2023 Creative Writing / Visual Art Contest Winners
by Juliana Vasquez, First Place
I keep my eyes anywhere but forward – careful of my lines, my expression, anything to focus on besides the story I was supposed to tell. There were children staring, reaching towards me. Long ago I might’ve reached back. Paused for just a moment to grant them a second of eye contact – that little bit of acknowledgement those who revere you crave. My mother would always scold me, for her face was among those in the crowd, carefully watching my every move – counting the beats with me. The music was trickling out. I could feel the weight of my arms as I lifted them; it guided my legs up. Against better judgment I glanced toward the audience. My own gaze greeted me, but just behind my own eyes I found my mothers glare.
The purple lipstick was reduced to a mere stain, wiped away with rubbing alcohol and water. It was one of my mothers old tricks — something used on me after every performance. I never understood it as a child and she never cared to explain. She was always good like that, even if she was barely a mother. A man doesn’t want to kiss a girl that smells like antiseptic and when I was left alone with them it was the only security she could rely on.
I let her rub at my eye makeup before turning my head away, “That’s enough.”
“Ungrateful,” she said, “Your face looks a mess and you won’t even let me help you.”
I took a breath, “Mother. I can finish this on my own.”
“I instruct you, I know your routine, and you think you can handle this better than me?”
Yes. “I’m not better, but I can do it.”
“Enough, Lula. Stop arguing with me, chin up.”
She guided my head up to face her and we remained still for a moment. Her eyes searched mine and when she didn’t find what she was looking for scoffed, turning from me. My gaze landed on the clock – 9:26. My next routine was in two hours. Eloise was very insistent on the importance of impressing this audience. There are going to be talent scouts, you have to stand out. Do you understand? I understood how much it meant to my mother – what one opportunity could do for us; so I had nodded at her and put a little extra glitter on my face.
Eloise couldn’t be here with me today, much to the annoyance of my mother. She had muttered something about her being a “failure of a teacher” among other colorful words, but I didn’t care. If I failed, only one person would be disappointed in me. And disappointed she was when I stepped out of the dressing room. We didn’t say a word to each other, locked in a silent stand still. I could feel the criticism – could sense the way she was tearing apart every little detail of my appearance in her head. All she said was, “come on.”
I was led by the hand backstage, an area cluttered as much with dancers as it was with equipment. Despite this, the area was fairly open. There was enough space for routines to be rehearsed — minus any real tricks of course. My favorite part, though, was the confident, phony looks each girl held on her face as she gracefully sashayed off the stage. When I was younger, the little girls would run offstage to be swept into their mothers arms whether their performance ended in tears or proud, little giggles. My mother was never there to swing me up into her arms, not that she could. She led with the excuse that it taught me strength, but not once did I watch the strong girls shirk away from the open embrace of their mothers.
“Number 26, Isabelle–”
Isabelle Malek. We’ve danced together since we were three. I couldn’t call her a friend, we never spoke much to each other. The muted conversations we had were often cut short by her mother, who was obsessed with touching up her daughter’s makeup everytime she blinked. Neither of them looked at me now. To be honest, I doubt they even remember who I am, opting to instead focus on Isabelle’s continuous habit to come second. Second to my first. Maybe the judges were unable to look past her caked-up face and skimpy costumes. She was a beautiful dancer, though. Underneath all the sparkles and foundation the mothers felt the need to constantly comment on was a story. I could never tell a story the way she did; the judges seemed to think so, but I just held my face a certain way. Not Isabelle. She could burst into tears at a moment's notice, then smile like a child the next. I felt drawn in and when I looked at myself in the mirror, sometimes I imagined I was her. She was a star that only her mother cared to notice. The other girls and their moms could whisper all they liked, but Isabelle had her biggest supporter always by her side, always screaming from the audience. A guaranteed standing ovation with each graceful exit offstage. I hated her sometimes. I hated her when she smiled at me as she walked through the curtains. And I hated her even more when she started sprinting to her mother to be plastered with kisses.
Focus, a helpful voice in my mind supplied. I had a mere second to collect myself before my entrance. I could hear my name being announced and the familiar piano chord signaling the start of my solo music. Stepping on stage always felt like a dream. The dance was supposed to be the story of a shooting star. It was this big metaphor for something sad, I couldn’t remember what exactly, but Eloise was in love with it. Usually, I’d imagine what she was seeing as I danced — straight legs, pointed toes, with the right emotions to match. But Eloise wasn’t here today. So, I imagined I was my mother, watching from the audience. Watching for any imperfection. Watching a story that is not quite complete. Watching her daughter do what she once did. What she will never do again.
There was a moment as I exited, full of elegance of course, where I glanced out into the audience. I expected to find my mother’s eyes, but I couldn’t find her. She wasn’t backstage with some of the other mothers or in my dressing room either. I was frantic, running past little girls covered in glitter and dance teachers’ condescending stares. It wasn’t until I made it into the crumby lobby that I thought to check my phone.
Left early. See you tonight.
Tonight. Not at home. Not for dinner. Just tonight — of course. I didn’t stay for awards, snatching my bag and tugging a windbreaker and sweats over my leotard. The walk home was a short one, safe if you ignored the few cars that would speed by. I was home in bed before the streetlights came on. My mother was nowhere to be found — probably hanging out at the local bar with her guy friends. I tried not to stay bitter, but for all her nagging earlier the least she could do was stick around an extra hour.
I awoke to the clink of glass and a desperate pang of hunger poking at my gut. There was light bleeding through my curtain (my “door”) from the kitchen. I found my mother slumped at the counter, face flushed with a glass in hand.
“There’s cake in the fridge.”
“Okay.” There was an old quilt laying on the couch, I draped it over her shoulders.
“You’re better than me, Lulu. You’ll go far.”
“When you go you’ll forget all about me.”
I was halfway through the curtain as she said it and, in that moment, I saw myself. I saw a reflection of what could be me in a few years. And I swore, right then and there, that my life would never become a mirror of hers.
“Maybe,” I said, “But I’m here right now.”
Scenes from a House in the Suburbs
by Tiger Ehieze, Honorable Mention
an earnest man handled me with his left, his heart was in his right
his bravery seemed like bravado, but i think he saw me that night
a craftsman who built gently seemed a dangerous conflict at the time
but the glimmer in his eye told me he was gonna be just fine
that man’s patience was tested by the brash demands of a subtly clueless one
who i’d soon watch prepare for the world as every day begun
he glared at me like god; he believed it, so did i
yet we locked eyes more times than anyone else in that house could ever try
his wife had always seemed to glow: a bright and radiant star
she never really needed me, she’d never a blemish nor a scar
it wasn’t too long after that we’d only meet in passing
and every now and then, to stop her pale skin from sagging
i was never sure what about me made it hard for them to lie
because i remember one of the few times i’d seen worry in his eyes
as he’d slammed me shut, disordering my innards, scrambling for her pain meds
he’d realized that, for his boy to live, his ego must be dead
i’ll never not wish i could’ve sheltered him
from the cruelties of his world
or rid myself of their jewels that i stored
to show him he was their only pearl
instead i watched as it caved in
the twinkle in his smile
as his hope was trumped by cynicism
every single time
it was hard to spot the goofy jubilance
i’d seen within him as a child
either it slowly withered away
or he stopped looking me in the eye
i stopped seeing his father
though the mom and i’d reacquainted
the son grew hairier and taller
and my vision was getting faded
the other day i saw a nosy couple
as hopeful as they were young
one glance at the smoothness of his knuckles
told me my story's just begun
i haven’t seen the father and mother
or the son in quite a while
i doubt they think about me
i just hope i was worth their while
i hope she hasn’t forgotten her beauty
and that his remembrance wasn’t in vain
and that his son put it all behind him
and found his smile without pain
i doubt i’ll ever see them again
but i think that’s alright
i hope i served their purchase’s purpose
and helped them find their light
as the young woman entered her bathroom
and embraced her brand new world, she smiled
she gazed between my cracks
and realized she’d been with child
by Sophia Mekbeb, First Place
by Emily Liu, Honorable Mention