestock composting has been around for decades, so why not compost humans too? Composting humans is currently illegal, but Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, is working to change the legislature in Washington. Spade’s goal is to have a facility where families can deposit the remains of their loved ones and, in 30 days, collect the soil in return that they can then use to plant a garden. This is another way to be gracefully reintroduced to a natural ecosystem and give back to the earth. If this process were to be embraced, it could become a new tradition for grieving a loved one. The garden that would grow could function like any other type of memorial structure (bench, tree, garden, etc.) by acting as a space dedicated to remembering and honoring their life.


All of these processes are much cheaper than the average cost of traditional burial practices. Factoring in all the parts of a traditional funeral (embalming, casket, burial plot, grave liner, funeral services and transportation, burial plot, headstone, etc.) a funeral can end up costing anywhere between $7,000-$10,000. Cremation, averaging around $6,000, is not much cheaper. With many of the options presented here, you don’t have to worry about a plot or headstone, and donating your body is usually free. Reducing the cost of funerals can relieve a lot of stress for loved ones who don’t want to worry about making expensive funeral arrangements while they are in mourning. At the same time, these options can provide meaningful ways for families to stay involved and have spaces to honor the lives of the deceased.

It may seem crazy to abandon traditional practices that have been in place for centuries, especially regarding such a sensitive time in people's lives, but considering alternatives opens the door to so many positive ways in which we can impact the environment, scientists, wildlife, and our loved ones. Even in death, we can still leave a meaningful legacy and a healthy earth for future generations.

Death can feel like an impending void that we want to push out of our minds, but considering the larger role that our deaths can play in various scientific communities and ecosystems can bring into focus its purpose and cyclical nature. Thinking of death in this way can not only help us confront mortality during life but can also help families process their grief after a loved one’s passing. In grappling with such a heavy loss, a great sense of comfort can be drawn from seeing the bigger, regenerative picture. Life after death could take a tangible form of helping and sustaining other plants, animals, and humans. Our understanding of death could become less about the end of the life of one organism and more about the life subsequently given to the surrounding ecosystems and scientific communities.

Lights Out Issue | May 2019

Catalogue of Encounters that Have Convinced Me I Might be Breathing

Colorado Springs

I realized at a young age that escaping to the backyard was fruitless. It was too close to the house, still visible to all things that might watch from behind the rusted scrub oaks: parents, neighbors, a wandering mountain lion—and fruitless in the sense that there were no hazelnuts or Johannisbeeren or quince in the new and hard environment of my backyard foothills. Oma Eichholz is wandering a garden that isn’t mine any more. And this new backyard is no garden, just a hill of gravel and untamed, too short trees.  

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to know the back porch as a place of being seen. And with that knowledge of being seen comes a certain seeing, an understanding of the phenomena of see. An undeciding.



The cost of three pairs of shoes packed in a small black suitcase: musk, bursting zippers, my sanity. So this 10 euro buy from H&M is a donation to my headspace.

Dull blue stripes are stretched by the breathability of bleached white. It’s a baggy monster. I feel man-ish in the collar, and wearing it, I hear some deep sound within crying for suits and dress shoes and too much leather, a sound that wonders what it is to be a block of body with easy muscle. But I put on too much mascara instead. I feel a different body grow beneath the shirt, and I wonder if it will change the way I am looked at on the street. If they will look at me as the clumpy baggy content monster that I feel like.


Behind the Ugly Academic Building

She sits on the concrete block, legs tucked crisscross-applesauce. Last year I had known her for her zebra leggings, but this year she only wears black. Today her spaghetti strap hangs off her shoulders and one breast leans out, tasting the storm coming over the mountains.  

“Never date another writer,” she says. “You’ll have to lie about how much you love their writing and in the end they’ll just think you’re lying about how much you love them.”

Sometimes I pretend she’s my mom and we got lost somewhere early, before memories really mattered. I don’t mind too much what I call her now, but I like that she calls me T, like she sees right through me, like I can be essentialized and simplified down to something as easy to draw as a letter.


Grafton Street

When I stare at the figures pressing back at me, passing me, I see them as ocean waves contained. I feel a pulsing rhythm in the bodies near me, tides of people, moon phases of thought.

Today especially, this city that I love has warmed the concrete of my skin. I hate the staunch list of rules for the ways my feet should fall on the curb and the cracks, no two-step, just one step, one step. I squirm underneath it all.

But within that space of forced stillness, the pace of unease matches the certain slow rhythm of stoplights and the uneven beat of strangers on foot. I want to peer inside of each of them, but I never look too close for fear of what I might see. The pavement of memory, the unstable park benches of their doubts, the thinning grass beneath that first need, the blood stains in the alleyway we still haven’t admitted to.


Torc Waterfall

I think I had expected to find some kind of shimmering portal, ethereal music, and an open invitation to pass through the door into the realm of the Good Folk. So I stare for a long time at white water trying to discern what hinges look like in foam. But I see nothing and I hear nothing: no heavy magnetism towards the edge and definitely no fairy bells. Just the sounds of foamed water and stairs being stepped by tourists and lunging amateur photographers lunging and couples painting stiff smiles. There’s nothing quiet or magical about it. It’s paved and intruded. I can’t figure out if I’m intruder or intruded.

As disappointing as disappointment is, it forces me to realize the problematic structure of assuming that I am special enough to get a hand delivered invitation to another dimension. Probably something I should work on.

But then, as I’m making my way through one of those tunnels that seem to be there for no good reason at all, trying not to tangle in any spider-related artifact there comes this brutal screech. I stop. Wonder if the Good Folk are calling from within a spiderweb. Decide that’s absurd. I start to walk faster, judging by the echoed distance of the scream, the source was nowhere near my current location. I emerged from the trees, clunky speed-walking down the path along the lake, and headed back towards Muckross House. I come to a crossroads: one path leads back to the gardens along the water, the other leading into the trees and towards the screaming. I, curious, stupid, obviously take the latter.

As I dig through the tall grass and nettles and emerge on the other side, I finally understand why there is nothing human about the way the sound carries, or the deep tones of the distressed voice. Because in front of me stand 20 cows, viciously screaming their good morning moos.


The Cafe We Haven’t Visited Since High School

I understand now that no one actually likes coffee. Coffee is just rent. Rent to occupy the morning or a cafe.

She arrives before I do, and waits in the corner. The sun hits half of her face, making one blue iris shine like something singing. It’s been four years, but the talk comes easy. I say things like, “I feel like I write the same things as I did back then” and she says things like “I was in love with my best friend.”

Sitting so close to her reminds me why I loved her that first time: her quick rhythm—the new gentle way she treats my worn stories—and her hands, how they rest still in her lap, only stretching and wrapping right before she begins to speak.

And the big mamas of the mountains lean over us. They listen. For them I don’t think it’s been so long, just a long winter and a short summer.



I meet you by the too-low waters of the river Liffy in that shirt. It’s a hot month, and you, beautiful and too-slim, stretch like a shadow against the doorframe. You, an oh boy kind of boy.

From across the table I watch you listening to me, watch you play with the little black straw in your drink, watch you watch me. I talk like I know what I’m saying, and you tilt your head and crinkle your left eye in a way that says I don’t believe you.

I like watching your edges. Once we leave the bar we wander south, towards one of the canals. Your steps balance on the lip of the curb, heel bouncing up even before it touches the ground. Honestly, I feel like I’m scurrying behind you, small and heavy and striped and foreign (but not foreign enough to be excused for my faux pas). When we go into the Tesco for a six pack I like the way your index finger trails over the condensation on the rim of the fridge. When we duck into a church on the corner, I watch the way the sweat beads on your forehead like a blessing of holy water.

And after, down by the water by Portobello, you speak quickly and quietly, your brogue rolling like marbles in your mouth. We speak the same language but we don’t speak the same language. And after, you pull on my stripes like they are the only frustrations in the world. And after, you tell me I’ve gotten too quiet. And after, I realize I like, more than I should, the small silver hoop in your left earlobe, almost blended in with your brown curls. I catch it after you kiss me for the third time (my lips already sore because you’re too liberal with your teeth) and hold onto it tightly because it speaks very loudly about your burgeoning sexuality and hate of THE MAN. I hold onto it tightly, stare too hard, try to weave the things that you’re saying into the buttons on my shirt so I can pluck them out later and actually listen.

When it’s time to go, you push me up against the wall beneath the tracks and just hold my head between your hands. You stare long and hard and for a moment I think you see something you don’t like. But before I can ask you kiss me one last time.

If there was anything to be learned, it was that somehow, in turning my back as the train pulled away, I allowed myself to be woven into a breath that wasn’t mine.


Over the Atlantic

That immediate and last gesture comes too soon. It hangs in the air outside the closing door. Even though I don’t watch the door close, I know the emergency light is flickering against the old metal and that the icicles on the pipe above the hinges are still dripping, even as the temperature scurries down. I hear the grating click as it closes behind us and the intercom shudders alive with announcements about bad charities and seatbelts.

I want to turn and lean out the window, but I’m in the middle seat and the plane is already moving and it is too much so instead I imagine that the city remains suspended within the doorframe, a ghostly being, like that immediate and last gesture that hums in the space between me and the apartment complex.

This is about leaving, about being left. About never really knowing what the leaving is beyond the physical action (and trust me, I know that well, know it pressed against a slammed door, know it in the grand chill of the silent treatment, know it packed away in the trunk of a car I didn’t pay insurance on).

I’ve known the leaving before. I’ve done the leaving before. It isn’t supposed to come barreling through a Monday afternoon with urgency. It’s supposed to come slow in its approach, a drawn out wheeze, stealing your oxygen and leaving you tired and slow. Not confused and full and awake. All in one go. All the leaving done in one go.

I don’t say it to sound sappy or strange or broken for your pleasure. This heartbreak comes tasting sweet. After so many years of pain so deep and wide it sings to the Mariana Trench from my body, this hurt comes saccharine and quick. After so many years of claiming to be beyond pain, I don’t think I was really beyond anything at all. Just beyond knowing how to take it into my body and still able to fall asleep.

Lights Out Issue | April 2019

My Hair and My Hunger

In high school, my hair fell long down my back; it was curly, full of tangles, and highlighted a bit too orange—a big bouncing mess behind me during cross country races. But somewhere along the way, I got one of those haircuts—the kind that somehow is cut a bit too short even though you wanted only a trim. Immediately, all I wanted was for it to grow back.

It seemed to make slow progress at first, but one day, it stopped. It was a stubborn, awkward, upper-back situation, and I tried everything to fix it. I gingerly cut off my own split ends, combed and conditioned, and got a vitamin supplement from Gwyneth Paltrow’s website that was “essential for hair growth.” It was annoying and very boring. When I eventually exhausted every solution the internet had to offer me and grew tired of repeatedly scouring the results of the same “how to make hair grow faster” Google search, I settled into a passive exasperation with my hair’s glacial progress.

In the 60s and 70s, long before my hair and I showed up on the planet, a Stanford psychologist named Walter Mischel performed experiments on children to understand the relationship between delayed gratification and school performance. The researchers would present a child with a marshmallow, promising that if the child resisted the temptation to eat the marshmallow for the following 15 minutes, they would receive a second one as well. The children who waited for the second marshmallow were considered better members of society later in life or somehow superior to the one-marshmallow kids (more recent studies have shown that many of the one-marshmallow kids actually just have trust issues, not poor self-control, but I digress). It theoretically makes sense if marshmallow self-control translates to things like writing a final AP U.S. History paper instead of re-watching “Breaking Bad,” or foregoing a microwave burrito to actually make an attempt at cooking.

I’m a one-marshmallow kind of girl, for the most part. I’m good with a savings account, but not with punctuality—I can be ready for a 9:30 a.m. class at seven, but I won’t walk to class until at least 9:35 because I’ll change my outfit at 9:26. My papers are consistently a good 15 minutes late, no matter how early or late I start it. I value efficiency, which actually means I give myself as little time as possible to frantically (and often miraculously) complete “boring” tasks so that I can maximize my time doing things that are fun, like crosswords and reading Wikipedia.

I like feeling like I’m doing something, even if the feeling of doing something is often the opposite of actually getting anything done. I prefer feeling in control to possessing actual self-control. If waiting for two marshmallows would be waiting a few hours for a snowed-in road to open so that I could catch a three-hour flight, I’d rather start the 18-hour drive to the same destination. Waiting at an airport gate is agonizing for me; despite adding 17 hours of driving, I feel like I’m making more efficient progress. I can see that my foot is on the gas pedal and every mile feels like a metaphorical marshmallow, as long as I’m controlling how I get there.

This is all to say that waiting for my hair to grow was the same feeling as waiting for an airplane, and I’ve always needed to feel my foot on the pedal of something, even if I haven’t usually been conscious of it. As a kid, I was kind of able to find this pedal with school, but mostly through stories: I liked turning book pages and playing with dolls, always able to choose the pace or content of a narrative. But when I got to fifth grade, school lost its allure. I started taking daily trips to the nurse for a “headache” that would coincidentally only occur during math lessons, school lost its allure. I couldn’t control my grades the way I had earlier, and when I hit middle school, the new necessity of time management wedged out whatever was left of the gas pedal feeling I’d been able to glean from class.

But I needed to get it from somewhere. In childhood, I’d always maintained a slightly neurotic relationship with food. In sixth grade, it became useful: that neurosis gave me something to control, and since food is part of survival, that something would never go away. Combined with my new affinity for Seventeen Magazine and the “ideal” bodies presented to me within its pages, I finally had a cause to pursue. I’d always been physically small, but now smallness was my mission, and every hunger pang and headache was a marshmallow.

I kept this up throughout high school, cycling through various pursuits. Freshman year, I got really into Sims and ran on the cross country team. I went to boarding school, and although I hated running, my participation in track and cross country briefly gave me what I needed. Competing was the ideal gas pedal: I would intentionally start out slow during races, reveling in counting the bobbing ponytails I passed on the trail. I craved that repeated sense of accomplishment, even if I’d manufactured it.

Races end, though, and food does not. Hunger was reliable and so were the beauty standards I’d internalized. I did well enough in school, but doing well without the added “enough” seemed to require the combination of boredom and agitation I so dreaded. As I divested my energy from academics and sports over the years, I gradually but consistently increased my investment in hunger. I felt productive, but I increasingly suffered for chasing the bait of thinness, that sense of control: the hours spent dissecting my own reflection, the suffocating guilt after eating, the headaches, the isolation, the pride I was alone with, the shame I was even more alone with. I knew starving was unhealthy and even tried to quit occasionally, but it never went well and always sated me with regret.

This suffering, although deeply painful, was contained to my psyche in high school, and my body resisted showing any serious signs of harm. And then, towards the end of senior year, I got that haircut and entered college with it.


I was mad at a lot of things during freshman year: econ class, math class, myself, alcohol, my hair. Hunger felt like self-control, so I stayed there, shrinking like a worn-down eraser. My notion of thinness became more extreme as I pared myself down, with my intended stopping point always shapeshifting as I approached it. My deteriorating body seldom made it to classes or thought about preparing for them, which was fine—I wanted to be thin, not to get good grades. Anything that didn’t aid that cause was superfluous to my life. I stopped sleeping or socializing. I treated thinness like gravity because it felt like gravity: irresistible and fundamental, comforting and sobering, the reason for up, down, left, right, perennially tugging me downward. I decayed toward its center, looking to the mirror for assurance that I was on my way.

I was a corroding, unsound body by the time I finally “arrived” at the standard I’d set for myself. I was scrutinizing the reflections of my limbs and ribs in the mirror on my door like I did every morning when I saw it. I was thin. I wasn’t beautiful—my eyes protruded from their orbits, my nose and chin held an eerily sharp topography, and my face perched like a bobblehead on the skeletal cylinder of my neck. I wasn’t beautiful, but I was thin, which was what had mattered. I ogled thinness—gravity—from my gray complexion, willing it to be exciting or prideful or produce two marshmallows. I was grossed out by what I saw, but I also liked it, and still: I craved hunger. Liking myself and wanting to be hungry were supposed to be incompatible, like setting water on fire. Hunger’s illusory promise was untangling and collapsing in my own reflection.

As I held my own stare in the mirror, panic dropped into my throat, fumbling up the ridges of my esophagus and creeping the route of its perimeter, gagging me with the terror of having what I wanted. My eyes were possessed by a stunned, oxygenless contact with their imposters. I wanted to be hungry, even while my brittle hair grazed the peaks of my shoulder blades. The panic subsided, but doom did not. It manifested as a hulking, unsustainable dread, and by the time the month was up, I had left school in a total mental collapse.

What felt like control over myself was not self-control, and I could not stop starving. I had what I wanted, and the compulsion to not eat didn’t have an even hypothetical destination. I took medical leave from school and entered a terrifying inpatient unit with double-locked doors and patients who were discharged only to be readmitted. When I got a bed at a residential program where I could at least take daily walks outside, it briefly felt like paradise. Of course, it was actually a deeply painful and excruciating period of growth—I scream-cried in therapy and at my parents, once made a break for it when I was allowed to go out for dinner with my mom (and was barred from leaving the unit for a week afterward), gained weight, and learned about feelings and why I have so many of them. I had to unlearn over 10 years of marshmallow chasing and surrender my life’s gravitational core. It didn’t always feel worth it, and I liked and detested my body in waves that never had much to do with what I actually looked like. I moved to a transitional home and successfully tested out my unlearning in real life. I did outpatient work, where I still sometimes scream-cried. For that year and a half, I worked harder than I ever had at anything to even comprehend recovery, let alone commit to it. It was searing, then uncomfortable, and eventually tolerable enough for me to head back to school. Here, recovery is a habit, albeit a fragile one.

So now I’m here and in recovery, body positive but still always tempted by hunger. I’ve met it in all its stages and learned its inner and outer contours with an almost tactile precision: the rattling hands, the buzzing, wide-eyed fatigue that precedes its crushing lethargy, the way its pangs yawn open and snap like waves. I know its teleology, and I can’t help but trust it like the inhale and exhale of my own breath—sustenance and deprivation can feel oddly parallel. The familiar feels safe, no matter how dangerous it is.

This trust and sense of safety has been consistent across all of my bodies, recovery ones included. Some of my legs have faltered on short walks to class; a different pair has crossed countless finish lines. I had two arms that used a children’s blood pressure cuff, two that successfully arm-wrestled my younger brother, and a different two that can grip the gunnels of a capsized, water-logged canoe from underneath, break its suction to the water’s surface, and lift its absurd weight over my own head. Some of my hearts palpitate just upon waking while others thud steadily or rapidly to sustain the adrenaline rush of joining other strong women’s hearts to wrench a heavy sailboat from a vacuum of waves on a lake and impossibly heave it up onto the surface of a dock. These bodies of mine, even in their wide range of physical capabilities, hold the same faith in hunger. Even the bodies that have been devastated by its betrayal trust it, and the ones that reject a desire for thinness do too.

When my body was an aesthetic project, I got my marshmallows by visually assessing my decay. When the project seemed complete and I still hid in hunger, I realized that my marshmallows were a rendering of hunger itself. Body tolerance, and eventually positivity, didn’t diminish the instant gratification it provided. Every once in a while I find myself in a brief panic about my weight for the sake of how I look, but for the most part I’ve shed that problematic mindset. Bodies are for living in, not for dissecting and evaluating against arbitrary beauty standards. The only thing weight measures is weight—its health implications are little-to-none when it’s taken as an isolated measurement. But body positivity failed to be the ultimate cure to my obsession I’d expected. I’d always assumed that reconciliation with my body as is would resolve it—but as it turns out, hunger is much more than that. My idea of “thin” was fundamentally ambiguous and undefined when I first pursued it, but even more obscure was my desire for hunger with no ulterior aim at all. There’s no logical way out of a love for that emptiness that resides in the same mind as a love for my body. Hunger is an unapologetically hollow shell of a purpose.

The ultimate trajectory of it is hiding: to cover myself by depleting myself, to compel myself toward nonexistence. This compulsion uses my body to build something inaccessible and invisible, an empty promise fleshed out by the fleeting sensation of wanting food, and sustained by feeling it over and over again. It runs in place. The satisfaction isn’t in arriving at that imaginary end, but in feeling like you might be getting closer.

Realizing I didn’t care about being skinny awakened me to this and disoriented me; I responded to feeling thin not by abandoning the process, but by retreating back into starvation, the most orienting place I knew. By the time I realized that thinness wasn’t what I wanted, hunger had become a hallucinatory womb for me. It was my solitary source of marshmallows, filling some internal void with perpetual anticipation of something vaguely desirable. Whenever I messed up or worried about my future (in high school, college, or adulthood—the bummer about worrying about the future is that it’s never over with), hunger reassured me that the best is yet to come and always will be; whatever “the best” is, it isn’t here yet, and I can always eagerly await it because it never will be. Promises of joy and pride like getting into college, academically impressing the adults in your life, and being any kind of summer intern failed to hold up for me. Two marshmallows weren’t worth the work or the wait. Hunger was my deadly optimism for something better.

This optimism still appears in flashes, drawing me in and catalyzing some kind of warped reasoning about how this time might end differently—maybe hunger will make me happy, even if it never has in the past (it never does).

It stings to be constantly wrenched away from what you thought you wanted. Seeking hunger is like forgetting that your least practical but most nostalgic pair of shoes doesn’t fit: it rubs your heels open, blistering and stinging them because you forgot that the shoes are not wearable. The dream of using them is wrenched away again, and it hurts to even put on your comfiest shoes, the ones that do fit, back on. You’re punished for even trying.

Recovery is a rejection of that optimism and a leap of faith into a murkier one. This leap has to be made over and over, and requires settling into the unsettling nature of blind trust. It punctuates each of my days and seems to have enormous stakes in spite of its mundanity—I don’t remember what I ate for lunch at this time last week, but choosing whatever it was probably felt like a fundamentally life-altering decision. It always becomes some kind of pros and cons of eating, which is exhausting and is made all the more so by the prospect of doing this for the rest of my life, and yet the only thing worse and more tiring is the alternative—succumbing to the eating disorder again.

Each of my bodies’ narratives move further every day from the one I know and the pain where I found an insidious sense of safety. Yet if I look back only for a moment, I can still see the inaccessible end I thought I wanted, without being close enough to always understand it as a hazy path that leads nowhere. I will always live in this body, and it’s much more comfortable when I prioritize habitability over marshmallows. Where I go now, each day, is home, to myself.

I’ve been slow to understand that one lives in their body. It only made sense when my hair stopped growing. Now, I can take the end of a curl between my thumb and index finger and proudly pull it taut to where it meets my middle ribs. I can let go and watch it energetically spring into its natural coil. I love the increasing speed at which I go through bottles of conditioner.  Every inch it grows and every extra minute it takes me to braid it, I am reminded that I am alive and that growth is inevitable. It’s how I dip my toes into displacing more air on this earth and finding that I won’t fall through its crust. It’s an optimism even more powerful than the one that hunger seduced me with: I have more control than I can always see, and even if I can’t access every detail of my hair’s progress, each spiral reassures me that the hesitant trust I place in food is worthwhile. Unbraiding it yesterday took me 15 minutes. My hands and arms started to fatigue as I finished, and I struggled to separate its thin, knotted ends. It is increasingly a hassle, to say the least, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lights Out Issue | April 2019

World on Fire

I slowed the car and tentatively rolled down the window. The glass squeaked against plastic as I pressed firmly on the button. A thick, yellow smog quickly seeped into my car. I felt my chest tighten and my breath quicken. I attempted to avoid inhaling the yellow muck. It hurt to breathe. Crossing Jackson Street, I saw a family waiting for the school bus. The 6-year-old had a huge, white mask stretched across his face, practically two sizes too big. An eerie, apocalyptic feeling pervaded the scene. Everyone was wearing masks to protect themselves from the carcinogenic air—the mailman, the shopper, the Uber driver. I drove past a playground. Empty. It was like all of the kids had suddenly evaporated. Parents were probably keeping them inside, worried about the negative effects the air would have on their lungs. The TV had said that morning that breathing in the toxic air for a day was the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes. The air quality index was 165, levels deemed extremely unhealthy by the EPA. I quickly rolled the window back up. Was this just a small taste of what was to come?


When I returned home over Thanksgiving break, I found San Francisco enveloped in thick smoke, a cloud that clogged the air from Sacramento to Southern California. Fires were burning all across the state. San Francisco was just one of the many places getting hit hard by Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. President Trump wrote a tweet about the natural disaster: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!" Harold Schaitberger, President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, stated that Trump’s comments were “reckless and insulting to the firefighters and people being affected.”

Although the origins of the fires are still under investigation, it is imperative to note that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), July 2018 was the hottest month ever recorded in California. It was also the month of the infamous Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest wildfire in California history. This is no anomaly: six of the 10 largest wildfires in the state’s history have occurred in the past decade. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the implications of California’s historical and scientific records allows him to blame the occurrence of fires on poor forest mismanagement. However, Trump is missing the fact that it wasn’t forest managers’ fault at all—it’s the anthropocentric mismanagement of oil and greenhouse gas emissions altering the climate in irreversible ways, leading to warmer, drier climates ideal for instigating wildfires of mass destruction.

Overall, the correlation is clear: the effects of rising global temperatures and political agitation go hand in hand. For example, when Trump denies climate change, he does so in part because he needs to align with Republican voters; he chooses political alignment over logic. This denial of fact-based evidence of climate change and its detrimental effects leads him to do nothing about greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, emissions continue to increase at an unprecedented rate, spurring warmer temperatures and more fires. It’s a simple positive feedback loop of ignorance and denial fueling further destruction. Under Trump’s government, the effects of climate change seemingly don’t exist. His Twitter account tells us that it’s not the heat that caused the fires, it’s simply the forest managers’ fault.


Political apathy and our president’s disregard for the effects of climate change in turn act as catalysts for further environmental destruction. For example, in California, the wildfires soon became an “opinion-based” debate in politics, with both politicians and media outlets posing questions like “who was responsible?” We see this trend resurface every time climate change is brought to the table in political debates. As soon as the issue becomes politicized, candidates ignore science in favor of politics and dig the environment into a deeper and more catastrophic hole. On the national stage, politicizing climate change usually takes the form of simply debating its existence. Right-wing politicians deny that climate change impacts their politics, but as the Earth heats up, so does the debate. Science should be able to speak for itself outside of the lens of politics. Knowing the evidence of the dangers of a warming climate should incite progressive steps towards new policies that could save human lives. Politicians’ apathy and inability to listen to science has resulted in a direct threat to our human rights, properties, and lifestyles.

Climate change deniers throughout the United States and rising right-wing populists in Europe choose to ignore the power that natural disasters have in shaping a country’s political agenda. As Trump himself once stated, “I don’t believe in global warming. I believe in weather.” But what happens when that so-called weather starts spiraling out of control as a result of anthropocentric greenhouse gas emissions, heating up the globe at unprecedented rates? It puts humans directly in harm’s way.


The Humans Rights Association states that access to resources such as water, food, and shelter is a fundamental human right. Therefore, rising temperatures, burgeoning storms, and receding coastlines threaten not only global economies and capitalist systems but also human rights. Although they are diverse geographically, culturally, and politically, Iraq, the UK, and the state of California have all experienced both the drastic effects of temperature rise and political upheaval in 2018. Whether the political activity was driven by the heat itself, or simply exacerbated by it, the trends of political apathy causing rising temperatures and other effects of climate change cannot be denied. Governments choose to neglect the significance of climate issues because if they confront them, they must then confront the capitalist systems and industry driven environmental destruction lying beneath.


As we all know, the extreme temperatures of the summer might have dipped briefly in the fall, but global warming trends continue to point to a world that’s only going to get hotter. To top 2018 off with a sizzle, the Camp and Woolsey fires in California mark the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history, with over 86 deceased and a collective burning of 250,285 square miles. Though as of November 26, the Camp Fire had been 100 percent contained, California’s fire season reveals the terrifying implications of our changing globe.


There’s no doubt that 2018 was sweltering: California’s wildfires prove so. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, scientists suggest 74 percent of the global population will experience more than 20 days of lethal heat waves per year by 2100. Only 30 percent of the population currently experience these levels. It’s obvious we are going to see more of these heat waves in the future and on a much larger scale. Climate change has begun to impact our daily lives, even with something as seemingly mundane as a few degrees warmer weather. And it’s impacting our politics too. As we look to the 2020 election, a new tide of democratic candidates has created climate centric platforms, ready to create and implement radical legislation to combat climate change. This tide stands in stark contrast to the apathetic smog encompassing the White House today.


We should be paying attention to what we observe, experience, and what science says outside of the jargon of political discourse. We need a grassroots political agenda in order to make sure our governments respond to these future warming events with direct action in the interest of human rights. These warming events are no longer hypotheses or just data points on a graph. Rising temperatures are negatively impacting human lives across the globe. It’s time we put on our Dickies, lace up the Docs, grab some posters, and get to work.

Lights Out Issue | May 2019

Don't Talk About Fight Club

“Fight! Fight!”

The chants are deafening. More than a hundred people scream from a circle several bodies deep. Beer cans fall from high arcs into the middle and surround the combatants. The two shirtless men are locked against each other, their shoulders pushing the other one back as blow after blow land on their torsos. Finally, one is knocked to the ground. The other takes the advantage, wrapping his arm around his opponent’s neck and applying pressure. After a long 10 seconds of feeble struggling by the downed man, the match is called. The victor raises his hands and lets out a warlike shriek as the crowd roars.

Off to the side, there’s a tall, sandy-haired boy in glasses. His thoughtful, elfin features and slim build set him apart from the screaming masses, though he watches more intently than any other. A dried spot of blood mars his white v-neck. His name is Garrett Pelton. Never one to resort to violence or anger, his interests tend towards the intellectual. He loves writing poetry. He has a hidden passion for primatology. And he’s as surprised as anyone that his fight club turned into this.


Pelton had a childhood defined by adaptation. His family moved all over the world as he grew up, and while he found it hard to make long-term friends, his family became close as could be. His childhood memories are of sword fights with his brother, catching lizards with his father, and being held in a papoose by his mother at a Renaissance fair.

When he left his family to come to college, Pelton felt a deep hunger for meaningful connection. His friendships at school have been defined by their intensity, as he tries to mimic the familial relationships he finds so important. “Garrett is a really thoughtful person,” says Lisa Francis, his friend of several years. “Spontaneous, but in a very thoughtful way. He needs people who can be around that all the time.”

The Liberal Arts Fight Club originated predictably: with the movie “Fight Club.” Upon watching it for the first time in high school, Pelton didn’t know how to process it. “It blew my mind,” he says. “All I did for the next 45 minutes was run around the house with a blanket on. I still don’t think I’ve processed it totally.”

Francis uses a different word. “He was bewildered by ‘Fight Club.’ Intrigued, but bewildered. He’s still bewildered.” Regardless of the characterization, it left an impression.

There’s a story that David Fincher, the director of “Fight Club,” tells sometimes:

“My daughter had a friend named Max. She told me ‘Fight Club’ is his favorite movie. I told her never to talk to Max again.” It’s telling what Fincher thinks of his own fans.

Contrary to what one might expect from someone who wants to spend his Saturday night getting bruised and bloodied, Pelton’s reasons for wanting a fight club had nothing to do with competition. He never mentions masculinity (the thought never even seems to cross his mind), he never mentions winning, he never mentions trying to prove superiority over someone else. For him, it all goes back to relationships.

It’s not just interpersonal relationships that are important to Pelton. He relies on a feeling of connection to feel close to himself, his spirituality, and his personality. “Oh yeah,” says Charlie Grayson, another friend of Pelton’s, “Garrett seems to have some kind of epiphany every other week.”

“Garrett seeks things that make him uncomfortable in some sense,” Francis adds, “and he was already used to being uncomfortable relationally and spiritually. This was trying to more physically understand his relationship with himself and others.”

“I’m not a violent person. I consider myself largely a pacifist,” Pelton says. “But I was at a place where I was questioning my relationship with my body, where I had this strange fear of being hurt. I didn’t have any relationship with my physicality, and I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I thought that starting a fight club at a liberal arts institution was a really, really good way to get myself and others out of our comfort zones in a really experiential way.”


The first night of Fight Club (years ago, now) was fairly subdued. Restricted to Pelton and a small group of his friends, it was closer to wrestling than fighting. Gathered together on a grassy field near campus, they created a crude bracket and began wrestling. Everyone involved was like Pelton—a brainy college student who simply wanted to experience a physical challenge beyond a tough jog or a new workout. Eventually, at the encouragement of an RA, they stopped for the night. Over the next week, however, machinations took shape. After the success of the first, Pelton’s vision grew.

When Pelton first arrived at Colorado College, he formed a series of incredibly intense friendships with some of the oddballs of his classes. They became Pelton’s confidants, his family surrogates. Even so, they never felt the same as his family.

“He was lonely at CC. He, I think, really felt stuck,” Francis remembers of Pelton’s freshman year. If a relationship wasn’t familial, he didn’t want it. And if he didn’t have a real relationship with someone, they weren’t worth his time. In his eyes, there wasn’t any unifying community at Colorado College, and he didn’t know how he could feel at home. After that first night of Fight Club, he identified not just a unifying community he could be a part of, but one he could be at the center of. “He was able to get out of his head for once because he was surrounded by people who were so energetic in this totally similar way,” Francis concludes.

When Pelton lay on the grass that night, with his clothes muddied and muscles exhausted, he connected beyond the small group of friends he’d had for the last two years.

Grayson recounts how Pelton, on the walk home after the first Fight Club, couldn’t stop talking about it. “He was just ecstatic and felt like he had reached a new level of understanding of himself.”

And Pelton wanted more.


After the first night, Pelton, in violation of the famous “Fight Club” rules, began mentioning the Fight Club to a few people. The first night had gone so well, he wanted to repeat it. And why not get a few more people in on it? Reaching out to other friends who he knew could match his energy and enthusiasm, Pelton prepared for a similar night. A bigger bracket, perhaps a little more energy in the air, too, still just a group of friends wrestling in the grass.

But something unexpected happened. The rumor of a “Liberal Arts Fight Club” began to leap from person to person like a flame, igniting some violent desire within every person who heard it. Soon enough, people who didn’t even know Pelton had heard of Fight Club, and in turn told their friends. Along the way details were lost. What had started as Garrett Pelton’s Liberal Arts Fight Club, a group of friends wrestling in the grass, turned into just Fight Club. And while Pelton expected to just be wrestling with friends again, students across campus expected something else. They expected Fight Club.

That night’s Fight Club was different. Where before there had been a group of seven or eight friends, there now stood a crowd of dozens. A portable speaker blasted the sports arena anthem “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project as more and more people arrived. Over the sound of the music and excited conversations of spectators, Pelton’s friend Jack took it upon himself to become the announcer, commencing each match with a shout of “Welcome to Pepsi Field! Let the fight begin!”

Where the first Fight Club was composed of close friends, this had clearly grown to something more. Looking around, Pelton saw faces he didn’t recognize, people he had never seen at CC. Some of them weren’t even students.

“There were some guys in the military at the second one,” says Grayson. “Like off in the corner these big Army guys and I think an Air Force cadet or two were talking to each other.” Two of the soldiers eventually fought. And while none of the students knew them, they cheered nonetheless.

The fighting this night was different too. Now people were throwing punches and bloodying noses. Over the next week, attendees would walk into their Just War Theory and Music History classes, quietly bragging to their classmates that they were bruised from the already infamous Fight Club.

 “It was just shocking to see people there, and people coming. The draw was insane. It was like a moth to a flame, I’ve never seen that kind of … ” Pelton trails off. “I overheard one person say, ‘That shouldn’t exist. But it does, and I’m coming back.’”

And come back they did. Next weekend, at the third Fight Club, over a hundred students showed up. This one wasn’t advertised, Pelton barely mentioned it to anyone. Its fame had just grown that fast. No speakers this time, since the noise was too great for any music to be heard. “It sounded like a stadium,” Pelton later recalled. Every time a new person arrived, a dozen more people heard about the event. The spectators, growing by the second, demanded blood.

The first Fight Club was composed of friends who thought of themselves as intellectuals. There was no actual fighting going on, just wrestling between friends. They had no ill will towards one another and no interest in hurting anyone. Now, as Pelton watched strangers throw kicks and punches at each other, he saw how the space had changed.

This wasn’t what he had wanted. “It became this really immoral space where we dehumanized everyone,” he recalls. In one particularly memorable fight that marked a turning point for Pelton, one person lost control and ended up choking out the other until they lost consciousness. Luckily, everyone was fine, but the image stayed in Pelton’s head.

“There was a way in which you lost sense of being in a circle with another person and it became a gladiator game. It was psychological in this really powerful way, overwhelming to the point that you’re no longer just fighting. You’re trying to win.” The community Pelton had sought was gone. What he saw now was the absent-minded destruction of community, students willingly hurting each other and being hurt in return just to feel—what? Victory? Adrenaline? The students fighting each other didn’t whoop with joy or excitement during fights. It didn’t look like they were getting pleasure necessarily. If anything, they grew colder when they stepped into the ring.

Many CC students who had lived their lives far removed from the threat of violence were now the enthusiastic members and spectators of the Fight Club. The absurdity of this shouldn’t be lost. The soldiers there certainly saw it. Since the previous week’s Fight Club, the military presence had increased. A few other young soldiers from Fort Carson had heard about the CC kids fighting, and made the trek to come watch and laugh on the sidelines. One soldier, built like a tank, got bored of watching. He walked into the ring and challenged anyone to fight him.

His friends chuckled when no one responded, until one CC student, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, agreed. It ended up being the shortest match of the night—a series of vicious kicks to the soldier’s side sent him back to his group in less than a minute. But the air had changed. A tension rose, as the soldiers’ amusement from only a minute before fell. The hundred plus CC students around, meanwhile, erupted in cheers. One of their own had beaten a soldier.

Several of Pelton’s friends advised him that the situation was getting dangerous. As the military group seethed, the students were growing cockier and cockier by the second. The night seemed to be heading towards a CC-military brawl. And Pelton was helpless.

“He was never really in control. Yes, he created it,” Francis says, “but he wasn’t in control.” Now everyone, including Pelton, agrees that he lost control long before the third Fight Club—probably only minutes into the second Fight Club. But it took until then for him to realize it. No matter what he said, no matter what he or anyone else did, the situation would be the same. One person against a chanting, hungry mob.

The brawl never happened. When a white SUV pulled up nearby, the vast majority assumed it was a Campus Safety car and dispersed. But the significance of what had happened remained. The silence of the field, so dominated by cheers and cries earlier that night, was conspicuous. Pelton and his friends hung around, picking their way through the abandoned beer cans, discarded shirts and shoes, and torn-up grass where the fights had been.

“People would come up to me in the hallway and ask me about it,” Pelton says. “People still come up to me and ask me about it. I’ve heard people talking about it who I don’t even know.” He sighs, looking back on the experience.

“I heard later, like months later, that someone had done a copycat fight club. They’d posted in a group chat, ‘hey, fight club is still happening!’ But I haven’t heard anything about that since. I really hope it’s not happening. I really hope it’s not happening.”

The Fight Club that Pelton started, at least, was short-lived. He reached out to the attendees he knew and advised them that Fight Club needed to end, that it had become something toxic and truly dangerous.

Garrett Pelton may have been a main character in the Liberal Arts Fight Club, but he’s not the story. The story is that over a hundred CC students watched their peers beat each other up. The participants in Fight Club were, by and large, the stereotypical students at CC. Upper-middle class kids, mostly men, who pride themselves on a healthy view of their own masculinity. They contribute in class, they share thoughtful articles from The Atlantic about violence, and it barely took two words to convince them to start trying to hurt each other. Even with the full context of everything that transpired, most people learning about the Fight Club for the first time confess that they are excited by the idea.

What turned Fight Club into the bizarre, violent phenomenon it became was not Pelton’s idea. It wasn’t an obsession with the movie “Fight Club.” It was barely even alcohol. It was that a crowd of CC students who decided that at this one place, at this one time, violence could be without consequence. And that was all they needed.

Lights Out Issue | May 2019

Porous is He


Her principal’s office reeks of insect repellant. You can smell it from outside the door.

Sonya imagines that her principal keeps a diverse supply of repellents in the locked drawer beneath his desk. That after he leaves the teacher’s lounge—making sure his cup-o-jello hasn’t been invaded by foreign spoon—he massacres the ants that crawl up the side of his shelf. And he yells in the act, violently enough for Judith the secretary to flinch in her chair and accidentally press SEND on an aggressive email to an ex-husband. When her principal drums his blue pen and mechanical pencil to “Eye of the Tiger” against the desktop’s gel pad, he remembers the rat trap at his feet and omits the foot pedal. For Sonya, his office reeks of her tepid success. She lounges with her legs sprawled.


Her principal is not an ugly man. Up close, Sonya thinks, you can tell how naive he is. It’s in the way he looks at you. In one glance, Sonya knows to treasure his innocence. How sad he might be without it. Her principal has thick, reddish sideburns. They sway, as Pushkin’s do, like the bristling teeth of a blue whale. Other students call him Principal Sideburns, but Sonya prefers to address him by his first name. Hello Lewis, she says, sinking deeper into the chair and popping a blown-up piece of raspberry bubblegum. You like my work?




Her essay on vandalism crowds his desk. 6,000 words. No staples. He takes the cluster and breathes out. Chutzpah, he says. You have chutzpah. Sonya smiles in the afterglow of this Yiddish word and pulls her hoodie over her ears. She has overheard the other Yiddish word Lewis knows and gets the feeling he uses both in questionable contexts. For instance, when he—after three to five treacherous minutes of tentative pounding—spritzes his exasperation onto the stomach of his wife Shirley. Or when he catches his neighbor spritzing onto the stomach of his wife Shirley. Or when he overhears his neighbor’s wife making Shirley spritz onto the floor of his walk-in closet.

Mazel Tov! He calls out with shock. Freakin’ chutzpah, Shirls.

A wrinkled “Miami Vice” poster sits above Lewis’s head. The light from his blinds catches it and dances nicely across Don Johnson’s face. While Lewis flips through her manifesto, Sonya fiddles with the art on his desk: a fermented daisy, a bobbling statuette of Ronald Reagan (bobbling and bobbling and about to slam the liberal opposition with a good Yo Momma joke), and a framed picture of himself in a jacuzzi with his goggles on.

Sonya’s brother Mikhail was also her boyfriend. Sonya called him Mickey. When Mickey was seven, Sonya was twelve. When they were alone together in the pool of their apartment complex, he would practice french-kissing on her. His kisses were uxorious: slobbery O’s opening and closing on her cheek, behind her ear. Shrimp-sized bite marks on her wrist. Cashew-shaped pinks on the inside of her bicep. Mickey never learned how to swim so he drowned in their pool on the last day of summer, two years ago. Mickey always tasted like Chef Boyardee. Sonya can sometimes still smell the beef ravioli on her fingertips after she touches an earlobe. Now, the pool is drained and covered in graffiti. A rectangle from Mickey’s melted ice-cream sandwich haunts its edge, like a silhouette on the laddered trek of a Candyland game board. Sonya is fourteen. Because her brother’s death made local news, she is forced to meet with guidance counselor at Hoover High. She opens up about the deflated water-wings but not about the hickies.

Oh, I see your point. Lewis furrows his brow at the third page of Sonya’s essay. Sonya immediately apologizes for its unconventional style. She makes a joke he doesn’t understand about the avant-garde, about her being a struggling artist.




Sonya is not a regular in the principal’s office. In fact, she is mild in comparison with her peers. She finishes her homework. She sits at the back of the classroom. She fools her teachers by pretending to take notes on her laptop when she is really playing a pirated version of “The Sims 4.” She is pragmatic when it comes to romance, but on Sims she is hopeless. She falls for whoever woos her with subtle embrace, for whoever listens to her while she confesses her love for novels or the thrill of the steal. She is poised, obviously, and doesn’t WooHoo with anyone during school hours.

Mr. Romero, her English teacher, doesn’t allow laptops in class. He is old-fashioned like that. He doesn’t want distraction from the text. Mr. Romero, or Manny, as Sonya calls him, is passionate about English! He seems unaware that the majority of the class doesn’t own copies of the books he assigns. Sonya thinks his enthusiasm is distantly sad. Because it is distantly sad, Sonya often excuses herself from his lectures. Manny was a creative writing major at the University of South Florida. Sonya believes that Manny probably never Killed His Darlings because he wouldn’t because he couldn’t because he loved them. He gave up on writing years ago. The future of writing is with YOU, he says, gesturing to Sonya and her peers. This gesture usually leaves a big, yawning silence that he reads as contemplative. Sonya once enjoyed a writing activity. Manny gave them printed-out copies of famous texts and black markers. He wanted them to cover whole lines with the black markers and find the poetry. FIND THE POETRY were his actual directions on the board. Hers was Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus.” Her final poem was the most garish but most real thing she has ever written: First: Hold, foggily, the pool’s myopic edge. My blood: fresh fruit. Sweating, tennis, and zipped and unzipped edginess.

When she excuses herself from class, she usually likes to admire the seafoam stalls of the girls’ bathroom. How dull the color is. Last Monday, Sonya excused herself from their discussion of “Catcher in the Rye.” Manny kept asking how they felt about certain sentences. As she walked out of the room, Sonya overheard Manny say, Holden, upon his brother Allie’s death, says, I slept in the garage and broke all the goddamn windows with my fist.

In the girls’ bathroom, Sonya stared at herself in the full-length mirror beside the sinks. She stared at herself for the remaining forty minutes of English class. She stared a dead, ghostly stare until she could picture her own eyes dilated at the bottom of the pool of their apartment complex. In the mirror, Sonya began to undress. She tore at her sweatshirt, wiggled out of her jeans. She undressed until she was nothing but pancake nipples and pink underwear with pineapples. She stood there nearly naked. Thinking ribald things about her body. Scratching her forearms. Wanting to sharpie the mirror, SONYA V. IS A SLUT, SONYA V. IS A SLUT. Naked, Sonya noticed the graffiti to her left.

On the white tile next to the mirror was a contoured, Lynchian Spongebob Squarepants (with a fat dong for a nose) ejaculating onto Principal Sideburns’ face. Signed SpongeRob.


SpongeRob is notorious at Sonya’s high school. He is a junior. SpongeRob’s real name is Roberto. His family moved into Sonya’s apartment complex the summer Mickey died. He used to high-five Mickey on the balcony where their apartments intersect. For all of July, he let Mickey play “Halo” on his Xbox with him. Sonya was there too, although she preferred to watch passively with a bowl of Cheez-Its. Sonya knows SpongeRob casually, has seen him at his worst, his most awkward. He had bad acne, you could smell the ProActiv on his face. He had a horrible temper, it was not vanquished through Halo alone. Personal details about Rob, Sonya knows, give her a sort of crude street cred at Hoover High. Although she hasn’t, she feels entitled to approach him and his “cool” friends. Sonya’s friends aren’t cool. She has two, and Sonya’s mom thinks they’re squares. Your friends are squares, she tells her. Sonya has seen SpongeRob shirtless. His bedroom faces the pool, and his curtains are rarely drawn. Sonya’s mom caught her looking once, when SpongeRob was playing video games in his bedroom without a shirt, his back facing the window, glistening with sweat. Be wary of Latin boys, is all her mom said. Her mom doesn’t trust Roberto’s family. She is skeptical of all people, places, things happy or kind.

Sonya had never seen Rob’s art before the girls’ bathroom. It left her with a strange feeling. Last week, Sonya knew two things about SpongeRob. He lives in her apartment complex and has detentions after school for the rest of the semester for vandalism. Today, she knows three. He lives in her apartment complex, he has detentions after school for the rest of the semester, and Sonya thinks … but it sucks! and it suuuucks because she hates boys and she would rather be a lesbian like Wanda Sykes or Jeanette Winterson and IT SUCKS because she thinks but isn’t positive but is pretty sure … that she has a crush on SpongeRob.

That Monday, for English homework, Sonya decided to write a Neo-Marxist analysis on an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants” instead of an inner monologue in the voice of Holden Caulfield:


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The Spongebob Squarepants episode “Squirrel Jokes” is a roman a clef, French for novel with a key. Raveled in the episode is a deep and dark superstructure. When the protagonist is conscious of the objective social domain or the mode of production itself (in this case—comedy), Marx’s superstructure becomes alive and illuminates the complexity of the of the protagonist: Spongebob.
                  Mr. Krabs is the State Apparatus. His uniform and status as owner of the Krusty Krab place him at the top of hierarchy. His subject of exploitation and Commodity Fetishism is Spongebob Squarepants. If Krabs’ mode of production is money and power, Spongebob’s is humor. In “Squirrel Jokes,” Spongebob is a stand-up comedian.
                  Humor is a form of capital in relation to the superstructure. Spongebob employs “a deeply ambivalent humor, and just what is being satirized is never entirely clear, making it distinctly darker than is generally presumed” (Coletta 2). Whether arrogant or self-deprecating, stream-of-consciousness or humor aware of itself as humor, whether flat and outrageous or hopelessly grim, comedy in “Squirrel Jokes” reinforces the superstructure not by asserting itself against the unkindness but by asserting itself as the unkindness of real circumstances. When “injustice, personal despair, and the ideas of social transformation are all mocked—that is what constitutes dark humor” (Coletta 6).
                  As Spongebob commodifies Sandy in “Squirrel Jokes” it leaves the viewer in a confused state: as Virginia Woolf puts it, “laughing so hard we feel as grave as corpses.” He commodifies Sandy because she is a woman, because she is not a sea creature, because she can’t breathe underwater, and because she is from the South. With humor, Spongebob embraces the superstructure to emphasize his superiority within his ce peu de realites of Bikini Bottom.


Lewis breaches the tenth page of Sonya’s essay on vandalism.




That Monday afternoon, Sonya went to the store to pick up a black spray can. She didn’t have I.D. so she paid the tattooed drug dealer out front to buy one. He came out with it and a Dr. Pepper. When she walked into the apartment that evening, her mom was sitting on her boyfriend Alex’s lap on the armchair. They were watching “Russia Today.” Syria, maybe, Putin, maybe—a plane crash in the Urals. Sonya’s mom is Russian. Sonya’s friends think Sonya’s mom is hot. Your mom is hot, they tell her. Sonya doesn’t think her mom is hot. But she does think her mom has nice plush pillowy red lips. Nice, when they’re not perforated by Alex’s tongue (gross!) or by a saggy “Russkiy Still” cigarette (grosser!). Alex is a body builder in his twenties. He has a tattoo on his shoulder of two serpents intersecting like an abstracted swastika. When Sonya told Alex that his tattoo looks like an abstracted swastika, he became defensive. Sonya’s mom calls Alex “Sasha” when she sits on his lap on the armchair. When Sonya walked into the apartment, Alex hunched over to snort a line of chocolate muscle milk powder from the coffee table. Sonya’s mom didn’t look up from “Russia Today.”


Где былa? (Where were you?)
В школе. (At school.)
Но уже темно. (But it’s already dark.)
Я знаю. (I know.)
Ну … ладно. (Well … okay.)

Alex doesn’t speak any Russian except for the fact that Sonya taught him how to say Fucking Bitch—Yobanaya Soochka—and now it is his favorite thing to add whenever Sonya and her mom speak in Russian.

Йобаная сучка. (Fucking bitch.)
Сучки, (Bitches) Sonya corrected.


Alex is balding and has beady eyes. He works at the gym on Cedar Street. He says he has his own place, but he sleeps with Sonya’s mom every night in their dumb converted motel with a purple roof. Mickey used to joke with Sonya that even Alex’s muscles have muscles. Alex has muscles because he uses steroids and works at the gym on Cedar Street. Sonya thinks it is noble how open he is about his use of steroids. Before shooting up in front of the television, Alex often insists that the rumor about steroids and penis size is untrue. He insists with vigilance. When the needle goes in, he squints and calls to Sonya’s mom in the kitchen. Isn’t that right baby? Sonya’s mom puts the lid on something on the boiler and pantomimes a yardstick with her hands. She says Yes into a cigarette. If she feels frisky or is unconcerned with the boiling pot, she will throw in a This how beeg you have. They eat lots of starchy foods, pastas and baked breads and pelmenis. Sonya’s mom makes Sonya do all the grocery shopping. We have not thees much een Russia. The way her mom avoids coke bottles and cup-o-noodles, you would think she was in Leningrad during the blockade. Mikhail and Sonya used to ask about her life before Florida. When she speaks in English, everything sounds philosophical. Life eez hard, All family eez dead. When they were young, Sonya and Mikhail asked about their “real” father. His name was always Maxim, but his occupation changed every time: war hero, political refugee, olympic athlete, KGB. One time, when Sonya’s mom came home late, wasted on vodka tonics, she referred to Maxim as “that dumb Jew.” This left Mikhail befuddled.

Alex and Sonya’s mom are bonobos. Sonya has begun to organize personality types into categories of chimpanzee. A “bonobo” is a type of gracile chimpanzee that has sex to avoid conflict. Alex and Sonya’s mom have conflicts, but they end in watching “Y Tu Mamá También” and sixty-nining on the armchair: her mom is stupendously acrobatic for a woman in her forties. Sonya often catches her doing squats in the kitchen while the boiler is on. I vaz strong back een Russia. Sometimes, Sonya feels bad for her mom. It’s always, Back een Russia, Back een my country. Her mom has no realm of existence apart from comparison. The truth is, she was an outsider in Saint Petersburg. She is an outsider in the U.S. too, but at least the title is fitting. Sonya is sure that when her mom did live in Russia that she was ecstatic when the wall fell. She is sure that her mom dreamt of candy wrappers, Coors light, cup-o-noodles, coke bottles. Her fix has always been nostalgia for something she has never had. Sonya’s mom had forgotten to love Mikhail. When he died, her grief took the form of guilt and honest solipsism.

Sonya made pasta with butter and parmesan for dinner. She ate with Alex and her mom in front of the TV watching “Russia Today.” She listened intently. “... 60-я победа Шараповой и фиаско Хачанова: итоги пятого игрового дня Australian Open!” A reporter talked to Sharapova in English, and their conversation was dubbed in Russian. This sounded familiar to Sonya. When Alex and Sonya’s mom stumbled off together to her mom’s bedroom, Sonya grabbed her spray can and a flashlight and went downstairs to the pool of their apartment complex. She hadn’t been inside the pool since Mickey died, since it was drained.

The pool is SpongeRob’s studio. Sonya often hears the CHHHhhh of his spray can from her bedroom in the early morning hours. She hears Rob alone or with friends, the dialogue between them as they pass around a pipe. The deep end is an elaborate shrine to Bikini Bottom, a devout map with ineffable detail. (The Krusty Krab, Kelp Forest, Glove World, Goo Lagoon, even the Chum Bucket.)

Sonya descended the steps to the shallow end with caution, as if she carried something fragile inside her chest. Sonya’s flashlight landed on a caricature of Patrick Star smoking a blunt, Patrick’s head evanescing into the flame that lights Spongebob’s bowl.


Sonya started nervously with her spray can. Soon, she took it in a frenzied rush, though still scrupulous, the CHHHhhh sound making her veins shudder. Sonya channeled all of Pushkin and Kandinsky. The black paint was her heartbeat.

Spongebob and Patrick exude personality. They exist as individuals. Often, their individualism leaves no room for other fish. Sonya’s History teacher in the 8th grade described the concept of Liberty with a metaphor. He stretched one of his arms out as far as he could without touching the student demonstrator and said, My rights end where yours begin. This definition of Liberty is at complete contrast with “Spongebob Squarepants” and the whole history of U.S. political intervention. Spongebob’s and Patrick’s perturbing lack of self-regard represents an unquantifiable Americanness. Spongebob himself, Mickey considered dour and overwrought. Spongebob could make him laugh, but could he make him think? Squidward, an asexual cashier with no prospect of occupational advancement, he found intriguing. In the episode “Squidville,” not only does Nickelodeon choose to portray Squidward’s dream suburb as “boring” or “dull” or “a tragedy of repetition and systemic conformity,” but they insist on rendering Squidward as “heroic” for not conforming to the drab lifestyle at the center of squid life. Sonya understood this as the reason for Mickey’s obsession with the episode. The squandering of Tentacle Acres, Mickey knew, meant capitalism wins again and for all eternity.

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Sonya decided that writing Gulag—Stalin’s barbaric system of labor camps in the Soviet Union from 1930 to 1955—in Russian, ГУЛАГ, would be her signature tag.

When Mikhail was five, Sonya’s mom started him in tennis lessons. Every Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the Y. Mickey was bad at tennis, admittedly worse than the other five- and six-year-olds. Sonya walked him to the courts and stayed on a nearby bench, watching or playing Tetris on her phone. Most lessons, Mickey stood by the fence plucking the strings of the racket like an air guitar. He would lean back and twist its head downward. Mickey had graceful but fierce fingers. One session, an eight-year-old came to the tennis clinic. While Mickey was in line to hit the ball, the eight-year-old shared an anti-semitic joke with him. The Holocaust pizza oven one. Mickey told Sonya later that day that he was offended on behalf of their maybe father Maxim and his parents who, he postulated, were tragically interned in Poland during the war.


The week Mikhail was fished from the swimming pool, Roberto came nervously to Sonya’s door and rang the bell. Sonya let it ring twice before opening it. Is … is your mom home? Roberto asked. Sonya looked behind her as if to check. Her mom hadn't left her room in four days. Though, sometimes, when Sonya turned off the TV and went to her bed at night, she could hear her mom tiptoeing out to refill a water glass and grab an untoasted slice of rye bread from the cabinet. She didn’t say anything to Sonya. But then. What could she say? Something in English? Life eez hard, All family eez dead. Once, that week, Sonya’s mom left a note to her on the fridge saying that she wanted Kefir next time Sonya got groceries. It was pinned with two ten dollar bills under the Elvis Presley magnet. Sonya’s pizza bagels dinged in the microwave with Roberto still at the door.

No, Sonya said, She’s out. Roberto scratched his neon orange beanie. OK, well. My mom made this for you. It’s … um, it’s called boliche mechado. It’s Cuban. Sonya caught him looking past her, into the apartment, and she closed the door a little. The place was dark and filled with clutter. Nothing stirred except for the ding of her unfrozen pizza bagels and an episode of “Spongebob Squarepants.” It was the one in which Mr. Krabs chastises Spongebob for playing on the fishhooks. Mr. Krabs warns him, but Spongebob is too naive to imagine the consequences. Roberto handed her two containers, still warm. You eat meat right? He looked down at his fingers, as if remembering something. Oh, and my mom said to tell you it has onions. Sonya didn’t say anything. She stared a dead, ghostly stare at him. He was rambling, The other container has plantains … I think. He began to turn away from Sonya at the door and then stopped. Hey, I’m … I’m really sorry about your brother. Sonya watched him walking back to his place across the pool. As she shut the door, she could hear his mom yelling to him, Did you tell them about the onions?


SORRY is the last line of her essay on vandalism. 6,000 words. No staples. Lewis looks up at her and flares his nostrils. Sonya grabs the back of her chair and twists: k-k-k-k. Her back cracks, unapologetically. She twists to the other side: k-k. Lewis fans himself with her essay. He presses his tongue to his cheek so it looks like there is a ping-pong ball stuffed inside. Sonya flashes him an awkward, sheepish grin.

Days after she graffitied over Bikini Bottom, Sonya revisited the pool of their apartment complex. The sun was going down. The orange of the sky made Bikini Bottom appear as if it were going up in flames. For a while, she sat and relished her work. By the ladder that Mickey used to clutch to keep from going under—where he almost mastered floating and holding his breath—letting his eyelashes skim the surface, Sonya noticed, was a message from SpongeRob. The message said, “Gulag = Detention. Meet me.” She took the message as an invitation.

Sonya’s friends think SpongeRob is going nowhere. He is going nowhere, they tell her. He is a “bad investment.” She says, Keep your voices down, we’re in the cafeteria. But they ignore her. In a few years, Megan says, he will have face tattoos and a bad rap album. Or else, Lindsey adds, a pregnant girlfriend and a job at a second-rate scuba shop several miles from the peninsula.

Sonya’s friends are tragically middle class. They talk about credit scores and financial stability. They want accountants as boyfriends. Sonya often sits between Megan and Lindsey in the cafeteria as they discuss savings accounts for future children, or prospective colleges and the prospective colleges of their future children. Sonya nodded her way past Lindsey’s enthusiasm for mutual funds. Sonya said “wow” when Megan revealed that her father had to inherit the student loans of her uncle after her uncle threw himself in front of a FedEx truck. Sonya can handle all that. She smiles politely. What Sonya hates most is that Megan and Lindsey refuse to separate art from artist. At sleepovers, they will no longer watch Sonya’s favorite film “The Parent Trap” after learning about Dennis Quaid and his crippling addiction to cocaine. Sonya regrets that she let it slip in the cafeteria about her crush on SpongeRob. Her friends hadn’t known her to be so baleful.

Manny gave Sonya an A+ on her Neo-Marxist analysis of “Squirrel Jokes.” In the margin he wrote in an inky red pen, YOU are the future.

Last Friday, Sonya brought her spray can to school. She kept it in her left hand the whole walk there. Everybody stands out in the courtyard before the bell rings, it’s a morning ritual. SpongeRob and his friends stood in a circle next to the entrance smoking cigarettes. Sonya’s friends leaned on a pillar with their binders open. Math quiz, Sonya bet. Sonya had her hoodie up as she approached Hoover High. When she got to the entrance, she paused nonchalantly and looked back. With one swift motion she scrawled ГУЛАГ onto the door, the CHHHhhh sound making everybody turn her way. She then pulled the door open and went inside followed by several variations of Who was that? and Hoorah!

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Sonya builds a life with Rob in her head, maybe an overfed cat and an easel and a big television. Maybe their firstborn is called Mikhail. Maybe they date sporadically through their twenties. Maybe it’s casual. Maybe they get ready for his junior prom together and never go. Maybe they spend the prom money on fresh lobster and melt butter in Sonya’s microwave. Maybe they eat lavishly in the deep end. Maybe she tries to flirt by throwing a jilted crab claw at him. Maybe he looks at the jilted crab claw longingly. Maybe Sonya mentions the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Rob makes a witty comment about a hypothetical romance between Nikita and Fidel. Maybe they admit they’ve never really like anybody this way before. Maybe they sit in silence. Maybe they laugh about the ocean.

Lewis looks at her from across the desk. She pulls her hoodie up so far it covers her hairline. She crosses one leg over a knee cap. Lewis says, I hate to break it to ya. He holds one finger up as if to ask her to wait. He fumbles to open the drawer with the lock on it. When he does, he emerges with two stress balls. He hands Sonya a yellow one with a smiley face. She rolls it around in her palms. His stress ball is earth: blue and green with protruding land masses. His index finger is on Russia and then America and then Russia and then America: spin, squeeze, squeeze, puncture, spin. Lewis breathes in a ghastly breath and Sonya thinks about the life she has with Rob in her head … maybe an overfed cat and an easel and a big television, maybe their firstborn is called Mikhail … and he breathes out.


 Lights Out Issue | May 2019 

Tender at a Distance

A few months ago, a friend brought up how much she loves the word tender, and now it’s my favorite word in the world. This word doesn’t have one clear meaning to me; it’s an emotion embodied in a myriad of images which overwhelm my mind. Tender is vulnerable and odd, like the underside of an elbow when outstretched or the pink tip of a sunburned nose. Tender curls into itself; it’s a too-long shower and the bruise on the bottom of a peach. It is a bending line rather than a sharp corner; it aches like a soft wound, but it cannot be smashed like a vase. Tender is the pink skin on the inside of someone else’s wrist or the vulnerable, unsmiling way they look at you when both of you want to kiss but neither has the courage to make a move.

I think about this word a lot in relation to my best friend from high school, Lila. We hooked up for the first time two weeks before we left for college, and she is, in a word, tender. She is skinny but her limbs are soft, not like a girl who plays sports, but like the kind of model that Francisco Goya paints—always naked, always lounging on a bed, so that you sometimes forget that she could exist in any other kind of space. She describes herself as fear-based with a tinge of pride in her voice. She won’t go on hikes because she has a crippling anxiety of heights. She has comically long blond hair that she refuses to cut and freckles and blue eyes that are often leaking. The longer I go without seeing her, the harder it is to conjure her up when I close my eyes, and I cling to these details just as a reader might, while the rest of her vanishes behind a tree on the other side of a lake.  

Other college students I know who have been in long-distance relationships describe very similar experiences with their faraway partners. My friend Phoebe explained that she sometimes felt like her long-distance boyfriend was a figment of her imagination—he existed in a separate space back home. Although texting and Facetime help negotiate the distance, Phoebe said that seeing him in person could feel jarring, as if recognizing a character from a dream while walking down the street.

There’s no exact statistic, but according to a 2017 Cornell University study approximately one quarter to one half of college students consider themselves to be in a long-distance relationship. This surprised me until I realized that it included those in less clear-cut relationships, like mine, which maybe lack labels like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” but involve powerful, unshakeable emotional connections nonetheless.

My friend Dani was in what seemed like a perfect long-distance relationship last year, so I was shocked when she came back to campus single in the fall. We talk about it on the grass one day after class. It’s one of the first sunny days of the year and people look happier than normal, flouncing past in their favorite sundresses. They all smile a little wider when they see Dani. “I just have so many friends this year!” she giggles at the end of our conversation. A mutual friend describes Dani as a small dog with the personality of a big one; she is magnetic and jubilant as passing classmates call out greetings to her. Her Tinder bio is “It’s hard to be famous,” which is only partially sarcastic. Earlier this year she put on a one-woman show which did, in fact, make her famous; Dani says she isn’t sure if she would have been able to do it if she was still with her boyfriend.

“It’s not that I didn’t have people last year, but I didn’t put myself out there in the same way,” Dani pauses. “I think I felt like I didn’t need to because, emotionally, I was already so fulfilled by Sam.” She made sacrifices such as staying in on weekend nights, visiting him over block breaks and constantly communicating, terms they had agreed on from the start. “They didn’t feel like sacrifices because I loved him,” Dani explains. “I don’t regret it at all, but I’m so much more present on campus now that I don’t have to also be emotionally present in New York with him.”

Dani explains that her relationship worked so well because of how she and Sam communicated. She broke up with him as an intentional choice to be more present on campus, not because she stopped loving him, and the breakup was very clean. This doesn’t surprise me at all. Dani is a good communicator; she sets her boundaries firmly. Sometimes when I’m talking to her it catches me off guard how quickly she can brush off the kind of tiny decision that haunts me—like what kind of coffee to order—and express herself so clearly that it can feel almost abrasive. She does not experience doubt about her needs and she conveys them without apology.

I envy this quality in people. I also envy people with good memories. I forget little details often—I lose a very nice pair of Sony headphones, or I forget a quiz, or miss dinner with an acquaintance—but I particularly envy people with the ability to specifically draw themselves back into a past moment. Most of the time, I’m a fairly short-term thinker, but once every few months I will have a recollection so visceral it jars me.

On my way to Colorado College I took a long, winding road trip with my mom. We drove a scenic route through the mountains, along cliffs so steep and open that my mom had to stop the car a few times because she “felt dizzy.” I got out of the car while she huffed into a paper bag. We didn’t have service for two days on this road trip, and when I opened my phone, I had a few dozen texts from Lila, starting with how she cleaned up her cat’s litter box and made a too-strong edible and ending with how much she missed me. I remember this moment so clearly because it was the last time we were able to communicate as we had when we were together.

Where is the line between codependency and communication? How do you keep loving someone when you’re not with them? Lila and I never considered dating in college. Yet, we stayed in constant communication, texting every day and Facetiming at least once a week. When we were in high school, she had kept me updated all the minute details of her day, what she had for lunch or the passive-aggressive comment her friend made, and I would laugh and say how easily I could picture those specific intonations, or, more likely, I had been there in the moment for it. Most conversations with the people around us are built around our daily experiences—what block you’re in, the universal IBS burn that copious Rastall consumption causes—but when in a long-distance relationship these daily experiences are not shared. My friend Phoebe points this out to me and, when I notice it, I see it wherever I look.

Phoebe just broke up with her boyfriend of two years, and she describes her long-distance experience to me as “a lot of waiting” and “super fragile.” Long distance is waiting to see the other person again, waiting for the future when you can physically be together, waiting to make sacrifices and to have sacrifices made for you in return. She explains the fragility of long distance as a bridge in another metaphor: “If you have a bridge and the wind was to blow it, it would be way too strong to fall apart. But if [the bridge] is a string, the wind would shake the whole thing.” The physically not being together magnifies any problem in a long-distance relationship and makes it much harder to work through.

Since she broke up with her boyfriend, Phoebe has seemed physically lighter. Phoebe is tiny and, when she’s happy, emits a spontaneous light that makes me want to giggle even when we’re sitting in silence. She makes sporadic changes to her appearance late at night or when she’s high. I’ve woken up to crazy Snapchats from her, where she dyes her hair blond or gives herself a pixie cut or tattoos freckles on her face. Her ex-boyfriend Mitch, contrarily, is a quiet pre-med student obsessed with maintaining his GPA. He prioritizes academics over everything else, including facetiming Phoebe when she’s having a hard day. Their differences became more pronounced the more time they spent apart.

Phoebe cries often, and she wipes her eyes as casually as possible while we sit on her floor talking. She lives in a large single overwhelmed by fairy lights, and she mandates that we get high together before this conversation to make it easier. Watching her relationship deteriorate felt even more painful for me because it coincided with Phoebe’s own deterioration into depression. As their relationship spiraled downwards, Phoebe explains, she directed a lot of her anger towards Mitch inwards. By the end of their relationship, “I was dating him more for our history than our time together.”

Yet this is two-sided; the comfort of knowing each other only from home did not allow them to change or grow together as the people they are now. As a friend I wanted to scream—Why keep dating this douchebag? What is he giving you that you feel you can’t get elsewhere? —but it is difficult to judge holistically because all that I heard about him was filtered through her perspective. Just as he began to feel like a figment of her imagination, Mitch did not exist as a whole person in my mind.

However, Phoebe told me that she “would definitely do long distance again if it was the right person [because] next time I would know what red flags to watch out for.” Phoebe believes that the problems between her and Mitch were based on their differences as individuals, not the distance itself. She says that a long-distance relationship, when it’s working best, is the feeling you got from texting your first crush in middle school under the covers late at night, as if the light emitting from your phone is a star and a skinny glowing string stretches between the two of you, connecting you across a great distance. The butterflies move from your stomach to your throat and out into the air. Together you come to occupy a third space, large and open and full of possibilities, suspended above the daily grind of reality.

I read an article on that a third of long-distance relationships involve people in college. When I google around, I find kitschy pieces of advice: 21, 10, five, and eight “best” tips to keep “the romance alive.” Many of the tips are about how to spice up phone sex and the best angles for nudes, but my favorite articles were the ones with unique pieces of advice: “Start a book club together!” “Buy each other stuffed animals to cuddle with!” Some of these magazines are reputable and some are ridiculous, but they all emphasize open communication, setting a clear schedule and plans together, and finding balance in your own life without actively making the other person jealous. Most of them end by saying that “if the person is worth it, you’ll make it work!”

For me, the most jarring part of moving to college was its suddenness. In high school, before we started hooking up, Lila and I were rarely apart and functionally existed as one entity. No experience felt real until I told her about it, and so we always did, rehashing minute details until I could remember her childhood stories as if they were my own. In college, we continued talking like this, more out of habit than out of conscious choice. We said we weren’t dating, but labels are ridiculous and meaningless in any context, particularly when you wake up and your first thought is still of the other person.

I used to feel extremely confused when people, mostly grownups in movies, talked about timing and working through relationships. My parents have been divorced since I was an infant. Most of the time I don’t think about this for whole days, and other times I believe it has affected everything I know and believe about relationships. I am so naive about them, as naive as when I was five, sleeping over at my best friend Hannah’s house, and gasping when I saw her parents dressed up going out to dinner—married people do that? To me, relationships are built on a mutuality of tender feeling for another human. The end of a relationship should simply occur when you think of them and no longer smile.

At first, I decided to write this article because I’m deeply interested in the subject. Later, I wondered if talking to people about their own experiences with long-distance relationships was an attempt to work through my own feelings. During interviews, I clung onto moments that sparked relatability, but they were fewer and much farther between than I expected. Phoebe’s and Dani’s relationships were extremely different in terms of how they communicated and attempted to meet their partner’s needs. My relationship with Lila is even more different because we were never clearly dating. I am someone who loathes labels for myself—dating, gay, straight, etc.—because it feels like they limit and corner me more than represent me. A label like “girlfriend” or “long distance relationship” means nothing in itself, but it allows a level of clarity, communication, and openness about your own needs that our relationship never had.

Here is the action I am least proud of: last spring, I ghosted Lila. She wanted to text and Facetime much more than I did and, instead of telling her that, I stopped responding to her. Texting or looking at a tiny version of her face on my phone screen only made me miss her more. Negotiating across physical distance sometimes only emphasizes the ache of missing someone you love, causing it to reverberate between you two, and expel into space.

I fully believe that all romantic relationships are tender, and all relationships, in turn, make you tender. All relationships, from a one-night stand with a stranger to the last person you will ever love, involve some form of mutual understanding and respect. Entering a relationship is cracking open a door, hoping that something wonderful pours in but knowing that you are making yourself vulnerable. Yet long distance, in my opinion, magnifies all of these most terrible parts of a relationship, particularly the potential for hurt.

 Lights Out Issue | May 2019

Love and War

Mimi looked in phone books whenever she traveled. Langberg, Mimi’s maiden name of German origin, was an unusual enough surname to assume anyone who shared it was kin. In March of 1982, my then 37-year-old grandma traveled out of the U.S. for the second time in her life to vacation in Paris with my grandpa. As my grandpa showered, Mimi flipped through the hotel phonebook. She didn’t think she would actually find someone who shared her last name—and when she did, she paused. She knew that the two, Jacques and Venezia Langberg, were likely a couple and that she would have to speak to them in French if she dialed their number. Her nerves kept her from calling. She ripped the page out and tucked it into her suitcase.

Months later, in July, Mimi rediscovered the phonebook page while cleaning. Instead of calling, she figured she’d write a letter—that way she could piece together what she wanted to say more clearly, saving the embarrassment of a classroom-crafted French accent. In her letter, she described what her grandfather, the last adult in her family to live in eastern Poland, did for a living, the exact town he came from, and when he left for the U.S. Three weeks later, Mimi got an envelope in the mail containing two letters, one from Venezia, who signed her name as Veny, and the other from Jacques. The letters reaffirmed Mimi’s suspicion that they were, in fact, kin—Jacques’s family hailed from the same part of Poland as her family. After exchanging a few more letters, they planned to meet at a hotel in Normandy, where Mimi already had a trip planned and Jacques and Veny owned a house.

There was a letter written by Jacques awaiting Mimi in the hotel when she checked in. I don’t know what Normandy is like now, much less what it was like in the early 80s, but I imagine that the Parisian vacationers she passed were much more stylish in not only garb but also language than anyone from her hometown of Queens, New York. Having not spoken French since college 20 years earlier, Mimi managed to get by with only a small dose of confusion. At this point, she did not know what either Jacques or Veny looked like, what they sounded like, or where in the hotel she should find them. All she knew was what was contained in a letter written from Paris, that Jacques shared her unusual maiden name. But when she saw him, she knew. Before even saying a word, the two of them were overwrought with emotion, crying on the floor of the hotel. When she looked at his face, she saw the faces of all the men in her family. I believe this because I have seen pictures of Jacques and, even through the dilution of generations, my face also resembles his.


I don’t remember the first time that Mimi told me the story of Jacques and Veny. If I didn’t know any better, I would think I was born knowing their story. Millions of stories like theirs, due to one unfortunate turn, were taken to the grave. If history were to run its course again, it’s unlikely that their story would exist. The odds that even one of them would survive were low, so the odds that both of them would survive were miniscule. Jacques and Veny’s story, Mimi says, can take many forms depending on to whom it’s being told. It’s a survival story, it’s a testament to Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, which is the idea of meaning as a survival mechanism, it’s a love story, it’s a historical artifact.

Jacques and Veny met at the Drancy internment camp in 1942, where they were both inmates. The structure was being built by the French as a military barrack for the war, but the round, multistoried stadium-like structure wasn’t finished in time. It was located in a suburb northeast of Paris. When the Nazis occupied Paris, Drancy functioned as a place for them to hold prisoners, mostly Jews, before sending them to an extermination camp. Mimi said they described the conditions as being somewhere between the ghettos and the concentration camps. Jacques and Veny only overlapped at Drancy for less than six months, but in that time, managed to fall deeply in love.

When Jacques was initially arrested in late 1940, it was because he was a part of the French underground resistance; the Nazis had no idea that he was Jewish. In the resistance, Jacques worked on transmitting radio messages and claimed to have never slept in the same bed twice during the nine months between the Nazi invasion of Paris and his arrest. He was first imprisoned in the Palais de Justice, where they knew him by his resistance pseudonym, Roger Colon. Jacques told Mimi stories of being tortured by the Gestapo, who would beat his back and feet to the point of scarring to get information about the resistance. Mimi likes to point out that Jacques never revealed a thing to the Gestapo and that for the rest of his life, he continued to stand up straight despite the pain in his back and feet.

After 18 months at the Palais de Justice, Jacques overheard other inmates saying that all the current inmates were going to be executed to make room for the next round of prisoners. Jacques knew that the Nazi police would not waste a bullet on a Jew. He knew that if these people knew his real name, Jacques Langberg, an undeniably Jewish name, he would not be executed, not by bullet, not in that prison. I don’t know whom technically he told, or whether he needed to convince them it was the truth, but I cannot help but laugh at the thought of Nazi faces transitioning from stoic to horrified as the news of his real name and Jewish identity spread. Jacques turned out to be right. He was taken to Drancy, where the Nazis figured he would be taken to a concentration camp for a more fitting and economical death. This could be one of the only instances in the entire war when being Jewish actually saved someone's life.

In Drancy, Jacques received special privileges from the Nazi guards in return for help with radios. Jacques gained enough trust from the guards that they actually let him leave the camp every so often. On these excursions out into Nazi-occupied Paris, Jacques had two missions. The first was to report back to the Free France resistance members on anything he learned from the guards at Drancy. The second was to pick up goods, usually perfumes, for Veny, who was taken to Drancy under very different circumstances.


Veny grew up in the theater world of Paris since her father was an accountant for many of the city’s most famous actors and actresses. The people in theater were not only very wealthy, but also actively resistant to the Nazi occupation. Because of this, Veny was able to avoid arrest until 1942, two years after the Nazis bypassed the Maginot line and captured Paris. She was tall with long black hair and sharp cheekbones. She was always considered very beautiful and had found her way into modelling. In the late 30s, she was the first Jew to ever walk as a runway model for Lanvin—I’d never heard of it, but Mimi says the brand was and still is “one of the most famous French designer brands.” Veny was at a party wearing a black evening gown, black spiked heels, and a fur wrap when the Gestapo barged through the door to arrest everyone there.

Veny had been in Drancy for about 6 months, and Jacques about a month less, when it was announced that all inmates would be shipped farther east. The Germans were systematically moving Jews out of the camp and deporting them to concentration camps. Most inmates would wind up at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including Veny. Mimi didn’t mention whether they knew where they were going when they were loaded like cattle into trains. I hope, for sanity's sake, that they were clueless about the horrors they were about to be subjected to. I hope that the rumors of gas chambers and starvation had not spread to the Drancy inmates as they made their way towards an inevitable fate.

Jacques was one of the last inmates to leave Drancy and instead of being shipped by train, he was taken by truck with two other inmates. The three of them were placed in the back, with a driver and two guards up front. The truck they were in was part of a convoy heading to Germany. Details about the two other men have never been included in the story, although I am confident that Jacques remembered their faces and names for the rest of his life. It could be that Jacques wanted to forget about what happened next. I imagine the three Jewish men consulting with one another by way of slight movements to prevent any suspicion from the Nazi drivers. Although the three of them must have all spoken French, any speaking would have been silenced by the Nazis in front of them. Jacques omits the graphic details as he tells Mimi the story, and suddenly he and his comrades are near a town called Nancy wearing the uniforms of strangled Nazis. It must have been in a single moment of negligence, when neither the driver nor the guards were paying attention, that the three inmates lunged forward, intent on killing, each with their own battle against the breath of their oppressor.

The next morning, Jacques, a Jew in Nazi uniform, directed traffic in the town of Nancy as the other trucks in the convoy continued onwards to the German Reich. Through his interactions hovering around radios with Nazi guards in Drancy, he’d grown accustomed to speaking German with them and figured directing traffic would be an inconspicuous job. The Nazi convoy continued through Nancy, leaving Jacques and his comrades behind.

Jacques was in the clear—he had avoided being sent to a concentration camp. He managed to link up with the French resistance in the area and eventually with the American front. Through strokes of wit and luck, Jacques had again managed to avoid certain death. Though he had escaped, Veny was arriving at Auschwitz.


Veny was housed in barracks with all the other French women in Auschwitz. She told Mimi that every morning, she saw Josef Mengele, the man responsible for much of the human experimentation done by the Nazis. Mengele’s presence made Veny’s blood run cold. He was incredibly handsome and his shoes were always shined. My own blood runs cold as I think about freshly shined leather shoes tapping loose wooden barrack floors, tired Jewish eyes watching him, confused by simultaneous feelings of attraction and horror.

Veny was tasked with moving quarried stone in wheelbarrows, which was later crushed and made into gravel—apparently, the Nazis needed it to make roads. The work was hard and heavy and left her with a bad back for the rest of her life. The sleek and beautiful Veny who used to strut across Parisian runways was reduced to a 60-pound skeleton. Surviving in Auschwitz for over a year sucked all of the marrow from her body; so weary that it could not even sustain the hair on her head. But she had made friends with two of the other French women in her barrack and the three of them kept each other going. They would share stories of past lovers and brighter times, of future lovers and lifestyles. I imagine Veny told them of her Drancy romance with Jacques and that the other two envied Veny’s fresh memories of being loved. One friend was named Georgiette, who Mimi met later in life and described as a blonde carbon copy of Veny. Georgiette told Mimi that Veny always managed to have a song to sing and that she was the force that kept her and the other friend afloat.

As the Red Army approached Poland from the east and commenced their Vistula-Oder Offensive, German Schutzstaffel officers were ordered to vacate Auschwitz in mid-January of 1945. Those prisoners who could still walk were forced to march from Poland towards the interior of the German Reich through winter snow and freezing temperatures with torn uniforms, no shoes, and emaciated bodies. The ability to walk put Veny and her two friends in the minority. The three French women walked one in front of the other, going step by step, trying hard not to wobble in their stride. At the march’s onset, Schutzstaffel officers closely patrolled the line of marching prisoners and anyone who fell behind or could not continue were promptly shot. As the march progressed, the weather worsened. Prisoners would fall from the line and, instead of shooting them, the SS would let them freeze to death.

Mimi does not know exactly when in January Veny’s part of Auschwitz started marching, but it was in March of the same year when Veny could no longer go on. One day, as they were marching, Veny collapsed and rolled down a snow-covered hill onto an adjacent field. Surely, the chances of freezing or starving to death were hopelessly high. The other two women still followed. I don’t know why. Maybe they figured Veny had a plan, although it’s more likely that they figured there was no way of marching on without her. The three of them laid at the bottom of the hill, bodies covered by snow, as the thousands of other prisoners continued marching west, away from the Russian front, further into the German Reich. Although death was surely not far, it must have been a relief to no longer be a prisoner. If they died, it would not have been by the hand of the Schutzstaffel.


Most stories end here. There must have been thousands of people on that very march that died in the same act that Veny and her friends survived. Veny’s story did not end because they were able to crawl to a farmhouse in the distance. I cannot help but think that there was someone with an alternate story with no farmhouse. This person had a lover in mind as they laid there in the snow but saw no escape from death. Love, as a driving force in Veny’s circumstance, was met by an equal amount of luck.

Veny and her friends stayed in the farmhouse unnoticed for a few nights. One day, the German farmer discovered them hiding there, hungry and shivering, and screamed at them to leave. It’s a familiar story. The farmer refused to provide shelter to Jews out of fear of being persecuted himself. The wife of the man who was at the door, however, protested against her husband and offered the women the hospitality they needed. She took care of the women for almost two weeks, at which point the Russian front approached the farmhouse. The Russians would have surely killed the German farmers had the couple not shown clemency to the French women.

The women were taken to West Berlin, where Veny said they recovered in a hospital for about a year. An American doctor took care of Veny throughout her time there and after she was rehabilitated, just before she left to go back to Paris, the two had a brief affair. For Veny, the affair was a way of dignifying her existence again. She had spent every day of the last two years finding a will to live. In Drancy, all autonomy and most of what was beautiful in life had been taken away from her. While there, she still had the gifts Jacques would bring her and his consuming love for her, which reflected back to Veny as signs of her own worth. When the two were separated, she was left to the subhuman conditions of the concentration camp, where she saw her hair and teeth fall out. The only constant about her body during that time were the numbers tattooed on her left arm by the Nazis. I struggle to imagine the emotion that coursed through her body when she first saw her reflection in that West Berlin hospital. The last time she saw herself in a mirror was likely on the evening she was arrested, in an evening gown and spiked heels, looking like the runway model that she was. An affair was an affirmation that she was still that same person, who had not only survived, but could still be as sexy, independent, and passionate as she once was.

When she got back to Paris, Veny was taken to the Hotel Lutetia. Hotel Lutetia was used as a repatriation center and became the main processing location for concentration camp returnees. There were lists there of all of the returnees and their current addresses, with designated workers who helped people reconnect with their loved ones. That’s how she knew that Jacques had made it out alive. It had been nearly three years since they last saw each other in Drancy when Veny showed up at his door. When he let her into the apartment, she discovered that Jacques was living with another woman. For good reason, Jacques was certain that Veny died in Auschwitz. I know nothing about the woman he was living with because she quickly became irrelevant. In no time, Veny, in typical Veny fashion, had Jacques wrapped around her finger again and convinced him to leave the woman he was with.  

Jacques and Veny spent the rest of their lives together in Paris. In 1962, they bought a single-bedroom apartment in the 16th arrondissement that would be the only home they ever owned, with the exception of a vacation home in Normandy. The two of them went on to become successful in their respective pursuits. Jacques partnered with his brother, who also survived the war and was living in Zurich, and began working in the wine trading business. The two brothers represented wineries from Burgundy and distributed their wine all around Europe. Veny, on the other hand, ventured into the world of entertainment. With the money Jacques made in wine, she opened up a club in Paris called Novy, which Mimi says was the most popular club in the entire city at one point. In their apartment, Veny kept hundreds of pictures from the nightclub. There were pictures of Veny and Jacques with politicians, movie stars, and musicians. Out of all the names Mimi mentioned, I recognized Frank Sinatra, the Rothschilds, Kirk Douglas, and Gregory Peck.


While Veny and Jacques both had family who survived the war, they considered Mimi their closest relative. Veny was so malnourished by the time she left Auschwitz that she could never bear children. Mimi spoke on the phone virtually every night with Veny, who knew no English, which is how Mimi became fluent in French. Mimi would visit them in Paris at least once a year with my grandpa. In addition to becoming the heir to the Paris apartment that they lived in, Mimi became the heir to Jacques and Veny’s story. At 72, Mimi is still sharp. There are many great stories, but it takes a storyteller like her for them to be passed on. I wonder if Jacques and Veny imagined Mimi retelling their experiences when they recounted their lives over the many years that they knew her. It is my intention with this piece to prevent the passing of time and aging of generations from eroding Jacques and Veny’s story.

Thirty years after she met Jacques and Veny in that Normandy hotel, Mimi went to Paris one last time. This time, the apartment was silent, there was no food cooking or stories being told. Mimi was there to put the apartment up for sale. Veny had died a few weeks earlier, outliving Jacques by 10 years. What was left in their home was what they had accumulated over their lives. The two never threw anything away and kept most of their valuables hidden. Veny’s evening gowns overflowed in the closets, her jewelry filled the drawers. Pictures of the nightclub were stacked in different areas of the dusted-over living room. Mimi was set on this being her final goodbye. For returning to Paris would be too painful without them there. Whatever she took would be the artifacts she’d remember them by. She walked out only with a few pieces of jewelry, a nightgown or two for my cousins, and Jacques’s two watches. Mimi gave me one of these watches, and I wear it occasionally. In fact, I am wearing it as I write this. It has a sleek, gold face that sits flat on my wrist and a thin black leather strap that is only tight enough when I use the last hole. I never got to meet Jacques, but I am in awe of him. We think his father and Mimi’s grandfather were first cousins, but there’s no way of knowing. When I wear his watch, I am reminded of his life and the unlikeliness of his story, of Veny’s life and her story, and all the serendipity that lead to it being passed to me.

Lights Out Issue | May 2019

If You Can Skate in Havana You Can Skate Anywhere

There is a certain mystique surrounding a tropical island off the coast of Florida. As a consequence of the travel ban following the Cold War, most Americans know very little, if anything, about this country. To them, Cuba means old cars, communism, cigars, and a destination reserved for ambitious travelers and the likes of Beyoncé.

Despite being less than an hour flight from Miami, Cuba feels worlds away, both spatially and temporally, from The United States. After 50 years of independence from the U.S., Cuba nationalized roughly one billion dollars worth of American-owned agricultural land on the island in an attempt to counteract the exploitative effects of neo-colonialism on the Cuban economy. This triggered a strong reaction from the U.S., resulting in strict trade and travel embargos. One consequence is that nearly all the automobiles predate the 1960s. The architecture, though ornate, shows its antiquity: a peek through the defunct windows of a colorful colonial-style home reveals a crumbling interior overgrown with vines and plants. The meals, which are mostly locally sourced, lack many of the sophisticated flavors and ingredients common in Western food due to food rationing and scant disposable income. Imports, including food, are limited to the bare necessities; a traveler in pursuit of wet wipes, batteries or a journal won’t find what they need. These features combine to create a country that, though abuzz with people, seems forgotten by time.

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In spite of Cuba’s outdated reality, the country feels nothing like the dismal communist existence often described in Eastern European literature. There is a tendency to associate communism with uniformity and unhappiness, surveillance and authoritarianism. Cuba, to me, offers a different image of communism: in the midst of political strife, unreliable infrastructure, and corrupt police, the cities are alight with smiling faces, people dancing in the streets, and elaborate graffiti. There is beauty in the chaos, and happiness in spite of limited life choices. Cubans unconsciously counter the image of an oppressed country in despair that is often portrayed in popular media.


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I was fortunate enough to visit Cuba this past December on a workshop with The Giving Lens, a philanthropic travel organization that leads trips to unique destinations with the goal of supporting local communities through photography. Our group travelled “in support of the Cuban people,” which is one of the 16 travel categories approved by the U.S. government. We stayed at local casas, similar to bed and breakfasts, and ate exclusively at non-government restaurants. Instead of only taking images of the country, we worked with a local NGO, Amigo Skate, providing free professional photography for the organization as well as donating cameras, which we spent several days teaching young skaters how to use.

In the absence of after school activities or government-sponsored youth organizations, various subcultural groups have sprung up to address the issue of youth empowerment. Miami-based Amigo Skate is one such organization that solicits foreign aid to provide Cuban youth with free skateboards, sports gear, music equipment, and art supplies. Skating arrived in Cuba in the 1980s, when Russian soldiers left their skateboards behind with Cuban youth when the Cold War occupation ended. The freedom and joy experienced on a skateboard inspired these children to embrace the sport and spread its wonder.

The repressive Cuban government actively suppresses skate culture, rendering the sport rare and unrecognized. However, a passionate community of dedicated skaters have kept the sport alive with aid from international NGOs, including Amigo Skate. Due to a lack of support from local government and businesses, the youth empowerment group calls themselves the “Robin Hoods of Havana.” The Cuban youth describe skateboarding as “making a change,” and regard their community as a “family trying to live in peace and harmony.” It is an exercise of freedom in a land of limited liberties.


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Several miles from the bustling city center sits an upcycled abandoned building, overgrown with trees and outfitted with ramps and poles for skating. Skaters of all ages gather to hone their skill and test out new tricks, from kickflips to astonishing jumps through the hole in the ground floor into the basement. Only a few years ago, the location was littered with broken bottles, drug paraphernalia, and discarded condoms. Though it was a good location for skating, especially during the rainy summers, it was dangerous, disgusting, and ultimately not a safe community space. With the help of various NGOs and other impassioned skaters, the building was cleaned up and outfitted for skating. Debris from the buildings basement were used to construct ramps on the main floor, fitted with wire rebar and covered with concrete.

Not only does Amigo Skate provide Cuban youth with outlets for self expression, but it also establishes meaningful relationships between its members. The older members, in their 20s and 30s, serve as leaders and role models for the younger children, establishing a network of beneficial friendships. This close nature can be attributed to the effects of communism and Cuba’s restricted supply of skateboards. Skaters are inclined to share their skateboards, and even their shoes, as these supplies are hard to access. No one is excluded from the sport on the basis of lacking the necessary resources. The absence of consumerism and individualism creates a skating culture with more emphasis on sharing and goodwill than in the U.S., where skateboard ownership is typically a precursor to skating. Many of the skaters I spoke with described the sport as their life, their identity; a tarnished legal record seems well worth participating in the liberating, albeit illegal, act of skating.

Competitions held in the unusual, yet innovative skatepark exemplify the spirit of Amigo Skate. They are not a place for invidious comparison, but rather havens of encouragement and camaraderie. When the winners of the competition are announced, everyone cheers—there are no sore losers. Our visit to Cuba coincided with one such competition which, despite being incredibly informal, was overwhelmingly supportive and positive, unlike the crowd antagonism common to many sports in the U.S.


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There is a remarkable difference between skating culture in the U.S. and Cuba. In the U.S., one isn’t required to be connected to any existing network to acquire a skateboard. Few skateboard owners on campus see their board as having potential for creative expression; for most, it is a mere method of transportation and not an outlet for self-expression. In Cuba, the deviance and excitement surrounding skateboarding is reflected in the skaters’ dedication to their sport. Fellow traveler Susan Roderick observed, “If you can skate in Havana, you can skate anywhere.” It requires a tremendous amount of perseverance to learn how to skate on the crumbling, pothole-filled and often crowded streets.

An image I captured of a gasoline-tainted puddle can be seen as a metaphor for life in Cuba. The puddle is the island, and the gasoline, the imperial foreign powers that have meddled in and constructed Cuba’s history. In spite of this insidious infiltration, the puddle appears a stunning mosaic of joyful and spontaneous colors and patterns. Such is the unexpectedly spectacular Cuba, and especially the members of Amigo Skate: distinguished, passionate individuals who repeatedly surprise in the realm of innovation.

This trip posed a photography experience unlike any other. Having grown up abroad, travel photography was always an easy target, but I’ve only ever “taken” photos from European and Southeast Asian destinations. Working with Amigo Skate taught me the importance of giving back, rather than exploiting the subjects of my photography. Given my newfound appreciation for and knowledge of life in Cuba, I find that my photographs from Cuba have more meaning to me than images from other travels. I truly experienced the country through a new lens, escaping from America’s capitalist hegemony to understand how happiness and freedom function under communism.

 Lights Out Issue | May 2019

The organization is always in need of donations, whether it be old technology, camera stuff, clothing, shoes, skate stuff, art supplies, musical equipment—anything helps.


Amigo Skate

13255 SW 119 St

Miami, FL 33186

Author can be reached at for further information.

Letter from the Editor

Dear Reader,

I’ve never been afraid of the dark. As a child I waited impatiently, tucked under white blankets in my bunk bed, for my parents to switch off the lights. At age four, lights out meant watching plastic fish and sparkling seaweed dance in the deep artificial glow of my night light. When I tucked a lost tooth under my pillow at age eight, lights out meant waiting excitedly for the twinkle of the tooth fairy to arrive at the edge of my bookshelf. And in my teenage years, lights out was an invitation to dream. I taught myself to lucid dream by switching my bedroom light on and off repeatedly and noticing the way nothing changed from dark to light: the furniture remained still, and only the mosquito net hanging from the ceiling moved with the wind from the fan. Articles I read claimed that in a dream state, if I switched the light back on, my setting would change: I would no longer be in my room, and instead be transported to another world. This is how I knew I was dreaming. Darkness leaves me in constant anticipation.

In J.K. Rowlings, “Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban,” Dumbledore says to Harry, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light,” after taking him through a portal into the depths of his memory. Only in experiencing darkness, it seems, do we learn what it means to see clearly in the light. To notice. How do moments of darkness make us feel? And what can we find in them when we decide to turn the light back on.

Theo Merrill describes an obscure and extreme kind of intimacy found in the howling and chanting that echos into the night, as crowds of people attend “Fight Club” on the grass of Yampa field. He shares the perspective of a student who found fighting as a means of discovering himself and intensifying his connection to the people and world around him. Zac Schulman pulls an incredibly moving, sensitive, and intimate story out of the privacy of his grandmother's phone calls. He keeps the light shining on an unimaginable holocaust survival story from his family history, a series of events where his relatives continued to fight, against all odds, for their survival in the name of love, and life. And Courtney Knerr takes us deep underground, asking her reader to consider the moment of their death by shedding light on the many ways we can decompose without causing detriment to our planet.

As Harry Potter conjures the patronus charm in the middle of the night, causing an enormous and blinding light to reflect off the surface of the lake like fire, he is momentarily blinded, before suddenly the glow from his wand transforms into the shape of his father. The darkness makes us look for light, it reveals our most unconscious desires and deepest wonderings, and reminds us how much there is to see.

With this issue, our last issue of the year, we leave you, reader, to look differently at your stories, your death, your relationships. We encourage you to cast your own light into the shadows, and notice all that has been hiding within them.

We’re turning the lights out. Until August.


Becca Stine (And the rest of the Cipher Staff)

Lights Out Issue | May 2019