Claire Polders



My father in Holland kills mosquitos. In his underwear, he prowls around in my brightly lit bedroom, scratching his back and smacking my attackers dead against the wall. I'm seven. My eggshell wallpaper dotted with daisies is soon spotted with blood. I sit up in bed, sleepily and sweaty, my ears still full with a whining buzz. I try to square what I see. My kind, usually smiling father hits the mosquitos with his plastic swatter, again and again. He grumbles, showing no mercy. My mouth tastes bitter like the cabbage we ate for dinner. But when the slaughter is over and his dry lips kiss my forehead, I feel protected from harm.


My husband in Vietnam kills roaches. Naked, he hunts in the bathroom, rubber flipflop raised like a weapon in his hand. Each time he squashes a roach on the sink, the critter explodes in a disgusting gooey mess that I seem to taste in the back of my throat. I'm forty-three. The air sticks to my face like a rag. I pass him square after square of kitchen paper and cheer encouraging words. Yeah! Show them who's the boss! During the day, butterflies land on my husband's head, cats nestle on his lap, and birds approach him with the hubris of snakes. They're right to trust him. But at night, a dark sludge of hate powers his blows, and although I understand why I equate this battering with love, I still find it unsettling that the violence of a beautiful man can make me feel safe.




Not as steady as a clock, not as warm as a heart, not as resonant as a drum, but known like a melody and present like the wind is the sound of lines slapping against the masts of pleasure boats docked in the harbor, a sound signifying safety, at least to me, for it lulled me to sleep each night after a day of sailing or bobbing on the Dutch waters during the long summers I spent on my father's yacht, and each time I come upon a port on my travels in whatever region of the world, and I hear the lines slapping in the breeze, accompanied at times by the masts' mournful humming, I feel this sense of home away from home, which is not as exciting as a dive in the Pacific Ocean, not as cozy as a campfire in the Sahara dunes, not as wondrous as the brilliant green rice paddies in Northern Vietnam, but which is like an anchor, lodging deeper than my connection to the places where I grew into myself and promising me that life is continuous between my movements and my breaks and I am forever on my way.




  1. On a Sunday with visitors on the couch, I rub a glass bowl between my thighs, against my crotch, because it feels good, because I often do this without being corrected, but now my mother's face is flushed.
  2. When my father picks me up, my scout leader wishes us a lovely time at our family reunion. My father asks, What family reunion? And I recoil like a turtle. I've unwittingly turned a desire into a lie.
  3. The girl my schoolmates and I call Thundercloud circles around me on her roller skates, demanding my attention. She grabs me, again and again, as though I'm her speed-breaking wall. She always seems moody and this time her moodiness spreads: I shake her off, maybe push her a little. She glides backwards and falls on the stone playground. Our eyes lock. Instead of angry, she looks hurt, and I feel her pain as if it's mine.
  4. During a sleepover at my cousin's house, I release a soundless fart that's actually a spurt of diarrhea. I flee into the bathroom without an explanation. I rinse my underpants and pajamas in the sink, wash myself, come out with a towel wrapped around my waist. My cousin kindly asks no questions.
  5. A year after my parents' divorce, my gentle father comes to our new home on my mother's birthday and offers her roses like a suitor. My sheepish mother doesn't ask him to come in. I cannot look at her when she later says, He just doesn't understand.
  6. My older brother is angry at the world, at an abuser he cannot yet name, and during one of our trivial fights, as he passes me slowly on his bicycle, he kicks me. I stumble back against the brick shed and cry out. He looks back in shock, ungloating—his first and never repeated act of violence towards me shames us into silence for the rest of the day.





ON HARBOR LINES: I wrote "Harbor Lines" as a form experiment during a [SmokeLong Quarterly] workshop. I chose the skeleton of one long sentence unrolling between two stacked comparisons and ended up writing three totally different pieces. "Mirror" was published in [Cincinnati Review], "Marzipan" in [The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts], and "Harbor Lines" found its home here.

ON SIX TIMES: I was inspired to write this piece after reading the excellent short book [Humiliation by Wayne Koestenbaum]. I obviously didn't have as much patient with the subject as he did, but I might add to this essay as I age. 99 Times Red Before the Age of 100 sounds pretty good.