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Poetry Burns Like Hunger

Artwork by Kate Ma, staff artist

The House on Denison Road has stood stock-still since 1955, bearing its rooms and opening its windows to dozens of residents. Each person left the house within a year; the sublime aura of the suburbs infected their heads, woozying their eyes to see nothing but shrubbery and shining neighborly smiles. Each person moved to the bright little suburb, charmed by the white slates of the House on Denison Road, its deep navy shutters and intricate maze of hedges luring the fresh-eyed men and women within its doors. Eventually, most snapped out of the trance, scrapped up their measly belongings, and ran for the highway, refusing to stop. They scattered with each sprinkling December snowfall; to Boston, to Chicago, to Ottawa, to Anchorage.

In August of 1999, a sunburnt couple puttered across the highway from Sacramento to the opportunistic Ohio suburb of Marilyn Heights. Bushels of old clothing, Sanja’s books, her husband’s tools, a silver-swirled watercolor kit, typewriter, and various knickknacks were shoved inside their orange 1990 Fiat, obscuring the windows. Sanja’s husband darted his eyes to the rearview mirror the whole drive from Sacramento to Marilyn Heights, inching across America like a caterpillar. Unaware of her husband’s inability to see any cars behind them, Sanja kicked her feet onto the dashboard and began to scribble a poem in her notebook.

“It has the best houses and a few garages for hire,” she said to her husband when they stopped in Iowa for ice cream.

She smiled reassuringly at her soft husband, who was silently reluctant at the thought of Ohio. Sanja’s mother, with her tight bun and thick Serbian accent, insisted that the couple uproot their life and migrate East to live near her after her husband’s death. The young couple sat on a picnic bench near the highway, watching cars rush by as the sun blazed down on their necks. Sanja’s husband licked his melting cone, eyes glazed, feeling like a wounded sparrow, wobbling toward nowhere.

Sanja quickly landed a teaching gig at the local Marilyn Middle School, five minutes from their little white House on Denison Road. She didn’t mind teaching arithmetic to middle schoolers; they were more inquisitive than high schoolers and less annoying than elementary schoolers. The school was red brick Georgian-style, sprawling lawn littered with Bradford pear trees and students lounging after class. A burnt-popcorn smell consistently wafted into the classrooms from the broken library wires, prompting teachers to complain every few months. Despite being fixed numerous times, the wires had a penchant for whittling and fraying.

“I knew a teaching degree would come in handy. I’m so glad you didn’t fill your head with a nonsense English degree,” her mother reminded Sanja during their evening phone calls.

Sanja, hours after hanging up, would sit on their backyard patio, tears forming as she wondered what could have been had she done something Romantic with herself. Would she be in Marilyn Heights, well-fed, sunnied, and jubilantly living in the white-slated House on Denison Road with her meek, doting, puppy-eyed husband? Or would she, at 27, recline in a smokey apartment, giggling at a boyfriend’s smart joke as she scribbled a poem? Sanja looked back at the house, and it seemed to split apart at the seam.

Sanja’s husband stared out the back-facing window at his reclining wife. Fixing cars at the local body shop, he was settling into life at their glowing white House. He enjoyed his little routine with Sanja: Kissing her good morning and walking downstairs, scraping espresso from the can and filling up two red espresso makers. In the waning summer months, the leaves would trail down, and he would pretend they were celebrating him, dancing for him, as if some deity had sent a theatrical storm for his entertainment. The espresso makers howled as Sanja stumbled downstairs, usually running late and donning a white collared dress. She smiled sleepily at him while pouring her milk, all long limbs and hooded eyes and dark hair. On weekends, they drank coffee in their underwear, skin prickling and shivering slightly but still testing their youth after all five years of marriage. The minutes bled into hours, lulling the couple into a lazy dream as they sat on their broken futon in the uninsulated, chilled mudroom.

Sanja’s husband sometimes missed Sacramento; he spent his childhood living on the country’s crust, but Sanja’s mother insisted they move closer to her. Sometimes after work, he went for a beer with a coworker while Sanja stayed home and scribbled poignant lines under the maple in their canopied backyard. She sometimes thought about their meeting on the first sub-60 day in Sacramento. November 1993. How the rain rattled the Sacramento City College coffeeshop roof, how Sanja worried about her impending calculus exam. The lull that Thursday afternoon, how the cute guy with the black hair and grease marks stumbled in, soaking wet, water pooling and dirt tracking the clean tile floors. How she scrawled her name and number onto his coffee cup, how he promised to call her when he got off work. How he grinned and walked out into the thunderstorm, lightning winking through the sky.

Sanja and her husband continued this suburban routine. Morning kiss. Coffee. Work. For Sanja, the day started with an advanced arithmetic class for her eighth-graders. Maybe some yelling, some rapping of knuckles, some staring at the clock. After class one day, she heard a group of kids gossiping about her.

“I wonder what a bitch like that does for fun.”

Sanja went to the ladies’ room during her lunch break and sobbed on the toilet; she never expected herself to turn into a bitter math teacher who pinched and criticized like her mother. Sanja considered herself a Romantic; a poet, her child-like observance permeating the itchy blanket of routine. She loved poking her toes through grass, noticing the moisture and mushy dirt and dull late-summer green. Her mind wandered to her high school friends, all artistically-inclined and all whisked away to elite art institutions. One ran a gallery in Manhattan while another shuttled short stories to The New Yorker on a bimonthly basis. Every time Sanja received a letter from one of her old friends, her heart lurched with shameful jealousy. She ached to feel happiness for them; they were successful in their fields, and it was her own fault she didn’t pursue writing. Maybe this town is hardening me. During beginner algebra that afternoon, she dreamed of her typewriter. She thought of her husband’s adaptability, how he didn’t have a problem with his life in Marilyn Heights, and a flash of guilty contempt burned in her stomach.

Sanja’s husband returned home from work that evening, greasy and sticky, to his wife lying cradled on the sofa. A mug of steaming peppermint tea sat on the floor below her. He walked over to her gently, kneeling at her side, concerned at her sharp demeanor hastening to amorphous vulnerability.

“Everything okay, Sanja?” he asked.

She shook her head stiffly, her mouth contorted into a frown.

“Am I a bitch?”

Her husband chuckled and stroked a lock of her hair.

“No, honey. You’re a ray of sunshine. Who said you were a bitch?”

Sanja hugged herself.

“Don’t laugh. I was just wondering,” she paused. “Am I a Romantic?”

“Yes, you’re very romantic. Remember when you cooked that French dinner for my 29th birthday?”

Sanja rolled her eyes and reached toward her husband’s hand.

“Am I a Romantic? Capital R?”

Her husband peered into his wife’s wide eyes, remembering how she squinted into the sun that day in Iowa, the one with the picnic benches and the ice cream. Sanja took note of his hesitation.

“If I’m not a Romantic, then what am I?”

Sanja’s husband wondered where this newfound curiosity had come from, or if it had always been there, hidden under the surface, bubbling up in the walls of the white slatted house.

“Sanja, I think you’re a capital R-Romantic, but you’re so much more. You’re kind, smart, beautiful...”

Her husband went on, but Sanja didn’t care about his pretty words. She sprung up from the couch and ran to the mudroom, the late filters of sun moseying their way through the crack in the window. Sanja grabbed her typewriter, not caring that her husband sat on the floor in the living room, alone.

For weeks she clattered away, fingers clicking across the board, churning out poems every hour and sticking them in a large binder she kept in her work bag. At her job, words flew through her mind, and she had to pause the lessons to jot down ideas for a story or poem. Sometimes she sent her work out to magazines, usually receiving a kind but firm rejection letter, occasionally with an encouraging message from the editor, praising her work and urging her to submit again. Sanja, thinking of her New Yorker friend’s advice, tacked each rejection letter onto the north-facing mudroom wall. Rejection was part of writing, unfortunately, and the ever-growing span of letters just meant she was immersing herself in the process. Sanja’s husband looked into the mudroom, at the Wall of Rejection, growing colder with each passing autumn day. He saw his wife, who, upon arriving back from class, plopped down at the futon, swaddled herself in blankets, and typed deep into the dreary nights.

The day the typewriter died was just like any other. Sanja rose with the winking sun, yawning as it flickered through her window. Her husband was downstairs, making coffee and listening to the early-morning comedy radio hour. She went downstairs and nodded sleepily, the espresso already bubbling in her glass mug, and drank slowly at the kitchen table.

The fourth-period bell rang just as the first flame popped in the library. Sanja’s classroom was one floor above the burgeoning fire, sitting atop like a distorted god. This was one of two free periods she had, and she often ate a cold sandwich with one hand while mindlessly typing at her desk with the other. She sipped lukewarm tea, workbag of poetry slung under the desk, while the flame below her popped and crackled. The first student saw the blaze and screamed, muffled by Sanja’s daydream and the thick Georgian floors. Sanja shuffled her feet and felt the familiar burnt popcorn smell waft through her nose.

Another pop, another scream from the floor below as the books, dry and brittle as tinderboxes, caught fire and smoldered. Thousands of words from thousands of people met the floundering heat of the electrical fire. Every student in the library noticed by then and thundered out of the school doors as the fire alarm blared. Sanja snapped her head up at the piercing sound and saw the line of students running out the building through the window. She shot up from her desk and ran to the door, feeling its handle. It burned, hot and wretched, and she saw the fire sputter outside her door—this damned school. The fire ate its way through the wooden panels that lined the school, eating like the cactuses soaked up the rare desert rain, laughing and dancing at the students who ran. A fleet of fire trucks wailed past the auto body shop where Sanja’s husband was investigating a faulty Ford’s motor.

“Man, I wonder what happened,” he said to the customer, who nodded absentmindedly.

Sanja stared out the window panes in the door at the second-floor hallway, engulfed in flames and burning, whittling. She didn’t have a class to account for, so she assumed no one noticed she was missing. Her stomach burned as she touched the doorknob again, its heat searing her skin as the first flame butted into her classroom. Sanja gasped in the silent room as the fire began to eat through the wooden walls.

She glanced around the room, vision warped as she saw the sun, ever-present and welcoming, flit through the glass. Sanja darted to the windows and weighed her options as the smoke drifted into her nose, thick and heavy and dead. She coughed from the pain in her lungs and saw the typewriter sitting placidly on her desk. My poems. Reaching toward her desk and grabbing the typewriter, translator of her thoughts and bringer of happiness and Romance and the smokey apartment, she threw it. The typewriter soared out of Sanja’s hands and through the window pane.

She watched her typewriter fall to the ground and shatter among the window glass, and grabbed her bag of poetry, slinging it over her shoulder as the fire nipped her ankles. Sanja gulped at the two-story fall, her hands shaking as the children wailed with the fire trucks. The children saw her step through the window as orange blazes engulfed the arithmetic classroom. Sanja clutched the bag of poetry as she fell into the clean air and past the smoke and past the words which burned just as fast as every human on Earth would live their lives. It looked like a canopy, she thought, as she lay on the grass which was wet and full of morning dew.


Julie A. Larick is a student and writer living in Cleveland. She is an English major and Spanish minor at The College of Wooster. Julie is an intern at GASHER Journal and edits for The Goliard. Her work is published or forthcoming in Kalopsia Literary Journal, Ogma Magazine, Lanke Review, Violet and the Bird, and others. She loves to teach writing, sew stuffed animals, and sketch portraits. Her website is

Kate Ma is a high school senior from North Carolina who is passionate about music and art. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, playing clarinet and piano, as well as singing (very poorly). She also loves to read and write her own stories, and she had a very severe Wattpad phase during which she published multiple stories that she has now taken down out of embarrassment.

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