plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue Two

Bookshelves, Boxes


by Danni Gorden

Rocks by Sara Sisun Rocks by Sara Sisun

I’ve done enough packing to know that some things are easier to pack than others. Like books. I always pack my entire bookshelf in watery-brown, foursquare boxes, the kind you seal by bending an edge beneath another, almost ripping it in the process. They’re tricky, those boxes. Bathroom toiletries fit perfectly inside them. DVDs and magazine files. Stereo speakers. All easy things. The harder things to pack are quieter: things we wedge between CD cases and photo frames, toothbrushes and plastic fold-away mirrors. My mother stowed her pride there, tight up against the dry cardboard of every box we sealed. She had done this before, in what I like to call the “Original Divorce,” or the OD, for short. Then she had toted her squirming, three-year-old daughter along with her; this time, my squealing teenage wisdom did nothing but set nine more years of another failed marriage deep into the skin of her cheeks.


She hangs on a gritty picnic bench at the front of her brother’s new house, low-burning cigarette in hand. I take a seat next to her on the tired wood, making circles with my shoe on the dirty concrete underneath. She asks about Sacramento, my classes, my shoes. We make small-talk. She brings the cigarette to her lips, inhales.

“Those things are going to kill you, you know.”

“Everybody’s gotta go someday.” She takes another drag and turns her face from mine to exhale in the direction of the wind.

“If you don’t stop smoking, I’ll start. How’s that?”

“They’re your lungs,” she quips, reaching into her bag to pull out a gray and tan pack of Marlboro lights. She tosses it into my lap and the wind catches the edges of the open box’s silver-grey lining. I keep my hands in my pocket.


When we left my stepfather to the house, the budding summer sun was fierce, mocking our somber faces. It was April and I was nineteen. We rented the most monstrous truck we could find, spent all day loading it and my uncle’s flatbed trailer to bursting, and sent the cousins on their way to the condo on Columbine. She and I, mother and daughter, dragged our feet behind, stretching out our last minutes with the house, with James. He’d moved out a month before to give us some space and let us pack in peace before he took ownership, but I found traces of him in the wet dirt ring around the base of potted plants; in the messy, organic paint on the dining room walls; in the smudges on the black and yellow phonebook. I wanted to pack them into my pockets, press them into the skin of my palms, force them into permanent imprints on my retina. We made last-minute passes of the house, last-ditch efforts at memorizing the wallpaper. I wanted to sit in my room and talk to it. When we couldn’t think of anything else to forget, we left our keys under the mat.

In the car, my mother busied herself with putting the top down while I played passenger, nursing a sleeping, folded-over cardboard box on my lap, full of all the things we’d nearly forgotten. I started to count the uneven squares on the face of the garage. James had spent an entire weekend fitting insulation into its metal backings once, and it looked like pink cotton candy. I wanted to touch it, taste it for sugar. “It’s fiberglass,” he warned, pulling out another layer of the downy-looking stuff, wedging it into the metal grooves of the inside of the garage door. I’d pulled away then, imagining pink cotton-candy shards embedded in my hands, my tongue. My mother started the engine, pulling it into neutral, and it pulled me back to squares, back to the cold of the leather seat beneath my palms. She waited.


I push my hands into my pockets, taking in the dark circles beneath her eyes, the scattered stains on her pale pink top. My eyes catch on the gaudy, messy-painted ceramic pot she uses now to douse her emptied cigarettes, the scattering of filters that dot the backyard concrete. This happens every time I visit—I remember all the reasons I left, why my mother’s home is no longer mine. It’s six months now since I made Sacramento my surrogate mother, since I toted everything I owned and left everything I knew for the Sac County suburbs and a clean academic record.

“How’s James?”

Her left hand shakes as she cups it around cigarette and lighter, pausing to push a straggling strand of hair from her eyes.

“Don’t know. Won’t return my calls, won’t respond to my emails.”

“I thought he said you’d always be his best friend.”

“I did, too.”

Her chin trembles now, too. She chews on her grief, swallows it down. Finishing her cigarette, she lights another.

“I’m trying, Dani. I’m trying. I was living day by day, but that didn’t work. Now I’m living minute by minute.”

An early autumn wind rears up to drive my hair over my eyes, scatter ashes from the backyard table.


March. An almost-two-year anniversary. After work, I drive home, slide the transmission into neutral, and pull up the parking break. I draw out a cigarette from the gray and white pack in my purse, light it up. Ultralights. Dragging an errant scrap from the glove box, I start to scribble out a to-do list. I give up. I write the list in my head. Tonight: paper, psych. Paper, English. Memorize monologue. Insurance, rent, et cetera. Write James a letter. More importantly, send James a letter. Taxes. I sit. I light another. I tuck my head into the space between the seat of my car and the cold window, wondering if the shakes in my body are hereditary references to hers. At work the next day, the girls ask me if I am hung over.


Alcohol is not the answer. Which is exactly why I’m leaning against the bar at Dream, arm in arm with my business-major, CPA sister, calling (in my I’m-a-barista-take-your-time-I-understand kind-of way), for “two Long Islands, please.” When the bartender comes back with my card, he motions to it and I say, “You keep it.” I am so fucking slick. It’s spring break, and I’d really like to forget the fact that I just maxed out my credit card to make rent, or that I have a research paper due the day I’m back, or that I am secretly afraid my mother might actually be a willy-nilly spendthrift alcoholic with a penchant for smoking Marlboro Lights, or more importantly, that when my father kicked me out of the house and said, “You’re just like your mother,” he was right. So I knock one back. There is no breathing room in this bar, and I love it. A tie at the bar pulls away from his drink long enough to toss me two seconds of eye contact. I slide my shoulder past my sister, bare my collarbone. I am invincible and I know it.


I let the hum of six cylinders snuggle into the small spaces inside my ears. My handprints were in the backyard, nestled in a concrete slab above an etching of my name, and I wanted to run my hands along the slab’s grainy surface, fit my fingers into a size I knew I could not return to. I wanted to take one last long inhalation of the house, leave my mother to the leaving. I knew what I would do. Crawl into the wraparound, under-the-stairs closet we used for storing holiday decorations, the ones we’d left for James and the house he was keeping. I’d climb the twisty stairs to my room and bury myself in the loft bed my grandfather had built for the arrival of grandchildren. I’d tiptoe behind the honeycomb rocks of our pool’s outer edge, balance myself on my favorite. I knew what I would do. My mother’s silence kept me planted. Reaching into the box on my lap, I pulled out the black and yellow CD I’d stolen from James’s wooden case underneath the entertainment center. I slid it into the thin mouth of an opening in the center console. Coldplay’s “Parachutes.” I waited. She brought her hand up on the steering wheel, eyes catching on the ring-less crease in her finger. Sighing, she pulled the car into reverse, washed her face in her hands, and said, “So you want a cigarette?” We laughed until our eyes weren’t wet; we laughed until we almost missed a red light.


In April, when we discover our dog is dying, the three of us sit in the living room of my mother’s new house, knit ourselves a triangle around our waning pup. James sits at a chair at the dining room table, my mother claims an armchair, and I take the couch, one of a set they agonized over for hours when they were still married and talking. We are a patchwork, mismatched family, a rough-sewn patch on a bag torn from wear, and none of us have the courage to get any closer than this. This is divorce; this is grief. Come Monday, I will pack it into each pocket of my grass-green backpack, shoulder it, pull it close. I will work and study and drink and smoke and grieve. I will pretend it doesn’t exist. My mother will do the same. She’ll watch her grief line every wrinkle, make a home in every crease. She will make bad choices. She will throw herself into men and booze and other transitory things. But she will do the best she can and she’ll know it. We are doing the best we can. We know it. We can do nothing else.

About the Author


Danni Gorden

American River College

Danni Gorden enjoys pie crusts, schnauzers, and social justice. She lives and studies in Berkeley, California.