The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues
SEPT 2023 Issue

The Year of the Self

A four-year-old at work is battling some darkness. As we set up a board game on the rug, I ask him: “Yesterday, when we played this, do you remember why you needed to take a timeout?” Solemnly, he replies. “Because I kept saying I was going to kill you.”


I thought I was over my breakup. But when my ex-girlfriend came to gather the countertop dishwasher she had insisted we buy, I asked for assurance that, if she died and became a ghost, she’d primarily haunt me.

A few nights later, I texted at 3AM:

Were you ever happy at the Classon apartment? Or was it just the beginning of the end? Followed by:

Actually, I just ate a bunch of almonds and am not drunk anymore. Please don’t reply. And she didn’t.


My first day on the job, tiny bodies circling me cautiously.

“Whose mommy are you?”

“I’m nobody’s mommy, I’m a teacher.”

“Oh, okay. And whose mommy are you?”


I’m starting to think that everything in the bible is right, that I am cursed with this terrible wound that is a host for disease, that I am truly a part of the inferior sex and am destined for a life of suffering and servitude. I was driven to this conclusion by a UTI and the subsequent antibiotic cocktail that gave me a yeast infection, and the grotesque horrors that these overlapping conditions afflicted on my body. I’m explaining this to a man who drives two hours from Connecticut to sleep with me.

He says there are still some evolutionary kinks to work out in how mammals give birth, but that, comparatively speaking, coyotes have it worse than human women because they have dicks that rip open when they have their babies.

“Are you saying that women are a mistake?”

He clarifies and I listen. In college, I was a fervent lesbian feminist. Now, men in my bed explain my biological shortcomings to me.


My dog won’t eat anything besides other dogs’ shit, which he manages to locate on the street during our walks, always at the exact moment I am looking away. I think it’s because he’s depressed. He’s particularly fond of the massive droppings that some demonic creature leaves on our block—I suspect an un-neutered pitbull whose owner walks him on a thick chain leash late at night. On a morning I was running very late, he stepped in the shit as he ate it, and got it all caked into his paws. This was something of a final straw for me. As I cleaned him up on the stoop, I sobbed, letting out some particularly theatrical wails, implicating the block in my misery.

I got sent home early from work that day because I looked tired.


At the playground, the kids hide behind the bench I am sitting on.

“I sure do miss my friends. I wonder where they all went!”

Behind me, whispered giggles.

I sigh and look dreamily out at the water.

“I guess they all went swimming in the Hudson River!”

At this, they lose it. All of them shoot up from where they crouched, a little cackling army.


On the weekends, I make little snakes. My therapist suggested I find a tactile hobby to prevent myself from spiraling about my breakup. So I bought some clay, and rolled it between my palms, and wrapped it around my finger, and found I’d made a snake. And then I did it again, and again, and pinched every little head on every little one, and then I bought the finest of paint brushes, and the most vivid of paints, and adorned them all with intricate geometric patterns. As my apartment became more populated with my creations, my feelings of hopelessness somewhat abated. I could look around at the life I had built—myself, my dog, the snakes—and call it adequate.


A year ago, I was stricken by an odd catatonia. I couldn’t ride the train, or work my retail job, without entering a fugue state. Occasionally, the feeling was accompanied by a numbness in my arms. But when it worsened, and bouts of spontaneous muscle paralysis disabled me from folding $100 t-shirts, my girlfriend and I decided it might be best that I quit. She was a software engineer and paid the majority of our bills anyway, but I’d been working since my early teens, and until then it didn’t occur to me that I’d ever stop.

Whatever my ailment was, it was easily cured by keeping busy at the apartment—tidying, buying calla lilies and placing them in jadeite vases, and packing lunches for my girlfriend.

I took the dog out often and engaged in a looping interaction with my elderly neighbor. One of us would say hello, and the other would say it was a beautiful day, and on the less beautiful days, I’d still see his chair-- a low, wooden stool stacked with pillows that sat permanently on his stoop.

Very early on in my career as a house-girlfriend, I realized I had no ambition to be anything else.


A homeless woman beckons me from the bus stop. I give her a crumpled one. “How’s the wife?”

I tell her the news.

“You’re gonna be just fine, you’re already glowing. My advice to you? Don’t get horny. If someone wants your pussy, you ask for their wallet. You’re gonna be just fine. You could dance too, you know. You’re beautiful.”

I am so genuinely flattered by this, it takes me days to wonder how she knew that my ex paid my rent.


On the first beautiful day of the year, I am in Fort Greene Park with two heartbroken friends. One of them believes there is an astrological explanation for our suffering, and I tune out as she details the exact alignment of the stars and the planets’ exact plot to further our agony. We’re surrounded by about four variations of the same family—hot, fashionable parents with cherubic babies-- and I’m thinking I would like to be a mother one day. But, I will be poor forever, and no one will ever love me again.

I mention that I will be poor forever and no one will ever love me again.

One friend says she is the ugliest girl in Fort Greene Park.

The other says 2023 is the year of the self.

None of us can handle eight more months of the year of the self.

The sun goes down, and we exchange assurances that we are all beautiful and worthy, all of us thinking, privately, that this grief will last forever, will eat all of us alive.


There is a mosque a few blocks from my apartment, and when I pass it with my dog, he howls along with the men’s low, humming prayers. When we’re at that intersection and the mosque is empty, he pulls and whimpers and sniffs, looking everywhere for his song.


The problem was, during the week, I started to miss my little snakes. So I brought one to school to launch an art project with the kids. It was some of my best work yet, a perfect spiral painted delicately with yellows and pinks.

“I worked very hard,” I said, as I placed it on the table. “Gentle touch.”

Not a single beat could pass before a four-year-old crushed it in his fist.

Heat spread across my face.

“You destroyed it.”

My snake’s dusted remains fell between his fingers, forming a neon pile of rubble at his feet.

I thought of how I had shaped it with my hands, and waited for it to dry, and painted each stripe. I thought of the lonely shelf in my kitchen where it used to live.

He gathered the miniature broom and dustpan. “I help! Look, I help!”

“I had only asked that you be gentle.”


Many beautiful days pass and yet, I still haven’t seen my elderly neighbor or his stool. One morning, on my way to the bus, I notice a picture of him posted on the door of the deli.

We will miss you, Pops!


A three-year-old hurls herself into the grass. This is my cue. I scoop her into my arms and carry her to the special healing tree at the top of the hill. I gently place her down and mime extracting magic dust from the branches. I sprinkle it over her. She launches upward, revived.

“You just saved my life. Now, I give you infinity hugs.”


A man is rummaging through my dresser, looking for glasses he swore he left at my apartment several weeks ago. I know they aren’t here, but on this day, I’m too numb to speak, so I lay deflated on the bed as he empties the contents of my sock drawer on the floor. After many minutes or hours, he terminates his search and curls up beside me.

“Part of the reason I came here was to ask you to be my girlfriend.”

He pauses for my reaction. I have none.

“I just see you, and how needy you are…”

I realize I actually do have his glasses, I saw them in the bathroom this morning. “Not needy, you know what I mean. You’re just someone who so clearly needs a partner.”


A dream: I am in my bedroom, in the Classon apartment. Two boys from work are trapped-- I can see them, frightened and alone, inside some terrible dark cloud outside my window. They are wearing their neon safety vests.

I gasp awake and check that my dog’s chest is still rising with breath.



Cortez is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. An MFA candidate at Stony Brook University, she was named a finalist in the 2022 Blue Mesa Review Summer Contest in Poetry and the Good Life Review’s 2023 Honeybee Prize in Fiction.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues