I was twenty-three and working as a caregiver to three autistic women in a house on Decatur Street. Jackie, Hazel, and Marcella had lived in institutions their whole lives, before the agency I worked for helped them get out and set up a life. None of them were verbal and they needed round-the-clock support. I did the early shift, which started at seven and left me with most of the heavy lifting: bath routines, meals, doctors’ appointments. I had two days of training and the pay was six-fifty an hour.
My first day, I walked in to find Marcella smearing the walls of her bedroom with shit. I thought I might puke, but the woman orienting me didn’t flinch. She went and got a bucket of soapy water and some rags and told me to get busy. Marcella was forty-three but had the skinny body of a twelve-year-old. She spent most of her time walking around the house naked on tiptoe. She made low groaning sounds in the back of her throat as she walked and slapped her thigh bloody when she was agitated. A large part of my work with Marcella was helping her keep clothes on. When we had to go to the doctor, I draped a robe around her to walk out to my truck, but she was always nude by the time I got around to the driver’s side. I had to carry a special letter from the doctor in case we got pulled over.
This was in Olympia in 1999, when the town was a lesbian paradise. I lived with my friends Maxine and Katie in a little craftsman on Mulberry Street with a tire swing in the backyard. Our friends were a band of non-deodorant wearing, unshaved, feminist punks.
Jackie was sweet. In addition to being autistic, she had a rare degenerative disease, which meant she was dying, but slowly. Her muscles were so constricted that she couldn’t put her arms down or move her legs when she wanted to. She couldn’t get out of bed on her own and I was afraid of dropping her when I moved her. She had enormous, brown saucer eyes with long lashes that blinked slowly. The hardest thing about working with Jackie was knowing she was suffering and not being able to do anything about it. She liked to paint. On nice days I’d roll her wheelchair out onto the back porch and set up her easel facing the garden. She didn’t have a lot of fine motor control, but her paintings were abstract and whimsical and filled with yellow.
Hazel was fifty-eight and healthy, as far as we knew. She had wiry grey hair that curled around her ears and ruddy cheeks. She loved stuffed animals; her favorite was a lamb with brown felt hooves. She sat in an armchair by the window, mumbling to it and kissing it, rubbing her head rhythmically side-to-side on the flowery fabric. The staff had already patched up the chair several times in that spot. When she wanted something to eat or drink, she’d come into the kitchen and pull any random bag out of the freezer—peas, strawberries, a turkey burger. I knew the thing she pulled out wasn’t what she really wanted, but it was the closest thing to communication we had. She shook her head and made a cave with her mouth like she was yelling and swatted my arm with her flat, paddle hand. It looked violent but it was more like affection.
This was in Olympia in 1999, when the town was a lesbian paradise. I lived with my friends Maxine and Katie in a little craftsman on Mulberry Street with a tire swing in the backyard. Our friends were a band of non-deodorant wearing, unshaved, feminist punks. None of us had any money, so we ate and drank communally and spent the weekends crammed into tiny clubs, sweaty and braless, listening to Alison Wolfe scream “Bat Girl” and “Are you a Lady?”
Max and Katie were a few years older than me and had been a couple forever. They had the kind of relationship we all wanted but thought we’d never find: happy and like they were each other’s family. Katie had fine blond hair cropped short and wore thick square glasses that magnified her blue eyes. She worked in a daycare center and loved to bake. She’d grown up Mormon and was disowned by her family when she came out. Max was an aspiring mechanic, working days in a parts store and nights in our garage. She was teaching herself to take apart old Subarus and put them back together. She rolled her own cigarettes and had dark circles around her eyes that made her look tougher than she was.
I’d never had a girlfriend. My junior year of high school there was a girl who sat in front of me in homeroom and sometimes she asked me for a ride. When I dropped her off, we’d sit in my car smoking cigarettes and touching each other’s hands and arms, like the way you put a baby to sleep. One time she kissed me on the mouth as she was getting out of the car. After that she didn’t ask me for a ride anymore.
Six months into working at Decatur Street, I came in to find the woman I was relieving doing CPR on Hazel. We called 911, passing the phone back and forth while we pumped and breathed into her, but she was gone. We called her family but only the paramedics came. After they pronounced her dead, we showed them her power of attorney documents so they’d let us keep her. They said we had twenty-four hours. We laid her out in bed wearing a blue nightgown with her stuffed animals lying around her. For the rest of the day former staffers and people from the agency came to pay respects. Someone brought a big white candle and lit it. I made a pot of soup.
The night of the funeral I got drunk on margaritas at the Spar Bar and tried to drive home without my headlights on. The officer who pulled me over offered me a choice: let him drive me home or pass a Breathalyzer. When we arrived Max and Katie and Dom were on the porch drinking cans of beer under the light buzzing with moths. When they saw me get out of the patrol car they bolted down the steps and were on the sidewalk next to me.
“Anna, are you okay?” Max said, her slicked hair falling into her eye. We had a rudimentary mistrust of cops.
“We tried to bring her back,” I said, slurring. “Fuck. I’m so drunk.” I started to cry.
“Your friend got lucky,” said the officer. “Anybody else would’ve taken her in.”
They helped me inside and Katie ran me a bath. I’d had a crush on Dom for months and was ashamed for her to see me that way. She was a short, stout butch who worked on a mussel farm and drove a red Jeep. She had kind brown eyes and a lady tattoo on her left bicep.
“Do I look gross?” I asked Katie in the bathroom, remembering the ancient Goodwill dress I was wearing for the funeral.
The next morning I woke up with a gnarly hangover and called in sick. I never wanted to go back to Decatur Street. The shock of Hazel’s death, Jackie’s looming death, was too much. What did it mean that two of them would die on my watch? I was so young—it felt like a tragedy. Around noon my boss called to check on me. I told her it was the flu. Katie left coffee and banana bread for me on the counter with a note, “Have a sweet day sweet pea!”
On Saturday we got up early and went to the farmer’s market, all of us sleepy from a show the night before. The guitarist’s name was Radio Sloane and I spent the whole show obsessing about how cute she was. I’d been hoping to see Dom there, but she never came. When I saw her standing in front of the apple stand at the farmer’s market, my stomach flipped.
“Hey you,” I said, tapping her on the shoulder, wanting to sound casual.
“Anna!” she said. “Hey, how’s things?”
“The other night. I’m sorry you had to see that.” I felt my neck get hot. “I’m all right.” We were standing too close but I didn’t want to back up and risk her taking it wrong.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry about that woman you helped.”
“Good apples here,” I said, gesturing. I needed something to do with my hands.
“Best Winesaps,” she said. “They’re my favorite.”
“For sure, crisp and not too sweet. Braeburn too.” I was talking too loudly.
“I wonder if Katie’s been here,” she said. “Her pies.”
“They’re amazing, right? She should start a pie store.”
We talked about our jobs. I didn’t know what a person did on a mussel farm.
“Do you like it?” I said.
“It’s a job. I like spending the whole day out on the water.” Her voice cracked a couple of times. I was glad to not be the only nervous one. “Most of the time it’s fine. Sometimes it’s fucking cold.” She told me about her rubber pants and how she spent most of her time on her knees hanging off the side of the boat. “My back’s pretty messed up.”
The sun was starting to push through the morning grey and all the colors were getting sharper. A bluegrass musician was setting up on a little stage. Max came toward us with something steaming on a paper plate.
“Tamale?” She looked behind her. “I lost Katie. I think she’s buying all the rhubarb in Washington.” We each took one and the three of us stood there, unraveling cornhusks, shoving the warm mealy things into our mouths.
In the car on the way home I decided to be brave and ask about Dom’s love life. She and Max used to work at the mussel farm together before Max started working on cars.
“Do you know if Dom has a girlfriend?” I said.
“Last girl she had was Maddy, but that ended six months ago,” Max said.
“Who’s Maddy?” I said. “I mean…what was she like?”
“She’s not dead,” she laughed. “Do you mean was she femme? Like you?”
“I don’t know, I guess. Does she have a type?” My neck was hot again.
“You’re not not her type, if that’s what you’re asking.” She turned to look at Katie, to figure out if she should go on. “Dom’s good people,” she said. “But she’s been funny lately—quiet or something. Don’t get your feelings hurt if she’s being distant.” The next few weeks at work were depressing. I’d gotten used to seeing Hazel through the picture window when I pulled up in the morning, kissing her lamb. It always had crumbs from whatever she was eating on its muzzle. It seemed like the thing that had been balancing out the dread of my days at work was gone. Marcella’s bath, brushing of teeth, dressing routine, breakfast. Jackie’s bath, brushing of teeth, dressing routine, breakfast. Clean-up. Laundry. Make and change doctor’s appointments. Fill-out staff updates about each woman’s day. Help Marcella relax on the couch with TV or music. Support Jackie to paint, or just be comfortable in her room.
My life felt hard too. I thought about my family in Ohio and how I’d never be able to come out to them.
I started smoking again. I spent all my free time on the porch thinking about how hard Marcella and Jackie’s lives were. I knew their circumstances were better than they could have been, but still it didn’t seem like enough. I was angry with their families for never coming to see them. My life felt hard too. I thought about my family in Ohio and how I’d never be able to come out to them. I thought about how much I wanted a girlfriend.
During Marcella’s sloppy, frustrated bath routine I tried to talk to her about Hazel—how much I missed her—but it just made her extra agitated. I was naïve. I had no idea how Marcella felt about Hazel. Working with people who couldn’t tell me anything was hard—I knew they could understand me, but I wanted to know what they were thinking and feeling. My time with Jackie felt extra loaded; she’d been sick for a long time and knew she was dying, but now it seemed like death was in the house, waiting for her. I kept Hazel’s door closed and walked quickly by it. I started lighting incense and candles in Jackie’s room and hung a few of her paintings on the wall.
A few weeks later I went to the Spar for happy hour. The bartender was the same guy who’d been there the night of Hazel’s funeral. When he asked me how I was, I welled up and bent over to fake tie my shoe.
“Bloody Marys are on special tonight,” he said, recovering for both of us. “Two for one.”
I recognized a few of the faces at the bar. The regulars were low-maintenance and loyal: loggers after work, Evergreen students counting out change for dollar shots. One guy spent his days hunting rare mushrooms in the state forest. He was smelly and damp and had dirt circles on the knees of his jeans. He claimed the mushrooms were chanterelles, but they looked like napalmed ears.
“Who’s playing?” I said to the man sitting next to me. He was old and had on a worn-out flannel shirt. He was looking at the TV mounted in the corner of the wood-paneled room.
“Broncos and Seahawks,” he said. “I don’t care too much about it, but when it’s on…”
“It’s hard not to look.” He reminded me of my grandfather. “Seattle any good this year?” I knew nothing of football other than what I’d overheard Max and Dom say when they were drinking beer.
“They’re not too bad.” He was taking small sips of a light beer that looked already warm. His hands were leathery and brown, the tips of his fingers rough. “That linebacker. Kennedy. He’s fun to watch.”
I ordered another drink. He was nursing his and eating thin pretzels out of a wicker bowl the bartender had set in front of us.
“You driving?” he asked, after I ordered my third.
“No sir,” I said. He turned and looked me in the eye for the first and only time. “I learned my lesson.”
I’d parked my truck in the camera store’s parking lot across the street so I could leave it overnight if I needed to. Outside, I turned left and headed up the hill on foot. It was only twelve blocks home but steep. About halfway, I felt headlights on my back. Someone was slowing down and flashing. I turned around and saw Dom’s Jeep. She drove past me and pulled over onto the shoulder. When I reached the passenger side, I saw Max was in the front seat. I got in the back; a woman I didn’t know slid over to make room for me.
Max turned around, “Anna!” she screamed—the music was loud, “You wanna come on an adventure with us?” I felt disoriented but a little more sober after the walk.
“Wood chip pile,” Dom said, turning down the radio. “They just dumped it on the east side of the inlet out by Priest Point Park.”
“It’s supposed to be three stories high!” Max was yelling, moving to the music.
“Should be pretty awesome,” Dom said. “This is Tristan.” She threw a thumb back to indicate the woman sitting next to me.
Tristan put a hand out for me to shake. “We’re gonna climb it.” She was lanky and had a bleached buzz-cut and wore a blue bandana tied around her neck western style.
“And then jump and let it catch us,” said Max, “And then do that over and over until we can’t do it anymore.” They were high.
Dom drove on up the hill passing our street and then across the bridge that connected one side of town to the other. Someone lit cigarettes and passed them around. The air coming in the windows was fresh against my face. We passed houses on the north side of town that butted right up against the cold, clear waters of the inlet. In late summer you could sit in people’s backyards and watch the salmon run.
“Now where?” Dom asked. We were at a four-way stop just before the park.
“Keep going straight,” Max said.
“Is this legal?” said Tristan. “Not that I care.” The narrow dirt road off East Bay Drive looked like it was for service trucks. At the end were gigantic mounds of rock and other stuff I couldn’t make out.
“Right here,” Max said. “Cut the lights.” Dom parked parallel to the fence. It was really dark, but once we got out we could see better. The moon was nearly full. Two hundred yards on the other side of a tall chain link fence we saw the wood chip pile. The wind smelled like fresh-cut pine.
“Damn,” said Max. “It’s at least three stories.”
“Yee-haw!” Tristan grabbed the fence and started to climb.
“I don’t like heights, you guys.” We all busted out laughing but I was having second thoughts. “What if there’s dogs?”
The fence was pretty easy to get over, although when I dropped to the other side I twisted my ankle. No dogs came after us and no alarms went off.
“Lookey what I’ve got,” Max said, pulling a flask out of her inside jacket pocket. We each took a pull of the whiskey. “Now we’re ready,” she said.
The three of them took off, hiking to the top of the mountain of wood chips in about thirty seconds, whooping and hollering like children, digging their boots into the shifting surface beneath them, falling forward, using their hands to help them climb up. It looked like they were mountain climbing on quicksand.
“Come on Anna, what’s the hold-up?” Max turned around and saw that I was still standing at the bottom.
“CANNONBALL!” Dom yelled, jumping as far as she could from the top of the pile and letting it catch her and sliding the rest of the way down like she was on a water slide. “Woo-hoo!” She came over to where I was standing. “Come on, we’ll go together.” I put my hands down and started to climb. The wood was damp and soft like moss, but I didn’t like the movement under my feet. It was like the earth falling away. Dom was climbing slower to stay beside me. “Keep your weight in front of your body,” she said, “And try to get some speed up. If you stay still it’ll pull you down.” I tried to focus on what she was telling me, but I couldn’t go any faster. Max and Tristan were synchronizing their first jump together.
“On the count of three,” Tristan shouted. “One…Two…” They were on the other side but I could feel the pile shift when they landed. At the bottom they turned around and ran right back up. I wasn’t getting anywhere.
“Go ahead,” I said to Dom. “I’m gonna take my time.” She didn’t want to embarrass me, so she went on, joining the others who were now starting to one-up each other, adding extravagant moves to their jumps.
“Do a flip,” Max screamed as Dom revved up for her next go.
I watched them tumble, fall, laugh and climb. Their bodies knew how to do something mine couldn’t figure out. Maybe it was their boyishness. I wasn’t very girly, but I wasn’t like them. I missed Katie’s softness. She would have stayed at the bottom with me. I stood still for so long I’d sunk nearly all the way back down, so I decided to smoke and watch. The way the wood chips stayed in constant motion was mesmerizing. I couldn’t figure out how the whole thing was still as tall as it was, considering all the commotion.
“All right,” I yelled, loud enough to get their attention. “All three of you, Pete Rose, on my count.” They snapped to and dove on three, gliding on their bellies all the way down. They laughed and looked up at me, mewling and crawling like babies toward my feet.
“Very cute,” I said.
Max stood and caught her breath. “Just come up with us. You don’t have to jump.” She took one of my hands and Dom took the other. Tristan got behind.
I fluttered my lips and threw the butt away. In just a few seconds we were up higher than I’d been able to get on my own. We were leaning so far forward I thought I’d fall on my face. My boots sank deeper with every step. It seemed like we’d stopped making progress, but I could feel Tristan behind me, her hands on my legs, bracing them. We were all huffing and puffing. Suddenly I was scared.
“No, don’t stop,” said Dom, “You can do it.” She and Max were pulling me now, my arms stretched out and up toward the sky.
“I feel sick,” I said, still climbing.
“It’s all right,” said Max. “We got you.” I didn’t want to keep going, but I didn’t want to look weak either. I felt them all around me. A few feet from the top the wind hit my face.
“Just a little more,” Tristan said.
I took three more giant steps, my legs shaking, and then someone patted my back and I felt my eyes welling up.
“Fuck yeah,” Max cried. They high-fived each other and me but I was stopped by the view. We could see the whole of Olympia in shades of darkness and twinkling lights. The moon was shining off the river below us like a spotlight; Mount Rainier stood in silhouette to the south.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was so beautiful?” I said.
“We were too busy being jackasses,” said Tristan.
“Now you can smoke,” said Max.
We sat and passed the flask, listening to the quiet. My heart felt full with love for Max, and that extended to Dom, in spite of my crush, and even to Tristan, who I didn’t really know. I wanted the feeling to last. We called each other chosen family. It was our way of taking power back from our birth families and giving it to the people who loved us for who we were.
“What’s that?” Tristan said, pointing to the shore across the river. It was a small dark mass lying on the sand a few feet from the water.
“Seal pup,” Max said. “Looks like it’s been dead a while.”
“Oh man, I love seals,” Tristan said, taking a swig and passing me the whiskey.
“Their moms abandon them sometimes,” Max went on. “Nobody knows why. They just stop feeding them and they starve.” We were quiet for what felt like a long time.
Suddenly, Dom stood up. “Guys. I need to say something.” She ran her hands through the sides of her hair and tried to catch her breath. The warm feeling I had in my belly tightened. Max and Tristan nodded. I tipped up the flask. I felt like I was getting ready to hear something that wasn’t meant for me.
“I think I’m going to transition.” She took a deep breath and pushed the words out, leaving her mouth open to exhale. “I’ve decided.”
I swallowed hard. I knew what she was talking about, but the reality of it didn’t sink in.
“Um—that’s amazing,” said Max, breaking the silence. “I mean I’m really happy for you.”
“Jesus, I think I’m gonna puke,” said Dom, wiping tears off with her shoulder.
“No, you’re not,” said Max, hugging her. “Come here. You’re all right.”
“You know I got your back,” said Tristan, giving Dom a fist bump and a loud pat on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you.”
It was my turn to say something. I wanted to sound authentic and I knew if I opened my mouth it would sound stupid. So instead I just turned and threw my arms around Dom’s neck. We’d never hugged before. I couldn’t tell if the trembling was coming from her or me.
“Thank you,” she said. Our eyes met for a split second and I saw how relieved she was.
The stars had gotten sharper since we arrived. We tried to find planets and constellations and show them to each other. Then we were all just looking up.
“Log roll ya’ll to the bottom,” Tristan said, finally. Max followed her down but Dom stayed behind. When she offered me the crook of her arm I took it. We stepped down slowly and together, one foot at a time, and I wasn’t scared anymore.
The stars had gotten sharper since we arrived. We tried to find planets and constellations and show them to each other. Then we were all just looking up.The next day at work was the hardest since Hazel’s death. Marcella seemed especially upset through her bath routine. I was hung-over and clumsy. After minutes of frantic splashing and slapping her face, Marcella jumped up and got out of the tub. I knew to let her walk it off: down the hall, through the kitchen, a right at the living room, repeat—even though she was dripping wet and the kitchen floor was linoleum.
Then, when I was giving Jackie her bath, the thing I’d been most afraid of for months happened. As I was transferring her to the bathtub chair from her wheelchair she slipped from my grip. Her stiff, emaciated body fell sideways away from me, toward the handicap bar and the hard, beige tile. Everything in my body responded. I threw myself under her torso to stop the distance she could fall, but her shoulder banged hard into the tile and her feet and legs got twisted and shoved against the opposite side of the tub. I had one knee on the floor of the wet tub with my head and shoulder smashed into Jackie’s belly and chest, holding her up. Her long, wet hair clung to my face. My breath shook. After a few seconds, after the motion stopped and I gathered my courage, I moved my hands to her waist so I could pull my face back and look at hers. She had her, “it’s all the same to me” expression. A wry smile that meant, “I’m still here.” I knew she had to be scared and really uncomfortable—she hit the wall pretty hard—but at least we weren’t on the floor and she wasn’t bleeding or knocked out.
“God Jackie, I’m so sorry.” I was out of breath. “I’m such a klutz. Please forgive me.” I needed her to respond, to tell me it was okay. I got her back into the wheelchair and back to her room, talking to her the whole way, stopping every few steps to make sure her eyes and mannerisms looked normal. I transferred her back into bed, dressed her in a fresh nightgown and tucked her under the covers.
“Maybe a nap?” I said, changing the blinds to make the light in the room more pleasing for her. I lit some incense. Before I left the room, I went over to check her one last time. I squatted down and looked into her big eyes. “I’m so sorry Jackie,” I said. I’d never felt sorrier. She took her hand out from under the covers and laid it gently on my cheek.
The rest of the day felt like a deep exhale. I had to fill out a report about the fall. Marcella had a big lunch and let me put the classical station on in her room. I made coffee and smoked cigarettes on the porch. I needed to be alone with my thoughts. I felt grateful for Jackie—like she was teaching me something I understood but couldn’t put into language. I felt a confidence solidify in my body that made me feel strong. My recent confusions seemed frivolous and far away, even though I knew they’d be back. I thought about how I got to the top of the wood chip pile the night before. I thought about Dom. I tried to plant the understanding I was having deep in my mind so that I could refer back to it.
An hour before my shift ended I got a call from my boss. She said the agency was helping a new client transition and that she might be a good fit for Decatur Street.
“You mean Hazel’s room?” I said.
“That’s right,” she said. She asked me to prepare the space, discard whatever made sense, keep things we might need.
“What’s her name?” I said.
Hazel’s room was just the way we left it after the burial people came to get her. The dark blue sheets on her bed were rumpled and the blinds were drawn, letting only a small amount of light in. The wallpaper and the carpet looked dingy and it smelled stale. I stood in the middle of the room, remembering the morning we tried to revive her. It seemed like a lot had changed since then. A small prayer fell out of my mouth. “Rest in peace, Hazel.”
I threw open the windows and the blinds, letting in as much fresh air and sunlight as I could. I went through the dresser and put most of what was in it into a bag for Goodwill. I sprinkled lavender smelling powder on the carpet and vacuumed. I stripped the bed and put the sheets in the garbage bin outside, then beat the dust out of the small mattress. Hazel’s stuffed animals were the hardest to deal with. They seemed to know her better than the rest of us. If I’d had a holy bonfire I would have sent them off that way. The shaggy brown bear I posted on top of the refrigerator for the staff—a sentinel—and a reminder of Hazel’s zeal and humor. The lamb with the dirty muzzle I slipped into my backpack.