Kristen Iskandrian

August 4, 2017 
The following is from Kristen Iskandrian’s novel, Motherest. Motherest is a coming-of-age novel that captures the pain of fractured family life, the heat of new love, and the magic of the female friendship. Kristen Iskandrian's work has been published or is forthcoming in Tin House, Zyzzyva, Crazyhorse, EPOCH, and Ploughshares, among others. Her story "The Inheritors" was included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014 as a Juror Favorite.

It’s a long train ride from the middle of a New England nowhere to the middle of a New Jersey nowhere. It is longer still when the latter nowhere also happens to be your home. And when home is a word you can’t encounter without deep perplexity and dread. And when all you have is the landscape to look at and an Amelia Earhart biography.

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I have romantic ideas about trains like most people. It’s one of the places where I look at each person and wonder what it would be like to have sex with them. But you can only do that for so long. The rest of the time you’re just sitting there, counting down stops or hours, your mythic sense of freedom gradually being replaced by pins and needles and mild bathroom anxiety.

Eventually, I sleep. When I wake up, it’s dark. We are two stops from my town. I stand, stretch, pick the Amelia Earhart biography up from the floor where it had fallen. I take my bag and move to the front of the train, feeling the locomotion beneath my feet. Something is happening inside my body. My body is trying not to go home.

I decide to walk the roughly two miles from the train station to my house instead of calling my dad to pick me up. I pull my suitcase through the underpass tunnel, narrowly avoiding a few puddles of piss or water or both. There is new graffiti, none of it interesting. My old favorite, WE PINCH OURSELVES AWAKE UNTIL WE DIE, has been scribbled over with the cuneiform of coupling, initials and plus signs and hearts. Back on street level, I stand for a minute, facing the cheese shop and the hardware store.

It’s at least a couple hours before midnight but the town has that midnight feeling. It’s cold. I stop for a minute to wrap my scarf tighter and pull my hat down over my ears. I pass the Chinese take out place and the five and dime and the deli and the pharmacy and the movie theater. My suitcase has started to squeak, its little wheels unused to such a workout. I am willing it to keep going, to toughen up, and I am willing myself to do the same. How will it be when I walk in the door? No Simon. No mother except for in traces. My father, living off of traces.

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I pass the Laundromat—“Bachelor Service”—whose lights are still on. No one is inside, but I can see a washer in motion, possibly the loneliest image in the world.

The hill leading down to my street is steep, and my suitcase stops squeaking. It bangs against my boot heels all the way to the bottom. At the opening of the cul-de-sac, my cul-de-sac, I pause. A car passes, flashing its high beams as if to remind me that I’m standing there.

I am at the front door. There is the sound of no sound, which is different than the sound of silence. I look at our bent mailbox, my dear pine tree. I look at the lamppost in whose shadow I’d been tongued, groped. I find myself unable to choose between bell, knocker, my own knuckles.

I ring, I knock, I rap. My father comes to the door. His beard looks upset.

“Where have you been? How did you get here? Why didn’t you call? I would have picked you up. I was waiting.”

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We’re standing in the doorway and I know she isn’t here, isn’t

anywhere inside. I don’t answer my dad’s questions. I enter the house and he takes my suitcase and carries it upstairs. His pants are baggy and his shirt is tight. I walk into the kitchen, feeling so many things at once that they cancel each other out. I open the refrigerator without seeing what’s inside. My dad comes downstairs and we face each other across the butcher-block island, him in his ocean and me in mine.

“How was your trip? Are you hungry?”

Something, at least for a moment, clears in me. That sensation of a sudden and unexplainable happiness, a happiness-for-no-reason, a rescue. And in that clearing, the body with its simple pangs. Sore feet. Hunger, thirst.

“The trip was good. Yes, I’m a little hungry, actually.”

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My dad takes the loaf of bread from the refrigerator—a hallmark of our family, cold bread—and the butter dish and makes me the first snack I ever learned to make for myself—butter daubed across untoasted bread, inevitably torn in a couple places from the uncomfortable effort of spreading something too cold and hard to be spread. A simple, ravaged thing. He sprinkles a teaspoon of sugar across the top and puts it on a plate and slides it across the counter to me.

“Thanks, Dad.”

I finish and put my plate in the sink. My dad moves to immediately wash it.

“Do you want to watch some TV? Or we could play backgammon? Or are you tired?”

“No, I’m not too tired, I don’t think. But maybe I’ll just read and go to sleep.”

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My father looks relieved. “Tomorrow will be a good day. We can do whatever you want.”

“Good night, Dad.” I hug him, his beard against my ear. I wish it could talk.

I go upstairs. I stand at the closed door to Simon’s room. I put

my hands against the door. I push on the door and it creaks in place.

I put my forehead on the door. I put my mouth on the door. I put one cheek against the door, and then the other. I press my torso against the door. I lift my arms and hold them against the door. I don’t want to open the door; I want the door to absorb me. I can’t open the door. I can’t open the door.


Dear Mom,

I’m here. I’m here at home with Dad. I want you to be here when I wake up. It’s been almost five months since I was last here and this house has turned into a museum. If I ever thought I wanted to live in a museum, I know now that I don’t. Why did I ever leave? If I had stayed, would you have stayed?

I forgot pajamas so I’m wearing one of my old nightgowns. It’s too small, and it feels like I’m in a cocoon. It smells like you folded it.

It’s useless to sleep when you know tomorrow will be the same as today.

I want tomorrow to be different.



I wake up to a room filled with light. It’s so bright that I forget where I am. I can’t see anything. As my eyes adjust and the room comes into focus, I assemble a plan. I will take a shower. I will get dressed. I will ask my dad if he wants to go Christmas shopping. I will channel Surprise in order to know what to do. I’m sure she is going Christmas shopping today. Maybe in the evening she will see her old friends. Maybe she will drink hot chocolate with her sisters. I may not have many friends or any sisters, and I may not like hot chocolate, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be busy.

Our failure as a family is the result of planlessness. We have been adrift. We are slowly going under. Today I am taking it upon myself to build a dam. Today I will fuck with nature. Today I will revoke the irrevocable. I will not succumb to the sad house.

When I get downstairs, the clock says 10:09. There’s a note from my dad: Hi Agnes, I have to stop by the office and then run a few errands. Maybe I’ll see you later for lunch? Have a good dad.

Hava good day, [Love,] Dad, is what I can only assume he meant, but the error throws me off. It’s Saturday and he’s at work. My first day home and he has already run away. I write “OK” with a smiley face underneath, put on my coat, and head out for a walk, not sure where I’m going, my plan thwarted just like that.


Dear Mom,

Dad wants me to be home but can’t seem to be here while I’m here. We are the house of leaving. Leaving begets leaving. I took a two-hour walk just to not be home.

And if he knows where you are, he doesn’t want me to know. But I think he doesn’t actually know where you are. He told me you left shortly after you both dropped me off at school, that you didn’t even unpack your bag—just added more stuff to it.

Yet every time I picture you, I can only picture you here, among things familiar to me. Maybe you’re at that house where Aunt Ingrid died, the house she bought to die in when the cancer was so bad her signature on the deed was a line and an X, the place she kept secret from nearly everyone but you. Maybe you’re there, thinking about Simon every day, and your sister, and you just won’t be ready to think about me and Dad for another few years. Maybe you won’t be ready to think about us ever again. Sometimes things change and can never change back. “Changing back”—what does that even mean? Nothing changes “back.” Things only change.

I saw my first sex act at Aunt Ingrid’s house, the other house, the main one. When we visited that year, just you and me, remember, and I got sick on Ethiopian takeout? She said, “Well, if she doesn’t like Ethiopian food, she’s as dull as I suspected.” She was teasing, but not really. She hated kids. When she was at work and you were resting in our room, that terrifying guest room, I snooped. I found the Kama Sutra in Ingrid’s bedroom, not concealed, just out on a low bookshelf. I paged through the whole thing, touched myself quickly, and put it back exactly as I’d found it. I remember thinking, if she actually knew me, she wouldn’t think I was dull. I wanted her to like me so badly. You, your sister—there must be something in the bloodline that makes people forever seek your approval.

When I came home from wandering around town today, Dad was making sandwiches. A lot of them. I asked if he was expecting anyone and he gave me a funny look. I ate two sandwiches to make him feel better or something and then I got a stomachache and went to my room to lie down. Always too mayonnaisey, Dad’s sandwiches.

Since we’re being honest, I’ll say that I never bedded a boy in my own bed. Times when you and Dad were out and Simon was getting drunk with a girlfriend in the basement, I’d tell one to come over. I’d break the “no boys on the second floor” rule and we’d sit on the floor in my room and listen to CDs and mix tapes and then make out, also on the floor. But something about a nervous, leaky, spurting boy in the sheets that you washed every week seemed wrong, that much I knew.

Now, though, I don’t know. I don’t know when these sheets were washed last. They smell like nothing.

I haven’t gone in your room or Simon’s room yet. I feel no rush. Now that I’m here, I can’t imagine going back to school. Now that I’m here and you’re not here, I do actually feel like I can do and not do whatever I want. And as someone who’s sort of fond of consequences and punishment, you should know it’s pretty torturous. Also tortuous, a word I just learned that means “winding” or “twisted.”

Tortuously, Agnes




From Motherest.  Used with permission of Twelve. Copyright © 2017 by Kristen Iskandrian.

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