aka Fake It Till You Make It by Christopher Rivas

Pretend, Just Pretend

I recently read an article in The New York Times about a new, controversial, experimental, and growing in popularity procedure where one pumps an IV full of glutathione into their veins in the hopes of lightening their skin, and I thought, “Wow, the inability to live in one's own skin has come to this.”

Is that what this feeling is? 

I am in the 5th grade when my father started pumping the rules of “pretend” into my veins. I have just seen Peter Pan, my first Broadway show, and I was smitten. I walk out the theater, arms in a T, flying through the streets of New York , pleading to the gods, announcing to anyone who would listen, especially my father, “That’s what I want, I want to fly around like I’m Peter!”

To which my pops responds, “Papi, that’s gonna be tough, Peter’s played by a white woman.” And before I can wallow in my defeat, he says, “Come on,” and he takes me to Central Park. He gets us two hot dogs and introduces me to a game (a game I still play to this day) called, “Where they going? Where they coming from? Why do they walk that way?”

You see, my pops was convinced that if you watched anything long enough you could begin to become an expert at it, get to know how it lives, how it breathes. He’d say, “Mijo, if you do whatever you have to do, you can become whatever you want. It’s not gonna be easy, but you can. It’s about seeing what people like and becoming that. You want to be rich, hang out with rich people. You want to be smart, hang out with smart people. You want to be funny, hang out with funny people… Fake it till you make it papi. You gotta play the part mijo, play the part…”

"Play the part," and just like that, all those mornings I spent watching my pops get meticulously ready, fresh shave, cologne, blow-drying his hair for that perfect coif, and putting a sharpie to any stray grays that might pop up on his goatee started to make sense. My pops was metro-sexual before that was even a thing, my pops took longer to get ready than me, my mother, and my sister combined.

“Mijo, you take the life you want and you make the life you want.”

My pops was the superintendent of a 164 unit building in Queens, New York. He knew everyone and everyone knew him, a version of him, the exact version he wanted them to know. He had as many characters as keys. I watched him chat, mimic, and play with everybody. One key at a time. The Russians, the Dominicans, the Puerto Ricans, the Jews, his white bosses, his Brown and Black brothers and friends, the hood rats, the young kids, the old kids, the senile, the clientele, the doctors.

I noticed early on how many different people my father could become. Sometimes it was a handshake, sometimes it was a head nod, sometimes his voice went low and sometimes it went high. Often it was him laughing at really bad jokes, sometimes it was a wider smile than I ever saw or got. He spoke Russian—“Do svidaniya, kak dela?” He spoke street—“Yo, get off my property!” He spoke Spanish—“Oye, Flaco, como estas? And of course white—“Yes sir, yes m'am.”

I thought my pops was the coolest and flyest person I knew. I was 4 foot 10 going into 10th grade. I was not the coolest or flyest. I was not my father or the trendy kids at the park or anyone popular who I wished I could be. 

But I still didn’t really understand why my cool as hell, Dominican Samuel L. Jackson (the Pulp Fiction one), mad wisdom, roller skating, DJ-ing Central Park parties kind of cool pops needed to be anything other than what he was. Why he needed to shape-shift and fit into so many different boxes. I would call him out on it, “Pops, why you gotta act so different with everybody?”

Every time, he’d say, “Hey, that’s not true, mind your business, leave me alone.”

It was true…Maybe, he didn’t even know.

Maybe his IV was so deeply attached to him, he forgot it was there, his many masks and personas becoming one with his blood.

When I told my father I wanted to play pretend for a living, that I wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to go to Hollywood, he said, “It’s gonna be tough, but do it. Look the part. Pretend. Fake it till you make it, right?”

I wasn’t surprised. That game in the park was one of many games and lessons designed to teach me how to pretend, which for my father meant how to fit in.

While shining his shoes, my pops would utter proclamations like, “It’s all about how you enter a room, because people are always watching. Always. So enter with your head high and shoes that shine mijo. If you can’t afford much, get a great pair of shoes, and some shoe horns, always shoe horns.”

It didn’t matter that I didn’t look the part, I was gonna make my father proud, he was all I knew of turning nothing into something; and each and every one of us wants to be something. I wanted to show him I could do it too. I could play the game of pretend, I could build a life of fitting in and being like “them.” By any means necessary. 

To accomplish this, I did exactly what my pops said, I sat and I watched. I would become what I wanted no matter what.

The great lecture hall where it all went down was the NYC Subway. For four years during high school my hour subway rides were my symposium. The tunnels and cramped cars were a master class on how to be something else. The focus I failed to bring into my schooling and classrooms was only because I was saving it for my real studies: watch the light skin ones who seemed to have it all figured out. I knew I had the power to make myself and remake myself over and over again. I walked the subways like I was about to be asked for a dissertation on what every Upper East Side and Wall Street yuppie who seemed to have cash and clout did, wore, and smelled like. I sat across from these chosen ones on the train, I mimicked their posture, I blinked when they blinked, I became a mirror. I was in tune with the rise and fall of each one of their exhales and exclamations.

I became this master chameleon, composing myself out of pieces of everyone else. Their ability to maneuver the world and have and take and have easily was the goal. I watched how the boys held the girls. I watched how the girls held the boys. When they whispered a joke in an ear that caused a laugh, I would whisper and laugh. If some dude is successfully mackin’ it to some girl, I could take the essence of that. If some guy laughed in a cool way, I could take the essence of that. Walk like him, smile like that.

At night I would replay these moments over and over. I was crafting a playbook. Plays and scenes that I would whip out in different scenarios, I would practice them so that when I had the last shot with seven seconds on the clock, and I was down three, I could whip this play out and execute it to perfection.

I was always watching, always adapting, always wanting and working to be something other than myself. I was an everything-man and a nothing all at the same time. I went to school in the Upper East Side and was chilling. I hung out with my best friend in the Bronx and was chillin’. I lived among wealthy Jews and went to at least 37 bar mitzvahs by the time I was 13, and it was all good. I went to so many mitzvahs, that when I turned 13, the Jewish after-school program I attended decided, “Chris needs one of these too!”—so, they threw me a Bar Mitzvah in the park: Grape juice, Manischewitz, challah, “Baruch atah Adoshem”—the whole nine yards.

The party, backyard, neighborhood, hood, school, social setting became my battlefield and language was my weapon. So my tongue was and is always sharp and ready. My tongue can wear many a disguise and mask. My tongue pleases and greets many a body, a gender, a sex, and a color. My tongue is my strongest weapon.

I had (still have) a wide repertoire of basic complements, head nods and all the tongues needed, not languages, but tongues. I learned to speak multiple tongues, like—“What’s poppin! / Oye Guapo! / Hey shorty! / Hello, how are you? / HOOTIE HOO!”

And yet, even after the Bar Mitzvah and all the pretending, I still never felt like a somebody. I never felt comfortable in my body. I never felt comfortable. I never felt home, I never felt like I found it.

I still rarely saw people who resembled me in the mainstream. None of the pretending stopped me from being followed in stores, it didn’t stop the Colombian drug dealer jokes, it didn’t stop my Dominican hair from curling (even after putting shaving cream in it, which was supposed to keep it straight—it didn’t). It didn’t stop my nose from widening, and it didn’t change the fact that my heroes and the spaces I was told to strive for were (and still are) primarily white.

Even though this inability to live in my own skin was still growing, I couldn’t pretend my way out of it.

Is that why the first time I landed in Colombia as an adult, a peace washed over me? All of a sudden I was resting, no longer pretending. Resting in my blood, resting in my skin, resting. I wasn’t Brown, I wasn’t special or exotic, I was me; and that me could rest. I thought, when I go home, I’m going to grab a white person and say, “I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world, I will never feel as at home in my own skin here, in this place. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.”

Everybody tells me, tells their children, and tells the youth to, “Grow up and be somebody. Get the best, go out and get it.”

Get it. As if it is given to you. To who? To me? No. That advice is built for a very specific subset of society. The part of society that sees themselves in the world, in culture and in media actually being somebody, actually “getting it.” My education on the other hand is not one of inherent value.

It’s one of erasure and removal.

The best advice my pops could give me was to try and be like them, “Fake it till you make it, mijo. Pretend. Put yourself there until it comes true. Do whatever you have to do until it works.” Basically he’s saying, dress nice, speak white, fit in, don’t be viewed as threat, and everything will be alright; but I’m not so sure that’s true.

There is no road map for the Brown body that wants to be something. There are only ways to pretend to be something, somebody else. And so here I am, many years later, still pretending. Even when it hurts, and it does hurt—like the cold and burning sensation people feel as glutathione, a whitening fluid flows through their veins.

You know, there exists a medical term for people exposed to stresses stemming from social inequality, discrimination, and racism—John Henryism. It’s where a person tries and tries and tries to death in order to be seen, in order to be enough, in order to not be forgotten. When does the fake part end, and the make it part begin? What are the consequences and how long can I do this for? Most importantly, what is the cost of pretending for men and women of color, the bodies of culture, who believe they should be something other than who they are? 

Sherman James, the researcher who came up with this term, tells us that the physiological costs are high. I have no doubt.

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Christopher Rivas is quickly becoming one of the most sought after multi-hyphenates as an actor, author, podcaster, and storyteller. He recently released his book Brown Enough, which explores what it means to be Brown in America. The book is part memoir and part social commentary, a roller coaster of finding one's true self while simultaneously having a racial awakening amidst the struggle to be "perfectly" Latinx, woke, and as Brown as possible to make it in today's America. He also recently developed two podcast series with SiriusXM's Stitcher: Brown Enough, which explores the parallel themes of this book through interview-style episodes; and Rubirosa, a 10-episode documentary-style investigation of Porfirio Rubirosa, a Dominican diplomat, race car driver, soldier and polo player who is believed to be the inspiration for the famous character James Bond. On screen, Rivas is known for his work on the Fox series, Call Me Kat, opposite Mayim Bialik, Leslie Jordan, Kyla Pratt and Cheyenne Jackson. Visit his website www.christopherrivas.com

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by Abby Hagler

A Letter to My Great-Grandmother Upon Reading Her Astrological Birthchart

Dear Bess —

I was wondering if I knew the story of a woman with a secret power when I called an astrologer named Blair and gave her your birth date. I did it because it was winter and I suddenly lived alone. I did it because there is a woman in me who reminds me of you.

This woman swallows the bulb of sadness that rises in my throat. After love ends, after leaving cottages deep in forests I’ll never return to, when snow turns violent, when I have changed without my permission, the bulb breaks into root. Like a tough-earth woman, she melts down the choking feeling. She staves what could bloom into an all-day depression because, beneath her pillowy skin, she is hardened to shale.

Like women I’ve known.

Like women whose stories are often about men.

The first thing Blair told me is that your moon was in Aquarius. Combined with a sun in Aries, no one could tell you what to do.

You were born unafraid of the following: pregnancy, sermons that continue even when the power goes out, being touched on the shoulder in the dark, going to college, driving cars, changing your name, wearing your hair short, putting on a wedding dress, marrying young.

Like any animal, you were born holding yourself fiercely. You were the type who felt suffocated upon awakening to a closed window. You knew about strength in numbers—something that took me over twenty years to understand. In lieu of loneliness, you threw card parties. With your pack of friends, you were as given to the church as a Baptist woman could be. That is, with your cotton-skirted body and the skinny memory of what frightened you in the dark at age five. You kept a clean, cold sink at home. None of your grandchildren would forget it. Nearby, cattle hoofed the soil in search of salt.

You were my great-grandfather Bill’s first wife. His story is about brick laying, cement, and marriages to a couple other women. Photos of you two in your wedding garb are somewhere safe and dark. The story of how you met has long since been forgotten.

My own last love ended on a red couch just before snow. And after, my body has cried unconsciously, letting go of years that revolved around a man who used threats of self-harm to keep me in orbit. His needs consumed my life so much that, with it now over, I do not know who has been left over to take my place. This person sleeps in my bed but I can give no name to what she wants or how to care for her.

There is a photo of you—women in my family never show anyone. When I was a child, they described it to me but didn’t unpack it. The picture was taken by a journalist shortly after the moment you died. It headlined the local newspaper. A T-boned chassis, your limp body inside.

My mom told me it hurts to be able to picture the scene of the car wreck, the reality of how you died. It was decades before I was born, back in 1962. A drunk driver hit the car taking you to a church event and time froze. Then time began again. The bent car and your broken bones shaped a part of my mythology. After, your limbs were lifted and put in a bag. The car was pushed from the road.

Every day, I thank the frost for suffocating my bedroom window. It looks delicate, like white-gloved hands pressing in, blocking out the sharp silver of morning, slowing time. I let the woman who reminds me of you tell me to get dressed, to wash a dish, to check the mail. Life goes on, she says once a day, even though the frost and the drifts remaining say otherwise.

Perhaps I was meant to be proven wrong. Recently, in the mail, it appeared mixed up in a manila envelope of old correspondence, clippings, and birth/death charts from my mom. A copy of the photo I was never allowed to see, tucked under a matching white gravy boat and sugar dish that belonged to you.

The story of how you felt about dusting and children and friendships and newspapers has always occurred to me. I struggle to explain this necessity to you, our family’s matriarch, alive or dead. Our family didn’t start with you but my knowledge of our history does. I’ve been learning to be alone again and it wilds me, needing to know how your heart lived inside your chest. Was it like mine: a spot of dark soil? Plank after plank nailed over the mouth of a tunnel? A campfire finally snuffed by moonlight, one defiant smoke curl rising?

You were born in 1897, last name Stone. You arrived a nervous thing. A time capsule of your mother’s history. Either in a house or in a tiny hospital along an unpaved road—a blip in the lion’s mane of Nebraska. On March 27, the St. Paul Phonograph predicted barley arriving on the next train.

There were no horoscopes in the paper. This is because newspaper horoscopes wouldn’t happen until 1930. They were intended to be a last gasp of public interest in the birth of another prince, the continuation of support for the falling European monarchies.

Moon in Aquarius conjunct Venus in Taurus gave you a quiver in your voice. You had thin lips, trust issues, and dust bowl curls unwinding like awakening fiddlehead ferns. 

There are no real stories about you. At least, none that anyone can agree upon except that you were very religious, you coddled children to the point that you had to get stern with them, and you died in a crash. If one person shares a memory, another person will say it’s not true. Sometimes contradictions create avenues of choice. Other times, they eat away at who we are more than time.

For example, no one can even agree on the shape of your body. Which makes you a perfect ghost. We are so unsure of ourselves when speaking of you. The world, like a husband, will never really know how you felt about winter and sugar, hoofprints and sadness. No one can speak to it. No one remembers. When I think of you, I will have to assume you ate your tears when you cried because I have lived long enough to do the same. Tears that taste like onion skins. Like boiled chicken necks, delicately salted.

Blair said a sadness crosses your chart in many places. I thought it might look like a shadow clinging to the back of your neck. A scarf, chiffon weight.

Growing up, my mom told me everything she had heard about you. Mostly, you came up when she talked to teenaged me about the paper bags you breathed into. She never said what stopped your breath. These conversations always felt like a way of telling me I might have depression or anxiety without having to seek diagnosis. She told me the story of how you sat with your head between your knees to reduce panic—something I started to do too. I pictured you curled, felt your heart calming in the backseat of a large car. 

I called my grandma, who knew and loved you. The breathing into paper bags never happened. You never had anxiety though you wore your sadness like an oversized coat. She told me about the baby you miscarried, how she thought you might have changed into a quieter person after that. A distaste for housework grew. Given to thinking of that baby, saying his name, you dug a little hole in your throat. Being around children became difficult, even among your surviving son and daughter.

Moon opposite Chiron, Blair noted while tracing her finger over the circle crossed with lines in her lap, that’s the sign of the wounded healer. A wounded healer is someone who transforms her pain into action. She had to learn first. Then tries to help others never experience the same.

I called your daughter Alice, who lives in a rest home now. Her voice sounds exactly the same as it did last time we talked while I was sunset jogging on the high school track. She and I were both surprised to realize that was twenty years ago. Over the phone, she said you loved to read but you dropped out of high school to take care of your siblings. Your life was work from then on. Eventually, you managed to earn a six-month teaching certificate at Peru State College, where your mother went.

I pictured you swimming in your own drafts of stories or poems, even if they only lived in your skin’s memory like wasp stings. Blair said Neptune and Pluto were close together when you were born. Your transformations were frequent, happening in your imagination. You had the qualities of a young adult novel writer but manifested fictions through rigid religious devotion.

At this point in the reading, I remember asking Blair: What happens to a writer who doesn’t write?

From your chart, it seems one answer is that a writer throws herself into helping people—a type of mothering.

Alice said you had to teach your own husband to read. My dad disagrees that Bill was illiterate but it’s not surprising considering there were only 9,000 schools for 1,000,000 people living in Nebraska by the time your children were born. People in those years still wondered if rain really did follow the railroad. It took a long time to forget the belief that storms could be jostled from clouds by shooting cannons into the sky. The school year up until nearly mid-twentieth century was only three months long due to planting and harvesting. Most boys didn’t attend past third grade. Most girls didn’t go past eighth. Teachers were usually teen girls who were required to quit if they married.

I imagine you teaching him after work, while the plants curled their leaves and the dirt road between your house and town settled, the dishes dried and stacked. A very tall man, a very short woman clasped in a lemon light. He was an atheist and would not read the Bible. I heard this from my grandma, who is disappointed I am an atheist too. Maybe you got a newspaper, pointing to the lists of deliveries arriving on the rail: barley, cattle, crop seeds.

The newspaper would have offered a lot of very 1920 words such as union strike and suffrage and prohibition. Maybe you both were preparing for very 1930s words like stocks and Nazis and propaganda and election. Maybe neither of you had ever imagined planes and troops, dams, princes crying, herds of people, more trains. You taught him to read without the prop of fiction. You taught him to imagine an oncoming reality. Maybe you knew something I know: reading teaches us to keep speaking no matter what happens.

Another thing Blair said is that you were born when Mars was in its downfall. That’s what she called it: a downfall. She said it’s the depression of a body that does not like its surroundings in space. The window was always whispering. Your dreams were often vivid, full of blue and shadows.

Mars in its downfall is also called wild. It is Mars that fuels your internal voice and, when it is wild, it is itching to leave, abandoning cars full of barley. Maybe your wild manifested from the things in life that came as a matter of course though they were never what made your heart beat. Like marriage in lieu of teaching. Like scrubbing diaper cloths, minding the cash register, the rhythm method, or babysitting. Tasks your chart says you resented.

A fall is like being born while everyone in the room is looking away.

It is the long grass, strong thistle, and fifty varieties of weeds springing up in the distance between them and you. From suffering the fact that your face looks like so many other women’s faces even though you want different things.

Your Mars reminds me that wildness is my downfall, guided by other gravities than those that pulled you.

When the women in my family ask me why I’m always breaking up or when I will be ready to let myself be loved, I know they mean I need to settle down. This is another way of hinting that being single and childless makes me a potential burden because, their whole lives, the news and political rhetoric have said this is what single women are.

Questions about what I have survived—what has made me this way—float up between us like soapy little bubbles, then pop. Embracing the truth will always look a little feral to other people.

Here is another thing I have learned: What a woman endures to be ready to accept love could undo anyone.

Blair said Saturn was transiting over Aquarius on the day you died. This transit indicated a painful release of your past, having to do with your mother. There is something about mothering and mothers that resembles our relationship to the self. It is constant shedding, as snakes do to skin, as rivers do to waters, as any animal will do to its own tracks. To realize your mother cannot carry you any longer. To realize the mother you carry. How she is tough and just a person growing older. To realize there was a point long ago when she could not care for you the way you need. That living might boil down to answering questions or abandoning them for other inquiries. 

In your scattered planets and stars, I am aware of all these ways women live, what plot I currently hold. To be alone with a story, even fiction, is solitude. Alone with. With something. With yourself as a memory, older blood. The weathered rib of a woman to embrace.

I decided to use your gravy boat to water houseplants, help them along. The light purple bellflower and pink evening primrose are so delicately painted onNo one ever taught me to keep a sugar dish but I cup your old white ceramic, carefully lifting and lowering its little lid and think, Are our fingerprints mingling? Was salt kept in it instead? Did she ever throw sugar over her shoulder just to break a myth?

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Abby Hagler lives in Chicago. Previous work has appeared in FANZINE, Full Stop, and The Hunger. With Julia Cohen, she runs “Original Obsessions,” an interview column at Tarpaulin Sky Magazine focused on writers’ childhood obsessions manifesting in their current work. Her chapbook of essays There Was Nothing Left But Gold is available from Essay Press.

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by Mary Zelinka

My Magnificent Feet

Running is what got me to quit smoking. So when the prosthetist at Albany Prosthetics said, “I’m surprised you can even walk on these things,” referring to my feet, my whole body tensed. He shook his head when I asked him if the UCBL foot braces that I had just been prescribed would keep me running until I was an old lady. “You’re not going to be walking at all by the time you’re fifty.” 

Dr. Dave had been much more optimistic. 


I had started smoking when I was sixteen, Pall Malls. Later, Marlboro Golds. I was no fan of John Wayne, but was irrationally proud when I learned I smoked almost as much as he did. Over four packs a day for me, five for him.

I discovered running in 1982 when I was thirty-four. The company I worked for arranged free memberships at the new gym in town and thinking that might be better than going to the tavern after work, I joined. After I lifted weights, I ran around and around the little track that circled the weight room and finally worked up to twenty-two laps, which equaled a mile. You would have thought I had just gotten a big promotion along with a nice fat raise. Not long afterwards, I read it should be nearly impossible to run a mile if you smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Your lungs just wouldn’t have the air capacity. That got me wondering how far I could run if I quit smoking. 

I decided I would run a marathon.   

I had been the kind of smoker whose need for nicotine woke me up several times during the night. Mornings, I lit a cigarette before I switched my alarm clock off. Smoking wasn’t so much a craving as a necessity. Like I was going to literally die if I didn’t have a cigarette. And it wasn’t so much a relief when I took that first long drag and filled my lungs with Marlboro’s warmth, as it was being able to simply function.

I went cold turkey. My lungs felt forlorn and bereft—hollow, like nothing could ever fill them again. My head pounded with headaches worse than hangovers. Dizzy. My mind went fuzzy. Exhausted, but unable to sleep. Instead, I stared into the darkness and pondered whether I really wanted to live if I could never smoke again. My bones ached. I was nauseous. Tears hovered at the edge of my eyelids. I avoided my co-workers and people in general, afraid I might bite somebody.

The gym was the only place where I had never smoked because it wasn’t allowed. So during my lunch hour I pushed myself through a workout. Then, after working late, I went back to the gym. As soon as I got home, I fell into bed.

Every night I told myself that if I felt this bad by the next night, I would start smoking again. Then after a few weeks, I gave myself another week of it. Then a month. Then two months. Three. After a year I could finally say I had quit smoking instead of I’m trying to quit. 

I started running outside instead of around that little track. Two miles a day. Three miles. Five miles. It’s not like I thought, “I can run five miles, so I can end world hunger,” but my confidence did increase along with my mileage. I had control over my life because I had control over my body. I was powerful. And even though I didn’t think about them during a run, problems resolved themselves or at least seemed more manageable by the time I was done.

As my running shoes beat a steady rhythm on the asphalt, my lungs expanded and contracted. In wind or calm, rain or clear, frosty cold or sweltering heat, it was just me and the elements. It felt like I had discovered what humans were designed for.

Injuries began: sometimes dramatic, like a pulled groin muscle, cracked shin bone, or torn hamstring, and sometimes vague like the chronically inflamed tarsal tunnel in both feet.

I’d work up to thirty-five or forty miles a week, then get an injury. I’d make myself crazy wondering if this was a real injury and I was being sensible for laying off, or was I just being lazy? What if I could never run again? I’d ice six times a day, take a lot of aspirin, and the injury gradually healed. I’d start running again and get back up to thirty-five or forty miles a week. Then another injury.

If I lived in prehistoric times, my clan would have left me behind because I couldn’t have kept up with them. A saber tooth tiger would have eaten me. 

Every time I had an injury, the doctor said I just wasn’t built for running—my feet were too flat. But it seemed to me that technology should be able to fix that. After all, people with artificial legs ran, and I just had flat feet. And that’s what brought me to see Dr. Dave, an orthopedist at a sports medicine clinic in Albany. I insisted that not running was not going to be an option.

After I worked with his physical therapist for a few weeks, Dr. Dave prescribed the UCBLs. Using a plastic model of a foot, he explained that the ligaments—running from where my arches should be, up and around my calves, and then attaching to my shins—were wearing down. Running may have speeded up the deterioration, but didn’t cause it. Eventually, probably before I turned fifty, my ankles would drop to the ground, flipping the bottom of my feet sideways, and UCBLs would be too late. Then I would require leg braces to my knees.

He said the UCBLs would change my biomechanics. Everything starts with the feet and lines up from there. All my joints would realign—knees, hips, spine, shoulders. It would take months to adjust to them.

He apologized when he said most people found they could not run in UCBLs. He did, however, have a patient who had run marathons in them.

I decided I would be like that person. 


If you google “UCBL”—which wasn’t possible in 1989 when I got mine—you will learn it is a “rigid, plastic shoe insert for stabilizing a flexible foot deformity.” UCBL stands for University of California Biomechanics Laboratory, who designed it in 1967. If you keep googling, you will eventually come to grotesque pictures of feet too twisted for UCBLs to do any good.

Though I guess “deformity” could describe anything that’s not normal, my feet had never been called deformed before. It seems a bit harsh.

Most of the articles refer to UCBLs as “braces” rather than orthotics. I had often thought there needed to be another word for orthotics. If I mentioned to someone I couldn’t wear most shoes because of my orthotics, they typically replied, “Sure you can. I wear orthotics too and they just slip right in.” Then they’d show me a pliable little thing that looked like it was made of something you could buy in a craft store.

My UCBLs are a rigid white plastic material that makes me think of the Storm Troopers in Star Wars. The brace starts at the ball of my foot, just behind my toes. It curls around my foot like an ugly slipper, curving over the top of my foot almost an inch at the ball, higher as it approaches my heel. From there, it completely encases my heel—holding it in a vertical position—stopping just short of my ankle. In most of my shoes, the brace peeks out over the top.

The prosthetist at Albany Prosthetics said they last forever and will float, should I ever be swept out to sea. I don’t know why he thought it was important to tell me that. 


I wondered if I had made my feet worse, even before the running, because when I was a child, I cheated on the foot exercises our doctor prescribed. Fingertips on the dresser for balance, I was to stretch up on my tiptoes, hold, then roll down to my heels and hold. Repeat until twenty. Then, still standing, roll my feet from side to side twenty times. Sitting on my bed, pick up marbles with my toes —twenty times each foot. The exercises from start to finish couldn’t have taken a full five minutes, but it seemed like forever and most nights I told Mother I had done them when I hadn’t. 

When I told Mother about my UCBL’s, she worried she had caused my extreme flat feet because in the 1950s she let me stand on the shoe store’s fluoroscope X-ray machine for as long as I wanted. Watching my green x-rayed toes wiggle while mother confirmed the shoes fit made suffering through new saddle oxfords almost worth it. 

Dr. Dave reassured me that neither would have made a difference, though the fluoroscope was a terrible idea in general.   

“You are just tired,” Mother always said when I was little and my legs hurt. I tried to ignore the dull ache that my feet and legs always turned into at night. My legs don’t hurt. My legs don’t hurt. Some nights I’d lie on my stomach and kick my feet against the bed until I fell asleep from exhaustion. 

In childhood photographs, instead of my shins running vertically to my feet from my knees, they angle away from each other, my feet rolling inward, my inside ankles reaching for the ground. My knees look almost knock-kneed. I was sentenced to wearing sensible shoes like saddle oxfords, though they didn’t make my feet and legs any straighter. As a teenager, I wore Capezio flats to school because all the other girls did. My feet would have wept, had they been able.

My older sister Gracie has flat feet too and when I told her about my UCBLs, she said her feet were fine. That when she was in junior high, she trained her arches to stay up so she would look nice in Capezio shoes. I don’t see how that’s even possible.  How do you teach non-existent arches to arch?


I was forty-two when I was put in my UCBLs. After a couple of months wearing them, for the first time in my life my legs didn’t ache at night. The absence of pain was so startling that it seemed to be a category of pain all its own.

But in the beginning, my feet resisted when I crammed them into the UCBLs. They swelled up like a horse does when you first tighten his girth. You have to walk him around for a few minutes so he’ll relax and let the air out, then you can pull the girth up snug. My feet were like that.

I kept veering off to the left and losing my balance. One of my co-workers asked if I would always walk like Frankenstein’s monster. I didn’t see how I was ever going to be able to run in them.

Then I remembered the book my cousin Jack Heggie had written—Running with the Whole Body, based on the Feldenkrais theory of movement. I walked for miles every day, paying attention only to my hips and shoulders. Noticing how my right hip moved forward when my left shoulder did. My left hip with my right shoulder. Thinking about my shoulders—forward and back, forward and back. My hips— forward and back, forward and back.

Within the month I was walking pretty much like I always had. Not long after that I was running again.

Now, it’s hard to walk without them. If I wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I have to concentrate on walking in a straight line. And I’ve had no injuries since I’ve been in my UCBLs. 

Well, except those the braces themselves caused. My feet have to remain upright. There is no give in my braces for any nuanced movement. If I’m hiking on a trail, down the street, across a lawn, in my house, I have to pay attention where I put my feet.


I completed Trail’s End Marathon in Seaside, Oregon on February 23, 1991. Four hours, forty-three minutes, fifty-three seconds. It had taken me eight years and four months to get to the starting line.

The night before the marathon, my friend Cynthia asked if I would be disappointed if I wasn’t able to finish. That possibility hadn’t even occurred to me. Even if I had to drag myself over the finish line on my belly I was going to finish. I hoped to run the entire distance, and I wanted to do it in under five hours, but my number one goal was to finish. Period.

The “wall” I had read about was real: from miles eighteen to twenty-two I went into a dark, barren place devoid of any hope or reason or sense of purpose. Every square inch of my body hurt: calves, knees, thighs, hips, back, shoulders, arms, fingers, the top of my head where my hair was pulled into a ponytail. My feet threatened to explode.

Then, at about mile twenty-two, I realized I really was going to finish, and I was going to do it running. Chris, a woman I met at the start, caught up with me and we ran the last few miles together. We looped our arms around one another’s shoulders and crossed the finish line side by side.

In spite of all the Vaseline slathered on my feet before the run, they had bled through my shoes. My feet were so swollen I had to pry them out of my UCBLs. After my shower, I gently rubbed my feet. “Look what you did!” I said to them. “You ran a marathon!”


Dr. Dave was right—UCBLs are hard to run in. I kept it up for a couple of years after my marathon, but the pounding my feet took inside my braces got to be too much. Running started to seem like a mean thing to do to them. Now I’m a power walker. It’s not as good as running, but my feet are happier.


I know each of our body parts is but a piece of our whole, and none have independent thought or will. Still, my feet seem particularly faithful and strong and determined. Like if they were people instead of feet, and your plane went down in the Andes and you had to hike days and days to get back to civilization, you would want them with you. 

Yet when they are bare, my feet look pale and feeble, like subterranean creatures who have never seen daylight. The only time my feet are naked is when I’m taking a shower. They are never without socks, even when I go to bed, because they need to be ready to slip into my shoes where my braces live.

The tops of both feet are red where my shoelaces crisscross. On my left foot, there is a large bunion. My mother had one just like it on both her feet, except they got so big they shoved her big toes clear underneath the others. My braces will prevent this from happening to me. The braces have worn grooves into my feet, outlining themselves.

My feet are relieved when I pull their socks on and slip them back into their shoes. Now they feel safe again. Secure in their own magnificence.   

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Mary Zelinka lives in Albany, Oregon, and has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for over 30 years. Her writing has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Brevity, Eclectica, Multiplicity and others.

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by Toti O'Brien

Wear and Tear

Something must have been similar about the two intrusions.

The last one briskly caused me to reconnect with the first one, which I hadn’t forgotten, but seldom came to mind.

Those old fingers parting my labia, deepening into my vulva—tentative and unskilled, in both cases, but that wasn’t the point.

Old seemed to be the point. The last time, just twenty years older than any of my body parts, body cells—quite a regular gap, to which I was used.

The first time, much older. How exactly, I couldn’t have said. Perhaps, eighty years older?

The first time, the skin must have been rough, and probably dirty. The man had come in from the garden, where—in spite of his age—he had toiled all morning. I do not recall him washing his hands. His nails must have been dark-rimmed.

Not that I would have been impressed. Mine, at six, could have sported a similar halo.

How large were his fingers? Were the nails cut short? Were they filed? I doubt it.

For the finger that found its way under my panties, then introduced itself into my six-year-old sex, I had no blame at the moment. I realized something was where it shouldn’t have been, but I wasn’t sure what exactly such misplacement implied.

The ingression happened—so to speak—without aggression (aggredio = to come forward, come closer). We were playing. He was playing with my little brothers and me, helping us in turns to cartwheel over his shoulder. As I spiraled in mid-air, heels literally over head, his hand and my genitalia interlocked.

I cannot recall if that was just once. Logic strongly suggests the encounter was reenacted with each somersault—the first try having caused no reaction on my end, there would have been no reason to stop.

I would have been surprised, of course, only once. Repeats wouldn’t have counted—and in fact they didn’t. Let’s say that it happened once.

My surprise wasn’t exactly shock—unless “shock” would define a state of numb stupor, sudden abstraction.

I remember thinking the old man was mistaken.

Not wrong.

Sure, he must have known my privates weren’t meant to be touched. Not even by me. Sure, he must have known that. Therefore, he wouldn’t have deliberately broken the rule.

Not a grown-up. Not an old man, like Grandpa—those I had learned to trust and respect.

I said nothing, of course. That part—I mean, silence—was immediately and extremely clear. I am not sure how, but I perfectly knew that, once spoken, his error would have become my fault.

 To him, I mentioned nothing. I would have died of—


Why? Don’t ask.

I don’t know.

I said nothing, as a matter of fact, to no one, for the rest of my life.

He was not supposed to come in, sit on the sofa, play with us kids...We were there by ourselves and the door was open. A distraction. A gap.

My folks never realized it, and the opportunity never recreated itself—so the episode not only floated (in a physical sense) out of gravity. Isolated, it was also out of context, without past or future…It might as well not have happened, and a part of me decided it hadn’t.

Now, I wonder if he touched my brothers as well. I ask myself if we all remained stuck, maybe, in a triple lock of denial.


I am not sure why the most recent episode of my adult sex life brought back to my senses the first one.

Was it the similarity in age between the present partner and my primer?

I thought so. But that was nothing new, and many other things were different. Innocence had been long replaced by expertise. Surprise, of course, had metamorphosed into habit.

A lifetime of sex separated these two moments in time—and a zillion variations of the same act.

The same? Was it, at different ages, in different contexts, with different partners, fueled by different rates of desire? Maybe not.


This time though, something weirdly overlapped, and I was brutally pulled back. I recalled—

I recognized the meekness. Mine.

This assent that isn’t exactly consent.

This assent that so closely borders absence.

That, perhaps, implies absence as a mandatory condition. Meaning, a kind of withdrawal.

Let it be. After all, my cunt isn’t worth more than any other one. Isn’t it what I’ve always thought? After all, it isn’t so precious that I should tightly guard it from things going in and out. Holds no treasures, no secrets.


Well, once—

At eleven, I was brought to see a gynecologist. As he approached my vagina with a sharp, long, thin metal object (of which he hadn’t explained the nature or function) I jumped off the examination cot and began to back up.

I remember the pompous prick…I don’t think he even wore medical scrubs. I recall him in suit, like a lawyer, like a sales manager, an illusionist wagging his silvery wand.

He started laughing, as I shivered with terror. Yes, the tool looked quite threatening. But physicians should be trusted—correct?—more than vetust gardeners.

Beside that immature defense reflex, my life didn’t show blatant sings of damage in the areas of relationships, intimacy, and sex.

Although, I found more pleasure in touching than in being touched—in doing, that in being done. Within reason.

But, I guess, something remained opened since the non-traumatic fumbling of the six-year-old me. It remained exposed, un-lidded, unshielded from wearing agents, such as weather or dust.

Somehow, I lost agency upon—and ownership of—the intruded area, which became more of a kind of shared facility.

Which, really, wasn’t such a big deal.

As, now—on the tail end of desire, after all games were played and all scores were settled—I allow access to yet another free customer—and why not—I am reached by the long-forgotten child’s helplessness. It does not overwhelm me. I just feel it, in full. I re-live her acquiescence of spoiled, plucked-off marigold.


The red panels of my dress lift like poppy petals. Easy. Is it why I prefer skirts? Is it why I like flimsy lingerie?

Well, the sensible panties I wore, back then, didn’t do a splendid job.

Fabric is just fabric, and labia come unzipped.

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Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. Born in Rome, living in Los Angeles, she is an artist, musician and dancer. She is the author of Other Maidens (BlazeVOX, 2020), An Alphabet of Birds (Moonrise Press, 2020), In Her Terms (Cholla Needles Press, 2021), Pages of a Broken Diary (Pski’s Porch, 2022) and Alter Alter (Elyssar Press, 2022).

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