Monday, June 1, 2020

“MHW” by Gregg Williard - Winner of the 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize

                                                                                                          Gregg Williard

My day job was night shift at a Community Mental Health Center in Brooklyn, N.Y, working as a Psychiatric Nursing Aide on the Inpatient Unit. (My union, 1199, called the position “Mental Health Worker,” which I preferred for its proletarian ring).I was a burning heap of thwarted ambition, idealism, horniness, loneliness and rage, i.e. an aspiring i.e. totally obscure painter and writer, and being an M.H.W. gave me a much-needed sense of belonging somewhere, of being something, even some thing. And the idea of the Community Mental Health Center was righteous.  It was supposed to be an alternative to the big Dickensian state hospitals that imprisoned the mentally ill for decades to drool, rock, pee on themselves and straight-jacket the decades away. C.M.H.C.s had no big orderly guys in white pants and shirts, (we weren’t big, didn’t wear uniforms, and some of the staff refused to wear name badges, though I was proud to wear mine).  On The Unit straight jackets were called “camisoles.” “Escaping” was “eloping.”  No one was drugged, they were medicated. And peeing on yourself?  Say “incontinent.”

To get to “The Unit” (I liked the paramilitary ring of “The Unit”) you took a crowded elevator to the 4th floor and waited inside a locked Plexiglas stall that never seemed strong enough (and wasn’t) to withstand the fabled (but actual) Unnatural Strength of the paranoid schizophrenic snapping to their latest command hallucination (ELOPE.BREAK GLASS. BITE FACE).

Squinting past my cigarette like Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye I would march to the staff room and check the nurses’ notes on “my” patients (by this time having been promoted  to “Case Manager” status because of the high quality of my patient progress and  admission notes, which read  like Henry James in comparison to the beginning E.S.L. standard of English writing practiced by the mostly Indian, Pakistani, Dominican or Chinese residents and interns).  Then I would come out of the staff room and turn right toward the back of the ward to “check on”, (ever the magisterial clinician) the “The Blue Room.” The B.R. wasn’t blue and had never been blue and was another locked area behind Plexiglas walls where the most “acutely psychotic,” or suicidal, or homicidal, or violent, or “labile” or destructive, or flat out crazy and scary patients were kept. (There was also a single classic locked “padded cell” in the opposite end of the ward for very, very hard cases, that I have since seen duplicated in every middle school I’ve ever subbed at where they are called “Time Out Rooms”).  Then a room check (ever the magisterial, professional paraprofessional clinician) to make sure that no one had hung themselves, slit their wrists, set fire to their room or was sleeping, alone or together,  through assigned “therapy activities”, and then back to the staff room for report from the previous shift, (mostly orders to put a patient on a liquid diet, or take them off a liquid diet, or withhold food altogether for fasting blood work, or make them go to a therapy activity, or all of the above ). 

If I were back on nights the next duty would be to sit down at a round table set up at one end of the floor and drink coffee, tell stories, play scrabble, smoke (everybody smoked on the ward -- It was a hospital) and pray that it would be a quiet boring night of do nothing much except kill time until it was 6:30 and time to collect urine samples and wake patients for a liquid breakfast or no breakfast at all. And feel the sorrow of pink first light coming up over the blunt tops of the apartment buildings across Ft. Hamilton Parkway after another shift with the night M.H.W. crew.  The usual was:  Sam, an older, stately political refugee from Haiti who walked with a limp and  told 2 a.m. horror stories about Papa Doc and voodoo;  Belinda, a small round woman from Jamaica whose pressured, incomprehensible English conveyed perpetual outrage;  Donna, an Italian- American Mother of six who grew up in the neighborhood and knew most of our patients as kids (and scolded them as kids whenever  the police brought them  in violent, psychotic, handcuffed, and covered in blood and  vomit),  and Raoul,  a tall, mustached Cuban immigrant with the smooth, purring assurance of a consummate con man, often taking  me aside to share “unique business opportunities” like the can’t fail plan where I smuggle diamonds into JFK in the hollowed -out soles of special shoes. The Head Nurse was an Indian woman named Gupta, who cut an unforgettable figure batting away her vaporous orange sari to stab hypos of stelazine into roaring psychotics three times her size. It was grungy, scary, depressing, sexy.

Then I remember first hearing about AIDS at the hospital during a staff meeting discussing one of the M.H.W.s who’d been sick for a long time, and it was explained by our dapper, diminutive director Dr. Sienna that the M.H.W. had a mystery flu named AIDS. I half listened, looked interested, forgot about it. He died. The dying kept coming.

It was a job of sorrowing mornings after lots of bad coffee, scalding, in Styrofoam cups that I carved and doodled into with boredom hieroglyphics, and the writing of endless free-association journals about my runaway ambition, runaway sex drive, runaway aching burning heart. And scraps of staff and patient conversation that I told myself I’d someday transform into art maybe 30 years  from now until this next paragraph has become the 30 years later that I wrote for then:
      And the patient says I don’t talk to no guy who looks like a preacher (me in my all black clothes)  and all I can say is thank god for thorazine Joseph is out like a light and yet, I can do a drawing like the drawing I did for Liberation News Service equating thorazine with capitalism, and  I’m thinking about a gigantic ink drawing of a submachine gun, and Donna says, “I think the big difference between Catholics and Protestants is that Catholics secretly love death, and Protestants secretly hate death,” and I protest, “NO! We love death too!”  

The thing was, we had all the enlightened attitudes, there were no lobotomies (though we did do electroconvulsive therapy-- “E.C.T.” -- which had the vexing property of actually helping some people recover from acute depression, but that memory loss, that memory loss), but the patients were still medievally insane,  and we were medievally oppressive. They drooled and rocked and screamed and raked their fingernails across your face and threw chairs at your head and set fire to stuff and pooped on the floor and tore doors off the hinges and shattered windows and attacked staff in group therapy sessions and stabbed other people and themselves with scissors and paintbrushes in Art Therapy  and ate glass and cigarettes and obeyed command hallucinations to take a bite out of your face,  all of it  up the wazzoo, as one of my favorite Psych residents (and another short term girlfriend) diagnosed  it. 

     My side still hurts from where that guy punched me while I was with a bunch of patients doing “Art Therapy”: “What does that look like to you?”  “Jus the moon.”  “But how does that make you feel?” “Jus like the moon.” And then being socked in the face, coming off night shift and collapsing into bed and setting my alarm for 2:00 p.m. and hoping that I can get some painting done today, then sleep then a.m. care this a.m. his face like a fat hand grabbing a wrench, her cigarette bouncing to the tempo of F-U!!! “I be takin’ care o-BEEZ-nis.”  More sleepless nights. 

          In the morning I sit down with David his blue skin stretched over a huge brow.  His fingers are always interlocked like he’s tying or untangling invisible shoelaces his gums always bleeding and mornings  I give him a new toothbrush and then throw it away. Specs of old oatmeal fleck his pants. His yarmulke he smashes on his head like an angry after-thought. Then Patient Emmerich says, Samurai! There’s a samurai hiding behind me! Watch out! One false word and I’m sliced down the middle! How many times has it happened already? We all look like slices of cheese, and the samurai is endlessly slicing each section into thinner and thinner pieces! What is the source of his skill? Now Debbie’s arms are outstretched in front of her. She’s demonstrating traditional hand gestures. This is the fish. This is the waterfall. And this, her hands visibly trembling, is the angry father. Only a liquid diet? Only a liquid diet? This is all I fucking get??!!

Meanwhile my next, long term girlfriend and I shared a “hobby”: visiting haunted houses, spook houses, fun houses and houses of horror. We started out in Coney Island, New York, moved through the rest of Brooklyn. My girlfriend was a level-headed Irish Catholic Psychiatric Nurse named Beth who loved me and put up with my enthusiasms for cheap, tawdry horror movies and cheap tawdry funhouses in a way that still fills me with wonder and awe.
At that time houses of horror were still pretty low-tech affairs, labors of amateur love with handmade and hand-painted sets, papier Mache gargoyles and demons, smoke machines, strobe lights, Halloween –cassette sound effects and creaky, wobbling mechanical skeletons and skulls rattling pathetically out of the dark like hell’s own grocery carts. Funhouses were a source of part time work for area high school students, ex-cons and psychiatric patients willing to dress up as ghouls or sit up out of caskets for minimum wage. I was always on the lookout for “my” patients, as if they belonged to a merry band of migrant workers roaming the countryside to pick the fields of tactile hallucinations. The funhouses were mostly open in the summer and did a good business because they were cheap and cool and pitch-black places to cop a feel.  But one funhouse stayed open through the winter, an especially infamous Brooklyn winter, bitterly insanely cold, the day Hell froze over for real, so to speak. The poor guys who had to lay in the casket all day and all night, they couldn’t relax because they had to sit up and snarl every couple of minutes when a new car load of rubes clanked by. And the amplified shrieking on the speakers beside their heads, poor guys, and it was so cold that one of the Draculas was wearing earmuffs and a huge down coat, so cold there were icicles hanging off the painted flames of hell, icicles hanging off the bloody maw of the devouring demon at the gates of the Hell Hole.

The housekeeping guy says something about “Off the Handle Crandle.”  A woman in the Blue Room asks me for more toilet paper. “We need more toilet paper, Jerry.” “My name is Tom, Janet.” “Until I get more toilet paper your name is Jerry. “ I get her the toilet paper. She says, “Thanks, Jerry.”  “You were going to call me Tom. “ She takes the toilet paper. “Is this all your name is worth?”    Make sure the RR train is marked “Astoria” for local to Manhattan. Now I drink sanka. I smoke camels. Exit sign buzzing. Light up a cigarette.

The rubber bats that flopped around on wires were so stuff that they packed all the terror punch of black paper towels bouncing in the air, and I wondered how and why the place could stay open when the weather turned so record breaking bad. Turns out the owner thought he could capitalize on the cold, promised a warm hangout and a toasty freaky good time to teenagers trying to get away from the cold and their parents, but the wiring didn’t pass code and all the space heaters blew the works but good, plunging the Hell Hole into a freezing inferno pit. The staff of part time zombies, ghouls, Draculas, Jason knock offs and teenage Elviras and headless cannibals (this was the owner’s idea; he wouldn’t listen to the kids’ protests that it didn’t make sense, I mean, how could a headless cannibal eat you, you know?) were sent in day after bone chilling day, night after hypothermia night until the staff of the undead refused to go (the public long gone by now), instead starting a bonfire in the vacant lot across the street that quickly engulfed the place and burned like the Hell Hole it was meant to be. I also heard the version that the night shift ghouls ran their own propane heaters and were either overcome by carbon monoxide fumes or burned to death in an electrical fire. Or maybe the owner, haunted by responsibility for their deaths torched the place himself, dying in the final char. 

This was the beginning of a doomed, five-year plan to write and draw an epic graphic novel called Explosion in a Mask Factory. Pieces of it later became my first novel (the one that all writers are supposed to “get out of your system” before your first “public” book is written, keeping it hidden in the bottom of a locked drawer to remind yourself of how bad bad can bad).  In my case I’ve got 6 reminders filling most of a footlocker and maybe am working on number 7 right now ; it has really taken me 30 years to understand that “paying your dues isn’t the painful, necessary first step, but the whole stairs).  And the burning ambition, the profligate blaze that’s long since hunkered to blue white embers, stewed to red coals, settled into hot ash that I keep fed and coddled with a history of lies, the stuff that torques and torches my stories, has torqued and torched my memories to this day.

"AFFLICTED SUN" by Kierra Watson - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

This work depicts actual events in the life of the author as truthfully as recollection permits and/or can be verified by research. Occasionally, dialogue consistent with the character or nature of the person speaking has been supplemented. All persons within are actual individuals; there are no composite characters. The names of individuals have been changed to respect privacy.


By: Kierra Watson

“Last stop! Last stop! Coney Island! Stillwell Avenue!” I can hear boots clomping toward me but I’m too weak to open my eye lids, move my feet, or even pretend to be alive. “Just leave me here to die, Sir.” I don’t think he heard me. Hell, I’m not sure if I even said this out loud or not. I don’t care, I just need sleep. He’ll go away. I hear keys jingling and slowly feel the temperature rising. Did they cut the air off? “Last stop! Last stop! Coney Island! Stillwell Avenue!” I can feel the vomit making its way up for an encore as the voice gets closer. “Miss, you’ve got to get up and off the train. You can wait for the next train if you’re headed the other way.” He walks closer to me and I finally find the strength to hold up my palm as a warning. “No! Miss, no! Not on here!” It’s too late. My breakfast comes flying out along with the tub of vodka I rinsed it down with a few hours ago. I take off my shirt to wipe my mouth. The conductor stares at my neon bra while taking a few steps back. I lift my legs and my feet feel like mini anchors. Jeffrey Campbell didn’t think of drunk college girls who make poor decisions. “Ma’am, you’re going to have to get off or I’ll have to call you an ambulance.” Oh great, another bill I’d have to pay. “It’s okay. I feel better now.” I stand up and gravity pulls me back down with a vengeance. “Where’s my wallet?” I shuffle through my bag and can’t find it. Oh no. “Ma’am!” He grabs his walkie talkie and I gain some composure. “I hear you. I hear you. I’m going.” I take a deep breath and grab onto the pole in front of me. I pull myself up and the train spins. “Make it to the beach for sleep. Just make it to the beach for sleep.” I feel like a toddler holding onto the edge of the couch while they master their balance. I finally make it off the train and I give myself an invisible high-five. The stale air hits my face and I feel another wave of vodka begging to be let loose. It’s six in the morning and it feels like I’m stuck in the devil’s ass crack. That’s August in New York for you.

I’m not sure how I made it to the beach, but I did. I wake up sunken in the hot sand and smell cotton candy in the near distance. The skin on my back burns. My scalp itches and my curls feel dry. My heels lay close to my head next to a half-eaten loaf of bread and an empty bottle of water. My bag is gone. I quickly reach into the back pocket of my jeans and thank God as I pull out my license and my phone. Twenty-two missed calls pop up on the notifications screen. I swipe and call the most recent. “Kady?” I roll my eyes. Don’t we all have caller-ID? “Yeah, it’s me.” My mouth feels like cotton and my jaw hurts. “Where the fuck have you been all day?” I look at the time on the screen and it reads 4: 41pm. “Oh my God!” The brunch is probably over by now. My heart races and I remember I have no shirt on. My green bra almost looks yellow in the bright sun against my new, crisp tan. My necklace is gone. I reach for my ears. My earrings are gone too. “Oh my God!” Bryan breathes heavily into my ear. “Where are you?” I can hear him tapping his fingers impatiently against a table. I’m not sure what it feels like to have a father, but I imagine this would be it. I really must let him go this summer. It’s just not working anymore. “Hello?!” He slams his palm down and it echoes into the receiver. “I’m here. I’m at the beach.” “How did you end up at the beach? Weren’t you in SoHo last night?” “Yeah.”My phone beeps. It’s on one percent. “Look, I’ll call you back when I get home.” “What?! Who are you with?!” Click. My phone goes black and now I must figure out a way home with no wallet, no phone to use, and clearly no dignity to spare.

I grab my shoes and start walking toward the steps. I can feel everyone staring at me and I pretend not to care. I shake the sand out of my hair and off my burnt torso. This is as good as it’s going to get. I take a seat on the steps and strap my little anchors back onto my feet. I stumble onto the boardwalk and head for the electronics store on Neptune Avenue. I hear some shells bang together as I open the door. “Hey there, what can we do for you today?” I look around for a mirror and I’m out of luck. “Do you guys buy phones?” He nods slowly. “What you got?” I pull out my dead Samsung and hand it over. He examines it and tries to turn the screen on. “I’ll need to charge it. It looks brand new.” I head over to the water jug and help myself to a few cups. “I’ll give you $120 for it.” I throw the cup into the trash and cut my eyes at him. “Do you realize this is a $600 phone? I’ve only had it for 2 months.” He folds his arms and plants a smug smile onto his face. “$250 and nothing more.” I’ll just file an insurance claim when I get back to the Bronx. Seriously, I’ve got to make better decisions with my life. This is becoming expensive.“I’ll take it.” He chuckles. “ID, please.”

I walk to Nathan’s and the line is outside of the door and around the corner. I continue to walk down Surf Avenue until I run into a broken-down bar. I enter the bar and there’s a couple far off into the corner practically humping each other. I sit directly in front of the bartender and wait for her to get off the phone. “What are ya havin’, my dear?” I look at the menu board and decide on a ginger ale and tonic. I slide her my ID. “Good choice! What brings you in here? Nathan’s too busy?” I laugh. “Yes, actually.” “I figured. Nobody really comes in here anymore.” She hands me my drink and I go to work. “How do you stay open then?” “Debt.” “I see.” I finish my drink and she quickly refills it. “Happy 21st birthday by the way.” I look around and cut my eyes at her in confusion. “Your ID shows your date of birth.” We laugh and I pretend to watch the soccer game on the flat screen. “Do you have any special plans today?” I down my second drink and hand her the glass. “Well, I’ve already missed my brunch. I’m pretty sure everyone is pissed with me now. Way to start off a new year, huh?” She hands me a cup of cherries and sprays whipped cream on the top of it. “For you, princess. How did you miss your brunch?” “I fell asleep on the beach. I don’t even know how I got here. I always seem to end up here when I’m due someplace else.” I eat my cherries and she observes me from the corner of my eye. “Maybe you missed it on purpose then. Maybe you needed to stick to your own tradition.” I nod carefully. “Maybe you’re right.” 

I remember the night after my sweet sixteen. My mother allowed me to stay out all night. I told her I would be with a group of my friends from the party at a new dessert bar in the Lower East Side. It wasn’t necessarily a lie because we did have reservations to go there. However, when the D train’s conductor made the announcement, “Broadway-Lafayette! Next stop, Grand Street!” I stayed on the train. I imagined what Coney Island would look like in the twilight. It has to be the most romantic thing in the world. I just have to see it. I want to walk on the boardwalk and look out at the beach. I’d only been there during the hot summer days when your skin feels like it’ll just melt off your bones. I took off my heels and replaced them with my vans. I kicked up my feet and enjoyed the ride. I sat on a warm bench in front of the Cyclone and pulled out a ginger beer with a beef patty from the small bag I retrieved on my journey to Luna Park. Couples kiss on the sand as distant screams from the rides drive by in waves. I wished Bryan were here. I pull out my sidekick and scroll to his name. I hit the call button and hold my breath. He answers quickly. “Kady?” I roll my eyes and smile. “Who else would it be?” He laughs and we share a moment of silence. “I’m in Coney Island. Have you ever been here at night?” I can hear him sit up. It sounds like he’s putting his shoes on. “No, I haven’t. I’ve only been with you that day we ate those bad frog legs.” I laugh loudly and he sighs. “They taste like chicken!” He scoffs. “Sure, they do.”I hear a door slam and the sound of an engine starting. We go silent and he answers my unheard question. “I’ll be there in about half an hour, okay?” I smile. “I’m right in front of the Cyclone.” Somehow, I doze off to the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks. “Beautiful sight, isn’t it?” Bryan asks as he approaches me. I jump up and relax when I see his brown eyes in front of mine. “Yeah, I love it here.” He sits beside me and plants a kiss on my cheek. “I was talking about you.” He smiles and pulls out a bottle of champagne, a bag of gummy bears, and a box of chocolate-covered strawberries. This must be what took him so long. “Happy 16th Birthday, Kady.” I hug him and snuggle against him. He smells like leather and love. I lost my virginity that night, under a blanket Bryan had tucked away in his bookbag. The one passerby may have thought we were hugging too fiercely but this was New York and they were too wrapped up in their own drama to look for too long. The truth is, I hiked up my skirt, sat on his lap, and released his girth from his basketball shorts with ease. I was ready for him. I didn’t want anyone else. He kissed my neck as he clung onto the blanket for dear life. He was gentle each time I had him that night. We woke up on the beach to have pancakes and soda in his car before we made our way back to Harlem.

The bartender places another ginger ale and tonic under my nose. “What’s your goal for this year? You have to make a goal for each birthday now that you’re officially an adult.” An irresponsible one, I thought silently. “To get my shit together.” We laugh and the couple slams the bathroom door behind them. The bartender leans in closely and begins to whisper, “They’re in here every Sunday. I think they’re both married… to other people.” I raise my eyebrows.“Isn’t it sad?” “What hon?” I think about the ring Bryan shoved in my face last night at dinner. I think about the hospital bed I woke up in last week. “You go through your entire life listening to people tell you that your purpose is to find true love, get married, and start a family. Then you wake up and realize the person you’re married to is nothing but a stranger that you share body fluids with. You go through all of this shit with someone just to end up back at square one.”I drink some of the water from the glass that’s been sitting in front of me since I arrived.  “It’s more complicated than that.” The bartender removes the empty glasses from in front of me. She makes her way over to the table where the couple sat and collects the damp bills sitting under the two glasses. “How? I don’t think I ever want to get married. I don’t think I want to spend my life looking at the same face each day.” She laughs wildly as she runs a wet cloth across the empty tables. “I said the same thing when I was your age. I felt a bit different after I had my first son, though.” “Did you get married afterwards?” “No, he didn’t want to. He left.” “Where did he go?” “Last I heard, he returned back to his family in Italy.” “Wow. I think I just want to be alone for a long time.” Bryan’s ring flashes through my head again. “True love will come along for you eventually and it will change your mind. It may not be wrapped up in a pretty package. It may not be when you go searching for it. It will happen though, and you’ve got to be able to let down your guard in order to receive it.” I nod my head and think of Bryan. Is he my true love? Am I taking him for granted? “I’ve got to get going.” I pull out some twenties and she pushes my hand away. “Don’t worry. It’s on the house. Just make sure you come back again, okay?”I peel myself out of my seat. “Of course. Thank you.”

The D train has got to be the worst train to be on on a Sunday night. I’ve had men lecture me, beg me for money, and I’m sure I’m on somebody’s Instagram or Facebook page by now. I wish I had my phone. I feel naked and exposed now.“125th Street!Next stop, 145th!” I think about going straight to Fordham and getting in bed, but something pulls me off the train and up the stairs. I walk out onto the corner of 125th street and St. Nicholas Avenue. Women stare at me and pull their men in a little closer. I make my way uptown to 132nd street. I cross the avenues until I reach 7th. I walk up to Bryan’s building and push his buzzer. “Who?” I hesitate a little, “It’s me. It’s Kady.” He doesn’t let me in. He doesn’t say anything. I look around in shock. I guess I can’t be too surprised. I start to walk away when I hear a buzzing sound. I push the door open and make my way up the narrow flight of stairs. I finally reach the fourth floor and he’s standing there with a fresh, folded towel and washcloth in his hands. Maybe we should talk about the baby first? Maybe we should just pretend it never happened? “Hey,” he pulls me in close and hugs me tightly. I pull away slightly and kiss his lips. I wrap my arms around him and begin to wail. He pulls me inside and closes the door. “It’s okay, babe. It’s going to be okay. I love you, always.”

"Horse Face" by Lisa Warden - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

Horse Face
                                                                                                          Lisa Warden

            After parking the car and grabbing our bags, we walked down the street.  We were visiting my boyfriend’s sister in Brooklyn for the holiday weekend.  Eli and I had been dating almost a year, but I had never met his elusive sister, even though we had spent Christmas with his family.

A boyish looking girl with almond colored skin and tight, black curls answered the door.  Her hair was shaved on one side.  As she hugged Eli, I saw that her skinny arms were covered in tattoos.  One was a skeleton smoking, another was of a heart with their mother’s name.   As I was studying the tattoos, Eli said, “Lisa, this is Grace.” Grace reached out to hug me.  I felt like I had to be careful since she was so thin.  

            Come in,” Grace said leading us into the kitchen of the townhome she rented with three other people.  Her best friend, Anna, was standing in the kitchen when we walked in.  I recognized her from photos.  She was short, and her body was amorphic.  She had a bowl cut with her hair gelled to the side, and she was wearing a suit, but without the jacket.  She reminded me of a toddler boy on picture day.  Grace’s girlfriend, Isabella, was also in the kitchen.  Both of her muscular arms were covered in tattoos to the point that I briefly thought she had sleeves on.  A giant eagle tattoo spread across her chest, mostly visible with her low-cut dress.  Her jet-black hair was meticulously styled like a housewife from the 1950’s.  Her make-up was bold, smoky eyes and bright red lips.  I was wearing a floral sundress, but it didn’t expose any cleavage or tattoos because I didn’t have any.  I didn’t usually wear make-up, but especially not on a hot July day when it would just melt off.  My reddish-brown curly hair wasn’t cut or coiffed in an edgy way.

            “You guys are going to sleep in the basement,” Isabella told us.  Let’s go put your stuff down there and then we’ll head to the contest.”

            As we were walking out the door Eli asked about their other roommate.  He’s nice, eccentric.  He has a girlfriend and spends most of his time at her place,” Grace said.  “He is going to go out with us tonight, though.”

After a few blocks we walked through a small, triangular park.  The benches in the park were filled with Orthodox Jews, sitting and talking as their kids ran around in the sun.  Then on the next block we passed restaurant after restaurant, overflowing with hipsters waiting to eat brunch.  

As we continued to the subway that would take us to Coney Island, Eli asked Grace about her new master’s program.  They talked easily, and I tried to concentrate on not being miserable.  Today was disgusting, 105 degrees and humid as hell.  When we got on the subway train, I was dismayed to find it was an old train that wasn’t air conditioned, and somehow underground was even hotter than above ground had been.  The ride to Coney Island from Williamsburg was long and made even longer by an impromptu 45-minute stop in the middle that the conductor kept blaming on the fact that it was the 4th of July.  

I was miserable at this point, drenched in sweat, and questioning what I was even doing here? Eli finds competitive eating captivating, and every year for the past five years he has been going to the hot dog eating competition on Coney Island, usually alone.  His fascination with competitive eating began around the time he was diagnosed with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease.  Because of this condition, his diet is severely restricted, and so I imagine that has something to do with his desire to watch an eating competition.  

When we finally arrived at Coney Island and emerged from the hellish inferno, I started feeling a bit better.  The women’s competition was first.  We stood in the searing sun facing the stage where eight female contestants were lined up in a row, each with a silver tray in front of them and hot dogs piled so high you couldn’t see their faces.  They each had a super big gulp sized drink to their side.  Before it began, an announcer went through introducing each woman and listing her eating accomplishments.  I was amazed at the array of eating competitions that existed; donuts, jalapeƱos, chicken wings, cookies, grits, pancakes, and even fish tacos.  I was also amazed that none of them was fat.  I thought competitive eaters would be obese, and not one of them was.  They weren’t slender, but they certainly weren’t obese.  Did they throw up afterwards? I found myself wondering, is this something you practice? And if so, how were they not fat despite consuming all those calories on a regular basis?

A woman with a mullet won the competition by shoving 44 hot dogs in her mouth in ten minutes.  Then there was a 45-minute break while they set up for the men’s competition.  Eli was telling us how Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi had a long running rivalry as they were the top two hot dog eating champions.  “This year won’t be so exciting, though,” Eli lamented.  “Kobayashi is renegotiating his contract, so he can’t compete this year, so Joey Chestnut doesn’t have any real competitors.” I was amazed to hear that competitive eaters had contracts, and the power to negotiate them. 
It was now around two o’clock and the intense midday heat felt unbearable.  While we were waiting for the male competitors to line up behind their trays piled high with hot dogs and their enormous cups filled with what looked like Hawaiian Punch, somebody in the back of the audience passed out from the heat.  I was startled by how people treated the fainting, like it was completely normal for humans to be standing around in 100-degree weather watching people eat hot dogs and fainting was just a possible consequence we were all willing to accept.  The audience calmly passed the inert body of a woman in her early twenties to the front of the audience, and we handed her limp body to security personal in front of the stage.  

“Does this happen every year?” I asked Eli, after handing off the limp leg I had been holding.
“It’s never been this hot before when I’ve been here,” he said.  Then the announcer began the long list of accolades for each man before introducing him.  I found myself wondering if competitive eaters had resumes.  Not just anyone could compete in Nathan’s Hot Dog eating competition, so they must have something to prove they’re worthy.  This whole scene was so obscene. 

Then it was go time.  I could see Eli’s hands clenched in fists and his knuckles turning white as he watched.  I couldn’t help but be impressed by Joey Chestnut’s eating technique.  He shoved the hot dog, bun and all, in his red drink, which I guess maybe aided in digestion? Then he shoved the hot dog encased in a bloated, blood red bun down his throat in a single shove.  I don’t think he chewed.  Then, without a pause he proceeded with dunking the next hot dog and shoving it smoothly down his gullet.  Now I realized why their cups needed to be so big.  His white Nathan’s shirt was drenched in red fruit punch and sweat was pouring down his face and body.  Amidst the tension, someone else fainted. Again, the crowd nonchalantly, albeit this time maybe with a little agitation at being disturbed during the actual competition, passed the limp body forward to the security guards.  What they were doing with the bodies was anyone’s guess.  Were these people ever seen again? Were they being taken to a cool room to be rehydrated? I thought about rolling the dice and faking a faint in hopes the latter was what would happen to me.  

Joey Chestnut was out-eating almost everyone on stage.  There was one man who was only seven or eight hot dogs behind him, but he wasn’t really gaining on him.  When the timer indicated ten minutes passed, Joey had eaten 50 hot dogs.  Eli told us he had seen him eat seventy something before, but he was probably taking it easy since Kobayashi wasn’t here.  Just as they were raising the arm of the champion, drenched in sweat and his stomach visibly distended beneath his red stained shirt, a small Asian man jumped on stage and started yelling something.  Eli gasped, “That is Kobayashi!” The crowd went silent, trying to hear what he was yelling.

He’s not the champion, I’m the champion, but you won’t let me on stage to prove it!” he screamed at no one in particular.  It was all very exciting.  Joey Chestnut seemed too exhausted from his efforts and stuffed full of hot dogs to react.  He just stood there with his arm still raised, swaying like he was drunk and might pass out at any moment.  Security scrambled on stage to grab Kobayashi, but he was agile and jumped down.  The men ran after him, leaving the crowd stunned.

“Is it over?” I asked hopefully.
“I want to hang out for a bit and see what happens,” Eli said, but after ten minutes of nothing happening, we shuffled away from the competition with the rest of the crowd.  

“Do you mind if we walk on the beach for a bit?” I asked.  My mom’s family grew up in Brooklyn and would go to the beach here.  I was feeling nostalgic and wanted to see it.  On 4th of July it was so densely packed with people and umbrellas even up to the water’s edge that we were having trouble actually walking on the beach.  Very few people were in the water, however, and so I did manage to wade into the water up to my knees and walk down the length of the beach that way.  The cool water made me feel like a new person.  

We were walking back to the subway.  Eli had his arm around me, and Grace had her arm around Isabella.A group of drunk men walked by us, which wasn’t surprising given we were in New York on a holiday.  After they passed, they stopped, turned back and started yelling something at us.  It took me a moment to register that they were yelling at us, and then to understand what their point was, but then it sunk in, they were angry that Grace had her arm around Isabella.  Grace looked so much like a boy that I wondered if they were angry that Isabella, who was stunning, wasn’t with someone better looking? Was it that they were a biracial couple? Did they realize that they were two women and that made them angry? Or was it that Grace was living like a man that made them so uncomfortable? I could only glean from their drunken mutterings and occasional shouting that the situation they were witnessing was alarming to them, but not specifically what about the situation made them so mad.  Grace yelled back, “Mind your own damn business,” in a voice that was unmistakably female, so if they hadn’t realized she was a trans before, they did now.  Their anger mounted after she spoke.  The way they were acting was vile, but I just wanted to get away from them without getting into a real fight where we would be at a severe disadvantage.  

“Come on Gracie,” Eli, always level headed, said sternly but sympathetically to his sister.  The men started mocking her, and I could see the anger in her face, disgust built up from years of being snickered at and commented on.  Even if not directly to her face, she probably heard the comments floating down the street after she passed.  

“Come on, they’re just jealous,” Isabella said grabbing Grace’s arm.  Realizing there was nothing she could do, she swallowed hard, and turned as the men continued hurling insults at our backs.  We walked very slowly, as if they were a predator and if we didn’t run, they wouldn’t chase us.  They didn’t follow us.  

When we got back to Williamsburg, we walked to the waterfront to watch the fireworks.  Their roommate was meeting us there.  Quietly, we sat on some cement dividers at the edge of the park.  None of us had really spoken since the incident.  There were eccentric people all around us, but one stood out.  He was tall and wearing a rubber horse mask.  He would just stand near people, not speaking, making them uncomfortable.  Some would laugh uneasily.  Some would tell him to get lost.  One guy took a swing at him.  I was so mesmerized by this horse faced person and what he was doing that I mostly missed the firework show.  Why was he doing it I wondered? 

When the fireworks ended and most of the people were leaving the park, the horse faced man remained, sidling up closer and closer to us.  Eli jumped when he finally noticed him by his side, exclaiming, “What the!” Then Grace and Isabella start giggling, and then Anna as well, and we realized they were all in on some joke that we weren’t.  “This is our roommate, Matt,” Grace said, shaking her head.  I was a bit taken aback that this weirdo, who had spent his 4th of July wearing a horse mask and making people uncomfortable, was their roommate.  

“Why are you doing this?” Eli asked bluntly, unamused.
“I think the different ways people react to it are interesting,” he said, speaking for the first time.  He left the mask on as we walked home, and people stared at and commented on the strange man in horse face the whole way.  One drunk guy started yelling at him to take his damn mask off, but Matt just kept walking, almost stoically ignoring him.  I couldn’t help but think about how Grace was different and just wished to be left alone, while here was Matt going out of his way to be different because he enjoyed getting a reaction.  

Matt walked off to his girlfriend’s house before we got back to their townhouse, and he never took the horse face off the whole time.  Once we were in their house sitting on their couch, reflecting on the long and exhausting day, I picked up a book on their coffee table and started thumbing through it.  Every page had a picture of a gorgeous man with sharp features, blonde hair and blue eyes, posing differently in each shot.  “What is this?” I asked intrigued.
“That’s Matts,” said Anna.  Hes a model.  It’s a copy of the book his agent gives out when trying to get him modeling jobs.”
Huh,” I said in disbelief, and now even more intrigued by the horse face.