Grand Prize: The Good China - Colleen Alles
Humor: Yep, That's Mine (And, honestly? It's awesome.) - Amy D. Robinson
Surprise: This Journal Belongs to Andrew Adler - Alyssa Brocker
Insight: 1962: It's Always the Girl's Fault - DC Diamondopolous
The stories were selected to win based on the reflections from our judges.
Awards totaling $1000 are provided by our generous Sponsors
The Good China
The Good China
My divorce became final more than a decade years ago. I don’t think about it often.
Occasionally, though, its insistence on being remembered slaps me in the face. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard.
This last time, I was reminded of my first marriage as I stood in the garage of my parents’ house—a sprawling ranch in eastern Indiana. I was lit up inside because my husband and my half-brother were talking bikes—which saddles (a fancy word for seats) were best for long rides.
As they spoke, I wandered over to the tool bench. My father keeps a meticulous garage. Bob Villa would drool. Every tool is in place. Every box is labeled.
My eyes landed on a box labeled, “Colleen’s Good China.”
The good china. My good china.
I remembered standing with my mother in a Bed Bath & Beyond, staring out at a sea of dishes. Pure white, eggshell, cream. Beautiful.
And expensive. I remembered raising my eyebrow at the price tags.
But my mother told me people expected me to register for good china. They wanted to buy this for me and my first husband.
Evidently, we needed good china in order to entertain.
I was to become part of a married couple who invited guests to dinner.
This was the doorway to my new life.
All I needed to do was step in.
I picked up a box: a place setting complete with a dinner plate, a salad plate, a coffee cup, a dessert plate. It was $50. It was pretty, though, with silver borders: a pattern of long, thin, wavy lines that made hearts and intricate loops. I realized my mother and I were supposed to be bonding. I wanted to make her happy. I wanted to do all the right things to become a real adult.
I raised my black scanning gun over the barcode and pressed my finger on the trigger, over and over again, until the quantity reached a dozen.
* * *
Two years later, I was deeply unhappy and staring at what looked like decades of depression and emptiness in that house, in that marriage. It’s possible we could have gone to therapy and taken other steps to salvage our marriage, but the end truth is I wasn’t interested in that. I left him.
It took him a while to come around to it, to see it was the right thing to do: we were young, we didn’t have children, we both had college degrees and good friends and families, jobs that paid well. It was going to be all right if we split.
All those wedding gifts needed to be divided: the wine cooler, the bread maker, the nice toaster, the fruit bowl, the pots, the pans, the fluffy towels, the high thread count sheets.
Because the divorce was my idea, I left him as much as I could. I took my old bed from college, my books, my clothes. I made a lot of trips to Target those first few months on my own to fill in all the gaps with clearance household wares.
I boxed up the good china and took that, too. I figured he didn’t want it.
* * *
One night alone in my new apartment, feeling sorry for myself for being 26 and divorced, I heated up some pasta in the microwave using the good china.
You know what happens next.
Within seconds of hitting the start button, an eerie popping sound hit my ears. I looked through the translucent door to see sparks flying from the beautiful silver border: a fireworks display happening right before my eyes.
I yanked open the microwave door quickly.
You can’t microwave good china.
Any good hostess would know that. But I wasn’t a good hostess, was I?
The plate didn’t appear damaged, but I felt like an even bigger failure. The plate now represented all the hopes my mother had for me and my first marriage—all the things I think she thought she was passing on. She had a long and loving marriage with my father. She’d helped me pick out the right dishes. That plate made me confront how deeply I’d disappointed her—how starkly her wisdom was wasted on me. It seemed all I knew was how to damage beautiful things. Another minute in that microwave and I would have ruined that plate forever.
Scraping my room-temperature lasagna onto a paper plate, I considered how useless my good china was. It didn’t fit me. It didn’t fit the life I was trying to find. It was gorgeous, but who cared?
Those plates were doomed for destruction if they stayed with me—just as I felt I was doomed if I’d stayed married—at 25—to a man at the time, I had come to almost hate.
I put the china back into its box and bought a set of white dishes perfect for everyday use at Target. I gave the good china to my mother. I sensed that it still meant something to her, even though to me, it was baggage. I knew she only wanted me to be happily married. So did everyone who bought us a place setting.
I didn’t lose that dream for myself.
* * *
Sometimes I wonder if my mother is waiting for me to say I want it back.
I wonder if she thinks I’ll grow into it, now that I’ve settled down with a sweet and wonderful man with whom I share a loving partnership. Together, he and I have raised two babies into playful children who sometimes slam their silverware onto those everyday white plates I bought so long ago just to hear that satisfying clanking.
I wonder if she’s waiting for me to say I am ready to take on the good china.
But I don’t think it’s really for me....
Yep, That's Mine (And, honestly? It's awesome.)
Amy D Robinson
Gooooood day, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls... Welcome to our little aquarium where sharks and manta rays are right within reach... Please use two fingers and two fingers only to touch the backs of our fishy friends... Gooooooood day...
Every day, the ceaseless flow of children, overwrought parents, and awkward second dates file through. An attendant's bored voice introduces a gliding array of knee-high sharks and manta rays with the same dull words: Goooood day, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls... Little boy! Little boy! PLEASE PUT DOWN THE SHARK!
Call it habit or intuition, but I knew immediately that the little boy in question was mine. The aquarium attendant was leaning aggressively out of her little booth, clutching a wired microphone with two normally idle hands. I turned, my heart sinking, and heard myself say out loud, "Yep, that's mine." Several long steps away, my boy stood, triumphantly raising above his head the torso of a rather sizable, extremely agitated shark. The whole room went quiet, my face turned a fire-engine red, and I took off at a run.
Someone once paid me a compliment after years of meeting in a small group together. She'd never liked me much. She once said I "took up too much room" by talking so readily and leaving so little space for the introverts to think of a reply. She was right. What could I do but own the somewhat uncharitable description of my personality and apologize? But on this evening, she happened to walk out to her car at the same time I did and she turned in her quiet, piercing sort of way to lay a pale, long-fingered hand on my arm.
"You've grown," she said.
I blinked. I would have been diagnosed with Aspergers, had the eighties and nineties not been so slow to identify neurodivergence in girls, and I often don't know how to respond when people say things I don't expect. Falling back on subliminal social training, I dropped my eyes and raised my shoulders, making myself look smaller. I looked back up to her steady gaze and faltered. She seemed to be waiting for my full attention.
"Your capacity to hold... things you might not understand, people who might disagree with you," she said, extending her hands toward me, cupped, like she was holding a little ball. She moved her hands a little ways apart. "It's gotten bigger." She dropped her hands and nodded. "It's good."
Since that day, the narrative of my life has often rung of the themes of those brief, brutally honest conversations: learn to listen, make room for the other, embrace your capacity for growth and change. So many things that seemed utterly sure in my early youth have taken on brand new layers of meaning and pain and beauty: that I am both hypersensitive and obtuse, that my sense of justice so often overrules any semblance of gentleness, kindness, or grace. So many relationships have slipped and shifted and metamorphosed since then as the unfolding of a brand new identity takes place in the body, mind, and heart of me.
My children, of course, hold starring roles in this lifelong production. Their explorations of life as tender hearted boys, as a fierce and fearsome girl, have shaped and honed my own increasingly fluid expressions of masculine, feminine, and simply human traits. Their autism spectrum challenges and giftings have redrafted my perspective on my own neurodiversity and the way it has shaped my relationships year after year. And most often, it's our family's "otherness" that stretches my fledgling capacity to hold, to feel the pull of needs and expectations without for a moment letting go of love.
I have no memory of running across the bright, loud room at the aquarium that day. I cannot recall wether the attendant chastised us any further or whether the looks we received from other parents were scathing or amused. I can only recall the marriage of chest-heaving laughter and gut-wrenching concern for the little shark and face-flushing, head-ducking embarrassment... all warring in my body for dominance. When I took off running, I was going to whoop that hilarious, impossible, entirely infuriating kid. By the time I reached him, the shark's gyrations had convinced the boy to release the little predator back into its little habitat and that impossible kid lifted a wide-open, rapturous face to meet me.
As abruptly as I'd started running, I stopped. I dropped to one knee in front of my son, totally disarmed, receiving.
"Hey," I said, breathless.
Soaking wet and radiant with joy, he beamed back.
Slowly, I held up two fingers and, suppressing my laughter with a Mona Lisa smile, felt for all the wild world like a rumpled, disheveled madonna holding out a blessing to a cherub-faced, tow-headed baby boy. My son held up to two fingers to mine and danced a little with delight. Did you see? He was often wordless when excited, those days, but his body language said it all. I held a shark! It was amazing!
I saw! said my eyes. "Two fingers, buddy," said my mouth. "No grabbing. Right?"
Mirroring my half-joyful, half-serious expression, he nodded. It isn't often that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my kids and I understand each other. But from that day forward, my son announced to every passing child at the aquarium, "Two fingers! Two fingers, only!"
And as for me, I thought of my eventual friend and the honest words of correction and blessing she'd spoken over me, many years before. From one moment to the next, thanks to my challenges and my children, thanks to the faithfulness of friends and the patience of strangers, I have grown and I am growing. In capacity. In kindness. In firm discipline and gentle compassion. In love and freedom. In identity and honesty. And it is good....
This Journal Belongs to Andrew Adler
I got a new concealer today. It’s not too dark, not too light.
Henry took me out for sushi. I didn’t like it, but he was so sweet during dinner, I didn’t want to do anything to ruin the night.
My sister’s angry with me. This is the second time I’ve canceled on her. She doesn’t understand how busy life can get. She’s still in college and can go out every night. She doesn’t have a real job.
Henry was right, she’s immature.
Henry surprised me with a weekend away! He planned everything! Once I get back I’ll try and write everything down so I don’t forget anything!!
Called in sick to work, just not feeling it today.
Fought with Henry about my friend Kyler…he doesn’t like how close Kyler and I are. I told Henry I’d distance myself from him.
But Kyler is one of my best friends…what should I do?
I can’t lose Henry. That would kill me.
Henry’s right… Kyler is not a true friend. A true friend wouldn’t say I’m, “throwing my life away for some g-”
Whatever. I’m so mad I can’t even write.
What if Kyler was right? No…that’s silly. Henry loves me, he wants what’s best for me.
I was such a party animal when I met Henry.
Henry changed my life, he changed me.
I owe him so much.
I’m writing this at two in the morning. My brain is mixed up. I shouldn’t be having doubts but I just need to put these feelings down on paper…
Who do I have in my life other than Henry? I used to go out with my sister once a week, but now I barely see her. I used to go out with my friends and dance, and have fun.
But when you get into your first adult relationship things change, right?
People grow up.
That’s what Henry says.
Henry can tell something's wrong. We’re in the living room and he keeps glancing over at me. We had a fight yesterday. A bad one. A terrible one. I don’t know what to do. I have nowhere to go. If I call my sister or Kyler they will figure out what Henry does to me.
That concealer I bought a few months ago keeps staring at me. The only thought running through my mind is how I used to buy makeup for fun, not to cover up what someone’s done.
I should hide this jour
This is a new journal. My therapist, Linda, recommended that I keep writing. The old one is destroyed, which I’m thankful for. In those pages, I wasn’t honest with myself.
Here I will be. I will admit the truth to myself, even when it’s painful. Even if the truth sometimes feels like being kicked in the stomach seven times.
Linda's main goal for our sessions is for me to be honest. It’s hard. It hurts and I don’t want to think about the worst day of my life.
But Linda reminds me it’s necessary. I think that’s what I’ve learned in therapy so far, being honest, especially with yourself, is necessary....
1962: It's Always the Girl's Fault
Blindfolded, Donna and Wendy sat in the backseat of a Ford Fairlane. Donna shuddered at the thought of lying on a slab of wood, bleeding to death. At every turn, their shoulders collided. Wendy touched her hand. Not wanting her little sister to feel her sweaty palm, Donna put her arm around her.
The driver, a woman in a hat and dark glasses, had met the sisters in Ralphs’ Grocery parking lot. After locking their mother’s car, Donna gave the driver one hundred dollars. It was all the money she had saved from babysitting and teaching piano.
A siren wailed in the distance. She caught whiffs of McDonald’s. A radio from a passing car blasted “The Twist.”
The siren was upon them.
“Oh no—” Donna cried.
“Keep your blindfolds on. It's not for us.”
In the classified section of the Daily Breeze, Donna had recognized a coded message with a phone number and called. A woman gave her instructions and told her to bring someone she trusted. Donna’s best friend was her younger sister. At sixteen, Wendy could drive her home.
“Will she be all right?” Wendy asked.
“I’m just the driver.”
Weeks from graduating as valedictorian of West Coast High, how could she have been so stupid to go all the way? Until April, her biggest worry was which major to choose, political or social science. Then Chuck cheated on her.
The driver turned a corner. Wheels crunched over potholes. The Ford crawled, backed up, and parked.
“You can take off the blindfolds.”
Donna pulled the strap over her bouffant flip. In the west, the day hovered over the Pacific. They were in an alley. A shattered streetlamp was on the left; on the right, a white building with brown streaks and rust. Parked beside them was a green van. Next to the building, a dumpster reeked of garbage. She wiped clammy hands down her navy pedal-pushers.
“I don’t like this,” Wendy whispered.
Donna didn’t want to end up like her childhood friend, Bonnie. The neighbors gossiped. Her pregnancy had brought out their meanness, had caused shame on her family. Bonnie put a knitting needle up her vagina and bled to death.
“I don’t have a choice.”
They left the Ford and stood before a door with a peephole. The driver unlocked it and pushed it open.
The sisters walked in. The driver departed.
A naked bulb lit the tiny foyer. Side by side were two folding chairs. A door led to another room.
Wendy sat, twisting a strand of brown hair around her finger.
Donna paced. Her thoughts became atomic explosions: filthy room, quack doctor, botched abortion, dead. But when her eyes met Wendy’s and she saw fear in her sister’s face, she switched from victim to comforting older sister.
“I’m sorry,” Donna said, sitting beside her, “that I dragged you into this.”
Wendy grasped her hand.
Donna felt her warmth, smelled the floral fragrance of Prell shampoo.
“It’s our secret,” Wendy said.
The inner door opened. “Come in,” said a young woman in street clothes, surgical mask, and white cap.
Against the weight of dread, Donna rose. She took a step, stopped, and glanced back. “It’ll be ok.”
“I promise, Mickey.” It was the nickname she’d given Wendy after their repeated trips to Disneyland.
She entered a small room. The odor of alcohol and bleach overpowered the space. There was a door with an exit sign, a gurney with a white sheet and stirrups. The doctor had his back to her. He wore a knee-length white smock and a surgical cap that covered his hair.
When he turned around, Donna gasped. The doctor was a woman.
“I was promised a real doctor.”
“I am,” said the woman in slacks, surgical gloves, and mask. “Let’s get started.”
The assistant handed her a wrinkled but clean gown. “Leave your top on but take everything else off including your shoes and socks.” She rolled the tray next to the bed.
Donna’s fingers fumbled with the buttons on her shirt. “Will I still be able to have children?”
“Most likely,” the doctor said. “How many weeks pregnant?”
“About eight. I’ve never seen a female doctor.”
“More all the time.”
Donna’s teeth chattered. “For real?” Barefoot, shaking, she questioned a woman in a man’s profession.
“How old are you?” the doctor asked.
“Eighteen. Is it safe? How long—”
“Yes, please.” The doctor patted the bed. “It’s a simple procedure, about ten minutes.”
“Lie back. Graduating?”
“Going to college?”
The assistant filled a syringe.
“What’s that?” Donna asked.
“An anesthetic,” the young woman answered.
“Slide your bottom to the edge,” the doctor said, “your feet in the stirrups.”
Donna made the adjustment as tears ran sideways across her cheeks.
The doctor walked to the foot of the bed. The assistant rubbed alcohol on her
The needle pierced her skin.
In seconds, her worries ceased.
Panic cut across Donna’s confusion. “What’s happening?” she asked as Wendy helped her to sit up.
She watched the assistant pack boxes. The driver hurried through the door with the folding chairs.
“It went well. Everything’s all right. We have to move often,” the doctor said, handing Donna her clothes. “You’ll bleed for a day or two. I’ll give you antibiotics with directions. If you start hemorrhaging, go to the emergency room. Don't tell them you had an abortion. They’ll arrest you.”
Donna turned away—a fugitive from the law. She was furious with Chuck for refusing to wear a rubber, angry at herself for allowing it. It was always the girl’s fault. And Wendy. In time, would she despise her and tell their parents?
“I hear you’re debate captain and valedictorian,” the doctor said. “We need women lawyers.”
Wendy gently helped her sister off the gurney.
Donna’s feet touched the cold cement floor. Blood flowed onto the pad in her panties. She moaned. Wendy held her tighter. Donna thought no one should go through this, or end up like Bonnie....