Tara Stillions Whitehead


That was the year before El Niño, when Joe enlisted on the 10th of September and the towers fell the next day. He would never come back to us. And we would never stay.

That was the year we chased ghosts in Elfin Forest and got blacklisted from Motel 6. When we fell in love with New Radicals and Radiohead. That was the year all those last-call tourists were hit by Amtraks near Boar’s Crossing, when we chain-smoked Camel Red Lights in Nikki’s garage and plucked our eyebrows into oblivion.

Because the adult world was obscene and cold, we learned every obscenity and drew ourselves to every fire. We treated our CD cases like safety deposit boxes and our bodies like experiments. Everyone was fucking everyone that year. Except the boys who lived in Yellow House—the girls who saved themselves for the lip of a perfect wave.

That was the year Dad broke down my bedroom door, the year I held dogs and cats as they were euthanized, wheeling their still-warm bodies in black trash bags to the basement freezer for D&D pick-up. That was the year Crystal started fucking Dr. Avi in his La Jolla townhouse and I fainted in the breakroom, anemic after they burned the cancer from my seventeen-year-old cervix.

I served Thanksgiving dinner at the VA where Mom was getting sober that year, and with the money from my job at the vet bought the Sony Hi-8 that would take me, desperate and half-alive, to the film school that made Zemeckis and rejected Spielberg, that bore Lucas’s name on nearly every building. At the end of June, before I ran away, I used the screen to tell our secrets. We’d drank from the bottles, procured real needles, kissed each other raw. Because we loved Tarantino and Scorsese but wanted to be brut like Solondz and Clark, we cast our real-life entourages and taped our fragile devastations. We faked cocaine deaths to “Lucky Man” by The Verve and watched, without a fuck to give, as our hearts exploded inside of the Proscenium. Mr. Beauvais called it genius, and I think Jackie’s parents called CPS.

Forever franchises fell like dominoes that year. There would be no more Friday nights at Sizzler, no more stealing crystals from Natural Wonders. That was the year they started locking the food in their bedroom. The year we stopped having dinner at all.

I buy too much food now, and when it goes bad, I cry.

They say you can feel a sea change, that you can pinpoint the moment zeitgeist slips away. Twenty years later, I’m still holding the photos, rewinding the tapes, and unfolding the origamied testimonies. I’m still trying to feel that feeling—just so that I can let it go.


A writer and filmmaker from Southern  California living in Pennsylvania, Tara Stillions Whitehead’s work has  appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, McNeese Review, The Rupture, and elsewhere. Her hybrid chapbook, Blood Histories, will be released in July 2021 and her full-length collection, The Year of the Monster, will be published by Unsolicited Press in 2022.