Little Wisps

Posted in Poetry on December 5, 2014 by justinmathai

I thought I caught a glimpse of you
In the room we used to share
I turned over every shelf and sheet
I knew you weren’t there

And I thought I saw you the other day
At the corner streetlight where we used to play
But a gust of wind swept you away
Before I could hear what you had to say

I swear I could see your face last night
Maybe it was just a dream
But you were sitting up in bed
And I saw you smile at me

All these little pieces
All these little wisps
What we wanted to be when we grew up
A whispered, uncertain wish

The things you left up on your shelf
All the books unread
They go untouched, and patiently sit
Their stories silenced, like the dead

All the plans you made for you
And the ones you made for me
All the notebook pages filled
All the sweat and tears and blood you spilled
Are etched in stone and here they remain
Never to be seen

Every idea that once bounced
In your clever, thoughtful mind
What I wouldn’t give for just an ounce
Of the things you had yet to find
And the half-finished thoughts left behind

Paper memorials of ink and lead
Collecting dust in boxes instead
All the things you didn’t know
Everything you had yet to show
And everything left unsaid

And I’m sure I saw you in the kitchen today
Your head buried in the fridge like it always was
And the thought made me laugh like it always does
And this morning I thought I could hear the shower running
“Hurry up in there!” I started to shout
But the sound of water drowned my voice out


This place is so large

Posted in Poetry on December 3, 2014 by justinmathai

This place is so large, how can you be alone
But you are

This place is so full, how can you be so empty
But you are

This place is so beautiful, how can you feel so dull
But you do

This place is so breathtaking, how can you be uninspired
But you are


And Empty

And Uninspired

A wisp or a husk
Seeing, not comprehending

Turning off your brain so that you cannot feel
Because feeling is pain and self-loathing and frustration and confusion and turmoil and


And everything you believed in has been turned upside down

And nothing matters
And everything matters
And you’re searching

But you aren’t finding

And you want validation
But you cannot find it

And you want the answer but you don’t even know the question you’re asking
And no one really knows what you’re trying to say

You’re staring into headlights
You’re flattened against wet pavement
Eyes open, mouth agape
Seeing, speaking, not hearing yourself, not understanding

It begins to eat you up inside
The predator we name frustration
Till you feel the pressure behind your eyes
And explode in deadly conflagration
And erupt in a litany of despair
A procession of ever-building sorrow
Whispered to the empty air
Carrying you through until tomorrow
Nothing seems to have a point
To a crescendo, this emptiness builds
Burns through every aching joint
Every promise goes unfulfilled
You hear the phone vibrate and don’t even blink
As you feel yourself begin to shrink

Dinner Party

Posted in Short Stories with tags on January 5, 2014 by justinmathai

Kathy picked out what to wear a night in advance. She smiled at the red dress, smoothed out and laid on the ottoman at the foot of the bed. The pearls were elegant—guaranteed to start a conversation. Or else she would. She laid out Andrew’s clothes too, suitable enough for the affair without upstaging her own appearance. She attended this task with great care for the sake of her reputation. She was determined that they would leave saying “what a perfect life.”

At 11 AM on the day of, Kathy had a meltdown in the great room. Andrew’s laundry was the cause. It lay strewn about the couch, which she also despised. It was his couch. His couch that he insisted on bringing with him when they moved in, cracked black leather, offensive odor and all. It was unsightly but by his account it was homey and charming. He gave up and moved the laundry. Kathy placed the fine throw pillows on the couch, careful to hide the tags. They would be going back tomorrow. Over the back of the couch she draped a long throw and she sprayed the leather with fabric freshener until it smelled of lilacs and springtime. Andrew noted that it had lost some of its charm. Kathy ignored him. When they left, they would remark “what a perfect life.”

At noontime, they went to pick out the greens for the salad. Andrew put four heads of lettuce in the shopping cart. Kathy promptly put them back, complaining about the brown spots, the wilted leaves. Andrew rolled his eyes and kept quiet. Kathy found a manager and demanded fresher produce from the back. It took a half hour. Andrew commented on the absurd wait. Kathy barely heard him. They would eat the meal she served, and they would all think “what a perfect life.”

At 2:30 PM, Kathy lamented about Andrew’s unwillingness to help, so busy was he watching the game and putting his feet all over the nice throw pillows. Andrew sighed loudly, turned the volume up on the television until Kathy unplugged it from the wall. When he finally offered to help slice, she lamented his inability to make an even cut and shooed him from her kitchen. She put the roast in the oven and the house smelled of her cooking. When they walked in and smelled it, they would all marvel at her perfect life.

At 4 PM, Kathy nearly wept at the sight of her dining room, her bathroom, her living room, her foyer. They were unsightly. They were not fit for presenting. Andrew shrugged. Kathy attacked everything with a feather duster, a vacuum, a mop. Andrew was deeply grieved when she threw away the stack of magazines in the bathroom, wondering aloud how he would finish them now. She retorted that he hadn’t felt it important to read them when they came. Andrew knew better than to protest when the MLB bobble-heads on the living room shelf went in the trash, along with the CD cases and the bowling trophy he had been cleaning on the dining table. They were juvenile. They would not think her life perfect with such trinkets lying about the house.

At 5 PM, Kathy went into a panic with only an hour and a half remaining. She sent Andrew to buy flowers for the centerpiece, but was horrified at the arrangement he brought back. She went to the florist to purchase a new one, one that would compliment her china. The table would be beautiful and they would think her life perfect.

At 5:30 PM, Kathy plated the salads. Andrew retrieved the ranch dressing, but she would not hear of it. The vinaigrette was more refined, she insisted, and so it was drizzled sparingly onto the greens. Andrew sighed and questioned why such cuisine was necessary, certain that they would enjoy a pizza just as much. Kathy clicked her tongue and pointed out that there was nothing extraordinary about pizza. They would see this spread and believe she ate like this every night. They would all consider her life as perfect.

At 5:45 PM, Kathy noticed that the painting in the foyer was slightly off-kilter. It was Andrew’s fault. It had to be. He sighed with apathy and fixed the painting, adjusting and readjusting until she was satisfied. Everything had to be in order. Everything had to be perfect.

At 5:50 PM, Kathy panicked upon realizing she had a mere half hour to get ready. She shed her jeans and her blouse and dove into the shower. Her hair was attacked with a curling iron, her makeup done and redone until not a single imperfection remained. She fussed over the dress, the heels, the pearls, and then turned on Andrew who remained in his loungewear. He sighed, questioning what the big deal was. Casual wear should be fine, but Kathy wasn’t listening. He put on the stiff clothing she had chosen for him but refused to shave until tears began welling in her eyes. They would see her outfit, see her husband, and they would think that her life was perfect.

At 6:30 PM, the first guests arrived and Kathy invited them in with great flourish. They marveled at the orderly foyer, the upscale living room, the tasteful decorations. Andrew bit out a grin and spoke little. Kathy broke out the first bottle of wine and was determined that they think her manners perfect.

By 7:15 PM, all of the guests had arrived. Kathy showed them the renovations to the home, describing in great detail the planning and cost of each miniscule detail. They all sipped the red wine and ooh’ed and ahh’ed and thought her house was perfect.

At 7:30 PM, Kathy invited everyone into the dining room. With deliberate politeness, she requested Andrew’s assistance in serving the salads. He obliged her. When the salads had all been served, everyone complimented the floral arrangement and the china. The appetizer was exquisite, the vinaigrette a fine touch and the lettuce crisp and fresh. Kathy sent a brief, smug glance to her husband and smiled at the attention. The meal began perfectly.

At 8 PM, Kathy brought out the roast and expertly carved it before her guests. They were dazzled and complimented the appearance of the meat. She served the meal and soaked in the pleasantries, proceeding to regale the audience with stories of her honeymoon. Andrew knew better than to correct her exaggerations or to point out the fact that no one had asked about the vacation. Kathy was sure that they thought her marriage, her talent, and her life was perfect.

At 9 PM, Kathy brought out coffee, loudly announcing its country of origin and emphasizing its rarity. Out came another bottle of wine and two fine cakes. Everyone was wowed by the dessert and Kathy drank in their compliments as they commented on the evening, her spectacular home, her cooking. She continuously heard the word “perfect.”

At 10 PM, after final pleasantries were exchanged, coats were retrieved and guests lingered at the door to the great house. They all thanked her abundantly for the evening, paid due compliment to Andrew and to her family as a whole. She accepted the praise with great modesty, dazzling smile plastered to her face. They thought she was perfect.

At the end of the night, after everyone had filed out the door, Kathy took off her dress, her pearls, her cheerful face, and her agreeable disposition. Andrew went to sleep on his couch in the great room, still fully dressed from the affair and just as indifferent as he was at the start of the night.


Posted in Short Stories with tags , on March 29, 2013 by justinmathai

She cries in the night sometimes, in the dark when all is still and he’s deep in slumber and she cannot disturb him. She cries for the life she’s led, the life she wishes she could forget. She cries for her own inadequacies because she isn’t—nor will she ever be—as good as what she’s found in him. She can’t undo the misdeeds, the past. She can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. And listening to the easy, deep breaths of her husband beside her, she can’t help but wish she could rest just as easily.

When she awakens from the uneasy sleep that she drops into—the sleep that is plagued with haunting images of past crimes, past injuries—she finds the space beside her empty, the faint outline of his body still indented into the sheets and the mattress. It is still warm and the water is running in the bathroom five feet from her side of the bed. The walls are a dusty shade of blue, sunlight just starting to filter into the room. It is Thursday. He’s humming an old tune in the shower. She sits up, rolls slowly out of the bed and makes it halfheartedly. The white carpet feels thick and soft between her bare, red-painted toes. Her negligee is ruffled, the lace strap slipping from her shoulder and reminding her once more of her own impurity.

She pads down the chilly hallway and down the stairs, turning on the radiator of the old row house. She puts the coffee on to boil. The dog stirs in his corner. A bird, straggling behind the others just starting to fly south, chirps from its perch in the branches. She sits at the wooden table, stares blankly at the copy of Reader’s Digest open before her. He comes down the stairs, grins at her, brown hair still wet. He pours himself a mug of the coffee, gets another for her. The absent click of the toaster indicates he is preparing breakfast. He asks how she slept. She lies. He accepts it.

The routine is never-ending. This carefully sculpted life—lie—that she has constructed to make herself feel safe. She despises it. Despises the fact that this wasn’t always her life. Despises the fact that he accepts her imperfections, loves her for them because she isn’t worthy of his love, of good love. The life of one-night love, of making believe that she was in love only to be heartbroken but a few hundred richer come morning—that was the life she deserved. Not this. Not this beautiful home, this loving husband.

She sips her coffee, nibbles her toast. He talks to her, his words and hers barely registering in her own mind. He gets up, clears the table, changes into his shirt and tie, kisses her farewell. She watches him get into the silver Saab, drive off to work in the city so that he can provide this wonderful life that she isn’t worthy of having.
She brushes her hair, looks disdainfully at herself in the mirror, and lets the raven locks fall over her face in an attempt to hide the disgraceful face beneath them. She applies her makeup lightly, just enough to put a veneer over her disgust for herself, make her look renewed, somewhat different, pure. She sets about her daily chores with the monotony that is to be expected. She wipes down the counter, empties the trash can, takes the dog out, lets her day pass her by in a blur, carrying her one step closer to death and forgetting.

A church bell tolls mournfully in the distance. She reproaches it, reproaches her God for her own shortcomings, channels her frustrations into Him because He cannot reply, cannot defend Himself, cannot tell her she is wrong. Tears. Dark, inky tears that spill forth in surges from her once-vivacious blue eyes. Her heart squeezes in pain, in self-pity. Here she is, the wife of a doting husband, living in a charming suburb in a quaint, azalea-bordered home, driving an Infiniti, not working too hard—she should be happy. She should be having the time of her life. She isn’t even thirty yet and the fortunes of the world seem to have found their way to the small-town girl who couldn’t even picture a thousand dollars growing up. She spent her teenage years searching for this wealth and she found it at the cost of her own integrity. Her life is perfect now. But she is not.

He knows she cries at night, hears the gentle sobs escaping her lips when she thinks he’s fast asleep. But he knows better than to interfere, to interrupt what may well be the only chance she has to cleanse herself, let her emotions out. Each cry sends a small pang of guilt up his chest, makes him feel like he should be doing more. He knows her past, knows why she cries. But he accepts her past, doesn’t fully understand why she should be so ashamed when she has already sought and received forgiveness from every outlet imaginable. Except perhaps herself.

When he married her he knew there would be work involved. He knew of her insecurities, knew of her guilt and of her self-loathing. And he thought he could be the one to fix her, to solve the problems she couldn’t. He thought he would provide her with everything she could ever need and to that end he had made good on his promise. The home was beautiful, well-kept. They had nice cars, money in the bank, enough for him to take her out on Friday evenings. But even as he gave her these things—these things she had always wanted—he could see his wife closing off from him, shutting down, shutting him out.

Until they reached this point, communicating minimally, mumbling trivial nothings over breakfast. He can hardly touch her anymore without the tears. Is it something he’s doing wrong? Is he the one who’s inadequate? When they first met she intrigued him. She was introverted to begin with, timid, fragile. But the story in her eyes enthralled him and he quickly found himself falling deeper into her—her past, her emotions, her everything.
He sits at night, prays. Prays for guidance because he can’t seem to find any from the others in his life. Prays for the strength to persist, the help his wife break free of her past transgressions. Prays for sensitivity, empathy, inspiration. Prays that she will be able to heal. Prays that he will be able to heal her. Prays, prays, prays because there’s little else he can do. Little else he can think of. Prays because she won’t pray for herself and he knows there isn’t anyone else in the world praying for her.

He gets up before her, takes in the sight of her sleeping on her side and he’s amazed by her tranquility. He slips out of bed quietly so as not to wake the tentative sleep she has fallen into. The carpet is soft, cushioning his footsteps as he treads lightly to the bathroom. He showers, humming softly as the warm water washes over him, invigorates him for the day’s challenges. When he emerges and goes downstairs she has already put the coffee on and she’s sitting, reading a health article from the Reader’s Digest. He pours himself the coffee, pours for her as well, and prepares breakfast. He makes quiet conversation, tries to elicit more than a monosyllabic response from his wife but to no avail.

By eight-thirty, he’s behind the wheel, commuting into the city with the radio playing softly. The highways is crowded, traffic moving slowly and he wonders why he does this every day. As he crosses over the bridge he entertains the notion of driving on, of driving until his car runs out of gas and then running on foot without stopping. But he can’t. He has a home to return to. And one day, he hopes she will see that house, this life, his love in the same way.

Love in Herald Square

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on February 14, 2013 by justinmathai

They are plain as day
Hand in hand
Under the shadow of Greeley
In Herald Square

Arms locked
A white, winter flurry blowing
Red noses
Red pea coat
Red blush
Red passions
In Herald Square

Passing the window displays
She eyes the gleaming stones
And dreams of her own
Which sits in his pocket
Hidden until evening
In Herald Square

A blur of warm yellow
Against a blank, swirling background
Lights twinkling for the holidays
In Herald Square

A dream
A reality
A promise
In Herald Square

Music drifts
Snow drifts
Eyes drift to one another
In Herald Square

Glove in glove
Along Broadway near sundown
The motley lines drawn out of the theatres
And into the icy streets
A man with a trumpet
A woman with a shopping bag
A child with a doll
And a boy and a girl in love
In Herald Square

Deafening Silence

Posted in Poetry with tags on February 8, 2013 by justinmathai

He remembers clearly
The sound of music
Simple melodies
Flats and sharps

He remembers
The lilt
Of a flute
The alleluia
Of the choir
His soul

He remembers
The strum of guitars
Piano at his grandma’s house on Sunday afternoon
The way each note fits
Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle
A rich symphony

He remembers
The love that each sound inspired
The simple joy within his heart
The dizzying ecstasy
Of perfect harmony
The whirlwind

He remembers
The thrill of the orchestra
Of hearing the culmination of so many months
Long days and nights
Spent alone
Poring over the sheets and staffs
For this moment
Of satisfaction

But all he has
Is what he remembers
For the music died
When the soundless prison
Surrounded him for eternity
The silence is deafening

I Am Felicity Baker

Posted in Short Stories with tags , on January 20, 2013 by justinmathai

I am Felicity Baker. Except I am not. I am seventeen years old. Except I am not. I am Hannah Goldstein and I am six years old. I live at 104 Sycamore, between Eldridge Park and the grocery store. Except I don’t.  I go to Anderson Elementary School. Except I don’t. I like to ride my bike and play dress-up with Amber, who lives down the street. Except she doesn’t. I have a dog named Max. Except he’s not mine. And my favorite color is purple, except it isn’t. I live with my mommy Jeanne and my daddy Harvey, except they aren’t my mommy and daddy. Well, they are now.

Felicity comes to see me at night, when mommy and daddy go to bed and Max falls asleep downstairs. She comes through the window and sings pretty songs to me and tells me all about myself. About before.  About how, when I was little, I used to like to color and do ballet and chase butterflies with my little brother, who I don’t remember. She tells me all about my cat, Toby, who was orange and had green eyes.

I used to live at 315 Meadowlark Road, in a big brick house. My mommy’s name was Nancy and she was a nurse. My daddy’s name was Paul and he was an accountant. And my little brother who I chased butterflies with? His name was Matthew. I had blonde hair and green eyes then, and I didn’t have any freckles. I went to Johnson Elementary, where I learned how to read and write and do math. Then I went to Canyon Middle School.

I was the oldest child in my family. Felicity tells me all about how I grew up and became beautiful. How I volunteered at the animal shelter on Saturdays in sixth grade and sometimes taught ballet to girls in my old neighborhood. She tells me all about my first crush, my first middle school dance, and how I had to have braces when I was in the seventh grade. She tells me all about my ballet recital and how well I did and afterwards people gave me flowers. I liked to sing, too, and I used to sing songs in a church choir. I’m Jewish now.

Felicity tells me all about how I went to Oak Ridge High School and how new and different it was. How I did well in all my freshmen classes. How I learned to drive and how, on my sixteenth birthday, my mommy and daddy gave me a brand new car. She tells me all about my sweet sixteen party—how my dress was blue and had silver sequins and how the boy I liked, Trevor, who I don’t remember, kissed me that night and asked me to dance with him. She tells me how we started dating after that, how much of a gentleman he was to me.

She tells me all about how I wanted to be a veterinarian when I graduated from high school. I wanted to help dogs and cats and other animals. Trevor wanted to be a soldier so that he could protect people who couldn’t protect themselves. He asked me to prom and promised to marry me at the end of the night. He even gave me a promise ring, which Felicity shows me. Felicity tells me all about how happy I was, how that summer was the greatest ever. I got an internship at a veterinary clinic and a summer job at a dance academy.

She tells me all about how I went to a party that summer, six years ago, with my friends Jessica and Natalie, who I don’t remember. She tells me all about how it was late when I left the party and got into the car and started driving home to my mommy and daddy. Felicity tells me how another car swerved over the yellow line into my lane. And Felicity tells me all about how I died.