Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
Issue 71, April-June 2015
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 71.3
by Sarah Richardson
followed by Q&A
I Throw Away the Soap
I Throw Away the Soap
by Rachel Dacus
followed by Q&A
by Mercedes Lawry
It’s a really fancy poem
with archaic words and decorative
phrasing. Think rickrack.
There are many allusions. I have to
look them up. The rhymes are slant, hidden,
but I find them and the search
leaves me sweating. I feel I should be
better dressed, good shoes at least.
It’s not a poem I could write.
I don’t fully understand it
or anything fancy, though sometimes
I pretend. As if people might think me
clever and that might gain me
a shred of an edge in this dog-eat-dog world
though dogs are not the problem.
Mercedes Lawry has published poetry in such journals as Poetry, Nimrod, Prairie Schooner, Poetry East, Natural Bridge, and others. Thrice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she’s published two chapbooks, most recently “Happy Darkness.” She’s also published short fiction, essays and stories and poems for children. She lives in Seattle.
I went to your funeral because my mother asked me to. She never understood that we’d stopped being friends, because she and your mother still were. And I owed her, I’d missed Grandma Betsy’s funeral and she pitched a fit. She said I’d made her look bad. I can’t say I miss small town politics. After graduation I moved a few states away and hadn’t seen you since. When she called to tell me the news, I was more disheartened by the death of someone I’d known, than sad that it was you. When I think of your death now, I am sad. I forgot you for a while. But now, I’ll always remember what you did for me. You didn’t fix me, you just helped me get to a better place. You were the only one I ever rode koi with.
You said they were tired of being in the water all the time, that flying would be a welcome change for them. At first I was scared to touch them; I always felt like I broke everything. But you’d gently take my hand, parting the green and blue stream, and the fish would come because they trusted you. I would let their scales slide between my hands, always letting them touch me, but never the opposite. They were so small–I could’ve wrapped my hands completely around their tiny ribcages, and I often wondered how they could swim with a heart so small. You thought that was funny considering how small my own heart was. It sounds cruel in retrospect, but I knew what you meant. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t wonder how my own tiny heart held me together.
You said we’d have to wait to fly them. I didn’t believe they’d ever get big enough.
The water used to make me nervous. I hated being wet–it was almost as bad as dirty. The rocks at the bottom were wrapped in a fuzzy blanket of slime from being in the water so long and wet clothes clamped to my skin like plastic wrap. Those things never bothered you though. Your hand would dangle and drift lazily in the creek without a second thought, and after you were done, you wiped your hands on your jeans like it was nothing. I could never do something like that, my grandma wouldn’t have allowed it. Sometimes you’d splash me, the cold piercing my chest like an arrow, water soaking my shirt like blood would. It made me angry, but you laughed it off. You said I was silly.
You were always so confident. Animals are good at reading that sort of thing. They swam up and kissed your fingertips with an exuberance I have never seen again. You never said anything in particular to them, it was how you said it, your own dialect built from the frequency of your laughter and the way it resounded through our tiny ribcages. You were fluent in body language, and they were fast learners.
It got to the point where little more than the proper smile made them jump from the water–albeit timidly at first, but they always listened to you, even if they were afraid. I remember when they first started flying. They practiced flips and loops while weaving between the limbs of the sweetgum. There was an orange one with a white stripe on his tail fin that always tripped over the second branch, which never failed to make me laugh. You said that we couldn’t ride them because they didn’t believe in themselves yet. But why did that matter if they had you? You said they shouldn’t want to fly to make you happy, but because it made them happy.
They grew faster than I thought they would, to at least twice the size of my bike. When they got in the air, they shook off the beads of water that clung to their iridescent scales and it fell down on us like rain. One day, the koi that scared me the most nudged the small of my back. Whenever I met its gaze I felt chills run down the caverns of my bones. It was the white one with neat clusters of dark blue that ran along its spine. That day I looked over at you and caught the warmest part of your smile, and I wasn’t scared anymore. I reached out my fingers with a steadiness I didn’t know I had and touched its side for the first time without your guidance.
It was a long service, and at least a dozen people came up and gave me their own bits about your kind heart and gentle nature. All the stuff you usually hear at funerals. Everyone brought flowers, the bouquets littering the front of the sanctuary like an Easter celebration. One of the arrangements were cheap grocery store daisies that had been dyed an unnatural shade of blue. They made me uneasy but I couldn’t figure out why.
I didn’t want to stay any longer than I had to. Everyone wants to compare notes on how highly they ranked in the eyes of the deceased, best friend, favorite child, drinking buddies. Especially in such a small town. At one point, someone I’d never met before was giving me intimate details about the effects their divorce was having on their digestion, and I glanced over my shoulder to check the time. Those gaudy flowers caught my eye again, the water in the vase starting to turn blue from sucking the dye out of the slimy stems.
You said it was the perfect day to ride. That the sky was soft orange like your grandmother’s scarf. At your insistence, we climbed the sweetgum that had turned a brilliant shade of celebratory red for the occasion, and the koi flew up next to us. Getting on wasn’t very difficult, despite their fidgeting. They were excited, they’d never flown any higher or further than the confines of our play area. We went so high so quickly that I felt like I’d left the pit of my stomach down on the bank. I thought that I would be afraid of how high we were but I wasn’t. In fact, it didn’t even look like we were far off the ground. The trees and buildings I saw didn’t look miles away, but miniatures instead, like we were flying over a model train set.
My childhood mattress was far too small and thin to support my adult body and I didn’t sleep for more than three hours that night. At 6 a.m., I decided I’d suffered enough and that it was finally acceptable to go make myself coffee. My mother wanted me to stay for a few days but I told her I’d already bought my plane ticket. The quiet in the house was unnerving, so I went out onto the porch to listen to the crickets. I sat in one of the old rocking chairs with my coffee and thought about your funeral.
It was like moving a pebble from a cliff side and causing an avalanche. Seeing the daisies had triggered a land slide of forgotten memories; I’d spent most of the night reliving them, rediscovering our friendship. Blue was your favorite color. You would’ve laughed at my scorn for the synthetic flowers. You would’ve thought they were beautiful regardless. Did you tell me once that nothing is ever completely ugly? Yes, I’m certain of it. I can hear you saying it. You’d told me that about Grandma Betsy, and I know how much you hated her. Her favorite color was blue too and her favorite vase was too. The one I broke, do you remember? Do you remember the bruise I had on my shoulder? It was the shade of the blue daisy water.
We never talked about death and you hated endings. I felt that you wouldn’t have liked seeing everyone so sad over you. You would’ve wanted a celebration. Your hair was always a mess. You liked daisies but they weren’t your favorite. It was snapdragons I think. There was a creek we used to play in. There were these fish–
I sat up straight, and the chair creaked in response. That’s it. That was why the flowers had stayed with me hours after my mother and I had driven home. They were the same color as the water. I wondered what had become of it.
I had an hour before I needed to leave for the airport, so I followed the path that looked the most familiar. It was a much shorter walk than I remembered, probably because my legs were longer than they were a few decades ago. The water was a few inches lower, but still blue, almost glowing. I looked for fish whose existence I didn’t quite believe in, but I didn’t see anything. The sweetgum had a long streak down its trunk from where lightning must have struck it one summer when I was away. I clucked my tongue against my teeth. I remembered how afraid I’d been of it all. I dipped my hand in.
I’d ridden a horse before, but horses had manes and bridles to hold onto. Fish didn’t have either of those things, so I’d ended up gripping its sides with my legs. When we landed, I fell to the ground on my hands and knees and just laid on the grass for a few minutes. My legs shook too much to stand. I’d eaten a habanero pepper once–this was so much worse. At that moment, I wanted more than anything to be cold. I unlaced the sneakers I cleaned at the end of every day and tossed them away from me instead of carefully placing them next to each other. I did the same with the socks. The air felt good on the soles of my feet but I wanted more. I crawled over to the water and rolled up my pants as high as they would go so I could dip my legs in.
It was like biting into ice cream without the head rush. I cupped my hands into the stream, generously splashing the elixir on my face. I blinked, shaking a few cheerful droplets from my eyelashes, where they rolled down my cheeks and fell onto my shirt. I leaned over and looked down into the river. I could see the rocks at the bottom, coated with mud as thick as paint. I could reach them if I pointed my toes, and I drew little pyramids and spirals on every one that I could. I slowly lay down on my back, enjoying the gentle pull of the current against my legs. A breeze twisted through the trees and ran its fingers through my hot scalp, parting the sweaty locks that had been plastered to my forehead. The grass was soft, but by no means weak, and my hands felt safe as I tangled them as deeply beneath the blades as I could, not thinking about the worms or spider that would normally make me squirm. I exhaled a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding and closed my eyes. I had never felt so comfortable before.
Sarah Richardson is a cheesecake enthusiast who has lived in Florida all her life. She mainly writes speculative fiction and is heavily influenced by the work of Hayao Miyazaki.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The length is what surprises me the most. This story has never been longer than six pages and I have never felt like it needs more than that to express the crux of the idea.
Available now: Prime Number Magazine, Editor Selections, Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4. Learn more...
Ennui and La Petite Mort
After it has broken into viscous slivers
After I have lathered it into shards
After I have soaped my palms and fingers
Until they feel like slices of soap
And slither against themselves.
After I have dug my hands into clean dirt
And soaped dust from under my fingernails.
After I have washed long enough
To sing Row, row, row your boat twice through.
After I have let warm water lavish
My writhing fingers
And sung the song again with the name
Of my beloved.
After I have unpacked three new bars, one
Smelling like summer. And put two away again.
After I have sudsed up
With almost nothing but the soap’s scent.
After I have considered how long to keep
The tiny Ivory pieces.
After I have remembered how in trenches
They bartered cigarettes for tiny bits of soap.
After I have considered the piece
That was passed around a camp,
As more precious than bread.
After mine has leapt to freedom
Onto the shower floor.
After I have worshipped
The feeling of clean,
Considered the cost of the soap
I ordered that even in its wrapper is redolent
Of Provence and lemon verbena,
And only after that
With sacramental regret,
I throw away the swift, slippery digit
And heft a new brick.
Rachel Dacus is a poet and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her books include Gods of Water and Air, a collection of poetry, prose, and drama; and the poetry collections Earth Lessons and Femme au Chapeau. Her writing has appeared in The Atlanta Review, Boulevard, Drunken Boat, Prairie Schooner, The Valparaiso Poetry Review, and other journals and anthologies. She is at work on a time-travel novel involving the great Baroque sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini. She has written on topics that span time travel and being a rocket scientist's daughter during the race-to-space 1950s. Read more at http://racheldacus.net.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: “I Throw Away the Soap” began as a meditation in the shower with a very tiny sliver of soap that kept slipping out and falling to the floor, making me wonder what in me hangs onto the last of such an insignificant thing as a bit of soap. This adventure in memory led back to an article on WWII concentration camps, my mother’s owning a laundry hamper that is older than I am, and other trivia of family hoarding. I kept trying to toss the soap, and loathing the idea; hence the anaphora in the poem. Finally the soap got tossed and the poem conceived.
Ennui and La Petite Mort
by Meaghan Murray
followed by Q&A
One time, I almost called an ambulance because I couldn’t find my libido. For two days in a row, I had tried to masturbate and ended the effort fruitless and frustrated. That’s pretty contrary to how post-masturbation is supposed to feel. Something was wrong—since the beginning of my time on Earth, I had never been through a latent stage. I was twenty, and over the years, a complication like this hadn’t arisen. Why was it here, and why now? I panicked, feeling in between my legs, acutely aware of the lack of feeling. It was as if my clitoris had an on/off button, and it was stuck on “off.” I wanted to cry, but I was three weeks in on a Prozac prescription. I hadn’t felt the urge to cry for about a week.
I was born a sexual being, and by seventeen I had learned to embrace it unabashedly. But at home, sex was rarely a discussion. My Irish Catholic parents were liberal enough, but not so much that we ever had sit-down conversations. I lost my virginity during my junior year of high school, and it was positive. From then on, I would educate my classmates on whatever was in that month’s issue of Cosmopolitan, write poetry about the fire in my loins, and fearlessly discuss Freud in AP Psychology. In the college dorms, I would rarely wear pants. I’d sit on my bed and talk about my sexual experiences with whoever was willing to listen. Men didn’t hit on me; I hit on them. If I wanted to sleep with someone, I didn’t wait around. I went and got it. Sex and conversing with men were in the center of my comfort zone.
There were men that weren’t keen on a woman making moves. My interest in pursuing those men did not last long. I was in college; I didn’t have time for ludicrous rules between the sexes (I still don’t.) For a while, intercourse was a sport, and a fun one. As romantic relationships evolved and became more emotionally intimate, I was mindful of how the sex evolved too, and I liked it. My self-awareness peaks when I’m feeling sexual.
My self-awareness plummets when I’m feeling depressed. I caught myself, a few years ago, on the third day of not leaving my bed. I hadn’t eaten, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to move, but my body was so sore from lying on the mattress that I sat up to stretch. I couldn’t write, so I stood up to use the bathroom and went back to bed. On the fifth day, I went to the doctor. I explained to the physician that I didn’t feel quite like myself. I had a feeling of apathy I wasn’t familiar with, a lethargy I wasn’t used to, and though I didn’t want to kill myself, I wouldn’t have minded if I accidentally choked on a dick and died. The doctor nodded. She had a kind face, and couldn’t have been over thirty. She bit her lip and frowned. She talked with her hands folded in her lap, and used clinical words. Most of them I had seen in my mother’s copy of the DSM. “Mood disorder,” “melancholic depression,” “anhedonia.” Anhedonia, in psychology and psychiatry, is a term to describe the decreased capacity to experience any pleasure. I had anhedonia up the ass.
Yet I still had my sex drive, which carried a torch through my psychological tunnel of darkness. But I was nowhere near any humans that deserved my coitus fabulous. So I had coitus lone lupus. If I was going to be bedridden for days on end, it was something to do. And it gave me feeling, as fleeting as it might’ve been. I’d play Jacqueline du Pré’s recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. After I was finished, I would listen to the recording a second time and usually be able to cry.
When I left the doctor’s office, I picked up my Prozac and started popping it as prescribed. With most antidepressants, it takes a few weeks to notice any change. By week three, I had stopped the weird post-masturbatory crying session, and had gone outside. But the numbness lingered, though it felt less like grief and more like mechanical stupor. That I could deal with. What I couldn’t deal with was the sexual dysfunction, which is a fairly common side effect with antidepressants. Certain types can cause a decrease in levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, two helpers-of-the-body that assist with pleasure and stress. There isn’t enough advice on how to address a sex life murdered by meds. Switch doses, see a therapist, don’t stop treatment on your own. The dysfunction made my brain angry, irritated, extremely annoyed. I didn’t feel the physiological manifestation of these emotions, which upset me even more. I need feelings to function as a writer. Carnal feelings included. Maybe if I had been a nun on Wall Street, the Prozac would’ve done me some good.
So I went off of it. When my parents and doctor asked why, I said I still felt numb. While this was true, it wasn’t the primary issue. But I didn’t want to say,
“Well. Mother, Father. The main reason is because I just can’t seem to successfully rub one out.”
I was secretly appalled with myself. I would rather leave my mental state in shambles than go without hot flashes of lust. Why? Was that all I cared about? I knew that wasn’t true, but I couldn’t seem to find a good reason for putting sexual function before, like… all the other functions. I wasn’t a foodie and I was nocturnal and young. Food and sleep were sacrifices I could make with depression. This was a notion that I would keep to myself, for fear of anyone thinking I was self-neglectful. Concern for sleep schedules and eating habits trumps worrying about someone’s erotic blood flow. Those lust flashes returned as soon as I was off the medication, and I was elated. This is me, this is how I should feel. I saw myself as Saint Teresa of Avila, in a state of ecstasy, seeing angels and shit. I was back to fucking people other than myself and often thought mid-fuck, “O, brave new world! That has such people in’t!”
Physical intimacy was the world that made me feel brave, that made me feel new and energized and here. Chemical fireworks, exploration across another body, being someone’s Wild West, and not being alone were all great things. I was fine for a couple months. I accepted that experiencing negative feelings was normal, pretty much intrinsic for artists, and I would weave poetry with my ball of sad yarn. It was good for my writing.
Until I couldn’t write. The uncomfortable apathy came back. I was angrier, violent even, but tired. So tired. I broke plates on purpose. I stabbed pillows with my fork. I would forgo poetry readings and girls’ night out, just to stay in and catch up on sleep. Even if I had slept well, I was exhausted. Still horny, though. This time around, I was obsessively dwelling on death. That was different for me. I wasn’t suicidal, I was the exact opposite—death had taken the place of jellyfish and was now my biggest fear. I worked myself up over the idea of oblivion, nothingness; I would try to fathom it and burst into tears. I Googled “elixir of life” and scrolled through pages and pages, figuring out where to get my hands on it (there isn’t one, by the way).
I went back to the doctor. She said let’s try again. I got Zoloft and Alprazolam. Throwing a benzodiazepine into my diet “took the edge off,” but the Zoloft stabbed The Edge, disemboweled it, and threw The Edge off the edge of a cliff. I had to tell myself that I should be mad, or sad about particular circumstances. That I had a list of things that made me upset. But I couldn’t feel rage in my cheeks and my stomach wouldn’t tumble, my chest wouldn’t tighten. I wasn’t just rid of all-consuming anxiety, the healthy stress was gone from me, too. I was a walking, sometimes talking, zombie.
As soon as I could feel my libido slipping out from under me, I went on a fucking spree, as if my lechery battery was dying and getting dick would charge it up again. The hook-ups I had were brief, one-nighters with lovers who were unaware of my mission, and uninvolved after the morning. Within a month I had lost interest in all bodies, including my own. A part of my brain, the part that knew who I was, tried to pipe up as often as it could. It’d speak softly,
“Vagina, I know you can’t, uh, feel what’s going on right now, but we have a major sexy boy ahead. Just wanna let you know that we’d fuck him. We would fuck him against a wall, against a stall, against the side of a small strip mall.”
My vagina, disgruntled and hard to understand (because of her lips, numb and unfeeling), would mumble, “Shut the fuck up, Dr. Seuss. Until we’re out of the trenches, don’t remind me of what I wish I wanted.”
I said goodbye to Zoloft and avoided returning to the doctor. We had just learned the French word, ennui, in my Decadent Literature class. Charles Baudelaire wrote about it. In my own self-indulgence, I was convinced Baudelaire knew me before I knew me. Ennui is a feeling of listlessness or weariness resulting from a lack of excitement and utter boredom. I thought I’d slap the fancy label “ennui” on something that was just my old anhedonia, plain old depression.
“Why aren’t you going to class?” my professors asked.
“Oh. I have ennui.”
When I would go into breakneck panic over my mortality, I still had the Alprazolam to calm me down. The drug would take my focus off the Big Death and make it easier to get towards la petite mort, “the little death.” It’s also French, and an idiom for orgasm. I feared death and the uncertainty that surrounded it. But I could settle for those little deaths; they took me out of the dreariness, the oblivion that lay in bed with me. They brought me to a place that felt a lot like something Saint Teresa would’ve believed in.
During a check-up, I confessed to the kind-faced physician that I needed a drug that wouldn’t affect my sex drive.
“I’m twenty-two and I’m in my prime,” I told her. “And I don’t want to not get aroused when I listen to Marvin Gaye.” She understood. She wrote a script for a new antidepressant, Wellbutrin, and told me to come back if I heard Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and didn’t feel something. I did not go back; I didn’t need to. I could feel the sting in my underarms when I was nervous, the impulse to roar at bad drivers. And I could feel my clitoris, in all its adorable, sensitive glory.
After leaving the doctor, I wondered why I wasn’t unnerved by my admission of wanting to keep my libido. I wasn’t having sex regularly, so why did it matter? Why did I continue to quit the pills that muted only one certain aspect of my life? Couldn’t I have made do without getting hot and bothered every day? I thought about my little deaths. My cute, transient, precious little deaths. Those short-lived moments of euphoria, or whatever you want to call really cool orgasms, gave me sensation when I was deficient of all others. When I realized that I didn’t have a whole lot of control over the Big Death, I found comfort in knowing I was still in charge of la petite mort. I was controlling a loss of control that was pleasant, sensual, and it kept me sane. If I couldn’t have my little deaths, what was left? The big one? That’s what I had to look forward to? Hell fucking no.
A year later, I was lying next to a boy I love, and he was tracing his fingers down the back of my spine.
“Well, I’m on Zoloft now,” He confided. “What didn’t you like about that one?”
I winced. “I couldn’t cry or come.”
“Damn. Yeah, shit. I would’ve felt like… then what’s the point?” I kissed him for that.
My sexuality is a vital part of my existence, and I didn’t want my core to be smudged with passivity. Cosmopolitan subscriptions, dirty talk, and Georgia O’Keeffe paintings keep my enthusiasm for life intact. If I had any love for myself, I wouldn’t ignore that side of my soul, as hedonistic and temporal as it may be. But if I had any love for myself, I wouldn’t ignore the dark side, the bleak and daunting taint that clouds my head and heart. That had to be dealt with too, so I would wrestle it. Naked, no doubt.
Meaghan Murray is a recent graduate of Suffolk University in Boston. She’s a lover of Mountain Dew and whiskey, but not if they’re combined. She is currently living in Minneapolis.
Q: What surprised you most in the writing and revising of this piece?
A: What surprised me most about the initial writing was probably my own openness. Not my openness with sexuality, but with the heavy stuff. Talking about mental illness felt way more personal than admitting I masturbate, I guess.
As for revising, I was surprised by the difference in emotions between reading the first draft and reading the first revision. It was easier to focus on fixing a point rather than analyzing it for the first time. Revising was refreshing!