In the Classroom

  • Train Dreams: A Novella
    Train Dreams: A Novella
    by Denis Johnson
  • Bluets
    by Maggie Nelson
  • We the Animals: A novel
    We the Animals: A novel
    by Justin Torres




The Willow Tree

My boyfriend has a willow tree growing in his bedroom. It’s not big yet, not like a real willow tree. But he planted a seed and he’s been waiting a couple of years and it’s about four feet tall now. I see small trees a lot, like ones outside that have just been planted by the city. They have those little neon green ribbons around them. “They’re supposed to take those off, you know,” my boyfriend says. I moved in with him about a month ago and have acquired tree knowledge against my will. He can identify every tree in town, by both common name and genus species name. He has a thing about trees. He has a tree growing in his brain. He’s had a lot of trees, but none of them have ever grown up. Like the banana tree, last summer. I remember how sad he was when it died. He’s hoping it goes well this time, with the willow. Sometimes, I think I overhear him talking to the willow, but I’ve never been sure. He dusts the cobwebs off of it and makes sure the curtains are open for every waking minute of sunlight. I tell him to cover the window with a curtain because at six o’clock in the morning the sunlight wakes me up, but he always comes up with an excuse not to. “I don’t have anything to hang there,” “It’s fine, it’s nice to get up early, isn’t it?” I smile and don’t mind because I know he loves his tree. Sometimes, when I can tell he is daydreaming, I know it is about trees, or the tree, or something related to trees. It has made me realize how much they matter, the beauty in their spreading branches, the thousands of different kinds of leaves. We discuss our favorite trees one day. He says his is the tulip tree, pointing to one around the block, out the window of his bedroom. I tell him mine is an aspen, or maybe a birch. The way they grow like a straight pole out of the ground. He tells me “good choice,” and I feel proud. A willow tree might have been my favorite when I was younger, the way children like them because they are good places to hide. I never pictured a four-foot tall willow tree, let alone in someone’s bedroom. Part of me doesn’t believe it. Its trunk is the circumference of my thumb. There are thirty little leaves on seven tiny branches that reach out and touch his bookshelf. The cat tries to eat it. The weeping willow might get eaten by the cat, since the cat grows a lot faster than the tree. Sometimes, when we fall asleep together, I think about the tree growing light-thirsty through the roof of that third-floor apartment. It would push right through the ceiling; become a canopy over the whole building, an umbrella over his bedroom windows. When it’s silent, and we want there to be noise, we talk about the tree. How strange it is and how big it will grow up to be.


Montana, Someday

When I was born, my father was thirty-seven. In class today, we talk about killing people in order to save the planet. We are growing too quickly, the professor says. Either we stop having babies or we bomb the old folks’ home. You cannot have too much new and too much old. You need more middle. My father always smells like paint when I come home to visit because he is trying to sell the house. He’s trying to move to Montana. He tells me sometimes that he can’t move out yet. That he is scared of leaving his parents behind in Illinois. I never want to hear that my father is scared. I wish it was okay to say fathers shouldn’t be allowed to be scared, but I know that isn’t fair. I think today, at twenty-one, about how thirty-seven was too old for him to have a child. Maybe not too old for him then, but too old for me now. I think of what he will be like by the time I get to my middle. On waiting to move, he tells me he wants to wait until his parents, who live close by, die. Then he will move to Montana to start something new. I will follow him.


At the Fair

She got sick after a ride at the county fair. She held her stomach. Whenever she would get sick, she would hold her stomach and imagine, just for one second, that instead she was cradling her uterus. At the fair, rubbing her stomach, she imagined what it would be like if there was more than upset cotton candy in there. Maybe some hands and feet. Tiny acorn brain. She could turn to her boyfriend and say “Look,” and gesture to her uterus and he would know what she meant. But she had never wanted that sort of thing, another life growing inside of her, and would feel silly starting to want it now. She vomited into a trashcan, in front of everyone. She stared up at the wooden roller coaster and let the sun hit her eyes. She looked back at her boyfriend and he asks her if she wants to go on another ride. She said okay, she was feeling a little better. She didn’t tell him what she was thinking. They get on the roller coaster. They’re thrashing around against each other even though they have seatbelts. Their ears shake in the wind.


Ultimately, my personal definition of flash is one that will be open to change as I read more. For now, though, it is a compact, image-focused piece of writing that has the loose structure (beginning, middle, end) of a longer fiction piece, but that stresses not only flashes of images but also flashes of sparse language. Plot and character are certainly allowed to exist in this strange world, but they are not allowed to ride in the front seat with image. I also think of flash as a personal challenge--there is something alluring about the images that are created when you try to write succinctly. There are no other images or moments to break your fall.


Annie Zak is a Spanish and Creative Writing double major from Geneva, Illinois.