Prompts Inspired by Photographs in Magazines

Photo by Inga Seliverstova on

The room is dark and immediately hot. My neck starts to itch and sweat trickles through the baby hairs at my temples. The man on the couch is freezing, though. His blanket looks new, but it’s blue with yellow sunflowers: a donation. The couch is rubbed bare at the corners and every time he moves, the springs inside shriek. The smell is so thick and multilayered it’s become a third entity in this room. The peppery spice of incense lingers like a last kiss upon the cheek of something much more solid – a smear of heavy grease left over from last night’s fried duck. Powdery dust coats every surface and the musk of old paper rests easy in a cracking leather chair. Lurking at the bottom of the room, swirling above the carpets, is the funk of human crevices – the folds in our necks, armpits, and groins where identifying odors accumulate. There’s something cold and metallic moving through the air, too. I can taste it at the back of my tongue and I almost gag: money, maybe, or blood. The entire cloud is tinged with the acid of stale urine which burns the lining of my nostrils. My throat closes up and I have to force it open with several gulps of dry spit.
The man on the couch shivers and draws the blanket higher.

Oh! Send me off to war!
Off to foreign shores!
Hey! Hey! I give my life for you.
I held my head up high,
Told Mother not to cry.
Hey! Hey! I’ll be back again someday.
Let them say that I was brave,
That I was not afraid.
Hey! Hey! Why me and not you?

Of course she’s an eye doctor! A fucking ALIEN eye doctor! A fucking alien eye doctor who wants to EAT your eyeballs! Puncture them with one of her talons, pop them out of your socket and then slurp them up, your optic nerves twitching spasmodically like spaghetti noodles as she sucks them down her throat!
I’m onto you, Alison Tendler. Next time, get a better disguise. You’ve put your own eyeballs in upside down.

Let us return to this age. Hear the muffled laughter from the girls as you pass and feel the warmth blossom across your face as though you were standing too close to a fire. Hear the squeak and bang of locker doors, smell the 7th grade science lab (it’s Dissection Week), pass the bathrooms with no doors and go inside and shut yourself in a stall for two minutes. American History is only three doors down but you can’t be the first person there. Look up and through the gap in the door frame, make eye contact with the girl reapplying her lipstick in the mirror. Go to class now and sit in front of her. When school is over, pack your swimsuit and climb in the back of your parents’ Subaru. Drive up to your grandpa’s lake house. Your mom convinces you the water’s warm enough, or at least it will be after you swim around a while. “Let me take your picture first,” she says, “for my scrapbook.” She snaps the picture with her phone, then tilts the screen toward your grandpa. His eyes travel from you, to the phone, and back to you. “You’re getting big,” he says. You wonder if he means older or fatter.

Anyone who gets this excited over decorative toilet paper rolls has
ceased to be necessary.

How do you know this man is a serial killer? What is it exactly that gave it away?
Is it because these eyes were photographed in black and white?
Is it because I raggedly cut them out of the magazine?
Is it because I left out the rest of the face?
Or do you recognize these eyes, in some deep, dark part of your mind where half-formed memories lie in a hot, dark closet with a pad-locked door?
How do you know?

It’s the way he smokes his cigarette. It’s the way he holds it between his last knuckles, the two fingers making a “V,” instead of the usual hook. His last two fingers gracefully fall to the side, as though temporarily forgotten. His fingers are long and thin, calloused on the tips from holding down chords. There are rough patches on his palms, scratchy pads of thick skin built up over the years as he pulled himself over fences, swung baseball bats through hemispheres, and hoisted himself onto bridles. Half his face is covered by four-day old grizzle. By tomorrow it will be soft, but today it is still the right amount of scratchiness.

Fuck you, Bitch.

Sitting there, smiling like we’re still friends, like you didn’t try and kiss my husband.

I’m going to burn your fucking house down.

My downstairs neighbors are two young lesbians who wear a lot of eyeliner and make their own clothes. Somehow today they’ve convinced me to join them at this cool outdoor café that I pass every day on the way to the Metro, but never thought I should go to. Every day I see the waiters setting the tables on their patio. One in particular makes my heart flutter and my stomach cramp like I’m 16 again. I only want to observe from afar, I do not want to actually go to this place or talk to any of those people, but Kaila and Leigh convince me that the food is too exquisite to pass up, especially since it’s so close, so I let them walk me down there and before I know it he’s there, asking if he can bring me a mimosa. I spent an hour applying makeup this morning and I actually went and bought an outfit yesterday just for this occasion. When I was younger, I had a beautiful profile and perfectly smooth, round cleavage and I couldn’t go anywhere without a man hitting on me.
But this morning, he merely fills my water glass and waits for my reply. He does not smile at me and his impatient eyes flicker around the patio to his other tables. He’s so handsome my jaws ache and my mouth fills will warm saliva and I’m not sure I can answer. I want to take you home and ravish you, I think. I imagine what his hips would look like, arched into a bridge over my bed; what my fingers would look like splayed across his chest. I hope to god I’m not leaving a wet spot in this chair.
“…or perhaps a Bloody Mary?” he asks, with a tiny sigh at the end to let me know I’m taking too long to answer.
“Yes, thank you,” I reply, and I hand him my menu, careful to not look him in the eye.

It wasn’t exactly fair. The train came only once in everyone’s life, but some were either so young that they still depended on their parents to bring them to the station (and not everyone’s did), or they were so old that by the time the train arrived, they no longer had the energy or desire to board. Nevertheless, the train had arrived and those who had purchased their tickets (the price was the same for everyone, so it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor), boarded and found their seats. There were no “Good-byes,” as no one came to the station unless they intended to board. No one brought any luggage either (unless they were traveling with babies, in which case, bottles and burp cloths were permitted.) Once everyone was settled in, the train whistle shrieked its departure, then slowly began to back up, rumbling as it returned into the darkness of the tunnel. Once it had been wholly swallowed up, the shrieking and rumbling snapped off and it was as though the train had never been there at all.

Her first night in her apartment. Freedom that feels like 18 birds beating their wings against the cage of her ribs. She wants to let them out, but she doesn’t know how. She lights a cigarette and smokes it indoors for the first time ever. After three drags, she stubs it out on the kitchen counter and leaves it there. She turns around, looks at the beer boxes that hold her Judy Blume books. The trash bags that bulge with sweaters and scarves. She takes off her clothes. Pulls her socks off with her toes, flings them over the bar into the living room. Opens the pantry, grabs the box of Froot Loops. Cocoa Puffs. Cap’n Crunch. She’s cold and wondering which bag holds her robe. She doesn’t want to get dressed just yet. She hugs the cereals to her chest (vibrant boxes of treasure she can’t wait to open, having grown up in a house of oatmeal), grabs a bowl and a spoon, and heads for the bathroom. The floor is cold and she regrets the waste as she waits with her fingers under the faucet, the cold water flowing straight down the drain, but finally the hot water arrives, the last guest to the party, and she slips down into her private pool.

When she arrived on set that morning, they painted her nails and slid a wedding ring and band on her finger. “We’re going for Cool Mom,” they said. They gave her a cardigan and an orange tank top the same color as the product she was selling. Then they wrapped a decorative scarf around her neck so many times she briefly wondered if this was all a ploy to strangle her. They stood her in front of a green screen and told her to smile. She mustered up every positive memory of washing laundry she could think of and did her best to look like she loved her life.

He comes to visit her every night. She used to wake up occasionally, but lately she’s been sleeping right through his visits. He stands over her and watches as she reaches out to the place he used to lie, and when she finds nothing but air, her arms curl back again and she holds herself, instead. Sometimes her lips part and she whispers his name.
“Come back to me,” she says.
Tonight he comes for the last time. With one sweep of his hand, he erases the spots from her arms and smooths the wrinkles in her cheeks. He runs his fingers through her hair and color blossoms again like flowers in spring. She opens her eyes and they sparkle in the moonlight. “Have you come to take me with you this time?” she says.
He smiles and nods and gives her his hand, and together they leave the room.

The spinal cord of America. See the impulses travel up and down. Whoosh. See the stimulus. Whoosh. And the effects. Whoosh. Into the distance they go. Whoosh. With no defined distance to give an end to their journeys, the little electrical signals drive further and further away.

Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh!

Who ARE these people? The BUBNICKS? Cheryl, Kenneth, their daughter Sidney, and their dog Willard. Cheryl’s had the same hairstyle since she graduated high school in 1992 (before that, she wore it slightly longer and a lot more teased.) Kenneth has one of those jobs of which no one ever says, “I’d like to be THAT when I grow up.” Assistant Account Manager or something. He’s hoping that his Christmas bonus will be enough to pay off the minivan. They’re genuinely excited to see Cheryl’s sister, Patricia, during the holidays this year. Patty just got back from a trip to CVS, where she noticed Revlon nail polish was on sale – buy one, get one free. She chose two of the same color – Baby Girl Pink. (She’s secretly hoping her daughter-in-law’s baby will be a girl!) She keeps meaning to take her cable-knit sweater to the dry-cleaners, but it’s just so comfortable, she can’t bear to drop it off, even if it’s only for 2 days. When Patty is finished reading her sister’s Christmas card, she lays it down on the kitchen island and absent-mindedly spins the gold band around her ring finger. She wonders if her husband will come home tonight.

Enrique realized he was holding his breath. He let it out and then immediately forgot to take another. How long had it been since he’d hung up? Had he really continued to drive down the street? How long had he been waiting at this red light? The sharp blast of a horn from behind gave him a jolt and in his rearview mirror he saw a black SUV angrily swerve around him. Enrique looked up just in time to see the yellow light switch back to red. Oh. When the light changed back to green, Enrique rolled through, then pulled into the parking lot of a carniceria loa. He stopped at the first parking space he came to, and turned off the engine. A white van pulled in next to him. The door opened and a very pregnant young woman in a short, flowered dress slid out. She smiled awkwardly at him, and squeezed between their two cars to the back of the minivan, where she was joined by her husband, who wrapped his arm around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. Enrique closed his eyes and allowed himself to take a deep breath. La vida continua.

The marketing team behind this advertisement was 100% male.
A middle-aged, obese woman with coffee breath yanked Libby’s hair into ponytails, then smeared the shaving cream on her legs, despite Libby’s offer to do it herself.
When Libby noticed her towel had slipped down on her walk from the dressing room to the set, she quickly pulled it back up to her armpits, then looked around to see if anyone had noticed.
“Hm, that doesn’t look natural,” the director said. “How ‘bout we bring that down a notch?”
Libby still models every once in a while. She pretended to have dandruff for an infomercial last year, and she just got a call back for NYDJ. She hopes she gets the job.

You’ve worked hard to get where you are today. You knew that there was nothing else to learn from your hometown, where your senior year English teacher was also your mom’s hairdresser, so you moved west. You studied like you had never studied before, and you learned a lot that first year. How to make it look like you’re eating. How to stand with half your body turned away, so that the other person always feels like you’re not really interested. How to judge if someone is worth your time. How to keep your hair always looking fresh, but not I’m-at-the-beauty-salon-every-other-week-fresh. How to distance yourself from a friend if it turns out all her other friends are nobodies. How to apply eye makeup if you’re going to be wearing sunglasses all day. How to limit your facial expressions to vacant stares and sexy gapes.

Now you just wonder if you’re passing…or failing…or if the final exam has already occurred and you missed it entirely.

She knew she looked ludicrous, wearing a skirt and heels. But there had been no warning this time, no siren. How could she have known?
She stumbled over a chunk of concrete, painted pink on one side. “Come on,” Malcolm said and took her hand. “We’re almost there.” She let him steer her through the rubble. He warned her to close her eyes twice. The second time, as they passed, she heard a soft whimpering. “Malcom?” she whispered. “Don’t look,” he said. She didn’t.

Where did it go? That part of her body they removed? After they cut it off, plopped it on a tray, slid it into a plastic Ziploc bag, carried it into the elevator and down to the first floor, placed it in the refrigerator, let it rest overnight, removed it in the morning, sliced a gruesome confetti of ribbons and squares from the four monsters growing inside, what happened to it then?
When she was 11 years old, she had stood before the mirror, mouth frozen in a cartoonish “O,” wondering how long her body had been changing without her knowledge. Thirty-seven years later, she stood in front of a different mirror, wondering the same thing.

His office was the three windows directly above the “Poor” part of the sign for the Standard & Poor building. Second floor, close to the vending machines and bathrooms, not too shabby. He had started as an intern directly out of college and worked his way up to middle-management. He wasn’t exactly an editor or an advisor of any sort. His job was to manage those types. To answer emails, schedule team meetings, and, above all, be available on his Blackberry 24 hours a day. That sort of thing. And it suited him, it really did. He took great pride in his tie collection and rather enjoyed the rush of cold air that ruffled his hair every morning as he entered the lobby. He enjoyed making small talk around the office coffee pot and the clickety click of his manicured nails as they flew across the keyboard. He had been in his new office for about three weeks when one day, while he was taking a stretch in front of his wall of windows, he noticed something odd about the traffic light outside. He cocked his head to one side and stood very still, even holding his breath, as he waited for the odd thing to happen again. His coffee grew cold and his emails piled up, but he was scared he would miss it if he even so much as blinked. And then, just as he had almost convinced himself that perhaps he hadn’t seen it after all, it happened again. Fingers trembling and lip quivering, he removed his cell phone from the pocket of his trousers and dialed his wife. When she answered on the third ring, he found his tongue had completely dried up and he had to swallow several times before enough liquid filled his mouth so he could speak again. “Hello. I…I just wanted to let you know that I love you,” he said.

Cigarette butts sprout like weeds in the grit, blown by passing tires into pavement cracks. Paper straw wrappers, cellophane, part of a tissue, and a losing lottery ticket clog the drains. The sun cooks puddles of oil and grease. The Subway employees hate their job so much that they won’t even bother to quit. Stubborn grass refuses to die, though everyone wishes it would. A whole street of minimum wage and crumbling dreams. The only wildlife is fire ants, and someone will poison them next week. It’s too hot to get out of the car, so I let it idle, and here, in this part of the suburbs, it feels good to contribute to the destruction.

Goddamnit, Frances.
You make me want to puke all over your poetry.

10. The meeting was set to start at noon. 9. A casual business lunch to discuss bonuses, lay-offs, QED reports, expansions, acquisitions, etc. 8. They had chosen to hold the meeting on the deck of the hotel down the street. 7. Their oysters were worth the inconvenience of tourists. 6. Did they realize yet that he was running late? 5. Uh-oh; they should have picked a bigger table. 4. Well, no matter. 3. It’s not like they’d be still be there when their food was ready. 2. He had done the research. 1. A leap from the tenth-floor balcony was fail-proof.

Where are we going?
I don’t know.
Will Mama be there?
I don’t know.
I’m hungry.
I don’t have any food.
I know.

She remembered the way her heart throbbed, the way the adrenaline flooded her veins, the blood rushing faster and faster, the way her legs twitched as she stared out the back-seat window, the final turn and the way the station wagon felt as it slowed down as her mother searched for a parking space, the way she could hear the music (NKOTB or Salt-n-Pepa or maybe C&C Music Factory) as soon as she opened the car door, urging her mother to move faster, faster, the weight of her skates, laces tied together and flung over her shoulder, toe stops clicking together as she jogged to the door, her mother telling her to go ahead and get in line (knowing better than to tell her to slow down), and then she was IN and the DJ had both the black lights AND the disco ball on and blonde girls with green hair and teeth skated backwards and cute boys draped their long arms over the wall and watched them go by and sometimes they’d pretend to grab one of the blonde girls, and she wished she had blonde hair so that it would glow, too, and maybe grab some boy’s attention, but she’d made peace with her brown curls a long time ago and as she idled at the red light and looked out the window to her right, she could still smell the popcorn and pepperoni pizza, could still feel the splinters from the wooden single-serve ice cream spoon in her tongue.

Not so long ago, he had been a real man.
He had sat patiently in his sister-in-law’s chair as she separated his hair into dozens of sections, rubbed them with wax and twisted them into dreadlocks. He had talked football with his brother and he remembered exactly what he looked like in the mirror when his brother had made him laugh – a black towel across his shoulders, a Philadelphia Eagles jersey peeking out underneath, the mole on his left cheek jumping up and down as he laughed. His goatee was in need of a trim and his nostrils had ballooned into perfect circles as they sucked in a larger supply of air. Then he caught sight of the black space where his two teeth had been and he grew self-conscious and his laughter faded away. His brother offered him another beer. “It’s looking good, man,” he had said.
Yes, there had been days when he lived as a real man.

A room from tales of fairy kind
A room which you must hunt to find
A room that keeps to secret streets
A room whose brilliant glow entreats
A room with doors that open wide
To show you all the gold inside
But careful, friend, for once you’re in
You’ll never leave the room again

Heather and Dave. Dave and Heather. My roommate invited them to this party.
Fucking Heather. Fucking Dave.
They’ve been together for 7 months. She’ll tell you she likes ice cream like she’s a goddamned rebel or something. He has a really stupid haircut but because he’s such a nice guy, no one’s going to make fun of him for it. Everyone genuinely likes them, but all they are is rice – fine as a side dish, but who actually gets excited about rice? Why are they here? Oh, and of course they’re drinking that beer. Ugh. What’s on her playlist right now? $5 it’s Taylor Swift. In fact, I’ll pay you a fucking $100 if Taylor Swift is NOT on her phone. Oh, look, they’re taking another selfie. Of course they’re taking another selfie. Wait, you’re friends with her on Facebook? What do you mean it’s already got 62 likes? What they fuck is wrong with all you people? It’s FUCKING Heather and FUCKING Dave. He drives a HONDA! They named their dog BUDDY, for Chrissake! Do I even know any of you people?? She doesn’t even wear mascara, do you people realize that? Every time I see him, he’s wearing a striped polo! Pay attention, people! They’re practically the same height! His favorite restaurant is Buffalo Wild Wings! She’s wearing quarter-inch heels! NAVY BLUE quarter-inch heels!
Yeah, ok. Ok. Ok. Yeah, water does sound great.
Thanks, Heather.

What life once wound its way through the doors and windows like ivy? What blue skies clashed against red bricks, and red bricks against gray pavement, to form color-blocks of vibrant stripes in this city? This building had purpose. It had goals. It was a living, pulsing cell teeming with accomplishments and pride.
The windows were not for them to see out.
They were for you to see in.
Paper testaments to their quest for knowledge still blow down the halls. If you chase one and are lucky enough to catch it, uncrumple it and lay it flat. Read the strange markings. Do you know how to read? I’m sorry. Here, I’ll tell you what they say:
We tried. Forgive us. We tried!

Second floor, East Wing, Harriman Hall.
Named for the astronomer and physicist, E. Edward Harriman.
This is the boy’s favorite part of the whole museum.
This is where the spaceship is kept.
This is where you see all the freeze-dried foods. (You can buy some in the gift-shop.)
This is where the giant map of the stars is.
And this is where they keep the man in the suit.
At least once a month, the boy comes to visit the man in the suit. Why does he wear it? Why doesn’t he ever take it off?
Sometimes the man in the suit begs the boy to let him out of the little glass room. But the boy knows he can’t.
No one knows where he came from or why he’s here. He might be dangerous.
So the boy smiles and waves. And the man in the suit waves back. But the boy can never tell if he is smiling, too. He likes to think that he is.

In the movies, the final meteor was always seen as the catalyst that brought us to world-wide panic, betrayal, and chaos. Millions died from terror alone in the days before it struck. Rampaging and looting destroyed more cities than the rock would. We turned against each other, locking our doors and leaving each other to die.
But that’s actually not what happened, at all.
Once we understood that we had no options at all, a great calm spread over the planet, across the seas and continents. After millions of years of evolution, after all that we’d achieved as a species, we were the lucky few who were going to be there to witness the final moments of the Great Human Race.
It was beautiful.

“Just beyond,” the man muttered, nodding towards the bicycle. His face was the color of old ashes and his hand trembled as he lit a cigarette. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “You won’t miss her.”
The young detective snapped the latex gloves around his wrist, took a deep breath, and stepped into the field.

She watched him over the rim of her coffee mug, the last of the set they had bought a year ago to match their dishes (he had broken the other three), and let all the feelings of hatred, loathing, and resentment fill her up from her fingertips to her toes. Those feelings were her bones now, her muscles, her tendons, her organs, the rushing blood that proved she was alive. She had admitted to herself last night while he gently snored beside her that, yes, she was a little scared about what
would happen once he was gone. Would she cease to exist, as well? Would her body waste away without those feelings to sustain it? She sipped her coffee and decided she didn’t care one way or the other. She would find out tonight.

Who are YOU, Sassafras?
With your red lipstick and your hair all done and your brand-new gardening gloves that didn’t come from no Lowe’s hardware store?
Who are YOU, Miss Thaaang?
With your bedknob shoulders and your punishing elbows, your teeny tiny waist and your virginal flower-print dress?
Who are YOU, you daughter of African queens, with your head held high and your gaze rolling down your cheeks and dripping off your chin, heavy and thick as porridge? You tell me now, and you tell me proud:
Who. Are. YOU?

As a child, he would spend hours defending his village from imaginary mountain monsters, or gathering branches to build dams across the river. The other children from his village would gather to help create these river-fed swimming pools and at the end of the day they would break down the dams and watch their day’s toil float off downstream. But today he squats on the rocks above the river, scanning the mountainside for those same children who have all grown up alongside him. When he sees one, he will light a cigarette. The sniper across the river watches him, waiting for the signal.

Imagine what you could be doing right now…
…if you weren’t praying.
Playing with your children…chasing them through fields of tall grass…crouching silently, waiting as they drew closer…closer…
Smiling at your wife…the setting sun illuminating her from behind…a silhouette of long hair, curved hips, a graceful beckoning…
Slipping a wedge of mango from the blade of your pocket knife into your mouth…sweet juices dribbling over your tongue…
Imagine all the time you would have…
…and all the things you could be doing…
…if you weren’t at war right now.

I know why you sit that way. I know what it feels like when all your fat gushes out from the back of your thighs and forms popcorn-shaped dimples. I know what it feels like to forget to adjust your thigh fat before you sit down, “tucking” it under and in, so that it gushes between your legs, instead of to the sides where everyone can see. I see you pull your jeans up and over your belly roll as you sit down. We don’t catch ourselves doing it anymore; it’s automatic, like checking for pee on a toilet seat. When someone asks to take our picture, our heads tilt slightly back, stretching out the wobbly skin beneath our chins, and our arms grow long and jagged, bent at the elbows to hide the flabby triceps in back. We smile the smile we have practiced in the mirror, the one that doesn’t stretch up into our eyes so that we don’t expose our crow’s feet.
Yes, I know why you sit that way.