Pour a glass of lemonade and find a nice, shady spot — it’s time to get to know the short fiction of Sophia Cornell ’20, the winner of CCT’s inaugural student writing contest. We launched the contest at the start of last semester, and Cornell’s story, “Host,” was chosen from an impressive 68 total entries. (The flood during the last weekend of the submissions period had us grinning — our breed are known procrastinators!)
So many stories, so many worlds. We couldn’t wait to dig in.
Reading them all highlighted the range of interests that animate the College’s creative writers. The works ventured into different genres, and explored themes both timeless and contemporary. In the end, we passed five finalists to our judges; their decision was unanimous. They praised Cornell for her ability to wholly inhabit a male psyche; for knowing how to conceal information and play with notions of truth; and for the momentum and sense of mystery that kept them engaged to the end.
A word on our judges: We were fortunate to enlist a panel that included some of our most talented alumni writers: Kelly Link ’91, a 2018 MacArthur “genius” grant winner and author of Get in Trouble; Darryl Pinckney ’88, author of Black Deutschland and the forthcoming Busted in New York and Other Essays; and Jill Santopolo ’03, New York Times bestselling author of The Light We Lost and her latest, More Than Words. Listening to their discussion — the care and respect that guided it, the insights that came from it — was a master class in how to talk about writing. The three were touched by the ambition evidenced in all the stories before them, and impressed that the writers had each in their own way stepped outside of personal experience and invented worlds.
The judges also awarded two Honorable Mentions, to “Until the Bell Tolls” by Philip Kim ’20 and “Rats” by Rachel Page ’20. You can find those published online in our Feature Extras.
Our winner, Cornell, hails from Boulder, Colo., and is a creative writing and economics-mathematics major. She is an editor for The Eye, the long-form magazine of Spectator, and a biking trip leader for the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program. This is her first fiction publication. We’re proud to set the stage for that debut, and look forward to seeing what comes next.
I found out about the kid by accident when scrolling through Facebook on a lunch break. Girls from my high school are forever having babies and posting airbrushed pictures of them with cat ears. The kid — soccer jersey, missing teeth, maybe 8 years old — could have been one of theirs. Then I saw that my host sister from Nicaragua, Isabel, had posted it. I reread the text more closely and saw with surprise that the kid had my name.
My name is uncommon and involves sounds not endemic to Spanish. I’d rather not tell you what it is because a very famous and despised person has the same first name, and I find that after learning my name most people take a while to warm up to me. I stopped using the name in college. In my professional life and with baristas I’ve made an effort to use my middle name, Satchel. At home my girlfriend, Felicity, calls me Puck. My family still calls me by my real name, which is just one reason I don’t like to talk to them.
This kid’s existence rattled me. In the picture, he was in a backyard I remembered: enormous green leaves, coffee trees, two lazy cows under a thatch next to a shed. Nothing like where I live now, in Indiana. Now that I put on a suit, go to work, come home every day to a sweet person like Felicity, I’ve started to think I could someday be a godfather. Or maybe a dog owner. But the 15-year-old version of me, the only version Isabel ever got to see, wasn’t namesake material. I guess he was a good person, but mostly he was angry, selfish, acne-infested.
On the day that I saw the picture, I got home from work to find Felicity making a chickpea coconut curry. Felicity is a good cook but she only makes about four things. Still, I like her curry and was happy to smell it bubbling away as I hung up my umbrella and my briefcase and slipped off my loafers. She doesn’t want shoes in the apartment, which is understandable.
I went into the kitchen and kissed her on the forehead and asked about her day. Felicity works with special-needs children and often has things thrown at her at work. She looked up from the stove. “Peyton took his shoelace off and tied it around his neck at recess. He turned blue.”
“Oh, no,” I said. I have a hard time remembering the names of all of her charges, and which ones have what problems, but I try to listen intently so that she feels heard.
“Peyton’s mom told the school nurse she couldn’t pick him up right away and offered to send a driver instead.”
“Wow,” I said. She picked up the pan and poured the curry into two bowls, controlling the flow of liquid with a spatula. We kept meaning to buy a ladle.
“When exactly were you in Nicaragua?” she asked.
“Ten years ago.”
“Puck, is there any chance he’s your son?”
I almost laughed out loud. I was 15 that summer, all leaking pustules and overbite, every inch a virgin. I had not impregnated anyone.
Her round, bulging eyes were like two searchlights on my face. I was a little turned on that she thought of even my 15-year-old self as virile and sexual. Maybe that’s why I did what I did.
What I did was give the impression that I was searching through a vast archive of sexual experience, so vast that certain memories were buried under the sheer volume. “I don’t think so,” I said, “but I guess it’s not impossible.”
We’d had the conversation about past sexual partners, of course. I listened in agony as Felicity described the drummer, the surfer, the minor league baseball player, the tattooed chef, the boy next door, and the youth group pastor. She went in reverse order, and ended on a “friend” from high school whom she ran into on a ski slope at 9 a.m. and blew on the chair lift at noon and later spent a week with while her parents thought she was at a tennis tournament.
Then it was my turn. I had no choice but to embellish a little. I don’t remember exactly what I said, since the whole conversation was extremely stressful and I’ve since done my best to never think about it again. But I might have suggested that I was a bit of a Don Juan. Now I have to avoid the topic entirely so I don’t get caught in a lie.
I remember the first time I saw Isabel, on my first day in Nicaragua. All the Americans were bused from the airport to a warehouse covered with murals of past revolutionaries. The host families stood in bunches, waiting for their “volunteers,” and the kids reassembled into the cliques they had made on the bus.
The frizzy-haired coordinator woman pointed me to my family. I noticed Isabel right away. She was a little older than me, maybe 17, in a pink polo shirt, a small birthmark under her right eyebrow. I followed them to an old school bus that had once served Roosevelt School District. The day was hot and muggy. The bus was exactly like the school bus I used to ride with my older sisters. I felt like a child again and suddenly felt very relaxed, like I was floating in the warm water of the scene and going where the current called.
Isabel and I had a low-level flirtation throughout the summer. To be honest, I’m not sure it even registered with her, but she worked me daily into a frenzy I had to deal with in the wooden shed by the cows. I went there at night to take bucket baths and have privacy. The shed didn’t have a roof, so I guess it was more of a stall. I liked to wash myself at night, especially when the fog hid the stars. I had never been in such total blackness.
The family consisted of Isabel, her parents and a toothless older man whose relation to the family I never got quite clear. The dad was very kind and had crinkly eyes. I liked him tremendously even though we didn’t have much to say to each other. He once found a flier on the ground and asked me to read it out loud to him, which is how I realized he couldn’t read. He left every morning to work on a coffee plantation, so I mostly spent time with Isabel and my host mom. I often walked with Isabel to the soccer field, where she liked to admire a spry little guy everyone called “El Negro.” I joined in the soccer game exactly once.
The family and I ate rice and beans three times a day. On special nights, my host mom mixed them together so that the beans colored the rice. She called the dish Gallo Pinto, as if it were a different food. My host dad milked the cows every morning, but their milk was thick and yellow, like unmixed paint, and I couldn’t bring myself to drink it. I’d spent the first half of the summer playing video games in my basement, drinking Coke and eating Girl Scout cookies by the sleeve. By my first week in Nicaragua, I went weak at the thought of sugar.
My host mom made money by selling vanilla cupcakes in the nearby town. She baked a new batch every few mornings. The kitchen had four plates and four forks and 15 cupcake pans. On baking days I hung about the dirt-floor kitchen all morning, offering to sweep or beat eggs. If I looked just hangdog enough, my host mom would offer me a cupcake. They tasted like wet Nilla Wafers.
But one cupcake a day wasn’t enough. Isabel and I never talked about it, but we began to sneak more and more. The cupcakes rested on metal trays on a splintering table in the open air outside the kitchen. Isabel would walk by, arms swinging. She could snag two cupcakes on the downswing without stopping. She stuck them in her waist band and we hurried off to the shed by the cows. The smell of vanilla or cow dung still brings me back to those squished cupcakes, warm from her hip, eaten in two feral bites.
We were complicit. I was too scared to actually do the stealing, but Isabel and I both knew that I would be blamed for the sudden increase in disappeared cupcakes. I was pretty sure that as the American and the guest, I wouldn’t get in trouble. I never got quite clear on the financial incentive for taking a volunteer through the program, but I think it was generous, because other people in the village often spoke longingly of getting their own volunteers. The money must have covered my portion of rice and beans and then some. I hoped it made up for the lost cupcake revenue.
The family often asked how much my Adidas shoes cost, how much plane tickets from the United States cost. I said I didn’t remember, and when they pressed me to guess, I automatically halved or quartered the numbers. I didn’t know how to be rich. At home, I was the only one of my friends who didn’t have braces. My parents were always worried about money, actually far more worried than anyone in Nicaragua seemed to be. I was only on the expensive trip in the first place because my grandma saw it as her duty to evacuate innocent civilians from the war zone of my parents’ impending divorce.
The family asked me for money only once, when they learned it was my birthday. My host mom said she could make me a cake, vanilla, the way I liked it, but maybe I could help out a little with the ingredients? I panicked. I had some emergency money my real mom had hidden in my backpack, but I didn’t want to make the relationship with the host family as transactional as it really was. So I told her I didn’t need a cake, but thanks anyway.
My departure was surprisingly teary. I had written thank-you cards to all the family members and I presented them on the last day with a flourish. I read my host dad’s out loud to him. The whole family accompanied me to another yellow school bus, which took me back to the warehouse with the murals. I reunited with all the volunteers and spoke in English again. At the airport in Houston, I drank a milkshake and poured a family-sized bag of Skittles down my throat, and then I threw up on the plane to Chicago. My parents hadn’t coordinated with each other and they both arrived in separate cars to pick me up from the airport. I don’t remember who I chose.
At home, I went back to the basement. Everyone in the family was in the process of marking their territory in the house and the basement was mine. I made a lot of deals with God, offering to sacrifice various family members for things I really wanted: a girlfriend, an Xbox, plans on a Friday night.
Isabel messaged me a few times on Facebook. I was lonely and bored, but I didn’t see much point in talking to someone I would never see again. And I got nervous texting in Spanish. I waited a while before I responded to make it clear I wasn’t trying to be pen pals.
Felicity and I didn’t mention Isabel or the kid again. She went back to babysitting her screaming suicidal kids and I went back to the office. Every night we ate one of her four dinners and watched a movie or had sex. She seemed a little scared of me, which I was ashamed of but also liked on a primal level. She took to grabbing my hand as we went to sleep and pressing it to the underside of her upper arm where I could feel her birth control implant, like a matchstick under her skin. That was as close as we got to discussing pregnancy, or the kid with my name.
Around this time, the dictatorship fell in Nicaragua. Or maybe a democratically elected leader turned into a dictator. In any case, the situation was getting bad. At work, I saw a segment on CNN about the riots, the raided newspaper offices and the violence in the countryside.
One Sunday at home, I got up from my catatonic internet trawling and went to take a shit. I had just sat down when Felicity said “knock knock” at the door. She says that instead of actually knocking, a habit of hers I have always found disgusting. I told her I’d be out in a second, and settled in to take my time.
When I got out, Felicity was standing with her arms folded in front of my computer. She pointed at the screen where a Facebook message from Isabel had popped up. I didn’t even think Felicity could read Spanish. I walked slowly to the fridge, where I got myself a Coke, and then sat down to read the message.
Isabel said that everything now had to be bought off the black market at criminal expense. Her dad had moved to Costa Rica, but even the jobs there were disappearing every day. She wanted to move to the United States. A lifelong dream, she said, now a necessity. She knew citizens of the United States could sponsor family members for a green card. She hated to ask, but maybe I could sponsor her. After all, weren’t we basically family? Didn’t she have a son with my name?
I could feel Felicity’s searchlights on me. I shut my eyes, but the underside of my lids were red, as if I were looking at the sun. I remembered, fondly, the nights I had bathed in the shed and hid in the blackness of the sky.
Read two more stories we loved, by Philip Kim ’20 and Rachel Page ’20.
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