A Descent in Early Spring – Owen Clarke

This piece of creative nonfiction by Owen Clarke is selected from our upcoming Fall 2018 Issue. The full issue will be released and available for purchase here and at our Publishing Party on December 13. 

a descent in early spring
owen clarke

The stone refuge was nestled below the top of the pass. We were huddled inside around the woodstove, prepping our packs for the descent, when the porter stepped inside. The howl of the wind echoed briefly through the refuge as he opened and shut the door. He was still wearing his crampons and he didn’t bother kicking the snow off his boots. Something was wrong. The guides and porters got to their feet. The one who’d entered spoke a few lines in Berber. The men spoke briefly. The porter was raising his voice. 

“What’s he saying?” I asked Hassan, my Berber guide.

Hassan grunted. “A man fallen.” 

Hassan didn’t speak often. He knew little English, but I had a feeling he was reticent even among his fellow Berbers. 

“Someone fell?” 

He nodded. “Yes.”                                                                       

Hassan stood a few steps back from the cluster of porters and guides. His arms were crossed, his eyes hard.

I grimaced. I wondered who it was. There had been around forty people in the refuge the previous night, most attempting the summit in the morning. After a 3:00 a.m. start, Hassan and I had reached it early, around 8:00, under winds that had to have been at least sixty miles per hour. We were the first party down from the summit. Visibility was barely ten feet during our descent, and the storm was only growing. It took us a few hours to get back to the refuge, and we’d only been back for a few minutes when the porter arrived. 

The Berbers were strapping on crampons, stuffing packs with first aid supplies. 

“Are you going with them?” I asked Hassan. “Is there anything I can do to help? I’m an EMT.” 

Hassan shrugged noncommittally and said nothing. He tossed an ice axe to Akhmed, our muleteer. I went back inside and sipped mint tea around the wood stove with two Canadians, a father and son, who hadn’t made the summit. The kid had gotten lightheaded at 12,000 feet, his dad told me, which is when they had turned back. 

“Probably it’s like fate or something, that I got a bit sick, you know?” the kid said. “I mean, that guy could definitely be dead, right?” 

“He definitely could,” said the father. He turned to one of the Berber guides walking by. “Can they not get a helicopter up to him?” 

“No helicopter. Winds too strong,” the Berber said. “We bring him down on litter to refuge, then to Imlil on the mules.” 

A few minutes later, Hassan came back inside, kicking snow off his boots. 

“Akhmed go with men,” he said. “We carry things down. You. Me. No mule.” 

“We’re going down? Don’t you need to go with them to help? I’m fine staying here at the refuge. Or I could go too.” 

“Enough men go,” said Hassan, shaking his head. “Need be in Marrakech tonight, no?” 

My train left for Tangier at seven. 

“Yeah,” I said. 

“Get things,” said Hassan. “We go.” 

We stuffed our packs with Akhmed’s supplies. Afterwards, we left the refuge behind, the Canadian kid staring balefully after us through the frosted glass windows. There was still snow for the next couple of miles, but it was soft, sparse, and shallow at this altitude, and the postholes were clear, so we left our crampons off. 

We came down through the valley, Hassan ranging far ahead. When we stopped for water at the snowline a couple of hours later, he left to scour the hillside for our mule, which Akhmed had tethered the day before.

I sat on the edge of the snowline. I’d come because Toubkal was the highest peak in North Africa and the Arab World, though it sat at a relatively measly 4,000 meters. I was in Marrakech tagging along with my friend, a poker player, who was playing tournaments there, when I’d realized Jebel Toubkal was only a couple hours to the south. It’s known as a relatively easy peak, a total walk-up in the summer, and not much more than a walk-up with crampons and a glacier axe in the winter. So I figured, who wouldn’t go for it, with such little risk? I’d even gone so far as to hire a guide, what with travelling alone (my friend would stay in Marrakech) and having brought no ice gear along with me.

In summer it was a walk-up, and winter, as per usual, necessitated the typical tenfold increase in caution. Here we were, on the cusp of spring, and someone had fallen. Clearly badly, or the porters wouldn’t have mobilized like they had. It wasn’t that I didn’t think it possible, it had definitely been a fairly harrowing ascent with the wind. But I had never really considered serious injury on a peak like this.

Hassan returned, shaking his head. “Mule gone,” he said, spitting into the dirt. 

“You said weren’t gonna use him anyway, right?” 

He frowned at me. My sentence must’ve been too long. 

“Mule gone,” he said again. 

He rubbed his weathered face. Several dilapidated huts were clustered around the trail at the snowline. Hassan spoke to a man squatting in a doorway. He ducked inside and came back with two glasses of mint tea. We sat on a low stone wall on the side of the trail, sipping our tea and looking down into the valley. 

“Man no speak,” said Hassan. He gestured inside the hut. “Hear on radio from Mohammed.” 

“He’s not speaking?” 

Hassan nodded. “Eyes no open.”

“But he’s alive?”

Hassan shrugged. I assumed this meant yes.

“Do they know who he is?”

Hassan frowned. “English…think, maybe, you eat with? In the night?” 

I had eaten dinner with an English couple the night before at the refuge. They were from Exeter. The man was a software developer. They had offered me a seat at their table, given me some of their soup. 

“The people I ate dinner with? The man and the woman? Kinda tall? Glasses?” 

“Think,” said Hassan. “But not know. Radio say one English fallen, of two. So…maybe you eat with?” 

There weren’t any other Brits at the refuge going for the summit. I had talked to the guy and his wife earlier that day. They’d only been a hundred yards from the summit when we’d passed them on our way down. They were the party closest behind us. It must have been them. It felt strange, knowing an accident had happened only moments after I’d passed them. We would have heard it if hadn’t been for the wind. The man was young, maybe 30 at the oldest. He was newly married.

“Is he going to be okay?” 

Hassan shrugged. 

“Can they really not get a helicopter up there? One of the men said the winds were too strong. You think they’ve eased up by now?” 

Hassan looked down for a moment. I wasn’t sure if he was translating what I had said or trying to think of what to say himself. 

He looked back at me. “Not too many wind. Helicopter not come because too many wind. No money, helicopter not come.” 

“If they can’t pay, they won’t call the chopper?” 


We sat in silence. I finished my tea. Several mules dotted the hillside below us, sloping down to the stream at the bottom, which ran down towards Chamharouch. I thought of the British couple, the young man, not much older than I. Neither were experienced climbers, but you didn’t need to be for a peak like this. Or maybe you did, but sometimes it didn’t matter. It was a testament to the inherent chaos always present in the mountains.

They’d talked about having kids. They told me they wanted a boy. 

I turned to Hassan. 

“Do you have any family? Kids?” I asked.

“Girl,” he said. “Three girl. One seven year. One three year. One sixteen day.” 

“You have a baby girl? Sixteen days old?”

Hassan nodded. For the first time in the days I had travelled with him, he smiled. He rummaged in his jacket pocket for a minute, then pulled out a folded photo. He showed it to me. A baby was wrapped in blankets, grimacing under the lens flash of a camera. 

“This is your daughter?” 

“This is why I come to mountains. Make money as guide.” He paused. “This is life.” 

He folded the photo up and slipped it back into his jacket. We finished our tea.

“We go,” he said. 

We followed the valley downwards, keeping the mountain stream on our right. At this altitude, the winds had softened. Looking back through blue skies towards the summit, just out of sight behind the smaller peaks to its north, it was hard to imagine what was going on only a few thousand feet higher. The winds whipping through the slopes and along the rocky ridgelines, tearing off fragments of snow and ice and propelling them through the air at hellish speeds. I almost forgot that I’d been in the midst of that only this morning. Somewhere up there, a man was being drug out on a litter. The Berbers were calling to each other over the sound of the driving wind. The snow was softening and crampons were starting to lose their grip. The Englishman’s wife was following behind the litter, clutching his hands, her eyes frantic. Perhaps they’d made it to the refuge. I did not know and Hassan, it seemed, did not care. From here, at least, all looked well. The mountain was quiet.

* * *

Large black birds soared through the sky above us, spiraling downwards through the valley. Patches of snow still dotted the hillsides, but we were below 10,000 feet now and most of the snow had melted. We passed two parties on the ascent, one of French climbers and the other Moroccans. Hassan did not speak to them.

Sidi Chamharouch was peaceful when we arrived. There were a few parties of climbers, eating at a handful of small cafés, and Berbers milled among the huts. Men in djellabas herded shaggy, black goats along the rocky slopes. We stopped at a café high on the mountainside above the village. Hassan left to prepare the food. I sat on the terrace opposite a large, balding white man with a thick beard.

“Speak English?” he grunted. I heard an accent, but couldn’t place it. Something European. Harsh. Norwegian, maybe.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Been up?” 

“Yeah. You?” 

“Up there last night. We slept in the same room at the refuge.” 


My room was made up of twenty or so bunks, mostly populated with hairy Russians who snored like boars and were named Igor or Alex. 

“I didn’t notice,” I said. 

The man grunted something unintelligible.

We looked out over the town below, the trail leading down to the dry riverbed and Asni, then the mountain village of Imlil. The large, white rock of Chamarouch’s ancient shrine lay nestled in a crook of the hillside to the east, just across a small wooden bridge spanning a creek. This bridge was the boundary for outsiders. The shrine was forbidden to non-Muslims. 

No one was entering the shrine. A man in a dusty brown djellaba leaned against the railing of the bridge, smoking a cigarette. The rock was festooned with brightly colored flags. 

Tagine and bread was brought by a stunted, gap-toothed Berber wearing a skullcap and a leer. The face of the Englishman flashed into my head upon seeing the food. Phil. That was his name. Phil. I thought of dinner the night before. Listening to his stories about his only visit to the states. He’d scoffed at the increasing price of bitcoin, because he’d owned twenty a few years ago and sold at no profit. He and his wife had said they were going to Merzouga, to see the desert, after they summited Toubkal. So was I, eventually. I wondered if they’d make it there now.

“You summit?” I asked the man. 


He pulled up his pant leg, revealing a gash down his right calf. The top of his leather boot was torn a couple inches down, the outside of his pant leg shredded. 

“Damn. What happened?” 

“Yesterday,” he began, then paused, coughing violently. “I was taking photos on a ridge near the refuge, took a fall. Slid a hundred meters down the slope, almost to the edge of the cliff. Would’ve been dead if I’d gone over.” He laughed. “After that, I thought, maybe I won’t summit.”

He laughed again. It was a harsh, smoker’s laugh. “I’m too old to have anything to prove.” 

I nodded. “Somebody took a bad fall up there today, too.” 


Behind the man, Hassan was waving to me. “We go,” he called. 

I stood up and grabbed my pack. “Safe travels,” I said. 

The man coughed, nodded. “To you the same.”

* * *

Hassan tried to get a radio signal from the refuge before we left Sidi Chamharouch, but couldn’t get through. We travelled down the valley and into the wide, dry riverbed, littered with boulders and small streams like dying veins. On a cracked dirt field, a group of kids was playing soccer in the shadow of the mountains. Two policemen in dusty uniforms rose swaying on mules up the trail from the north, where the riverbed melted away. They lugged a large radio and called to Hassan in Arabic. He broke off to talk to them. 

“Take break,” he said to me. “Take break.”

I squatted on a boulder at the side of the trail while Hassan gestured to the policemen. One eyed me warily, scratching his chin, as the other spoke to Hassan. After a few minutes, the policemen continued on their mules up the trail. Hassan came and sat by me on the boulder. I offered him some water. 

He drank. “Him now black,” he said.


“Him now black.” He passed a hand over his face, his eyes closed. “Black inside.” 


Hassan nodded. “Dead, yes. Police hear on radio. They go up. Take photos of body at refuge.” 

“He’s dead?” I repeated.

Hassan nodded again. 

It was strange. Somewhere inside I’d already known the man was dead, even before Hassan had told me. I just hadn’t been aware of it. As soon as we’d heard he’d fallen, I’d known. I could see his face when I’d passed him on the summit ridge. I’d spoken to him but he hadn’t responded. He had been pale and drawn. The altitude had been getting to him. Should I have said something? Asked if he was okay? Surely his wife and their guide had already noticed. I wondered how long it had been after I’d seen him until he’d fallen. It had to have been only a few minutes. They’d been so close to the summit when we passed. We likely would’ve seen it if the visibility hadn’t been so poor. I remembered the precipice to the south of the summit ridge, imagined a body flailing through the air. 

But still, I hadn’t seen him die. I hadn’t even known him, really. A few hours of conversation over a meal was the extent of it. Why should I care? I’d had plenty of relatives die before, grandparents and the like, people I actually knew well, but this was different. This guy was young, and Toubkal was supposed to be a walk in the park, just a bit of glacier travel. 

I heard the voice of the injured man from Chamharouch in my head. I’m too old to have anything to prove. 

For a moment I thought, What the hell am I doing here?

“Maybe you no think, but many people dead on Toubkal,” Hassan said, reading my thoughts. He tossed me a bag of dried fruit. I picked out a date and ate it.

“People dead every year.” He drew a finger across his neck. “My father not want me climb Toubkal. Say money not worth life.” He paused. “My brother dead there. Like English.” 

“He fell?”

Hassan ignored my question, and was quiet for a moment. “You die, lose life. Yes. But…” He patted his chest. “This not life.” 

He pulled the photo of his baby daughter from his pocket again, pointing to it. “This is life. Outside you, is life. Need money for this life. So I climb. Guide.” 

“You think it’s worth it?” I asked.

He shrugged. “You climb mountain…maybe you dead. Maybe you fall here, hit head,” he pointed to the dirt trail, “you dead. Maybe driving automobile… crash. Dead. Maybe you dead in sleep.” He paused, and we sat silently for a long time. 

“Better dead on mountain,” Hassan finally said. “Closer.”

“Closer to what?”

He did not respond, and I did not press him further.

We sat on the boulder. The black birds floated through the sky. The kids on the dirt field in the distance kicked the soccer ball and yelled. A cluster of goats bleated from the hillside to the east. In Imlil below, Hassan’s newborn daughter waited for him. In Marrakech, my train was at the station.

Hassan popped a date into his mouth and chewed for a moment.

He spit out the pit. “This is life,” he said.

We continued down the trail.

Owen Clarke, 21, was raised in northern Alabama and began writing at the age of 11. His work has been published by magazines such as Rock & Ice, Gym Climber, and Trail Runner. He is a senior English major atUSD.

Personal Spaces

by Kate Morton


Getting off the Metro

You stand swaying on the metro, gripping the metal loop that is firmly attached to the ceiling of the car. It is crowded: sweaty bodies pressed close together, strangers breathing down your neck, arms and hips bumping into each other. Dressed for work/school/meetings, all of the metro patrons are returning home. The rocking motion of the car gently persuades your exhausted eyelids to close, if only for a second— just one moment. The car jerks to a stop, and your eyes open as quickly as the doors did. Soon the doors will close again, you force yourself to stay awake, swaying in time with the other passengers. All of you share the vacant stare of those who ride the metro alone.

Next stop, doors open, wait, wait, wait, buzzer, doors start sliding shut. As the angry buzz echoes down the platform, a man coming up the stairs starts running toward the car you’re in. “He’ll never make it” you think, as the man chances a desperate leap. He is a millisecond too slow. The doors pin him in their cold inanimate grip, yet he doesn’t cry out, barely even winces, and none of the other passengers look up. Your fellow commuters just sit with their metro stares and allow the man to struggle out of the doors on his own. He gets out, sits, the doors shut, and the car jerks forward.

As the next buzz vibrates the car, a gentle pulse vibrates your hip bone. Quickly, nervously, you pull your phone from your pocket. See his name, his face, his words and you smile the biggest you have since leaving the States. He’s awake in the middle of the night just to tell you you’ll be fine, but he really needs to get some sleep and can’t stay up to talk to you right now. You are strong, he says, you’ve got this. But he really needs to sleep; he has work, responsibilities, and things more important than the tiny breakdown you are having over something as trivial as a timezone. Type as quickly as you can, let him know how much you love him/how well he should sleep/how desperately you miss him before his eyes slam shut like those metro doors. But you are too late. The next pulse won’t be for a few hours. That connection to him/home/life is shut off, consumed by night and warm blankets. Now you’re standing alone on the cold, metallic metro, water creeping to the rim of your lashes. Blink, blink, blinkblink the water away. You can’t handle all of this at once. Put that part of you to bed with him and keep the rest of you in this body gently swaying on the metro.

Next stop, doors open, don’t wait, this is your exit. Stepping onto the dirty platform, the smell of urine overwhelms you. Fluorescent lights reflect off of the slick white tiles stacked so orderly on the curved walls that enclose you. They blind you, yet do very little to brighten the space. With the beginnings of a nasty headache throbbing just behind your eyes, you look nervously around you. You don’t know where you are, and you aren’t sure how to exit. The others who escaped the car with you walk toward a sign marked “Sortie.” You follow, hoping to get out of these tunnels.

Up, up, up some stairs, you move quickly toward the light that streams in from above, softer and warmer than the harsh fluorescents ricocheting throughout the caverns below. Halfway up the steps, it hits you: a heavenly breeze flowing fast and cool over your neck and shoulders, relieving you from the stifled hell of the metro car.

You emerge from the ground and Paris materializes around you: cars and motorbikes humming and speeding down the streets on either side of you, like two rivers much more turbulent than the Seine. Trees pop up from the worn stone of the sidewalk every once and awhile, offering up plush patches of leafy shade. People with jobs and homes and families rush past you; they know where they are going. You wander. Eventually, you sink into a café chair, breathless with relief. This is the first time you have been alone since you arrived in Paris. You put a whole packet of sugar in your espresso and stir frantically.

You sit. You breathe. You think. Think of the hours of sleep you’ve lost to talk to a boy back home who’s sleeping soundly while your eyes are struggling to stay open. Think of the couples embracing openly in the green-rimmed, light-wood lawn chairs in front of the Hôtel de Ville, of how jealous/sad/thankful you are to see them so happy, and of how much you wish that could be you with  him. Think of how you are the same as that man who made a leap of faith to catch the metro: pinned between two forces, stuck with no one to help youbut your forces are less metallic and cold, more romantic and thrillingyour overwhelming desire for adventure and discovery versus the boy who makes you so happy, and you are trapped in the middle, like the metro man. Above all, think of how much you hate time zones.

You finish your coffee. You shiver as the afternoon breeze begins to adopt the bite of evening chill. You wait. You wait until you can turn your key easily in the lock, until you open the door when you intend to instead of struggle with it multiple times before you actually accomplish opening it. Wait until your internal clock rights itself, until you fall asleep while the orange streetlamps peer in through your window, instead of when the afternoon sun is befriending the flurries of dust that drift aimlessly about your tiny apartment. Wait for it to be a decent time to message him again, until you can hear him laugh, until you can see him smile fully, all teeth, happy as you walk out of the arrivals terminal. Wait.


La Ventre

In a small studio apartment, foreign/new/scary and home for the next month, there is a bathroom, kitchenette, a desk, two beds, and not much else. The only remarkable aspect, the centerpiece, bright and bold, is the window. Two long glass panes, rimmed in white with a long sheath of cream gauze pushed haphazardly to one side, stand stoic in the middle of the wall at the back of the apartment.

Open them. Pull the latch, first up then in, and push the swinging doors aside. Press your hips and stomach into the cool, metal rail that lies just outside the window’s limits. Look down. Admire the quiet, little street that expands in both directions. With its two long walls of apartment building after apartment building—all lined up, all sweet and simple, nothing modern or ornate in sight — standing firmly on either side. The bright green and soft gray foliage tries its best to make a place for itself in this human habitat by squeezing its way through the seams at the foot of the buildings and in between concrete blocks on the sidewalk. Some of the most daring plants, soft and supple, have crept onto the rooftop directly across from you. There they grow tall, probably because they aren’t being choked by the heavy weight of stone and footsteps. There are no window boxes blooming to the brim with red and pink and blue and white; young people live here, they haven’t got the time to parent plants. Breathe in the sickly sweet scent of cigarette smoke, and listen to your French neighbors babble quickly as they prepare their dinner. It is evening.

It is evening, and the golden sunlight streams down at an angle, creating long slanting shadows on the building across from you. It glitters brightly in the glass panes of the streetlamps hanging from curled iron loops that are mounted down the wall of apartment buildings at regular intervals. French techno music blasts from your neighbor’s apartment. You can hear her singing along loudly. The rest of your neighbors trickle slowly down the street in the setting sun, returning from work. A man walks by in a suit and enters the building across from you. The techno music suddenly turns to jazz and the woman yells at her husband/boyfriend/lover who only issues a short laugh in response. The man in the suit has made it up to his apartment and leans out the window. He is no longer wearing his jacket. You look over at each other and make eye contact across your pleasant, little street. You both hold it for a moment before looking away. This is one of your favorite qualities of the city: eye contact wields no expectation. It is the opposite in the States; even the briefest moment of eye contact requires a smile, or else you will be considered cold or rude. Here that is not so. Eye contact is simply eye contact, and there is so much freedom in that lack of expectation. There is a great capacity to just let moments be. There is room to breathe in this city.

You can see this breath like a misty cloud of cigarette smoke exhaled by the Parisians as they sip something slowly outside of their favorite café. They drink and talk and eat and write and read and breathe. They breathe as they watch people walk by on the congested, narrow sidewalks. They breathe with empty glasses on the table and lit cigarettes in their hands that glow like fireflies in the evening air.

The man in the suit is at his window smoking a cigarette. The gray cloud he exhales turns to gold in the dying light. It dissipates slowly. You smell it a moment later, but it doesn’t smell like the smoke exhaled by cluttered groups of men huddled outside of bars. These clots of men excrete thick clouds of slate-colored smoke that drift around your head and suffocate your thinking. The man in the suit’s smoke smells lighter and sweeter. It had its whole journey across the street to breathe in the refreshing breeze that floats over the rooftops and into the alley.

You look at a building to your right. In certain places the concrete has been chipped away to expose a foundation of brick underneath. Perhaps the brick needs to breathe, too.

The sun sinks behind a taller building, and your quiet, little street is left in shadow. The man across the way retires to his room.

Three pulses, rapid, sound deepened by the cheap wood of the desk your phone is resting on, ricochet through your tiny, part-time home. The corners of your mouth turn upwards. You close your window and retire, too.


My Boulangerie  

There is a certain kindness in the way the middle-aged woman behind the counter lets you struggle in French as you try to buy a baguette and a lemon tarte. Here you are, standing in the middle of this bakery, completely butchering the language that soars so fluidly and musically from their quick-moving lips. Yet no matter how hard you struggle, no matter how fluently she spoke English to the other American that was in line before you, she will not give in. She will not speak to you in English.

She doesn’t abstain out of cruelty, but kindness. Like a wise mother, she knows that giving in and allowing you to take the easier path will only encourage you to take the easy path in the future. If she allows you the easy path, you will never learn.

You struggle on in French. You’re beginning to feel like a jester in a royal court. And, in fact, the woman behind the counter does look remarkably like a queen with her piercing blue eyesdistant, unforgiving behind a veil of rimless glassesher blonde hair cropped short and turning grey, her thin lips set stern in her round face.

When she decides your French is passable enough, she gets you what you want. The lemon tarte looks even more delicious now— the glaze on top more shiny, the hills of crust more buttery—after the painful struggle it took to get it. The tarte that was once a treat has now become a reward. A reward for trying, a reward for struggling, a reward for letting go of your comfort zone and forcing yourself to adapt. The woman smiles, closed-mouth, and then wishes you goodbye as you leave the bakery (all in French of course). You savor each bite of that tarte. You have never tasted anything sweeter.

You continue to frequent this bakery. You continue to play the part of the woman’s jester. You continue to get lemon tartes and baguettes. After a few visits, those two words, une baguette and une tarte citron are pronounced confidently, as if you have been saying them your whole life. By struggling with and stumbling over each syllable again and again and again, you feel you earned them.

The queen of the bakery, the woman who stands so proudly behind the counterchest out, shoulders squaredbegins to recognize you. The bonjour madame’s become more familiar, sweeter, twinged with sympathy. She starts to regard you as a client, not a foreigner. Her recognition and sympathy make you feel important, as if you are one of the queen’s favorites. Maybe you are.

On one particular visit, on a cold, cloudy day, you walk in the bakery to pick up your favorite lemon tarte. The woman begins moving toward the tarte before you even ask for it.

Comme nature?” she asks with a closed-mouth smile as she wraps the treat in wax paper. “Like usual.”

Suddenly, you feel that familiar pulse resonate in your hip, but this time you ignore it—at least for this moment. You want this queen to understand that you get the joke, and you laugh in affirmation. She smirks. You say goodbye and leave. You walk back to your apartment on your wonderfully familiar little street, ride the elevator up to floor 2, turn your key in the lock and let yourself in. You open the window, unpack your lemon tarte, and check greedily for the message he has sent. As you lean out and take that first delicious bite you think: “This street has never felt more like home.”


A Ravenous Radiance

The French woman languidly sits at a café or on the metro, perfectly at home. She always seems to be wearing an expensive coat, the type that rests impressively on her squared shoulders. She is as monarch-like as the queen of your bakery. The coat is not flashy or gaudy. It is perhaps black or tan and made of fine material. You have never seen a French woman wearing a coat made of anything other than the richest leathers or smoothest silks. She sits, legs uncrossed, taking up the space that she was meant to take up, and not apologizing for anything.

If she is in a café, she will light a cigarette. Eyes cast out, observing the people passing quickly on the street, she smokes. She smokes, and she eats. You have never seen an American woman eat the way a French woman does. French women eat like they’re hungry. They slice off huge hunks of paté and spread it thickly on a cracker. They eat the cracker slowly, savoring each bite. Buttery croissants, café au lait with whole milk, rich chocolate, and thick creamall these culinary delights that American women would deem only meant for “cheat days,” the French women consume regularly and proudly. The French woman eats unapologetically. She walks down the streets at lunchtime taking huge bites of her sandwich and chewing slowly. In the States, women eat as if the act itself were a dirty secret only meant to be done behind closed doors. They nibble on bars and salads, always seeking the next source of calories to cut out of their diets. When they do eat the wholesome, rich food of the French woman, they do so with guilt. American women are embarrassed to have human needs. French women are proud of it.

If she is on the metro, the French woman will put on her earphones. Pink lips slightly pursed, she will bob her head or tap her foot to the beat. Occasionally, she will close her eyes gently as she gets lost in the music blasting in her ears. Even here, on the crowded metro where personal space is altogether abandoned, she sits with her legs uncrossed. She is not afraid to occupy the space her physical body exists in. She is the type of woman who would never make herself smaller so someone else could make themselves larger. She is not the type of woman who grasps desperately for her phone the moment she feels even a hint of a pulse. She has never felt desperate. She is not the type of woman to apologize for existing, at least, not in the way American women do. Take any form of public transit in the States, and you will see an American woman with her legs crossed, bag in lap, eyes cast down, pressing herself into a window so that the man next to her may sit knees splayed wide, chest out, relaxed.  Here, the men are the ones who seem to make themselves smaller. They are the ones who sit with crossed legs and folded arms.


The Porte de Vincennes Farmer’s Market

Across the street from Café L’Escale on a narrow strip of concrete, you see it. What was once a barren block of sidewalk no wider than two cars just the day before is now a flutter of activity extending down, down, down the street and out of sight. A kaleidoscope of goods for purchase, a carnival of sound, the farmer’s market is busy. On the way in, people tote empty sacks on wheels, and on the way out, they pull huge heaps of bright vegetables and still-steaming bread down the boulevard, like ants returning to their hill with food for the queen.

Stall after stall after stall, it is endless. Everything is for sale: shoes atop pedestals like statues of Greek gods and goddesses, lingerie thrown carelessly in boxes that tired old women sift through disinterestedly, meats of all sorts, red and shiny, stacked high in glass cases, vegetables crowded together in large, colorful piles still sparkling with dew, wine bottles lined up like soldiers on the edge of a white linen-covered table, and unscaled fish dumbly staring at you from their bed of ice, perfuming the air with the smell of cold, murky water (that sends you straight back to Minnesota and those long, hot summers when you spent every second in the calm, muddy lake before you were afraid of drowning…).

You squeeze past old people dragging carts and young people standing stagnant in lines that wrap around entire tents and make it painfully clear which stalls sell the best goods. Children duck and dodge legs as their parents get stuck in the quagmire of bodies and stores and goods and carts on wheels that congest the narrow walkway. It is a hot day, and the entire crowd shifts together, trying its best to walk in the little patches of shade cast by the white tarps resting heavily on top of the stalls.

There is such a wonderful community to it all. From the way the old women weave easily around each line, each stunned tourist, you think this must be a weekly ritual for them. Every Saturday morning, these women wake up slowly at 7 or 8. They make coffee, their hands shaking as they scoop the grounds into the filter. As the boiling water strips a chesnut brown cup of heaven from these crushed, dried beans, the women spread jam and butter on slices of baguette with arthritic fingers grasping the knife tightly. They drink their coffee, dress, grab bag/keys/wallet, and head out the door. They walk slowly, habitually to the market; they know exactly what they will buy. Entering the colorful corridor of shops bursting with red and yellow, blue and green, they are not distracted. Despite their slow, labored, painful steps, they are the first to leave the market with their bags spilling over with meat and fish and vegetables and flowers: enough food to feed them well into the week to come. They march back to their homes, smiling, satisfied and satiated— at least for now.

The novelty of the market is wearing off, so you leave the crowded, colorful, clutter behind and wander the streets near Porte de Vincennes metro stop. You seek a distraction that will not remind you of home or him. You cannot find it. You stop in a garden. Surrounded by roses and traffic, you write. It does nothing. There is no comfort today. You buy vegetables at a little market near your apartment that is just as bright and beautiful as that other cluttered chaos but far less crowded. You make a cheap but hot lunch. You nap but not for long. You read but are not invested. He is still not awake yet.


Getting on the Metro

Out the door, hit the light switch in the hall, lock the door, down the elevator, press the button, wait for the metallic hum of the magnet lock to fizzle out, push the door, glance in the floor length mirror, smile slightly, turn the knob, and enter the street with children on scooters and fathers in suits all heading to work and school, all moving to Bel-Air station in the crisp/icy/windy morning air. A stream of people are trickling up Rue Sibuet, and you, a foreigner, an American, a stranger, are part of this daily river, flowing to the Metro with your neighbors and their children.

You follow the current right, then right again onto a lovely, large street with big green trees and flowers in the window boxes of the apartments. Then you go left onto a little side street, where the white iron gates that enclose metro line 6 rise like sharp, spiky teeth from the screeching rails beneath. The children run up ahead, pause at the street, wait for cars to pass, and walk quickly to the metro station. You pull out your Navigo pass as you enter the little brick building.

Rest your pass on the faded purple circle, wait for the high-pitched beep, and push your way through the metal gates and onto the platform. Wait. Wait alongside familiar faces, the young families who live on your street, the people you now begin to recognize as your neighbors. Wait as the smell of urine mingles with the fresh morning air. Look at the board hanging over the platform proudly announcing the time passing. 3 minutes. Wait.

Wait and think. Think about the person you were. Think about that very first metro ride, that very first day when you were so tired and sad. Think of the desperation, the fear that he would leave, the fear that he would find somebody else, the overwhelming anxiety of it all. Think on it. The isolation that crushed you, suffocated you. Remember it, all of it, then think of now.

Think of now and be grateful. Be grateful for the way you can navigate the metro without fear or anxiety, for your little boulangerie that is so easily passed by if you’re not looking close enough, for the time difference you’ve adapted to, for all of the calls and texts that were sent and shared in spite of the awful internet connection, for your quiet street with its rebellious plants that grow on rooftops, for your window, big and bright, that opens up to the world outside, and, most of all, for the transitory sense of home that has flourished and blossomed with each successive day. Think and be grateful.

Think of what’s to come and wonder. Wonder anxiously about returning to a country you haven’t seen for a month, about getting back home through claustrophobic airports and stuffy planes, about how in the world you will go about bridging the cognitive gap between yourself and your Paris selfthe self who rides metros and walks down narrow, medieval streets. Wonder hopefully about the sweetness of “Hello” and all other English words, about breakfastfull and hearty, complete with bacon and eggs and coffeeabout the softness of your own bed and the spaciousness of your shower. Think and wait and wonder, but be happy. Be happy to have been here and be happy to say goodbye.

The wind rushing around the metro as it slides into the station disturbs your thoughts. The doors open and people spill out like water over a broken dam. Push against this current and get on. Hear the angry buzzer sound, watch the stragglers make their desperate leaps onto the train, and grab hold of the metallic pole as the car jerks forward and you descend into the underbelly of Paris.  


Two Years Later — An Addendum

I want to scream at this girl who valued electronic pulses over the pulsing of her heartbeat as she was striding city streets, who wallowed in pity, pain, and darkness when there was so much light around her. I want to scream at her for hiding behind “you” and empty commands because she couldn’t bear to face the change and loss that culminated in a hunger for something he would never be able to give her. I wish that I were not her and she were not me, but I am and she is and this is it. This is all I have of him and Paris and who I was when I felt like nothing. But Paris is still there, and I can be nothing again.

This piece originally appeared in the Spring 2017 Issue.

Breaking the Barrier

An Interview with USD’s Border Angels

by Ale Esquer

This Spring 2018, I found myself lost during the Alcalá Bazaar, USD’s annual showcase of on-campus clubs and organizations.  This mishap however, did lead to a surprisingly fortunate find: learning about the USD chapter of the national organization, Border Angels. I was fascinated by what I heard, even from the first few minutes of chatting with active members at their table. The group,  relatively new to USD, is a chapter of the larger organization, a non-profit established in 1986 by Enrique Morones, whose focal point is based on protecting migrants on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border. One of their current projects, for example, is an ongoing fundraiser for Haitian refugees in Tijuana. As for USD’s chapter, their main work has been based on collecting funds for two kinds of volunteer work: day laborer outreaches and water drops. The first is based on meeting with day laborers around San Diego to look into their wellbeing, supplying them with food and hygiene products, and keeping them informed on the legal resources that the organization can provide for them. The second, organized water drops, consist of volunteers going into the Southern Californian desert and placing water along migrant paths. These water drops are aimed at preventing the fate that many migrants face while attempting to cross into the United States: death by dehydration.

Since joining, I have realized that a surprisingly small amount of undergraduates know of the group’s existence, the same position I was in before that fateful Alcalá Bazaar. Due to this, and because of the importance of their work (especially pertinent in 2018’s political climate) I secured  an interview from some of the lead organizers in the group, to excavate some insight into the organization, as well as the nuanced relationship between USD, San Diego, and the border between the US and Mexico.

Hi! Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview! If you don’t mind, could we start with your names, your roles in Border Angels, and how long you’ve been involved with the group?

KM: My name is Kimberly Riveros, and I am currently a vice-president for [USD’s chapter of] Border Angels. I established Border Angels on campus last spring [2017].

WM: I’m Wendy Martinez. I’m a junior. I’m the current president. Like Kim, I joined last spring, when it first started.

MP: My name is Maria Parra, I’m a second year, and I’m the treasurer. I also joined when it started.

So, before we talk about anything else, could you tell me what Border Angels actually is?

WM: Well, Border Angels is just a way for us here in the USD community to be informed about what’s going on with these immigrants, with the things that they go through as they cross over into the United States. It’s also a way for us to be active in that community. I think the whole purpose of it is to try to get students to get a wholesome, raw experience while they’re out in the desert, while they’re interacting with these immigrants, making sure that they realize that there’s more to their story than what media portrays, or what they might think they know. I think it’s really just about bringing awareness to the USD community and opening ourselves up to these new experiences that, while they may be uncomfortable at times, do allow us to grow and really understand something that really isn’t talked about.

KM: We also strive to educate people. For anybody that has any questions about the organization, we’re always more than happy to explain what we are, that we are advocating for human rights and human lives. We don’t stand for any political group at all, we’re just for human rights and saving people. At the end of the day, that’s what it really is. With the desert water drops, for instance, we are hopefully preventing somebody from literally dying of dehydration.

I was going to ask how you first hear about the group, but given that two of you were the founders, I wanted to know how that idea actually came about?

KM: Well, I first heard of Border Angels my freshman year, so two and a half years ago. It was close to my community back home, so I started volunteering with them. Then I found out that the founder of Border Angels is actually a USD alumnus, and then I found out that other universities, like CSU San Marcos, had chapters. I was like, “Why don’t we have a chapter, if Enrique, [the founder of Border Angels] graduated here?” I remember that he told me that there was no Border Angels club at USD, that [he said] “You should start it,” so that’s what motivated me.


MP: I wasn’t part of the founding of this club, but I did join because of Elena and Kim. I met them my freshman year and when they started it I decided to join.

What has your experience with the organization actually been like? Has it been different from what you originally expected?

KM: It was different because I didn’t think it was going to be that hands-on. When I first started volunteering, I didn’t know what to expect, and my first volunteer experience with the organization, before it was even established at USD, was a water drop, and it was during the summer, so it was super hot, and it was super eye opening. I didn’t go with any of my friends, so I met a whole new group of people that had the same interests as me as far as immigration, and here, in the U.S., so, yeah, it was very eye opening.

WM: I went with Kim my first time, and I didn’t really know what to expect. I think it was scary; I was like a deer in headlights the whole time, because I didn’t know what to expect. I feel like that’s the thing with a lot of new members, they don’t know what to expect, and come out like “Oh, that wasn’t that bad.” After we got into it and warmed up, we were fine. It was just a matter of breaking that barrier, those first impressions, and being like, “this is what it’s all about, this is why I’m here, these are just regular people that weren’t born into the same circumstances that we were”, and realizing that privilege and why we were there to help. For me, it was very raw, very real, just empowering, honestly, to be more involved in the community, in what really isn’t so far from us here at USD.

MP:  I haven’t been to a water drop, but I’ve been to day laborer outreaches and I was really nervous going in. I didn’t know if we were intruding going in, if we were going to make them upset. I didn’t know what to expect, but getting to talk to them was really nice. Some of them were… I felt like they thought we were pitying them, and I felt bad for that, like we weren’t doing the right thing, but there were other people that were very grateful, and they were happy for the lunches, and even just for being able to talk to people. They’re there for a long time, just by themselves, so it was nice for them to see new faces and talk to new people. It was really nice, I really enjoyed it.

How would you describe USD’s relationship to the border and the organization?

KM: I know certain groups on campus do go down to the border and do some community work, but if we’re talking about the whole student body… a lot of people just don’t know about Border Angels. There are many times when we go into the meetings, and ask for a show of hands of how many people have heard of Border Angels, and usually, only a couple of people raise their hand, if that. We’re not really known that much, but I think we just need more time, since we are really new.

WM: I think that relationship with the student body here will get better the more well known we get. We are starting up, we are fairly small, our events are not really as well known as they should be… This [Fiesta Night] was our first big event and I feel like we’ve done really well for our first try. I think the student body, at least some of them, will be interested in the work that we do, it’s just a matter of getting them here and making sure that they are comfortable going to these events. Like Kim said, the University does have different opportunities for students to engage with the border, and I think it’s all just a great opportunity for them to, once again, make sure that they recognize the community that’s not too far from us and their different circumstances from where we are right now.

KM:  I feel like USD as a whole has done a good job in helping us establish ourselves. We just need to work on getting more connected with other organizations. Little by little, it’ll grow.

Lastly, for anyone who reads this, how could they best support Border Angels, and what would be the best way to reach you if they have any questions?

KM:  Come to our meetings! Learn about it. Like we mentioned before, like Wendy mentioned, at first it can be scary, but think about volunteering. It’s hands-on, so it is very nerve-wracking, but once you get there, when you’re surrounded by all of these people that share the same morals as you, and are, in a way, fighting for what you want as well, and for some kind of justice, it’ll really be worth it.

MP: I think it’s really nice for people to just come in to learn about it, because we are living in this USD bubble and, here, it’s a whole different atmosphere than just going down the street, so actually going down to interact with the day laborers, or going on the water drops… they are real eye-openers, and real learning experiences.

KM: The best way to support us would really be to reach out to us and come to our meetings. Our info is on Torero Orgs, so if they email us we’d be able to answer any questions anybody might have. As far as supporting us, just being open to those experiences and events that we have, not making assumptions of what it’s all about, really, just going into this with an open mind.

This piece originally appeared in the Spring 2018 Issue. Photography by Lauren Koumelis.